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Balance and Linkage : Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon

by Adrian Martin


Adrian Martin is film critic for The Age (Melbourne), author of The Mad Max Movies (Currency, 2003), Raúl Ruiz: Sublimes Obsesiones (Altamira, 2004), Once Upon a Time in America (British Film Institute, 1998) and Phantasms (Penguin, 1994), and Co-Editor of Movie Mutations (BFI, 2003), Raúl Ruiz: Images of Passage (Rouge Press/International Film Festival Rotterdam, 2004) and the on-line film magazine Rouge(www.rouge.com.au).


Anyone could learn a lot about the art and craft of film direction from the first five-and-a-half minutes of Robert Mulligan’s The Man in the Moon.

It opens in darkness. The voice of a young teenage girl – Dani (Reese Witherspoon in an early role) – is heard, singing indistinctly to herself. Then the sound of a disc being put onto a turntable and played, which reveals the identity of the song: Elvis Presley’s ‘Loving You’. Meanwhile, the darkness has been revealed as a bit of black sky, and a subsequent movement in this image reveals stars, planets and, in particular, a brightly shining moon.

We are heading down – through treetops – to a house in the rural Louisiana in the 1950s, the primary setting of the film’s action. The sound of Elvis song is subtly but decisively altered, rendered more diegetically tinny in tone as we approach the curious back porch that doubles as a bedroom for Dani.

Via a careful dissolve, the camera movement reaches ground-level and takes us in closer still. A portrait-in-motion of two sisters: Dani and the older Maureen (Emily Warfield). The whole scene rests – but very naturally, even casually so – on the dance of separation and togetherness, ‘attraction and repulsion’, between these two characters: each seems to occupy their own zone of the porch, in their own way (Dani lies down beside her eventually-revealed phonograph, Maureen walks about), until eventually they will be united in a close-up two-shot. The dialogue by Jenny Wingfield (the script is apparently autobiographical) quickly weaves a Terrence Malick-style, repetitive, singsong structure that, for now, hides its deeper, poetic resonances within a stylisation of everyday, banal chitchat:

Dani: I love Elvis so much!

Maureen: You love everybody so much.

Dani: I do not.

Maureen: You do, too.

Dani: No, I don’t.

Maureen: OK, you don’t.

Dani: Well, I don’t. Maureen, sometimes you make me feel like such a baby.

Maureen: You are a baby.

Dani: I wish I could be just like you.

Maureen: Don’t talk silly.

Dani: It’s not silly.

What gets ‘weighed up’ in and by this opening scene? A lot: darkness and vision, the stars and the earth, the cosmos and one family, diegetic and extra-diegetic materials, the wide world and the internal emotions of two individuals. And also the intimate, intricate relation of similarity and difference between two sisters – two women who, in the course of the plot, will both fall for (and, in a sense, share) the same man (Jason London as Court), but in ways that reveal their respective ages, temperaments, and levels of experience. All these relations of scale, all these subtle distinctions and gradations, are laid out for us in Mulligan’s apparently simple, matter-of-fact organisation of the prologue.

Luc Moullet once proposed that the cinema of François Truffaut could be appreciated as an art of ