Eschewing the Cliche
The Subverted Moment
Interviewed in Cinema magazine in 1963, Alfred Hitchcock explains how he escaped from cliche in North by Northwest. "You remember that sequence? Well this has very careful design because I designed it purely to avoid the clich. Now in movies, or in films if we want to call them by a more dignified name, or motion pictures to go a little farther: the clich of the man being put on the spot is usually a place of assignation and it takes the form of a figure under a street lamp at the corner of the street with the rain-washed cobbles shining in the night ... maybe a cut to a blind being pulled aside, and a face looking out." Hitchcock adds, "anyway this is the clich atmosphere in which you put a man who has been deliberately placed in danger. Somebody is going to come along and bump him off. In the gangster films they went by in a black limousine that went da da da da da da with a gun and the guy fell down." Instead, Hitchcock sets a similar scene in a completely different context. "And from that point on you have a man trying to find cover. There is no cover until he gets into the cornfield. Now, you do in the design a very important thing. You smoke him out with the very instrument that you're using, a crop duster. Theory being, don't have a crop duster without your using it, otherwise you could have any airplane. So the dusting of the crop, the dust rather from the crop duster, smokes him out of the cornfield and he dashes in front of the truck desperately and the plane makes a last dive, mis-times it." And so on.
What matters for Hitchcock isn't what the filmmaker says but what he does; how he eschews the cliche. We might wish to disagree with Hitchcock that eschewing the cliche is enough; that his films survive not only because he did things better than almost anybody else but that he managed to 'say' something about fear, about guilt, about jealous, and about obsession in the process. These are pretty close to Platonic forms and few if any filmmaker more than Hitchcock has been better at elucidating them. We can find in the retreat from cliche the advance into a first principle. When Hitchcock discusses North by Northwest what he doesn't say is that unlike the gangster on the street, Thornhill is an innocent man, someone for whom fear can come from anywhere because has no idea where it might come from. A gangster may live in fear too but he lives in fear for a tangible set of reasons based on his own criminal behaviour. By utilising an innocent man, Hitchcock not only resists the cliches of his gangster example; also gets closer to that first principle of fear.
Our claim is that many a great filmmaker not only, if very importantly, eschews the cliche, but in the process of doing so seems to get closer to the problem that the cliche has covered up. He or she finds something to say by the way they have chosen to show something. In an early scene in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, the director shows us the two title characters sitting in a bar as Pat tells Billy that he has to leave town. In a narrow long shot, Peckinpah shows us a mainly empty bar as Pat and Billy sit down while Peckinpah could have focused exclusively on a shot/counter shot conveying the necessary information. Former outlaw Pat has become town sheriff and now wants the still rebellious Billy to exit the county. Instead, Peckinpah offers numerous other shots that convey a tension far greater than a conventional shot/counter sequence would usually demand. It isn't only that the film cuts back and forth between Pat and Billy at oblique angles rather than a typical thirty-degree shot/counter shot, it is also that he cuts back to an establishing shot from behind Billy's back a series of times as the bar starts to fill up with Billy's cohorts. At the end of the sequence after Pat Garrett leaves the bar, one of them says, "why don't you kill him?" Billy replies, "Why?...he's my friend." Friendship was never really a pressing issue for Hitchcock and its occasional manifestation suggests manipulation rather than loyalty most clearly in Strangers on a Train where we have what becomes a friendship of convenience. But it was a theme Peckinpah returned to frequently, most obviously in his two finest films, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Wild Bunch, and the difficulties involved when loyalty in friendship collides with times changing: when one figure remains an outlaw and the other becomes the law. In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Peckinpah takes a potentially typical shot/counter shot scene about two characters with a different point of view, and turns it into a complex formal focus that in the process gets closer to a first principle. A simple dispute simply filmed would have brought out the typical tension of a failing friendship, but Peckinpah's editing usually brought to an exchange a tension beyond it. Whatever the violence in the scene there was also the violence of the form. In this sequence from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid it might not be the violence we see in the preceding sequence, where the director crosscuts from hens getting shot by the outlaws in 1881 and Garrett getting assassinated in 1909, but it offers a low key paranoiac tension the editing chiefly elicits. As Peckinpah cuts back to establishing shots showing us the room filling up, they function not just as filmic information but as shots that jar us out of the exchange and allow the tension to exist somewhere beyond the immediate characters.
Peckinpah's sequence asks what is friendship worth and indicates in the oblique force of the cutting that it happens to be worth a great deal indeed. It is worth a lot more than the forces that prey upon it as Billy's cohorts gather and the editing suggests that friendship however deep is also precarious. Yet friendship it is, a bond that Garrett will eventually break and that will lead to his own demise many years later where he seems a cheating, lying curmudgeon with no friends and no bonds. We see the hint of this future in the whisky Pat and Billy drink in the bar. It is the same drink serving different ends: Billy drinks it with the triumphalism of someone who is his own man; Pat swallows it as though it's a poison the chalice he drinks from the job the authorities have given him: to betray his best friend by either running him out of town or killing him. Here we don't agree with Hitchcock that the content doesn't matter at all, but we would insist that the texture of that content cannot be easily extricated from the nature of the form which contains it. A simple shot/counter shot wouldn't have caught the depth of the friendship nor the paranoiac tension that surrounds these two old outlaw friends and the paradigm shift that means Billy will remain an outlaw and Pat a figure of the burgeoning state.
