The Indexical Palimpsest
If literature is often known for text and subtext, for what is on the page and what is implied in the words on the page, should cinema not be seeking out a different type of relationship with the image? Let us put aside the notion that this textual/subtextual approach to literature is perhaps naive and say that in relation to cinema that it definitely happens to be. However much their subconscious finds its way into the material, we can acknowledge that the solo writer is responsible for the words chosen and that the variables are thus surely much more controllable. When the writer says that their beautiful central character looked glowing, her skin pellucid and her eyes asparkle, with her waist huggingly narrow in a tight dress, this possesses no contingent element. When the director films his or her leading lady they must hope that she looks as stunningly healthy as the scene demands: that she won’t have bags under her eyes, bloodshot pupils, or three days’ constipation that has left her stomach bloated. Make-up, careful lighting and appropriate angles can help, and in the age of Computer Generated Imagery the filmmaker has more control still. But partly what makes film the fascinating art form it happens to be, is that the agency is multiplied and the variables likewise. Often it is thus much more intriguing observing the complexity of the image than the underlying meaning of those images.
Robert McKee, discussing script craft in Story, however, says “don’t skim the surface. Taking things at face value. Rather, peel back the skin of life to find the hidden, the unexpected, the seemingly inappropriate – in other words, the truth. And you will find your truth in the gap”. Gilles Deleuze, though, says in an interview in Two Regimes of Madness, “I’m especially hostile to the notion of different levels…every image is literal and must be taken literally. What is most difficult is grasping images how they are presented.” McKee might insist, “remember, you are the God of your universe. You know your characters, their minds, bodies, emotions, relationships, world.” But while this may be relatively true of the novelist, how true can it be of the screenwriter whose work is usually directed by someone else, where actors play the roles he or she has created, where the cinematographer will film it, and where a composer will add music?
Over several pages in Story, McKee goes through a section of the Chinatown script and also presents inserted comments where we get to know what detective Gittes is thinking in the scene. So for example when apparent femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray says when they meet: “How are you? I’ve been calling you?”, Gittes says “yeah” as McKee proposes he would be thinking: “She’s so beautiful. Don’t look at her. Stay tough, man. Be ready. She’ll tell lie on lie.” This is McKee adopting conventional text and sub-text, but it creates a twofold narrowness that Deleuze’s open-minded approach avoids. Firstly it leaves us narrowly focusing on the narrative, and secondly reducing the living flesh of an actor’s body, to the fishing out of a sub-text the actor has been given to half-hide. In other words Jack Nicholson’s “yeah” isn’t part of the familiar drawl that makes Nicholson a particularly interesting actor of nuance and surprise, but the well-behaved figure doing his narrative job over his thespian self-obligation. Almost any actor could play the text and sub-text, but what is more interesting is putting them in situations that are cinematic. In the reservoir scene in the film director Roman Polanski insisted on shooting Nicholson getting swept away in one take and thus there was no chance of using Nicholson’s stunt double Alan Gibbs. (Polanski) Nicholson was afraid, well aware that Polanski was a man often recklessly fearless in his own life, who might not quite see how fearful others could be in theirs. Nicholson reminded Polanski that “in the movie business…even the best-planned special effect could go wrong.”
It is as though this sequence, for Polanski, needed to be cinematic, and central to this notion of cinema for the director was the fear evident in Nicholson’s face, and our acknowledgment of that fear. It is the bodily reality of the actor meeting the cinematic demands of the director: sub-text has little to do with it. Part of the pleasure of cinema resides in the story imposing itself on the image and the image imposing itself on the story. We need only think of films that could have turned out differently in various manifestations if it weren’t for the specific personnel involved, and Chinatown is a very good example. Here was a film where the ending was changed because Polanski wanted to present a darker vision than its scriptwriter Robert Towne wished, as explained and explored in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. It was originally to have had a different cinematographer, with Polanski divulging why he replaced veteran Stanley Cortez with a more modern cameraman John A. Alonzo: “Cortez was completely out of touch with mainstream developments in the technology of filmmaking.” (Polanski). With Nicholson in the lead role he knew he could add more ‘realism’ to the part than most actors would allow: in Towne’s script Gittes’s nose was slashed, and then it quickly and unrealistically healed. “Because Jack was the kind of actor who wouldn’t moan at having to do most of his scenes with a bandage over his face or stitches bristling from one nostril, I decided to retain the wound for realism’s sake.” (Polanski) Polanski reveals his assertiveness, but at the same time we notice the contingency involved in film production.
What we offer above is the anecdotal, but we hope it can serve the analytical: that it can help us to see that the very fact a film can be so anecdotally explored indicates how contingent a medium it happens to be. When Oscar Wilde famously said the writer puts a comma in the morning and takes it out again in the afternoon, it reflects the curiously mundane authority he has over the material. The equivalent anecdote in film consists in changing the cinematographer, waiting for the clouds to clear, trying to get the actress out of her trailer, and wondering if the leading man has the physical heft the role requires. Now a sceptical reader might say this is all very well but what we have is what we see on the screen: all the rest is idle gossip. Is a work of art not a finished product, rather than a process? But apart from the fact that numerous works of contemporary art have been about acknowledging that very process, it is one well-theorised in cinema over much of its history. Deleuze quotes Dziga Vertov: “As Vertov used to say, “there are several distinct lives that must be considered together: a life for the film, a life in the film, a life of the film itself etc.” (Two Regimes of Madness) This idea of process is part of the ontology of film, a dimension of the filmic experience an obsessive interest in film as script ignores while it fishes out sub-text from text as if there is only one agent of authority controlling the material.
Of course Robert McKee is writing a book about screenwriting, and wants to emphasise the script aspect to the detriment of the other elements in a film. When he says “over the last two decades I’ve seen good films, but rarely a film of staggering power and beauty. Maybe it’s me; maybe I’m jaded. But I don’t think so”, he adds that he sees the problem residing in contemporary artists unable to “play all the instruments in the orchestra of story, no matter what music may be in you’re imagination, you’re condemned to hum the same old tune.” Yet we might wonder whether it is partly the popularity of scriptwriting manuals that is causing the problems rather than resolving them. If the instruments of storytelling are the various terms deployed (inciting incident, symbolic ascension, crisis, climax, resolution, set ups, pay offs etc.) aren’t these the very things that result in the same old tune? William Goldman might claim that “the key to all story endings is to give the audience what the audience wants, but not the way it expects” (McKee’s italics), but this is a scriptwriter talking. If we wish for great variety in film form, we don’t want those variations merely to be a question of script choices, but of choices available in numerous other areas too, and where contingency often comes into play.
Now McKee and Goldman wouldn’t deny the importance of actors, directors, cinematographers and others, and indeed Goldman acknowledges, in Adventures in the Screen Trade, the significance of the various personnel as he attacks the auteur theory. He believes that Chariots of Fire works as much because of Vangelis’s music as any other element; that The Exorcist is successful due to Dick Smith’s make-up. However if we disagree with Goldman as he undermines the auteur, we do so not especially to elevate the director, but to acknowledge that someone is usually responsible for the agency of others and the contingency within the project. For example, when Sidney Lumet talks in Making Movies about a sequence in A Stranger Among Us he notes that they had “one great piece of luck”, and “one lousy piece of luck too”. The good luck was a heavy cloud that kept the light even throughout the day. “If we’d had a sunny day, we would have had to use “fill light”…whether I like it or not, the sun keeps moving. Light at eight o’clock is very different than it is at noon. Buildings throw different shadows and reflections. To “match” the light in different shots taken at different times would’ve been nearly impossible, and shots that aren’t matched can look like hell once they’re cut together.” The bad luck was a march that happened to be taking place near where they were shooting. “I knew all sound would be useless and we’d have to add it later.”
Here we have Lumet talking about lighting, location, editing and sound and knowing, finally, that he is responsible for the coming together of these elements. If cinema possesses a strong aspect of contingency as Lumet acknowledges, then we paradoxically credit the director with far greater control than the screenwriter not because he has immense freedom, but because he is figure at the mercy of the accidental, and that he has to make choices based on a set of circumstances that aren’t necessarily given. When Wilde proposes the writer puts a comma in in the morning and takes it out in the afternoon, there is a sense of idle choice that isn’t very different from McKee’s when he says “by the time you finish your last draft, you must possess a commanding knowledge of your setting in such depth and detail that no one could raise a question about your world – from the eating habits of your characters to the weather in September – that you couldn’t answer instantly.” Of course McKee is talking sweat and tears, Wilde supine laziness, but the point resides in both assuming absolute control of the material. What Lumet acknowledges is that film often possesses an urgency and blindness that can’t allow the director to play God – whether he happens to be a filmic equivalent of Wilde’s loafer or McKee’s grafter. On the page it might be at least superficially feasible for you to know everything about your character, but once that script is turned into an embodied drama, how many of these preconceptions have to be ignored, with the actress’s voice, body language and background playing into the role?
