Deviant Materials: Reflecting Surfaces and Hollow Bodies in CSI – Zach Whalen

Abstract: In Deviant Materialities: Reflecting Surfaces and Hollow Bodies in CSI, Zach Whalen examines the simulation of two kinds of gaze – the surface reflection of the mirror and the penetration of forensic and surgical procedures. The ‘CSI shot’, a signature of the television series, is specifically reconstructed in the videogame context around the exigencies of player input.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is one of the most popular American television series of the current decade. The program, as well as its spin-offs and imitators, revolves around a standard formula that depicts the process of solving crimes by finding and correctly interpreting the given evidence. As a hypothetical sub-genre of crime drama, the CSI: shows are uniquely structured around physical evidence which is often placed into context in what some might call gratuitously violent reconstruction sequences, often of the injury that caused the death of the victim. Because these reconstructions frequently follow montages of investigation where serious technicians in lab coats scrutinize pieces of the puzzle, and because the answer to that puzzle is relayed to the viewer in graphically visual terms, I argue that the essence of the CSI: formula derives from transferring a mastery of vision from the investigators to the audience. Many of the CSIs tools cause something invisible to become visible (holding a UV light over a sheet, for example, reveals otherwise hidden traces of body fluid), and in that movement from being hidden to being seen, evidence steadily reveals the ultimate culpability of the correct individual. In this way, the structures of vision and visibility that the CSI: shows use demonstrates the domain of the authoritative gaze as a psychic structure. Moreover, its psychoanalytical implication – especially with regard to sanctioning visual access to the interior of victim’s bodies, more often than not to re-enact their moment of death – suggests an analogy with inter-medial relationships. In other words, when CSI: presupposes an authoritative status for visual information, it creates a self-reflective gesture that comments on its relationship with other media forms and stakes a claim for the role of televisuality in the discourse surrounding crime and punishment. What remains uninterrogated, however, is the degree to which this self-reflectivity analogy translates when the CSI: genre is translated into different forms like computer games. This paper will investigate the consequence of this translation by discussing three moments: the so-called “CSI: shot,” the investigative montage, and the returned gaze. These moments are diffused across three different media, and three different texts, each of which also is an example of a different genre: the video game CSI: Three Dimensions of Murder (Ubisoft/Telltale Games, 2006), the CSI: episode titled “A Night at the Movies” (episode 3.19, 2002), and the Alfred Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train (1951).

These three moments are, furthermore, both linked and disseminated by three recurring figures that appear in all of these examples: the body, the surface, and the incision. This final figure of the incision or cut underlies the concept of metamateriality for this discussion. As I will be using it here, materiality refers to the technological or physical dimension of the communication media employed by film, television, or video games. This may include elements like aspect ratio or acetate for film, or the graphics rendering system in video games. An important concern in the discussion which follows is the ways these materials impact the aesthetic or expressive content of the text in question, and in linking the three examples that I will be discussing, the notion of metamateriality concerns the connection with materiality that all three share and which is the corollary of their connection.

The reader has surely noticed by now that one of the texts I am examining is not like the other – Hitchcock’s film Strangers on a Train is clearly not part of the CSI: universe, and I am not arguing that it is really an anticipation of CSI:’s innovations. Rather, the particular episode of CSI: which I will be discussing is structured as an explicit echo of Strangers on a Train – two women meet at a screening of the film and, like the characters Bruno Anthony and Guy Haines, agree to trade murders. Even beyond this overt connection, the episode contains several unacknowledged intertextual cues which relate to the film and provide a layer of meta-commentary on the differences between the film and television format. Both “A Night at the Movies” and Strangers on a Train are crime stories, but each depends on its respective medium in a self-reflective way that invites analysis. Similarly, the video game I will be discussing, CSI: Three Dimensions of Murder, contains a mission that solves a murder committed over the rights to a video game. The winks and inside jokes about the game industry are rather obvious, but like the self-reflectivity in the other two texts, this level of commentary in the game invites a discussion of how and why the video game medium differs so greatly when it comes to telling stories about crime.

So far, I have presented this argument as a sequence of triads, but I want to note that the real value of discussing these three texts lies in recognizing their overlapping, interreferential, and interferential elements. Accordingly, I have constructed a visual diagram of the following discussion. I mean this not as a representation or enhancement of my argument, but rather as the core of the argument itself. In one sense, the text of this essay is an explanation of the image. The shape of the diagram is also consistent with the Trinity of Evidence featured in the game, a visual device which helps the player keep track of how the evidence she finds contributes to a winnable case against a suspect.

