What’s in a hat?

There’s never been a more troublesome bonnet. D.W. Griffith’s The New York Hat (1912) is a version of the Cinderella story, scripted by Anita Loos and Frances Marion. Mary Pickford plays Mollie, who leads a cheerless life thanks to her miserly father. When her mother dies she leaves money in trust for Mollie with the Minister, played by Lionel Barrymore. Mollie falls in love with an exotic hat from New York she sees in the milliner’s window, and the Minister, remembering her mother’s dying wish, buys it for her. This innocent act sets off the gossips, and a mighty scandal ensues. The Minister eventually produces a letter from Mollie’s mother explaining all, order is restored, and the Minister proposes to Mollie.

Mary Pickford’s acting in the film is a masterclass in the intimate performance style developed by Griffith at Biograph. She conveys a wide range of emotions from joy and wonder to ecstasy, despair and distress through small gestures and subtle body language as well as facial expressions. Her ‘bits of business’ with hat, gloves and kerchief are brilliantly executed. Her acting style is a modified version of the histrionic techniques favoured by silent screen actors in the period, who used conventionalised broad gestures and frozen poses to express heightened emotion. Pickford moves about in a more naturalistic manner that departs from tableau shots to create the impression of ‘real’ space. The film displays the match cutting and parallel editing that became standard in classic cinema.

The hat is a wondrous concoction, hot from the sophisticated city. In Mollie’s small town with its malicious gossips, it stirs up salacious rumours about the young girl and the Minister. Although these are resolved, the underlying theme is quite racy. The meeting of city style and small town mores creates a disastrous situation that devastates Mollie and results in the destruction of the hat by her father. (In 1927, F.W. Murnau would make Sunrise A Song of Two Humans with a similar town/country theme — though without the hat.) There’s a moral, of course, warning against the dangers of city decadence and excessive consumerism. The New York hat is pivotal: Griffith et al. use it as a narrative device, and as a means of demonstrating acting technique, highlighting the significance of screen costume in telling stories, evoking character, and producing spectacular visual display.

The video essay takes found footage from the film, cropped and re-edited with added music, visual and sound effects, to analyse the fine details of Pickford’s emotional performance. Along the way, some playful touches feature the hat itself as a central character.

© Pam Cook 2015

More …

Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991

Stanley Kubrick’s last project Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which features Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise as a well-to-do Manhattan couple whose marriage is in trouble, is a cult work. It had a mixed critical reception on its first release, but since then its reputation as one of the director’s finest works has grown. The film is controversial for many reasons — as much to do with its production and reception as for its supposedly sensational sexual content, heavily hyped by Warner Bros. Like so many Kubrick films, Eyes Wide Shut confounds expectations and tests viewers to the limit. The director was a perfectionist and his attention to detail is legendary; one of the fascinations of his work is the pleasure of unpicking every nuance of image and sound in search of a definitive meaning — a quest destined to be frustrated. This is cinema for obsessive compulsives.

The film is a costume extravaganza that plays on identity and sexuality. Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford is on the surface a devoted husband and father who inadvertently gets involved in a ritualistic orgy at a masked ball. He’s drawn into a series of unfulfilled sexual encounters that strip away the veneer of his respectability and masculinity. The trigger for his descent into the depths is an argument with his wife Alice (Kidman) in which, after accusing him of not understanding women’s needs, she reveals an erotic fantasy in which she has sex with a young naval officer she once glimpsed in a hotel lobby. Bill is provoked into seeking extramarital excitement himself, and the film stages his fantasy scenarios, which are fraught with anxiety. His misadventures are rooted in disguise and deception, and the fragile underpinning of his life gradually disintegrates. Finally, after the mask is dropped and the couple reconciles, Alice is very much in charge. Many critics saw Eyes Wide Shut as a portrait of the ‘real’ Kidman-Cruise relationship, which fell apart soon after the film was released. This, of course, intensifies the frisson.

The opening has been much discussed. In it, Alice is briefly seen naked from behind as she steps out of a black gown in her bedroom. She and Bill are getting ready to go to a party, and we see the couple in the bathroom together, with Alice sitting on the toilet. When they’re ready to go, Bill turns off the radio and the light in their bedroom as they both leave. This short sequence is complex and has been interpreted in different ways. Here I want to focus on the contribution of costume to the layers of meaning. Eyes Wide Shut is about the multiple implications of dressing and undressing, a theme set up in the first few moments. 

