To inaugurate my page dedicated to film, I have decided to make use of material generated during a writing exercise undertaken in a graduate film class I participated in. The professor, who was one of the most excellent teachers I have ever had, expected quite a bit from the students, including weekly reports on shots or scenes from the films we worked with. The idea was first to describe the shot, scene, moment or detail being analyzed in one paragraph and then to consider the way it affected you as a viewer and/or explain its significance in the wider context of the film in a second paragraph. To that end, you will occasionally notice numbers in brackets that correspond with the timestamp in the film—you should be able to use your DVD player to quickly find the scene I am writing about. If you are watching one of these films on Netflix, I’m not sure if the time-stamping corresponds, I’ll look into it (this last could prove to be a lie).
If you haven’t seen the film in question, or don’t like the idea of parsing a work of art into its component parts, this section might not be for you…but for those who have seen these films before, I am curious to know what you think about my interpretations and how you feel about these films or the ideas raised here. I might also use a modified form of this technique to explore other films on this blog in the future. I find this kind of writing far more interesting than the standard film review format.
Some Notes on Films
Just after Henrik makes a garden analogy (with potential sexual implications at about 19:53) about Anna’s acting, the theatre director invites her to sit next to him on the chaise. The scene I would like to discuss starts with a close-up shot of Henrik gently gripping Anna’s elbow (20:17). He says “On second thoughts, you weren’t wearing a bracelet this morning”, holding her at that moment physically, but mostly with the force of his implication. Anna sits away from Henrik on a hard chair. Here the actors seem framed in such a way as to imply a vast distance between them. Quick close ups and cut aways of each of the players then lead in to a shot of Henrik. The camera follows his left hand as it rolls out to fill the empty space between them. His beckoning finger seems to echo his words: “come closer”, he says. Henrik then jokes about being the wolf to Anna’s red riding hood, an apt comparison given Anna’s youth, his age, their attire and the circumstances of the situation. Anna hesitates, but smiles coyly and plays along. When she moves to sit next to Henrik, the camera is angled so as to bring Anna’s face in line with and very close to Henrik’s, as though she could be leaning in to kiss him (20:49). This is a tense moment. Anna does sit close, despite the chaise seeming to invite its occupants to a comforting experience next to each arm. Though the scene continues on, the moment I would like to focus on is between 20:50 and 20:56, when Henrik reaches out to touch Anna’s hair, a gesture that is loaded with both desire and restraint.
This scene really unlocks the emotional punch of the film for me. Henrik’s careful hand movement is a subtle way to reveal his character’s fallibility and makes him infinitely more likeable than any of his clever monologues. Anna too is vulnerable in the moment when she is “called out” by Henrik because she is not really there for a lost bracelet. Anna’s vulnerability is strengthened in the later scene of reminiscence, when Anna is replaced by her younger self during Rakel’s haunting visit. This scene also creates a rift for me in how I see the relationship between Henrik and Anna. While Henrik’s gripping Anna’s elbow and his beckoning finger are the powerful and perhaps even threatening actions of sexual desire, the restrained hand gesture when he almost strokes her hair shows his wisdom and perhaps even fatherly nature. Later, when we learn that Henrik had a long history with Anna’s mother, I think the implication might be that if he is not her paternal father, he is nevertheless too close to that role to become her lover. Ultimately this scene helps me to understand the important conversation about the affair that can never happen between Henrik and Anna. Henrik’s reminiscence of Rakel takes on that much more significance for me when I understand that Anna now recalls not only that painful time of Rakel’s alcoholism and decline, but Henrik’s hidden memories of a happy time with Rakel that are not shown to us.
In Our Town, there is a shot directly following the fantastic and funny breakfast scene between George and Mr. Webb. This transition moment comes at 1:03:08 and runs to 1:04:52. The shot follows a flustered Mr. Webb, who rises from his chair to express his state of nervous uncertainty about the process of giving his soon to be son in law marriage advice. As Mr. and Mrs. Webb hurry away up the stairs, we see the stage manager reclined, half in shadows, mostly off-stage. He is sitting in a chair that on the one hand could be a director’s chair and on the other just a comfortable reading chair. The camera, not breaking the shot, zooms in to focus on his face. He is here not merely a spectator, but perhaps a voyeur, watching from a secret place. As the camera approaches, the stage manager rises and puts down what appears to be the town newspaper, while simultaneously verbally calling attention to his intrusion into this moment of the play by saying “Now I have to interrupt here, again”. The camera follows him as he rises and walks across the stage, discussing the gravity of how “big things” like marriage get started. This short shot introduces us to a really crucial private moment that occurs between George and Emily.
This shot momentarily breaks that “fourth wall” between me and between the players. As I re-watch this scene I recognize that by continually playing with the idea of the fourth wall, the stage manager forces me (while I am engrossed in the film of the play) to forget that I am watching a film and remain absorbed in it. I think that the long shot that transitions through the movement of the Webb’s to that of the stage manager, is designed to slightly rest my powers of attention to the play without forcing me to abandon them. In terms of the way the stage manager is framed as slightly voyeuristic or at the least secretive, this temporarily increases my own recognition of my nature as a spectator. But, as above, rather than thinking about myself sitting on my couch at home, I temporarily imagine myself in the wings of the stage, or watching the characters from behind one of the imaginary set pieces. This becomes really important given the context of the scene that we are being transitioned into. The scene that follows takes place between George and Emily as they struggle for privacy and also involves the stage manager playing the minor character of Mr. Morgan. I think that I am more affected by the conversation that takes place because of the way the previous shot has confused me as to the reality and role of the stage manager, and, through his address to me, perhaps my own role. Am I spying on these people as they discuss their love? If so, I momentarily forget myself and feel fully engrossed in their conversation. I can almost see the strawberry ice cream sodas, no matter how “theatrical” it seems to watch George eating his.