The laboriously titled CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Three Dimensions of Murder (Ubisoft, 2005) is the 3rd installment in the series of video games based on the original CSI: television show (a CSI: Miami game has also been released). While Three Dimensions of Murder offers some technological advantages over its predecessors (its title apparently refers to the fact that this is the first CSI game to offer 3-dimensional environments), it does little to escape the point-and-click drudgery that has doomed all of these games to review scores ranging from mediocre to terrible. Part of the problem seems to be one of addressing the right audience,1 but the games also suffer from a lack of the dramatic elements that do not translate well from the television medium to the video game medium. If the television shows are formulaic crime drama, the games are the same thing, but without the drama. What is, in one sense, disappointing about this banality, however, is that the games themselves are designed quite competently, and the artwork is relatively thorough in capturing photo-realistic detail. This is also somewhat frustrating for a critic because even terrible games usually offer plenty of accidental insights, irruptions or opportunities for unpacking complex signification. The CSI games, on the other hand, simply remain (for the most part) unblinkingly below average. However, what does emerge, as I have already noted, is a self-reflective commentary by way of a video game-themed mission, but even more interesting are the artistic failures in terms of how the characters are represented. The game artists are working within some clear constraints (Three Dimensions of Murder is crammed onto a single CD and contains hundreds of audio dialogue clips, leaving little room for pre-rendered animation), but the affect of these constraints is most visible when it comes up against the hardware limitations of the user’s computer or game console.

The game contains five separate missions, but the one I will be most interested in is the second case, “First-Person Shooter.” The mission begins at a fictional Las Vegas version of the now-defunct E3 convention, where we find the victim (the producer of the next installation in a successful first-person shooter [FPS] franchise) shot to death in the game’s demo booth and posed in a position that mimics the game’s poster (figure 1). The murderer is revealed to be a disgruntled employee concerned about his share in the intellectual property rights for the game, GutWrench III (“Gutter than ever!”), but along the way, the interviews with the other employees reveals a thinly veiled metafictional commentary about the highly competitive video game industry and the excessive violence in some games. This criticism is ironic in a game rated M for mature audiences by the ESRB, but the characters make a point to criticize GutWrench often enough that it comes across as a sincere gesture coming from developer Telltale Games. Significantly, the character in “First-Person Shooter” who is the most vocal critic in the game is himself responsible for a game, Fuzzy and Bill, which clearly mimics the real Sam and Max franchise currently being produced by Telltale Games. An anonymous contributor to the game’s Wikipedia article even claims (without citation) that the Telltale developer who created this mission specifically intended to parody LucasArts’ canceling Sam and Max. Whether or not this is true, its attractiveness as a possible explanation indicates the degree to which subsequent fan reaction to Sam and Max is a pervasive and well known episode.2 At any rate, Telltale Games’ promise to re-energize the Sam and Max franchise, along with the adventure game genre creates a clear and interesting comment on the current state of the game industry. It is the subtler and perhaps unintentional commentary, however, that works through and against technological constraint that will be the focus in my discussion.

Figure 1. The initial crime scene in “First-Person Shooter,” a demo-booth for the fictional game, GutWrench III. Image © 2006 Ubisoft Inc. and Telltale Games.

In “A Night at the Movies,” a specific visual effect invokes a kind of technological constraint as a signifier. As in most episodes, the investigators gradually reconstruct the crime, which the audience sees as a grainy flashback that the investigators narrate over. The graininess of these sequences references the fuzziness and inexactitude of memory, but it is also similar to the distortion one sees on low-quality video. The episode contains two unrelated crimes which are investigated by different teams, but each story line references Strangers on a Train – one is explicit, the other unspoken. The primary story opens the episode in an art house movie theater, where the victim is discovered during a screening of Phantom Lady (1944), setting the film noir tone for the episode and that particular storyline. The second story line is treated completely separately, but since it deals with visual evidence and the predominance of visuality, it too echoes themes from Strangers on a Train and establishes an intertextual link by way of the key piece of evidence – a broken camera lens – that ultimately provides the solution for that crime. The primary story itself explicitly references its similarities to Strangers on a Train, but this story also contains an unacknowledged intertextuality. The second planned victim in the “Night at the Movies” murder-swapping plot (who ultimately survives) is named Anthony Haines, combining the names of the film’s protagonist (Guy Haines) and antagonist (Bruno Anthony) in an obvious reference. The fact that neither the conspirators nor the investigators comment on this coincidence establishes a deeper link between the episode and the film. As a result, the dynamics of the gaze and vision which characterize the film as Hitchcockian (according to Slavoj Žižek’s discussion, for example) establish a starting point for investigating the gaze and visuality (two major themes in Žižek’s work on Hitchcock) within the features of the CSI: episode.

