Tuesday, 26 January 2010

“Crazier than a fish with titties”: Naïve and deliberate cult in Trapped in the Closet


[This is part two of a series of posts on and around the idea of cult pleasure; part one is here, and I have written more on Trapped in the Closet here. ]

Trapped in the Closet is the name collectively given to a bizarre (to put it mildly) series of music videos created by and starring the R & B lothario R. Kelly. It began life as a cycle of songs which together told a slowly unfolding story, divided into chapters, and featuring the same backing track and sung melody. It was later developed into a 41 minute video called Trapped in the Closet Chapters 1-12, released in the Summer of 2005. The songs and video told the dramatic saga of a group of couples whose lives are gradually revealed to be intertwined by one another’s infidelities. Each chapter ended with a pointed cliffhanger – a surprising revelation intended to keep the viewer eager to know what will happen next. Kelly is both star and narrator of the video, and all other characters are also voiced by him.

The apparently unintentional hilarity of Chapters 1-12 caused the video to quickly become a viral cult hit on the internet. It was widely viewed and shared through the then-newly-created Youtube, blogged about by enthusiasts, screened at sing-along parties, championed by pop culture commentators like Adam and Joe and Charlie Brooker, and repeatedly spoofed (never quite successfully, in my opinion) both by fans, and professionally by Weird Al Yankovich, Jimmy Kimmel, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, Mad TV, and South Park. In short: its reputation as an enjoyable cult object was clearly very much built around its seeming naïveté and the idea that Kelly didn’t, for the most part, intend the video to be comic.

In 2007, ten more chapters were released on the independent film website IFC.com. The tone of these chapters seemed different, and there was apparently little doubt that Kelly now seemed to be often attempting a broad comic style. I liked them far less.

In this post I will both detail some of the pleasures that make Chapters 1-12 so enjoyable, and also suggest that their lack makes Chapters 13-22 less successful. I will argue too that the cult pleasures afforded by the first group of chapters, and resisted by the second, are deeply tied up with assumptions about authorial intention. As such, I will be claiming that the difficult question of intention can often have a very important role to play in the success or failure of cult pleasure.

The particular kind of cult pleasure I’m concerned with can be linked with Susan Sontag’s famous definition of camp as usually constituting a “failed seriousness”, specifically one marked by “the proper mix of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naïve”. Also relevant is Sontag’s distinction between ‘naïve’ and ‘deliberate’ camp; as she puts it:

Pure camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be camp is usually less satisfying.

These points are important not only because I think we can see Trapped in the Closet as straddling both these forms of camp, but also because of their implicit claim that intention – even if only imaginary – can play a major role in how we respond to cult objects.

Chapters 1-12

Before I get into this, though, you will need to see at least some of Trapped in the Closet for yourself, if you haven’t before, since it is almost impossible to describe to the uninitiated (personally, I would strongly endorse watching the first 12 chapters in full). The moment below comes from Chapter 2, and takes place after Sylvester, played by Kelly, has been found hiding in a closet by the man whose wife he slept with the night before.

This scene is fairly representative of the tone of the first batch of chapters: although the action is over-dramatic, there are no overt gags, and emphasis seems to generally be firmly placed upon trying to convey the emotions of the characters. By and large, chapters 1-12 are are played, as we might say, with a straight face. For one thing, the acting is relatively naturalistic throughout: indeed, one of the incredible things about the first half is that the actors actually manage to look rather convincing whilst ‘speaking’ Kelly’s words - as if their characters were merely talking normally and believably, but their real-life soundtrack has for some reason been dubbed over with a melodramatic R & B track that is synchronised perfectly to their words. There is little mugging, little over-the-top comic physicality, and little campy caricature.

Secondly, there are very few 'gags', and when jokes are made, they tend to be jokes shared between characters in the world of the fiction, which are then laughed about. The fact that these jokes aren’t funny, yet the characters think they are, is actually one of the sources of pleasure of the first half. For example, Kelly and his wife fall about laughing when he adds that, on top of a whole list of other traumas he’s experienced that day, he was also given a speeding ticket:

"Baby, first of all: I got a hangover, been trapped in a closet, slept with who-knows, threatened to kill a pastor..."/ She says "What?!"/ "Baby this is no lie: he had a lover, turns out to be a gay guy!"/ She says "Damn, you've been through a lot of shit..."/"Plus I got a ticket!"

Finally, the story itself is relatively naturalistic: it takes place mainly in domestic spaces, involves conventional themes of family drama like adultery and marital jealousy, and – although full of surprises and excessively violence-prone characters – stays just about within the bounds of believable fiction.

Overall, its intention seems primarily to be to tell an engaging, surprising story, full of twists and turns – not to mock the telling of that story. Although the infamous appearance of a midget hiding in a cabinet in Chapter 10 stretches plausibility, and is certainly intended to be funny and shocking, we have to ask for what reason he is supposed to be funny.

'Big Man' isn’t intended, I don’t think, as a device that shatters the illusion that what we are seeing is a believable drama – though this, coupled with a hysterically un-PC laugh of disbelief, is precisely his effect. His appearance doesn’t seem to be in quotation marks; instead he seems meant to be surprising first and comic second – and this comedy, far from seeming ironic or self-conscious about its offensiveness, instead feels raucous and excitable. This plot development is, I think, intended to be ‘crazy’ in the sense of ‘wild’ or ‘unforeseeable’ rather than ‘insane’ – or, put another way: it is meant to make us think that it is the characters’ situation, rather than the film we’re watching, that is crazy.

Chapters 13-22

Now let's look at a quick clip from Chapter 13, the first chapter of the second crop, in which Kelly is now playing both Sylvester and the previously unseen character of an elderly husband, Randolph. (Note: the clip is preceded by a framing device that I'll be addressing in a moment).

The contrast with the first clip is, I think, obvious: we now have Kelly wearing an abundantly fake belly, and a beard that seems to almost fall off; we have the use of exaggerated voices and physical comedy; we have pauses in the dialogue being used for comic effect; we have the sometimes almost surreal comedy dialogue; furthermore, the whole scene with Rosie and Randolph is almost entirely irrelevant to the plot, so can be seen mainly as an independent comic set-piece.

Admittedly, this scene is a relatively extreme example of the kind of comedy in the second lot of chapters; but, in Chapters 1-12, even where overt comedy exists – and it does exist – it is nowhere as broad as it is here; by contrast, recognisably comic details such as those I just outlined are inserted continually throughout Chapters 13-22.

The second batch of chapters takes the raucousness that appeared so late in the first (with the midget) and runs with it. We now meet aggressively over-the-top characters (like the one Kelly plays here), wishing birds would shit on their wive’s faces, and a stuttering, massively caricatured, pimp (also played by Kelly) who vows to never stop “p-p-p-pimpin’ all these hoes”. We have other highly stylised characters too, like a fat Sicilian mob boss eating a giant plate of pasta, a James-Brown-in-Blues-Brothers-esque preacher, and a gold-toothed ‘gangsta’ named Streets.

