Body Language in Film
David Thomson says when speaking of Hitchcock, "I think that he approached filmmaking as a way of looking at women he couldn't have which is not that far from the way millions of people have always gone to the movies." (Los Angeles Review of Books) Thomson wouldn't be entirely wrong but he is surely only very partially correct. Is the looking we enjoy when going to the cinema much broader than the voyeuristic and perhaps closer to Sigfried Kracauer's notion of revealing functions. Kracauer asks what films are likely to discover, and says "the evidence available suggests that they assume three kinds of revealing functions. They tend to reveal things normally unseen; phenomena overwhelming consciousness and certain aspects of the other world which may be called 'special modes of reality.'" Thus he says cinema can show tiny things close-up; enormous things like huge crowds of people, and "the third and last group of things normally unseen consists of phenomena which figure among the blind spots of the mind; habit and prejudice prevent us from noticing them." (Theory of Film) Kracauer gives as an example a filmmaker showing their work to local Africans and the audience talked about a moment where a chicken is seen picking food in the mud. The director didn't recall such a moment and only found it when looking at every foot of his film: present fleetingly in the corner of the frame. These examples can seem close to Kracauer's contemporary, Walter Benjamin's notion of the optical unconscious, "a term which he coined in 1931 to capture the realm of the unseen that photography introduced" ('Toronto Photography Seminar'). As Benjamin himself put it: "it is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis." ('The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'). How much that we watch isn't quite seen but is witnessed, available to our perception yet not quite apprehended by it?
Even if Thomson is not incorrect in emphasising how important conspicuous desire happens to be, film shows us so many things alongside the men and women one may find attractive. Do we know exactly why we are watching a film and what exactly we are witnessing? The desirability of the actors and the centrality of the plot may give us an apparent focus but film is full of residual information that we might not notice is there but would be noticed if it were missing. If we are shown someone eating out of a cereal packet we could fail to apprehend what make it happens to be but if the box were completely blank we might muse over the packaging's absence. More obviously, if a character enters an apartment people might not notice the furniture but if there was no furniture at all it would be conspicuously absent. One not-notices all the time, seeing things that we ignore because we don't need to attend to them but where their absence would be something we'd attend to. Perhaps much that passes for cinema wishes us to ignore what seems irrelevant and allows it in the frame only to emphasise all the more the not-noticing to sit behind what we ought to notice. Yet what is contained in a film that isn't so conspicuously part of the action and residually evident in the body language is one way of thinking about a problem that we'll call jurisdiction, or perceptual permission. What if Thomson is only partially correct; that what films give us isn't just the permission to look at beautiful people who might be unattainable otherwise but something more fundamental still: the opportunity to look at great length at something in front of our eyes. It is socially unacceptable of course to stare; a social study "found that, on average, the subjects liked the actors to make eye contact with them for 3.2 seconds..." (Scientific American) That is no time at all cinematically so surely one of the pleasures of film is being able to gaze for much longer at people and the context in which they find themselves. If we have far more time to look at people on screen than we do in life, why shouldn't filmmakers make much of that opportunity and make films that aren't about action limiting itself to the immediacy of purposeful behaviour but opens cinema up to allow for the elongation of observation in its various manifestations?
There are of course many filmmakers who have. Let us think first of An Autumn Tale, where on the DVD extras, Eric Rohmer discusses how rare he feels it is for characters to fold their arms in film and yet he has always liked showing people doing so. If Rohmer is talking about the body in space, Jean-Luc Godard discusses editing in the context of the visage: "the real reverse shot hasn't been found. The Americans...soon beat the shot/reverse shot to death, making it into a trivial ping-pong shot to death. The director no longer tries to have two people look at each other, listen to each other, thinking of each other, which is already six possibilities multiplied by six..." (Enthusiasm) David Bordwell, meanwhile, attacks filmmakers who don't create a mise en scene but work with endless tight closes-up and insist on fast editing. In what he calls the run-and-gun style he sees that in The Bourne Ultimatum "it is indeed visceral, but let's be aware of how it achieves its impact. The clean, hard-edged technique of classic Hong Kong films allows extravagant action to affect us viscerally; by following the action effortlessly we can feel the bodily impact. We're shown bodies in sleek, efficient movement that gets amplified by cogent framing and smooth matches on action." (Minding Movies)
Earlier in the book, in another essay, Bordwell mentions a scene in Hou Hsaio-Hsien Summer at Grandpa's. "...A tiny toy fan falls between railroad tracks as a locomotive roars past. The fan's blades stop, then spin in the opposite direction as the train thunders over it. The blades reverse again when the train has gone. " Bordwell wonders if Hou could have known how the fan would behave or was it just that he noticed by photographing the entire moment that it reversed and thus included it in his film. A moment of happenstance that contains nevertheless something quietly meaningful. For Bordwell The Bourne Ultimatum isn't only bad craft next to Hong Kong action films, it is also the sort of work that would be too hectic to allow for the contingent detail that Hou accepts into his film. If the filmmaker in the African documentary Kracauer invokes finds there is more in his film than he realises, Hou takes advantage of the information the camera captures along with the intentional aspects he wishes to film: the more the camera observes events rather than dictates the action, the more chance there will be to incorporate details that can play into the optical unconscious, and the more chance we have of seeing in cinema what we often notice in life when we pay it attention and feel we have the time or permission to observe it.
