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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.

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Robert Benton’s 1979 picture Kramer vs. Kramer is up and down. The drama of the film and the dynamics between the characters are played out visually along the vertical axis of the frame: from the relative position of people in and outside of lifts (and the direction they’re moving) to the angles of glances, various spatial relationships contribute to the complication of meaning throughout the piece.

The opening exchange between Ted (Dustin Hoffman) and Joanna (Meryl Streep) ends with a decisive emblem of separation: the lift doors slide closed (with a clunk) and Joanna moves downwards, while Ted remains still. Emphatic in its splitting of the pair, the characters’ share of the power is nonetheless ambiguous. It’s a semantically complex moment because a series of conflicting impressions about the meaning of up and of down (and of a movement between them) are brought into play. On the one hand, Joanna seems to have made a determined decision to move from the confines of her apartment to the freedom of street level. She descends from her (enforced) domestic ivory tower to engage again with the real world and fulfil her own needs. As she says in her letter to Billy (Justin Henry): “I have gone away because I must find some interesting things to do for myself in the world.”

But, on the other hand, her descent is passive, as it is the lift, rather than her own legs, that carries her down. Retrospectively, the viewer is aware that this movement brings Joanna much trouble, rather than freedom: her suggested promiscuity in the intervening few months, as well as the desertion of her son, harm her attempt to reclaim Billy later in the film. Ted’s stasis, while for a time frustrating, is, in terms of movement, just as easy as Joanna’s descent: in a very real sense, both characters stand still during this exchange. Furthermore, he is left with his son, while Joanna must go without him. He remains with everything, while she must go with only a few dollars and fewer contacts. It is difficult to extract from the opening who comes off best. The apparent black-and-white dynamics (Joanna is in control; Ted is powerless) are frustrated by the specifics of the situation.

The lift becomes a structural motif that appears periodically throughout the film. This first movement is mirrored in a later lift exchange, when the pair have finished a court appearance. Joanna is exposed, almost pleading with Ted: “Please, Ted. I never would have brought it up if I thought…” Ted is now the one taken up by the lift and Joanna is left standing. A few scenes later Ted finds out he has lost the court case. Does the movement of the lift take on a moral dimension, signifying, in this case, moral superiority, if not rising fortunes?

The film comes almost full circle in the ambiguous closing scene. Joanna approaches to collect her son and Ted goes down to meet her. They meet at street level, with Billy remaining above them, separated physically from the conflict (though always functioning as a focal point for it). It is at this point that the expected course of action is reversed: Joanna reveals “I won’t fight for him anymore. He’s yours.” Ted is shocked: he has won his son. But it is Joanna who enters the lift to see Billy. She has relinquished her son but she goes upwards to see him. As she tries to compose herself, she asks “How do I look?” Ted responds truthfully with a word: “Beautiful.” Here, words and cinematic language blend to embody the ambiguity that surrounds the relationship: it is a comment that harks back to a happily married life, delivered by an ex-husband to an ex-wife whom he no longer kisses; the word is close to becoming little more than a verbal gesture of magnanimity. But they may precede a future happiness. The viewer will never know. The lift door closes and the film ends.