Multiple perspectives in “Look Both Ways” by Dr Jennifer Minter
In Look Both Ways (2005), a cleverly-crafted film about life and death, the director, Sarah Watt, reminds us of the importance of looking at life from multiple perspectives. Whilst an awareness of death frames their lives, the main characters are involved in a vital struggle to find a way of looking that will give them some purpose in a world of seemingly random events. Watts believes that we need to recognize that “things just happen” and that we cannot always control the unpredictability of our lives. However, one must not be obsessed or burdened either; people such as Meryl — “I see death everywhere” — are inhibited by their fears and phobias, while others, such as the train driver and Julia, are burdened and weighed down by sadness and grief. At the end of the film, the darkness eases.
Learning to look: a variety of directions and perspectives
- temporal perspective – past, present and future; life moves on and we must move with it keeping the past in perspective; Meryl’s flashbacks in the change-room; Nick’s flashbacks of his father.
- metaphysical perspective – life and death; we cannot escape mortality; it surrounds and obsesses us: the photo montages and graphic animations.
- metaphysical perspective – “look both ways” warning signs reminding us of the dangers of life; we must learn to find a purpose, a goal and achieve some happiness and fulfilment in life.
- conceptual / intellectual perspectives: narrow and broadening of one’s horizons. Andy is convinced that “everything has an agenda”, but he needs to understand that death can happen – there is no sign or design.
- spatial perspective – a bird’s eye view of life; nurtures (metaphysical) freedom and independence.
- creative perspective; imaginative perspective – visual, graphic animations.
- emotional and life perspective (mood) – hope, despair, optimism, pessimism.
- social perspective: from an introverted and self-centred, we need to think about reaching out to others and find a way to connect and become becoming part of society.
Meryl’s change in perspective
Initially, Meryl is inhibited and directionless; she has difficulty coping and finding a purpose to her life. Her father’s funeral — he was “dead” before he hit the ground — sparks Meryl’s heightened awareness of death, which is reflected in images of flowers at funerals. She tells her friend, “I see death everywhere” and this awareness makes her fearful and anxious. When Nick visits her to return her painting she treats him like a potential robber or rapist.
Central to the characterization of Meryl are the sudden, rapid appearance of graphic animations that depict her visual imagination as a graphic artist as well as her phobias. Most of these are concerned with the physical nature of death and the unpredictability of life. The hand-drawn animations reveal her fears and phobias. Sharks, crashing trains and disappearing floor levels are the nightmares that haunt her.
The director exploits the shock factor in these images through the use of camera angles and close ups which endow these images with an element of surprise, fear and awe, so that the viewer is swept into Meryl’s subjective reality. Viewers, too, begin to understand how Meryl is overtaken by the randomness of these images and we feel her anxiety or near panic-attacks, especially because of the loud noise, which shows her inner turmoil. One example that typifies Meryl’s state of mind is the graphic animation of the shark swallowing a young child. The camera seems to zoom in on the shark which almost jumps out of the frame in a threatening manner. Her inner turmoil is also evident in the chaotic appearance of her studio. In another mise en scene, Meryl dines while Joan and Nick are conversing in the kitchen, Meryl imagines the floor caving in and the table collapsing into a vacuum engulfing her. Perhaps it is not just a coincidence that the scene takes place after her father’s death and also with the shadow of Nick’s battle with cancer hovering over them. Again the director exploits the shock factor
so that viewers are also pulled into Meryl’s fearful obsessions.
Emerging from her state of emotional paralysis, Meryl seeks to look at her life from different directions. The image in the pool room suggests a temporal perspective on life, whereby, she literally looks both ways. First she looks in one direction at the younger woman as she was, and then the other way and sees the older woman and what she will become.