As these characters suggest, the plot too becomes far less naturalistic, taking in mob movies, urban 'gangsta' pictures, and even film noir – each of which are pastiched for all their genres are worth. Also, while the story of the first half was, for all its inspired madness, actually very tight and focused, the second half constantly diverges from its main plot for unconnected comic set pieces like Rosie and Randolph’s or Pimp Lucious's.

Finally, the music and lyrics themselves are often used for clearly comic effect, the beat sometimes cutting out at moments to add to comic timing, and the 'dialogue' now containing lines like “You must be crazier than a fish with titties if you think I’m gonna let you smoke that shit up in my car...!”

There were a number of reasons why these new chapters disappointed much of Trapped’s cult fan base, myself included, but an important one was the sense that much of it had been created with comic intent due to the cult appreciation of the first chapters. In short, it seemed to be attempting to create ‘deliberate cult’. Speaking as a fan, I wasn’t disappointed because the comedy of the second half somehow suggested that the first half was also intended as comedy – I was disappointed that this intentional comedy wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the apparently unintentional comedy of the first 12 chapters. Kelly seemed to have tried to give us what he thought we wanted, but instead made Trapped into a parody of itself.


However, following the release of Chapters 13-22, a number of journalists began suggesting that Kelly had always intended the series to be intentional parody, and that those cult fans who believed it to be unintentionally funny were (a) missing the point, and (b) merely expressing a condescendingly superior attitude. The fact that the second batch of chapters were released on IFC.com, and that each was preceded by an interview between Kelly and a white, bespectacled, 20-something host, also made commentators uncomfortable – some essentially accusing those who wished to see the video as naïve of a veiled form of racism being practiced by, as one writer put it, “silver-spoon hipsters”.

One of the arguments used to back up this view is that Kelly is known, within the R & B community, as an artist who does sometimes use humour as a tool within his music – something that might not be known by many fans of Trapped who weren’t previously R & B fans. Another is that, at least in the second batch of chapters, it often seems as if Kelly is trying to ape the style of what’s sometimes known as 'chitlin’ circuit' theatre: a style of broad comic theatre, created mainly by and for African Americans, which often uses instantly recognisable archetypal characters and an exaggeratedly comic performance style.

These debates are clearly centred around the question of intention. It has often been argued that it doesn’t matter what the intention behind a work is – or, equally, that we can never know it for certain, so it’s meaningless to debate it. Discussions of authorial intention have become increasingly unfashionable within the academic study of the humanities ever since the publication of ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ in 1946, and the concept has received more and more apparently deadly blows over the last forty years, from Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ to postmodernism’s challenges to the very concept of coherent textual meaning. Nevertheless, I think that there are still many contexts in which the issue of intention can still be seen to be relevant – if never simple – and one of these is in the area of cult.

I say this because it is very common indeed for a film to achieve cult status through the reception of fans who see their appreciation of the film as being opposed to, or in some sense other than, the work’s original intentions. In the introduction to their Cult Film Reader, Ernest Mathius and Xavier Mendick write that

Traditional fandom remains largely respectful to a film’s interpretive integrity, but other ways of commitment involve challenges to its interpretation, either by robbing it of its meaning, or replacing it with one that may counter its intentions.

While this talk of challenges to interpretive integrity has the ring of a reader-response criticism and the rejection of singular textual meaning, it also in an important sense assumes that we can know – or presume to know – what the authorial intention of a work is in the first place.

I must confess that I’m not an expert on cult theory, but it seems to me from the research I’ve done that the issue of intention may be an under-explored area in cult studies. I say this because, speaking as a ‘fan-critic’ (to use I. Q. Hunter’s term), it is important for me – as it is for other fans of Trapped in the Closet – to be able to see Kelly as 'naïve' in order for the cult pleasure I gain from chapters 1-12 to feel valid.

Seeing Kelly as 'naive' means, for one thing, that I can construct an image of him as a fascinating and rampant egoist based on the evidence of Trapped. He wrote, produced, co-directed, sings, and stars in the video, giving him Ed Wood-level of creative control, and thus potential self-absorption. On top of this there is the fact that in chapters 1-12 he appears not merely as one character, but two: the main protagonist, Sylvester (which is, incidentally, Kelly’s middle name) and the story’s nameless narrator who comments on the action from chapter 8 onwards. Combine with these factors the film’s main conceit, that he also sings every other character’s part too, and Trapped thus consists of one R. Kelly relating to us a narrative in which another R. Kelly comments of the actions of a third R. Kelly, who is constantly having arguments with characters who all sing with the voice of R. Kelly. One seeming byproduct of this is that he seems to become confused by all this himself at times, since he will sometimes refer to his protagonist in the third person, as Sylvester, and sometimes in the first person, as “Me”.

It’s also important that I see Kelly as 'naïve' for Trapped to appear to be, as Sontag puts it, a “passionate failure”. In the commentary, Kelly tells us that, the more he delved into the story and its themes, the more he realised how profound they are – how we are all, in a sense, trapped in closets, and that there exists, in his words, “this global closet thing…” Such vague delusions of grandeur seem unbelievable and instantly comical; they also, however make me love the man a little too. In much the same way as, say, Glen or Glenda’s confessional nature makes it into a strangely moving experience, so does Trapped in the Closet’s apparent basis in an attempt to say something meaningful make it seem charmingly, touchingly, bad.

It's particularly vital for my appreciation of chapters 1-12 that I am able to assume that its plot is not calculatedly ridiculous, but that it relies upon a mesmerizingly child-like conception of storytelling, character-motivation and tone - one that values surprise over cause-and-effect, and action over traditional forms of plausibility. It’s important that I am able to conclude that drama in Kelly’s mind appears to be synonymous with potential danger, and that, in order to achieve potential danger, he must create characters who are unimaginably highly-strung, constantly on the edge of launching into violent frenzy, and who perennially own and carry weapons. The first example of this bizarre narrative tendency comes at the end of the very first Chapter, when Kelly is about to be discovered hiding in the closet: his immediate reaction is to “pull my Beretta out”. At this point we didn’t yet know that he even had a Beretta, let alone can we see why it should be appropriate to instinctively brandish it now. This continues to happen throughout, usually at hilariously unnecessary moments: when Sylvester learns that Rufus is gay, when James thinks he hears Gwendolyn crying, when Sylvester hears an apparently inoffensive knock at his front door, and so on, and so on…

Even more than this, it's important that I am able to assume that the chain of events in 1-12 shows that Kelly has never thought particularly hard about how to tell a story that flows in conventional narrative terms - or is even physically possible. There are numerous instances that seem to display a bizarre grasp of storytelling basics, containing many incidents that are simply impossibilities (such as a policeman flashing down Kelly from behind when it later transpires that he must just have come from the direction Kelly is driving), or unfeasible, such as Bridget’s decision to call a random telephone number she found in her husband’s pocket at a moment of crisis.