Of course one can insist the actor or actress radically alters their appearance for the part, but even if they do, this becomes an element of the experience of the film as an object of curiosity, and not merely an aesthetic object of contemplation. In what remains the most famous example of thespian transformation, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull initially put on twenty pounds of muscle and then kept adding weight as he turned it into fat, determined to play the boxer Jake la Motta with verisimilitude. Getting into the sort of condition required to pass for a top middle-weight boxer, he then added middle-aged spread as he prepared to play La Motta after the boxer had gone to seed.
This is production history as human history, and while we don’t at all want to say that a film cannot be viewed without attending to the nature of its own making, equally we ought to acknowledge that while we attend to the finished object as aesthetic experience, we should be willing to ask what type of experience it is, and use the theoretical tools necessary to make sense of the affects it produces. If we feel that whatever our reservations about text and sub-text in literature, it still makes sense; in film it appears much more troublesome. It doesn’t capture enough the singularity of film form, and asks instead that we transpose a literary notion of subtlety onto the material, rather than a filmic notion of multiplicity. For example, in another scene from Chinatown, Jake Gittes rushes into the office, asks his assistant to leave and starts telling a couple of his associates the joke of a man with a wilting love life who tries screwing his wife in a different way after a friend suggests he adopt the Chinese method. So there he is, going at it for a little while, taking a break, having a cigarette, screwing some more, then taking another break to look at the moon. It is a decent enough joke about a man’s attempt to please his wife only to discover that she has probably slept around enough to have already experienced a range of sexual liaisons: she eventually gets exasperated with him and asks him to stop screwing like a Chinaman. However this is but one aspect of the scene. It possesses euphemism when Jake tells his secretary to go to the little girl’s room while he tells the gag, and irony when halfway through the telling a door opens behind him and Jake continues telling the joke oblivious to the presence of Evelyn Mulwray. Mulwray has just come out not of the little girl’s room but the big man’s room with the senior associate, and when Jake turns round to see her standing there he appears like the little boy caught with his trousers down. The scene opens with Jake man enough to tell his assistant to disappear while he offers a manly joke, and ends with Mulwray aware that the gag he has told is close to toilet humour. All of this admittedly could have found itself into a work of fiction, but even thus far one would have to say we have a lot more than merely sub-text at work. We have instead modes of drama working simultaneously. The scene plays up euphemism and irony, but also explicitness and tonal shifts. Initially when Gittes arrives we might assume he has something serious to say, only for a joke to be told. But by the end of the scene the seriousness we might have expected at the beginning becomes manifest. Mulwray has a serious look on her face, and his senior associate looks equally sombre.
Yet we have only talked of the scene’s content. What about its form? The opening moments have a sense of urgency because the scene happens to also. The first shot is around twenty five seconds long and the camera moves quickly from place to place capturing Gittes’s bustle. As the secretary leaves the frame and the shot, the second associate comes out of the main associate’s office and while the first associate tries to interrupt, Gittes insists on talking over him. As the two associates stand listening to Gittes talk, the film cuts back and forth between Gittes and the pair, we see Mulwray behind Gittes, and the head associate behind Mulwray. The scene becomes dense less with sub-text than with variables. The sort of invisible speech bubbles McKee offers wouldn’t take us very far here. What other thought does Gittes have on his mind, and is the point of the scene partly that he doesn’t have anything in his head but the telling of a good joke? If we accept that literature can reduce the scene to text and sub-text because it is an art form of specific delineation, cinema struggles to focus sub-text partly because it is not an art form of specific delineation but manifold delineation. Not so much text and sub-text, but the textural. In other words, where literature even if it introduces a group of characters at a dinner party, can easily ignore all the others present as it concentrates on the two characters talking and the sub-text taking place between them, in cinema this is much more difficult to achieve. The filmmaker might choose to concentrate on close-ups of the two characters he wants to emphasise, or he might choose a lens that leaves everything beyond these two characters out of focus, but he will still have to kill the sound, and expect us to forget characters who have already been introduced. If in literature it is quite easy for us to forget the other guests at a dinner because the drama of the scene resides in the couple intimately talking, in film we are more inclined to return to the establishing shot afterwards, as if to acknowledge that a world has been filmed and not simply a drama deployed.
