I’m a huge fan of odd, weird and experimental films... or at least I used to be. I think my appetite for this kind of storytelling wained as my toleration for plotless and self-indulgent narratives dwindled. Upon rewatching Stalker and Eraserhead, for example, I still get them, but... yeah.
There’s another stream of experimental storytelling that’s aimed at mainstream audiences. I’m thinking about Hitchcock’s Surreal dream sequences, the dominant voiceover of Blast of Silence, and Lady in the Lake. Getting an experimental storytelling technique to work for a general audience is a difficult trick to pull off.
On the face of it Lady in the Lake (1947) shouldn’t be an experimental film. It should be a black and white film noir with wisecracking dialogue and men in hats smoking cigarettes in cheap hotel rooms. Lady in the Lake has all that, but it is experimental, because it attempts to replicate the first person perspective of Raymond Chandler’s novel.
It probably goes without saying, students in their first semester at film school attempt this kind of trick, as if no one has ever done it before, much like every creative writing class has someone (guilty as charged) writing an assignment in the second person like they’re the first person to attempt this feat.
So yes Lady in the Lake is shot in a first person viewpoint and the protagonist is the camera. This should be inventive and witty and different, but unfortunately it just feels like a gimmick. The protagonist is mainly the camera viewpoint with a disconnected voice. Occasionally he’s visible in a mirror or a reflection. This should be fun, but it feels unnatural and forced — it takes you out of the story. Having said this, it does make you appreciate the language of film — editing, and being able to show different viewpoints with ease. Film is essentially a form of Cubism.
More recently, 1917 goes for a fluid, one-take look and feel, forsaking the edited cut. And while it was critically acclaimed, I also found the technique irritating. The edited cut is actually a very natural storytelling language, after all, we blink every few seconds. Done well, film edits are invisible (like a dialogue tag in written fiction).
So, getting rid of all that cinematic richness does not feel liberating, it is a limitation that wears thin. Strangely enough, I don’t have this feeling when I read a novel in the first person, but I can understand why some people might.
Lady in the Lake is a nice idea, but shooting an entire film from one character’s actual viewpoint quickly becomes claustrophobic, annoying, and it draws attention to the techique instead of the story.