Martin Scorsese is a very different filmmaker from Peckinpah in many ways, much more urban and contemporary and hence why he is much more drawn to the gangster film than the western. But what they both share is the notion of friendship: Mean Streets, Good Fellas and Casino are all gangster films that play up the camaraderie even as Scorsese works very hard to indicate that, unlike in Peckinpah's work, friendship isn't much of a first principle. But what interests us chiefly is eschewing the cliche; how Scorsese takes a scene just as Hitchcock proposes, and turns it into something original, while at the same time also 'saying something' in the process of doing so. In several scenes in Casino, Scorsese provides extensive exposition but in a manner that we might call intensified exposition, taking into account David Bordwell's always useful term intensified continuity to describe the pace and speed of contemporary American films in The Way Hollywood Tells It. When a fine writer and director, Alexander Mckendrick discusses exposition well in On Directing he reckons: "a technical problem for beginning writers is "how to 'feed' the protagonist neatly, economically and through action. As explained talk for the sake of talk (because the writer needs to convey certain pieces of information to the audience) is the antithesis of drama..." Thus the question becomes how to offer necessary information while keeping things dramatic. McKendrick talks here of subsidiary characters who can carry the expository weight and we can see how this could have worked in Casino. Here we need to know the workings of the titular environment and could have had a new employee, nervous and a bit slow to pick up the details, getting them explained to him by a senior colleague. But Scorsese doesn't fall into what can now seem like a cliche, but instead risks the undramatic altogether by relying on voice-over. In a film that possesses two narrators (`Ace and Nicky) Ace explains the workings of the venue and the complex surveillance system at play. As he says the players are looking to beat the casino, "the dealers are watching the players, the box men are watching the dealers, the floor men are watching the box men, the pit bosses are watching the floor men, the shift bosses are watching the pit bosses, the casino manager is watching the shift bosses, I'm watching the casino manager and the eye in the sky [the CCTV] is watching us all." Throughout this short sequence, Scorsese is constantly moving the camera and cutting between the various characters and then away to the mirror ball, in which the camera hides, and to the surveillance TVs upstairs.
The director has ostensibly made his sequence less cinematic by relying on voice-over, but gives himself so many more options visually as a consequence. Imagine a similar scene (which takes about thirty-seconds) as exposition. The scene would seem to be in slow motion next to Scorsese's visual and verbal density. McKendrick and numerous others who believe in the importance of making exposition dramatic insist on noting that the important thing is the expository. Scorsese insists the important thing is information as if he understood better than most that we have moved from an expository age to an informational one. It wouldn't be that most exposition is bad drama, it is that drama is no longer the means by which information necessarily travels. Scorsese's question is less whether something is dramatically active enough but whether it is informationally dense enough. Throughout the film the drama appears almost irrelevant to the information it contains, evident earlier in the film too when the director details what in another film might appear as a heist. Here Ace and then Nicky explains how the casino money works. The poor punter out the front is surrounded by the good things in life (bright lights, broads, booze and hotel suites) all the better to separate them from their cash. As Ace starts to explain how the money flows from one place to another, Nicky takes over and says there is so much money in there that you could build a house with hundred dollar bills. But while those in the casino believe that the money is just in there getting counted, actually huge amounts of it are leaving the casino in cases to be deposited to the wise guys who are waiting in Kansas City once a month to get their unfair share. Again Scorsese offers this in expository voice-over aided by a montage sequence that shows us the money leaving the building, a plane arriving in Kansas and the bosses picking up the cash. From a 'predictable' perspective Scorsese hasn't learnt his craft, relying on voice-over exposition and montage to convey information, but that would be to miss the point of Scorsese's originality. Information itself now has a dramatic component as if the viewer's purpose isn't to follow the unfolding of a dramatic narrative; more to keep up with a flow of detail. If the common saying suggests time is money, now it might be truer to say speed is money: the capacity to absorb information more quickly than anybody else. Indeed, so quick is this info now that humans are too slow, and hence the development of High Frequency Trading algorithms to take advantage of split-second alterations in the market. "Computer-assisted rule-based algorithmic trading uses dedicated programs that make automated trading decisions to place orders. AT splits large-sized orders and places these split orders at different times and even manages trade orders after their submission." (Investopedia) The philosopher Paul Virilio quotes the traveller Victor Segalen saying "localisation is pitiless", but Virilio instead wonders whether, with the spread of long-distance transaction, "it will become pitiful." (Open Sky) "The resistance of distances having finally ceased, the world's expanse will lay down its arms, once known as duration, extension and horizon."