If we think about the camera and the body, if we think of the spectator and the projection, what sort of dispositif, what sort of amalgamation of screen elements, can allow us jurisdiction in the film image; how does film allow us to see what we often don't have the chance to look at for any length of time in life that we can observe for a length of time on screen? When we say for example that someone we know reminds us of an actor, the irony is that we may have spent far more time watching the actor than we have spent observing our friend. Yet we can only do the former if the film has offered the opportunity to do so. It isn't enough that the film gives us perceptual permission that social rules deny us; it also needs a filmmaker willing to allow us to observe human behaviour on the screen. Yet we shouldn't assume this is the reserve of directors known for their slow, long takes, like Hou, or filmmakers who think very carefully about body language (Rohmer) or film language (Godard). Many a classic Hollywood film gives us this opportunity as well. When data tells us that the average time we can look at someone in life is 3.2 seconds we can use the sort of quantitive research that Bordwell and others practice in film analysis to see just how, very basically, a film allows or denies perceptual permission. Bordwell notes in The Way Hollywood Tells It, that classic Hollywood films by John Stahl, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder and Vincente Minnelli often have average shot lengths of between 19 and 33 seconds as he gives examples like Back Street (19 seconds) and Fallen Angel (33 seconds). Bordwell sees that many contemporary films have come down to below three seconds. The Bourne Ultimatum yields "an average shot length of about 2 seconds per shot. But there are other fast-cut films that don't yield the same dizzy effects, such as Sky Captain and The World Tomorrow (1.6 seconds average), Batman Begins (1.9 seconds), Idiocracy (1.9 seconds), and the Transporter movies (less than 2 seconds)." (Minding Movies) In a shot length of a couple of seconds there isn't much to observe as film, which has generally allowed us to look far beyond societal decorum, often now proves more visually censorious than the social norm.
What are we missing in shot lengths that get ever shorter, in an aesthetic that lets so little life into the frame? To ask this question we will look more specifically later at four actors who have often been given space within the shot James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson and Jane Fonda. We can watch how they make a cup of coffee, order a beer at the bar, walk through a busy street or move around an apartment. Equally, since they have been on film for many years, we can see how they age on screen, how body movements that seem so flexible earlier in their careers become slowed down, deliberate. Obviously, throughout their working lives, actors are playing people other than themselves but they are using their body to play these roles. They have given us perceptual permission to look at them, and in looking at them we will be looking not only at the character but at the body behind the role. French critics used the term plan americain to describe medium long shots showing someone, or several people, usually seen from the knee up, shots very prevalent in classic Hollywood. But often you could see the whole body too. If classic cinema could be conservative in how much of the body could be seen in the sort of voyeuristic sense (where nudity was banned), it made up for it in the observational sense: one could look at those on screen and muse over how they walked into a building, how they crossed the threshold of a room, how they crossed a dance floor. When we see Humphrey Bogart get out of a cab and walk to the entrance of an apartment building, the camera follows the movement so that we see Bogart in medium close up and full long shot without a cut. Earlier in the film, when Bogart arrives at Lauren Bacall's apartment he carries a woman over the threshold and we see him placing her on the bed with Bacall pulling down the sheets. These are characters' actions but they are also actors' body movements. A filmmaker could offer the characters' actions without much attention to the actors themselves. A series of cuts could show what we need to know without giving the viewer any sense of how Bogart carries the body, how Bacall moves through space and turns down the sheets. The more discrete the action; the less we know about the actor. Yet one of the pleasures of film isn't only following the characters but also the actors, a point constantly acknowledged if rarely emphasised. When a critic says an actor moves gracefully on screen they usually name the actor, not the character, and it is usually only in miscasting that the gap is articulated. As Andrew Sarris says, reviewing My Fair Lady: "Audrey [Hepburn] herself is somewhat too mature for the role of Eliza Dolittle and hopelessly miscast as the tough cockney flower girl. Audrey has always been the gamine, relying more on charm than character, her eyes flirting shamelessly with coy flutters or regal helplessness." (Confessions of a Cultist) The failure creates the gap between the two, between the actor and the character, that is usually presented as one. As Sarris again notices when speaking of Rex Harrison in the role of Henry Higgins: "Harris came much cheaper [than Cary Grant] and fully rehearsed into the bargain. [He'd played the role on stage.] Unfortunately, he was also eight years older, closer to sixty than fifty, and looking every year of it." (Confessions of a Cultist) Harrison would nevertheless have been four years older than Grant, yet Grant would have been deemed less unsuitable for the role opposite Hepburn (who he had starred with the previous year in Charade). However, Sarris makes clear that Harrison is too old for the part and in such instances we might say not only do we have miscasting, we also have perceptual dissonance, a gap between the body of the actor and the character they play.
If film allows the opportunity to see the world, to gaze at the world, through the construction of a fictional one, that means that the world behind the fictional one is still important to us. If the film wants to show an ageing person then usually it is best to cast an older actor in the role, and vice versa if the film wishes to show us a younger one. Sometimes an actor can very well pull off the one but not the other, with Robert De Niro ageing convincingly in Once Upon a Time in America but looking stiff and gingery playing a much younger man in most of The Irishman. In the latter, Scorsese used computer-generated imagery to make De Niro look much younger than his years but whether beating a man up or tossing his gun into the Hudson, the movements are those of someone far beyond the character's years. Adrienne Tyler reckons, "the de-aging process only applies to how actors look and not for how they move and talk. This can be seen in the scene where Frank beats up the shop owner that pushed his daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina, and later played by Anna Paquin): he's supposed to be in his late 30s, but his movements are those of a man in his 70s, which is De Niro's real age." (ScreenRant) In such instances, the film is playing tricks on our perceptual faculties; we see a younger face and an older gesture though Scorsese did it for the best of reasons it can produce from a certain point of view the worst of results. If we go to the cinema to see how people are on the screen, if we watch not only with our conscious faculties but our subconscious ones too, we are in the unhappy valley of cognitive dissonance. Steve Rose notes, "It's a paradox of animation that you can put arms and a face on a spoon, say, or make a deer talk, and it looks cute. But make a character too lifelike, and the brain no longer reads it as good animation, but as reality with something wrong about it." (Guardian) The Irishman's paradox is that while we might just about accept De Niro looking thirty years younger we cannot then believe that this face has the body language of a man thirty years older. It isn't just that the face is one we have never seen before (the younger De Niro didn't look like the artificially youthful De Niro) as we sort of see the younger De Niro in it, but that even if we accept the visage we cannot accept the match with the body. If Bordwell sees the problem with an image that relies too much on close ups so that we get little sense of the actor moving through the frame, in The Irishman we have not so much an overly limited perspective but an erroneous one. Yet in both instances, life is lost in the frame, either due to a too constrained image or a too artificial perceptual field.