The scene takes place in the drawing room of the house, directly after Helena promises she will inquire as to the affections of the Doctor. Sonia leaves, upset. The camera angle changes from a wider view of the two women to a close up of Julianne Moore and what I expected to be spoken as a monologue (as I envisioned when reading the play), is instead inserted by voice over. As Moore’s voice recites the lines, her facial expressions and subtle movements fit very well with the monologue. She half shakes her head, squints her eyes as though considering a difficult thought and even at the precise moment that the voice over says, in exasperation “Oh, God”, Moore’s hand moves to cover her face, fingers splayed out just below the eyes. (This scene takes place about 1:10).
This scene really resonated with me in terms of our class discussions about theatricality and film because I couldn’t help but think of the audience that Louis Malle has gathered to watch the play. As contrived even as the fact of the audience could be, my understanding is that they are not hearing the words that I am, which presumably have been added in later as a voiceover. This complicates the presentation of the material and is the moment for me where the two mediums bleed one into the other. Here Julianne Moore is working with enough nuance to show that her character is in internal anguish and mulling an important decision. The audience could have copies of the script and read the lines at this moment, but it is more likely that they would be given to understand that the lines would be recorded later. At this moment they would be as conscious of the performance in front of them as a work on film — by having to consider what future viewers would hear at this moment — as I am of the work in front of me as a theatrical performance with an audience. Just as the audience members might consider the film for its possibly limitless capacity to speak to people in the future, with space completely undefined, I must consider the limits that are implied by the distance between these people and Moore and the access they are not given to this monologue, despite their physical proximity to the performance.
The scene I would like to discuss here is the classroom scene that takes place near the end of the film (1:39). Richard is in class, tired, upset and distracted by the events that have transpired, particularly after having been fired by Welles. The class are covering some criticism about Julius Caesar when the professor notices that Richard is not paying attention. The camera sweeps back from the professor in a widening shot that reaffirms the atmosphere of the classroom as unified, except for Richard. The students are for the most part, paying attention to the professor, out of interest in the discussion, or perhaps fear of being called on to answer. The professor of course, asks Richard to answer, as the camera has swept back to reveal him still staring out the window. This effect of the camera moving seems designed to equate our gaze with that of the professor. Having spent a good deal of time with Richard throughout the film, we may be wary of his level of distraction, and concerned that at this moment, he will be caught out for not being prepared, which is of course, every students’ natural daily nightmare. Richard proceeds to recite, in answer, Caesar’s speech to Mark Anthony, to the astonishment of the class.
This scene had a really powerful effect on me, as I found myself considering the nature of the material of Julius Caesar itself as something that was meant to be performed and felt — perhaps not only analyzed and debated — at least in order to resonate with the many and not the few. This is underscored for me by the looks of amazement and absorption on the faces of the students and also the professor, looks that moments ago would have been out of place in the average classroom. Linklater handles this scene really well, dragging the effect out for maximum impact by having the professor immediately approve, in the standard way, the answer as being correct. After reciting only the first lines: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous”, we are shown the surprised faces of several students and rewarded a small approving nod by the professor, who says “excellent” as a means to move forward, disappointed in not having embarrassed Richard for his inattention. And then, to the surprise of the professor and students, Richard continues, enthralling the class with his theatricality and reminding them all of the simple power of the play itself. This is interesting to me further given the content of the speech itself, which admonishes the fact that Cassius loves not plays and music. When the students clap for Richard, this makes me consider that his tryst with the theatre company has had a truly lasting effect on his life.
The scene I will discuss is the dinner and wine shared by Lisa and Jeff that begins about 19 minutes into the film and runs approximately ten minutes. Within that time period, we are alternatively exposed to the inner workings of Jeff and Lisa’s relationship and the private lives of the tenants Jeff has grown accustomed to watching across the courtyard. Specifically, I will focus on the presentation of Ms. LonelyHearts and especially Jeff’s reactions to her movements and predicament as they are juxtaposed with his relationship to Lisa. Jeff derides Lisa’s trite conversation with a feigned interest (which he makes apparent through his theatrically positive response to her comment about Italian leather) and the couple then bicker mildly about their potential future together. This scene establishes Lisa as a dreamer and slightly superficial, and Jeff as a realist and disdainful of material goods. Lisa dreams of him looking “very handsome and successful in a dark blue flannel suit”, and Jeff’s response to this is: “let’s stop talking nonsense, shall we?”
