I Like to Watch

Complicated Gestures

For Nathaniel Rogers’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience

I’m of several minds about what makes a best shot in Taxi Driver, a film that brims with unusual camera positions, film speeds, and impeccable sonic cues. As I’m getting older, I’m more appreciative of sound and sound editing, and grateful for film makers who offer more than visual candy. That’s being too hard on candy, though, especially since Taxi Driver’s inspired visual rigor made it one of the early films that got me thinking about storytelling, that demonstrated how dramatic movement could be evidenced by both a story’s pacing and its visual depiction and arrangement.

When I go back to Taxi Driver now, I often return for my writing purposes: I’m interested in the texture of surroundings and how I might use them in fiction. Right now, I’m working on stories set in the late 1970s and it’s often helpful to look at films to see the condition of buildings, the prints and cuts of the era’s clothing (check out how much of it is in the last scene of Network, for example), store signage (for prices), and even once-popular products (like the three-striped Laura Scudder’s bag of chips that Goldie Hawn munches from in Butterflies Are Free). My stories aren’t even set in New York, but the work that a film like this can inspire my eyes to do is essential as I struggle to understand and use ambiance in fiction (a recent discovery: Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker from 1964).

That’s one reason why this shot fascinates me in particular. Near the end, as the camera descends from the carnage at the top of the stairs, we get this pan of Sport’s collapsed body in the hallway.

It’s an overhead shot but, unlike the more celebrated exit of the cops on the crime scene just moments before, this one gives us the close-up of the shoe and its exaggerated heel (which dates the shot appropriately), as well as the grimy and now-bloodied floor tiles (which, at least for me, are a reminder of how the cramped apartment entrances of some New York buildings seem to escape time altogether). The shot fascinates me as both a study of interior space and a sharp contrast to the more jeweled but equally lurid neon voyeurism of the opening and closing of this film. (It also reminds me quite vividly of the old ¡Alarma! tabloids that my father used to read—check out the photographer Enrique Metinides to see this shot replicated on much more desperate scales.)

Still, I chose this as my Best Shot, mostly for how it’s used to cue a character shift:

I taught a first-year writing course at Cornell called “Writing About Film,” and Taxi Driver often made it onto our syllabus. What intrigued me about my students’ first reactions was their inability (or unwillingness) to see Travis’s actions as anything but heroism (he “saves” Iris, therefore, savior!). During the course of our discussions, we often went to two key interactions that read as emblematic of his pathology: his slow-motion staredown with a black man at the cafeteria and his shooting of the robber at the bodega. The latter is a violent moment that is nonetheless amplified by the store owner’s brutalization of an already-dead body. It comes right before this scene and I study it for my writing, to think of how dramatic changes can be signaled across two scenes rather than just one and how juxtaposition can compound and complicate that change. How is the bodega scene preparing us for the next, in which Travis points his gun directly at the camera, only to have the target be revealed as a group of giddy slow dancers on American Bandstand? Travis watches them dance to a tender and plaintive Jackson Browne song. Is he longing to be like them? Or does watching them only exacerbate his isolation?

I love how DeNiro uses the gun in this scene: it’s upright for a moment while he watches the young people dance, but then he gently and deliberately rests the gun against his temple, as if the gun is the only substitute for companionship. It’s a literal depiction of the “bad ideas in my head” coming to fruition and a foreshadowing of the bloodied hand he uses at the end of the film, out of bullets and out of his mind. Looking at it as a writer of fiction, it shows me how simple gestures can function as shorthand for multiple meanings—it’s hard to do in text without being explicit about the meaning one most wants to convey. Here, I see this moment as one that might get first-time viewers to sympathize with Travis, lured on by how the scene gives us his perception of his exclusion from that dance, as if it made any sense (like his moment in the mirror) to have interactions with images that can’t talk back.

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What I’m Watching at Night: My Sometime Love for Hal Ashby

Ashby's privileged-class croquet tableau, complete with binoculars

Moonrise Kingdom may be the first time I was the only non-white person in a crowded theater (and I’ve been to many a Woody Allen picture).  I passed on the film when my friends in Tucson suggested an outing earlier this summer, saving it for my sister when I visited my family in Dinuba.[1] It turned out to be perfectly enjoyable, a sweet take on childhood adventure and its accompanying romanticism.  Anderson has never been my cup of tea, but my reasons are nebulous and mostly tied to my reactions to his distinctive middle-class reference points. [2]

In any case, even if the camp setting of Moonrise Kingdom kept me at arm’s length for a little while, the stylistic flourishes warmed me.  The overly mustard décor of a 1960s kitchen, for example, extending itself (maybe a little too much) into the fashion choices of the kitchen’s owner.  A lovingly handled record player, with attention to the simplicity of its knobs.  A superfluous shot from atop a police car, complete with siren, like an old episode of Adam-12.  The charming children’s-book silhouette to illustrate danger in the finale.  Even the kohl-eyed stare of Suzy when she puts down her binoculars reminded me, oddly enough, of the first time I actually encountered the word kohl–that made it a little easier to accept the main protagonist’s smarter-than-thou presence.

