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When he moans ‘Handkerchief – confessions – handkerchief’, Othello is not at his most eloquent. Fanned by Iago’s suggestions, anger and jealousy put pressure on the expected principles of arrangement in Othello’s speech. The line falls in Act IV scene i just after the Moor moves from verse to prose and, by dropping metre, Othello rejects one method of linguistic organisation. The dashes quoted above reveal that syntax is also quickly disregarded – heightened emotions reduce sentiment to bare essentials. We’re presented with the first stages of a decay that is not fully realised: though Othello’s speech is in tatters, he faints before his words complete the transformation from highly organised poetry to the noise of grunts or groans or, in other words, of non-words.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Che Cosa Sono Le Nuvole? (1967) presents Othello as a human puppet show and uses the new design to finish the linguistic movement that the plays starts. At the opening of Act IV scene i, Othello echoes Iago’s phrases: ‘Will you think so?’ becomes ‘Think so, Iago?’; We move from ‘To kiss in private’ to ‘An unauthorised kiss’, from ‘naked with her friend in bed’ to simply ‘naked in bed’. These verbal similarities reveal how engrained Iago’s suggestions of sexual foul play have become. Che Cosa chooses to recast this moment of psychological manipulation, presenting it not as a series of verbal overlaps but instead as the point at which words (briefly) give way to noises. Iago’s delayed response to Desdemona’s request for Cassio to be reinstated is ‘Huuuum’. Othello, like the audience, wonders ‘Why do you say huuuum?’ Iago’s replies with an amused and mock-questioning scrunch of the face and the noise ‘Eeeeer.’ Again, Othello can only ask ‘And why do you say eeeeeer?’ The subtle engagement with and development of the source text allows, in this instance, much to be said with few words.
It’s a commonplace of film theory that the gaze of a camera is more invasive than it is cooly objective. D.W. Griffith was aware of this tension. If A Drunkard’s Reformation (1909) represents his early faith in the power of cinema to produce moral improvement, presenting the titular drunkard’s reformation during a theatrical performance, by the production of his later picture True Heart Susie (1919), Griffith has tempered his enthusiasm for his medium and nuanced his understanding of the camera, an object that is morally ambiguous in its voyeurism.
We see, in Susie‘s closing scene, that Susie (Lillian Gash) finally kisses William (Robert Harron), her long-pursued childhood crush. She receives a peck in an intimate close two shot. The pair pull apart and we see amazement and pleasure on her face. Griffith, perhaps feeling that he is unjustly invading this private moment, pulls his camera back, reframing to a more discreet wide two shot. Finally, he cuts to an inter-title, entirely removing the pair from our (and the camera’s) gaze.
By forcing Susie and William’s absence upon us, Griffith acknowledges the transgressive nature of cinema. We are allowed to see the characters’ most intimate and private moments; this luxury becomes obvious when the embracing pair are removed from the silver screen, when we are not allowed to look.
In Patrick Keiller’s London (1994), many of the images are similarly – in fact, on occasion, more immediately – voyeuristic (in the etymological sense of to see without being seen). We watch a girl and a boy playing in the street with a crushed can, builders doing very little and the Queen Mother unveiling a statue to a crowd. The picture is a mosaic of shots captured on an almost always static camera with an unnamed narrator providing a commentary. The design is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), which consists almost entirely of still black-and-white photographs. It also brings to mind the tradition of cinema vérité. Keiller is unique, though, because he doesn’t seem to mind if his camera is detected. While it often isn’t, it certainly is from time to time. Passers-by glance down the barrel before walking on.
In fact, though, people don’t often figure in this picture. The majority of the shots are of London – its architecture, its literary curiosities and its banality – and the protagonists (the Narrator and Robinson) are both unseen. In this mode, the writer/director establishes another relationship between the camera and the subject matter that is interwoven with the more expected voyeuristic mode of filming. Every now and then we feel like the camera has arrived too late. When he speaks of meetings, we become aware that his cinema is one of absence. Like Griffith’s final inter-title, the Narrator provides a commentary on an event that is not to be seen. In a shopping mall, as the camera moves up an escalator, he mentions a friendly man with whom Robinson spent a few hours (though later, when he tried to call, he only reached a public telephone box). It’s jarring to realise that this event is long since passed and that all we are left with is second- (or third-) hand report.
