What Are You Looking At?: Mike Nichols's Woolf and Eye Mapping

Ever since Russian psychologist Alfred L. Yarbus published his book, Eye Movements and Vision, in 1967, psychologists have contended that once recorded, the mere flick of an eye can illustrate the bend of a specific thought, response or desire. (In his experiments, Yarbus directed his subjects to consider different aspects of the same image for three minutes at a time, recording a light-map of their points of focus.) For Drs. Ami Klin and Warren Jones of Emory University's Marcus Autism Center, eye-tracking means an opportunity to examine the way we process moving images; the duo has made a signature test of tracking participants' eyes as they watch scenes from what Klin has described as his favorite film, Mike Nichols's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Despite their procedure's tantalizing implications for filmmakers—and what director wouldn't want to study exactly where their viewers' gazes drift—the test is used primarily in the clinical domain. Jones and Klin study eye movements in two different groups: viewers with typical development (TD), and viewers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). “In our research,” Klin explained to me over the phone, “We constrast people for whom experiencing social situations is an intuitive matter, relative to a group for whom that intuition is just not there. And they are truly struggling to make sense of what’s happening in front of them.”

Jones and Klin found that, face-to-face with a few of Woolf's more histrionic moments, the TD group more or less followed the cues laid out by Nichols and cinematographer Haskell Wexler and directed their attention to characters' most instantly and emotionally revealing aspects, particularly their eyes and gestures. The ASD group might look at the actors’ eyes as well, but were less likely to bunch up their own eyelines in a consistent pattern, focusing just as easily on inanimate objects. Participants with ASD would also frequently look instead to mouths, perhaps seeking the film's text at its most direct source—there is, of course, a canyon-like difference between reading Virginia Woolf versus seeing it performed. The question then becomes less one of what compels the eye in the first place, and more about what trackable eye patterns mean once they can be measured. “We chose some specific scenes within the movie,” Jones elaborated. “They're presented in order, so you’re getting some key vignettes about how the whole arc of the story unfolds. One of the great things about that movie, and of course about Nichols’s direction is, you may have an incredible play, but the movie is set up in such a way, particularly in terms of how the shots are created, that there’s a lot of work left to the viewer to find what is most meaningful in each moment in time, and he really allowed for the actors to do what they needed to do with one another.”

Indeed. Woolf was many things: a legendary debut for a scarily young director, a box-office sensation which, for the first time, no child could see without a parent (and, more to the point, a zero-child audience), a ribald and jaggedly emotional trip into bourgeois America’s ninth circle of marital hell. Starring real-life spouses Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as George (a bitterly disappointed New England academic) and Martha (his wife, daughter of his college's president), the movie probed its audiences' threshold for verbal abuse. Martha invites Nick, a cornfed young professor from the school (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) back to the house for a post-nightcap nightcap, and soon the young marrieds are but pawns in George and Martha's terrifying mind game. Nichols's approach bears traces of both a Bergman-level heaviness (new, at the time, for a studio picture) and the exacting pitter-patter of his own comedy act with Elaine May. While Honey—describing herself as “not much of a drinker”—chugs George and Martha's brandy, Nick's face betrays a pained discomfort, the sullen irritation of a man who's allowed himself to wander into somebody else's awkwardness and now can't get out. “When I first saw the film,” Dr. Jones told me, “I actually had to stop in the middle; I was upset to my stomach, because of the grueling experience that these two couples are going through.” Klin, who began these studies after organizing reenactments from Woolf within an ASD support group, describes it simply as “an alcohol-driven night.”