But how does all this relate to Casino, and Scorsese's escape from cliche and his arrival at a proper content? The aspects which might seem flawed by conventional filmmaking standards become necessary shifts in a perceptual framework that indicates the local and dramatic give way to the abstract and the informational. What Scorsese shows is the pace of information over the dramatisation of event. The film always seems on its way to somewhere else as it details an aspect of the here and now. Even in one of the most horrific scenes in the film, when a hood finds his head in the vice, the sequence is narrated by Nicky as just part of a greater informational whole. Scorsese had never been interested in traditional dramaturgy but while he might have felt that in the wake of Pulp Fiction he was a filmmaker no longer as relevant as he had been, in his best work of the last 25 years (Casino, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street) he has escaped the dramaturgy that never much interested him, for the informational pace that can capture the moment much better than Tarantino's post-modern irony. As Scorsese once said, "I try to find a new way of telling a story, to break away from nineteenth-century dramaturgy - Act One, Act Two, Act Three ...a film is made up of sequences...", thus making clear he has no interest in theatrical drama. But what makes the three films interesting (and Good Fellas before it) rests on the means by which he renews narrative by speed and at the same time offers new possibilities for narration itself in the context of events it might not seem easy to narrativise. Writing in 2011, Jeff Kinkle and Alberto Toscano note "Hollywood's difficulty with giving narrative shape to economic upheavals is not new. Interviewed about her part in Alan J. Pakula's widely panned Rollover (1981), Jane Fonda remarked that, 'It's hard to build a melodrama and explain how the banks and the economy work.'" (Film Quarterly) The writers reckon that "Rollover was an explicit response to the crises of the 1970s and the political panic instilled in the U.S. by the increasing power of petrodollars. Though Pakula had memorably captured the so-called "paranoid style" of 1970s politics in The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976), in Rollover he was incapable either of successfully enacting generic conventions (the film flounders symptomatically between drama, thriller, and melodrama) or of delineating the wills and mechanisms behind social cataclysm." Fonda's comment is pertinent, especially within the context of Scorsese's. Fonda sees the importance of the dramatic and the difficulty of shaping a financial film around it; Scorsese admits a lack of interest in drama and manages to show in his informationally dense films a means by which to show to find an alternative to it. There is distinctness to the form as Scorsese avoids the 'ease' of exposition and montage, finding as a consequence the way in which new content can manifest itself. Anybody determined to remake Rollover, or make a film about the financial industry, could do worse than see how Scorsese conveys information cinematically. He manages not just to move the film along at a fast pace as he eschews the slowness of exposition, he also manages to say something about the pace in which we increasingly live epistemologically.
In Christophe Honore's Ma Mere Honore might, like Hitchcock, suggest that he wanted to take a conventional scene and finds the means by which to make it new. But again like Scorsese, but even more so from the point of view of subverting the cliche, the director wants to play with the form. In one scene we see a young man in his late teens/early twenties in a bar with his mother as she discusses living in Spain. "They're the empty core of life" she says of the Spanish. Living next to them is already stooping low." As she speaks there are a couple of tables with noisy lads, singing and joking, but these aren't Spaniards who would help prove her point, but French youths. Moments later she joins in, stands on her chair and drinks to them. The lads continue being noisy through the sequence before almost unnaturally quietening down as the mother Helene tells her son, Pierre that she is a bitch and a slut that nobody respects. While she speaks the film breaks the 180-degree rule so that it seems that Helene and Pierre are sitting next to each other rather than opposite each other at the table. There are two scenes going on here, and both undermining a conventional approach. The first would be the rowdy bar scene where obnoxious strangers won't shut up and our hero needs to tell them to button up. Of course one of the group challenges our main character to a fight, and usually our hero will best him. Then we have the confession scene, an important dramatic moment where one character reveals to the other exactly who they are and exactly how the other person has been deluded in their impression of them. In the DVD extras interview with Honore he says he isn't easily shocked, that he has a moral and ethical system but that it isn't bourgeois. Now one way in which as a filmmaker a director can reveal their resistance to a value system is to find a form in which that system is undermined rather than confirmed. Think of how the sound might be designed 'morally' in the sequence. Here we would have the background audio only as loud as it needs to be to irritate us as it irritates the hero. The justification for the fight rests on the noise we as viewers want to stop. The fight won't be irritating it will be justifying, and so we have a misplaced sense of values from one point of view representing a necessary realisation of them from another. In other words, in life someone making too much noise is common enough, and of course irritating certainly, but most of the time a fight doesn't ensue because of it. The irritation is mild next to the possibility of an altercation but often in film terms it is the other way round and the confrontation seen as morally justifiable. Sure, the film might wait until the hero gets