The secondary plot in “Night at the Movies” is rather different in tone. It centers on the death of a teenage boy who was shot in the chest while performing a Jackass-style stunt, and its exposition is typical for a secondary CSI: plot. What makes this case interesting in terms of the episode’s relationship to Hitchcock are its more subtle references. The investigators eventually solve the case by finding and viewing video footage of the event. The video camera is located after traces of its broken lens are discovered at the scene. This parallels the cracked pair of glasses Bruno Anthony offers to Guy Haines to prove that he has murdered Haines’s wife Miriam, and the footage itself concludes with the dying victim staring at the camera in a brief quotation of Psycho. While I hesitate to claim that these and other associations with Hitchcock establish a fundamental generic link between the CSI: sub-genre and Hitchockian suspense,3 these references do establish the groundwork for considering the psychical dimensions of vision and the gaze in CSI:.

The 1951 film Strangers on a Train has been adapted several times besides the CSI: episode, but it is itself an adaptation of a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Generically, it falls under the broad definition of film noir, though this identification may owe more to Raymond Chandler contributing on the screenplay than to actually demonstrating the standard features of a film noir. It lacks a real femme fatale, for example, and the protagonist is technically a victim with a guilty conscience rather than a world-weary detective. Accordingly the film is more specifically and typically an example of Hitchcockian suspense. The premise is fairly straightforward: Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is a well-known tennis player who meets socialite Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) in a chance encounter on a train. In the course of their conversation, Anthony suggests that they each have someone in their lives whom they would like to get rid of – Haines’ unfaithful wife and Anthony’s disapproving father. Anthony casually suggests that they swap murders, arguing that without a motive to connect each to the respective crime, police will not be able to make the connection to the murderer. Haines treats the conversation facetiously until Anthony appears some time later with proof (Miriam’s broken glasses) that he has fulfilled his part of the bargain. The remainder of the film depicts Haines’ guilty conscience (Anthony points out that Haines himself really is guilty of conspiracy to commit murder) and his attempts to avoid suspicion.

Like most Hitchcock films, the majority of the suspense is psychological and actual violence tends to take place off-screen. When Anthony strangles Miriam, the camera focuses on Miriam’s dropped glasses where we witness the act performed by reflected silhouettes (figure 2).


Figure 2
. Bruno Anthony strangles Miriam Haines in the original Strangers on a Train. We see the murder by way of a reflection in Miriam’s glasses. Image © 1951 Warner Bros.

bodies refracted, obfuscated, reflected

Each of the texts considered here is populated with spectral bodies, both living and dead. Several new media scholars and critics treat embodiment and simulated bodily presence as the core unit of user interaction,4 but the depiction of animate and inanimate human bodies is also a key element in the psychodynamics of the gaze in digital and media environments. The CSI formula almost always begins with a (dead) body, and the remainder of the episode usually depicts the process of reading that ruined body for the traces of deviance which led to the victim’s death. In symbolic terms, this is a profound and systematic association of criminal pathology with visuality, and the dominating gaze aesthetic of the formula relies on this organization to assert an authoritative presence for the gazing subject-supposed-to-know – in this case, the punitive authority of the state. In that sense, the basic element of the CSI formula reverses Lacan’s critique of the relationship between the analyst and the analysand and performs the kind of ego-criticism Lacan opposes.5 By being looked at, ruined corpses appears to lose all possibility of subjectivity, at the same time reinforcing the investigators’ (and, vicariously, the viewers’) subjectivity and ego-mastery. Bodies as symbolic presences, therefore, can become complex signifiers of desire and Otherness.

Prior approaches to psychoanalysis in video games6 treat the complex figure of the avatar (the virtual embodiment of the player) as the site of uncanny presence, but in games which do not depict an on-screen avatar, the implied invisible avatar is perhaps an even better demonstration of the domain of the gaze in constituting subjectivity. In many FPS games, the player character’s body is limited to appendages visible only in the constrained peripheral vision of the screen. Other games like Three Dimensions of Murder utilize a first-person perspective with no visible trace of the body. The non-player characters (NPCs) speak to the player by addressing a point in space, and the player can only interact with the world by way of selecting tools or snippets of dialogue from menus. Even in these instances, the player’s agency is generally not tied to manipulating simulated objects, and the tools available to her essentially amount to extensions of decision making. In other words, the viewer’s role within the diegesis of the game is to occupy a perspective and she effects change in that diegesis by way of powers of selection.