After Lisa moves off, annoyed, to get dinner ready, we see Jeff look out across the courtyard. In order to closely align our perspective with Jeff’s, the camera first settles on the apartment directly across from his, where a woman is sitting in bed, eating something, likely ice cream (a lonely and private image). Jeff’s eyes (the Camera substituting for his gaze) are drawn to the lower apartment of Miss Lonelyhearts, who is bustling about, preparing for dinner. The strains of “To See You Is To Love You” sung by Bing Crosby, increase in volume as Jeff’s gaze settles on the woman. A quick cut back to Jeff confirms for us that here before us is a scene in which he has a deep interest. A slight nod of familiarity as his head bobs up, and a subtle arching of the eyebrows shows us that Jeff is more emotionally engaged to the plight of Miss Lonelyhearts than he might be to his relationship with Lisa. There is a quick cut and then the camera swivels to follow Miss Lonelyheart’s movements throughout the apartment, which confirm for us Jeff’s focus on her. As she moves to light the candle and open the wine, another quick cut shows that Jeff is leaning forward, deeply interested, while Lisa, busy in the background preparing their own romantic dinner, is more or less ignored. Another cut back, and via some measure of stage theatricality that is necessary due to our distance, we see Miss Lonelyhearts hear a knock at the door. This is achieved by the actress coming to sudden attention and placing a gripped fist of anticipation and anxiety on her breast, before moving to the door to welcome her lover. We then quickly learn, through the same exaggerated motions, that the lover is invisible. More cuts to Jeff’s face imply that he feels some measure of sympathy for her lonely condition and when he raises a glass in toast to her, the intended emotional impact of the entire scene becomes apparent, as we realize that Jeff and Lisa did not clink glasses or toast in the same fashion.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
After the confrontation between the Priest and the Count, during which the Count says that he does not approve of “the habits” of the Priest and is concerned about their negative influence on the parish, there is a scene that begins with the Priest banging on the tapestries or wall hangings of the church. He has brought them outside to clean them and has them hanging about the yard. He is walking amongst them, smacking them with a stick to free them of dust. The camera focuses on the face of the Priest against the backdrop of the heavy cloth. We see from the Priest’s facial expression, one of deep concern, that the words of the Count have stayed a long time in his mind. The decision to show the Priest at work performing menial cleaning duties, almost directly after his “habits” were hinted at as being undesirable, seems designed to enhance the Priest’s perplexed mood. He truly doesn’t understand what habits the Count could be referring to, as he spends almost all of his time devoted to visiting and assisting members of his parish. The decision to show him carrying out a menial cleaning task underscores his level of commitment to the parish, as removing dust from these tapestries enhances our impression that the Priest is hard working, clean and diligent. His inability to understand what negative impression the town could have of his behaviour also resonates with the letter the Priest received from the Countess, in which she compared him to a child for his innocence but perhaps also for his naiveté. This short shot of the Priest cleaning the tapestries is then cross faded into a distance shot of him in his study, and the way this is handled and set up seems further designed to clarify for the viewer the way in which the Priest is perceived.
The camera holds within its frame the Priest against the black background of the tapestry. The black is interspersed with small drops of white fabric, and the imagery created is of a lonely man in the darkness of a snowstorm. The fade then introduces the new shot, of the Priest in his study, during a real snowstorm. He is alone and the camera being outside his study window both enhances that loneliness but also invites viewers to becomes voyeuristic, spying on the Priest as he reaches for his bottle of wine (half empty) and pours some into a bowl. This shot should increase the emotional awareness for the viewer of how the Priest is perceived by the village as an alcoholic, (it did for me, in any case). We also have the voice over of Laydu, and the timing of the words he speaks about his long ordeal just beginning remind us of his mysterious sickness and the real reason that he often appears sickly and weak to the people of the village. But because the shot doesn’t break the barrier of the window until it cuts to the words in the journal, we are left with a feeling of sad distance from the Priest, which only serves to enhance his loneliness. This is so unlike the camera work in Rear Window, which works to align our viewpoint with that of Jeff.
The camera, positioned outside in the darkness, follows Octave and Christine as they head out of the manor for a walk. The camera then swings over and draws in close to Marceau and Schumacher, both dejected — they are suddenly enlivened and distracted from their own situation by the potential scandal unfolding in front of them. They decide to follow the couple in their clandestine movement through the grounds. We then become alternately the camera and the bumbling duo that follows them. Once the couple enter the greenhouse, the camera establishes the voyeuristic position of Schumacher and Marceau, who strain to see what exactly is going on inside. When the camera cuts back over to the intimate view of the lovers inside the greenhouse, we still feel the lingering sensation that we are like the peeping men, voyeurs. This is established by positioning the couple still at a slight distance, with the plants and branches poking up into the frame, as though we the viewers are hiding close to the action. When the couple begin to kiss and profess their love for one another, it is clear that what is being enacted is theatrical, at least for Christine. She wants to be kissed by Octave in the way that she had hoped Andre would kiss her. She says “kiss me like a lover”, admonishing Octave for his tentative and reserved attempts.
When Schumacher proclaims he will kill them both, he is blind to the identity of the woman in the greenhouse he assumes in Lisette. His seemingly short memory ignores the presence of Marceau at his side. Marceau of course, had pursued Schumacher’s wife as though she were game in a hunt, even at the risk of his own life, thrilling her and presenting to Lisette a more exciting sexual partner than her husband, the tyrannical and militant Schumacher. This has the effect on the viewer, or at least on me, of helping to reveal one of the themes of the film more fully, that of the likening of the pursuit of sexual partners to the participation in hunting. The film’s long hunting scene, in which most of the party participate in the hunting of rabbits and birds for amusement, underscores this, particularly if we juxtapose the manor house with the hunting grounds and view the rabbits and pheasants dodging in and out of the cover of their nests alongside that of the people moving in and out of rooms within Robert’s manor house, sneaking infidelities while their spouses are distracted. This depiction makes a dramatic comedy of marital relationships in order to impart to us the message that despite vows of love and faithfulness, most marriages are really more like confinements, and to attempt to run from them could be, as with the rabbits, deadly.
There is a scene near the middle of the film, in the second story, when one of the members of Mme. Tellier’s entourage of girls, enters her small private room and begins to undress. The camera is across the room, in the darkness, and the girl Mme. Rosa becomes the focus of the shot and the camera follows her. The dark room helps to show her that much more clearly, and the satin like texture of her clothing and her skin are almost illuminated. She then opens the window and the camera swings in behind her to frame her against the frame of the window looking out t the stars and the country. In this moment, I think that the effect of having her in contemplation of peace and beauty allows —and perhaps suggests to— the viewers that they view Rosa in a similar fashion, as a tranquil being that embodies some form of essentially peace or purity. The narration that breaks in at this point supports this idea. The voice tells us that “the village was wrapped in the boundless, almost religious silence of the countryside, a peaceful penetrating silence that reached to the stars.” In order to convey some impression of the possible intentions of this important middle segment of the film, the camera then fades from Rosa at the window to two of the other girls in the house, who are lying with their heads at perpendicular angles, their faces turned towards the light of a candle in the middle of the room. On of the girls can’t sleep because she has goosebumps all over and is not used to the quiet. This shot conveys the innocence of childhood, as the girls look small in the frame and the candle between them projects a sort of dependency on light, or the smallness and vulnerability of beings in awe of a star.
