On-screening and Off-screening

“When a character moves off the screen, we accept the fact that he is out of sight, but continues to exist in his own capacity at some other place in the décor which is hidden from us. There are no wings to the screen” [1] – André Bazin

When a camera moves, it constantly changes the status of the objects within the frame – things, spaces, characters – from on-screen to off-screen. This is a fact of film form rather than an argument about the intention, significance, or expressive capacity of camera movement. Something is present and perceptible at one moment, and then the camera moves in a way that renders that something off-screen and out of the frame. In other words, camera movement is intrinsically related to off-screen space. While this has hardly gone unnoticed by scholarship in film studies, discussions of this relationship as it pertains to narrative film have predominantly focused on issues of spatial organization and narrative information. David Bordwell, for instance, has described the “considerable role” [2] that off-screen space plays in camera movement, yet the scope of this role – in his cognitivist framework, at least – is largely limited to the viewer’s perceptual activity and their hypothesizing that “certain offscreen areas will become narratively significant.” [3] The emphasis on perception in this understanding is emblematic of what Daniel Morgan has identified as the “one core assumption” [4] prevalent in existing thinking about camera movement: that the camera functions as a stand-in for the audience’s perception, an assumption he makes the task of his recent book to push back against.

Morgan puts it frankly:

“I think we have never gotten a handle on the terms of camera movement, never figured out how to create a working model for thinking about the kinds of things it does and can do. We have been so struck by the intuitive force that the moving camera is about point of view, that the camera functions as our eye, that we have been unable to see anything else.” [5]

Morgan’s book, which begins from the position that camera movement “remains a topic in search of a debate,” [6] takes great leaps towards ensuring that this is no longer the case, in the process prompting us to consider the more complex and nuanced ways in which audiences relate to what they see on screen. In his analyses, Morgan finds that “camera movements make evident a necessary stickiness to film worlds that shows us to be responsible for our reactions to them.” [7] It is this very stickiness, and the possibility that camera movements mediate off-screen space in ways that operate beyond the confines of spatial continuity and narratively significant information, with which this article is concerned. Building on Morgan’s intervention in order to enhance our understanding of the mutually constitutive relationship between camera movement and off-screen space, it is my aim to push the debate into the territory of tone; that is, “the ways in which the film addresses its spectator and implicitly invites us to understand its attitude to its material.” [8]

Focusing on two illustrative cases where camera movement is used to alter the status of characters as they transition from on-screen to off-screen figures in ways that invite the audience to reflect on its relationship to the world of the film, I describe these respatializing camera movements as ‘on-screening’ and ‘off-screening’[9] their subjects. By proposing to use these terms as verbs, I hope to emphasize the significance of behind-the-camera decision-making on the configuration of how the audience relates to and engages with a film’s worldhood on a more complex level than that of narrative and spatial coherence. [10] In both examples, the camera movements momentarily prohibit the audience from seeing something or someone that they want to see, generating, I argue, a sense of reflexive frustration that calls into question the audience’s attitude towards both the characters and the film’s world at large.

As V.F. Perkins argues, “The on-screen/off-screen relationship should be opened to explorations that embrace issues far beyond those of spatial continuity.” [11] Perkins is interested in the complex ways in which off-screen space can be activated to affect how we relate to and engage with the fictional world. He explains, “The image is displayed not only to relay information but to claim that it matters and to guide us towards the ways in which it matters.” [12] While it should be noted that the mechanisms by which a film configures and builds its fictional world are hardly confined to the visual – Perkins’s reading of You Only Live Once (1937) is attentive to the expressive capacity of off-screen sound, or what Michel Chion describes as the acousmêtre[13] – I focus on camera movement because of the agency it possesses in changing the on-screen status of various objects, an agency which has contributed to the overemphasis of the camera’s role as “surrogate for the spectator.” [14] Before moving on to my examples, I will first consider some of the ways this relationship has been previously theorized, and how the affordances and limitations of recent scholarship on the subject inform the claims I make in my analyses.