penetrated bodies and the CSI shot

The bodies which do appear in the game are graphic depictions of the various victims, but even these are most important as nodes around which information related to the case collects. In considering whether the gendering of the gaze is an appropriate approach to video game analysis, Carr rightly questions whether Lara Croft, an “image of digital conception,” is sufficiently “sexed” to invoke the cycles of representation (phallocentrism, castration anxiety) that Laura Mulvey has discussed, and in the case of the digital bodies within the Three Dimensions of Murder, that would also seem to be a valid question. Carr concludes that Lara’s body is primarily a cipher for these kinds of formalized desire, but in the CSI games, the bodies of the fellow investigators become uncannily spectral traces of subjectivity. The adventure game formula means that much of the time one spends playing the game will be occupied by deciding what to do, and during these pauses, the non-playing characters simply stare back at the player, waiting for input. The investigators are not supposed to be the objects of the player’s gaze, but the fact that they continually return the gaze (rarely breaking eye contact) establishes an awkward subject-object relationship between player and character. Whereas as the dominant visual model of CSI might be considered, in Lacanian terms, sadistic, the returned gaze reverses these symbolic roles. The player examines the ruined corpses of victims, ostensibly treating them as evidentiary objects, and the medical examiner, Dr. Robbins, invites the player to examine interior signs of trauma. This invitation initiates a cut scene depicting a typical “CSI shot” sequence where the point of view appears to penetrate the victim’s body and bear witness to the violence which killed them (figure 3). These sequences are typically gory, but what is uncanny about them is that the penetrated bodies appear to be living even as the camera’s point of view is inside the body. Within the game, these cut scenes are pre-rendered effects sequences (possibly physical effects), so they are additionally uncanny in that they suddenly and dramatically increase the amount of visual detail exposed to the player. At the conclusion of these cut-scenes, the player returns to the examination room to find herself the subject of Dr. Robbins gaze (figure 4). Since Dr. Robbins is apparently the possessor of the same gaze which just coincided with the objective camera’s interior view of the body, it is reasonably unsettling to find oneself then the subject of Dr. Robbin’s penetrating gaze.

Figure 3. The interior of a victim’s body in a typical CSI shot. This image is from episode 6.21, “Rashomama.” Image © 2006 CBS.

the uncanny gaze of the other


Figure 4. Dr. Robbins returning the gaze, usurping the position of the other.

The viewer, therefore, becomes subject to the vector of desire in Lacan’s graph.7 Dr. Robbins in this moment usurps the position of barred subject and reverses the vector of desire back on the user who is accordingly transfixed in the a priori intense spectatorship Dr. Robbins pantomimes. Throughout these interactions, therefore, the digital representation of Dr. Robbins still hovers uncannily between subject and object. This duality is even more obvious in the character rendering for earlier games in the series. Figure 5 shows an enlargement of the digital portrayal of Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) from the game CSI: Dark Motives (Ubisoft / 369 Interactive, 2004).

bodies refracted, dissected, reflected

Figure 5. Catherine Willows (left) as depicted in
CSI: Dark Motives, and (right) in detail. Notice the vertical “crack” that divides her face into two symmetrical halves. This is probably the result of the (pre-rendering) 3D engine taking a shortcut by reflecting an image for half of her face bilaterally across a vertical axis.

In this example, one can just make out a visible crack dividing her body into bilateral halves. This incision is an artifact of the 3D rendering process used by 369, but it conveniently and ironically demonstrates the dual nature of digital bodies as both subjects of the viewer’s gaze and enactors of objectivity through the domain of their own gaze.

In “A Night at the Movies,” the relations among bodies and their being visible demonstrate the unique psychic and symbolic dynamics of the televisual gaze. The specific kind of gaze offered in the CSI shot is an example of what I am calling a surgical gaze. A surgical gaze is a specific and brief transformation of the camera’s point of view into a zoom effect that performs the subjectivity an endoscopic camera, and it can be seen in other television shows, primarily medical dramas like House. This is a characteristic feature of the CSI: shows, and it appears in some form in practically every episode. For example, in the episode, “Rashomama,” Dr. Robbins explains the victim’s cause of death to Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda). As Dr. Robbins narrates the sequence, the camera appears to enter the skull fragment, now reconstituted with flesh and blood, and the audience witnesses a subdural hematoma in action, the result of a puncture wound which we may imagine has been inflicted by the camera itself. In other words, the camera offers a subjective point of view that coincides with the sharp object that punctures the victims body. In this way, the camera or point of view performs a visceral, visual dissection of the body instead of inserting a temporal cut (as in a montage) or a spatial cut (as in averting the gaze of the camera while viscera are laid bare to the expert’s view). By refusing to relinquish its subjectivity, the surgical gaze cuts the body both literally and symbolically.

the surgical gaze

It is important to identify this element as perhaps the chief visual style that characterizes the series; producer Anthony Zuiker even describes what he calls the “CSI shot” as the birth of the series (Zuiker, qtd. in Tait 2006) and that through this surgical view on the body, CSI: is the “first cop show that actually went below the belt, to actually look into forensic science” (Zuiker 2006). The figure of speech, “below the belt,” here takes on a double meaning: the gore and the spectacle of the effects sequence produce a visceral reaction in the audience, and the gore is itself often literally a depiction of viscera. The probative nature of the endoscopic type of seeing described by Zuiker and its importance in the formula of spectacle on CSI: conceives the human body in a way that shares some characteristics with the horror genre. Tait, for example, concludes that CSI:’s approach to gore specifically aligns it with the Gothic Horror tradition (Tait 2006). Alternatively, the inclusion of gore through the use of futuristic or fictional technologies might also align the surgical gaze most clearly with the concerns of science fiction.8 CSI: is, above all, a crime drama, but what these generic associations with horror and science fiction tell us is that, like horror and science fiction, CSI: emphasizes spectacle at the occasional expense of narrative. In exploring the relationship between the horror and science fiction genres, Vivian Sobchack concludes in Screening Space that while their differences are largely moral, psychological, or social, they employ similar visual surfaces and similarly require their audiences to accept as plausible certain re-imaginings of reality (Sobchack 1997). Moreover, the emphasis on and movement between surfaces and interiors is typical of the contemporary, digitally based culture of the image, which Andrew Darley (borrowing from Baudrillard) labels “hyperreal” (Darley 2000).