shoved at the bar just to confirm to us that he was willing to mind his own business, but the point rests on rowdy people ripe for a beating. The young men in Ma Mere are as rowdy as any but that isn't at all how the scene plays out. Honore shows us Helene becoming briefly as boisterous as the men themselves when she stands on the chair and drinks a glass of wine in one gulp. Then the men go quiet while the film attends to other things, namely the confessional conversation Helene has with her son where the scenic convention that has been undermined (no altercations) becomes more directly an assault on form as the shot/counter shot breaks the 180-degree rule. Any value we seek in the relationship between mother and son becomes confused by the form under which the conversation takes place. There is a very big difference between a person sitting next to you and opposite you but what happens when a director formally shows the former taking the place of the latter? They are still opposite each other in the story but next to each other in the form. If as she talked Pierre got up and sat next to his mother it would be a moment of sympathy, but what happens if the film does this by virtue of the shot choices? It becomes disjunctive and confusing; we can't quite work out the value system partly because the film plays with the formal system. On the DVD extras, Honore says what interests him in French cinema is impurity, incompleteness, intimacy. He likes that in a film such as Ma Mere he can mix actors who wouldn't usually be seen in a film together (Isabelle Huppert, Louis Garrel and Emma de Caunes), adapting a Georges Bataille novel and setting it in the Canary Islands today. Secondly, he thinks it is good that French cinema (most conspicuously the new wave) took risks that weren't always going to work but there was the joy of risk nevertheless. Thirdly, he sees that French cinema can be intimate, that he can find the individual reaction to events without standardising such reactions. The scene in Ma Mere is as good an example of such a combination as we are likely to find in recent French film.
In Somewhere, the basic subject is reversed: a father with his daughter. Johnny is a famous film star who at one stage goes to Italy on a junket and takes his daughter with him. Just after he has arrived in the country an Italian journalist, probably around Johnny's age, schooled in the false art of enthusiasm fit for a Berlusconi era, asks Johnny what the most exciting thing he has done so far in the country. He says he has just arrived in Italy as she then asks him if he knows any Italians words. The next scene shows Johnny and his daughter in the hotel swimming pool, a single take that has Johnny lounging in the jacuzzi and his daughter doing lengths and headstands in this small pool. The scene offers very low-key humour perhaps because of what it doesn't give us in the context of the previous scene. When the journalist asks what exciting things he has done thus far, he hasn't been in the country long enough to do anything exciting. But the next scene indicates he isn't about to either. We might expect here a montage sequence, a Romanesque holiday of the great sights, but director Sofia Coppola offered like a number of other filmmakers of the 2000s an aesthetic that decelerated the forward momentum of most American films of the time. It was as if the films weren't simply very different from the more obvious successes like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Knocked Up, Shallow Hal, Crazy Stupid Love, Slum Dog Millionaire, Titanic and so on, but that they were working against these expectations. While many a film would be happy to invoke the memory of Audrey Hepburn spinning around Rome on a scooter, Coppola goes for a Milan that remains muted and unexciting except in the most artificial way. When Johnny picks up an award it is a Berlusconi-inflected event with a semi-clad girl dancing around him as he receives it. Like Last Days, Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding, Rachel getting Married, as well as Coppola's own Lost in Translation, there is a sort determination to find warmth where we can't immediately, generically expect it, and part of that generic refusal lies in the approach adopted. If the story is interested in exploring how a father connects once again with his daughter, Coppola films it with a strong sense of disconnection. It isn't just that he is constantly screwing around, that the food they eat is mainly junk, and that they hang out-together rather than do anything purposeful, it is most importantly in the form the film takes. Whether it is showing us the pair of them getting into a helicopter in a single, aloof shot, or the scene where the daughter swims lengths in the pool, Coppola asks us to observe the encounter rather than engage in the situation. Watch, she says, a character who cannot easily function, and accept that the camera will respect that dysunctionality in the very form. Coppola, speaking of the central character says, "I thought he's that kind of guy that, 'oh, it'll be fun, let's get a helicopter and go to Vegas,' because that's how he does things. Yeah, he doesn't do the more grounded, you know, day-to-day things like take her to the dentist or whatever he comes in for the fun. He's that kind of guy, like my dad or my cousin Nicholas, they would [say], "let's take a helicopter for fun." It's not normal real life that your mom would hire a helicopter. So it's that kind of guy and that kind of lifestyle that's a little bit removed from reality, but fun." (IndieWire) Yet Coppola doesn't emphasise the fun but the removal from reality. When Marcos and his daughter go out to the helicopter, the framing suggests not that it is exciting, more, far from normal. Coppola manages to capture the aggression of the machine, as if less thinking of the pleasure she would have as her father would do outlandish things, than the metonymic significance of the helicopter that proved so vital to the film he made that almost destroyed the family finances: Apocalypse Now.