Camera Movement and Off-screen Space in Narrative Film
Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent (1962) – ostensibly produced in the ‘classical’ style of the Hollywood studio era – contain examples off on-screening and off-screening camera movements that, I argue, not only orientate us within the action of the story, but also express an attitude towards the material and subjects of the film world itself insofar as they are visually accessible (or inaccessible). I use these examples specifically because most of the critical writing on classical Hollywood describes formal features such as camera movement and off-screen space in terms of spatial organization and narrative information. [15]

In his recent history of camera movement in Hollywood, for instance, Patrick Keating identifies the same persistent idea as Morgan – that is, the “idea that the Hollywood camera typically moves in the manner of an all-seeing observer.” [16] In a chapter partly devoted to the relationship between camera movement and off-screen space, Keating provides four functions such moves frequently fulfil: “revelation, concealment, emphasis, and understatement [which] help describe how a film might deploy the moving camera to tell its story with heightened narrative effect.” [17] While I admire the emphasis this places on decision-making behind the camera, the majority of Keating’s examples revolve around the revelation or concealment of narratively important information, particularly in instances of suspense. [18] Most of these could still be said to abide by the principles of classical continuity as described by Stephen Heath, in which films seek not to ignore off-screen space but instead “to contain it, to regularise its fluctuation in a constant movement of reappropriation.” [19] While this may be true of a great many films, I remain most interested in examples of camera movements where what is concealed from the audience’s view is done so for reasons that can better be explained by thinking in terms of tone, rather than strictly narrative causality and coherence.

In one of the most explicit engagements with off-screen space, Noël Burch proposes “a rigorously dialectical relationship between off-screen space and screen space [in which] camera movements should participate in it in the manner suggested by the early Russians.” [20] Burch captures the notion that whatever is included in the frame is done so at the expense of all that is excluded, and that camera movement, as a tool, can act as a mediator between the two. Indeed, Burch crucially ascribes the agency in this instance to the filmmakers, and prompts us to keep in mind that the images we see are actively composed and arranged. Leo Braudy shares this sentiment; in his writing on the frame, he points out: “Too often we accept a film as a window on reality without noticing that the window has been opened in a particular way, to exclude as well as to include.” [21] But where some critics writing from the perspective of suture might consider the frame as a bracketing device – one that is designed to “hold the subject – on screen, in frame” [22] while functioning as “a perceptual boundary which divides what is represented from what is not represented: here it is, not there” [23] this understanding of how point of view functions in narrative film is often limited by an insistence that meaning making is a largely unidirectional affair. [24]

More usefully, Deborah Thomas describes point of view as “clearly not reducible to that of the characters…but includes an attitude or orientation towards the various characters” [25] which firmly echoes Pye’s writing on tone. Indeed, Pye argues that tone should be considered as part of the same broad field of point of view, and “one of the central ways in which a film can signal how we are to take what we see and hear; it points both to our relationship to the film and the film’s relationship to its material and its conventions.” [26] Thinking of camera movements and off-screen space along these lines – as matters of on-screening and off-screening – can help to continue the initiative shown by Morgan and Keating in dislodging the association between the camera and point of view in terms of surrogacy and perception. As I will now demonstrate, recalibrating the focus to the activity of the camera and its ever-fluctuating relationship to what is off-screen can help us to read a film’s formal features as constantly working to create and mediate our experience of and access to a film’s world. The fluidity of this mediation is more legible when we think in terms of tone and the expression of attitudes towards the subject.

Sweet Smell of Success
In his lectures on filmmaking, Alexander Mackendrick frequently describes directing as a process of manipulating and guiding the audience’s perception, particularly in ways that provoke a certain feeling or attitude towards the characters. Developing his theory of the “Invisible Imaginary Ubiquitous Winged Witness,” Mackendrick explains:

At each particular moment of any given scene, the position of the camera is a point in time and space from where the Invisible Imaginary Ubiquitous Winged Witness, the observer to the action, implies a specific point of view. It is from this spot where the audience views the story, from where the Witness prompts the audience to feel sympathy for one character over another. […] If the physical position of the Winged Witness always implies some degree of psychological participation, it is possible to detect rather obvious ‘attitudes.’ [27]

Here, Mackendrick expresses the same sentiment as Perkins, who writes about “the necessity of viewpoint” [28] that no film can escape or evade. Mackendrick stresses the need for directors to be deliberate and precise in their choices, because the smallest details can have an impact on how the audiences engages with and relates to the characters, events, and world on-screen. One of these details is the use of off-screen space, which he characterizes as a fundamental choice made at every moment, in deciding what the audience can see, what they cannot, and when this changes. [29] By controlling this, he says, “the director manipulates the timing of visual information and, in turn, our attention and sympathies.” [30] Importantly, Mackendrick uses the term “visual information” to refer broadly to everything that affects the audience’s feeling towards and engagement with the world of the film, rather than simply their comprehension of the space and events in the narrative.

Sure enough, in an individual moment from Sweet Smell of Success, we can find a camera movement that renders what is excluded from our vision – off-screened – expressive in ways that move beyond narrative presentation and instead into the territories of tone and attitude. Early on in the film, we catch on that press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a busy and frustrated man – he is firmly under the thumb of influential columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Sidney is going broke, and needs his money. When he enters a jazz nightclub, for example, it is not for leisurely purposes. Upon his arrival, Sidney is almost immediately approached by Rita (Barbara Nichols), the cigarette girl, who is seeking help to get back a job she lost. Uninterested by her woes, and thinking only of how he can rinse her for information, Sidney asks her if Susie (Susan Harrison), J.J.’s young and overprotected sister, has been around. Finding her, we soon learn, is Sidney’s priority, because he is under pressure from J.J. to break up Susie’s relationship with a jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), who happens to be playing at the club that night. Rita later returns to share the news that Susie has been located outside the club, and is waiting for her lover to finish playing his set. She soon meets Dallas outside in secret, where we learn of their engagement, and concerns over J.J.’s reaction, should he find out. When Sidney is caught spying on them, Dallas’ response is predictably hostile, forcing Sidney to leave the scene in frustration. Feeling himself to have been designed by J.J. as Susie’s chaperone, Sidney offers her a lift home on his way out.

This provides the necessary set-up to a moment that shortly follows, when Rita pursues Sidney’s attention once more, back inside the club. As she recounts the story of how she lost her job, it is clear from Sidney’s shifting position in the frame, pacing back and forth, that he is preoccupied. This restlessness is typical of his demeanour throughout the film, as James Naremore explains: “For much of the film, Sidney is in movement, rushing from one place to another, speaking rapidly, pacing nervously, shifting expressions mercurially, becoming rigid or restless in the few moments when he forced to sit still.” [31] At one point, Rita even asks him if he is listening, and he responds, in a thinly veiled performance: “Avidly, avidly!” Soon, Sidney moves over to the right side of the frame, where the rest of the bar occupies the background; he then stares off into the distance, and something off-screen catches his eye, while Rita continues to lament her situation.

The film then cuts to its next shot, which effectively combines three separate compositions through camera movement, each of which notably changes the status of what is on-screen and off. The shot begins with what is ostensibly a match of Sidney’s eye-line, revealing that the re-entrance of Susie and Dallas into the club is what unsettled him (Fig. 1): Susie is whispering something to Dallas, before pacing towards the foreground. Now the camera pulls backwards, and moves to the right, in order to reframe Sidney (Fig. 2) as he sidesteps leftwards, and follows him while he stares at Susie, on-screening Rita, centre frame, in the process. It continues to move, however, as Susie crosses the room – pivoting to keep her in frame beside the figure of Sidney’s head (Fig. 3). Finally, it pulls leftwards ever so slightly, to usher Susie out of the frame, with our view obscured by Sidney, who remains fixated on her (Fig. 4). Meanwhile, Rita finishes her monologue facing the camera, while all other attention is pointed beyond the space visible to us, and out of reach.

Figure 1 – Sweet Smell of Success: Susie (Susan Harrison) and Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) enter the nightclub

Figure 2 – Sweet Smell of Success: Something off-screen catches Sidney’s (Tony Curtis) attention

Figure 3 – Sweet Smell of Success: Sidney follows Susie, while Rita (Barbara Nichols) talks to him

Figure 4 – Sweet Smell of Success: Sidney stares at Susie, off-screen, despite Rita’s efforts to engage him

