Look at me looking. That could well be Martin Scorsese’s motto, or serve as a concise summary of his stylistic modus operandi. His in-your-face visual style steers the audience’s gaze and commands their eyes.
No wonder then that extreme close-ups of eyes feature heavily in all of his work, from his feature films to the commercials he directed. In most movies, such a close-up would signal an upcoming point of view shot, or serve to stimulate the identification of the viewer with the character. But in Scorsese’s filmic universe, these close-ups more often have a different function. They are his way of reminding the audience of their own act of viewing, of their status as spectator.
It’s an almost Brechtian device, reminding the viewer of the central conceit that is at the heart of the movie-going experience. A film is no first-hand experience but a heavily mediated one. Scorsese constantly reminds the viewers of their place in the pecking order: they are looking at Scorsese looking at a scene. And the director wastes no time in rubbing this under our noses: half a dozen of his movies start with a close-up of a character’s eyes (or have a comparable shot in the very first scene).
These on-screen stares are mirror images of the audience’s gaze at the screen. And their excessively close framing reminds the audience who is holding up that mirror…
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