To help us here we can think of a great scene from Bad Timing, where director Nicolas Roeg wants us to be almost as lost in the relationship between Alex (Art Garfunkel) and Milena (Theresa Russell) as they happen to be themselves. One day a while after they have ended the affair, Milena turns up at Alex’s university and they start talking. The camera increasingly tightens the focus so that the background becomes a blur, and the film plays up the intimacy as the Keith Jarrett music kills background sounds. Some of the moments we could easily see taking place in a novel: the moment where another professor comes up to Alex and tells him about an interesting paper, moments where the man Milena appears to be going out with hangs around in the background as Alex and Milena talk. But for the rest the film has to work hard to minimise the numerous background details. The form becomes pronounced in eradication rather than presentation, with the film determined to take us into Alex and Milena’s chaos whilst acknowledging the real world they are escaping. The pro-filmic fact of the milieu in which they are a part (filming around the university) isn’t absent (as it might be in a book), or present (as it would be as focused background in most films), but a presence. Roeg and his regular cinematographer Anthony Richmond want its presence absented through form, through making the background pronounced but generally unreadable. Roeg knows that we aren’t only in the characters’ intense conversation, we are also in a milieu where this conversation happens to be taking place and he films it well aware that it is an environment he pushes into the background so forcibly that it won’t lose its presence as a background. The blurring images here are a little like the use of the 360 degree shots in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, De Palma’s Obsession and Fassbinder’s Martha. Moments that don’t so much insist in removing the milieu but instead emphasise the form. They find a cinematic purpose behind a simple fact: when pointing a camera at the world, agency greater than the artist’s vision is inevitable, and part of the director’s skill then resides in acknowledging this fact and shaping his or her perceptual universe around it.
In The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell talks of Hitchcock’s use of the 360 degree shot in Vertigo and says “again it is well to insists that this meaning is a function of this 360 degree track in this film.” We don’t want to say once we understand the form we understand what is going on in the content, as if particular shots match particular feelings. It is true that in Vertigo, Obsession and Martha the track indicates vertiginous feelings of love, but to say, for example, of Martha that the text is about two people who’ve never met walking past each other, and the sub-text that these are people who are thinking “my God, wow”, doesn’t go very far. We attend to the form to get closer to the feeling, to the sense of coup de foudre that the film generates. Both characters are dressed in creamy white and while the film eschews a music track the sound is pronounced and slightly eery. There is much crunching on gravel. As the characters pass each other during the 360 degree shot we hear the echoing, haunting sounds of children, plausibly generated from the old buildings that surround the courtyard they are walking through, but capable of being read as a foreshadowing of the menacing presence Karl-Heinz Bohm’s character will go on to be in Margit Carstensen’s life. If Cavell talks of the specifics of the 360 degree shot in a given film, we can also point up the nature of the filmic elements that might hint at things to come. The sound could have been faded out in this moment, or a music track added, but Fassbinder chooses verisimilitudinous sound without claiming that is all it happens to be. A filmmaker may wish to remain within the realm of the world that he films, but rather than minimising its presence, he acknowledges it, without simply replicating it.
Yet of course plenty theorists of film have wondered whether film should represent reality. Rudolf Arnheim for one insisted that, in Dudley Andrew’s words, “film art is based on the manipulation of the technically visible, not the humanly visual”, believing that we “must suppress the filmic process of representation in favor of the artistic process of expression.” Yet the word suppress is telling here. The novelist doesn’t in any obvious way suppress a character he chooses not to detail on the page, but the filmmaker will use shallow focus to suppress characters in the background of a shot. If expression is the default position of the writer or the painter as they choose what to show us with no need for a sense of exclusion beyond the page or the frame, the filmmaker’s art of expression more clearly goes through this process of suppression. Though occasionally a painting might hint at the out of frame as the image gives the impression of a bigger world to which it belongs, this is art’s conceit rather than its ontological condition. Even in hyperrealistic paintings by Gustavo Silva Nunez or Omar Ortiz, the parts of the body outside the frame are merely an aspect of the hyperrealist trope ? the touch that makes us feel even more that the painting must be a photograph. It is still expression rather than suppression.