Being trapped in a world that operates in this bizarre way – a way that suggests not mere bad writing, but rather an entirely different conception of our world’s logic – is addictive, intriguing, and thrilling. One of the main things that makes chapters 1-12 so fascinating is that they seem to be not just another example of something that is so-bad-it’s-good: rather the specific ways in which they seem to be ‘bad’ are so peculiar, so unique, and so baffling, that they practically require judgment by a whole new set of criteria. As a fan, I have put a lot of stock in the idea that this must be because it is the brainchild of a man whose mind works in a very different way to the kind of person who we usually find telling stories. This seems to be a man who doesn’t consider the very concept of a 41 minute hip-hopera voiced entirely by one person a funny concept, but does think that calling a decrepit, spatula-weilding old woman “a G, no doubt” is hilarious. It is important that Kelly’s mind appears to be a twilight zone – one that it is infinitely entertaining to feel one is getting a glimpse into.

So have I just had my elitist, condescending cult fun stopped and am petulantly aggrieved? Have the new chapters simply made plain what was always there – an essentially spoof-like nature – and I just don’t want to admit this fact? Because of the huge cult pleasure I’ve derived from the first 12 chapters, I have a great deal emotionally and intellectually invested in answering No, since this would not only irretrievably alter the way in which I’m able to enjoy chapters 1-12, but would also suggest that my original pleasure was not only misguided, but also rather arrogant and distasteful.

I also, however, genuinely believe that this isn’t the case, and that I can demonstrate this by pointing to things such as Kelly’s director’s commentary, in which he talks about the “intensity” and “realism” of the video far more than its comedy – and when he does discuss comedy, he’s usually claiming that he had to lighten the mood with a comic set-piece because we’ve just undergone a particularly "intense" series of scenes.

More important for my broader argument, though, is the very fact that I feel I need to convince you of this at all. This is because whether Trapped is an instance of naïve or deliberate camp makes a huge difference both to the ways in which I can value it, and to the validity of that judgment. I want to be able to treat it as naïve camp because I gain so much pleasure, fascination, and excitement from understanding that its brilliance is at least partly accidental. I appreciate the idea that it is akin to the poignant unintentional camp of Ed Wood much more than the notion that it’s a lesser version of the intentional camp of, say, John Waters – to which it has also been compared. If the latter were the case, I wouldn’t be able to love it nearly as much as I do (and camp taste is always, as Sontag says, “a kind of love”). Equally, if I am mistaking a work of deliberate camp for naïve camp then that opens me up to accusations of, not just critical narrowness, but cultural insensitivity – or even racial prejudice. I strongly believe I’m not making this mistake, but it’s nevertheless important that I have been forced to address the possibility that I could be.

I believe that it is sometimes imperative to try to deduce the intentions of a work – if not necessarily the intention of the author, then at least what Umberto Eco called the “intention of the text”. As Eco warns us in The Limits of Interpretation, even if we admit that texts are open to multiple readings – as we must – we must simultaneously acknowledge that these potential readings aren’t unbounded, and we can’t make a text mean simply anything. We can at the very least often see what kinds of meanings a text discourages; for example, it would be rather meaningless to argue that, say, Double Indemnity is a musical, or that Singin’ in the Rain is a film noir, because we can plainly judge that their intentions are unconcerned with these genres. This is a caricatured example, but it illustrates that we are in fact making assumptions about intention in different ways and on different levels all the time. Whether it’s possible to ever come to a definitive conclusion in a particular case or not, attempting to do so is sometimes inescapable, since confronting intention is often an important, indeed necessary, part of the process of cult pleasure.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Thoughts on cult pleasure


This will be the first of a series of entries on and around the idea of cult pleasure. As an earlier post about the brilliance of an incidental element of Twilight: New Moon may have hinted, I am someone who is periodically drawn to a kind of film appreciation that could be called cult – specifically: I occasionally praise the joys of the perplexingly terrible, the thrillingly awful. My desire to write about this subject comes, in one sense, simply from the fact that I feel a need to share my deep enthusiasm for a few things that most people would likely agree are ‘bad’. Another reason, however, is that I find cult pleasure a fascinating phenomenon in itself, and believe it has the potential to encourage film criticism to address a number of important issues. For instance…


Value is too often the unacknowledged spectre at the film studies feast. Regularly functioning implicitly (sometimes seemingly unconsciously) rather than being openly engaged with, the question of artistic value will often be ignored in favour of a supposedly more ‘objective’ tone. Yet, try as we might, we can – of course – never wholly avoid it. One benefit of the kind of cult pleasure I’m concerned with is that it manages to place evaluation front and centre, demanding we address and interrogate the concept. Firstly, if we are calling something ‘bad’ then we immediately face the responsibility of justifying why: for whom? according to what criteria? Secondly, if we then wish to claim that something is pleasurable (or interesting, or valuable) despite being ‘bad’, our reassessment will be based around matters that were clearly not taken into account by the original evaluation. Given that cults are by definition grounded in taste communities, they also require that we acknowledge the irreducibly personal (and indeed social) nature of value. This leads me on to another issue...


Although it would hypothetically be possible to write about a cult object which you yourself didn’t share in the cult of, I would imagine that it would be both rather difficult and rather tedious. Given this, cult pleasure has the power to inject passion and love into the critical act – particularly since the pleasure of the so-bad-it’s-good also seems absolutely to require explanation and elaboration. In the same way as cult fans construct communities in order to share their passion with like-minded people, so can cult pleasure push the critic to be similarly generous.


Finally, another supposedly hoary critical concept with the potential to be revitalised by thinking about cult pleasure is artistic intention – a concept that has been unfashionable in the academic discussion of the arts for around half a century. While the idea of gay audiences reappropriating Rock Hudson movies or college students getting stoned in front of anti-drug morality tales may seem to fly the flag for the instability of textual meaning, what such cult appreciation also quite obviously presupposes is that we can accurately gauge the original intention of these films. This should by rights make us revisit this most fundamental – and, again, largely ignored – issue for criticism: to what extent can we presume to prove or infer intention, given that we clearly and necessarily do so regularly?

Over the next week or two I will be trying to probe some of these questions and issues. I should say that I’m choosing to do this now since, coming up, I’m scheduled to attend screenings of two of my own favourite pieces of cult phenomena: The Room and After Last Season. My next post, though, will be about R. Kelly’s infamous Trapped in the Closet, so for now I will simply leave you with a clip from this masterpiece of absurdity. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Kreativ Blogger Award!


I’m extremely flattered that Catherine Grant at Film Studies For Free has thought of me for this award. While I usually share her skepticism of most things resembling a 'chain letter', who can be expected to turn down such an ego boost!?

