Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
The Ethics of the Shot/ Reverse Shot in Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends
Abstract: An attempt of understanding and read Fox and His Friends using as a guide the shot/ reverse shot technique and the philosophy behind it, as presented by Jean-Luc Godard in Notre musique. My endeavor of overlapping the logic of the movie with the logic of the shot/ reverse shot philosophy directed me and my interpretation towards assaying an ethic of the filmmaker and of his product as a result of using the shot/ reverse shot vision.
Keywords: Fassbinder, ethics, shot, reverse shot, critique
There’s never only one image, there is always at least two. There is one side of the story and the other side of the story. The (re)presentation of the world (the reality) has to take into account its plurality. That is one of the reasons why the shot/ reverse shot, “one of the most firmly established conventions in cinema”, it’s such a powerful instrument in filmmaking. Outside the technical process of filmmaking, the world on which the cinema wishes to shine a light on, the same world that we all live in, operates in a multiple faces and shadows regime, and it is in itself an immense object, that displays one side or the other, by turn and in the flow of time, like the shot/ reverse shot captures different images of the same situation, in different time sequences.
Godard’s Dialectical Theory about the Shot/ Reverse Shot
For Godard “the image is happiness, but it brings along the emptiness”. The image does not catch the moment, but it shows its passing. It registers the real becoming imaginary, the present becoming representation. The image is inherently linked to all things of the past and of the memory. In order to (re)present something to yourself, you must close your eyes (as Godard says in the seminar scene from Notre musique); you must feel and see the representation inside you, while you know you are part of the present. Godard’s meditation about the image continues with the theorizing of the shot/ reverse shot technique in the movie Notre musique (2004). The film itself focuses on images and on imagination as forms of reproducing the world, linking the past, the present and the future. Purgatory stands as a symbol for the present that builds itself from the remains of the past (easily associated with Inferno, considering the images of suffering and destruction linked to it) and desires and dreams of the future (Olga’s Paradise standing between silent sadness and silent joy of what may happen continuing the meditation around the query “Will the little digital cameras save cinema?” started in Purgatory). The cinema has the capacity to represent the present as an in-between state amid Inferno and Paradise (shot/ reverse shot) making use of images that express in their silence the whole and the emptiness of the world. Images create their own language that encompasses the passivity of words (what it tells) and the action of facts (what it’s shown). The shot/ reverse shot technique’s philosophy is discussed during the seminar scene from the movie using a cinematographic language, a mixture of words and rolling images. Godard approaches the subject theoretically (in words) while exposing it on screen (images) making the seminar scene (the seminar The Text and the Image delivered by Godard in the past at the European Literature Conference) a fine example of telling the story while filming it. In this scene Godard directs the viewer’s position; first, the spectator’s virtual chair is positioned behind the students’ chairs and later is moved behind Godard’s chair (shot/ reverse shot). From behind the students’, we see a shot and reverse from Howard Hawks’ movie, His Girl Friday (1940), while from behind Godard, we see him showing another example of shot/ reverse shot, opposed to the one from Hawks movie, about the Jews and the Palestinians (a shot/ reverse shot of two different ways of using the technique). In the progression of the scene, Godard and the students, within the dynamics formed between them during the lecture, become two sides of the same idea, two entities emerging from the idea. Same pattern exists on a sound level: Godard’s voice and the voice of the translator in/ from the movie create another shot/ reverse-shot. We notice a crescendo in the rhythm of the scene; it begins softly with Godard and the translator speaking one following the other and continues more and more intensely with the two speaking simultaneously. The scene reaches a climax when Olga, while following Godard’s instructions, becomes the response to his discourse, by representing for herself, with her eyes closed, what Godard is explaining. Such communication, with words on Godard’s side and imagination and images in answer to the words, on Olga’s side, develops a more profound shot/ reverse shot situation. Olga’s face with her closed eyes both reveals and masks her from the viewer’s perception. An accurate interpretation about addresses both intellectual and emotional understanding (recreating again the basic structure of shot/ reverse shot)
Hawks shot/ reverse shot is considered to be a repetition of the same image; one image is a quasi-copy of the other and they are part of one single truth. But, “actually the truth has two faces” for Godard, and the point of the shot/ reverse shot is both to represent them and to make the viewer aware of the dialectical nature of the truth. Even though Hawks’ shot/ reverse shot does not focus on marking the difference between the two subjects filmed, the spectators can see that the first image shows a man while the second shows a woman, through the gender recognition. It is hard for the viewer to tell the difference when cinema is representing similar things, political and historical events such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict addressed by Godard through two photographies having as subject a group of people entering the water. While the first (Israel) move towards the promise land and victory, the second (Palestine) leave the land “to drown”, as Godard says. The shot/ reverse shot technique underlines a representation that takes into consideration the dialectical nature of facts, supporting a more complete knowledge of / view over them.