In the Bedroom was subversive enough in its basic aesthetic and the message that aesthetic contains, for director Todd Field to develop a stomach ulcer in fighting for his vision against a studio boss determined to have things his way: Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. Believing that the ending of the film goes on forever, Weinstein wanted to cut thirty minutes from the film, and though Field finally got away with just five minutes of cutting, according to Peter Biskind (Down and Dirty Pictures), the process was taxing. "Todd got a bleeding ulcer", producer Ted Hope noted. Adapted from a story by Andre Dubus, Field's film shows a father getting revenge on the man who killed his only son. The last twenty-seven minutes consists of the father preparing to kill the murderer as the film falls between the liberal cinema that insists he shouldn't do so, and the conservative film which says that you have no choice. If the former might present itself as a dilemma that of course one doesn't follow through on, and the conservative film indicates it isn't really much of a dilemma because the other man will kill you if given half a chance, Field shows that the father will kill if not in cold-blood at least without being under any threat himself. It is certainly a calculated decision. Matt Fowler knows that the man will get away with only a few years in jail, as the crime he committed gets couched as an accident, decides that such a sentence is unjust next to his own's son's demise, and will indeed take the law into his own hands.
Yet while we might be horrified that the ex-husband of his son's lover will only get a few years, nevertheless we may also wonder whether it was after all a hot-blooded killing: the act of a jealous ex who doesn't like to be usurped. There is no doubt the film presents the ex, Richard, as arrogant, entitled and obnoxious, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't see the act as a crime of passion, however horrific and however horrible the ex happens to be. He is not a cold-blooded murderer. On the other hand, when Matt takes out Richard it is cold-blooded, at least in the sense that he plans carefully the killing, even if when he does actually kill there may be just enough hot-bloodedness in the murder to allow him to do it all. The plan had been to take the ex out and shoot him in the woods but, instead, Matt kills him in a moment when the ex looks once again smug, as if he thinks he won't be killed. However, this is a look we see but the father doesn't: Richard is walking towards the camera with the father viewing only his back. Perhaps he senses his sudden nonchalance, Yet nevertheless, the film shows us one hot-blooded killing off-screen (the son's demise), and one cold-blooded killing on screen we witness Matt pump three bullets into the ex's body. Representationally, Matt commits the greater crime even if narratively we understand why he might wish to commit it.
In a brief essay on the film in the Guardian, David Lodge notes that it is rare indeed for a positive figure in a Hollywood film to shoot another character without being under threat themselves, and certainly the father breaks that old Hollywood rule of never shooting a man in the back. This doesn't mean in the wake of the ex-'s murder the father loses our sympathy; more that he becomes an equivocal character. There have been many equivocal figures in American cinema, perhaps far more than the hero/villain model of Hollywood lore would suggest. Ethan in The Searchers, Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Alex in A Clockwork Orange and of course Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver are fine examples of what are commonly called anti-heroes but can just as usefully be called equivocal figures since in certain instances it is hard to find the heroism in them at all. Recent examples of equivocal figures would include Casey Afflick in Manchester by the Sea, Tom in A History of Violence and Joaquin Phoenix in The Joker. It is often the equivocal that makes an anti-hero such. They have qualities that counter the positive without quite making them villains, though we might also note that sometimes it isn't especially that the actions are mixed but that the narrative position is assured. In other words that in another film Alex in A Clockwork Orange, or Phoenix in The Joker could be more or less the same character but they would not be the identificatory ones and thus appear more obviously villainous a point Todd Phillips clearly plays on and plays up in his revisionist take on the Batman franchise in The Joker. A character like the father here though wouldn't become a villain is even if the perspective were shifted onto that of the ex. But he does nevertheless remain equivocal even if the degree of ambivalence we feel towards him rests partly on how we feel about the right to bear arms and take justice in our own hands, two idiomatic phrases that seem at the same time very American.
Lodge is right to indicate that the film plays with our expectations of how killing takes place in American cinema, and hence why we include it here as an example of eschewing the cliche. But Lodge goes further and sees in the film's relative commercial success a yearning on the part of the American public for a cathartic display of force. The film was made before 9/11 but, given the hassles Field had in getting the film finished, was distributed after it. Lodge reckoned that middle-America needed a film that could talk about their grievances and In the Bedroom was such a film. "The parents are incredulous and outraged as the lawyers explain to them that the murder of their son may be plausibly represented as manslaughter. This corresponds to the mood of Americans immediately after the bombings, when their overpowering desire to find and punish the man deemed responsible for the terrorist attack, Osama bin Laden, was frustrated by the refusal of the Taliban to extradite him from Afghanistan, and other countries were counselling a cautious, legalistic approach to the problem, which had little prospect of success." (Guardian) Perhaps Lodge has a point but rather than speculating socio-demographically on the film's commercial returns, we are more interested in how the film manages to find a space between the liberal rejection of lawlessness, and the conservative acceptance that one must protect one's home and one's loved ones. The film rejects both narratives, seeing that for the father a State which cannot guarantee justice leaves him in an emotional limbo. He cannot move on without removing the ex from the world. Two wrongs might not make a right, but it can make one at least feel righteous. Justice is done, however messily. The film doesn't seem unsympathetic to such a viewpoint without at all triumphally suggesting it can be generalised to the point of principle, as in revenge movies like Death Wish.