The way this segment made me feel was that the women are not used to quiet at night, are not used to being in complete possession of their own bodies. They are pure here in the house, as they are like children under the roof of parents. This seems to be supported when another of the girls goes to comfort one of the frightened children. One of the other girls comments on the fact that the “silence is defeaning”, and I think that the silence and quiet of the house here is meant to show that there is a very different kind of pleasure than that which the women normally administer and partake in, and it is a pleasure of the mind, a pleasure that comes with tranquility. In this case we might read the woman’s goosebumps as the shiver or thrill of inner peace. Even the fact that one of the women is not able to stay in bed does not mean that the silence doesn’t give her pleasure, but perhaps only that she is afraid of discovering that there is a different kind of enjoyment in life, that perhaps she has been missing out on, and so she is in denial.
The scene is the moment when the theatre group (for I still think of them this way at this point of the film) are packing their things to leave the rented apartment. Tsao barges in unannounced and catches them in the act of packing, and discovers that they are not who they made themselves out to be. The group are frozen by this knowledge for over a minute, perhaps all of them contemplating the fact that they will now have to unexpectedly kill Tsao, who was only supposed to be a link in the chain to larger prey. The filming of this scene seems crucial to me in the following way: all of the players are inside the main room except for Chia Chi, who is out on the balcony, taking some air. The balcony is separated from the room by a frame filled with glass, allowing Tsao to make a sexual comment about Chia Chi and look right at her at the same time. The camera for the duration of the scene will move back and forth between the inside of the room and the outside balcony. Kuang and the others fight with Tsao when he pulls out his gun and during this desperate battle (that underscores through the strength of Tsao the fact that in the theatre of real life, the group are amateurs), a pane of the window glass shatters and the camera moves in to show us Chia Chi’s startled face and her frightened movement to shield herself from what is happening inside. As the scene progresses, I think it is crucially important to the thematic unity of the film that Chia Chi remains on the balcony when Tsao is being stabbed.
The scene makes me feel most vibrantly the conflation of theatre with life, as the words of the group, spoken earlier in the film, return to haunt the players and views. Kuang had said during the genesis of the plot to kill Yee: “I’m not talking about Theatre…this is about eliminating a life and blood traitor”, to which Liang replies, “What do we know about killing people? Our only experience is on stage.” Kuang tries to end the argument by saying that “When you are faced with a real traitor, the killing will come easily…we should worry about not killing enough. If we die, we will die with no regrets.” And so when it comes time for the killing to take place, we see that killing is not nearly so simple as Kuang had suggested. Chia Chi’s immediate flight from the apartment after Kuang breaks Tsao’s neck is her effort to distance herself from the act, a denial of murder as necessity. Later in the film, what could be seen as the frightened flight of the inexperienced is instead proven to be deeply held conviction within Chia Chi that life is about love and understanding, not about death, betrayal and revenge. Only in this way do I think we can fully understand her love affair and ultimately her loyalty to Yee.
The Scene is the dressing room when Maria is doing her make-up and talking with her maid about her husband and about the young pilot that admires her and always sits near the front to see her act. Maria and Anna start talking about Joseph and Maria asserts that he gets “so upset about little things”. Anna retorts “yeah, like that one in the second row”. Then there is a knock at the door and Stanislav’s request to visit with Maria is delivered. There is a humorous discussion of Stanislav’s “suffering” and Maria’s not even moderately concealed desire to have a clandestine meeting is made apparent. She play acts that she would be ignoring her public by ignoring his request and that this would be disrespectful to her public. Her invitation for Stanislav to join her during Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech and Anna’s response that this is a “safe” idea, are amusing. The scene fades to Maria’s husband preparing to deliver the speech and then after his hasty exit, the scene fades back to the dressing room, where Stanislav pays a quick visit and manages to deliver a seemingly innocuous but fairly dirty innuendo about his sexual prowess: “I can drop 3 tons of dynamite in two minutes. Does that interest you?” he asks Maria. This section of the film is particularly humorous and seemingly light-hearted, but I think that it carries with it an important message.
The relatively quick cutting to bookend the humorous dressing room scenes around Joseph’s attempt to deliver what is one of the most serious speeches in all of Shakespeare is a particularly poignant metafictional moment that is important in how I ultimately felt about this film. This makes me feel that life persists even in the midst of death. For Hamlet is a play all about death, purpose and existential dilemma, but the film has situated this in the midst of romantic tomfoolery to suggest that even amidst horrible events, we must be able to enjoy life and be able to laugh (whether at one another or at ourselves). The metafictional aspect is that the film itself was created precisely in the midst of the worst conflict in global history, itself a testament to this philosophy. Though the actors, film crew and director likely did not have access to all of the information that would be more publicly revealed about the horrors perpetrated on humankind in Eastern Europe during the war, their attempt at levity and their ridicule of the Nazi regime should be applauded, as the wit and style of the film are a testament to the rich artistic film (and theatre) culture of the age, something that was under direct threat from Fascism. I was also stunned to see the young Robert Stack in this film, as I grew up watching Unsolved Mysteries with my brothers, and didn’t realize he had started so early as a comedic actor.