Acquiring New Understanding through Empathy
Godard’s theory about the shot/ reverse shot, as presented in Notre musique, opposes a practice of repetition of one (the same) image. In being perceived as distinct, images will interact with each other and, in the dynamics of their interaction, a truth or a reality will build itself for the viewer to understand and resonate with. Images can be reused in cinema or elsewhere only if they are first perceived independently. The story of how one image affects another is a continuous story of cinema movement and cinema history. The shot/ reverse shot brings into focus not only the power that comes from images interaction, but also the creativity that comes from different ideas/ meanings clashing into each other and influencing each other in order to create new ideas and meanings. The ethics of the shot/ reverse shot lies in sliding the focus between the two faces of the truth/ reality whenever in search of achieving new comprehension of it.
The shot/ reverse shot technique both requires and builds a different type of empathy. The spectator is not absorbed in a state in which he/ she empathizes with just one character, one situation or moment, but instead, the spectator empathizes and develops a relationship with the camera. This kind of empathy is ethical in exceeding the empathy with the restricted one (one character, one scene, one situation, etc.) and, as the name already tells us, awakes not only an ethical thinking and ethical perspective, but also creates the premises for a subjectively way to watch and interpret a movie (no longer seen as a mere distraction) to be developed in the spectator. The aesthetics of the movie address directly the spectator through the rolling/ flowing images from the screen towards a kind of auto-education regarding the cinema and the way that cinema directs the eyes to reach the peak of its creation.
Fassbinder’s subtle critique
Fassbinder condenses his cinematographic vision in saying that his goal was to reveal the mechanisms that govern the reality in a way that makes people realize “the necessity of changing their own reality”. The concern of cinematography is to mark a “before-revolution/ before-change” moment, emerging from a moment of awareness and recognition. In order to produce the effect of awareness, the screen addresses both the heart and the brain, requiring and creating a kind of noble position for the viewer. The spectator becomes as important as the director and the film; he/ she is both inside, as part of the reality that the movie represents in front of him, and outside, as the contemplator of it. The ideas are not forced on the spectator; instead they are always in motion, colliding one with the other and being metamorphosed because of his presence as a body and a mind to perceive them. In this way, in the structure of two vectors with different directions, the relationship between the spectator and the screen becomes also a shot/ reverse shot-based relationship. Consecutively, one questions the other and one answers to the other (the one and the other being interchangeable variables in this context). The director no longer directs the eye, but lets it to discover for itself, directing the premise of a possible change.
Fox and His Friends is a good example for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cinematography as a movie that, without explicitly discussing politics, questions, by having no character judging verbally or rising against the good social order with its economically induced layers, whereas the trail of all characters are absolutely impacted by it. The logical order of things and the unwritten social laws are taken as they assume themselves to be, logical and natural, and that is how their inner fissures emerge gradually during the movie. Fox and His Friends (Faustrecht der Freiheit, 1975) tells the story of a somehow naive, young, working-class homosexual, Fox (played by Fassbinder), in a jobless situation, after his boyfriend and his employer (Klaus) is arrested for tax fraud. With no job and no home or nobody to go home to, Fox only chance seems to be winning the lottery, and in a twisted turn of events he ends up doing that and winning 500.000 marks. Almost simultaneously with his winning, Fox is being assimilated in the upper class where he meets Eugen. Soon they begin a relationship in which Fox seems to behold the power, but as time passes, we see Fox becoming more and more subordinated to Eugen. Eugen happens to Fox, under the mask of love happening. The out speaking, sometimes even vulgar Fox becomes more and more quaiet as Eugen starts speaking and deciding for him. In addressing their romantic relationship, Fassbinder’s film makes a portrait of the society and its effects on human relationships. Their relationship is less a product of love and more a product of social interaction between the working class and the upper class. The higher class and the lower class collide into each other; their actions and their individuality are builded by a continuous reference to their opposite; the higher class identity is always in contrast to the lower class identity, but, simultaneously, needs the latter in order for it to exist, because the lower class validates its privileged status and vice versa. This interdependence between them marks a two face of the same coin situation and that is why they can be treated in terms of shot/ reverse shot, in the way that Jean-Luc Godard explains the concept in the seminar scene from Notre musique.