One shouldn't take this as a rejection of animation, nor even CGI effects. In the former, the suspension of visual disbelief is often quite pronounced, one reason why Rose can talk of the viewer having little problem with faces on spoons and so on. Yet in the latter it can be quite pronounced too: nobody watching Jurassic Park need think dinosaurs are once against among us but Steven Spielberg and his special effects team made us believe in the unbelievable and made us see what can no longer be seen. He resurrected something that had always been missing from our perceptual horizon, an absence yearned for by children who are so often fascinated by dinosaurs. It was as though the imagination demanded the effect: that once technology had advanced enough it could then go back to the pre-historic and give very strong images to our yearnings to see the extinct. Animation meanwhile seems often to appeal to one's desire for the anthropomorphic, a focus on the gap between the world as it is and the world as it can be imagined without at all being real. As Umberto Eco says, speaking of Disneyland's wish to play up the artificial rather than the lifelike: "more hyperrealistic than the wax museum, precisely because the latter still tries to make us believe that what we are seeing reproduces reality absolutely... Disneyland makes it clear that within its magic enclosure it is fantasy that is absolutely reproduced." (Travels in Hyperreality) Taking into account our remarks on the uncanny valley, the waxwork is an uncanny image close to reality that perhaps suggests a horrible gap that makes us sense the unreal within the real that animation usually closes. It makes sense that many of Disney's films are adaptations of fairy tales and lack the uncanny dimension. As Freud says: "Fairy-tales quite frankly adopt the animistic standpoint of the omnipotence of thoughts and wishes, and yet I cannot think of any genuine fairy-story which has anything uncanny about it." ('The Uncanny')
Another way of looking at the uncanny is as the untoward, as something that doesn't quite add up. There is obviously nothing uncanny about an image that focuses on telling its story in close-up and with a frantic handheld camera, while there happens to be when we see De Niro throw a gun into the Hudson in The Irishman. Yet Bordwell notes that one reason why we don't notice the untoward in films like The Bourne Supremacy is that the film is so frantically put together that the flaws are well-hidden: "the handheld camera covers three mistakes: bad acting, bad set design and bad directing." (Minding Movies) Continuity errors can be covered up, acting can be based on a quick reaction shot in close up rather than developed body language across a scene, and bad directing can be evident as we are unable to follow the action because we aren't given the necessary variables in the scene. We cannot work out why Jason is doing what is doing because while he may know exactly why he is moving from one place to another, our field of vision is so limited that we can't share his comprehension. As Bordwell says, "Jason must know the layout in detail, if he's able to pursue others and escape so efficiently" but we are not privy to the same spatial complexity and thus it can seem like bad direction. If it is cheating on the audience, allowing us to see so little and leaving us unaware of errors along the way, it is quite different from trying to get our minds to accept a younger face with much more creaky body movements. Yet both might be undermining our main point: that film is a great medium of perceptual permission.
One needn't pretend that films haven't always cheated on us, found ways around problems that have allowed the filmmakers to take the easier option. Simply looking at a forties car chase using rear projection in contrast to The French Connection or Bullitt will make us aware that film has often in the past taken the path of least resistance. But let us say that even, or perhaps more especially, when watching Tippi Hedren riding a horse in Marnie or Cary Grant involved in a car chase in North By Northwest, the rear projection is very much a backdrop, dramatically pertinent yet scenically irrelevant: that what matters much more is the expression on the actors' faces over the location the actors happen to be in. In The French Connection, Gene Hackman is much more welded into the sequence, that many of the shots are of the car, the streets, other cars and people getting in the way. They cannot be separated out but in many a film of rear projection that separation is very distinct. If Laura Mulvey can say that "rear projection represented an attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands of star performances and action sequences: the stars' close ups and dialogue could not necessarily be recorded during scenes involving dramatic action (or even driving a car)", she also says that "essentially a film is made up of three-time levels: the time of viewing, the time of registration, and the time of fiction that emerges from the edited construction of a narrative." (Afterimages) In this sense, though, rear projection offers a fourth. If there is the filming, the fiction and the viewing, then the filming is twofold: there is the recording of the back-projected footage and the filming of the actors in a car with the projection behind them. Mulvey has made much of this gap and has drawn on expanded cinema filmmakers like Mark Lewis as a way of both understanding rear projection and the uncanniness it can generate if looked at in a certain way or viewed within a certain context. We can say in classic Hollywood that rear projection was used very much as a backdrop to the drama that we could take as the proper place of temporal significance, despite the two temporalities evident in the rear projection footage of the streets and the studio footage of the actors, and that a film like The French Connection removes this gap by making everything consistent with the one temporality as Hackman really does drive through the streets of New York. As Friedkin said, "shooting the chase was just a matter of putting the camera in the car with Hackman or mounting it on the hood, or on the front bumper. There are no opticals in the chase....it's all done at real speed." (Film Quarterly)
However, contemporary Hollywood looks like it may increasingly move towards a reversal of the temporality evident in The French Connection by making nothing real. Here CGI doesn't prioritise the actors within the frame but the actors are reduced to the exigencies of the special effects. "What happens when it becomes easier to CG the characters than actually use the actors portraying them? And if the technology was good enough, would audiences even notice the difference?" (Radio Times) Huw Fullerton adds, "while no-one would be surprised to see the alien character Ebony Maw constructed by CG artists, it might be more of a shock that often, characters like Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) are, at times, entirely animated, even in non-action scenes." Here we see the priorities evident in traditional rear-projection reversed in computer generated imagery. The actors serve the action; the action doesn't serve the actor. As Fullerton says, "[VFX supervisor Alexis ] Wajsbrot revealed that much of the ensuing battle had literally no basis in reality, with a large amount (though not all) of the fighting never filmed at all and instead created digitally." (Radio Times) In such an instance, the perceptual permission is of little value: we are looking not at people but at things, and we can stare at a thing for as long as we like.