One way of describing these images would be firstly to say that the camera off-screens Susie as she is marching towards the camera, while on-screening Sidney in the same movement. Because he is moving to the left, the camera’s movement then on-screens Rita, slightly before Susie returns to view. Here, I am careful not to say that the camera on-screens Susie, since the camera is following Sidney, meaning that it is his attention, rather than her passing by in the background, which is apparently guiding and motivating its movement. This is crucial to its function: although Susie is fleetingly visible in the background, the move starts with her, and she is so evidently the object of focus for Sidney that we are drawn to her in spite of the visual presence of Rita. This is chiefly due to Susie’s superior significance to Sidney; she has been established as his priority, and is thus of greater importance to him than Rita. When the camera completes its move to off-screen Susie once again, we feel some frustration in being denied access to what Sidney is so eagerly looking at, because our instinct, in alignment with Sidney’s point of view, is telling us that Susie’s presence is more important than what Rita is saying.

Such is the effect of the camera move, in underscoring the progression of spatial relationships, that when Rita is momentarily given the spotlight, we care more about Susie, and feel closer still to Sidney’s perspective. In that sense, this move is rather cruel towards Rita in the way that it undermines her words, even when she becomes the visual focal point in the final composition. Indeed, taking this image (Fig. 4) out of context, one could reasonably consider it a typical composition from a film of its type – Rita is clearly visible as the speaking subject, with Sidney, her listener, framed from over the shoulder. Yet, our awareness of what lies off-screen injects the image with a new dimension of complexity. Part of this comes from having started with Susie in the initial set-up. On-screening and off-screening can be put to expressive use when the same object or character undergoes a repeated change of status. By beginning the move with Susie as its focus, when the camera “loses” her in order to follow Sidney’s perspective, in a way, we are left “searching” for her, just as much as he is. This search is made more agonising by the constant possibility that Susie might re-enter our view. Indeed, as Perkins writes, comparing camera movement to editing: “To shift the frame via camera movement, on the other hand, is to impose an order of perception on objects which exist in a continuous time and space so that they could, in principle, be seen all at once.” [32]

By toying with the impossibility of realising such a principle, the film creates a tension between what we can see, and what we want to see, by presenting us with a subject and then obscuring her from our vision. Susie does not utter a sound in this shot, but she remains present and alive to us as a result of careful mediation by the camera, and the arrangement of subjects within the frame to chart a journey through space that stresses the key conflicts in the narrative. It is perhaps less cruel than it is complex, because it is plausible that we only momentarily feel this frustration before returning our attention to Rita as she faces the camera. In doing so, the off-screening of Susie creates a disparity between what we see and what Sidney wants to see – we watch Rita while he looks elsewhere, and he is then forced to catch up with what she has said. It generates a balance between sympathy and detachment for Rita that is chiefly determined by the movement of the camera in its rendering of who is on-screen and who is off-screen. The idea of tone is a useful avenue through which to make sense of this: there is a careful balancing of our relationship to Rita, Sidney’s relationship to her, and the film’s relationship not only to Rita, but to Sidney’s relationship to Rita. Thinking through the off-screening of Susie in this way draws our attention to the difference between presentation and judgement, and provokes us to question where we stand in relation to the fictional world.

Making us want to see Susie and follow the attention of Sidney (in line with the general thrust of the narrative) at Rita’s expense forces us to reflect on our own engagement with the film’s world, which is one that suffers, in its own way, from an absence of sentimentality. Indeed, Naremore goes as far as to characterise the film’s world as one “where people are treated as things and pieces of meat.” [33] I would argue that this scene’s treatment of Rita is more compassionate – exacerbated by Nichols’ magnificently engaging performance – which helps to prompt the question: we want to see what’s going on off-screen, but should we? Do we not care about what Rita has to say? This fictional world might well be “awful,” [34] so where do we stand in relation to it?

Theories that emphasise classical Hollywood’s ‘narrativisation’ of space do not adequately account for this particular camera move’s expressivity, in the ways that it forces the audience to question its relationship to the fictional world of the film, and reflect critically on the competing points of view contained within a single shot. Thinking in terms of what the camera off-screens and on-screens retains our focus on the active presence behind it, and in turn helps to guide us towards a greater understanding and appreciation of aesthetic achievement.

Advise & Consent
In their essay on the 1958 film, Bonjour Tristesse, John Gibbs and Douglas Pye discuss the all-too-peripheral place of director Otto Preminger in film studies, and make a case for the value of studying his work, particularly in the light of some of the discipline’s prevailing beliefs and approaches:

In film theory, one of the saddest effects [of The Classical Hollywood Cinema] has been to create an influential paradigm of causality […] which tends to make such complex dramatic and human interaction little more than incidental detail to the main event of driving the narrative machine […]. Preminger is one Hollywood director among many who can offer a corrective to these views. [35]

Here, Gibbs and Pye highlight, among other things, the effect of Preminger’s often-dispassionate treatment of his subjects on his reception and legacy as a filmmaker. Accordingly, when introducing a retrospective on Preminger in the second issue of Movie, Perkins explained: “Most obviously, and for many critics most damningly, Preminger does not solicit affection for his characters.” [36] If this is true, we might be less inclined to expect his use of off-screen space to extend beyond the organisation of spatial continuity. Yet, in many instances, Preminger’s films elicit a far more dynamic mediation of the audience’s relationship to the fictional world. As Keating argues, in Preminger, objectivity can be “a particular tone expressing a distinct attitude toward a subject, from detachment to sympathy.” [37]

Although Preminger was famous for shooting long takes with a mobile camera, the necessity for any camera move to change the on-screen / off-screen status of objects within the frame means that our orientation within the film’s world is constantly in flux. As Perkins puts it, “[t]he camera’s selectivity means that the framed image and the (boundless) fictional world create and account for one another.” [38] In addition, the widescreen cinematography that characterised much of Preminger’s later career enabled alternative approaches to off-screen space altogether; importantly for my discussion, his “camera could be quite mobile, even in CinemaScope.” [39] Taking a scene from Advise & Consent, Preminger’s adaptation of the Allen Drury novel, I will examine an instance of off-screening which exemplifies the possibilities of camera movement and off-screen in a widescreen format. At the same time, my analysis will demonstrate the ways in which an attitude towards the material can be configured from behind the camera even during scenes “marked not by any stylistic virtuosity, but by a simplicity that shows the desire for lucidity, clarity, fluidity.” [40]

As the film’s opening shot tells us, the President of the United States (Franchot Tone) has recently selected Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) as the new Secretary of State, and we quickly learn that his decision is not a popular one. The Senate Majority Leader, Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon), is tasked with overseeing the Senate’s hearing of Leffingwell, and describes the news of his appointment in an early phone call with the President as “One hell of a thing to do without talking to me about it.” He knows that this will put him through the wringer, and soon begins to liaise with other members of the Senate, eventually deciding that assembling a subcommittee for Leffingwell’s evaluation will help the process to move smoothly. His negotiations are interrupted, however, by the news that “Seab is warming up”– referring to President pro tempore Seabright “Seab” Cooley (Charles Laughton), who has it in for Leffingwell (and of whom Munson is rather weary), taking centre stage in the Senate floor – ready and willing to spoil all of Munson’s efforts.

When Munson re-enters the chamber and takes his seat towards the front, Senator Orrin Knox (Edward Andrews) is addressing the floor (Fig. 5). The camera is positioned at the front of the chamber, looking directly at the members of the Senate. Audaciously, Munson stands up and asks the Vice President (Lew Ayres) if Knox will yield, and if he plans to speak for longer than 15 minutes. When he stands, the camera moves left to frame Munson on the extreme right in profile, looking towards Seab (centre right), and Knox (centre left) (Fig. 6). Knox is pointing out that he is being unfairly squeezed into a time limit, and explains to the Vice President, “Since he [Munson] has trotted out this wheezy device, he must expect the usual wheezy answer.” Accepting defeat, Munson turns back towards the camera to take his seat once again, forcibly wearing a smile to save his blushes. As he turns, the camera quickly and abruptly moves forward to reframe Seab and Knox as occupying either side of the new composition, with Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray) sitting between them, and looking at Seab with fond admiration – off-screening Munson in the process (Fig. 7-9). Not only does Munson leave the frame while he is smiling, the move also brings our attention to Seab’s own smirk of vague amusement, as if he has seen it all before. As Knox continues, much to the entertainment of the chamber: “I certainly expect to speak longer than 15 minutes. In fact, I may speak 15 hours.”