The Shot/ Reverse Shot: A Possible Societal Lens
Even though the purpose here is not to emphasize on the shot reverse shot strictly seen as a cinematographic technique, there are some beautiful scenes, created by using this technique; the reverse shot reveals parts of the character filmed in the previous shot, an aspect that points to both the complementary relationship between the characters and the fact that one character’s reaction is based (also) on the action of his dialogue comrade. Some examples of that are two scenes from the beginning of the film: the scene in which Fox talks with Paula about winning the lottery asking her to go away with him (in a moment happening before his actual winning) and the following scene in which Fox asks the police officer for ten marks that he would use to buy a lottery ticket. In both scenes Fox’s requirements encounter irony and nonchalance.
My focus is on the implications of the relationship between the two layers of society, placed at the core of the movie. The rich and the poor (shot/ reverse shot) manifest a similar behavior (avoid to address the social elements that affect them all) and are stimulated by the same desire, having more and more money in order to feel socially secured. Neither the upper class, nor the working class enunciate/ voice a critical opinion against the inner errors of the mechanism at the base of society. The movie, contrary to its characters, denunciate such mechanisms by showing their social immorality, which is synonymous here with the act of producing an timorous individual incapable of acting in a decisive way based on his own reflection. There are highly dramatic moments that in their perfection become moments of pure critique against the social mechanism; one of those moments is when Fox, being asked by two American soldiers, how much will he pay for their sexual services, yells desperately, but yet accepting his condition that drives him into despair: “He wants to know how much I pay. I pay everything. I always pay everything. I have to pay everything. Always!” He is not barely referring to all the things he had to pay in order to keep his relationship with Eugen, he is also talking about the inadequacies that he had to pay for, of which the inadequacy that he commited when winning lottery. He has to double-pay for his change of status: (1) by buying his way into the rich circle, in being continuously humiliated and used like a source of money in exchange for sexual services; (2) he pays for subordinating himself voluntarily to the social force that made him homeless and that maintains the need for more capital, matter that divides/ shapes one world into two different spheres.
The society is split in two circles of friends: the lower circle, formed by the people from the bar, Fox’s sister and people from the circus, and the higher circle, formed by Max, Eugen and his family and all their friends. The dynamic between the two circles is explicable using the shot/ reverse shot philosophy because the two circles look at each other and communicate with each other, especially through Fox movement through and through tracing a binding line between them.
Money is an incentive that confirms the naturalized values (ideas, education, preferences, etc) established by the upper class members behavior and embraced for the sake of being perceived as equals by the working class members. It is also a kind of leg that holds an open door to the possibility of entering the high circle and becoming a full member of the upper class. Entering the high circle is not impossible in Fassbinder’s movie and the sudden social metamorphosis of the protagonist, from the carnivalesque Fox, the Talking Head to Franz, Eugen’s boyfriend, is a good argument for that as well as the unusually easy way in which Fox wins the lottery. He just keeps on saying that he will win. Nobody believes him, probably because he said that in the past too, but never actually achieved it. And then he wins. This event highlights the arbitrary laws that actually govern the world. The mechanisms of the world operate in accord with the logic of these laws and contrary with the logic of an social triangle having an almighty entity at the top that confirms its truth and its entitlement to control and order. A world of all possibilities is the perfect ground for Fox to accomplish the (almost) (im)possible and win the lottery, even though he failed before, and to be unexpectedly fast propelled in the upper circle. This is one face of the reality (shot). The other face is the one containing and showing all the humiliation and lack of real empathy and acceptance that Fox is submitted to, which means that in spite of his money, he is never perceived as a real member of the higher circle, on the ground of him being unworthy of it (reverse shot). Fox encompasses two conditions: an insider, having all his new curious friends around him and an outsider, in being unworthy of his money and his new social status. His divided persona is easily observable in all the scenes involving social gatherings (parties, friends meetings, meals with Eugen’s family, etc.). Fox feels like a working class member and he calls himself a proletarian when joking with Eugen about his genitals, but he is also an outsider of the working class, giving the fact that he spends most of his time with members of the upper class. Because of his two sided identity, as part of the two social circles, Fox is somehow forced by the circumstances to continuously move between them. In this motion, he becomes the agent that challenges the mechanisms connecting the two social structures, making them demonstrate how they work and making us think about the consequences of their operations.