Based on Dubus' 'Killings', In the Bedroom was one of two films released, within a few years, based on Dubus' work: the other We Don't Live Here Anymore (which covered marital infidelity). Both are concerned with the messiness of moral positions and the need to survive emotionally rather than physically. Dignity and pride are only as good as the organism they serve: if that self is debilitated by the deed (by someone cheating on you or by someone killing a loved one), it must try and find the means by which to return to health. Yet health can be the affair itself, the need to make love to a stranger because the familiarity of your wife's body (and vice versa) doesn't stimulate the cells. The point of Dubus' work so often seems to be the ambivalence of a self that has contrary needs but acts to satisfy the most necessary ones. These rarely coincide with the moral and so anyone who comes away from In the Bedroom feeling that a clear message has been conveyed has missed what the work wishes to register: that from Matt's point of view he had to kill; from society's point of view he really shouldn't have done so. To register this feeling, the film avoids falling into the expected trope of the villain determined to kill Matt and Matt left with no choice but to kill him.
That isn't the case at all, and the best explanation Matt can offer is that he doesn't like the fact his wife keeps bumping into the ex in town. He says to Richard after he kidnaps him at gunpoint that he wants him to skip bail, but this is just a story Matt tells to get him back into the car and out into the country where Matt and his friend intend to kill him and dispose of the body. But if this lie is necessary, the later one he offers to his friend is not. After he shoots Richard in the back he tells the friend in a low-angled shot that often indicates villainy that he killed because he started running away. It is one thing to lie to the man who has killed your son; it is quite another to lie to the man who is helping you dispose of the murderer. This doesn't mean that Matt is right to kill anyone, nor even to lie to anyone, but we must accept that film has its own moral logic that while closely associated to the actual world and to the law, deviates from it in ways that we often find acceptable. Think how often we identify with bank robbers, gangsters and felons generally, and how rarely we side with bullies, liars and cheats. The former are criminal offenders who frequently get years in prison; the latter, people who go about their daily life and never see the inside of a prison cell. They are seen as not so much beyond the law as beneath it committing offences so minor that no court would be inclined to offer a custodial sentence. Film is far harsher on such behaviour than the legal system and thus from a certain perspective Matt's lie to his friend is of greater magnitude than not only his lie to Richard but his murdering of him too. If sympathy for Matt is half withheld by the end of the film it doesn't only, or maybe especially, rest on lying to Richard and killing him, but in lying to his friend and in the manner of the deed. Equally, a little earlier in the film when the son's lover Natalie apologises to Mrs Fowler, Mrs Fowler responds with a firm slap. It is an unjust action that is entirely plausible in the circumstances (if Mrs Fowler son hadn't dated Natalie, her son would still be alive) but also completely unreasonable Natalie isn't at all culpable. It means that within Mrs Fowler's comprehensible anger and grief she reacts in a way that means we withhold a degree of our sympathy.
This seems to us the point of the film and why it eschews the most obvious of cliches that Richard would put Matt into a situation where he would have no choice but to kill him. Instead of putting such an idea into a scene, Field allows it to permeate two-thirds of the film. From the moment of the son's death to the film's conclusion, Matt has to get something out of his system, and in the process has to forego an aspect of his moral system to do so. It is important not to see the killing of Richard as righteous but at best self-righteous: the sort of selfish righteousness that cannot easily see outside its own point of view and thus acts in ways that are debateable rather than unequivocal. If the villain usually gets killed because the hero has no choice, the point of In the Bedroom is that Matt does have a choice. It thus in turn gives the viewer a choice too, and gives it to us within the context of ambivalent behaviour on Matt and his wife's part. These are grieving parents who don't always act so well, but the film seems keen to make clear that this is human nature at work and not only plot mechanics in action. How often have we seen in films minor characters treated with indifference because the main characters are on their way to getting something done? How often have people been pushed out of the way, even forced to the ground as our hero has to race through the streets to get their man? Instead, Field is sensitive to these small moments that indicate that no matter the drama in one's own life, other people have lives of their own as well. There is a lovely moment two-thirds of the way through the film when a young girl turns up on Matt and his wife's doorstep. They have been arguing for the first time about their son's death, yelling accusations to each other, when we hear the letterbox tapped. Matt thinks its is probably the police and answers it, finding instead a girl trying to raise some money for a trip. In a single low-angle shot from behind the girl that means we never see her face, Matt acts with civility and calm, buys some chocolate bars and returns to the house. He realises he has been an idiot, hugs his wife and she hugs him back. The film suggests