Tag Archives: Freaks

Tear-Stained Images

There’s a meme running rampant across film blogs right now, and I’m throwing my hat into that ring. Stephen of Checking on My Sausages and Joel “MovieMan0283” Bocko of The Dancing Image have cosponsored it, and the directive is to come up with a collection of similarly-themed images that celebrate the “thrill of cinema.”

Here’s the rules:

1. pick as many pictures as you want, so long as they are screen-captures

2. pick a theme, any theme, as long as it supports the notion of “the thrill of cinema”

3. you MUST link to Stephen’s gallery and Joel’s gallery

4. tag five blogs, and here they are:

        –Media Wah Wah

        –Big Media Vandalism

        –Panic on the 4th of July

        –Mirror – Motion Picture Commentary

        –Edward Copeland on Film

(My apologies to any of you that may have already been tagged and I somehow missed your corresponding post.)

As intriguing as this challenge is, Joel Bocko put it best in his post: “How to chose one image…which could represent the thrill of cinema–so much of which has to do with movement, fluctuation, and context? Even some of the powerful moments I could think of…relied upon juxtaposition or understanding of the story for their full effect.”

And yet so many of the posts I’ve seen so far have risen well to the occasion. I settled on shots in films that make me cry. I’m a big wus when it comes to films, bawling at the drop of a hat. And there’s any number of reasons for the tears: a plot-point (happy or sad); a carefully placed music cue; an edit; and, of course, my own personal relationship to the film. Sometimes its simply because of the thrill of watching a film: being in a dark theater, people around me, sharing the experience, all of cinema’s tricks still work on me after all these years. (I call this being Hypnotized by the Flicker.) Throw in the fact that I don’t care who sees me crying when I watch a film and I’m a blubbering mess on a regular basis. 1

So here’s a sampler of the shots that casue me to lose my shit. I’ve included as little context as possible, trying my damnedest to avoid spoilers.

La Strada (Fellini,1954) To those in the know, this is when Zampanó (Anthony Quinn) realizes he’s an incredible asshole. It’s such a crushing blow, dramatically speaking, that I expect most of you have reacted as I do, too. I first saw this film when I was around 6, while my mother watched it on PBS. (I didn’t cry that time, but was confused by my sympathy for the characters, who bore no resemblance to anything else I’d seen.) Although I’m sure it was dubbed, it didn’t really need to be. This plays virtually as a silent film, thanks largely to Giulietta Masina’s performance. I eagerly await the day I’ll watch this with my son, Harry, though I’m sure I’ll cry more than he will.

Night Shift (Ron Howard, 1982) Hard to discern, but trust me that this is a shot of a young Michael Keaton falling face-first past a minor character.  It’s also the funniest sight gag in a great little film. I was 13 when I first saw this on cable. This joke occurs in the midst of the feel-good resolution, and I’ll stand by its effectiveness on all fronts: I so genuinely cared for the characters (played by Keaton, Henry Winkler and Shelley Long) that the inevitable happy ending was emotional for me (and this gag opened my flood gates). There’s something to be said for unpretentious comedies with likeable characters. I also think they’re aren’t as easy to make as they seem, and Night Shift is still A-list in my book.

Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969). This is our first glimpse of Ratso Rizzo’s dreams—which happens as watches “business partner” Joe Buck at work–and the notion that Joe Buck is really his friend. How can a character so unusal, gross and disreputable strike such nerve in me/us? I’m not sure, but I know this is the shot where I began really feeling for both of these guys—and fearing that doom was inevitable.

Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) This shot was the subject of a recent post but it bears repeating. I went into this film like most others: my expectations did NOT include envying the titular characters. And yet with this one shot, I felt a tinge of envy and got choked up.

Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983) The starless sky over Houston, Texas. We’re looking over the shoulder of Mac, the film’s central character (played by Peter Riegert). It’s hard to describe the many subtle charms of this film and even harder to explain why a shot of sky can fill me with such sadness. It’s all due to Forsyth’s deft touch, and I find the older I get—the more cynical I get—the more this shot fills me with a painful yearning. It leaves me bawling2

The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) There’s many reasons why this shot makes me (and many others) cry. Plotwise, it’s housewife Milly (Myrna Loy) graduallly realizing that her husband Al (Frederic March) has just returned from war: she stops what she’s doing, slowly lifts her head and turns to the doorway. 3  That alone is reason enough: there’s incredible power in her body language. (filmmaker Wyler said it’s a scene inspired by his own experience of returning from WWII).

I first saw this film at a weekday afternoon screening at MOMA in NYC; those screenings are notoriously known as Blue Hair screenings because senior citizens get in for free. I was unemployed and went, quietly grumbling about the old, smelly types around me. Pretty soon, the theater was filled with sobbing, and then it dawned on me: “Hey, heartless asshole, this is their story! You’re here as their guest.”

Also, it’s OK for a man to cry when watching The Best Years of Our Lives: I’m pretty sure it has the highest count of “scenes with grown men crying” of any film before 1970.

The last reason this shot made me cry: no matter how well I succeed in life, I’ll never come home and find Myrna Loy as my wife. (Sorry, Debbie!)


Now that you know my tendency to cry during films would cause Alan Alda to yell, “Grow a pair, Man!” I’ll leave you with this wonderful excerpt from the show Modern Family, where manly Jay (Ed O’Neill) gets busted by his stepson Manny…

And, yes, I did get choked up writing this post. You got a problem with that?


BACK TO POST 1 I was such a wreck at the end of Toy Story 3 my 4-year-old son patted me gently on the shoulder and said, “It’s gonna be alright, Pop.”

BACK TO POST 2 In 1998, being single with an itch to travel alone, I made a list of Every Place on the Planet I’d Like to Visit. I’m ashamed to say it was only two locales, tied for first place: Memphis, TN, and Pennan, the village on the north east coast of Scotland where Local Hero was filmed. I went and my “adventures” there will be a post one of  these days.

BACK TO POST 3 Thanks to the doorway and the visible ceiling, it kinda looks like a shot from a John Ford film, doesn’t it?


Filed under Blogs, Film

When Not to Edit, Pt 5: The Kissy Face Workaround

Tod Browning was a masterful director of the 20s and 30s, once most famous for directing the original Dracula (1931) and now best known for making the infamous Freaks (1932). The latter is a documentary packaged as a melodrama, with real sideshow freaks in the cast. It also has the shot that is the inspiration for this post, yet another instance where a director let a single shot tell his story, instead of relying on conventional coverage and edits. (Prior posts has highlighted shots in films by Leo McCarey, Ozu, Oz, and Coppola.)

But first some context. I imagine filming a passionate kiss has always been a drag for filmmakers. The idea of putting the faces of your characters that close together is dramatically sound but cinematographically dull. Sure, if the script has organically brought us to the kiss, then we, the audience, can do without seeing their faces for a few moments, and if the acting is spot on, we can feel the passion. But still I’m sure some directors (and actors and DPs) dislike the visual element; it has a way of leveling the playing field, whether it’s Bogart and Bergman, Woody and Diane, or Edward and Bella.

Since the camera can’t see either face completely, what’s a filmmaker to do? Traditionally, they rely on other ways of conveying the passion: the blocking of the actors (how they move into the kiss and out of it); their moans, pants and words uttered in between kisses; music, of course; multiple angles and edits; and camera movement (ah, the old “360° around the kissing couple” routine). In Notorious, Hitchcock famously dealt with a kiss in a single shot that was long, intricate, and incredibly clever.

It’s also been talked into the ground, so I’ll leave that shot alone.

On the other hand, given the same visual conundrum every filmmaker faces, here’s how Tod Browning staged it.

Freaks is about life in the circus and the code of honor among the pinheads, dwarves and others of the freak-class. Many within the circus regard them as “less than,” though to others, such as Phroso the Clown, they’re (relatively) normal people and even their peers. Frequently the film shows us how these people are as domestic and as we are—they can roll cigarettes, pour wine, etc,–regardless of how few limbs they have. In the case of the conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, we even see their suitors.

In this brief scene, their first in the film, the sisters approach Phroso. They talk about Daisy’s pending marriage and Phroso seizes the opportunity to flex their genetic empathy, so to speak…

The sisters are just bystanders in the film’s plot—not even a subplot—and in a later scene, Violet gets engaged. Naturally, a newly-engaged couple will kiss and this is how Browning shows it…

An uncommon solution, but it always takes my breath away. And although this shot seems like a gimmicky excuse for a post, it stands up under scrutiny, with plenty of pointers for filmmakers.

For starters, use what ya got. If you have gifted people in your film, use those gifts to your advantage. Repeatedly in the film, Browning turns his casts’ unusual skills and features to his advantage, both visually and narratively. In this instance, he found a way to show his characters uniqueness and how their lives might be—and that it’s really quite wonderful.

Secondly, Browning gives us context. Long before this kiss happens, he sets up the payoff. The brief scene with Phroso touching Violet’s arm is played off as a parlor trick, not even a plot point, but only 17 minutes later we get the kiss and Daisy’s joy and know exactly why she feels the way she does.

Lastly, it’s simply a beautiful shot. Here’s how I know: I showed this film to my wife, Debbie, a few years ago. She’s by no means a film geek—she doesn’t get hung up on cinematic style or form—and Freaks really isn’t her cup of tea. She was rolling with it, somewhere between repulsed and bored, when this kiss happened. Her reaction was palpable and positive (kind of a gasp or an audible smile). It didn’t matter whether Daisy’s bliss was genuine or if she was acting (I doubt conjoined twins really do feel each other’s sensations as such); it was something Debbie had never seen, a moment of perfect visual storytelling, all the more impressive since she had not put the film or its filmmaker on a pedestal. In other words, its eloquence caught her off-guard.

Like I said, I don’t know if the Hilton Sisters really had this kind of symbiosis, but this is another example of Browning’s attitude toward “freaks”: they’re well-adjusted, domestic, special (in a good way), honorable, very human, and members of a community that we should respect. (Gooble Gobble!)

Compared with my other posts in this series, Browning’s Kiss is perhaps the most unusual in the bunch (maybe closest in intent to Ozu’s static wide-shot), but I’m certain of one thing: if there were even one more cinematic ingredient (i.e. edits, coverage, a close-up of Daisy’s face, a music cue, even a dolly in) it wouldn’t be as powerful as it is. He cast it well, set the stage, and stood back. After that, it was all up to us.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Kubrick knows how to make us hold our breath.


Filed under Film