Woolf’s fifth character is Wexler’s camera, which stalks the characters with the uneasy loneliness of the one sober member of a roomful of screeching drunk people. Scrape away the film's Oscar-winning reputation and you'll find a much more willfully jagged work than the script called for: in what appears a conscious effort to bust the staginess of the source material, there are tight closeups, berserk wide angles, handheld lurches, overlapped ADR and transitions that verge on freeze-frames. (The original director of photography, Harry Stradling, was dismissed by Nichols, either because he tried to trick the filmmaker into shooting in color at the behest of Jack Warner, or because he referred to Nichols's favorite film—8½—as “a piece of shit.”) Despite the saliva-drenched rancor of Albee’s play, what Nichols’s adaptation most needs to work is an appreciation for what goes unsaid—what's lost on Nick and Honey, but recognized to by George and Martha. “In many different ways,” Klin says. “You have a movie that is truly co-created by the viewer. It allows for each viewer to sculpt themselves in the experience of viewing the movie, and their scan paths in many ways become their creation.”

Jones shared with me diagrams with titles like “Looking At Eyes Even When Eyes Are Not Fully Visible” and “Looking Follows Context Rather than Overt Actions”, each one covering a (usually very brief) slice of Woolf's runtime. In the trash-talking microcosm of George and Martha's decrepit home, the most hurtful thing one person can do is call another's bluff—and so the picture rests on the premise that an innocuous evening peppered with casual and drunken lies can end up revealing some ultimate truth about the 1966 equivalent of the Way We Live Now. While all four participants downward-spiral from one brutal truth to the next, lying becomes a self-defense mechanism, and self-defense becomes not just inevitable but also justified. While Honey is content merely to get wasted, Nick cedes his ground by taking Martha's flirtations—which are pretty much just designed to make George jealous—to heart. “Amongst the patients that we work with,” Jones offered, “many of these individuals can be very very good about theorizing about all of the different possibilities that could happen in these scenes. But in terms of intuitively, immediately reacting and responding, what some of what this research documented was the radical difference in actions, and the absence of that immediate, intuitive response.”

Klin puts it like this: “On the one side you have a combination of lights and sounds that are presented to you; on the other side, you have the humanity, or basically your individual experience of what those lights and sounds elicit for you. We may not be qualified to unpack the art of moviemaking and commercial-making, but the difference we see is between spoonfeeding content, because there is nothing that you can do about it if you're looking at the screen and there's nothing else but what you're seeing, and getting the viewer to work hard in creating that experience. It's a completely different way of using the medium.” Jones cites an example merely half an hour into Woolf's wild night of self-dissection, when Martha details to her giggling, drunken guests an embarrassing anecdote, while George retreats, humiliated, to a pitch-black closet in the house's main hallway. “All of the typically developing viewers who are watching at that moment are staring right into George's eye. But if you actually look, in as much detail as you can at the film, it's in total darkness—the place where they expect eyes to be, but the only eyes they're actually seeing are inside their minds.”

Further building on that tension between the anticipated and the unknown, Klin and Jones cited Rear Window and John Carpenter's Halloween—two movies with comparable, if longer, nailbiting sequences wherein the screen is enshrouded in near-total darkness. The takeaway from our conversation wasn't a total surprise, but illuminating nonetheless: just as a multiplicity of cuts doesn't necessarily suggest the editing is better, a director who throws his or her audience the simplest of visual stimuli may, in fact, be taking the easy way out. (Put another way: if you can put your finger on a movie's spatial-temporal logic at all times, you may not be watching a very good movie.) On the other hand, sometimes a willful narrowing of focus is exactly what a scene demands; when George returns from the closet with a rifle and points it directly at his wife's head, Nichols indulges in one of Woolf's very few snap-zooms, honing the frame entirely in on Martha's eyes—only for the gun to finally go off, revealing a flouncy umbrella. In this brief wedge of time, what the viewer makes of Taylor's hardened expression is probably Woolf's truest measure as a work of art; even the most labyrinthine mise-en-scene is nowhere near as deceptive as a great performance.

Filmmaking requires fluency not just in camerawork or acting, then, but also in calibrating the viewer's eye: making us want to look deeper or, as the case may be, making us wish we could look away.