There is a really astounding scene in the film, when the theatre “friends” all end up sitting on the staircase towards the end of Margo’s party. The scene begins right at 56:30 with Birdie and Karen descending the staircase while Addison is addressing Bill, Max, Miss Casswell and Eve. Karen sits just above Addison and Bill and begins to listen in. The conversation is frank and honest about what theatre people are really like. Addison says “we are a breed apart from the rest of humanity, us theatre folk”, a sentiment that is supported by some of the events that take place in the film, particularly the constant betrayals, both realized and threatened that dog the characters throughout the film. Addison goes on to stimulate a debate about the type of people who work in theatre being “displaced personalities”. While Bill disagrees with him, the camera cuts to Eve’s face and we see that she is deeply affected by his words; her face during much of this conversation is distant and thoughtful, not written with the same careful focus and attention on others that she is sure to present throughout the rest of her “performance” as Eve. As the scene progresses, they smoke, drink, poke fun at Miss Casswell’s naiveté and simply casually enjoy each other’s company. But Eve shows her hand a bit in this scene when she gives a passionate speech about applause being like “waves of love” and admitting that she wants to “belong” and feel that constant love. The look on her face during the close up as she finishes this short monologue is one of recognizing she momentarily dropped the façade she has been wearing of a selfless and dutiful fan. Addison, as we find out later, marks this moment, and the quick cut to his face implies his fuller understanding of her words. When Margo then arrives, drunk, the scene takes on even more significance, as Eve stands suddenly in alarm, as though she has been caught out by Margot (which she has, just not because of these words).
The staircase scene is so interesting because the setting of this entire conversation on the staircase seems important. By arranging the characters in such a way for this more candid discussion, the director has more or less placed them “in the wings” of the theatre of the house. This is supported by the fact that the butler passes by, more or less ignoring them, perhaps because they are not “on stage” at the moment. During the earlier parts of the party, the wit and drama are snappier and more meticulously staged, such as the scene in which Miss Casswell enters and her coat ends up on Margo’s arm, or the scene in which Margo insists on replaying the same song, despite the protests of the men that she is killing the party. When Margo enters and finds the group on the stairs, her dramatic performance while drunk recalls them all to the theatre of life. Break time (or intermission) is over here, evinced by Eve’s standing at attention to respond.
The scene I want to discuss is early on in the film, beginning about 6:58 and ending at 8:10. Manuela is acting in a filmed scenario that will be used for training purposes for nurses that work in a transplant clinic. Her son Esteban, having expressed a desire to see her “acting” in the scenario of a grieving family member being guided through the difficult process of organ donation, is at the hospital to observe the filming process. The scene begins focused on Manuela speaking to two doctors. As the doctors explain to her that only a breathing machine is keeping her husband alive, the camera pans quickly to the left and focuses on Esteban. We see that Esteban is focused in very intently on the scene — however — Esteban is not watching the actors live, as presumably he could do, but on the television screen. He has his notebook out on his lap, just as he did while watching All About Eve with his mother at the beginning of the film. The camera then pans quickly left once more to reveal that a whole room of nurses are also watching the drama unfold on the television screen. Before the scene ends, the camera returns for a close up of Esteban’s face, just as Manuela asserts that she has no family, except for her son.
This scene struck me immediately, as it recalled conversations we have had in class about spectatorship and also about the gaze. It seemed that Esteban wanted for once to be a spectator in his mother’s life, rather than an active participant. I feel that his trying to see her through the level of distortion provided by the camera implies that in order to gain true intimacy and knowledge about his mother, Esteban had to insert some measure of distance. My feeling is strengthened by the fact that he makes notes about her and about this scene, implying that he is studying his mother just like he attempted to study the characters presented in All About Eve. In that film, one of the main themes was the idea that actors are perhaps more genuine onstage than off and that offstage is where the truer form of acting is pursued. Certainly, everything Eve does “offstage” in the film is calculated and contrived for manipulative effect. In All About My Mother, we are first given the impression that it is Esteban’s father that is the unknown in his life, but the truth is really that his mother is the mystery to him. After all, he brings her to A Streetcar Named Desire and spends more time watching her face than he does watching the play, in an attempt to try to penetrate beneath the role she plays as his mother, to find out who she really is. This idea is clear in the early discussion they have, in which he uses vulgar language and she admonishes him — later in the film we learn that such language is well known to her. When she drops her guard later, the same discussion makes her laugh. Ultimately it is when she steps into the role of Stella that all her real emotions come forth. She claims to know the play well, and that is true, but it is really the emotional significance of the play that is true to Manuela.
The scene is the bedroom death scene of Ellen Berent. Dick enters the room at about 1:31. The camera is first close on him and the entranceway, so that we can’t yet see the way the room is laid out and how Ellen is positioned within it. Light plays a big role here, as the shadows that play upon the wall and are thrown from Dick’s figure against the door have a foreboding quality to them. The camera pans with Dick as he walks into the room and comes up alongside the four post bed, where Ruth sits vigil at her stepsister’s side. Ellen is laid out, as beautiful already as a carefully arranged corpse. Nothing is out of place; the blankets, bedside and area around her dying form are all meticulously arranged and set out as though purposefully set in place as a theatre set. Ellen has carefully arranged this moment of her death for what she perceived will be maximum impact. Ruth gazes in pain at Dick, from her love for him and a desire somehow to comfort him, but she knows that this moment belongs to Ellen, and so she silently leaves them alone, knowing that she cannot upstage Ellen in her final swansong.
This scene brings together very concisely the entire trajectory of Ellen’s narcissistic, jealous, controlling and Oedipal character. She struggles to retain her composure as she utters her final wish and final threats within the same few short breaths, letting Richard know she wants to be cremated as her father was and her ashes scattered with his, while also claiming she will never let him go, a threat confirmed by the difficulty Dick has in wrenching his own hand from her death grip. The scene made me feel the true horror of the kind of destruction one can reign down upon those that put faith in them or that perhaps don’t at first understand people for their dangerous or threatening character. I also felt more sympathy here for Dick, in that he is gracious at her bedside, even though she had murdered his brother and caused the miscarriage of his son. The entire courtroom scene is intense because of Vincent Price’s angry but methodical persecution, which serves as the final reaching and gripping hand of Ellen Berent. But as we know that Dick will only serve two years, the end of the film undoes some of the horror by revealing that Dick and Ruth end up together, having certainly earned any happiness that they will find.
