Thursday, April 1, 2010

Motion Studies: A Man and a Boy, discussing Women

         Any feature film made after 1965 that is shot in Black and White was done so with a stylistic emphasis. The Last Picture Show was made in 1971, shortly in to the time when color photography was stamped and sealed as the worldwide norm for filmmaking. So every shot in this film is working towards one stylistic emphasis and that emphasis can be summed up in a number of interpretations; they are meant to evoke nostalgia; they are representative of an older era of America that corresponds with the way its films looked; it stresses bleakness and vapidity. None of these interpretations are what makes the shot in which Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson) are sitting by a grassy bank on the outskirts of town, Sam talking about an old flame of his whom he took to that spot when she was only twenty-two, significant. Clearly the image is going somewhere stylistically. But while it is stylistically appropriate, the scene also appears to ignore one of the most basic laws of scene-craft. 
In the background, not quite out of focus, is a deaf-mute boy named Billy (Sam Bottoms), who is often seen with Sam. He is playing on the sand with a stick. Sam’s monologue goes on, he finishes, the camera dollys backwards from him and Sonny. Then the image dissolves. Billy remains playing in the sand, having not participated in the scene at all. Perhaps only someone so used to the craft of silents, particularly silent comedies, would mistake this for an ignored opportunity. When Chaplin shot a scene with the tramp strolling through the gate to the blind girl’s home in City Lights, a cat prowled around on the overhanging lip of the archway just above the stairs in the upper left corner. The tramp walked up the stairs, and sure enough, Chaplin cut to the cat knocking over a flowerpot on to his head. How can a character sit in the background of an entire shot, in one of the more anecdotal scenes in the film, and neither do anything nor have anything done to him?
          But we are far from Chaplin’s cinema. This is not a case of a gun being introduced and not going off. Billy is unable do anything, himself; he can’t hear what the two men in front of him are saying. That neither Sam or Sonny interact with him at all is not a fault, either, for something will happen to both the main speaker in the scene (Sam) and later, to his main companion in the background (Billy). What is important to notice in the scene is the characters, not the actions; the confused teenager, the grizzled, poetic old man, and the simple, deaf-mute boy. Each of these characters will meet a certain fate. This is what makes The Last Picture Show distinctly a modern narrative film, its black-and-whiteness recalling, if anything, early sound cinema’s narratives, which were allowed more complexity and were a greater emphasis on  character than silent cinema. What is important in the scene of a boy and a man talking about their girlfriends, and a third boy saying nothing, is the lyrical drive of the scene in relation to the larger story, not the lyrical drive of the imagery in relation to itself. This gives the shot perhaps a literary quality, of a sort that virtually all novelists and most filmmakers still find useful to this day. It is an image that looks beautiful and wants to be contemplated, but as a signifier of other things, not as an individual object of beauty. Chaplin’s cat was a gun going off; two men talking about women is a thought leading to other thoughts.