As such, in accordance with the rules (as laid out on Catherine's blog), here are seven (vaguely film-related) facts about me:

1. I am in the final year of my PhD at the University of Warwick. My thesis is on the Hollywood ‘happy ending’. (Could this blog be a procrastination technique? Surely not...)

2. In 2002 I made a pilgrimage to the bowling alley in Buffalo where a key sequence of Buffalo ’66 was shot. I bowled on the lane Vincent Gallo plays on in the film.

3. I am on the editorial board of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, a new, freely-accessible online incarnation of the journal Movie, which will be going live soon.

4. At age 16 I made a mockumentary called The Blair Witch Project Project. It was about me and a friend going to see The Blair Witch Project at the cinema on Halloween, venturing into a local park in order to scare ourselves, and, in the process, losing our camera. It was hilarious.

5. I currently live in a flat whose previous tenant was Gemma Arterton. I so badly want her to make a film I admire so I can be more proud to be occasionally receiving her mail.

6. In 2003 I travelled to Bruges specifically to see the directorial debut of the lead singer of what was at the time my favourite band (the Belgian group dEUS). The film (Any Way the Wind Blows) was in Flemish, without subtitles, and didn’t appear to be particularly good.

7. I recently covered (and combined) ‘You Give a Little Love’ from Bugsy Malone and the main theme from Jurassic Park for a friend’s wedding.

And now, the seven blogs I am in turn nominating (none of whom, I’m sure, needs my championing):

1. James Zborowski’s wide-ranging and penetrating Between Sympathy and Detachment.

2. Jeffrey Sconce’s always thoughtful and often hilarious Ludic Despair.

3. The prolific and gorgeously presented Precious Bodily Fluids.

4. David Lowery’s Drifting, in part a companion to his beautiful movies.

5. Dave Kehr, whose comments section hosts some of the most extended and stimulating film discussion on the net.

6. The Enemies of Reason, for its scabrously funny critiques of the British press.

7. Amanda Ann Klein’s Judgmental Observer, which makes me want to be taking her courses.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Stepped Over: John Cazale


Fredo – well… He’s got a good heart. But he’s weak, and he’s stupid. And this is life and death.

-Michael, The Godfather Part 2

John Cazale has what is probably the most impressive complete resumé in Hollywood history. He appeared in only five films before succumbing to bone cancer at the age of 42; those films, however, were The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter, and The Conversation. Whatever one may personally think of them, it is difficult to think of another actor who appeared solely in movies that have been so consistently highly praised; apart from anything, each one was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and three won.

Last year a short documentary called I Knew it was You was made about Cazale’s life and career (watch it here). It features interviews with those one would expect, including Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, Meryl Streep (whom Cazale was dating at the time of his death), and Al Pacino – who claims he learned more about acting from Cazale than from anyone else he has ever worked with. It also features testimonials from a number of younger actors equally eager to praise him for his craft, such as Steve Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The overall thrust of the documentary, hinted at in its title, is to suggest how unfair it is that Cazale is not more well known, given his talent and track record. While I certainly agree with this, I would also suggest that it is in a sense unsurprising – and even somehow perhaps sadly fitting – given the roles he played and his films’ treatment of his characters.

In his seminal book Stars, Richard Dyer says that, “Stars… are the direct or indirect reflection of the needs, drives and dreams of American society.” Cazale’s career suggests that this holds both for those figures who are constructed to embody such dreams, and for those who are required to embody their lack or failure. While Cazale was emphatically not a ‘star’ in the conventional sense, this fact is in itself telling in relation to the kinds of roles he played, and holds a special significance for Cazale’s relationship to the kinds of needs and drives Dyer is referring to.

All of the five films John Cazale appeared in during his short career can be seen as indicative of the well-documented sense of malaise that was so observable in certain corners of the post-Vietnam American cinema. They are all films that, in different ways, asked demoralising questions about what it took, and meant, to achieve that form of success so often referred to in mythic terms as ‘The American Dream’. In each film he plays a supporting role to a major Hollywood star which, in pre-Vietnam cinema, could easily have been comic: each has the potential to be the role of the dim-witted friend or side-kick who amuses with his charming ignorance. These, however, were films of the 1970s ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ – films that often attempted to reflect the extent to which Vietnam and had given the U.S. a sense of its own mortality, and the possibility of failure: films in which pursuit of the American Dream was a dangerous, and perhaps doomed, matter of “life and death”. I want to look briefly at how Cazale’s characters are treated in two of these films: The Godfather Part 2 and Dog Day Afternoon. (I should say, if such a warning is needed for these films, that there will be spoilers...)

In both The Godfather Part 2 and Dog Day Afternoon Cazale's characters are continually being undermined, in different ways, by the star of both films, Al Pacino. This happens on the level of plot, but it is also happening consistently stylistically. For instance, one way in which The Godfather Part 2 often communicates Cazale’s inferiority to Pacino is through framing. We can see this, for example, in the scene in which Michael disowns Fredo (watch it here). In the scene’s long shots Fredo is seen sprawled on a recliner along the bottom right-hand side of the frame while Michael towers over him, commanding the eye.

This power relationship is carried over into the scene’s medium shots too, which show Fredo only in high-angles that mean we share a similar view of him to Michael’s: he is being both metaphorically and literally looked down upon.

Similarly, in a previous scene in which Michael is subtly testing Fredo’s loyalty over drinks in an outdoor café in Havana, the shots of Cazale demand that he share the frame with a background of many constantly-moving extras – including, in an especially extreme act of undermining, a wandering band playing “Guantananera”.

Any extras in Pacino’s frame, meanwhile, are seldom and so far away as to be too out-of-focus to be conspicuous.

This ensures that the shots of Cazale are far more cluttered to look at, reducing his visual command within them and generally treating him in a manner that is almost as undignified as the banana dacquiri he is drinking (and which protrudes unfortunately from the bottom of his frame).

The more aesthetically free-wheeling Dog Day Afternoon often communicates the same basic message using camera movement and editing. A recurring visual motif in the film is for Cazale to be given very quick insert shots in scenes in which Pacino is energetically engaging in some classically Pacino-esque histrionics. For example, in the famous “Attica! Attica!” moment Pacino paces outside the bank and whips up the crowd and, more importantly, the camera, into a frenzy (it follows him unblinkingly, handheld and seemingly enthralled by its star), while Cazale, inside, receives one incredibly short, static shot of him craning his neck, trying to see what his showboating partner is up to.

The reason for this one-sided power relationship in both films is that Pacino’s characters represent everything that Cazale’s lack. Firstly, Fredo has to live daily with the fact that, being the eldest living Corleone son, he should be the head of the family but was “stepped over” in favour of Michael because of his inferior smarts. The bane of his life, his stupidity, is continually illustrated throughout the film – an example from the Havana scene being his confusion over the correct Spanish translation of “banana daicquiri”. This of course ultimately culminates in his final, fatal, error of collaborating with Hyman Roth: he is shown not even to be able to betray properly. Similarly, in Dog Day Afternoon Sal’s ignorance is constantly stressed, as in the moment when he announces he wants to fly to refuge in Wyoming because he believes it to be a foreign country.

