Note: This is a long installment with a lot of images. It will likely be truncated if you are reading from your email, and for that reason I recommend you read this on the Substack website.
One of the things I miss in current movies is the sense that a single film can be broad yet rich and detailed. A lot of Pre-Code Hollywood fits this bill. I adore stuff like Baby Face, City Streets, Her Man, Dynamite!, Bad Girl, Dishonored, or basically anything Raoul Walsh did during this time. There’s so much incident! (Remember, if you’ve seen it, the moment in John M. Stahl’s Back Street when a fire erupts in a neighbor’s apartment? It’s so out of the blue, and orthogonal to a lot of the emotional terrain of the scenes around it, and yet it “fits” because it’s part of the film’s life-world.) I also think of titles by Shohei Imamura, or Aleksei German, or Federico Fellini. John Ford or Jean Renoir provided this a lot, too. Or Jonah—Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000. Or Tampopo, with its earthy evocations of smells and flavors and textures, its episodic hopping from parody to body humor to sensualism. Something can be funny, erotic, anthropologically insightful, tragic, formally playful, and viscerally affecting, all “in turn” but also “of a piece.” This often translates to a feeling of looseness, or leisure.
Many movies, especially a lot of new narrative ones, feel straitjacketed in at least one of two ways. They might be extruded through a screenwriting program’s insistence on “moving the plot forward.” It’s a relentless focus on a certain type of efficiency at the expense of much else. Movies might also be tied to a “look,” or rather a “lewk,” an “aesthetic.” This quotationalism is the dominant approach to style right now, supported by the sound-image repository of the Internet. So much is curated based on a database of received styles. (For example…)
Ricky D’Ambrose wrote a few years ago:
“What underlies the shift to looks is the belief in neutral, impersonal images: Anything can become a picture, and any picture, overlaid with a look, can be customized, shored up temporarily with a borrowed feeling. And that feeling is confused with evidence of achievement. Thus, all looks take the form of a direct address; each image, no matter how depersonalized and routine, always seems “personalized,” made-to-order, and aimed at gratifying an existing idea of what a ’70s movie or a ’60s canvas or an ’80s photograph is like. Nothing about an image with a look is inexplicit or ambiguous.”
Another, admittedly reductive way of putting the problem is that audiovisual production is often looking to emulate other looks and feels, and can get stuck in a vague, generalized referentiality. (People then mistake this for personal style, when it isn’t always that.) But sometimes people should, or must, take inspiration from the world, from life, which is always larger than any stylistic database.
In the first film adaptation of Waterloo Bridge (James Whale, 1931), a lot of the scenery is ‘thick.’ The images are filled with depth and texture and activity. Reflections, pictures, lenses, windows, mirrors, signs gave many individual shots a composite air, even if they aren’t actually any kind of composite shot. Things feel busy, lively, and perhaps crowded, but in a way that invigorates rather than exhausts. The camera will track in or pull out on its subjects in an unostentatious way; it’s mobile, articulate, but functional. Meanwhile, the performers walk that line between being unself-conscious and yet aware of performance. In the shot that introduces the protagonist, Myra, a chorus girl and sex worker played by Mae Clarke, yawns before she remembers herself and transforms her expression into a smile.
We catch her, tired or bored, but able to turn on some plucky charm in an instant, and this sets up a key quality of her character, which we’ll come to know. The person who is compelled to perform like that, and the person who is aware of that performance, is the person “beneath” the facade; or, as I like to try to frame these things, it’s the person “alongside” the facade. (Our identities include our masks, of course.)
I love this later shot of Myra arranging herself in the mirror, in a scene just after her new soldier boy Roy has left her place. She is nominally applying perfume and adjusting her collar, attending to the impression that she will give publicly. But she is also—in fact primarily—thinking.
I’m not interested in giving a full account of Waterloo Bridge here, or making a deep argument about its thematic or moral “messages,” per se. (By the way, there’s a really good examination of the film in this essay by Elise Moore, which discusses the ending, so don’t read it now if you haven’t seen the film and want to avoid spoilers for a melodrama. But read it after! Moore captures Myra’s pathos in a perfect clause: “she understands how terrible the world is.”) I do want to talk through some onscreen choices in Waterloo Bridge as they represent what I think of as general and concrete values. So, as this same shot of Myra at the mirror continues, the camera pulls back to allow her to stand up from her vanity and walk over to the fur hanging on the door (a “gift” from a man introduced at the film’s beginning), and we see the violent gesture with which she pulls it off its hook to adorn her shoulders.
