Seeing in Reverse

There is this moment in Nunnally Johnson’s 1956 adaptation of „The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit“ which haunts me since the first time I saw this film: It occurs when the back view of a fellow train passenger serves as a sudden reminder for the protagonist’s war experience. To me, this shot of the other man’s back always felt much more ominous and uncanny than what its supposed narrative function in the story is. Instead of providing an elegant visual transition into the protagonist’s memory, the shot gets a life of its own. Like a hole, an abyss in the smooth stream of images, this strange shot is felt as an instance of disruption.

And this shot starts to connect with other similar cinematic moments which struck me, like the weird back view photographs, reversed mug shots so to speak, of fireman Montag in Truffaut’s „Fahrenheit 451“ or those uncomfortable shots from behind the back seat in Ida Lupino’s „The Hitch-Hiker“.

The question entailed in these back view images is a philosophical one. Interestingly enough, stronger than a face directly addressing the camera the back view brings into play my own bodily experience by making me think about the back of my own head. What in cinematic terms is called the off-screen-space or the hors-champ, that part of space not seen on the screen, this is also what we all carry with us as the back of our heads: undoubtedly part of me, yet never directly visible to me; right there, where I look with my eyes, but behind them, on the other side, on the reverse of seeing.
Cinematic back views both point to what is unknown in and about our own bodies and our own perception as well as to cinema’s own unknown: the mysterious off-space that – by definition – always escapes the camera lens.

Thus, the back view is an impossible image made possible. Like in the famous painting by Magritte of the mirror that reflects one’s own back side, so too are the back views in cinema images of the impossible: a visual encounter with what cannot be seen.

At a conference at the Filmmuseum in Vienna I first tried to further outline these thoughts and some of it later reappeared in a close reading for Filmbulletin of the above mentioned scene from „The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit“.

But it seems that the topic is still haunting me. I had to go back to those back views, now in form of a video essay.