But let us turn away from such bleak thoughts and turn our minds towards actors who we feel over the years have allowed us to view them on the screen and to understand an aspect of our lives through looking at a dimension of their performances. When thinking of Ingrid Bergman, in films like Gaslight, Casablanca and Voyage to Italy, one recognises someone who, though frequently shown moving through screen space, is someone we are inclined to watch (and hear) especially for how she uses her visage and her voice. Even when we do watch her in a medium shot, it is Bergman's face that we are inclined to pay attention to. When she walks through the streets with her husband (Charles Boyer) in Gaslight, he quizzes her about a man (Joseph Cotton) they have just passed and who has taken his hat off to her. Bergman's character tells her husband she doesn't know who the man happens to be and we watch as she tries beseechingly to convince her husband that she is telling the truth. At one moment her face turns to the right away from her husband, looking down slightly, as though trying to find a memory in an indistinct place just off-screen. When her husband asks whether she is telling the truth she turns back to face him in a quick head gesture that registers both her dismay that he might think she could lie and with a determination to reassure. It isn't that Bergman doesn't do anything with her body, she especially uses her hands, it is more that these are functional elements that no viewer would be inclined to see as especially a feature of Bergman's persona. While Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn in quite different ways utilise their bodies very concretely, whether it is Katharine's forceful walk or Audrey's reticent movements with outbursts of assertiveness, we watch Bergman for the often subtle modulations available in her face. Late in Gaslight, when her husband insists that a visit by Cotton was all in her head, her reaction is focused mainly on the visage. Though we see her getting up from the chair as Boyer asks the maid if she saw anybody and Bergman moves towards the maid after the maid says she didn't let anyone in, determined to convince her that of course she did, Bergman's body language is stiff and limited; her face vivid with various forms of fret. Are they both lying to her; is she really going crazy is the maid playing along out of professional duty or as a subtle subversion aware just how far Boyer will go to drive his wife mad and is actually on Bergman's side? Near the end of the scene, Bergman says, "did I dream, did I really, really dream" but the words on the page don't remotely register the tone in which she says this. The words are spoken with various inflections that manage to suggest a woman who is exhausted trying to please her husband, to stay sane, and also looks like she just wants to succumb to the dream, sleeping for a thousand nights. Nothing in the body language conveys this but the face and voice convince us entirely.
In Casablanca, in flashback, Bergman has fallen in love with Bogart thinking her husband is dead. We and Bogart don't know that she has discovered he is alive but she has and as they talk about going away together we can see in her face doubt, dismay, duplicity and desire: a complicated mix of emotions the complexity of war has brought out. As he tells her he will pick her up at her hotel at 430, she says "no...no..not at my hotel. Well, I have things to do in the city before I leave." There are tears in her eyes and the non-diegetic music plays as the tears and the music do little to help the performance, but still Bergman's voice and facial gestures convey a sense that she will, of course, be there at the station before five and obviously that she won't be. Through most of the scene, Bergman is seated and while the music does nothing to aid the performance, moving around the room wouldn't have added anything to it either. All the emotional registers can be conveyed from the neck up Bergman is like a talking bust that has no need of more marble to make the rest of the statue. One offers this as no insult but as a huge compliment to one of the greatest of screen actors when it comes to vocal modulation and facial nuance.
Such a claim might be especially interesting in the context of her work for Roberto Rossellini and especially the third collaboration with the director, Voyage to Italy. If Hollywood generally utilised the close-up as the way chiefly to convey meaning, Rossellini was a director much more interested in locating characters in milieux greater than the narrative required. While Casablanca was filmed in a Hollywood backlot, Voyage to Italy made the most of its location shooting, with Naples not merely a backdrop to the story but a locale out of which the story comes. The British couple (Bergman and George Sanders) are 'poisoned by laziness" in Naples and the slow lifestyle leads to thoughts surfacing that indicate the marriage won't survive. In both Gaslight and Casablanca, Bergman is playing someone with a plot to work out or a plot to hide. In the first film, she eventually discovers her husband has been driving her crazy so that he can get hold of the jewels of a woman he years earlier murdered. In Casablanca, Bergman keeps for much of the film details of the story that leaves Bogart in the dark, suspicious and resentful. Both films have plot aplenty but Voyage to Italy has characters immersed in space rather than expositionally giving out information or surreptitiously holding on to it. The face becomes less dramatically important and the body language much more pronounced. It was as though Rossellini saw a quality in Bergman that could have worked in a Dreyer, the sort of somnambulistic movements of Ordet and Gertrud. In the moment before we see her look at a letter Sanders leaves on the outside table, she moves around the apartment fussily and, as she exits, wonders where he is as she calls after him. The scene follows her in medium long shot, but goes further than the plan americain, showing her from the ankles up. What Rossellini registers isn't an actor's graceful move through space but her hesitancies, her abruptness, her confusion. We wouldn't say Bergman isn't acting here but it seems that Rossellini wants to document his wife of the time, seeing in her aspects that Hollywood missed, even if these elements revealed her ostensible limitations as an actress. Tag Gallagher reckoned that "Voyage in Italy often evokes the style of a home movie of the Joyces' remarkable vacation, because it is a home movie; a recording of what happened to Ingrid Bergman while her husband filmed her attempts to make love with - of all unlikely people - George Sanders (a situation her husband, not at all ingenuously, had set up), and how they went here and there looking for something to see." (The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini) Speaking of her first film with Rossellini (Stromboli), Dan Callahan says, "it's as if he is considering this woman, his quarry, and he's not sure he likes what he sees", and that is both probably too harsh an assessment and a problematic assumption, yet watching Voyage to Italy we see Rossellini bring out a pinched, brusque quality missing in those earlier Hollywood films. Relying much more on her body moving through space, rather than her face and voice registering the smallest of gestures, Bergman gives a different type of performance, the type she would never have been naturally keen to offer. Callahan notes too that Bergman wasn't happy with the long-take approach Hitchcock utilised in Under Capricorn just before she started working with Rossellini but she ended up admitting in Ingrid Bergman: My Story: "I must say, much better than being cut up and edited..."
Yet Bergman at her best is often cut up and edited, even if Rossellini, especially, extracted something interesting from the process of playing up Bergman's awkwardness through space rather than her genius for the close up. When we watch Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's or Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story we see how comfortably they utilise their body in screen space, conveying much of their thought through their movements. In a scene near the beginning of Breakfast at Tiffany's when she first meets her new neighbour and prospective love interest, Paul (George Peppard), Holly discusses one of those days where you have the 'mean reds', quite distinct from the blues which is just plain sadness. While she describes the difference she moves from the kitchen area where she has opened the fridge, to the floor where she crouches and then to the couch that she slumps into. Throughout, Paul is standing still; the movement belongs to Holly; Paul is the straight man whose purpose is to draw out the difference between someone who moves through space with great dexterity and a man who watches Holly's comfort in her own body even as she talks about the discomfort of her thoughts. In a scene early in The Philadelphia Story, Katharine's ex, Dexter (Cary Grant), is back at her family's enormous house and we watch her move around a room with Dexter, her mother and her teen sister. While the others move little through the space, Hepburn conveys much of her irritation and frustration not through facial gesture but through bodily movement. Whether it is jabbing at Dexter's shoulder, picking up a phone abruptly or fiddling with her fingernails, Hepburn is constantly using her body to convey her character. Again, Grant as Dexter does little: the bodily performance is Hepburn's. We can see here that the sort of warm close ups Bergman so often receives in Gaslight, Casablanca, as well as Notorious and Spellbound, are not important to Hepburn's persona and the characters she usually plays.