Not all filmmaking concerns itself with suppression over expression of course. Animation is an example of cinema that possesses the same creative option as literature: you choose to create a character or you don’t, you draw an empty street, you don’t clear a full one. CGI oriented cinema calls into question this contrast between the drawn and the filmed, because the digital image might choose to suppress details (evident when The LA Times talks of “the guns that the cops carry as they chase the bicycle-riding kids and E.T.…through the magic of computer graphics, the police now will be armed with walkie-talkies.”), or it might wish to create them from nothing at all. D. N. Rodowick talks of Jurassic Park as a key film in this respect. “Phenomenologically, our social and cultural experience of watching movies have been irreversibly transformed…the enormous popularity of Jurassic Park (1993) and the effect it had on mainstream filmmakers marked a turning point in this respect wherein the relative positioning of the photographic and the digital was reversed.” This was no longer a few Ray Harryhausen models intruding on the action; this was digital imagery intruding on the pro-filmic and aiming to obliterate the difference. We know of course that dinosaurs no longer exist, but part of the awe lies in barely noticing the difference between the contemporary humans in the film and the prehistoric creatures. The visibility of the CGI lies less in the image in front of our eyes than the historical knowledge we have that knows they became extinct 65 million years ago.
But what if the computer generated imagery matches our everyday reality as Jurassic Park does not? As Pat Byrne says, quoted in Stephen Prince’s fine article, ‘True Lies’ “the line between real and not-real will become more and more blurred.” The notion of the out of frame has no meaning if there is no indexical reality to which the image refers: in other words if the image is not taken from life but created by a computer, many of the questions of film become superfluous. Of course Hollywood has often cared little for the real world and frequently staged versions of it in the studio backlot, but when for example in Pursuits of Happiness Cavell discusses “Cary Grant’s photogenetic tendency to thoughtfulness, some inner concentration of intellectual energy”, this is a thought on the actor through the characters he plays. It isn’t a remark about Cary Grant, but it isn’t an observation simply on the character either. It is a comment on the combination: on the actor playing various characters in The Philadelphia Story, Monkey Business, His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby. Equally, when Cavell says in The World Viewed “in movies, clothes conceal; hence they conceal something separate from them; the something is therefore empirically there to be unconcealed. A woman in a movie is dressed (as she is, when she is, in reality), hence potentially undressed”, the remark is based on the indexical nature of the image, and the question of sub-text is much less interesting than what we could call the indexical palimpsest: the layering of a story on top of ‘reality’; the ‘reality’ on top of a story. When McKee is talking about sub-text he isn’t thinking at all about Jack Nicholson; he is talking about J.J. Gittes. When Cavell discusses Dexter in The Philadelphia Story in Pursuits of Happiness he acknowledges both the actor and the character. “It seems that George Cukor is calling upon the quality of Grant’s photogenesis discovered…in the comedies Grant made for Howard Hawks ? I mean the air he can convey of mental preoccupation, of a continuous thoughtfulness that makes him spiritually inaccessible to those around him.” This is the indexical palimpsest that imposes actors on characters, stories on human subjects. The films are documents of Grant’s behaviour contained by character, and explorations of character augmented by Grant’s persona.
In a digitally oriented universe, where the hazy world of visible and invisible CGI allows for synthespians ? computer generated figures that have no real life model on which they are based ? Cavellian-style commentary becomes meaningless. The actress who is dressed and could thus become equally undressed is neither clothed nor unclothed: she is a computerised figure who is only ever there as an algorithmic entity, not an ontological one. In such a world McKee’s notion of sub-text will perhaps have far more place, and chiefly for two reasons. Firstly there is no ontological tension vitiating the sub-textual, and secondly and subsequently, the sub-text becomes inevitably much more important. When you have the digital J. J. Gittes talking to the digital Evelyn Mulwray, we don’t have the actors’ backstory invoked (unless, like in the recent Ari Folman film The Congress the digitization is based on former stars): they are blank slates. Many of the questions of film evaporate. Yet our point here is chiefly to explore how sub-text is such a limited way of looking at a cinematic art work because of all these pro-filmic facts that are often at least as interesting as any intentional, implicit ones the filmmaker puts into the film.