At about 01:07:00 into the film, there is a long scene that begins with a shot that comes just after Miss Giddens has been talking to Mrs. Grosse about casting the evil out of the house forever — she has just previously decided NOT to leave the estate, after witnessing the ghost of Miss Jessel crying at the desk. The camera fades from the conversation between Giddens and Grosse — which takes place in the daytime, when both women are fully dressed in their working clothing — to a shot of Miss Giddens combing her hair in front of the fireplace and reading her bible (one of the many fireplaces in the enormous house?).
Miss Giddens stokes the fire, looking decidedly not herself and hears giddy laughter coming from somewhere just outside the room. She takes up the four-stick candle and begins to explore the house in the darkness. Throughout this scene, both sound and shot are used to maximum effect to increase tension and bring Miss Giddens through the house. The cuts are carefully selected to coincide, it seems to me, with her entering and leaving different spaces throughout the house, giving the impression that each new room or area will hold a different potential threat. This is most clear when she leaves the room with the fireplace, as there are no cuts as she explores the entire room, from the base of the staircase around to the window and back. Here, sound, such as echoing voices, creaks, the ticking of the clock and various banging noises punctuate the pauses in her movement around the room.
When Miss Giddens enters the liminal space of the staircase, the camera sweeps round and round as she climbs, giving us various cloudy images from the walls and surroundings, disorienting us before we re-join her at the top of the stairs. A loud creak announces her entry to the staircase, but then only soft footsteps and the howl of the wind are heard until she reaches the top and enters the next space, a long hallway where she is taunted by laughter and whispering voices. The candlestick she holds becomes a key image as the voices of the children mingle with those of the ghosts of Quint and Jessel—there are four flames burning, one for each of her tormenters. The first climax of the scene occurs when she comes to the window at the end of the hall (reflective surfaces play a key role in the film), where the handle of the blind bangs like a metronome against the window pane, increasing in volume until she turns around and sees a terrifyingly disfigured piece of art or statue, directly behind her. Her journey ends at Flora’s bedroom, where she puts down the candle, then we have the second climax of the scene when she discovers that Miles is outside in the garden at night, transfixed by a ghost he sees above her in the house. This entire scene makes me feel unsettled as though Miss Giddens is completely alone, surrounded only by ghosts that have the power to harm her. The cuts are used to increase the threat of each room and that reinforced with the effective use of disturbing sounds, which themselves seem capable of harming her.
The scene that really sticks with me from the film comes at precisely 29:38 when Guy and Genevieve have just left the café and are both sad that Guy will have to go into military service for a mandatory two years. They are embracing as they pass a fruit shop, but Guy has one hand on the front of his bicycle. It takes only a moment to realize that as they move, they are not walking, but are somehow conveyed along the sidewalk. The use of colour in the scene is interesting, because the colours change around them as they roll along the sidewalk, giving a sense of emotional turmoil. They are singing about what will happen before and when he leaves, and while he is hinting that they should make love to solidify their connection while they still have time, Genevieve is concerned that while he is away he will be with other women and won’t come back to her. The irony here seems to be that while Guy thinks sleeping together will hold them together, it ends up being what tears them apart. And while Genevieve thinks that he will stray from her, it is really her that will from him. The fact that they are swept along the sidewalk in this surreal moment seems designed to convey a sense of being caught up in emotion and the unexpected force of life and time. When Guy says that he will love Genevieve for his whole life and she begs him not to leave, it is almost as though they both recognize that his leaving will end their chances of staying together.
I don’t clearly remember the last time I saw a film and loved every single character, but in this one I do. It is interesting that the film is able to make all of the characters likeable and yet still convey a sense of sadness. This moment in the film really affected me, because I went through something similar when I graduated from high school. I went to live in England for one year and my high school girlfriend stayed behind. We made similar promises to each other and kept in touch when I was away, but it wasn’t long before the physical distance between us turned into emotional distance, and the relationship ended. I think that the use of the bicycle, though on subsequent viewings could be whimsical and perhaps even funny, has a sort of power in that it drives home the fact that young people in love are sometimes caught in or subject to forces that they don’t fully understand. However the director had them pulled along certainly had to be carefully thought out and I think relates very closely to the theme and spirit of the film. I really love this film; it is beautifully conceived and performed.
The scene comes at 41:46 when Caden is speaking to the cast of his new production (so many people, that it seems to be the entire city, if not all of humanity). He says that he has been thinking a lot about dying lately. The camera cuts back and forth between Caden and the rest of the cast and crew, led by Claire. He is pointing out that he and everyone else will be dying at some point and that “that is what I want to explore”. The metafictional sandwiching of theatre, life, narrative and internal monologue in this scene is really interesting. Caden is basically speaking about collective experience, theatre and individual experience all at once here. When he says that everyone is hurtling towards death but also alive in the moment, and that he wants to explore this, Claire says, “it’s brilliant”, which is a really sardonic moment, but everyone facing Caden is solemn and serious. This scene recalls the beginning of the film and Caden’s interactions with abjection, such as when he is examining feces in the toilet bowl and encountering failing aspects of his own biology. The connection between his role as a director and writer and his own physical limitations is here reflected upon everyone.
The scene makes me realize that everything in Caden’s experience is inseparable; components of his experience that might reflect the state of his unconscious or dreaming mind are not necessarily easy to separate from real experience. Therefore where the physical and the mental are separated is held in perpetual doubt throughout the movie, from the first moment we see Sammy Barnathan in the street outside Caden’s house. The film seems to convey these ideas through the use of doubles for Caden, Claire, Hazel and Olive. And throughout the movie, the more Caden becomes convinced that he is going to die, the more death becomes sort of irrelevant, in the fact that death doesn’t seem capable of preventing Caden from interacting with the people from his life, as though they were characters that can be brought to life merely with thought.
The film made me feel especially out of sorts, as I know that Hoffman died only a few years after this film was released, which lends the movie a further of metafictional feeling. I think that it’s a film I will need to see several more times to appreciate and understand completely, but I really enjoyed this one and think I still need more time to process it.