Secondly, neither Fredo nor Sal is offered as being anywhere near as charismatic or appealing as Michael or Sonny. To begin with, Cazale just does not have the ‘movie star looks’ in the same way Pacino does: with his wiry frame, slightly balding head, and overall sickly-appearance, he is simply not as conventionally attractive as his co-star. This is perhaps most obvious in Dog Day Afternoon, in which Pacino is looking his unkempt, androgynous best.

Regardless of natural beauty, however, Cazale is also made to look especially unappealing through costume. In the café scene in The Godfather Part 2 he wears a rather tacky pink suit, while in the disowning scene his costume is as crumpled and dishevelled as both his conscience and his pose – an old-looking polo shirt and cardigan contrasting pointedly with Pacino’s sharp, formal suit. Whereas Pacino is presented as the classically-handsome, smooth, dark Italian American male, Cazale is suggested to be a long way off such an ideal. This is symptomatic of the status of his characters, but also of Cazale himself and his position as a perennial supporting ‘character actor’ rather than a star: he lacks the look and style (and perhaps the inclination) to be a Pacino – to be successful in that way.

A third trait that Fredo and Sal share is what the films suggest to be a naïve and pitiable religious belief. In Dog Day Afternoon Cazale’s biggest scene is one in which he tells a bank employee that she shouldn’t start smoking because “the body is the temple of the lord” (an admonition he delivers so weakly that he can barely look the woman in the eye).

This suggestion is treated with a similar derision as greeted another pious character’s complaint that those around her should stop swearing because “I’m a Christian and my ears are not garbage cans”. In The Godfather Part 2 Fredo too possesses an almost childlike conception of religion, as we discover near the film’s close when he is teaching Michael’s young son, Anthony, the ways of fishing: the secret, he says, is to say a “Hail Mary” before casting your line. Cazale delivers this advice with such a sincerity that he gives us to understand he truly, deeply believes it (and, indeed, he does go on to say a “Hail Mary” himself out on the lake, seconds before his death).

One knows – to continue the comparison between Cazale and Pacino’s characters – that Michael would not believe the juvenile story of the “Hail Mary” for one second: his success has taught him the necessity of cynicism.

What all this undermining of Cazale’s characters does is set them up as people whom we find pathetic, yet also sympathetic. They are characters we do not admire, but whom we certainly don’t believe deserve to die. However, the film worlds in which Fredo and Sal live are not forgiving ones: these are worlds created by the Hollywood Renaissance cinema, in which the myth of the simpleton overcoming all odds does not exist. Only the strongest, the privileged – the stars – can survive the desolate landscape, and even then they must be arrested, or bankrupt themselves morally, in order to do so. Pacino’s Sonny is momentarily able to live a version of the ‘American Dream’ in Dog Day Afternoon (media adoration, money, power) while Sal stands in the wings, watches, and eventually dies. Equally, Michael is really the epitome of the ‘Dream’ (he has wealth, control, he has bettered himself), and Fredo must be sacrificed in order to maintain it. Both films present a view of an America in which the wounded are not carried: the weak and stupid are left to die.

The attitude of these films doesn’t seem to be that this is good or bad, but simply that it is. The death of Sal at the climax of Dog Day Afternoon does not feel tragic: it feels numbing. We are used to seeing the deserved death of the evil and the heroic death of the good, but not the inevitable, truthful, death of the weak. Fredo’s killing too is dealt with ambiguously, as Robert Johnson says in his book Francis Ford Coppola: “Cazale’s Fredo ends up exasperating us because we come to realize that Michael’s punishment of him is both wrong and, somehow, just”. We do not want him to die, and yet we know – as Michael does – that he must. We know, apart from anything else, that a man who believes all one need do in order to catch a fish is pray to the virgin Mary does not belong in this world (and, perhaps, we simultaneously long for a time and a world in which we didn’t). Cazale in this way is used as a virtual embodiment of the disillusionment of the Hollywood Renaissance, relied upon to show what can happen to the innocent – or ignorant – at a time of “life and death”.


Monday, 11 January 2010

Twilight: New Moon and the joys of Face Punch


There are many potentially interesting things to be said about New Moon and the staggeringly successful vampire-romance saga Twilight more generally. For instance: have we ever seen a romance movie (let alone a romance movie series) more unwaveringly committed to showing a woman who wants so badly to simply jump someone’s bones? Say what you will about the anti-feminist message seemingly inbuilt into Bella’s relentless hero-worship of her lover Edward (and I would argue that last year’s The Time-Traveler’s Wife was far more guilty in this regard: she waits lovingly at home while he tours across the months and years? This is the old settling/wandering, passive/active, division of gender roles written offensively large)... The combination of Twilight’s central premise (Edward’s inability to let himself become too passionate with Bella for fear of killing her) and Kristen Stewart’s absurdly lustful performance style (seldom has an actress bitten her bottom lip more licentiously, nor more frequently) have meant that these films offer images of unremitting (though frustrated) female sexual desire the likes of which are very uncommon in contemporary Hollywood cinema. We can, and should, obviously debate the films’ sexual politics beyond this structuring principle, but this fact alone makes the saga at the very least interesting, and surely goes a long way towards explaining its popularity with a female audience so starved for cinematic depictions of what happens ‘when the woman looks’.

This isn’t what I want to talk about here, however, because – aside from areas of interest like this – what New Moon also happens to contain is something that I simply cannot let pass without comment: perhaps one of the most bizarre, hilarious, and spectacularly ill-judged incarnations of the convention of the film-within-a-film ever committed to celluloid.

Asking what kinds of films exist within the world of a film is often an intriguing way into matters of how a movie views itself and how it is asking to be viewed by us. For example: when, in a horror film, events start happening that clearly resemble other horror films (say, teenagers being killed one by one, or bodies showing up with mysterious bite marks on their necks), one question will immediately be raised: are the characters in this film’s world familiar with horror movies? If they aren’t, then this clearly separates them and their world unambiguously from ours, which in turn encourages us to view them in a different way than we would characters who express incredulity at finding themselves in situations they’ve previously only encountered in fiction. Of course, there aren’t hard-and-fast rules governing this, and a film can exploit cinematic awareness in more or less self-conscious ways. The werewolf movie Ginger Snaps, for instance, briskly acknowledges then dispenses with its character’s film knowledge: Brigitte discovers the popular lore regarding werewolves doesn’t apply to her sister’s lycanthropy, leading her to “forget the Hollywood rules,” and move on to finding different solutions. A film like Scream, on the other hand, repeatedly uses its characters’ knowledge of slasher films in order to first announce, and then either enact or buck, the clichés of its genre – all the time asking us to recognize that this is precisely what it is doing.

