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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.