The examples of surgical gaze are technically flashbacks, and as such they display a grainy texture that is similar to the equally grainy narrative flashbacks. But both the surgical gaze and the reconstructive flashbacks possess a sense of immediacy; both the surgical gaze and the flashback construct a representation of reality that was previously invisible, and granting the viewer the authority to view these subjects appears to place her vicariously in the position of the Other. More importantly, however, the surgical gaze violates the continuity of the body in deference to the continuity of the camera’s unblinking gaze. By emphasizing gore, these moments of invasive gazing communicate a key idea that undermines the domain of the Other in the surgical gaze. Second, the surgical gaze demonstrates that even the innermost realms of our bodies can potentially be transformed into visual information.

This process is akin to how Žižek explains Lacan’s inversion of the sadistic formula in “perverse viewing.” Whereas in the usual understanding of sadism, “the ‘sadist pervert’ assumes the position of an absolute subject usurping the right to enjoy … the body of the other,” Lacan reverses this by arguing that the sadist’s real act of perversion is making himself the object-instrument of the Other, the “executor of some radically heterogeneous will” (Žižek 1992). In other words, the transgressive act which occurs in CSI:’s surgical gaze is the viewer’s complicity in allowing her view to coincide with the big Other as it performs the splitting of its other (the victim). Furthermore, if CSI: can be considered gorenography, then Žižek’s discussion of pornography seems equally appropriate. The formal structure of pornography is such that it presupposes an a priori perversity on the part of the viewer. The gaze, therefore, looks outward at the viewer. Petra Kuppers makes this argument in discussing the affect of exhibitions of human anatomy. The bodies that have been thus exposed “[…] are prodded into giving up their visual secrets and rendering up to the spectator their truth, only to throw back at the inquirer her or his own materiality, the treacherous distance between signifier and signified, the living thickness of vision itself” (Žižek 1992).

the deferred gaze

In the preceding discussion, I have deliberately avoided mentioning the CSI shot in relation to Three Dimensions of Murder because, even though the game’s first-person perspective normalizes the concomitance of the viewer’s point of view with the Other’s (the NPCs address the “you” of the game as a new CSI recruit), the game breaks away from the player’s agency for these sequences. The only occurrence of CSI shots are in cut-scenes voiced over by NPCs, and the player’s agency is temporarily suspended. This is an ironic reversal of the suspension that occurs in the show when the subjective CSI shot replaces objective establishing shots. What is frustrating about this suspension in the game, moreover, is that it withholds the agency that normalizes the first person gaze in video games.

Sue Morris has discussed how the FPS updates gaze theory in terms of the video game apparatus: “If film has ‘the gaze’ and television has the viewer’s ‘glance’ [Flitterman-Lewis, 1992: 217], then FPS games have the penetrating ‘stare’” (Morris 2002). What is significant about this stare is its penetration because it breaks the boundary of the screen to enable the viewer to perform actions with consequences in the diegesis of the game. Alexander Galloway argues that the subjective perspective in video games normalizes “diegetic operator acts” for the same reasons that it (the subjective shot) is disconcerting or alienating when used in cinema:

The subjective camera is largely marginalized in filmmaking and used primarily to effect a sense of alienated, disoriented, or predatory vision. Yet with the advent of video games, a new set of possibilities were opened up for the subjective shot. In games the first-person perspective is not marginalized but instead is commonly used to achieve an intuitive sense of affective motion. (Galloway 2006)

Not only does Three Dimensions of Murder fail to engage its players by not offering actionable CSI shots, it also fails to offer meaningful responses when actionable space is depicted. With its touted 3D engine, the game innovates on its predecessors by allowing the player to move the perspective around a three dimensional crime-scene. These movements, however, are constrained along a narrow track, and the only opportunity for moving through the space comes when the player focuses on a particular object or segment in a room. The movement between each perspective is abrupt, similar to a filmic cut, so the space need not be continuous. In terms of how the player can interact with it, a crime scene might as well be a series of still images. Similarly, the NPCs spend most of the game waiting for input, which along with their addressing a seeing point in space (the game’s “camera” and the player’s point of view) suggests that an excess of bodily presence along with a lack of identification dooms Three Dimensions of Murder to mediocrity. This criticism also may be true of the innovative but (in terms of audience reception) equally mediocre film Lady in the Lake (1947) which is shot almost entirely in a subject, first-person point of view.