The scene comes at 1:25 and symbolically begins the final act of the film. Catherine has just waited up all night for Morris to whisk her away from her father, money be damned. Lavinia has attended Catherine throughout the night and the previous scene ends with the closing of the pocket doors upon the room of Catherine’s grief (pocket doors are artfully used throughout the film to compartmentalize the different parts of the house and the personalities of Catherine and Dr. Sloper). Waiting for Morris to arrive serves as a kind of emotional and intellectual awakening for Catherine, that takes the place in the film of any sexual encounter. She comes out of this room changed, having lost her spiritual virginity.
At 1:25, the music changes and it is now morning. Catherine hasn’t slept at all. The camera is situated midway up one of the long staircases on the inside of the grand house. The camera is angled downward, so that we can see a chandelier hanging in front of the doors to the outside. From this angle we can also see outside, but the view is limited to what appears to be a windowed building on the tree lined street opposite. One of the pocket doors at the very limit of the frame to the right slides open. A very small and dejected looking Catherine emerges from the room, which has served as her cocoon. But the promise of her emergence from this room as the butterfly bride-to-be of Morris undergoes a painful reversal. Her emergence here is instead from a reversed process of metamorphosis; she now seems shrivelled into a permanent caterpillar. The distance of the camera here has the effect of miniaturizing Catherine, so that when she approaches the bottom of the stairs, she looks daunted and incapable of surmounting the challenge of climbing them. As she struggles up with her bags (where all her hopes and dreams for the future are packed in tight like so many leaves), the camera angle slowly adjusts (without cutting) and rises so that we see from her perspective now. The staircase continues up another floor and the sense we get here is one of illusion, as though Catherine is climbing the Potemkin stairs in Odessa and there are no landings to provide respite. In fact, the camera angle here is precisely placed so as to make the landing that the camera must be situated on, and the next landing up, both scarcely perceivable. This medium-length shot, carefully conceived, fades to black as she is still in mid journey, implying the endless nature of her struggle back up the tree.
The film ends with this same staircase at 1:54 and the imagery created immediately recalls her painful journey of earlier. Only now, Catherine is adorned in her finest, but still plain dress, holding a glowing lantern (or being drawn upward by it) as she rises, almost smiling, from a second more successful metamorphosis in the drawing room — she might not be a butterfly, but is content to embrace becoming a moth. And she will flutter around in the nearly empty house feeding on the fabric of her embroidery for the rest of her life.
The scene that really interested me comes at 1:12. Alexandra has just finished a private conversation with David and they stumble on a peaceful scene where Birdie, Horace and Addie are sitting outside. The conversation begins with light-hearted banter about Elderberry wine and the camera alternates between a shot that frames the entire group and close-ups of individuals or pairs. Addie sits in the back, mending, and the camera often cuts closer so that we are aware of her attention to Birdie, but also of her concern about Birdie’s drinking and state of mind. Birdie drinks and speaks almost non-stop, working her way towards speaking about Oscar and Leo. Before she gets there, she mentions her own mother’s concern about the Hubbard family “cheating the poor and coloured folks” out of their money, something she distances her own family from, even though her family, as southern aristocracy, is implicated in the more directly damaging practice of slavery. Birdie’s inability to consciously acknowledge her guilt by inaction and association in both her family history and the Hubbard family she is now a part of, comes through in Addie’s eloquent words about people standing idly by watching cruelty and injustice take place. It is as though Addie, as a representative of the oppressed southern black, speaks the truth of what seems to drive Birdie’s unconscious mind and addiction to alcohol.
The discussion then takes on an even more serious bent when Horace picks up on Addie’s words and quotes from the bible: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines. For our vines have tender grapes.” The camera is situated during these words on Addie and Horace, but framed between them is Alexandra, and the words Horace speaks to Addie seem actually to be about Alexandra, who is herself as a tender grape on the vine. The little foxes in this case must be Regina and her brothers and Leo, who all through their greed threaten to spoil Alexandra’s innocence and good nature. This leads Birdie to a horrific admission that she doesn’t even like her own son Leo. David is sparingly used in this scene, which makes the viewer align his or her position with David when he is framed. When Birdie makes her admission, There is a quick cut to David’s face that reflects through his absorptive look of realization, our own dawning understanding of the full stake we (like David) have in Alexandra’s future and the hope that somehow, she might escape the fate that has been laid out, like a trap for her.
When Alexandra questions why Birdie would marry Oscar, the stake in the film is suddenly raised to its fullest height, as we understand that Alexandra could so easily become Birdie; all that is needed to solidify that future, is a marriage to her cousin Leo. In this scene, slavery, marriage, alcoholism, cruelty and loneliness are all merged with the symbol of cotton, that commodity that represents the malleability of the innocent in the hands of the morally bereft and powerful.
The scene begins at 1:47:05, near to the end of the film. The camera fades in on the telegram that announces to Lermontov that Victoria Page has married Julian Craster. The camera lingers on this telegram long enough for us to glean that it has been open for some time on the desk. There is nothing else on the desk that could possibly divide Lermontov’s attention from what to him is a gut-wrenching announcement. But it is interesting to note that behind the note, on the desk appears the form of a masked performer, etched into the wood. The emotional aspect of this form is ambiguous, though behind the mask is a vacant black eye and the mouth gapes open as though in shock. The image is reminiscent of Japanese Kabuki theatre, which could imply allusion to tragedy resulting from love. The camera pans over to reveal an ashtray filled with cigarette butts. Lermontov has been chain smoking in an absolute fury. His typically robotically cruel demeanour throughout the film has been at last torn away to reveal his passions. There is then a cut to a distance shot of Lermontov sitting, his hands together, but not at rest. Finally, he leaps up and paces about the room, furiously ejaculating moans and smacking his fist into his hand. When he sees the image of himself in the mirror, he grins mischievously at himself, then with his teeth clenched, he lashes out with his fist and effectively obliterates himself by smashing his image. The camera captures this key moment from in close beside Lermontov’s head and shoulders, so we can see him head on, at once becoming him but also standing outside of him.
