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5 December 2011updated 14 Sep 2021 3:47pm

Gilbey on Film: The eyes have it

Ocular obsessions in cinema.

By Ryan Gilbey

“Scopophilia” is the term, popularised by film theorists, which describes the pleasure derived from looking (with its close cousin voyeurism key to the audience’s relationship with the living dead on screen). But with it comes an inherent sensitivity to the damage which can be wrought on our eyes. Small wonder that so many filmmakers have taken such delight in probing and poking our peepers like sadistic ophthalmologists; any on-screen assault or injury can be keenly felt in the stalls, but one aimed directly at the very instruments of our enjoyment is guaranteed to treble the wince factor.

The second half of this year has been dominated for me by a rather nasty eye injury and subsequent surgery, which has given me plenty of time to reflect on the act of looking in cinema, and to daydream about the use and abuse of eyes in movies. At heart, every film is concerned with looking (even Derek Jarman’s Blue, with its unchanging wash of colour) so anyone programming a festival devoted to the subject of eyes would need to be especially far-sighted.

The list of optical highlights I’ve compiled below omits this year’s examples: We Need to Talk About Kevin cleverly substituted the peeling and eating of a lychee for an act of eye-related violence; Final Destination 5, which I didn’t see, apparently featured an eye operation that goes wrong (reason enough for me to avoid the picture, though the addition of 3-D made watching it a practical impossibility); Julia’s Eyes, about a woman suffering from a degenerative eye disease, featured a staggeringly nasty (non-CGI) moment in which the tip of a knife is held to the heroine’s eyeball.

My list addresses moments rather than themes. After all, there are plenty of movies with blindness at their core: Magnificent Obsession, The Miracle Worker, Wait Until Dark, Blink, Afraid of the Dark (which offered a nice in-joke by casting Hilary Mason, the blind psychic from Don’t Look Now, as the sole sighted character in the film’s deranged second half) and, yes, Blindness. But any film can play on the vulnerability of our eyes, as this list demonstrates. There’s surely enough here for a miniature film festival, even excluding optically-based films such as Iris, Apt Pupil, The Shop Around the Cornea and Disney’s That Darn Cataract

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1.Un Chien Andalou

Too obvious? Then here’s the Pixies performing “Debaser,” their ferocious tribute to Buñuel and Dali’s eye-watering short.

2. The Terminator: Arnie goes Andalou.

3.Gothic: An eyeful from the late Ken Russell

4. Pan’s Labyrinth: The Pale Man – not easily palmed off.

5.They Live: The future’s so Right, you’ve gotta wear shades.

6. A Clockwork Orange: Viddy this.

7.Les amants du Pont-Neuf: Juliette Binoche defers instant coolness on the monocular.

8. A Scanner Darkly: Night of a thousand eyes.

9. The Birds: Socket to ’em.

10. Broadway Danny Rose
Tina: “They shot him in the eyes.”
Danny: “So he’s blind?”
Tina: “Dead.”
Danny: “Dead, of course, because the bullets go right through …”