Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Gestures: the Significance of the Insignificant

Joe Gillis (William Holden) dead in the swimming pool
at the start of Sunset Boulevard.
In my “Intro to Film Crit” class, my professor pointed out to us in Sunset Boulevard an odd moment when Joe Gillis (William Holden) is leaving Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) on New Year's Eve and the chain of his watch—which was a gift from the rich and crazy recluse—gets caught on the door (later in the film Norma shoots him dead and he ends up face down in the pool). One film critic interpreted the watch chain getting caught as the “umbilical cord of material dependence” keeping Joe in Norma’s and hence the real reason he can't leave her.
The seemingly insignificant gesture acts as an excellent example of how we marginalize gestures or words that we don’t understand at the moment, but contains vital clues to the characters and plot so, if something odd happens, don't ignore it, try and figure it how. 
Here are more useful examples.
The Talented Mr. Ripley from 1999.
Another example of the “umbilical cord” symbolism is in The Talented Mr. Ripley. When Ripley (Matt Damon) is getting off a bus, the strap of the shoulder bag he carries gets caught on the handle of the bus door, snagging him. There are many possible interpretations for this, e.g., his poverty will hold him back, his social awkwardness will hold him back, his very ambition will hold him back, etc., I think the "umbilical cord" symbol deepens our understanding the greatest.
One of Tom Ripley's few happy moments in the film.
There are only two mothers in this film: the one is the beautiful girl that Dickie (Jude Law) impregnates and who drowns herself, and the second is Dickie’s mother, Mrs. Greenleaf who is wheelchair bound.  If there is a parallel made between Ripley and the handicap mother, Ripley himself is socially handicapped as Mrs. Greenleaf is physically handicapped. Likewise, if we compare Ripley to the pregnant Italian girl who drowns herself, Ripley is has incapable of dealing with the escalating social demands (mixing with Dickie's social crowd and their lifestyle) as the young Italian girl with her unexpected pregnancy and like her, Ripley drowns himself for Dickie (he drowns his identity as Ripley for the identity of Dickie).
Gus van Sant's 2002 critically acclaimed drama Gerry.
Another Matt Damon film, Gerry, also starring Casey Affleck, with both stars bearing the same name of Gerry, essentially get off the path and become lost in a desert, unable to find their way back. At one point, they split up to go up different mountains to try and find their car, and when they are reunited, Affleck’s Gerry has lost a shirt that he was wearing, while Damon’s Gerry has wrapped one of his shirts around his head, turban style.
Another poster showing
Damon with his head wrapping.
At this point in their ordeal, this simple wardrobe adjustment contributes significantly to the development of the characters: Affleck’s Gerry has “lost it,” while Damon’s Gerry is “keeping a lid on it.” Realizing they are lost and probably not going to get out, Affleck’s Gerry’s lost shirt reveals that he is beginning to succumb to anxiety and fear, whereas Damon’s Gerry’s turban suggests that he’s trying to contain his fear.  The technique foreshadows to the viewer what will happen to both Gerrys.
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech of 2010.
In The King's Speech, character development is at a high, but I will only mention a few instances here. When the Duchess of York (Helen Bonham Carter) is on her way to see Dr. Logue (Geoffrey Rush), she gets into the elevator and waits; she realizes she closed the doors in the wrong order and then goes back and does it correctly; this same sequence occurs again (it appears that she had forgotten) when Bertie (Colin Firth) joins her in visiting Logue, they have to open and close the doors in the proper order again. This seemingly “waste of time” in the narrative actually foreshadows how they are not going to do Bertie’s speech therapy in the proper order, but are only going to deal with the mechanics first, and then much later, the psychological problems behind Bertie’s stuttering.
The Duke and Duchess of York.
One additional gesture to touch on here, is when the Duchess gets into Logue's office, and he’s in the restroom, he exits without having washed his hands: he is “dirty,” which works as a sign of his status as a commoner, and—when he shakes hands with the Duchess—he wipes his dirt onto her, i.e., future problems will touch them because of his “lowly” stature when it will come up towards the end of the film when members of Bertie’s cabinet try to have him replaced.
The corner of Logue's office in The King's Speech.
Surprisingly, this same technique of a character exiting the bathroom without washing their hands, and it foreshadowing something “dirty” about them, also occurs in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown when Max Cherry exits the restroom and Ordell (Samuel L Jackson) comments that he didn’t wash his hands, an important moment, because it shows that he knows "Max has dirty hands," i.e., Max can’t be trusted, but Ordell trusts him anyway and that’s how he loses his money.
In Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Claw, starring the iconic duo of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the DVD commentary noted how quickly the film had to be shot because it was done on such an incredibly low budget, so quickly, that when the mail man is exiting the boarding house, he bumps into a table on his way out and director Roy William Neill didn’t even bother to re-shoot the scene. I would like to suggest, that the “accidental bump,” was quite intentional.
1944, The Scarlet Claw.
We discover that the mail man Potts (Gerald Hamer) is the villain, and a consummate actor. So when he hears that Sherlock Holmes is on his way to investigate the killings, even though he seems cool and keeping up his charade, that bump into the table reveals that the villain has suddenly gotten very nervous about the carrying out of his plot.
Norman Jewison's 1967 drama In the Heat of the Night.
There are two significant gestures in the opening moments in The Heat of the Night:  the first is the hiding of a pie, the second is the swatting of a fly.
Hopefully, by now, you have an idea of what I am going to say.  But Ralph (Anthony James) who also makes an appearance in Unforgiven (as the brothel owner) swats at a fly and then hides a piece of pie when a police officer enters the restaurant.  The first act of killing the fly reveals his violent nature and indicates that he is the prime suspect for the murder that happened just moments ago.  The second gesture of hiding the pie indicates that he has “hidden” what he has done; the attentive viewer all ready knows who committed the murder.
When I saw Louis (Brad Pitt) see his reflection as he was burning down his southern mansion in Interview With the Vampire, I wanted someone to get fired. (I will deal extensively with vampires in October, but for the moment, we will look at this gesture). By standard conventions, nay, by their very definition, vampires cannot see their reflections in the mirror (this convention was still adhered to in Van Helsing with Hugh Jackson and Kate Beckinsdale). Pondering if there was another reason other than negligence why that moment would have been allowed to happen, I realized it’s because Louis “can reflect” on what it is that he is doing as a vampire and what being a vampire is doing to him. LeStatt (Tom Cruise) sees nothing wrong in killing others, but Louis has “moral issues,” revealed by the simple act of seeing himself in the mirror at the moment he is surrounded by destruction (like the flames of hell engulfing him).
1944 film noir classic, Laura.
In Laura starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and the great Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews plays Detective Mark McPherson investigating the death of Laura (Gene Tierney) and, because of Waldo’s (Clifton Webb) close friendship with her, McPherson visits Waldo to question him. Taking a bath while McPherson interviews him (a symbol I will explore at another time) McPherson decides to go follow another lead; Waldo insists on going with him and stands up in the tub… this act of “exposing” himself foreshadows how he will expose himself as the killer, even while he’s taking a bath, symbolic of trying to cleanse himself of the blood he has spilled.
The Exorcist of 1973 may still be the scariest movie ever made.Two moments:  the first in the opening sequence, there is a man working and he turns to face the viewer and his left eye is blind:  that represents the viewer, because we are only going to “see half” of what is going on in the work of the film because it so closely resembles ourselves, that we cannot reflect upon it accurately.
Secondly, Chris (Regan's mom, Ellen Burstyn) is walking and sees Father Damien talking to another priest as an airplane flies overhead.  The noise drowns out what Father Damien tells the priest, but what is important is the seeming “wardrobe malfunction” of Father Damien:  his jacket sleeve reaches up nearly to his elbow, revealing his bare arm.  This is important because it shows that Father Damien isn’t “hiding anything up his sleeve” as he talks to the other priest; conversely, the other priest has a jacket hanging over his left arm, revealing that he is “covering something up.” 
I'm ready for my close up now, Mr. deMille.
I started with Sunset Boulevard and I would like to end with it. The most iconic scene of the film is the very end, when Norma says, “I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille,” and the camera moves in close, really close. For close-ups, the camera literally becomes a microscope for the character being “focused on”: when a character talks, or acts or thinks, and the camera is doing a close-up, it’s that moment that is a close-up on the character’s character and their state of being, their flaws, their virtues, indecision, whatever it may be the director wants to emphasize. In Sunset Boulevard, when both the camera in the film and the camera recording the movie move in on Norma, we are moving in on all characters in the movies, not just Norma Desmond, the scrutiny of how narcissistic the film-industry had become by this point, and how there is nothing normal about “Norma.”
So, if you are watching a film and it seems like something ridiculous happens, or you don’t understand why it happened, make a mental note and when the film is done, ask yourself in what way that might have enhanced the character’s development or foreshadowed what was going to happen in the plot and see what you come up with. 
Post ScriptumSaturday, September 3, at 8:00 ET time on Turner Classic Movies, Sunset Boulevard will be on television. It's #12 on the American Film Institute's 100 best movies of all time list, so you may want to watch if you have the chance!