Throughout the film the animations become less frequent suggesting that she is beginning to cope and go with the flow. She becomes less suffocated and overwhelmed by her awareness of her death. She is also less introverted as she reaches out to Nick and expresses a desire to have a relationship. “What if it is shallow and stupid to be lonely and to want somebody to like you? For once, she is expressing her thoughts to someone else, rather than imagining them through animations. When she is nearly run over by the speeding car, she does not have time to project her fears. The final track, “sorry” suggests that she is ready for a relationship.
Nick’s awareness of death and life
Nick, too, is thrown off balance by his diagnosis of cancer and searches frantically for answers, reasons and solutions. At first blinkered because of his diagnosis, he, like Meryl, is inward-looking and struggles to tell people about his disease. He is emotionally and psychologically withdrawn as he seeks to find a way to come to terms with his own finality. He also struggles to find the language to communicate such a harsh reality to others.
He remembers dangerous places he has visited and the risks he has taken. He is trying to put his diagnosis in perspective; he realizes that people are constantly surrounded by danger; he, too, has, inadvertently, been to many dangerous places and survived.s Google search. The multiplying cells loom large on the screen to show how Nick is struggles to come to terms with the consequences of the disease by analysing poisonous substances.
The indifferent and objective reality of the screen world is set against an emotionally fraught person reaching for an almost empty flask of whisky. We are invited into Nick’s subjective reality and his inexplicable personal nightmare. Other images abound: there is the pig’s head, the sharpening of knives and the jarring sounds that also reflect his emotional state and psychological paralysis.
When Nick sees the child in the wheelchair who smiles at him, Nick seems to emerge from his introspection. The child’s experience shows the immediate future that confronts Nick. The sound track resumes as Nick considers his possibilities.
Critical to the development of Nick’s character are the flashbacks that surround the death of his father. The imagery of the title, “look both ways” dominate these flashbacks whereby Nick contemplates his father’s recent past; he was absent and has not fully grieved; but he also contemplates his future and the illness that awaits him. It makes him reflect upon how he will cope with the disease and whether he will be as independent. He knows what he doesn’t want and that’s to put on a brave and stoic face as his father did. After all, Joan reminds him, ‘everyone has their own way of coping”. Interestingly, the past and future converge as Nick tries to find a fresh perspective and starts voicing his concerns. He tells Meryl, “I can’t really start anything”, as a way of telling her that he is concerned about his developing affection for her, giving his disease.
At the same time, Nick and Meryl round the corner and say “sorry” to each other. They kiss as the lyrics play in the background, “lonely won’t leave me alone”, suggesting that together they have a better chance of dealing with their lives. As a sign of renewed energy, Nick runs along the train tracks. He rescues Andy, who is standing on the tracks, showing his desire to reach out to others, just as the train driver does. He asks him, “Are you going to be alright”. The final photo montages of possible trips and happiness with Meryl foreshadow that he has a lot to look forward to.
Life lessons: Watt conveys the message that we must not be overwhelmed by our problems but put them in perspective. We must have an awareness of the passing of time; and of the finality of death but we must not be obsessed by either. It is important to look forward and reach out to each other, recognising that “things just happen”. They cannot control the unpredictability of their life, but they must not let this hinder their enjoyment of life.
Julia and the train driver : burdened by loss
Through the tragedy that affects them both, Julia and the train driver show how “things just happen” which highlights one of the director’s philosophical views of life that underpin the film. They cope with their grief in solitary ways which inhibits their enjoyment of life and emotional development. The train driver suffers from the burden of guilt related to Rob’s death, and Julia suffers from extreme loneliness because of the loss of her partner. They are both withdrawn and have difficulty coping with their loss.
The driver’s identity is withheld from viewers throughout the movie, suggesting that he is trapped in his personal crisis. The characterization of train driver, trapped by police tape sets the scene at the beginning. Julia, too, appears in a medium distance through window frames or door ways, suggesting that she is distant and unable to understand and cope with her grief. Neither speak until the end of the movie, suggesting that they have difficulty expressing (articulating) their grief.