The third main character in Philadelphia Story is played by James Stewart, a newspaperman named Mike Connor who is there to cover this illustrious wedding but becomes increasingly attached to the bride-to-be. With an ex, a fiance and a new man, Tracy doesn't know what to do with this embarrassment of riches but the embarrassment is more Stewart's than hers. Awkwardly incorporated into this new environment he gets hopelessly drunk with Tracy and though it is Tracy who is drunk for only the second time in her life, it is Mike who looks like he can't handle the liquor. As with a number of other key actors of his generation (John Wayne, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper), Stewart was tall but few actors carried themselves with more apprehension. He looked often as though he was swaying, afraid of his own height. (It made sense that Hitchcock would utilise him for Vertigo.) When he first meets Grant in the film, he doesn't take advantage of the extra centimetres he has over him; Stewart leans into Grant in a slight hunch. Adversarially, Grant comes across as the firmer figure even he is shorter by a couple of inches and even though it is Stewart who is doing the quizzing. Anyone observing the body language of the two men will see one actor who contains an authority in his body and another who feels at any moment that the body may betray him. There is anxiety in many of Stewart's performances that segues into clumsiness without usually becoming pronounced enough to offer broad comedy. Narrow comedy might be nearer the mark and often evident in The Philadelphia Story, even if Mike offers a moment of assertiveness when he kisses Tracy. Much of the time though he appears stranded in his body, unsure whether he should stay or go as in the scene when Tracy and Mike prepare for a swim in the garden pool. Dexter arrives as Tracy and Mike come out of the changing rooms and get into a spat as Mike doesn't know where to put himself and leaves despite Tracy and Dexter's protestations that he should stay: as a writer, Dexter says, this should be right up his street. Eventually, Mike removes himself from the scene.
We should also remember that Stewart isn't just tall he is also long, as though his height was a horizontal state forced into vertical form. When we see him seated in a wheeled chair that Tracy pushes along it anticipates his role in Rear Window where his long legs will remain at all times in a state of rest. There is in Stewart a sense that if man was a reluctant biped then that reluctance had never found a more hesitant verticality than in his personage. In Rear Window, we know Jefferies has garnered the broken leg determined to get a difficult shot but he could have received it from a clumsy fall; other tall actors like Grant and those we mentioned, as well as Eastwood, Connery and Lancaster, would be more inclined than Stewart to suggest getting hurt out of bravery rather than ungainliness. But even more important to Stewart's persona than the sense that he might get hurt is the hurt his face often shows. He might treat Midge appallingly in Vertigo, with Scottie showing a curious indifference to a woman that clearly loves him, while he pursues a phantom and an enigma, but when he receives a harsh appraisal from a judge who finds him innocent of wrongdoing after the woman he pursues dies falling from a church tower, yet where the judge accuses him of general incompetence, we see on Stewart's face a look that indicates pain and desperation. He feels bad enough as it is, losing someone he has finally managed to fall in love with at the age of around fifty, but this late emotional developer must also be humiliated in a court of law as well. Stewart's voice often contains hurt but he doesn't say a word during this scene even if there are various moments where he looks like he wants to speak. As Hitchcock frequently cuts back to Scottie his lips look prepared to say something but no word is spoken. It might just be that he is in a court of law and he knows it is the job of his defence to offer any argument, but even after the hearing, when the late woman's husband, Elster, tells him that the judge's remarks were unfair, Scottie still can't speak, or doesn't get the space to do so. When he looks like he might say something, Elster says "no, there is nothing you need to say to me" as he takes full responsibility for Madeline's death, though the irony is of course that while he offers it as a kind remark to assuage Stewart's misery, later in the film we find out that he is properly responsible for Madeline's fall since he threw her off the tower.
It is easy enough to cast Stewart as a figure consumed by guilt, even if he never quite had the haunted look Henry Fonda could sometimes show in You Only Live Once and The Wrong Man. Stewart's body language illustrates someone more likely to take responsibility for a deed than many an actor of his generation; that while he can be oblivious to his emotions he is aware of his responsibilities, and is often put into situations where his manhood may be in danger of emasculation. One needn't go down the psychoanalytic route to justify such a claim: it is there to see on the surface in Rear Window, Vertigo and also It's a Wonderful Life. In Rear Window he is stuck in the apartment while his girlfriend across the way is in a flat with a murderer: he must look on as helplessly, but more hopefully, than when he looks down after finally making it up the clocktower in Vertigo, as a second woman lies dead below. In It's a Wonderful Life, he can no longer support his wife and kids and realises he is worth more dead than alive as he thinks of killing himself. Stewart's face manages to register that he would be a contented man in a simple world but that the world isn't so simple. This isn't quite the same thing as saying Stewart's face registers complexity. An actor like Gene Hackman can register hurt and pain more convolutedly than Stewart. It is to say, though, that his famous guy-next-door persona was willing to absorb a complicated enough reality to suggest that happiness wasn't easy to come by. Jeff Silverstein may have noted that "unlike so many who've come to Hollywood, Jimmy Stewart indeed knew who he was. He kept his name and kept his character. Born in the small town of Indiana, Pa., he never left that small town, at least not in his heart where it really counts, and so he came to symbolize on screen a whole series of corn-fed virtues no other star could have gotten away with." Yet he also says, "Jimmy Stewart was all of us. He carried us with him in him so when he drew from himself for his work, he drew from us as well." (Chicago Tribune) And all of us suffer pain and anguish in a world that doesn't work out. While it would be daft to deny the perversity of Scottie in Vertigo, we also don't know him before the trauma that opens the film: the cop falling to his death trying to save Scottie. Who wouldn't be beside themselves after such an incident?