We understand that she feels diminished by the contrast between a soldier who’s just given her “something for nothing,” i.e. out of friendship and respectable romance, and the facts of how she makes her living, picking up men on Waterloo Bridge. Of course, if the story were told today, there would quite possibly be a new textual emphasis on sex (worker) positivity, as if the old-fashioned source material demanded we view sex as the thing cheapening a character and her “morals.” But to emphasize that would miss the point! It’s the coercively transactional nature that troubles Myra, and should trouble us. Link it to chain gangs and petty thievery and underpaid manual labor: activities and punishments of the underclass. (I think commercial movies today deal less, and less frankly, with the lives and labor of exploited people than they used to.) We learn not long after this scene what we’ve already intuited, that Myra comes from a troubled and impoverished background and that she’s simply done what she could to survive her entire life. We’ve encountered a thousand stories like this, it’s true.
This shot isn’t quite finished yet. Myra walks to the foreground to pull down a lamp suspended from the ceiling. She extinguishes the light. I suppose it all feels a bit on the nose when walked through with commentary, but the point is not that this is One of the Great Shots of Cinemah History—the point is that it is (almost) routine, mundane, in its context, and yet incredibly beautiful, because film production in 1930s Hollywood was really good at capturing and expressing vitality. Honestly I think that the fact that so many people involved in production in this era led lives and careers that were not entirely in “the movie industry” had a lot to do with this vitality.
For this reason, this shot is worth so much to me! It conveys such depth with such simplicity, and not in an austere way (the depth of the void: which can be its own virtue), but because it communicates its emotional, mental, and physical realities with economy. I find something like this more powerful than the more logistically demanding long tracking shots of a Christopher Nolan movie or a True Detective setpiece, which can be genuinely impressive in their own way, but don’t penetrate my ribcage like this.
Much of this is down to mise-en-scène. In addition to props weighted with significance (like a fur), there are props chosen to populate a room or a hallway. These might through judicious messiness give the proper amount of background noise to a space and its two-dimensional representation. Consider Myra’s room. It’s spare and lived-in. There are knicknacks and practical objects; puppets; a cloth hangs at the side of the mirror.
Over and over, the film delights in textures. Some shots feel collaged, simply because of the unobtrusive presence of frames within the frame, like the photographs pinned to the back wall, but also within this shot are some mirrors and a doorway to the backstage hall …
… and there are other shots that do have filmic (rather than profilmic) composite quality, like these dissolves, which move from an interior long shot to rear projection car ride shots to an establishing shot of a rural scene.
And then there are the capacities of blocking, crowd movement, background extras, throwaway actions. In the 1930s they were especially good at this. When Roy the gallant soldier brings a giant bouquet of flowers to Myra’s apartment, street kids follow him to the building door, asking for candy, but they’re not emphasized. In another shot, a milkman is one of the figures we see walking on the street outside an open door in the background. These figures aren’t points, they aren’t beats, they simply fill out the fabric of life.
And life, of course, can be noisy; it involves neighbors, children, pedestrians; it involves everybody else living their own stories simultaneously. Speaking of neighbors, check out Myra’s friend and neighbor spying Roy in Myra’s apartment, and climbing out her window to approach him. (If memory serves, compositionally, this background “emergence” in the center-left frame is similar to the aforementioned apartment fire in the 1932 Back Street.)
It’s also a nice trick because Myra’s friend walks across the rooftop to meet Roy, but I don’t think we’ve been given an establishing shot that indicates this is all part of the same building mass. So at first it maybe looks like the friend is walking on air from one window to the other! The window and the rooftop are important spaces for the plot narration later in the film.
Again, these moments of magic are unremarkable and represent a value insofar as they admit reality (which does not mean they subscribe to “realism”). I am struck by the empty glass, the edge of a pitcher (I think), on a table at the right of the frame here in the shot below; and the chain link behind the characters. These are details which are beautiful but extraneous; they are beautiful because they are extraneous and unforced. They are art direction and production design and blocking, but they don’t feel like the signatures of people trying to promote their professional brand. Perhaps I’m just talking around what Barthes discussed as the punctum, but I don’t think it’s that, exactly. There’s more of a gestalt element.
If I were not viewing these from the distance of many years, perhaps these virtues would not show in such sharp relief. But the fact is that I am. I make connections, sound or fanciful, that correspond to all that I see or need or want or don’t yet know from the audiovisual environment of my life. Some of these things are old, forgotten, strange, inconsequential—which is probably how a lot of people think about any movie made before 2011—and at the same time, these very old things feel momentous and alive, and provide hope.
P.S. I should note that I have not yet seen the 1940 remake of Waterloo Bridge!