A heart-rendering scene in the movie is played out when the train driver offers Julia a sympathy card. His identity is finally revealed when he tells her ”I were the train driver” and expresses his sorrow, “I’m sorry”. This is a sign of his desire to seek her forgiveness after the accident. Significantly, Julia emerges in full view and accepts the card and tells him “It wasn’t your fault”. A close up angle camera shot zooms in on Julia clasping his hand. This appears to be a sign that she wants to forgive and move on. It also emphasizes once again the importance of reaching out to each other. The teeming rain dominates their gestures of reconciliation. It suggests healing, which is also evident in the discovery of the child from the Arnow Train disaster. Both speak their only lines in the whole movie as a sign that they are coming to terms with their grief.
Life lessons: The director suggests through the characterization of Julia and the train driver that there is a chance to help each other deal with their guilt and grief. Together, they have a chance to overcome their suffering and fears, their guilt and their regrets. They need to find comfort in helping each other, which may help them overcome their suffering and their fears about the random nature of life.
Anna and Andy: “things just happen”
Andy thinks that everyone has an “agenda” and that there is a purpose or design to everything. An egocentric personality, he has to learn that thinks may just happen and that an accident is not necessarily a suicide. A critical scene at the conclusion of the movie depicts Andy standing on the train tracks, as if he were trying to understand Rob’s accident. He seems to be tempting fate, but he is also literally putting himself in Rob’s place as if to work out whether his death was a suicide or an accident. It is one of the rare moments that he shows some empathy in the film.
Nick rescues him and tells him his own plight, which draws Andy out of his self-centred focus. Andy finally realizes that there may be times when “things just happen” as Anna tells him. People don’t always have an agenda and you have to deal with it and cope in the best way you can.
Through the depiction of Anna and Andy’s relationship and their unwanted pregnancy the director suggests that people should both share responsibility for their actions and their life experiences. Anna challenges Andy him to show commitment. She tells him “you were there too”. She believes that Andy follows too many agendas, instead of accepting that some things just happen. Andy needs to realize that the pregnancy is an example of how things just happen and he and Anna must deal with it. This coincides with him coming to terms with his responsibility as a father. The final pictures in the photomontage show him cuddling a baby, which suggests that he is supporting Anna and accepting his responsibilities.
Anna’s pregnancy suggests new life. It comes at a time when previously they are all bombarded with images of death. Phil also celebrates his daughter’s birthday party giving the film a positive atmosphere, which coincides with the celebration of the discovery of the child. The final lyrics, “lonely won’t leave me alone” suggest a sense of optimism as the characters find something to look forward to. Anna’s questioning of ‘do we accept everything in pretty packages now?’ as a response to the photo of Julia, gives an insight that people should not be easily affected by judgemental commentary, but to look underneath the surface.
Life lessons: Andy finally realizes that there may be times when “things just happen”. A death may be accidental rather than purposeful (a suicide) and individuals need to learn how best to deal with the vagaries of life. People don’t always have “an agenda”.
There are a variety of film techniques in Look Both Ways that show how the main characters learn to look at life from different directions.
There are numerous traffic warning signs in the film that draw attention to the dangers of life and suggest that it is important to “look both ways”. For Nick and Meryl this seems to suggest looking at life from a life and death perspective and being aware that death can strike at any time. Nick’s diagnosis unsettles him, and Meryl is upset after her father’s funeral. However, they both are overwhelmed by their fears of death and this seems to render them both lonely, unhappy and depressed. The photomontages and Nick’s constant googling on the internet suggest a chaotic frame of mind and he does not know how to process so much disastrous information . One screen dump features the duplication of cancer cells that loom large in the screen to show how Nick is overwhelmed by his disease. Nick sits with an empty whisky flash showing his emotional exhaustion which allows viewers to understand his subjective reality. Central to the characterization of Meryl are the sudden, rapid appearance of graphic animations that depict her creative life as a graphic artist as well as her phobias. Most of these are concerned with the physical nature of death and the unpredictability of life. These animations suggest that she has a creative and visual perspective on life, but that these too quickly turn to death and disaster. One creative image that typifies Meryl’s state of mind is that of shark swallowing a young child. The camera seems to zoom in on the shark which almost jumps out of the frame in a threatening manner. The director exploits the shock factor in these images through the use of camera angles and close ups which endow these images with an element of surprise, fear and awe, so that the viewer is swept into Meryl’s subjective reality. Viewers, too, begin to understand how Meryl is overtaken by the randomness of these images and we feel her anxiety or near panic-attacks, especially because of the loud noise.