I stay away from reviews these days and try to read them only after I’ve seen a film.  I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple of mentions of Hal Ashby, in relation to his Harold and Maude as a potential referent to Anderson’s film.  That film, too, is carried by a young protagonist whose knowledge and adult demeanor strains credibility, but characters like these might be appealing (I suspect) because they match how some people in the audience have always imagined themselves to be.  [3]   In any case, it got me to thinking about why I never talk about Hal Ashby as a favorite director, or even a director for whom I have a lot of affection.

Ashby’s run in the 1970s is quite remarkable.  There’s The Landlord (1970, which I’ll get to in a moment); Harold and Maude (1971), with its passionate fans (though I’m not of them); the Nicholson-led sausage party, The Last Detail (1973); the comedy, ending with a melancholic note, Shampoo (1975); the earnest biopic of Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (1976);[4] the sentimental Vietnam drama Coming Home (1978);[5], and satiric/maybe mythic Peter Sellars flick Being There (1979).

Netflix was (is still?) showing The Landlord in my queue for a while and I finally gave in because it held one of those Supporting Actress performances (Lee Grant) in a seemingly minor film that I feared I would never get to.  Oddly enough, I ended up being thrilled by the film [6]  Based on African-American writer Kristin Hunter’s 1966 novel of the same name,[7] the film is very much of its time:  daring on the one hand for its embrace of direct social commentary, but rushed, too, in how it can sometimes dispense altogether with narrative trajectory in favor of characters speaking directly to the camera and just putting it all on the line.  The film follows a young affluent New Yorker, played by Beau Bridges, who tells us in the opening that he plans to buy a Park Slope tenement (!!), ditch the renters, and construct an elaborate space for himself.  The plans, of course, don’t quite work out that way, and the film follows him in his various confrontations and relationships with the people in the neighborhood.

I don’t know why Ashby is hardly ever discussed much with other elite 1970s directors.  Well, maybe I do know (but am reluctant to admit) that I often think of Ashby’s work as heavily dependent on the screenplay.[8]  Whether his films exhibit any visual flair or identifiable Ashby frames is something I should think about, but the credits to The Landlord held a number of surprises.  Liberal Hollywood rabble-rousers Norman Jewison and Walter Mirisch served as producers, and I nearly jumped out of my chair when I spotted Gordon Willis’s name as the cinematographer, which gave me yet another opportunity to watch a master in action.  Here, for example is one of my favorite shots in the film, in which four light sources pop up on the screen, in tempo with the rising tension between the two characters.

Gordon Willis exquisitely assists the story

I’ve mentioned The Landlord to a few film friends in regards to Ashby and Anderson, but I’m still floating around what kind of question I want to pose to myself when I finally get around to Bound for Glory.  Maybe watching these 1970s films would tell me something about what he chose to listen to and highlight in story.  Twice in The Landlord, the film crosscuts Lee Grant’s horrified self-regard when threatened with her son’s increasing involvement with black women.  Rather than count on Grant’s execution of uncontainable disgust, the film inserts sight gags to distill her character’s racism unmistakably to the audience.  In one, her character gathers a small group of children and she sings to them as their plantation mother hen before the film cuts back to the present action.

It reminded me of the same moment of maternal discovery by Brenda Blethyn’s character in Secrets & Lies, how much more patiently the director Mike Leigh allowed the moment to pass.  I saw that film in the theater too, and the gradual laughter that accompanied it was a credit to the unity of the story’s pace and the audience’s handle of it.  I’m fuddy-duddy that way, preferring the chance to witness a change, rather than the static resonance of the tableau or the employment of the zoom shot for the sake of the zoom shot.  I’d recommend a look at this picture for all sorts of reasons, though I’ll also say there’s some intriguing, engaging work from Diana Sands, Marki Bey, and Pearl Bailey, should you need a little nudge.

Is there anyone better than Lee Grant at horrified incredulity?

  1. [1] Since my sister uses a wheelchair, we’re always right up front, and I’m always curious about the makeup of an audience—I can see it all from that vantage point.  This one completely surprised me, not least because the film actually screened in Fresno (albeit in one of those last theaters at the end of the hall, past the always empty, never-ever stocked concession stand, when the theater apparently had grander plans for service.)
  2. [2]  Another Tucson friend firmly insists his conviction that understanding a Wes Anderson film is the ticket to understanding whiteness, and I think I get what he means.  Take summer camp, for example—as an adult, I can now see why camps might figure as perfect metaphoric sites to revisit adolescent loneliness and the ruthless competition for popular standing.  But damn, I spent my summers picking grapes.  Suburban angst took a long time for me to understand on those days when I all I could recall of summer was brutal heat.
  3. [3]Much smarter than anyone in the room, even at an age when it wasn’t actually possible to be so.
  4. [4]It’s the one Ashby film from this era that I have not seen, given my general distaste for biopics.
  5. [5] Its last sequence is one of the few that can bring me to tears, and I’ve seen the film many times.
  6. [6] Though I will tell you that a good friend with the same general tastes found it insufferable.
  7. [7] Yet another book to put on my stack!
  8. [8]  Even I’ll admit that the Ashby film I’m least fond of, The Last Detail, carried my interest because of the sustained interaction of the three protagonists, and the sentimentality of Coming Home is something I can easily ignore because of the evident investment in the story’s grounded emotions by the principle players—I really do choke up watching Jane Fonda in the last scene of this picture.
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