Mediacinema Blog

A one-way mirror from Paris Texas to Vienna

As I’m discussing Laura Mulvey’s theory of the cinematic gaze in two of my current classes (“Italian Cinema 46” and “Intercultural and Women's Film"), I thought that some of you might be interested in the following examples. The first is Alexander Riegler’s recent installation of a one-way mirror in a Viennese sushi restaurant and gallery space. The device allows men to look into the ladies room, in an attempt to "stir people into a discussion of voyeurism and surveillance.” The view merely reveals a glimpse at activities in the women’s sink area (such as washing hands, applying make-up, adjusting hair) and will be reversed in a few months, allowing men a change of perspective‚ moving from subject to object of the gaze.
While some commentators have linked this idea to Kelly Shimoda’s series “Women Putting on Makeup” (see the video below), the core issues are quite different: Shimoda’s intimate and personal videoportraits of women applying make-up in front of mirrors reflect on the construction of identity, while Riegler’s installation forges a first-hand voyeuristic experience between individuals of the opposite gender.

kari from Kelly Shimoda on Vimeo.


Alexander Riegler’s installation

Riegler’s project brings awareness to issues of voyeurism and narcissism that are partly similar to the ones about the movies discussed in class. However, the lack of a third-party spectator observing such dynamics is precisely what makes the difference between this installation and a classical cinematic experience. Furthermore, the fact that both men and women are informed of the installation before entering the restrooms brings awareness to those mechanisms of spectatorship that, during a film screening, are primarily located in the unconscious.

The project reminded me of the one-way mirror scenes from Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas (1984), where Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) tries to reconnect with his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), years after their separation, by way of a similar device. The communication between the two characters takes place entirely at a strip club, where the male customers sit behind one-way mirrors and use a telephone to communicate with female performers who can't look back. In such context Travis’ explanation for his past behavior (he suffocated his wife with jealousy and prevented her from seeing her son) takes place through a progressive change of attitude towards the mirror. At first he hides behind his privileged position of “bearer of the gaze” by looking at the woman in silence and eventually leaving.

Paris Texas 1
Paris Texas 2

The next day Travis decides to return and reveal his identity. During his narrative, he decides to turn away from the “window,” in an attempt to neutralize the gaze privilege that such device provides him with.

Paris Texas 3

When Jane replies with her own narrative, Travis annuls the power granted to him by the one-way mirror, by facing the piece of glass that separates him from his wife and pointing a desk lamp towards his face, so that she can look at him while telling her own story.

Paris Texas 4

Paris Texas 6

While this situation allows for interesting combinations of camera looks/point-of-view shots that deconstruct the classical issues of voyeurism and objectification described by Laura Mulvey, I would argue that it is in the objective shots showing the characters facing each other through the looking glass that the main discourse on gaze and communication takes place. In such shots, in fact, both the work of mise-en-scène, and the placement of the camera (alternatively on one or the other side of the mirror) play a crucial role in terms of spectator’s identification, as they allow the viewer to switch sides (literally and metaphorically) between the two characters, depending on which direction the light and the mirror allow us to look.

Paris Texas 5

Only at this point, when Travis (and the spectator) have accepted to dismiss the voyeuristic privilege granted by the screen, Jane can watch, observe, and try to understand her husband. The spectator is now able to fully embrace this new perspective by looking at his former self (Travis) from a detached perspective, like in front of a TV set—since the glass through which Travis appears in Jane’s room is symbolically framed by a metal structure that turns the mirror-window into a flat-screen TV.

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