Video game scholars, including Galloway, have written frequently about Lady in the Lake in relation to games, and most attribute its failure to the unconventional camera technique. Galloway, in the section quoted above, makes this failure his primary example in contrasting filmic vision with video games, but another reason why Lady in the Lake failed commercially aligns it with the failures of Three Dimensions of Murder. Both texts feature long unbroken “shots” or scenes where not much is changing in the camera’s field of vision. Even Audrey Totter’s dynamic performance as the femme fatale in Lady in the Lake fails to overcome completely the sense that she is waiting for Marlowe to stop speaking (figure 6). Audiences surely found it difficult to identify with Robert Montgomery’s Marlow because he is so rarely visible on the screen. When he is, as in a handful of scenes where he appears in mirrors, the physical Montgomery feels like an awkward intrusion on the subjectivity of the seeing Marlowe whose perspective we share (figure 7). Significantly, Montgomery is also the film’s director, so his presence as actor also creates an odd sense of doubling and irrupture into the established symbolic order where “we” are Marlowe.9 Since Marlow requires a reflective surface to appear bodily, one could well draw connections to Lacan’s discussion of the mirror stage, but as Galloway points out, the major disconnect occurs in the rupture or lack that obtains in the failure to connect the camera’s subjectivity with a human body. As in Three Dimensions of Murder, the spectator occupies a position of empty space, and when the actors and NPCs focus their gaze on this disembodied point of view, the viewer or player is disturbed (or at least distracted) to find themselves addressed as the Other. In these two examples, the camera becomes the object that uncannily stares back at the actors or digital puppets, and audiences have understandably found this to be an awkward position to occupy.

Figure 6. Derace Kingsby and Adrienne Fromsett listening to Marlowe, waiting to react. Image © 1947 MGM.

Figure 7. Philip Marlowe’s body only appears on-screen when directly addressing the audience or (as in this example) when he is conducting dialogue conveniently near a mirror. In both cases, his presence co-exists uncomfortably with the subjective camera that normally embodies his diegetic presence. Image © 1947 MGM.

Žižek cites the presence of an inaccessible gaze emanating from an uncanny object to be the lynchpin or organizing principle in Hitchockian suspense. In Strangers on a Train (which bears the influence of Raymond Chandler – Chandler wrote the novel that Lady in the Lake is based on and collaborated on the screenplay for Strangers on a Train), the most famous of these occurs in the well-known scene at the tennis club. Guy Haines scans the crowd of onlookers, most of whom move their heads back and forth to follow the ball, and quickly fixes his attention on the one figure in the crowd who is not following the ball but is already gazing intently back at Haines and (because we share Haines’ subjective viewpoint in this shot) back at us (figure 8).

the sticking point

Figure 8. Among a crowd of onlookers at a tennis match, the point which sticks out is Bruno Anthony staring intently back at the camera. Image © 1951 Warner Bros.

In this case, the psychotic Bruno Anthony is the uncanny “sticking point” or thing which refuses to allow the audience access to his point of view. This is an important construction in Hitchock’s approach to suspense where, as Žižek notes,

In Hitchcockian montage, two kinds of shots are thus permitted and two forbidden. Permitted are the objective shot of the person approaching a Thing and the subjective shot presenting the Thing as the person sees it. Forbidden are the objective shot of the Thing, of the “uncanny” object, and – above all – the subjective shot of the approaching person from the perspective of the “uncanny” object itself.(Žižek 1992)

Strangers on a Train does demonstrate several scenes which follow this formula, but “forbidden” is a rather strong word, and either this film is not the best example of this formal structure, or Žižek does not seem to be correct that the subjective view from the uncanny object is always absolutely forbidden. In the scene immediately following the tennis court, we share Anthony’s perspective as he gazes at the equally fixated Barbara Morton (Patricia Hitchcock), the sister of Haines’s love interest (figure 9).

Figure 9. Barbara Morton is equally transfixed to find herself the subject of Anthony’s fixated gaze. Image © 1951 Warner Bros.

Anthony is fixated on Barbara’s resemblance to Miriam Haines, the woman he has already murdered, so if Anthony is unnerved by this uncanny double, perhaps he is meant to be an equally sympathetic subject. Barbara’s main resemblance to Miriam is that she too wears thick glasses like the ones which bore witness to Miriam’s murder. So on the one hand, Barbara’s glasses further the theme of doubling (two lenses) that pervades the film, but they also call to mind another scene where we are almost allowed access to Anthony’s point of view. We see Miriam approach from a point of view near Anthony’s perspective as he prepares to strangle her, and his extended arm even appears briefly in the frame (figure 10) similarly to Marlowe’s extended arm in Lady in the Lake.

gazing through the sticking point

Figure 10. Barbara’s fixed gaze echoes this earlier scene. Though this is not a pure subjective shot, the camera’s point of view is close enough to Anthony that his extended hand is in the foreground of our vision. Image © 1951 Warner Bros.