New Moon does something very different and very, very strange with the idea of the film-within-a-film. About a third of the way into the movie we reach a scene in the school cafeteria that sees Bella rejoin her group of friends after the period of self-imposed isolation that followed her latest abandonment by her true love, Edward. Happy to see her again, Bella’s friend Mike (who has always very clearly had a crush on her) asks if she would like to go to the cinema with him. “We could check out, um, Love Spelled Backwards is Love,” he offers, “You know, it’s a dumb title, but… It’s a romantic comedy – it’s supposed to be good…” “No – no romance,” says Bella, who wants nothing less than to be reminded about her own romantic heartbreak. “How about Face… Punch?” she asks, “you heard of that?” “Well, that’s an action movie,” responds Mike. “Yeah, it’s perfect – guns, adrenaline: it’s my thing…”

So, let us rewind and pause for a minute. Face Punch. Just let the gloriousness of this made-up title roll around in your head… Face Punch.

Now turning to the rest of her friends at the table, Bella invites them along to what she obviously wants to become less a date than a movie night. “How about it – do you guys want to go see… Face Punch?" The only other boy at the table, Eric, responds positively: “Oh, Face Punch – yeah!” he exclaims enthusiastically, “We were supposed to go see that, you remember?” he asks Mike, “The trailer’s all like ‘pow, pow,’… punch faces…”

In the next scene, Mike stands awkwardly outside the cinema next to Jacob, the most recent dark and mysterious man to make romantic demands of Bella; sexual rivalry is unmistakably in the air. “So… Face Punch,” Jacob says, somewhat derisively, “You like action movies?” “Not really,” replies Mike. “I heard it sucks – bad,” offers Jacob.

Let’s mull over this title again, which the characters insist on continually repeating: this film is called Face Punch.

In the cinema, the characters are now watching the movie. We hear the following dialogue intoned in voices that can only be described as sub-sub-sub-Sylvester Stallone:

Voice 1: Put your gun down!

Voice 2: Put YOUR gun down, or I’m gonna blow your frickin head off!

Voice 3: BOTH of you put BOTH of your guns down or I’m gonna blow BOTH of your frickin’ heads off!

Voice 1: Alright, forget it – let’s DO THIS!

(Sounds of gunshots and explosions fill the cinema.)

Face Punch. This is a truly, truly strange use of the convention of the film-within-a-film. Clearly, this imagined film (and Love Spelled Backwards is Love) is intended as a satirical side-swipe at the crassness of contemporary Hollywood. But what on God’s green earth, you might ask, is such satire doing – and doing so suddenly – in a film like New Moon? In what kind of a film world might films with titles like these exist?

In Film as Film, V. F. Perkins rightly says that a film’s credibility relies upon “the inner consistency of the created world”:

In a context where people are known to burst into song on the tops of trolley-buses, with the full support of invisible orchestras, or sprint down hillsides actively pursued by bouncing boulders, or drag wild leopards up the steps of Connecticut jails (and I would be the last to suggest they cease exhibiting such fine accomplishments), the concept of credibility needs careful definition. As an illusion-spinning medium, film is not bound by the familiar, or the probable, but only by the conceivable. All that matters is to preserve the illusion.

He develops his point with reference to Hitchcock's The Birds:

It is important that we avoid confusing credibility with authenticity... We can make no difficulty about the fact that the feathered kingdom is seen to declare war on humanity. That is given. But it is also given that the attackers are ordinary, familiar birds. Nothing in our experience or in the film's premises permits them to develop intermittent outlines of luminous blue as they swoop, or to propel themselves in a manner that defies the observable laws of winged flight.

In short, as Perkins says, “the created world must obey its own logic”. The title Face Punch punctures the inner consistency of New Moon so fantastically oddly because it flies inelegantly, but gloriously, in the face of its world’s logic in a similar manner to Hitchcock's birds. In the context of the film’s created world, the existence of werewolves is entirely acceptable. The existence of a film called Face Punch is not.

This is because, other than its mythical creatures, there is little to separate New Moon’s universe from ours: in fact, the very normalcy of everyday life is constantly stressed in order to highlight how exceptional and exciting Bella’s initiation into the supernatural realm is (and, it is worth saying, the actors’ performances also feel more consciously ‘naturalistic’ here than in the original Twilight). As such, this world frankly just does not seem at all as if it is one in which a person could write, many other people could make, and many more still could go to see, a film with the title Face Punch. This title is so ridiculous as to absolutely demand a ridiculous reality.

For it to be credible, the world of New Moon would probably need to resemble something like the hilariously dumbed-down future U.S. imagined by Mike Judge’s satire Idiocracy, in which big Oscar contenders have names like Ass, and the number one television show is called Ow! My Balls! Both Idiocracy’s world (an exaggeratedly stupid future) and its genre (absurdist satire) admit these kinds of jokes with ease; those of New Moon – a relatively naturalistic present day placed in the context of a moody teen romance/horror crossover – plainly, obviously, emphatically, do not.

What is perhaps going on here is an appeal to the film’s core audience of young readers/viewers, who (it seems to be assumed) might be flattered by joining in the mockery of a ‘dumb’ mainstream culture they can enjoy feeling superior to. They are, after all, watching a ‘sensitive’ film about doomed love that has already made an appeal to tragic status by quoting Romeo and Juliet (Bella is studying it in school); New Moon, the film seems to be implying, is no Face Punch. Yet this is also, lest we forget, a film featuring gigantic werewolves fighting one another, and moments like Bella complimenting Jacob on how warm his body is by telling him, “You’re like your own sun”. To aim stones at the loopiness of popular culture from within this glass house seems a very risky strategy.

If the film does still want to do this, though, it would need to be done with a modicum more subtlety than Face Punch affords – a gag as smack-you-in-the-face obvious as the very thing it’s parodying. For one thing: this isn’t even a throwaway moment – we’re forced to contend with the troubling concept of Face Punch for a good five minutes of screen time. Equally – and this is particularly difficult to accept – the scene at the cinema serves a number of important narrative functions: that it’s an action film continues Bella’s adrenaline addiction; that she goes with both guys shows her split between ‘normality’ (Mike) and the supernatural underworld (Jacob); that Mike is made queasy by the film reinforces his (and normality’s) unsuitability; that Jacob enjoys it and clashes with Mike develops his aggressive side, and so on. The fact that these narrative developments all rest on the shoulders of something as weird as Face Punch gives the joke far more significance than it could ever hope to withstand: we can’t just laugh and move on – we have to keep thinking about it, asking again and again, “Really? Really…?!”

