A Moment of Cinema

Last November, Steve Collins, Jeanine Basinger and I presented a WeSeminar to students, parents, and alums entitled “The Cinematic Moment: A Glimpse into the Wesleyan Film Studies Classroom.” The idea was to give a quick and vivid idea of how we approach cinema: seeking the explain the power of an artwork by LOOKING AT that work and THINKING LIKE the artist. I felt more than a little apologetic for imposing on my colleagues at what turned out to be the tail end of Middletown’s second major power-outage of the season. In the end, though, the event was the highpoint of my year as a Wes Film professor. We each showed a brief excerpt from a favorite film, and then tried to explain why it moved us. Here is my discussion of the “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” number from Meet Me in St. Louis.


For me, many of the medium’s highest achievements come from the Hollywood Studio Era, a time when a mastery of craft met the mandate to entertain and engage, and move audiences. This style reached an apex in 1944, in a simple scene of a young woman comforting her little sister on Christmas eve. She does this just after she’s promised to marry the boy next door. She does it with a song.

It helps that the young woman is Judy Garland, the sister is Margaret O’Brien, and the song is by Hugh Martin. The color is by Technicolor, Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons, and Cinematography by George Folsey. All of this was marshaled, organized, and directed by Vincente Minnelli; also it has monkeys.

See the sequence here:

Why is this a highpoint of cinema history? How does it work? What does it do? And what can it tell us about Art, Cinema, and Film History?

It is deceptively simple, only eleven shots from the moment Garland enters her sister’s bedroom to the end. And the story, such as it is, is also deceptively simple – she comforts her sister with a song. But the depth, the emotional punch, the gripping engagement that Minnelli offers in this scene far outstrips simple summary. In fact, we are hard pressed to articulate in words what happens to us, what transpires on the screen, in these four minutes. Like the best Hollywood films, it has an effortless beauty, one that captures us, but also deflects analysis.

But let me try. I want to draw attention to one moment in particular, a small gesture that takes place in the 10th shot, but that changes everything. In fact, I think it is the heart of the scene.

Judy begins the song in shot number 9, and the whole of the song is covered by only three camera positions, cut back and forth. Shot 9 is a two shot from a medium distance (in itself vital  – we’ll come back to that). Shot ten gives us a close-up: Judy sings to her sister who is now off-screen. And then – as she hits the line “Next year all our troubles will be miles away” she takes off her headscarf and glances forward and a little bit upward. She takes a breath, and begins the song’s bridge “Once Again as in Olden Days, Happy Golden Days of Yore.”

The power of the moment comes from Vincente Minnelli’s meticulous control of the flow of detail, the choices made among the thousands of possibilities and the shaping of emotion out of a hundred little touches. The touch here involves George Folsey’s Technicolor cinematography, and his work within the limits of a fairly inflexible technology. The Technicolor Camera was famously stubborn when it came to light – it required a LOT of light and cinematographers had to fight hard to achieve the precision and balance of highlight and shadow they so valued in black and white. Close-ups were a challenge.

Here we have a relatively dim scene, and one that depends on small and precise shifts in light and dark to tell the story. The fact is, this scene isn’t all that dark, but Folsey has built up and layered highlights to give the impression of contrast. The lighting set up is quite precise, and it requires Garland to perform within a very small area of movement, she finds expression within the space allotted her by the cinematographer.

 

 

Folsey arrays shimmering highlights to add emphasis and connect us with the moment. Garland’s headscarf is an important costuming decision. It throws off a blaze of sparkle, of dazzle, that is essentially a-chromatic. This was important for Garland’s awkward love scene just moments before, which Minnelli designed around highlight and shadow, silvers, blacks, and dark blues, rather than strong color: an almost black-and- white scene in a Technicolor film.

 

Now the sequined scarf gives the impression of contrast, dapple and shimmer, but within a color lighting scheme.

 

 

In this moment, as we move in on Garland’s face, she removes the scarf — removes the sparkling mass of highlights, and, with perfect timing, glances forward, catching two pin-points of light near her pupils. This is an eye-light, a small light source set off to one side of the camera with the sole purpose of adding dazzle to the actress’s eyes. As she looks up and to the left, her eyes engage the light; highlight is shifted from costume to face in one fluid gesture.