If we think of Cavell’s comments again, and apply them to Nicholson, can we not say that one of the advantages of casting Nicholson in the role is that he is a great actor of noisy frustration, of impetuous investigation. In both Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail he unhappily starts fights; in The Shining he can’t handle solitude, and in The Passenger he can’t cope with his own personality and adopts another one. Nicholson is frequently an actor who doesn’t take a step back but a step forward: he doesn’t take the measure of a situation, he embroils himself in it. Rather than thinking of the sub-text in his scenes with Mulwray it is surely no less interesting to see a behavioural mode at work, a certain way of being in the world that Nicholson encapsulates, and that we see as part of a world beyond the frame, beyond the film. This doesn’t mean we assume to know what Nicholson is like; merely to indicate that in the roles he takes, Nicholson’s characters possess the qualities we are attributing to him. Call this “Nicholson”, just as we could describe the Cary Grant Cavell explores “Grant”. This is neither the character the actor plays, nor the actor himself, but an intermediate being cinema is so good at creating. It is in economic terms the star, described well, in Richard Dyer’s book Stars, “where the success of stardom and stars has been attributed to the manipulation of the market, an analogy with the ‘manipulations’ of advertising…the star system lends itself particularly well to the manipulation thesis because of the enormous amount of money, time and energy spent by the industry in building up star images through publicity, promotion, fan clubs etc.” But of course, as Dyer acknowledges, a star is many other things too, and not simply a manipulable product. He or she is also a magnified singularity: a particular figure even if the type he or she plays is general. J. J. Gittes is a private detective, of which cinema has many, but he is also embodied as a figure in the world. As Cavell says, “we must note the sense in which the creation of a screen performer is also the creation of a character – not the kind of character an author creates, but the kind that certain real people are: a type.” (The World Viewed) Nicholson is a certain type of person, and partly because of this Gittes is a certain type of detective. The two types coming together create a singularity: we are unlikely to confuse Bogart’s detective with Nicholson’s, Elliott Gould’s with Robert Mitchum’s. We might see similarities between Bogart’s and Mitchum’s, but this still doesn’t make them interchangeable. After all Mitchum was a big actor, Bogart a small one. Or at least that is the way we perceive them on screen. Imdb gives Bogart’s height as 1.74m, hardly tiny, while Mitchum is listed as 1.85, tall but a good deal smaller than Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper or Sean Connery. Yet Bogart plays up his lack of inches, best known for working with actresses roughly his own height, with Lauren Bacall slightly shorter at 1.73, and Ingrid Bergman 1.75.
Nicholson’s height is given as 1.77; Faye Dunaway’s as 1.70, yet in key scenes together they are more or less the same height: there is no sense that Gittes looms over Mulwray, or indeed that Nicholson looms over most of his leading ladies. His habit of intimidation is to move in close, clench his teeth and suggest an energy that is sexual more than aggressive. We can see it in the sequence where Mulwray insists she will get into her own car rather than Gittes’s, and Gittes accuses her of hiding something. In this single take shot Gittes stands on the left of the screen, Mulwray on the right, with more than a foot between them initially, then closing to a few inches before the end of the scene. If the scene were played by a much taller actor the emphasis might have shifted slightly, and the point Gittes makes within it would be a little altered. These are people who will later become lovers, and so the close proximity, while reflecting Gittes’s anger, also hints at desire. Additionally, by the end of the film, though Mulwray has been hiding something, like Nicholson she is an innocent, puppeteered by her monstrous father, Noah Cross. Thirdly, in this scene Gittes points out that he almost lost his nose while investigating the case that she instigated and that he likes his nose, he likes breathing out of it. If he were so much taller than she, then the moment wouldn’t be quite so effective. Here Gittes is, head to head, with a nose bandaged up and right in Mulwray’s face.
This ‘level-headed’ scene can be contrasted with another, one between Cross and Gittes. Here Gittes visits Cross on his land and talks to him about knowing details of a water supply manipulation. Cross towers over Gittes even when he hunches, and what matters in the scene is less the sub-text that can be extracted than the visual dynamics of the sequence. Gittes is clearly powerless in this scene, and while he holds onto his dignity and integrity, confronting Cross with tough questions about the water supply, asking him about his personal wealth and what can possibly motivate a man so rich to get even richer, there isn’t a moment when we aren’t aware that he is a small man in every sense. Shortly before the scene ends, Cross calls to another man who enters the frame, and looks even taller than Cross and thoroughly shrinks Gittes. The man points a gun at Gittes’s head as Cross insists Gittes hand over a pair of glasses to the henchman that are an important piece of evidence. While the script could play up the gun and also Cross’s mispronunciation of Gittes’ name (he calls him Gitts), it is the framing and the actors’ height that are vital to the scenes’ qualities.