Look Both Ways also suggests that people should look at an issue from different perspectives. According to Andy, Rob’s death had to suicide because he thinks, as Anna says, that “everyone has an agenda”. However, Andy comes to realise that sometimes in life “things just happen”. A critical scene at the end of the movie depicts Andy standing on the train tracks, as if he were trying to understand Rob’s accident. It’s one of the rare moments that he shows some empathy in the film, which signals that he is trying to literally step into someone else’s shoes. Watts shows that he needs to realize that the pregnancy is an example of how “things just happen” and he and Anna must deal with it.
There is also a temporal perspective involved in looking both ways. Watts suggests that our current reality is shaped by our past and present and we must look towards the future and cling to a sense of hope. In the swimming pool change room, Meryl literally looks both ways. First she looks in one direction at the younger woman, and then the other way and sees the older woman. She is seeing what she was and what she will become. Likewise, when Nick sees the child in the wheelchair he sees his immediate future because of his cancer. This is also the point of the flashbacks. Nick has constant images of his dying father. This makes him think about something in the past, but he also thinks about his future and how he will cope with his illness. He knows that he doesn’t want to have the clichéd “brave battle”. After all, Joan reminds him, ‘everyone has their own way of coping”.
The film techniques in Look Both Ways also suggest that people need to see their life from a perspective that involves reaching out to other people and sharing their grief. Both Julia and the train driver are lost in their sorrow and guilt and this seems to affect their involvement and enjoyment in life. The train driver’s identity is withheld from viewers throughout the movie, suggesting that he is trapped in his personal crisis. The characterization of train driver, trapped by police tape sets the scene at the beginning. Julia, too, appears in a medium distance through window frames or doorways, suggesting that she is distant and unable to understand and cope with her grief. Neither speak until the end of the movie, suggesting that they have difficulty expressing (articulating) their grief.
A particularly poignant scene in the movie appears when the train driver offers Julia a sympathy card. His identity is finally revealed when he tells her ”I were the train driver” and expresses his sorrow, “I’m sorry”. This is a sign of his desire to seek her forgiveness after the accident. Significantly, Julia emerges in full view and accepts the card and tells him “It wasn’t your fault”. A close up angle camera shot zooms in on Julia clasping his hand – as a sign that she wants to forgive and move on. It also emphasizes once again the importance of reaching out to each other.
The imagery of the title, Look Both Ways tends to suggest that we need to be aware of death, but not overcome by it. We need to find a way of looking that will give us some purpose in a world of seemingly random events. An awareness of the past is critical to the way we live our future. Watts suggest that we should not allow our fears to restrict our enjoyment of life and our personal development. The techniques at the conclusion suggest that many characters do find perspective and some direction and hope in their life. They learn how to deal with death and the unpredictability of life. We cannot solve the unpredictability but must learn to cope with it. As Nick runs straight ahead in the direction of the train, perhaps he is running headlong into the future. He does, after all, look forward to like a world trip with Meryl. The music suggests – look both ways, but also reach out to others to find a way to cope with loneliness and grief – look forward to a better future. The rescued child in the Arnow Hill disaster suggests hope and optimism for the future.
by Dr Jennifer Minter: “Look Both Ways”: Multiple Perspectives (VCE Study guides: English Works)
© English Works (2014). Please attribute quotes. Disclaimer: These notes are designed as teaching aids only to be used in conjunction with workshops conducted by English Works.