Figure 5 – Advise & Consent: Munson (Walter Pidgeon) sits down while Orrin Knox (Edward Andrews) has the floor

Figure 6 – Advise & Consent: Munson stands up to protest Knox

Figure 7 – Advise & Consent: Munson takes his seat after being dismissed by Knox

Figure 8 – Advise & Consent: The camera tracks left, away from Munson

Figure 9 – Advise & Consent: With Munson off-screen, the camera brings Knox and Seab into view, with Anderson between them, watching Seab like a student watches a master.

This move is a curious instance of off-screening, in that it acts as a refinement of focus; indeed, by honing in on selected characters to clean up an otherwise congested, wide frame, the camera leaves several characters surplus to requirements – banishing them to the periphery. In this instance, it removes from the frame the character we have been following most avidly up until this point. From the moment he announces “I’m the one who has to try and stuff him down the Senate’s throat” earlier in the film, Munson is established as our initial protagonist – we experience the world of American politics first-hand as he goes about his daily business. In the context of this scene alone, we begin by following his entrance to the chamber, right up until Knox’s humiliating remarks. Shooting this scene in a long take that starts with Munson thus accentuates the weight of his departure from the frame when the camera later off-screens him—not unlike the move in Sweet Smell of Success that begins with a character it later abandons. The effect of such a move cannot be as easily explained in terms of narrative clarity, for in the case of Advise & Consent, it does not signify Seab entering the conversation by bringing him to the fore (he never speaks until after the film has cut away), nor does it demarcate the end of Munson’s involvement (the film cuts back to him shortly afterwards, and the contents of Knox’s speech affect and impact Munson directly). Instead, it renders him superfluous at the hands of the Senators that hold more power in the scene.

As the film has established, it is largely Munson’s responsibility that the hearing goes well. So, for him to be so deliberately removed from the frame carries the implication of something more complex. In some respects, it teaches the audience (and Munson) the hard lesson that maintaining control in such an environment is virtually impossible; for all his rigorous planning, and for all the strings he pulled, it takes a single throwaway remark for Munson to be ousted from the frame, and for his influence on proceedings to be momentarily extinguished. In this way, the move underscores the themes of the film in its critique of American politics: that opinions and perspectives are all-too-quickly dismissed as part of a game of point scoring. At the same time, it helps orientate the audience to the film’s world by conveying the harsh, and even brutal mechanisms of the environment in a visual way. Preminger is not revealing a preference towards or affection for a particular character, but merely doing what, in Perkins’ words, Preminger does best: “to show events, not to demonstrate his feelings about them.” [41] Tonally speaking, the decisions behind the camera foster a cold and unsentimental sense of distance between the film and its subjects. We may not want Munson to disappear from view, and this frustration and confusion forces us to consider the implications of his being off-screened, and what this can tell us about the film’s recurring themes.

We can also make sense of such a moment by relating it to others in the film. As it goes, Preminger uses a similar camera move only moments after off-screening Munson. When Seab has the floor, Munson once again rises to request that he yield. The shot begins with Munson dominating the left side of the frame in a medium close-up (Fig. 10), although the use of widescreen makes any kind of close-up inseparable from its surroundings, and so the audience retain access to a number of bodies and faces. As he stands, the camera moves left in order to on-screen Seab, pushing Munson to the right (Fig. 11). The two momentarily share a balanced composition (Fig. 12), in which the space between them is littered with on-looking Senate members, before Seab assures Munson that it is not the time for ‘personal reputations’. Then, as Munson returns to his seat, the camera pushes closer to Seab and off-screens Munson for a second time (Fig. 13-14).

Figure 10 – Advise & Consent: Munson turns around to face Cooley

Figure 11 – Advise & Consent: Munson stands up and turns to face Cooley

Figure 12 – Advise & Consent: Cooley dismisses Munson

Figure 13 – Advise & Consent: Munson takes his seat, following Cooley’s comments

Figure 14 – Advise & Consent: Munson is off-screened by the camera, which pushes in towards Cooley

Preminger’s repetition of this move in the space of a few minutes at the very least suggests that more is at work than “the need for complete lucidity.” [42] The film holds on the image of the dressed-in-white Seab pushed far on the left of the wide frame, with the rest of the Senate occupying frame right, well below his level. Thematically, the visual arrangement of this sequence might be said to echo Knox’s prior exclamation that the majority leader (Munson) serves no other purpose than to block criticisms of Leffingwell because, as evidenced by Seab rebuttal to Munson, there are too many personal factors at play for a productive debate to develop. The impression we get from this sequence of American politics is that reciprocal discourse is virtually impossible. Voices are shut down and silenced without a moment’s notice, and the attention of the room (and thus the camera) is constantly forced to quickly adjust and move elsewhere.