 

The look into the eye-light is a pretty powerful way that cinematic form shapes performance, and the late 1930s and 1940s seems to be the heyday of this technique (though you can find much earlier, as in William Daniel’s work on Flesh and the Devil in 1926). It is what gives punch and intensity to Ingrid Bergman’s reaction when Paul Henried tells her he loves her in Casablanca, or Bogart says “here’s looking at you, kid” one last time;

 

 

it lets us see Vivian Leigh’s spark of self interest and ambition near the beginning of Gone With the Wind;

 

and, in a recent favorite of mine, it signals the evil Vultura’s heartless resolve as she prepares a human sacrifice in the Perils of Nyoka, a Republic Serial from 1942.

 

The glance toward an eye-light is a tool in the Hollywood cinematographer’s box, and the ability to play to the eye-light, a skill of the Hollywood actor.

What Garland, Minnelli, Folsey, and the crew of Meet Me in St. Louis have done, is to match this effect to an emotional beat – or, more accurately, they create an emotional beat out of this formal effect. When Garland looks away from her sister and into those lights, she broadens and deepens the song – she isn’t only singing to another character, in fact she isn’t comforting her little sister, but herself, and I think, the home-front viewers of 1944 for whom family union was held in abeyance by war.

She is, after all, looking toward the window of the boy next door – not her sister. This is the relationship that has been lingering before us, unresolved, since the last scene. Garland’s character seeks reassurance through song, and in doing so she acknowledges the impossibility, the sadness of it all. But too, the close up and the shift of the highlights places us in a different relationship to the character and the star. She is singing to and for herself, and to and for us. As Dr. Sara Ross pointed out to me, the bridge of the song broadens it – she looks ahead for “Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us, once more” — image and sound coordinate to address the audience. To borrow Jeanine Basinger’s terminology, the film slides into a “musical world” where we can be addressed, where we make a connection not just with character but also with star.

The glance into the eye-lights tops off a series of revelations across the scene.  It is part of a texture, a weave of moments and telling impressions. Garland’s trip from the door to the window brings her in and out of shadow, until she steps into a light that edges her from the background, in a nearly monochrome frame. Garland realizes she cannot just rush O’Brien off to bed, that this will take some serious talk; she takes off her pearl grey coat, returning the vibrant red ball gown from the evening’s Christmas dance (emotional beat, it recalls the joyous celebration in a somber scene). Next, the light from her boyfriend’s window shifts color temperature, and Garland’s colors pulse momentarily, before returning her to a colder, gray winter light  (another thread in the film which associates warm lamp and firelight with home – the image keeps reminding us what is about to be lost by the family). As the music begins, Garland makes a small entreating gesture to O’Brien, really a kiss in the air, a maternal touch that individuates her character and marks her empathy. This tiny movement also helps smooth the shift to Garland’s lip-syncing to on-set playback.  All of this preparing the way for Garland to take off the icy scarf, and catch us in her eye. She is opening up for us and for her sister, lowering barriers, and making a connection.

This is the brilliance of Minnelli’s work – a dense weave of textures, colors, movements, lights, sounds, and gestures – not one of which can do the job on its own. They collaborate to sweep over the viewer with an impression of order, plentitude, and feeling.

If that makes any sense, then I think it says something about how cinema can work on viewers, about what I find cinematic. People often think of film as a means of communication — as though there is a message, or a content, that a filmmaker pours into a spoon and delivers to the viewer’s lips. That content might be delivered by another vessel, a play, a novel, a dance, a political manifesto. Film Communicates an Idea To the Viewer.

But this is only part of what cinema can do, and in the Hollywood tradition it is perhaps a rather small part. Film form, the stuff up there on screen, the myriad stimuli that flow through sound and image, doesn’t communicate TO us, it captures us, harnesses and shapes our perception with pin-point accuracy and infinite finesse, Film form entertains, and moves us, and THAT experience is uniquely compelling – no other art does that in quite the same way.

 

 

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