Unveiling a Vision through a Shot/ Reverse Shot Lens
The critical attitude that is hardly verbalized in the movie acquires a body in its protagonist. Fox becomes personified sign that addressing the critical thinking of the spectator. His role implies him making a reading of the world that he lives in and him being a filter in a (re)reading of that same world made by the viewer. The shot/ reverse shot technique becomes vision in Fox and His Friends; a vision transferring Fassbinder’s vision of the world at that moment in history and his vision about filmmaking onto/ into the screen. The screen works as a medium for these two visions to meet each other on a practical ground and to be transferred into the world of the viewer in order to address the viewer’s own vision of the world. This vision becomes, through the screen, the common ground on which the director and spectator’s perspectives clash into each other in order of creating new understandings of the world. Fox reminds us of Dziga Vertov’s cameramen, registering the behavior of the other, materialized here in his friends. He reflects in his behavior and line of movement the flaws of their ways, matter that makes him an essential element in the shot/ reverse shot vision. The reason why I assume we can interpret Fox and His Friends as a movie which uses the philosophy of the shot/ reverse shot as a vision is represented by the two points of interest on a double-faced society. Its two sides (shot/ reverse shot) are two different subjects submitted to the same unbiased handling by the camera and through it, by the movie. The director, through the camera, takes the same distance regarding both sides; both subjects are treated equally. The camera does not take sides. It just presents one side to a spectator that has the right and the capacity to decide for himself if that is the wrong or the good side making him engage in a conscious act of judgement. The subject, by means of mise-en-scene and the montage, comes before the viewer as a narrative and also as an invitation to a dialogue. The movie presents the two sides (the rich and the poor, the shot/ reverse shot) and the great attraction between them, materialized mostly in Fox’s character. Fox’s stir/ slide from one side to the other draws the lines of attraction connecting the two sides and reflects the impossibility of one side working in the absence of the second/ other.
If the two sides are connected by lines of desire, the transition from one side to the other (emphasizing the transition from lower class to higher class) becomes possible also by means of desire. The proof for that is the easiness with which Fox becomes rich and apparently part of the high class, by winning the lottery. However, along the movie, the easy way leading to a upper class status proves to be harder then expected and even impossible. The movie makes us notice that the individual has no power and his social path is decided by chance. Chance bounces Fox from one side to the other and plays a cynical game with him by letting him believe that he is in control. Since Fassbinder’s movie isn’t based on the logic of determination, chance, in Fox and His Friends, becomes the equivalent of the social mechanism embodied especially by the capital. Furthermore, by making Fox fail in his attempt to stay rich and hold the control over his life and its development and by showing that also Eugen (the ironic coryphaeus of the high class values materialized in his tastes in music, food, clothes, etc.) is not safe from slipping down to the lower class (he has constantly money issues and money is the only guarantee that he may keep his position), Fassbinder is not just expressing a pessimistic view over the world, but reveals the absurdity behind the so called logic of things. “The absurd depends as much on the man as on the world” and the acknowledgement of the absurdity of the world comes from a moment of contemplating the world that he lives in, a moment in which the man takes a step back and gazes at the world while realizing that his step back, even though it seems to confer him a good angle for meditation, if only for a second, inserts him even deeper into the world. No one is safe in this world and there seems to be no safe house to retire into. The feeling is that something, at the core of the world, went really wrong, and the not knowing exactly what it is overcomes the viewers. That is why the spectator’s subjectivity intervenes, in thinking about the multiple answers and interpretations, but I believe that all those possible answers can be understood as elements building a machinery whose work perpetuates the society’s developing, with its good and ill operations.
The Ethics of the Camera
The ethical attitude in Fox and His Friends comes from the distance that the camera’s point of view takes towards the subject filmed and, at the same time, from showing and underlining the difference between the subjects filmed. The latter is one of the key aspects of the shot/ reverse shot technique, as explained by Godard in Notre musique. This ethic is intrinsically linked to the aesthetics of the process of filmmaking, in which the camera is a decisive component. The camera captures the subject and the action in order for them to be (re)presented on the screen. It is not just an apparatus conferring a point from which the situation is to be seen, but, simultaneously, confers a point to look at the subject filmed and its surroundings. It connects the movie’s world (fiction) to the world as we know it (reality) and the director with the viewer. Somewhere, in the metaphysical space above the camera, a point of view is created and it works both as an understanding and as an interpretation of the world. This point of view, in its various manifestations, becomes the movie itself, incorporating not only the technical and the conceptual view of the director and the active participation of the viewer, but also some kind of magic that links all the elements needed in filmmaking in order for them to result in a movie. This point of view with its two sides (the physical and the metaphysical) allowes to manifest itself freely. There is no authorial addition to the subject filmed and no element placed in the right spot establishing the director’s authority upon the subject. The elements from the process of filmmaking add themselves together around the subject and deliver us a movie. To let them add themselves and to retreat as much as possible any intentionality means letting creation create itself. To grant creation its right to manifest as it is marks an ethical artistic behavior. This kind of ethics towards the image and in it, towards the subject’s representation is underlined by the shot/ reverse shot philosophy. At the same time, the two different images representing the situation flow smoothly one after the other giving fluidity to the scene. In Fox and His Friends is due to the shot/ reverse shot being used as a mechanism that sets in motion a vision implying the two meta-images of the upper and the lower class that slowly and following the pace of the images rolling on the screen set in motion an inner mechanism of the viewer’s critical thinking. The movie does not instigate, because Fassbinder upholds that revolution does not happen in the cinema, but outside and he assumes his role as an artist and as a filmmaker, understanding cinema as both an aesthetical expression and an instrument that turns the viewer’s eye towards the things that may go unseen in the daily life.