Preminger’s precise and off-kilter Panavision compositions render everything unbalanced, and leave no one safe from the camera’s exacting gaze and perpetual capacity to off-screen its subjects. For Preminger, camera movements express a great deal more than simply focusing on what is happening: they can organise on-screen and off-screen space for characters in a way that “indicates the political machinery that regulates their behaviour.” [43] In other words, in the world of Advise & Consent, no one is truly exempt from being off-screened. While the audience remains aware of a character’s presence and existence beyond the borders of the frame, the way Preminger conducts the camera’s movement almost suggests that they might as well not be there any more, such is the ruthless nature of the film’s world.

These examples demonstrate that using the terms on-screening and off-screening to describe camera movements can be a novel means for understanding moments in cinema that make the navigation and fluctuation between them part of their thematic fabric. In The Material Ghost, Gilberto Perez highlights the dialogue this generates between film and audience: “both what we see on the screen and what we take to be there in the space off screen, are arranged for us, a fiction arranged for us and asking us to go along with it.” [44] This arrangement is crucial to the film’s orientation of both the audience to the world, and of the film itself to its world.

I hope to have demonstrated that using the terms on-screening and off-screening is at least one step we can take towards understanding and articulating how it is that films achieve this. In this article, I have only found the space to discuss two examples in any meaningful depth, but the same ideas can be applied, I hope, to a number of films from any period. More generally, I hope to have recalibrated some emphasis back to the workings and aesthetic achievements of films themselves, in a reminder that they are often more generous and complex than attempts to taxonomise their devices or treatment of off-screen space would perhaps lead us to believe.