It somehow makes the whole incident yet more odd that the characters themselves are shown to be aware of how absurd these names are: Mike acknowledges the terribleness of Love Spelled Backwards is Love (honestly, Mike: “dumb” doesn’t even begin to cover it – “unthinkable” would be closer to the mark), and Bella gives an absolutely precious faltering pause in between “Face” and “Punch” the first time she hears herself about to say the words out loud. While this should in theory probably make the titles feel more credible, it actually has virtually the opposite effect, making it instead seem almost as if the characters are either (a) making them up on the spot, (b) suddenly struck by the weirdness of living in a world that could allow such titles to exist, or (c) channeling the embarrassment of the actors who suddenly find themselves in the unenviable position of being contractually obliged to vocalize these names.

However – while we can talk about this little slip of genre/world/register as a failing all we like (and it most assuredly, most unambiguously, is a failing) – I can’t help but feel very happy that Face Punch managed, against all odds of good taste and common sense, to somehow make it into this movie. (That’s another thought: how many people had to give the OK to this little joke in order to ensure it was included in the final draft of the script, rehearsed, shot, and kept in the finished movie?! The mind boggles…) This isn’t just any old failing: this is the kind of magisterially beautiful blunder that can actually enrich our viewing experience with its idiosyncrasy, creating little shocks of indefinable feeling, encouraging the mind to wander in directions it otherwise wouldn’t have done. The value of such failures is that they can’t be explained away or resolved, but rather remain stubbornly, productively confusing. If the film-within-a-film had been called, say, Firefight, New Moon would certainly have felt rather more coherent, but it would also have missed this golden opportunity for such confounding, disorientating, delicious oddness. As a fan of cinema that has the power to surprise me and make me consider matters important to the medium, I can finally only be truly thankful for this quite monumental lapse in coherence – a lapse that, coincidentally, does indeed feel rather like a (particularly enjoyable) punch to the face.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Romance, Fantasy and Escape in As Good As It Gets


“It feels a little confined in here – let’s take a walk.”
– Melvin, As Good as it Gets

Romantic love is a concept that necessarily relies upon a degree of mutually-shared idealization and fantasy. It makes sense, then, that for hundreds of years the genre of romantic comedy has developed a number of conventions for dramatising the link between romance and fantasy. Whether this be through plots revolving around masquerade and role-playing (as in, say, Twelfth Night, or, in Hollywood, Pillow Talk), courtships relying on artificially-manufactured romantic schemes (e.g.: Much Ado About Nothing or, say, The Proposal), or the use of the supernatural (say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), the romantic comedy has repeatedly found ways of suggesting that romance is to an extent synonymous with, and made possible through, fantasy.

One of the most common ways in which this happens is via a comedy’s couple escaping from a drab and/or repressive social reality that stifles their romance into a quasi-magical elsewhere where the resolution of love becomes possible (e.g.: All’s Well That Ends Well, or It Happened One Night). In Shakespearean romantic comedy this place is often a forest or other natural space – what Northrop Frye dubbed the ‘green world’: a space that suggests enchantment, and the possibility of living an ideal that is impossible to achieve in workaday reality. In contemporary Hollywood romantic comedies the magical space has often effectively been the space of cinema itself. Often seemingly an attempt to counteract a contemporary audience’s assumed cynicism about depictions of romantic love, many recent romantic comedies tacitly acknowledge their status as cinematic fantasy in order to allow their characters to fall spectacularly and fantastically in love. A film may do this through mentioning other romance films (as in, say, When Harry Met Sally), or by having its plot mirror another classic romance plot (Sleepless in Seattle), or even by virtually openly announcing its fictional status, like Pretty Woman, which accompanies its lovers’ final kiss with a chorus-like extra saying “Welcome to Hollywood! Land of dreams. Always time to dream, so keep on dreaming…” This kind of modern romantic comedy implicitly tells us “we know that you know that this is a fantasy, but we also know that you/we want it – here it is”. (See here for a piece by me on contemporary romantic comedy which touches on some of these issues.)

One (relatively) recent romantic comedy that resists the impulse to use the cinema itself as the site of fantasy is James L. Brooks’ 1997 film As Good As It Gets, which in fact returns – in a relatively subtle way – to the notion of the helpful fantasy of the ‘green world’. Through looking briefly at the narrative and style of the film, I want to try to explain why it makes so much sense that the union of Melvin (Jack Nicholson) and Carol (Helen Hunt) can only take place after the couple decide to “take a walk”.

The romance plot of As Good As it Gets revolves around the relationship between Melvin, a rich but heavily neurotic and obsessive-compulsive popular romance writer, and Carol, a warm and down-to-earth waitress with a very sick young son, Spencer. A regular customer at the restaurant where Carol works, Melvin initially butchers any chance of a relationship with her through his uncontrollable insensitivity towards her and others’ feelings. The couple grow closer when Melvin offers to pay for Spencer’s medical care, an offer that Carol – after initial indecision – gratefully accepts. The possibility of romance first rears its head during a trip Melvin and Carol take to Baltimore with Melvin’s neighbour, Simon (Greg Kinnear), where they share their first kiss. Melvin ultimately manages to self-sabotage once again, however, and Carol tells him, on returning to New York, that she doesn’t want to be around him anymore since “All you do is make me feel bad about myself”. This sets the scene for Melvin’s final attempt: at trip over to Carol’s apartment that then leads to a shared 4am walk on a deserted street, where the film ultimately ends.

Interior spaces in As Good as it Gets – particularly those of home and work – are largely negative spaces. They are associated with violence (Simon’s apartment, where he is robbed and beaten),

illness (Carol’s apartment that houses her sick son, the hospital, Melvin’s shrink’s office),

loneliness (Melvin’s apartment),

and uncomfortable encounters (the restaurant Carol works in, various scenes held in doorways).

In short, they represent the claustrophobia of an oppressive and often upsetting reality. This is made clear when Carol brings home a date, only for him to be put off by the appearance of her sick son, which causes him to leave with the line, “Just a little too much reality for a Friday night…” Equally, the geographical dimensions of unhappiness are illustrated when Carol caustically tells Melvin that

“I want your life for one minute – where my big problem is someone offers me a free convertible so I can get out of this city.”

Considered very broadly and colloquially, we can also say that ‘reality’ is the obstacle to Melvin and Carol’s relationship. The progress of their romance relies on the couple escaping (via a trip in a convertible, an out-of-town restaurant, a walk on a street) the suffocating and grounded nature of humdrum reality and finding refuge in a shared emotional space of fantasy. While fantasy is always an important component of romance, it seems particularly important here given quite how unlikely a pairing Melvin and Carol are: they seem so unsuited to one another in so many ways that any relationship they might have would seem to require a certain disconnection from the ‘real world’. (The film is also unlike other more schematic romantic comedies in that it does not give each character flaws that will complement or counteract the other’s – contemporary romance’s answer to how to present ‘fated’ love to an audience who might be sceptical of the concept.) That happiness is also for them partly a matter of space is made clear when Melvin at one point speaks of what stories might be told by people whose lives are happier than his or Carol’s:

“Some of us have great stories, pretty stories, that take place at lakes with boats, and friends, and noodle salad – some of us, just no one in this car.”