The scene made me feel the difficult position of Lermontov in the film, as a true lover of Art. His passion for Victoria might seem like obsessional jealousy, but really represents his true love in the film for Art and his despising the fact that life often steals his love from him. This in effect shows that rather than believing that art imitates life, it is rather life imitating art for Lermontov. His lashing out at himself is a reflection if his desire to achieve true beauty through art and his frustration with the human form for its imperfections and the ways in which the worldly stand in the way of what for him is divine. He does not even except himself from this, which is why he shows his desire to destroy himself. This is also captured quite well in a humorous scene earlier in the film, when Lermontov admonishes Julian for not taking the initiative in the creation of beauty:
Julian Craster: “Well I couldn’t re-write that, could I?”
Boris Lermontov: “Why not?”
Julian: “Well you didn’t blue pencil it”
Lermontov: “Horrors like that don’t need to be blue pencilled, they speak for themselves.”
The mirror scene and the piano scene both capture the true character of Lermontov as a sort of Prometheus—confined in the body of a man and doomed to continually experience punishment.
The scene comes at the very beginning of the film, before the credits. Alexander sees his family coming towards the house on their sleigh. He panics and runs to hide beneath the table, resting his head upon the chair (in what looks to be a very awkward and uncomfortable position). Bergman has captured Alexander’s anxiety here very craftily, and so early in the film. Throughout this scene, we hear Alexander’s heavy breathing, telling us that he is nervous, excited or both. His gaze draws our own through the clever use of the camera, to the turning cherubs on one of the family’s ornate clocks (they likely have many in this cavernous, lavish home). The chiming of the clock, normally a lovely sound, is in this scene potentially terrible, as mingled with Alexander’s laboured breathing we begin to wonder why he should be anxious and why time should concern him and also us. The only sounds, the chiming and his breathing, force us to consider our lives as subject to forces larger than we can understand. When we see the erotic female statue move, and beckon to Alexander, we understand at once that he is being called forth both sexually and mortally. These are the drives at work within Alexander, forces he cannot withstand, an idea that is supported by the long family Christmas sequences mingling sexual play with dire hints at his father’s impending death. The Christmas scene itself forces the viewer into contemplation of that time of year, the end time, when before everything can be renewed, we are reminded starkly of our own mortality. A cut a few moments later, to a violently moving river amongst ice, supports this idea that Alexander is about to be caught up in the sweep of a current of time and forces he cannot withstand.
Many of the details of the film work with this early imagery, particularly Alexander’s refusal to confront his father’s mortality. This affecting scene could imply that Alexander thinks that by refusing to acknowledge his father’s mortality, perhaps he can avoid confronting his own. But the ghosts that appear to him throughout the film remind him and us, that try as we may, we can never turn back the forces that are pulling along through life. Later, when Alexander is at the mercy of Bishop Vergerus, he is braver than he was in the beginning of the film, defiantly asking to be punished. But this too, may be another denial of death, by reinforcing his status as a living being through the turmoil and suffering of his own body. By forcing his sister and the servants and the Bishop to witness and thereby participate in his torture, Alexander forces acknowledgement of his physical reality, which is in itself a sort of denial of the state of death represented by the embodied but untouchable ghost of his father, itself an echo of Hamlet and all the existential fears that come home to roost with that timeless play.
Unfortunately, the scene I need to write about is when Sarah Jane is struck by Frankie. This scene horribly captures what is at stake in Sarah Jane’s decision to “pass as white”. At 1:17:32, Sarah Jane sneaks out to meet Frankie. They meet in front of a store to rent, the empty building perhaps an indication of the vacuity that exists between them due to the secret that both of them know will destroy their relationship. Only, Frankie is waiting to pounce, having already discovered that her mother is black. We get a sense of this in his attitude towards her when he refuses to walk by the river. What boy would choose to stay in the dimly lighted but publicly visible street, when his beautiful girlfriend is beckoning him to a private location? In the key scene, the tension between city and nature is depicted in a long shot, where lamp posts trail away to meet the trees. I think the implication here is to align Sarah Jane with the bounty and safety of nature—that if they only didn’t have the pressure of a malformed social attitude around them in the city, they could remain in love (this aligning of Sarah Jane with nature could in itself be a problematic racial othering that won’t be explored here). But the city is threatening. It puts your back up against the wall, as Frankie’s is here. He is cornered by her information and becomes a caged animal, angry and ready to strike. He focuses on “all the kids, talking about me behind my back”, demonstrating that like Sarah Jane, he cannot stand up under the social pressure to adhere to racist ideology. He is really upset in this scene and comes unhinged, lashing out at her. Each slap is like the crack of a whip, and America is dragged back in time to full blown slavery. Here she is punished for nothing, because Frankie makes it everything.
This scene really hit me hard and confirmed all of Annie’s fears from earlier in the film. The use of the jazzy music adds a panicked climactic quality to the scene and would seem out of place, if not for how it quickens the blood. This alerting of the other sense serves to enhance for me the tragedy of the scene. And though I don’t normally use the secondary material when I analyze my scenes, Berlant’s article really stuck with me, especially when she discusses the idea that “American women and African Americans have never had the privilege to supress the event of the body” (3) —something that Sarah Jane tries desperately to do. She goes on to say that “the ‘subject who wants to pass’ is the fiercest of judicial self-parodies as yet authored by the American system”. I see this concretized in Sarah Jane’s character as she lies in a large puddle, forced to face in her reflection, to see both the signs of her physical abuse and the haunted eyes of a daughter who will now be forced to betray her own mother. This film really hits hard on the inescapable conundrum posed by racism.