Essay #1: To Be the Monster. Film and Points of View.

i. Background

A natural starting place for an essay on identification with the figure of the monster is the point-of-view shot. Point-of-view shots are not uncommon in film, but almost always, where they appear, they do so only for a short period of time. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has a long point-of-view sequence in its first part, and part of the effectiveness of that strategy—that is, part of what makes us feel Bauby’s locked-in syndrome so well—is that we are unused to being in the POV position in film for any significant period of time, and as the sequence goes on past what we thought would last only a few minutes, we begin to feel trapped. However, even in that film, we move eventually to a more traditional third-person perspective for the final two-thirds.

An example of the limited POV at the beginning of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Back in 1947, the Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake actually consisted almost entirely of point-of-view shots, but film critics were less than impressed, and they felt that the technique wore thin quickly (Leigh). Which would probably help to explain why—at least in film—audiences didn’t see the technique used so extensively again until 2015’s Hardcore Henry, which was also—surprise, surprise—roundly panned. (The re-emergence of the long-form point-of-view sequence took place much more quickly in television, although again: the television episodes in question required shorter watching times than films.)

Another POV shot, this one from Lady in the Lake.

One has the impression that it’s not just a matter of the technique (or, to the more cynically minded, the gimmick) “wearing thin.” It has also to do with our sense of discomfort with the stricture the device imposes. Since the beginning, cinema has offered itself to audiences as a means of escape. And when we watch a film, and empathize with its characters—well, to be lost in someone else’s story is one thing, because there is flight in that. To be physically limited to someone else’s eyes and body, though, appears to leave us feeling too grounded, too stuck on earth. But if the most literal version of vicarious living that film is capable of providing us often fails to put us in a state of true empathy—what does? And how will whatever those techniques are let us empathize with the monsters in Avatar? And what do Jeffrey Cohen’s seven theses have to do with all of this?


ii. Point of View Shots—In Small Doses

The above history will help us better understand point-of-view shots in their most prevalent form: as short inserts, which give us a hint at who a character is, without our feeling trapped by them (as inserts, we may understand these shots as allowing for flight and imagination and empathy in a way that a longer sequence would, however paradoxically, dampen). In particular, it should help us to see some of the brilliance of the following sequence from The Last Airbender (ATLA, 1.20):

This scene marks the introduction of the spirit known as Koh the Face-Stealer, who literally steals and uses the faces of others. But before anyone else, Koh has stolen our face—the first indication we get of this spirit’s existence is this brief POV shot from its perspective.

“The monster is difference made flesh, come to dwell among us,” Cohen writes at the outset of his fourth Monster Thesis (Cohen, 41). But where do those differences go when we see things from the monster’s point of view? Indeed, this shot may capture another one of Cohen’s theses (the third) more accurately: “the monster is the harbinger of category crisis.” The line that separates our conception of ourselves from the category of the monster becomes muddled when we suddenly see through the monster’s eyes. In terms of the fictional universe of the show, the audience is made to consider how the human and spirit worlds are not nearly so separate as they first appear; and in terms of real life, the audience is forced to consider its own potential for both monstrous evil and seemingly superhuman good.

For those of us who’ve followed A Global History of Monsters, these themes should sound familiar. Consider, for example, the explicit way in which the human-monster dichotomy is blurred in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Or the way that the most monstrous figures in Train to Busan are not the zombies but the selfish uninfected. Or the most famous scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho, which we watched in lecture, and which includes some shots from the killer’s point of view. And at the end of this blurring—do we find the creation of something new? Can the new conception of the self in relation to the monster be a part of the “becoming” that Cohen discusses in his seventh thesis? To dive into this, let’s look at some other ways that the two Avatar series dive into the language of film and television in order to make this monster-human blurring happen.


iii. Intertextual References

The imagery of the Avatar series often provides fruitful grounds for comparison with other films and media (see more on this in my second essay). Let’s examine one of the most explicit of these:

Over the course of the film E.T. the Extraterrestrial, the audience is led to connect with the “monstrous” alien. In fact that film’s entire goal, you might say, is to have you crying by the end over a creature that, on the surface, you don’t very much resemble.