Often we find with actors that the best way to comprehend them isn't through the roles they play as if they are written but the roles they play as they are performed. One can say that Stewart is abusive in It's a Wonderful Life, a little crazy in Harvey, voyeuristic in Rear Window and perverse in Vertigo but it would probably say less about Stewart than if we were to describe his body language and his vocal intonation in each film. Watch how hesitant he is as George Bailey walks his future-wife home in It's a Wonderful Life after they've fallen into a swimming pool. She wears little more than a dressing gown and when they discuss her age he tells her she looks a bit older without her clothes on before realising what he is saying. He almost physically trips up over the words as he tries to retract them, saying, "I...I...mean...without a dress you look older." His body language becomes stooped and apologetic, shy and bewildered. The moment of embarrassment gets repeated in Vertigo, with another dressing gown involved. Scottie has pulled Madeline out of the water after she had tried to drown herself next to the Golden Gate bridge. Scottie takes her home, has obviously removed her wet clothes and has put her to bed. When she awakes, he gives her a bathrobe: "oh....oh...uh, you'll want this" he says as she lies naked, just the sheets around her. There is little assertiveness in either moment even if in the latter we can assume a far higher level of sexual desire in the uncomfortable response. Both scenes play into Stewart's persona where he is often clumsier than he would like and less circumspect than he would wish. Imagine Cary Grant in both scenes and they would play very differently. The role is but a dimension of the characterisation and when we speak of George Bailey or Scottie Ferguson, or any other character played by a good actor given space to exist within the frame, these aren't flat characters on a page but two-dimensional figures given form by actors who however they act in their personal lives accumulate a screen persona over time. Yet part of that persona is witnessing their body language in action; the more the camera focuses on faces and denies the body in space, the less of a persona there will often be to see. For a filmmaker to ignore Stewart's cumbrous presence in all its 6 3in awkwardness would be offering a Stewart far more constrained than his wheel-chair bound L. B. Jefferies in Rear Window.
In her autobiography, Jane Fonda quotes Alan Pakula saying of her: "there seems to be in her some vast emotional need to find the center of life. Jane is the kind of lady who might have gone across the prairie in a covered wagon one hundred years ago." Such a comment captures well the assertive aspect of Fonda's personality but there is also the amorphous, a side where Fonda admits: "I'm so good at becoming whatever the man wants me to be." (My Life So Far) It isn't easy to see how an actress could choose to be so frothy in Barbarella and Barefoot in the Park and so weighty and sincere in Klute and Coming Home but to propose that they represent two different periods in the life of an actress known for her protean shifts doesn't quite explain it. That she admits to changing her existence for the men she has been with can be seen through the sexualised roles when she was married to director Roger Vadim, the politicisation when hitched to activist Tom Hayden, and her retirement when she married media mogul Ted Turner. Yet such shifts while they may reflect her life don't really say very much about her acting persona. What might well do is the ambivalence of that persona; its capacity to register simultaneously hurt and forcefulness that is evident in both her autobiography and her films. One wouldn't wish to draw a clear cause and effect between the two, especially as this is what we have just refused to accept in the context of her marriages, but if Pakula is right that she wants to find the centre of life then a comment she makes in her autobiography is intriguing in the context of Klute. In the book she discusses how she supposed she wasn't "confident enough not to feel diminished by Vadim's philanderings. I never dared to tell him I wanted to be monogamous, because I was afraid of being thought bourgeois." (My Life so Far) In Klute, her character, actress and sex worker Bree Daniels, is speaking to her therapist and the therapist asks if she enjoys sex with her clients. Bree says no and the therapist says why not, since Bree has said she sees nothing wrong with it. Bree interrupts and says " I don't think there is anything wrong with it...morally...I didn't enjoy it physically...it made me feel...that I had some control over my life....Oh I don't know." Much of the intonation and indecision is left out of this quote but what comes through is Fonda's ability to register certitude within doubt; to register confusion with confidence.
In Coming Home, Fonda, an officer's wife whose husband is away in Vietnam, and who starts to help out in a hospital with convalescing Vietnam vets, wonders whether the news sheet the officers' wives run ought to address the various problems at the hospital. The other women think it isn't their place and Fonda's Sally says "I'd...I'd just...I want to say that I am really shocked, just shocked that you'd rather write about a godamn home run than about what is going on in this hospital." On this occasion, Fonda conveys assertiveness within insecurity, a reverse process ostensibly from the scene in Klute but with similar results when it comes to the performance and how it sums up Fonda's persona. In the scene in Klute she is sitting down opposite the therapist but instead of a tight close up on Bree's face, director Pakula adopts a surprising medium shot, using a long lens that manages to convey intimacy without generating closeness as the moments are shot from behind the therapists' chair. Fonda's body language shows a woman in control of her body even as she tries to work out what is going on in her mind. The body language doesn't reflect the chaos; it hides it. Here is a woman comfortable in her skin and knows how to use it, at the same time trying to work through the vulnerability of her thoughts. In Hal Ashby's Coming Home, Sally appears much more indecisively in her body and it isn't just that she is uncomfortable at this moment because she is saying something not easy to say. She is an officer's wife who has for years been dutifully devoted to a husband who doesn't appear to satisfy her emotionally or sexually. Near the beginning of the film we see in a medium long shot her husband clasp her hand and kiss it in what looks likely a loving gesture but when we cut to the medium close up on Sally her face is sullen and disappointed. Shortly afterwards, when they make love, the scene is filmed similarly to the early sex scene with a client in Klute: Fonda's face in view as a man humps her in the missionary position and Sally looking likes she wishes she were elsewhere. In the scene in Coming Home, where she asserts herself within insecurity, she is standing up while the other women are all seated and one may sense that this is vital to Sally's momentary confidence: it shows her capable of what most of the men she is looking after cannot do literally stand their ground. The men are paraplegics. We couldn't imagine Sally offering these remarks from a seated position partly because of this assertiveness within insecurity as opposed to Bree's certitude within doubt. Bree is an outwardly confident person full of complexes; Sally is a dutiful wife determined to emancipate herself within her social obligations.