The vision from Fox and His Friends, based, in my opinion, on the philosophy of the shot/ reverse shot technique and that I call the shot/ reverse shot vision – even though approaches apolitically (by not taking sides) the different social classes with their issues, has nonetheless a political effect because it addresses the viewer’s awareness when making a conscious judgement over/ of the world. This approach maintains a certain intellectual distance toward the subject that affects the viewer by making him recall, on an emotional level, something that he felt or had seen and that something is a part of his reality and in making so supports Fassbinder’s cinematographic goal, to make viewers realize the necessity of changing their own reality.
In Notre musique Godard defines the principle of cinema: “to go towards the light and shine it on our night”. Fox and His Friends in following this principle becomes a medium offering a way for the light to be shone upon the uncertain and changing ground that is our reality. The focus is not only on what we do with those small bits of reality or of history and time (facts), but also on what we do after those facts happened, on what kind of moment and attitude the post-facts moment creates. Godard’s answer, as I understand it due to Fassbinder’s movie, is to accede, unbiased, to the light of facts, which is their reality, proving their vulnerability (liable to multiple interpretation) to be their strength (their truth). In this lays an ethic of the filmmaker. Fassbinder goes further and creates an ethic of the spectator in addressing and awakening his critical thinking regarding the reality of facts which is his own reality and how he or the society around him creates it. Going back and thinking about the post-fact moment we notice that every fact creates its own horizon (of interpretation) and rises its own questions about the society. The human as spectator of facts or, in the case of cinema, the spectator of the (re)presentation of facts, creates his own horizon through his own ethic consisting in his endeavor of asking the necessary questions. From them emerges the always changing and the always striving to exceed itself horizon of critical thinking.
Colin Browne, “Fox and His Friends”, Senses of Cinema, issue 59, 2011, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/cteq/fox-and-his-friends/ .
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1955.
Film Studies Program, University of Yale, last modified in 27 August 2002, http://classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/.
Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, edited by Jean Narboni and Tom Milne, introduction by Richard Roud, new foreword by Annette Michelson, New York, Da Capo Press, 1972.
Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Olive Films, 2011.
Jean-Luc Godard, “L’art de Kenji Mizoguchi”, Arts, issue 656, 1958, p. 122-124.
Jean-Luc Godard, Notre musique, Fox Lorber, 2005.
Todd Hayes, From Fassbinder to Sirk and Back, extra in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, DVD, The Criterion Collection, 2003.
Brigitte Peucker (ed.), A Companion to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2012.
Signs of Vigorous Life in New German Cinema, part of Omnibus series of documentary made for BBC, 1976.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak”, originally published in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (ed.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Christopher Weedman, “Notre musique: Godard’s Shot/ Reverse Shot Ruminations on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, Senses of Cinema, issue 65, 2013, http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/cteq/notre-musique-godards-shotreverse-shot-ruminations-on-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/.
 Richard Brody, apud. Christopher Weedman, “Notre musique: Godard’s Shot/ Reverse Shot Ruminations on the Israeli-Palestinian”, in Sense of Cinema, issue 65, 2013, http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/cteq/notre-musique-godards-shotreverse-shot-ruminations-on-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/.
 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, chapter “An Absurd Reasoning”, translated in English by Justin O’Brian, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1955, p. 15, http://dbanach.com/absurd%20reasoning.htm.
 Jean-Luc Godard speaks about letting things present themselves without interventions upon that presentation made by the author of the film in the article “L’art de Kenju Mizoguchi”, Arts, issue 656, 1958, p. 123.