As the stark black and white credits appear on screen, Shostakovich’s ‘Waltz No. 2’ plays on the soundtrack. The first shot is of Alice, who is wearing no underwear, dropping her black dress and stepping out of it in high court shoes, giving two little kicks to get free. The shot is deliberately voyeuristic: the dressing area, framed by pillars, is brightly lit, while the viewer is placed outside the space in the shadows at the front. There’s a clear boundary between viewer and spectacle, similar to that experienced in the theatre or cinema.

There’s another boundary too, a cinematic device that puts the shot in parentheses, or quotation marks. The shot, which lasts about six seconds, is sandwiched between the director’s name and the film’s title. It’s a fetish object, cut out from the rest of the film and designed to be replayed and pored over.  It exists in an imaginary dream space, accompanied only by Shostakovich — narrative sound is heard for the first time with the next shot of the city streets.  

The dream ambience is appropriate: Eyes Wide Shut is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story). Who are the dreamers here? Stanley Kubrick, for one — he’s stamped the shot with his mark of ownership. Viewers, too, as they linger in the half-light watching Alice’s private moment. And Bill. In the next interior shot we see him, a shadowy figure in the darkness of the dressing area, emerge into the well-lit space of the couple’s bedroom and bathroom. In contrast to the tableau shot and framing of Alice, the camera is now mobile, moving through ‘real’ space as though we are there with the characters, as the Shostakovich waltz plays on the bedroom radio. Even more intimately, we are invited into their bathroom to see Alice in non-erotic mode taking a pee, wiping herself and pulling up her panties. Now she’s wearing underwear, and she has on a different dress than the one she discarded in the opening shot.

Because of the way the opening shot is positioned, it looks as though it’s out of sync with the scene of Bill and Alice getting ready to go out. Is the darkened dressing area the same space in which we saw Alice undress, and is the time frame the same? The tennis rackets in the corner are no longer visible, and there are bookshelves we couldn’t see before. There’s not necessarily a break in continuity: the rackets could be covered by Alice’s discarded black gown, and the bookshelves may be there because the camera is in a different position. But the disconnected quality of the first shot makes the apparently familiar space of the bedroom seem strange. The dream appears real and reality appears dreamlike.

Throughout the film, Alice is depicted as a figure, even a figment in the film’s dream narrative, which is presented from Bill’s point of view. It gets complicated when Alice’s dream enters the story. Suddenly she’s the subject of her own fantasy (if it is hers) at the same time as being a character/object in Bill’s. This is the key to Bill’s identity crisis: in his psyche a battle for dominance is played out in which gender roles are confirmed, tested and overturned. 

The opening shot of Kidman is a time-bomb. It teases the viewer into believing they are in control and then explodes their expectations. The intimation that all is not as it seems intensifies the desire to return to it over and over again. The brief glimpse of Kidman naked recalls her 1998 appearance in The Blue Room, David Hare’s adaptation of Schnitzler’s play Der Reigen, filmed by Max Ophüls as La Ronde (1950), in which she and Iain Glen played different characters involved in a series of sexual encounters. In one scene, Kidman appeared naked in back view for a few moments as Glen slowly dressed her — this caused a sensation and contributed to the play’s critical and box-office success

There are clear resonances between The Blue Room and Eyes Wide Shut. Apart from the preoccupation with costume, identity and sexuality common to both, the emphasis on performance (a Kubrick motif) is elaborately worked through in the film. There are striking similarities between the poster for The Blue Room and the image of Alice looking elsewhere as Bill kisses her, widely used in promotion for the film. 

The reference to The Blue Room in the film’s opening shot signals its aspiration to the play’s headline-grabbing notoriety. In both cases, there was little explicit sex or nudity on view — it was exactly this that proved so titillating. Warner Bros’ promotional campaigns exploited the film’s sensational sexual content, but many reviewers found Eyes Wide Shut distinctly unsexy. Kubrick’s joke was to entice viewers with the promise of arousal, only to break his promise by confronting them with a treatise on the impossibility of sexual fulfilment. The shot of Kidman undressing encapsulates this irony. Its endless replaying in different media forms underlines its elusive quality; it embodies the fruitless search for satisfaction at the heart of sexual desire (à la Kubrick).

Kidman is seen in various stages of undress and erotic scenarios during Eyes Wide Shut, while Cruise appears in masquerade costumes and masks; by the end, Bill is unmasked and emasculated, something that appears to excite Alice as she utters the film’s final line: ‘Fuck’. Is her power over Bill real, or is it a feature of his fantasy? Whatever the case, in Eyes Wide Shut female desire is shown to be capable of stripping away the façade of male (hetero)sexuality and destabilising the illusion of masculine power. The deceptive promise of the  opening shot (Kubrick’s master stroke) lures viewers into a state of false security, ensuring that this will be a moment to return to in a film that pivots on sexual anxiety.