What matters in both instances is that Fonda can find her performance within the range of her body language, allied by a form that remains loose enough for us to see the movements and not be caught in the constraints of telegraphed drama. If Pakula had filmed in close up the tension in Bree would have been registered but not her confidence. If Ashby had focused on Sally's face the determination would have been present but not the broader difficulty in going against social expectation. Throughout the scene in Coming Home, Ashby only offers medium shots and medium close ups: he doesn't move in close for dramatic emphasis, well aware that what matters as much as Sally's assertiveness is her role in this environment: these women are the closest she has to friends and she is in the process of turning them into enemies. It is in the body and in the voice that these things are registered. Speaking about how useful she found studying with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, Fonda also saw its limitations: "the problem with the Actors Studio was that it left out a lot of things: knowing how to use your voice, body movements, going beyond the individual psychological framework of a character." (My Life So Far) Character is also mise en scene, and thinking about how important it is that Bree is sitting down and Sally standing up in these key scenes makes that apparent. If Fonda is a great actress of the forceful within the fretful, of someone who pushes to get her way but doesn't always know if she has the confidence to do so, Klute and Coming Home in very different ways express this conundrum and possess directors who know how to film that ambivalence.
Jack Nicholson is in this sense quite different from Fonda. He never seems an insecure presence as actor or character. There is frequently wariness, suspicion, dissatisfaction and even despair but Nicholson's body is one of the most comfortable in cinema. Part of his characters' frustrations often reside in others who are uptight, officious, arrogant and snobbish, in people who assume that a person's energy and purpose must always be contained by structures greater than their vital force. Obviously, no film comes to mind more than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest but rather than focusing on the scenes between Nicholson's McMurphy and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), we can pay attention to the moment early in the film where he meets the hospital doctor. In the sort of scene that would have most people playing by the rules and subordinate to the medical expert, McMurphy sees it as a meeting where he gets to show the doctor not who is boss but how they could be best of mates. Instead of playing his role as humble victim who has been locked up for what he sees as literally a minor offence (statutory rape), or aggressively asserting himself in the presence of this older, almost certainly physically weaker man, Nicholson's McMurphy disarms him by assuming there need be no sense of hierarchy between them. It is McMurphy who finishes his sentences with firmness; the doctor much more hesitant. It is McMurphy who offers his hand and says, "what a pleasure it is to meet you." When the doctor says R. P. McMurphy and prepares to open the envelope which contains information on his patient, McMurphy interrupts and, looking at a framed photograph of the doctor with a fish he has caught, asks him about it and interrupts the doctor as he starts to explain the story behind the catch. While the doctor takes out the file, McMurphy picks up the framed photo and takes a closer look. The doctor, when he starts talking about the file on McMurphy, does so with more hesitancy than McMurphy does when he asks the Doc if he can smoke a cigarette after we've already seen him lean forward on the desk. The doctor says yes and talking about the file says: "Well it, ehm, says several things here" as McMurphy goes on to interrupt the doctor a couple of times during their exchange. Even when Nicholson offers a few "oh...oh yeh...ehms" of his own it doesn't indicate a man who knows his place but who has been caught on the spot as he tries to explain why he has been sent from the work farm to the hospital. But before the end of the interview, he has interrupted the doctor a couple of times more, and the film cuts to the next scene as though it has been McMurphy who has ended the meeting when he says he thinks they need to get to the bottom of R.P. McMurphy.
The scene is shot in a mixture of close ups and medium shots and also serves as a great example of what Andre Bazin called amalgamation: "The nonprofessionals are naturally chosen for their suitability for the part, either because they fit it physically or because there is some parallel between the role and their lives" ('The Aesthetic of Reality') Bazin says, as he talks about a combination of professionals and non-professional actors in the same film. Dean Brooks was the head of the Oregon State Hospital where the film was made. The shot counter shot leaves a non-professional with only a couple of lines to master as he more or less plays himself but it also works to emphasise the back and forth nature of the discussion between the two men. There Nicholson is, the consummate professional actor; there Brooks happens to be, the man who knows the psychiatric profession, and director Milos Forman works between the two all the better to bring out behavioural specifics that needn't require a long single take. What it does need is a mix of close ups and medium closes ups so that we sense the odd complicity of these men but also see enough of McMurphy's body language within the frame to see how he asserts himself in a given situation.
Nicholson has never been an athletic actor and doesn't need vast amounts of space to act within. Paul Newman, Robert De Niro and Steve McQueen all seemed to be more active than Nicholson but no actor could contain that energy within his body as a look, a line or a hand gesture. If Nicholson's face is often so animated, so capable of registering a range of thoughts and feelings and expressing them to his interlocutor, then this lies in what the body is not doing, in what it contains rather what it conveys. In Five Easy Pieces, as in many another Nicholson film, what he expresses is exasperation and frustration, states of the body that are not quite expelled through the body. Early in the film, Nicholson's Bobby Dupea is working in an oil field and he is fed up with the job and fed up with his relationship. His girlfriend is working-class and Bobby is from an established musical family, and he has dropped out of that life only to find no satisfaction in his new one. We see him stuck in a traffic jam with his friend and co-worker Elton when a car honks behind him. He starts yelling back, gets out of the car and in another film it might turn into a confrontation. Instead, Bobby moves into the middle of the freeway and starts yelling at whoever will listen while barking back at a dog. He then sees an open bed truck up front, gets aboard and, noticing a covered piano, starts to play. There's no sense of dexterity in playing this out-of-tune piano but there is frustration unleashed in pounding on the keys. Throughout the sequence, the film shows Nicholson's ease with a body that is comfortable in its skin without being narcissistic about its properties. It is what makes Nicholson seem such a natural presence on screen, as though his film image is a secondary quality to his occupation of space. "Any actor interested only in popularity", Dan Callahan says, "would never have taken roles like the repellant, misogynist Jonathan in the grim, closely observed Carnal Knowledge or the repressed radio host in The King of Marvin Gardens, performances that give no hint of likability or charm." (The Art of American Screen Acting) Jules Feiffer, who wrote Carnal Knowledge, said "Jack was serious about acting in a way that somebody coming from New York such as myself would expect from a stage actor, but not from a movie actor." (Jack's Life) But thinking again of Fonda's comment about working with Strasberg, we can see that surely part of this need to work in film, with the dedication one may expect of theatre, resides in the very different approach to the body that film can demand when an actor is given a proper sense of mise en scene, a screen space that may further the story but also gives the actor the chance to utilise it to get into the character physically and not only psychologically. When Fonda reckons that the Method left out a lot of things, this was presumably because though many film actors joined the Actors Studio, it chiefly came out of stagecraft. However, on the stage the area around the actor is an artificial dramatic space, while in films of the seventies, like Coming Home and Five Easy Pieces, Klute and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, it is a location that absorbs the actors into spaces they traverse rather than occupy. Obviously many of these locations are closed off and turned into a set but when we see Bobby moving through the traffic jam the scene conveys a location utilised rather than a set deployed. According to Imdb, "the traffic jam on the freeway was shot on a new and unopened section of Interstate 5 near Bakersfield, California." There was clearly a lot of space through which Nicholson could move. Yet this has nothing to do with the sort of scenes we expect to see as Steve McQueen drives through San Francisco in Bullitt, or Robert De Niro moves through LA after a shootout in Heat. The point isn't to instigate action but give the screen space necessary for Nicholson to convey Bobby's inertia, his feeling that his life is futile, whether conforming to family expectation or escaping it in taking a blue-collar job.