Add to this that Gittes is played by Nicholson who at the time was the lover of Anjelica Huston, John Huston’s daughter, and the film possesses an odd frisson that Nicholson insisted played into the role and the dynamic between Gittes and Cross. Patrick McGilligan quotes Nicholson saying that there was “a triangular offstage situation” that fed into the role, and Nicholson started seeing her not long before making Chinatown: McGilligan reports that “what excited him most of all was that she was John’s daughter. He was so thrilled that he, from Nepture, New Jersey, could have captured this princess whose father was John Huston.” (Jack’s Life) Of course this information is essentially gossip, but as we’ve proposed, the notion of production detail in a film is quite different from that of a novel. It isn’t that we should simply absorb production history as fact, but instead always try and utilise it for the purposes of aesthetics. If film happens to be an aesthetic medium based so strongly on contingent factors and existential realities, then gossip can be transformed into a question of variables at work in the material.
One of the ideas behind the importance of sub-text perhaps resides in film’s status as a debatable art form, and that the best way to elevate it is to utilise the interpretive tools of the other arts to give it more authority. But while this might make it easier to teach film in the university, it tames the art form, prunes it of its ontological fundamentals. It might seem trivial to talk about Nicholson’s secret idea behind his character, the specifics of actors’ heights, and the disagreements behind the production, when we could instead be talking about the deep structures and symbolic resonances within the film. One can see the influence of Greek tragedy with the hubristic Cross master of all he surveys, Gittes the man blind to the realities in front of him until it is too late, and Mulwray the daughter who is the knowing victim of Cross’s sexual abuse but unable to tell Gittes until her fate is sealed. The film’s importance of course relies partly on this capacity to access mythic resonances, to make a film set in the thirties and directed in the seventies that nevertheless has some of the weight and purpose of a tale thousands of years old.
But we could also imagine that if this film starred Dustin Hoffman as Gittes, Katharine Ross as Mulwray and Murray Hamilton as Cross, directed by Mike Nichols, we would have a very different film. We offer this hypothetical alternative not dismissively – these were the people involved in The Graduate – but to acknowledge how difficult it might have been to access the darkness of the film’s investigation into evil and power without Polanski’s direction and the actors involved. Partly what makes cinema cinematic is this feeling that it isn’t all in the script and simply waiting for competent and efficient professionals to contribute, but that the script is merely embryonic. There will be many bad Shakespeare adaptations, on the stage and in the cinema, but the play’s the thing. The screenplay is not the thing, and so while Polanski three years earlier adapted Macbeth for the screen, it inevitably competes both with numerous other screen adaptations, including Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Trevor Nunn’s TV version with Ian McKellan and Judi Dench. A play adaptation (even a definitive screen version like A Streetcar Named Desire or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) does not become the last word, but only another remark, however pertinent. But to remake Chinatown, Taxi Driver, or Bonnie and Clyde, or to adapt them for the stage, would be to acknowledge a debt to the work they would be in danger of defaulting over. A Shakespeare adaptation might be terrible, but it is a disaster in the name of Shakespeare; a remake of Taxi Driver that doesn’t work would be in the name of Scorsese, De Niro, and then its scriptwriter Paul Schrader.
This perhaps resembles Cavell’s thoughts on what a fiction film happens to be. “If reality does play an essential role in understanding the medium of film, and if its role is not that of being recorded, then what is its role?” Cavell believes “the recording is aurally distinguished from that event, where “in principle” it signifies that the essential virtue of a recording is fidelity.” (The World Viewed) Some TV recordings of a play are exactly that: documents of the play that demand capturing a performance that history doesn’t want to lose. The moment was the day of the recording, and the filming is its capturing. It is not the capturing that is the event, but the play. Yet Taxi Driver or Chinatown has no original event, no single day when the screenplay was performed and then put on film: the point is that the event is the film, not merely the recording of its performance. This is why nobody is likely to groan when someone suggests a new Shakespeare performance, or putting on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or A Streetcar Named Desire on the stage. If however someone balks slightly at a filmic remake of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Streetcar Named Desire, it may reside in the notion that the adaptation is not simply an adaptation of a play, but a definitive film in its own right. They possess something of the filmic status of Chinatown and Taxi Driver. The plays will be more uniquely themselves than the scripts of Robert Towne and Paul Schrader, but the contributory dimension of others so strong that they become film works. People can adapt the plays as often as they like on the stage, but to make a film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? wouldn’t only be to adapt Albee’s work, it would be remaking a film whose combinatory elements make it a filmic event and very far from a recording. Casting Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, using top scriptwriter Ernest Lehman to make minor changes, having the great cameraman Haskell Wexler shoot in black and white, and using Mike Nichols as director, his first film after much stage work, leaves the film feeling cinematically definitive.