Compare that to the scene in Avatar represented above (ATLA, 1.20), which goes a step further. This deep eerie red color is the result of the Moon Spirit—that which is “monstrous” and “other”—being in danger. And in making this kind of reference, we’re perhaps being encouraged not just to learn to “get along with the alien,” but to realize that we are the alien, the monster, the spirit—that we have that inside us, and that when you try to take that away, you’re incomplete. Suddenly (and quite literally, in the case of this scene from Avatar), you’re in the red.

But one example is hardly enough to make the case that Avatar is encouraging this sort of rethinking of the boundaries between the self and the “monster.” So now let’s look at a longer sequence. Specifically, let’s compare the standoff scene from the end of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with a climactic standoff scene from the second season of The Last Airbender (ATLA, 2.20). Initially, both scenes involve three major players. Note the similarities. Both start with over-the-shoulder shots—

And both move to close-ups—

And then, in the Avatar scene, everything changes. Because suddenly a fourth party (Zuko) enters. We were set up for one kind of standoff—a physical fight—only for us to be taken to a different kind of standoff entirely, a psychological one. For the entire season, Zuko has been struggling between that which is good in him and the “monstrous” rage that has burned in him for so long (see more on this in “The Monster Within Us”). In this scene, he is forced to explicitly make a choice between the two. And so, while the literal standoff is still happening, it becomes merely the vehicle for the truer, internal standoff inside Zuko. You can’t get much more literal than the mise-en-scene of the following shot, where Zuko is literally in between Azula and Aang, the two parties he must choose between.

And then we return to the close-up, as though to emphasize again that this is the real standoff—

And when he makes his choice—to give in to the monster of his rage and fear and shame—this is the shot we get—

There are a couple things going on here. First, comparing this shot to the last one, it’s obvious that we’re zooming out. We are literally moving away from Zuko. It’s as though, when Zuko chooses to be the monster, the audience is forcibly pushed back. Second, we see him through the fire, through his rage. One reading of this shot is essentially that this is the ultimate visualization of the monstrous winning out, because Zuko and his fire are perhaps one and the same—the monster has “become,” and Cohen’s seventh thesis is fulfilled—while another reading forces us to think about how we’re seeing Zuko through an imperfect filter (i.e. he and the fire are not one and the same; the fire is a barrier between us and him). In that latter reading, part of what’s driving us away here is our own readiness to dub someone or something “monstrous” when we’re capable of much the same. Either reading is tenable, and perhaps there’s a bit of both in it; but either way, this sequence is a brilliant demonstration of Avatar taking a familiar setup from the genre of the Western and giving it a unique twist, so as to explore the human potential to be the monster.

We can relate this fire/filter to the glasses in the film They Live, which allowed the protagonist to see the truth of the world, e.g. seeing that an apparently human businessman is actually an alien—

So now, depending on the interpretation that you take, either the fire functions just like those glasses—i.e., it indeed tells the truth, and Zuko is a monster—or it’s getting in the way of our appreciating the full complexity of Zuko’s character and position, and the real monster is the prejudice with which we see things, and which—unlike glasses—we don’t take off so easily. And it’s exactly those fears and prejudices that we’re going to explore next, in the second of these essays. We’re moving now from how film and media techniques explore identification with the figure of the monster to how they explore distance from it.


Read the second film/media essay.



Work Cited

Carpenter, John, director. They Live. Alive Films, 1988.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” The Monster Theory Reader, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; London, 2020, pp. 37–56.

DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2005-2008.

DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. The Legend of Korra. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2012-2014.

Hitchcock, Alfred, director. Psycho. Paramount Pictures, 1960.

Kennedy, Kathleen, et al. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Miramax Films, 2007.

Leigh, Megan. “The Evolution of Point of View Cinematography.” Pop Verse, 1 Feb. 2018,

Leone, Sergio, director. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Produzioni Europee Associate, 1966.

Spielberg, Steven, director. E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Universal Pictures, 1982.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Yeon, Sang-ho, director. Train to Busan. Next Entertainment World, 2016.