However, whether working within the confined space of a room in the scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or the stretch of highway in Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson's purpose is often to assert the body's freedom even if it happens to be constrained by legal or social incarceration. In many of Nicholson's best films of the seventies (including also Chinatown, The Last Detail and The Passenger), the actor conveys through the movement of his body the freedom he demands that the society or a situation denies him. Though Antonioni's film delves more deeply than the others into a question that goes beyond the social and into the ontological, as the director fundamentally inquires into what a being is and how one is constructed and functions in the world, most of Nicholson's films from this period go some way to asking this too to address a limit point that generates frustration. Antonioni's The Passenger may do so by proposing that the freedom Locke seeks is constrained not just by society but phenomenologically as well: that as Locke says "...we remain the same. We translate, every situation, every experience into the same old code", but what matters in all these films is the sense of an actor who can move his body through space enough to register the frustration he feels. It might be an exaggeration to say Nicholson would not have been a star in the 1940s or in the 2000s but one reason why he was so specifically a star of the seventies, or more specifically an actor who tonally captured the times, was that filmmaking offered a mise en scene consistent with a body that could use space to convey to the viewer the limits it feels constrained by.
We could, in conclusion, call this a mise en scene consistent with what the philosopher Martin Heidegger calls Seinsfrage: the being-question, even if it might not be offered with quite the complexity Antonioni demands. The more the film is closed off narratively, or the more the film asserts itself affectively (perhaps a reservation we may have in the first instance concerning much that passes for classical Hollywood and in the latter case in many a more recent film), the less this being-question may be evident, and the less we witness the sort of body language and behaviour we regard as vital to cinema as a modern art form. Yet as we have noted it is often there in classic Hollywood, and we find evidence of it in Ingrid Bergman's brilliant use of facial modulation, and in Stewart's capacity to use his rangy body to indicate various shifts in thought and feeling. It may be that in the classic period such revelation was secondary to the story and that, by the time of Fonda and Nicholson, the need to observe the body in space became more pronounced, while now it has receded in a need to manipulate the audience's perceptions for strong and categorical reactions. When Bordwell says of The Bourne Ultimatum that "sometimes, as in a fight scene, the camera is just too close to the action to show everything, so it tries to grab what it can" (Minding Movies), it pushes affect but limits visual comprehension. Bordwell notes too that sometimes a shot counter shot will be designed so that one person's shoulder will take up most of the frame so that we can see no more than a quarter of the other person's face. It makes the scene intensely heightened but doesn't leave much room for perceptual maneuvering on the viewer's part.
Perhaps some might see cinema as an intermediary art form, one that allowed us to observe others at a time when we were caught between traditional modes of knowing others or assuming hostility towards them. Zygmunt Bauman talks about this in Postmodern Ethics, the notion that traditionally people were familiar or unfamiliar, part of the community whom we trust or beyond the walls of that community who we distrusted or who had to earn that trust. "An alien could enter the radius of physical proximity only in one of three capacities: either as an enemy to be fought and expelled, or as an admittedly temporary guest to be confined to special quarters and rendered harmless by strict observance to the isolating ritual, or as a neighbour-to-be, in which case he had to be made like a neighbour, that is made to behave like the neighbours do." However, in a modern world, the pressing problem becomes civic inattention, or civic indifference. As Erving Goffman, notes: "The forms of civil inattention, of persons circumspectly treating one another with polite and glancing concern while each goes about his own separate business, may be maintained..." allowing for 'the surface character of public order.'" (Post Modern Ethics) If statisticians suggest that we can look at a stranger for only a matter of seconds, this is the sort of claim that only makes sense in a cultural environment where civic indifference needs to be practised. In a small village where everyone knows each other, there would be no need for such an unconsciously developed rule. If Marshall McLuhan "coined the term 'global village' in 1964 to describe the phenomenon of the world's culture shrinking and expanding at the same time due to pervasive technological advances that allow for instantaneous sharing of culture" ('Understanding the Implications of a Global Village'), then we might wonder if film was partly a way of acknowledging that the village as global wasn't only a technological revolution but had for quite some time been an ontological one too that our perceptual relationship with others had long since changed. Cinema became the means to close that gap by allowing us the perceptual permission to stare but it seems that for many Hollywood films now that doesn't seem any longer necessary, even if by contrast there are numerous international films (by Tsai Ming-liang, Lav Diaz, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Lisandro Alonso etc.) that insist on extending this perceptual permission into ever longer takes and a harder scrutinising of events. However, if perceptual permission is reduced to the margins of film, to festival screenings and the odd art house locale, then what does this say about our ability to look, to observe how others move and talk, eat and drink, sleep and rest, laugh and cry? Have we moved far beyond civic indifference to indifference itself, to a relationship with others that hardly deserves even a cinematic glance let alone a proper gaze, where civic inattention reaches such a point that cinematic attention isn't of much importance either?
© Tony McKibbin