What our Cavellian digression has allowed us to do is think again of the problem of sub-text from another angle. It makes it clear that film is not an act of intentionality put onto film, a recorded work, but a contingent act, a made work. Of course most filmmakers do work with scripts, and Jean-Luc Godard remains a film legend partly because he didn’t write a categorical one in advance, but worked much more improvisationally. Yet numerous directors a little more respectful of the written word nevertheless also see their films in images and situations, and regard the script as an augmenter of the creation. Werner Herzog talks about his later films having “screenplays with more dialogue in them, but as usual have changed a good deal en route.” (Herzog on Herzog) Antonioni saw film as “a mnemonic synthesis, which always presupposes in the memory of the viewer what is not present on screen, or what happened before, as well as the possible developments of the present situation.” (The Architecture of Vision) Robert Altman would say of Nashville: “the scenes with Geraldine Chaplin wandering around in the junk yard and among the yellow buses – I’d driven past those places every day and thought, ‘we’ve really got to shoot there’. So we just stopped on the highway, threw Geraldine into it, and she improvised her rap.” (Altman on Altman)
It is as though they are all indicating that we do not concern ourselves especially with what the film is saying implicitly, but comprehend the observation and perception that is offered explicitly. Antonioni is not asking us to interpret, especially, the off-screen space; he is saying it is a feature of film that he is concerned to work with more than most filmmakers hitherto. This is a question of absent degrees. The outside of a painting is less pertinent than the outside of a film image. The painting is not only painted rather than filmed, it is also, unlike sound film, silent: it doesn’t possess an audio presence invoking what is beyond the frame. Yet most films, even if they do have sound, do not strongly invoke an offscreen presence: most of the sounds are no more than ambient noise, they give no strong sense of a felt absence outside the image on screen. When in the famous penultimate shot in The Passenger, Antonioni offers a long take through the bars of the hotel window, the offscreen sounds always make us aware of the out of frame. It isn’t only the shot itself that leaves behind Jack Nicholson lying alive on the bed, only to return seven minutes later to show his dead body, that makes us wonder why we are concentrating on what is onscreen rather what is out of the frame. It is also the sound pressing us to muse over what isn’t present in the shot.
Rather than trying to work out what this image means, it might be useful first to wonder why it is such an unusual piece of cinema. What does it make us think and feel in the process of watching it? If we jump too quickly to sub-textual interpretation, if we insist that the shot symbolises Locke’s alienation from the world, we would be attending to the sub-text more than the visual experience. We could go directly to some sub-text about Nicholson’s David Locke perhaps being linked to the great English philosopher John Locke, and insisting the film is about some failed social contract between African dictatorships and British press freedoms. This might be useful as David takes on another man’s identity as a gun runner after being frustrated with his role as TV journalist, but there are brilliant moments of aesthetic creation on the way to that interpretation.
This piece however is not, to use Susan Sontag’s phrase, “against interpretation”. When Sontag says “the temptation to interpret [Last Year at] Marianbad should be resisted. What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form”, we can support interpretation and still insist on the attention to formal properties. This needn’t be an either/or, but it ought at least to accept that cinema is a medium with its own set of problematics, and that perhaps the issue of sub-text is but a minor element of what cinema gives to us. We might be reminded of semiotician Christian Metz’s often quoted remark that “an easy art, the cinema is in constant danger of falling victim to this easiness.” (Film Language) Yet within that ease of perception resides numerous intriguing questions that ought not to be buried by moving from the ease with which it shows us something, and the abstract need to turn the film into something more complicated. There are many complications along the way.