here are proper values to understand one's grief but also to be well aware that there are others in the world who have no place in our preoccupations and deserve to be treated well and with respect. It is a beautiful moment all the more so in that we have no close-up on the girl but we do of the chocolate bars as he puts them down on the table irrelevant as objects but connoting a difficult task achieved with humanity intact. In eschewing the cliched approach to the killing it also seeks out in other scenes moments that suggest there is always a gap between our own needs and others' feelings. That is what the standard trope eradicates as it allows the villain to die within both self-righteousness and righteousness. The hero kills someone who not only 'deserves' to die but also leaves the hero with no choice but to kill him. When that gap is opened up we see the self-righteousness for what it is because there is no righteousness attached to the action. The self-righteous thing is for Matt to kill Richard; the righteous thing is for Matt to allow the law to do its job even if from Matt's point of view it will result in Richard doing only a few years in prison. We should recall that while we are shown very clearly Matt killing Richard, we haven't of course been shown Richard killing the son. The death happens offscreen as Natalie comes down the stairs and hears the shot. It means that later in court she has to admit that she didn't witness the event, only arrived at the aftermath with her partner dead, shot in the face. There is nobody to claim it was deliberate murder, and Richard pleads manslaughter. From the legal point of view this is how it should be: to imprison Richard for murder when there is only evidence for manslaughter is contrary to the court doing its job. It is nevertheless from Matt's point of view a failure of justice rather than its necessary objective, and thus he feels the needs to kill Richard himself. There is as we have noted no doubt Richard is presented disagreeably: the moment when Matt turns up at the bar Richard is working in to take him hostage at gun point, he has just tried to pick up his work colleague. When she declines the offer as the car drives away he says "fucking bitch." Yet the law doesn't sentence people for being obnoxious, even if viewer's might be more inclined to judge harshly those who happen to act so. The film, working with legal justice versus film justice, with righteousness versus self-righteousness, achieves the necessary ambivalence that suggests while Matt has done what he needed to do for himself and his wife, we can't pretend justice has been served because the righteous and the self-righteous are still distinguishable. If most Hollywood films close that gap too easily in the cliched conclusion we have invoked, In the Bedroom is all the better for keeping them separate.
Our final example comes from La Captive, an adaptation of Proust that at the same time cannot but return us to Hitchcock and more specifically to Vertigo. Early in the film, a woman walks to her car and gets in, and a man follows her. We have seen them both in the previous, opening sequence: the woman is seen on film and the man is watching her, saying he likes her. As she drives off in her hatchback, so he follows her in his black Rolls. We are never given her point of view here, only Simon's as he follows her through Paris and into the outskirts of the city. We might assume this is a stranger he is stalking, a woman he has seen on film and now wants to be with in the flesh. In the sequence he never makes contact with her as she disappears into a hotel and leaves: Simon discovers that she has booked a room for her aunt in a few days' time, then goes back after her but he is too late. She is already driving off. Yet in the next sequence we see him ushering her into another room in his vast Parisian apartment as labourers arrive to work on the place. Did he know her all along, or did he find a way to seduce her in an ellipsis that has left us none the wiser? In the scene from Vertigo all we know at the time of the sequence that bears many similarities with the one in La Captive is that Scottie has been assigned by a woman's husband to keep tabs on her, and follows her through the city to do so. Neither we nor Scottie know at this stage that Madeleine knows she is being followed: that is vital to the later plot revelation which reveals that Scottie hadn't been following Madeleine but her look-alike in a complex murder plan. The novel Vertigo was based on was written by two writers Bouileau and Narcejac, suggesting the influence of Proust. "Madeleine is appropriately named in the original D'entre les morts' novel, for it hints further down the spiral towards another memorial device: 'In Search of Lost Time' by Marcel Proust." (Little White Lies). And though Francois Truffaut seemed to exaggerate the degree to which the novel, written in 1954, was written for Hitchcock, no Hitchcock film more perfectly combines a Proustian sensibility with a suspense narrative. Speaking of the original novel, in an article on Chris Marker, "one can only presume that Proust was indeed their source" (Frieze) Jeremy Miller says of the writers of the novel. But while in the scene from Vertigo we watch it assuming that Madeleine doesn't know she is being followed only to find out much later that Judy knew that she was, and in fact was leading Scottie rather than Scottie following her, no such certainties can be made about the scene in La Captive. It isn't so much an homage to the maestro; more a further complication of the problem as it eschews what has become a cliche: a man following a woman around. How to generate forty years after Hitchcock a sequence that acknowledges it but doesn't either repeat it, or ironically nod to it?