© Pam Cook


More on Eyes Wide Shut …

Dennis Bingham, ‘Kidman, Cruise, and Kubrick: A Brechtian Pastiche’, in Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson and Frank P. Tomasulo (eds),  More Than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004).

Michel Chion, Eyes Wide Shut (London: BFI Modern Classics, 2002).

Pam Cook, Nicole Kidman (London: BFI/Palgrave, 2012).

Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, Eyes Wide Shut: A Screenplay (London: Penguin Books, 1999). Includes Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Dream Story.

James Naremore, On Kubrick (London: British Film Institute, 2007).

It’s also worth checking out the mountain of online appreciation of the film.

I’ve posted before about Baz Luhrmann’s use of anachronism and pastiche – we can be certain that he and designer Catherine Martin will liberally employ both in their adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, scheduled for release in May 2013. As with their other work, the film will be based on meticulous original research that will be the foundation of creative reinterpretation – which will no doubt drive purists wild. Fearless as ever, they’ve taken on the Great American Novel.

Luhrmann’s background is in theatre, where travesty is common (he’s a huge admirer of Shakespeare). All his films use travesty to overturn accepted conventions and confound expectations – they are parodies themselves, and often parodied. This antagonises some and embarrasses others, possibly because film is perceived to have a privileged relationship to reality. 

Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is bound to have elements of travesty, but that does not mean it will be a travesty. It will reinvent the source novel and raise questions about adaptation and authorship, unsettling ideas about art as the expression of individual creative vision. Like the celebrated Red Curtain Trilogy (Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!) it will be design-led, from visual style to music soundtrack. There will be multiple layers of quotation from classic and world cinema, plus coded references to the director’s other films, creating a richly textured work replete with opportunities for  commercial spin-offs and tie-ins.

The film is already controversial for its application of 3-D to a literary adaptation. It’s sure to polarise opinion, particularly among US critics. As befits a major event movie, anticipation (whether positive or negative) will continue to build until it reaches a breathless climax.

© Pam Cook

More about travesty in Baz Luhrmann’s work in Baz Luhrmann by Pam Cook (BFI/Palgrave 2010)

The influence of fashion on the work of Baz Luhrmann and designer Catherine Martin is huge. By its very nature, fashion flouts conventional notions of time and place, plundering history for themes and styles that are then cross-bred to create a hybrid concoction. Haute couture played out on the catwalk is flamboyantly theatrical, staging clothing as high drama through spectacular display. Fashion also requires total attention to detail, with each fold of fabric, stitch, hem and seam of utmost importance to the final result — a concern that Luhrmann and Martin share. Their involvement in fashion is extensive. Luhrmann, Martin and Bill Marron were responsible for designing the signature issue of Australian Vogue in January 1994.

Martin stage-managed fashion shows to help fund her studies at NIDA, and in 1998 she directed leading Australian fashion designer Collette Dinnigan’s Autumn/Winter collection at the Louvre in Paris for Bazmark. In 2004 Luhrmann directed a three-minute Chanel No. 5 mini-film starring Nicole Kidman and Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, featuring costumes designed by Karl Lagerfeld.      

Fashion is fundamental to their working methods. During preparatory research for their films, once the broad outline of the scenario is unveiled, Martin and the art department begin by raiding fashion magazines and online picture resources for visual material that resonates with or crystallises the story ideas and archive images that Luhrmann has presented to the team. Some of this visual material is interpretive, from a different period than the film’s setting, chosen because it evokes the spirit of that time. All the images are then discussed at meetings and selections are made.    

The visual material is collected into folders that are regularly updated and provide Luhrmann with a supply of artwork. From this collection they work out with him which pictures are suitable and which are not, the order that they will follow and how the story will be told in images. Concept books, elaborate storyboards that are works of art in themselves, emerge from this process. These include sketches, photoshop material and images from widely varied times and places put into sequence, with the actors pasted in. This material then feeds back into the script, helping to refine and support the story structure.

The initial historical research, carried out with fastidious care and attention to documented facts about the relevant period, provides the basis for a reinterpretation and dramatisation of the past that collapses time and place, creating a consciously artificial world through a collage of different styles. Luhrmann and Martin’s work is grounded in pastiche, from research stage to the final product. Pastiche, an aesthetic device that mixes styles from various sources through quotation, is associated with postmodernism, and it has been taken to task for its lack of originality and authenticity. However, it can also be interpreted as a method that produces complex, multilayered works whose power lies in their challenge to the very notion of origin viewed as a single source of creative activity or meaning.

Adapted from Baz Luhrmann  by Pam Cook (BFI/Palgrave 2010 © Pam Cook)