Anthony appears to imagine that the flame from the lighter reflected in Miriam’s glasses is, furthermore, repeated in Barbara’s glasses, (figure 11) but the meaning of the apparition is ambiguous. Anthony may be feeling guilt over the memory, or he may be relishing the control he felt. He is, after all, psychotic (according to the film’s trailer), so this moment where we access his point of view is an uncharacteristic moment for a Hitchcock film. If anything, its ambiguity may itself be uncanny, and the fact that Barbara appears equally fascinated with Anthony’s psychotic interest may reinforce her status as a sticking point, but the glasses which serve as the fulcrum of this moment also act as a figure for a meta-fictional commentary on the apparatus of cinema.

double screen, dual frame

Figure 11. Barbara with flames. Since this subjective shot coincides Anthony’s point of view, we are seeing him recall the lighter reflected in Miriam’s glasses. Barbara and the lighter have now both become the uncanny object or sticking point. Image © 1951 Warner Bros.

Barbara is literally meeting the camera’s gaze, and, like the camera, stares at the other through a tainted lens. The other texts I have been discussing also deploy transparent surfaces and screens as means for self-reflexivity.

double screen, double grain

The “First-Person Shooter” mission in Three Dimensions of Murder opens in the demo booth for the game GutWrench III, and one of the locations players can zoom into is a close view of a monitor depicting the game (figure 12). The image is grainy because it simulates a much lower resolution in relation to the actual game, and it depicts an unimpressive room which the demo booth is a simulation of. The details of GutWrench III are somewhat difficult to make out, but in the simulated screen image, there may be a small figure who, at that resolution, bears some resemblance to Halo’s main character, the Master Chief (figure 13). If this is indeed him (or a figure at all), it is staring back at the imaginary player, but unlike the NPCs who address an imaginary point in space, this NPC in GutWrench III focuses its gaze on an imaginary point within its diegesis that vicariously address the CSI: game’s player-character as a subjective, embodied other.

Figure 12. GutWrench III screenshot, doubly framed by the simulated monitor and the CSI game’s heads-up display. Image © 2006 Ubisoft, Inc.

Figure 13. Is this supposed to be the Master Chief? Images © Ubisoft and Microsoft / Bungie.

The conclusion of “A Night at the Movies,” my final illustration, also demonstrates a similar idea of framed screening, and as such exposes the medial layering that ultimately characterizes the episodes pastiche. The scene also performs a rupture of these layers that, like the flames in Barbara’s glasses, destabilize the established symbolic order thus far present in the episode.

The sequence inter-cuts among three temporal moments, three distinct “nows” or diegeses which are combined into a single montage. In the first moment, Kevin McCallum (Charlie Hofheimer) the brother of the victim, explains to a detective what happened in the warehouse. This confession serves as the narration for the sequence, and describes the group of boys deciding to imitate the kinds of stunts they had seen in movies like Jackass (2002). The second diegesis is the standard reconstruction montage – slow motion, grainy video footage of the crime as it happened; this montage is marked as distant in time through both visual and auditory signifiers in that the images are less distinct than those in the “real” world of the episode and the flashback’s audio contains a slight echo effect. The final diegesis in the sequence is actually split further into two separate spaces which eventually merge and then move back apart. These are the footage itself and the investigators Sidle, Brown, and Stokes in a darkened screening room viewing the boys’ footage. As this doubled diegesis progresses, the camera moves from an establishing shot including the CSIs backs, to a closer view of the screen where the investigators faces are still visible as reflections on a monitor, (figure 14) until finally the image on the monitor overwhelms and replaces the diegesis it is embedded in and the traces of the monitor disappear altogether.

reflecting the forensic gaze

Figure 14. The CSIs’ reflections as they view the boys’ footage highlights the surface that separates the two diegetic moments. Image © 2003 CBS.

Throughout this sequence, it is not clear how the three moments relate temporally to one another, but they each unfold the same event its original order: the boys perform a series of dangerous stunts, culminating in Timmy McCallum’s (Erik Smith) idea. They acquire an automatic machine gun, find an empty warehouse, and rig the weapon to fire continually as it spins around a pole in the center of the room. Other than a few reaction shots of the investigators, the final segment of the montage switches back and forth between the footage recovered from the boys camera (figure 15) and the reconstruction flashback (figure 16). The two are quite similar, and are mainly distinguishable through the use of slow motion in the reconstruction. The video is noticeably sharper and employs more visual contrast, but they both demonstrate a grainy texture. Eventually, the two overlap in such a way that users on the Internet Movie Database ( list as a continuity error (“Goofs”). The investigators have been led to seek out this video tape after discovering the shattered glass of a camera lens at the crime scene. The lens was destroyed by a stray bullet, and we witness this moment of destruction take place within the reconstruction montage. The montage concludes with Timmy McCallum being shot in the chest and closes with video footage of the fatal gunshot wound even though it occurs after the camera has already been destroyed.

double screen, fractured diegesis

Figure 15. A frame from the reconstruction flash back. Note the boy in the center with the camera. The blur on the right is victim Timmy McCallum. Image © CBS.