Director Chantal Akerman does so by suggesting that perhaps not only does Ariane know she is being followed, but that Simon knows too that she knows. That this isn't a plot between Ariane and others against Simon, but that Simon, who is rich, powerful and not a little perverse, wants to control an ever expanding mise-en-scene that incorporates not just Ariane but the wider reaches of Paris. If Scottie covers the full expanse of San Francisco determined to observe a woman he is supposedly trailing but who he is busy falling in love with (all the better to fulfil the plot against him engineered by Madeleine's husband Gavin), in La Captive we never really know exactly the extent of Simon's power or his helplessness. We can never be sure whether he has immense control and dictates the nature of events, or is often helpless in the face of them. We don't know because there is no such peripety that will tell us exactly what has happened, and how wrong Simon happens to be. If Hitchcock followed Scottie's desires and illustrated how manipulated that desire was by Gavin and Judy, Akerman doesn't allow for the sort of plot machinations Hitchcock insisted upon, and leaves us further immersed in a potential masochism. While we can say that Scottie is both manipulated and sado-masochistic, someone who desires what he cannot easily have, and wishes to control what he does have, Simon remains much more enigmatic because Akerman gives us so little plot. In Vertigo there is the scene where Scottie takes Judy to a boutique and decides what clothes she will buy so that she once again resembles Madeleine. But imagine such a scene at the beginning of a film and the viewer left unaware why exactly he is controlling her the way he is and you have something closer to Akerman's work. The motivations are slightly out of synch with the manipulations, so that we can't say in the scene where Simon follows Ariane around Paris whether he is following her or he has generated an expansive erotic mise-en-scene where she must elude him as part of his sado-masochistic imaginings. Vertigo makes very clear the relationship between motivation and manipulation as we find out that Scottie has been played by Gavin, but is anybody playing Simon, or is Simon someone both far more damaged and far richer than Scottie who can internalise a narrative of desire just as he can externalise it into an investigatory expedition across the city, keeping track of a woman who well knows he is following her? It is as if Akerman wanted to capture the boredom within excitement, keeping in mind her earlier work like Je tu il elle and Jeanne Dielmann 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. In the former, a young woman wiles away much of her time in a flat eating bags of sugar and moving the furniture around. In Jeanne Dielmann we follow for three hours a woman's domestic routine before a superficially inexplicable conclusion. In both instances, Akerman wonders what boredom happens to be, how it is generated in characters and to an audience. In La Captive, Proust says of his affair that: "I felt that my life with Albertine was on the one hand, when I was not jealous, nothing but boredom, and on the other hand, when I was jealous, nothing but pain." Akerman dissolves the categories of boredom and pain by removing the epistemological certitude in the nature of the relationship. In Vertigo we know exactly what the situation is even if initially it happens to be withheld from us. In La Captive we sense that something is always kept in abeyance, some detail that cannot be revealed because the revelation exists in the complexity of Simon's world rather than narratively exposable outside his purview.
Later in the film, Simon drags Ariane away from a gathering at a museum but she doesn't seem too perturbed. They then go for a walk in the park that emphasis their shadows on the ground rather than their bodies walking through space and then afterwards they talk in the back of the chauffeur driven Rolls as the film moves between light and shadow, often leaving both characters all but invisible to us. Ostensibly the story concerns a young woman who has lesbian affairs who happens to be caught in an odd relationship with a rich young Parisian. But that would be suggests reading too much into the narrative already. We cannot easily know what the nature of their situation happens to be because Akerman removes the coordinates that would allow us to make such confident claims. What we have as in Vertigo is an erotics of mise-en-scene, but unlike Vertigo Akerman's film leaves us in the ambiguity of that eroticism that moves from desire (as Simon follows her), to possession (as Simon takes her body as she sleeps), to obsession as he pushes her to a watery death. Has this all been part of a joint plan that goes wrong; does Ariane find it is the only way to escape the role she has been forced into? We cannot say, as we can safely assume that Scottie wishes to replicate the scene of Madeline's death with Judy all the better to cure himself of the vertigo he suffers from and of course fails. Akerman so eschews the cliche of the femme fatale and The Fall Guy, that Hitchcock found new variations on, that we cannot even say precisely what happens in the film and why. Hitchcock of course never wished to counter expectation so completely that he would lose that epistemological certitude that Akerman is willing to forego, but he nevertheless has proved vital to the eschewal of the predictable, a filmmaker whose influence we can find in so many films partly because he refused to be overly beholden to the expectations placed upon him by films that came before.
This might seem paradoxical: that we see Hitchcock's influence in others and see their originality in that influence, while noting that Hitchcock tried very hard to escape from what was expected of him given the available conventions. But none of the examples we have given attempt to 'ape' Hitchcock (indeed seem to have nothing to do with Hitchcock at all) as we might find in any number of slasher films out of Psycho, voyeur films out of Rear Window, or chase films out of North by Northwest. We aren't even talking about the more elevated and self-reflexive borrowings Brian De Palma has made central to his work in Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Body Double and Mission Impossible. What has interested us here is no more nor less than picking up on the spirit of Hitchcock's claim, his belief that the filmmaker needs to eschew the cliche. Yet we also reckon the director can find out of that eschewal a new relationship to content.
© Tony McKibbin