[1] André Bazin, What is Cinema? trans. Hugh Gray. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967] 1970), p. 105.
[2] David Bordwell, “Camera Movement and Cinematic Space,” Cine-Tracts 1, no. 2 (1977): p. 24.
[3] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film. (London: Routledge [1985] 1993), p. 120.
[4] Daniel Morgan, The Lure of the Image: Epistemic Fantasies of the Moving Camera (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021), p. 9.
[5] Morgan, The Lure of the Image, p. 19.
[6] Morgan, The Lure of the Image, p. 6.
[7] Morgan, The Lure of the Image, p. 55.
[8] Douglas Pye, “Movies and Tone,” Close-Up 02: Movies and Tone/Reading Rohmer/Voices in Film, ed. John Gibbs and Douglas Pye. (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), p. 7.
[9] From this point onwards, I will not be using quotation marks in my uses of the term(s).
[10] In this article, I often use “filmmakers” to demarcate human decision-making as a way of avoiding inaccurately ascribing an aesthetic decision to any one person. In that respect, while I agree with Perkins that the director is the most important figure in determining a film’s aesthetic dimensions, I am also weary of potentially neglecting or altogether erasing the contributions made by other crew members. Without eyewitness accounts that ascribe the responsibility for an aesthetic choice to an individual, instead I sometimes use “filmmakers” to encompass the collective practice, in which a host of people can contribute in various ways to individual effects and choices.
[11] V.F. Perkins, “Where is the World? The Horizon of Events in Movie Fiction,” Style and meaning: Studies in the detailed analysis of film, ed. John Gibbs and Douglas Pye. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 22.
[12] Perkins, “Where is the World?” p. 20.
[13] Michel Chion, The Voice of Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 17-29.
[14] Morgan, The Lure of the Image, p. 29.
[15] There is an abundance of critical writing on off-screen space that does not focus on narrative films produce in the classical style. For examples, see Catherine Fowler’s work on gallery films, “Into the Light: Re-Considering Off-frame and Off-screen Space in Gallery Films,” New Review of Film & Television Studies 6, no. 3 (2008): pp. 253-267; Des O’Rawe’s writing on modernist examples of framings and reframings, “Towards a Poetics of the Cinematographic Frame,” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture 3 (2011): pp. 1-13; and Tom Gunning’s exploration of camera movement in avant garde films, “Nothing Will Have Taken Place – Except Place: The Unsettling Nature of Camera Movement,” in Screen Space Reconfigured, ed. Susanne Saether and Synne Tollerud Bull (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020), pp. 263–81.
[16] Patrick Keating, The Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), p. 8.
[17] Keating, The Dynamic Frame, p. 247. Emphasis in original.
[18] Keating’s examples include Murder, My Sweet (1942), Dead Reckoning (1947), Edge of Darkness (1943), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Out of the Past (1947) in which he explores how camera movements are motivated “in the deeper sense of the term – executed for a rhetorical or aesthetic point.” While a productive impulse to move beyond the notion of the camera as an optical surrogate, the focus on suspense and narrative detail leaves less room for tonally expressive instances that mediate our access to and relationship with the film’s world. See Keating, The Dynamic Frame, pp. 238-247.
[19] Stephen Heath, “Narrative Space,” Screen 17, no. 3, (1976): p. 91. It is worth noting that Heath’s writing on off-screen space considerably evolved to encompass examples from radical cinema of the 1960s and 70s, especially those of Nagisa ?shima. See Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), pp. 145-164.
[20] Burch, Theory of Film Practice, p. 29.
[21] Leo Braudy, The World in a Frame: What We See in Films. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, [1976] 1984), p. 22.
[22] Heath, Questions of Cinema, p. 15.
[23] Edward Branigan, Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film. (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1984), p. 53. Emphasis in original.
[24] For some key examples, see Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Cinema and Suture,” Screen 18, no. 4 (1977): pp. 35–47; Daniel Dayan, “The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema,” Film Quarterly 28, no. 1 (1974): pp. 22-31; and Jacques-Alain Miller, “Suture (Elements of the Logic of the Signifier),” Screen 18, no. 4 (Winter 1977/8): pp. 24–34.
[25] Deborah Thomas, Beyond Genre: Melodrama, Comedy, and Romance in Hollywood Films (Moffat: Cameron & Hollis, 2000), p. 20.
[26] Douglas Pye, “Movies and point of view,” Movie, no. 36 (2000): p. 12.
[27] Alexander Mackendrick, On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director, ed. Paul Cronin (New York: Faber and Faber, 2004), pp. 222-223.
[28] Perkins, “Where is the world?” p. 20.
[29] Mackendrick asks his students to “always consider what has been left out of the frame, why and when the director has chosen to show us certain things and to avoid others.” Mackendrick, On Film-Making, p. 272.
[30] Mackendrick, On Film-Making, p. 229.
[31] James Naremore, Sweet Smell of Success (London: British Film Institute, 2010), p. 48.
[32] Perkins, “Moments of Choice”
[33] Naremore, Sweet Smell of Success, p. 51.
[34] Naremore, Sweet Smell of Success, p. 51.
[35] John Gibbs and Douglas Pye, “Revisiting Preminger: Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and close reading,” Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film, ed. John Gibbs and Douglas Pye. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 111.
[36] V.F. Perkins, “Why Preminger?” Movie no. 2, (1962): p. 11.
[37] Keating, The Dynamic Frame, p. 214.
[38] Perkins, “Where is the World?” p. 20.
[39] Keating, The Dynamic Frame, p. 271.
[40] Christian Keathley, “Otto Preminger and the Surface of Cinema,” World Picture no. 2 (2008). http://worldpicturejournal.com/WP_2/Keathley.html
[41] Perkins, “Why Preminger?” p. 11.
[42] Perkins, “Why Preminger?” p. 11.
[43] Mark Shivas, “Advise & Consent,” Movie no. 2 (1962): p. 29.
[44] Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. 85.

About the Author

Joshua Schulze

About the Author

Joshua Schulze

Joshua Schulze is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Film, Television, and Media at the University of Michigan. He is currently writing a dissertation about the relationship between labor, race, and material resources in classical Hollywood. His work has appeared in Imago. Studi di cinema e media, CineAction, Horror Studies, and in three anthologies.View all posts by Joshua Schulze →