The film is more engaging because of this shadowiness, a quality shared between the Narrator, Robinson and many of the events detailed. Keiller sets up a trail to be followed, pynchonesque in its slipperiness and aptly suited to the Narrator’s theme of social degradation. The best has past or is, at least, not now.
It sounds odd to consider the sound involved in a silent film. Cinemas, though, did not simply begin making music after the production of The Jazz Singer (1927): they were noisy places and films were noisy things from the beginning. It is likely, for example, that a piano accompanied the first significant presentation of moving pictures before an audience (generally considered to be Auguste and Louis Lumière’s screening in Paris in 1895). There is an inevitable gap between image and sound in this sort of production because the notes are added after and do not originate from the same source as the picture. In a sense, the music that accompanies these films can be considered diegetic (a term which comes from the Greek ‘to narrate’) because it is used to guide the viewer’s response. Indeed, we are aware of a similar effect caused by any film score but the use of what I term mimetic elements of the soundtrack, for example sound effects or dialogue, is not possible for these pictures. Such noises are mimetic (from the Greek ‘to copy’) because they only recreate the recorded reality in film. Is it fair to say, then, that we expect to feel the seam between the film and sound in so-called silent films, to feel a gap between what is occurring on-screen and the music that accompanies it?
An odd thing happened, when I was watching Dr. Mabuse (1922), which was counterpointed later, when I saw Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961): for a moment in Mabuse the diegetic notes of a piano become (inadvertently) mimetic, while in Marienbad expected aural mimesis is (purposefully) frustrated. There is a scene in Mabuse in which a pianist is playing. It is, if I remember correctly, in a gambling hall. The score lends a feeling of lightness and jollity to the action. When Lang cuts, however, to a medium close shot of the pianist, seated and playing, the notes mimic perfectly his hand movements: for a time, in a sense, we hear what the characters do. The implications of this slip are unnerving: for a few seconds the viewer is left to decide the tone of the piece for herself, as the music reveals it is not itself an interpretative keynote, suggesting how to view the scene, but instead only another level of the presentation of a gambling hall. I had to rewind the DVD to make sure I’d not made a mistake.
In Marienbad, in contrast, there is a score of organ music that is oppressive in its relentlessness. In one particular scene, again a medium close shot of a band playing, the instruments are oddly silent. The droning organ continues regardless and makes the image of the playing band members, apparently unaware of their own silence, all the more disturbing. I remember, for some reason, sensing my stomach drop, when I first encountered this shot, and a feeling of isolation began to grow. I suppose it is an odd experience when one’s own senses fail to line up, when what we see is not what we hear.
One of the more comic moments in John Schlesinger’s 1969 film Midnight Cowboy is when Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) begins to play the glockenspiel in the pawn shop. The notes begin unexpectedly and quietly, as Joe (Jon Voight) sells his radio. For a time, Ratso is visibly relived of his illness. He plays well but, after a few moments, he coughs and puts the mallets down, leaving with his friend and his five dollars. The viewer is left wondering where he learnt to play. There is another narrative hinted at, a backstory of sorts, which may explain things, but it is never explored further.
As well as this light-hearted example, the viewer is allowed glimpses of more sinister narratives from past events. She sees flashes, when Joe’s mind wanders, of a former lover. The pair cower terrified in a car, as the piercing light of many torches pointing inwards is rendered even more jarring by black and white film, which separates the reminiscences from the cinematic present. The film is punctuated throughout with fragments of this event: one moment the viewer sees the pair running; the next, Joe is being raped; then, she screams. It becomes all the more haunting for never fully being explained or revealed.
The film exposes hypothetical situations too, unfulfilled narratives that could (only ever possibly) come into being. As Ratso stands outside a hotel, waiting for Joe to make some money, Schlesinger repeatedly cuts between a shot of Ratso’s face (progressing from medium close-up to close-up), his fantasy, and what is actually happening inside. In his day-dream, he can run, rather than hobble: he sprints past Joe as they both frolic along a beach in Miami. The pair sips drinks. Ratso cooks for the entire resort and everyone admires his dishes. But, earlier, Joe only smirks at his cooking and, with a crash of the doors, he runs out the hotel, having offended one too many women.