Figure 16. The footage from the boy’s camera. Notice the grainy texture similar to the reconstruction montage (figure 15), but note that the video footage has a closer grain and higher contrast. Image © 2003 CBS.

On the subject of graininess, Jon Dovey notes that, perhaps through the influence of reality television, the grainy quality of video footage has become a curious signifier of immediacy, possibly because of its association with closed circuit television or security footage. Even though it interrupts and interferes with the fidelity and continuity of the image, “low grade video image has become the privileged form of TV ‘truth telling’, signifying authenticity and an indexical reproduction of the real world” (Dovey 2000). The reconstruction flashbacks borrow some of this aesthetic, but when paired with an actual video artifact, the stylized reconstruction gives way to the real thing, even after it destroys the technology that warrants the latter’s existence at all.

Metaphorically, when the camera lens breaks, it parallels the rupture of continuity that allows a temporal overlap between the video footage diegesis and the reconstruction flashback, and because the diegetic irruption exposes the medial layering of the montage, it establishes material connections with the other texts in this discussion. Taken together, these texts and their coalescences around moments of materiality define what I here take to be metamateriality. That is, in each of these examples and moments, some factor of material influence comments on materiality or metaphorizes (through materiality) an aspect of the psychical structure of the text. As a psychoanalytic concept, metamateriality can hopefully contribute to the ongoing development of critical video game studies, especially as video games play a role in complex networks of cross-genre pastiche and homage.


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1 A reviewer on notes that the game is not likely to impress fans of the adventure genre, and also isn’t likely to convert the show’s non-gaming audience into gamers. (

2 The user who contributed this information also chose to remain anonymous (

3 One hurdle to such a totalizing argument is the fact that dozens of different directors, including Quentin Tarantino, have taken the helm on CSI: episodes. Some episodes are overtly experimental, stylized or self-reflective.

4 I am thinking in particular of the books by N. Katherine Hayles (How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, 1999) and Mark B.N. Hansen New Philosophy for New Media, 2004).

5 Arguing against incorrect applications of Freudian ideas is a constant theme in Lacan’s seminars. The so-called ego-psychologists approach analysis through the ego-mastery of the analyst; she then seeks to transfer this mastery to the analysand in the course of the session.

6 See Bob Rehak and Diane Carr, for example.

7 Lacan’s diagram of the graph of desire (pictured below) depicts the process by which signification occurs at the expense of the subject’s dominion over the symbolic order.


[graph from Écrits: A Selection, translated by Bruce Fink, pg. 291]

Here, the long curved line (∆→$)corresponds to the vector of desire, and the shorter line (S→S’) depicts the signifying chain. I am proposing that in the encounter with Dr. Robbins, Robbins occupies the $ position, and we the viewer, by returning Robbins’ gaze, play the role of the Other. The SS→S’ vector becomes the signifying chain of mediation.

8 Much of the criticism of the so-called, “CSI Effect,” cites CSI:’s use of fictional technology for influencing public knowledge about forensic science and its reliability for determining guilt. (See Tyler, “Viewing CSI: and the Threshold of Guilt” and Gever, “The Spectacle of Crime, Digitized,” for example). Also, CSI: received a Saturn award in 2003 for Best Television Series. The Saturn awards are given annually by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror films to recognize achievement in those genres, and CSI: tied that year with the similarly genre-defying Angel (

9 The advertising for Lady in the Lake loudly declares (along with claiming that it is the greatest revolution in film making since sound) that “YOU and ROBERT MONTGOMERY solve a murder mystery together!,” but since Marlowe occasionally addresses the audience in second person, it seems more like we are inside his head, along for the ride. Like Three Dimensions of Murder, there is little the audience can do in Lady in the Lake to effect action within the fictional diegesis.

Author Bio

Zach Whalen is completing his PhD in English at the University of Florida and in Fall 2008 will join the faculty of The University of Mary Washington as Assistant Professor in New Media Studies. His research focuses on videogames, and he is currently completing a book-length project on videogame typography and textuality. With Laurie N. Taylor, Whalen is co-editor of the collection Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Videogames which will be published in 2008 by Vanderbilt University Press. Whalen is the founder and editor of and currently serves as Production Editor of ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies.

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