The couple’s movement from claustrophobic reality to liberating fantasy is also often neatly and economically conveyed at a stylistic level, and this is one of the things that contributes to making this not only a thematically but a cinematically rich variation of this convention.

In the first scene between the couple Carol takes Melvin’s order at the restaurant. Here the enclosed nature of the space – and the fact that it is not shared space – is strongly stressed. First the cramped, uncomfortable nature of the setting is stressed through the staging of the clumsy navigation that takes place at the scene’s opening, when Melvin crowds Carol, demanding to be seated at his favourite table. His invasion of her (professional) space causes Carol to physically move him out of her way,

and to close a counter-top in order to keep him on the customer’s side of a staff area (“Go on, sit down – you know you’re not allowed back here…”).

After Melvin has eventually been seated, the couple’s conversation is framed in shots that serve to enclose each character tightly. Their talk mainly concerns Spencer (the most important symbol of grounded ‘reality’ for Carol’s character) and Melvin’s unwitting insensitivity towards him. Having overheard a conversation about Spencer’s health, Melvin flippantly comments that “We’re all going to die soon – I will, you will, and it sure sounds like your son will,” causing a furious Carol to threaten to bar him from the restaurant (the dialogue and acting here are deeply felt: “If you ever mention my son again you will never be able to eat here again… Do you understand me – you crazy fuck…?”) Spencer’s and Melvin’s conditions are the major factors in the progression of – and obstacles to – romance throughout the film, and in this scene we see our two protagonists still very much in their emotional grip. As such, they are prevented at this stage from achieving any kind of mutual understanding. This predicament is reflected in the shooting style: both are framed almost exclusively in single mid-shots and close-ups, their faces never clearly inhabiting the same frame.

There is no connection between, and no shared space for, the couple at this point: they are trapped in their lives, stuck in their ways, and caught in their own private spaces.

A later scene shows a significant progression for the romance since it marks the first time that either member of the couple visits the other in their own personal surroundings (as Carol says to Melvin when he shows up unexpectedly at her apartment: “Are you totally gone?! This is my private home!”), and is also the first time of many that they will confront each other in a doorway. Melvin, a man who lives in his own world (because of his neuroses, his money, his self-enforced isolation) is making a sudden leap here into a very ‘real’ space, and the two extremes are not yet ready to mix. Consequently the space is stressed again as being very claustrophobic: we repeatedly come back to shots of Carol into which her front door protrudes, and shots of Melvin framed against the corner of the hallway – both visual elements acting as reminders of the solid and enclosed nature of the space.

(Though note the painting behind Melvin: a kitsch depiction of Paris, which hints, in its modest, sentimental way, at possible romantic escape).

The couple are shown once again in tight mid-shots and close-ups, seldom breaking one another’s frames. As well as this, as Melvin stands in the doorway, he is framed against the light background of the hall’s wall, while Carol is set against the very differently-shaded door and apartment, making the spaces they inhabit look physically dissimilar. At one moment Carol moves into her kitchen and Melvin falteringly follows. This symbolically significant moment for their relationship is marked stylistically by a shot in which they are both visible at once.

However, even here, both their faces still never clearly inhabit the same space. The progression of their romance depends on Melvin’s ability to do more than peer into this reality – he needs to enter it slightly more; equally, Carol needs to move away from it, and not simply throw Melvin out (as she does so here, when he fails to interact well with Spencer), returning to her sink and exclaiming, “Back to life…”

The final scene I want to look at is also the final scene of the film (watch it here). It takes place after Melvin has made an attempt (though still one that allows him to keep Carol’s messy life at arm’s length) to interact with the ‘real world’ via his gift of paying for Spencer’s medical care, and after Carol has accepted that she can occasionally take time out from her life via the trip she makes with Melvin to Baltimore. In Baltimore they came close to resolving their romance, but Melvin managed to foul it up by offending Carol once again. On the night of their return to New York, Melvin decides to have one last stab at winning Carol over. He first tries visiting her at her home, but the setting proves unsuitable: for one thing, the impossibility of privacy is once again stressed (as it was in the failed date scene) by Carol’s mother being just a curtain away in the next room.

In Melvin’s words: “It feels a little confined in here – let’s talk a walk.” We now cut from the couple exiting the apartment…

…to their walk on a deserted street, the first shot immediately demonstrating the drastically different treatment of space.

In a clear juxtaposition, we cut from the familiar tight, static mid-shot the ends the previous interior scene to a graceful, gliding long-shot, craning slowly down from above to frame the couple as they walk.Throughout the scene Melvin and Carol are shown in generous, often tracking, two-shots in which they move around freely and in which we can see their faces occupying the same space.

As well as this, even when separated by close-ups, the street background – rather than being stark and defined in the manner of previous interior scenes – is often seen as tranquil, blurred darkness and soft, out-of-focus street and car lights.

This, clearly, is a helpful, ‘enchanted’ space – the privacy of the hour allowing the creation of a modest ‘green world’ in the centre of New York.

The scene sees the couple making their final progression into a different, hopeful sense and space of fantasy that allows them to feel they have chance of a relationship together. Consequently, the formal elements (camera movement, framing, depth of focus) present us with a far less rigid and ‘real’ space – a space they can share. The tentative nature of the conclusion is made clear by the framing of the final shot: it is split in two – the exterior of the street and the interior of the bakery, light and dark, soft warm rolls inside and cracked, potentially anxiety-inducing pavement outside.

Yet the enchantment experienced on the street suddenly now feels possible, at least for this moment, on the inside too – the bakery that opens at 4 in the morning having a pleasingly helpful and nearly-magical quality to it. In this moment – Melvin having just managed to step on cracked paving for the first time in the film – neither inside nor outside feels especially threatening or claustrophobic. How long will this last? Perhaps not long – it will be dawn soon: will the rising sun chase away the enchantment, the bustle of rush hour in the bakery and the street turn magical New York back into merely everyday New York once more?

There is a sense at the close of the film that this relationship is perhaps founded more on a valiant, perhaps misplaced, optimism in the face of disheartening reality than in reality itself, and that the developing romance is based more on a near-desperate need for, rather love of, one another. The eternal hindrance to the relationship, Melvin’s neurosis, seems to be weakening, but is by no means gone, and the most important thing in Carol’s life – Spencer – has only met Melvin once, and it was, even then, a rather unsuccessful encounter. They have progressed from a suffocating ‘reality’ to a more tentative, free and hopeful ‘unreality’ by half overcoming, half side-stepping, the obstacles in their way. The romance may not be perfect – there is no mention of love here (the final proposition is not “I love you” / “I love you too”, but Melvin’s clumsy “Is that something that it’s bad to be around – for you?”) – but it is as good as it can get for these two at this time; and that, I think we are encouraged to feel, isn’t too bad.