There is an interplay in the film between anteriority, possibility and actuality. While the viewer is aware of this blend on occasions because of Schlesinger’s formal distinctions (between, say, colour and black and white film), it is present throughout the picture in subtler ways. Both Joe and Ratso are chasing alternative circumstances: one hopes to find them in New York, the other in Florida. The potential for change is frustrated by the shackles of the past and the hard-knocks of the present: it is only in his dreams that Ratso can escape his ever-worsening physical fragility; Joe is haunted by his (forced) former sexual experiences and at the mercy of his New York clients. Is he quite so vicious to the elderly male customer (Barnard Hughes), near the end of the film, because the man embodies physically the obstruction of the possible (the trip to Florida) by the past (the homosexual desire of other men) and its appearance in the present (the homosexual desire of this man)?
Two shots in the film are emblematic of the relationship between all these conflicting narratives: the first is a close-up of a bag slowly filling with blood, as Joe donates his own for money; the second is a wide shot of the graveyard in which Ratso’s father rests. Just as the red blood spirals and swirls with the white passing through the transparent bag, so too do past events and future wishes intermingle in the present for Joe and Ratso. (The shot above, for example, visually blends the only slightly dulled hopefulness in Joe’s eyes, the sickness of Ratso now at peace and, reflected in the window, the palm trees of their dreams standing tantalisingly close.) The viewer notices also that it is easy to lose the pair as they walk through the graveyard, among black and white tombstones that tower above them. The scene looks at once like an enormous forest after a fire, with the charred remains of many trees, and a collection of chess pieces, scattered about a board. Life, here overwhelmingly embodied by the dead, is presented as a dangerous game. The difficulty to keep the pair in perspective, as the eye seems so susceptible to refocus on the many monoliths, stands as a reminder that these two lives are two among countless.
Peeping Tom (1960) marked the beginning of the end for its director Michael Powell. Greeted with widespread critical disgust on its release, the film was pulled after only a week. Until his death in 1990, thirty years after the film’s debut, Powell was almost universally outcast. The Red Shoes (1948) was eclipsed. His reputation was stained.
Perhaps the picture so convincingly outraged critics because it suggests that appearances can be deceiving. The protagonist carries a modified camera: there is a fatal blade in one of the tripod legs and a large mirror attached to the front. While the audience knows from the opening sequence that Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm) is the murderer, it never seems to make sense. His baby face, topped with blonde hair and encrusted with blue eyes, often expresses hyper-awkwardness in social situations; he is so acutely shy that for years his tenants don’t know that he is the homeowner. Even behind his black curtain, seated in his secret cinema, watching films of his recently murdered victims, he seems at once entranced and out of place.
Peeping Tom uncomfortably deconstructs boundaries: while the aforementioned black curtain physically separates Mark’s public and private spaces, the two easily overlap. The audience knows that he “never believed in locks” and sees the veil effortlessly moved aside. Helen (Anna Massey), propelled by her own curiosity, drifts from a party downstairs into the sanctum of his hidden cinema. This spatial division allegorically stands for Mark’s psyche: as Helen crosses the physical boundary from public into private space, she arouses Mark’s attention and, in so doing, is no longer considered a tenant but instead a love interest (and a potential victim). When Helen’s mother (Maxine Audley) sneaks her way in, she too crosses a mental boundary which cannot be uncrossed: she is nearly killed as a result.
The audience is exposed to the implicit voyeurism that film possesses throughout the picture. As Helen first disturbs Mark in his home-cinema, the camera observes the pair from high above and behind a series of shelves. Passive viewers become practising peeping toms. The opening sequence actually affords the audience a level of intimacy that surpasses that which Lewis achieves with his camera, beginning, as it does, with an extreme close-up of a prostitute’s eye. Lewis cannot get so close and remain unnoticed. Presumably, as Mark enters the brothel, most viewers choose not to look away. They instead are led passively into a morally ambiguous space.
Mark’s camera plays with the notions of murderer and victim as subtly as Powell blends the roles of passive audience and guilty voyeur. As he and his blade get closer, the prostitute’s reflection gets larger and more distorted in the attached mirror. Similarly, Vivian (Moira Shearer) becomes more disorientated the closer she is brought to herself and to her death. To come face-to-face with oneself is disgusting and dangerous: as the police inspector suggests, it produces a peculiar type of fear.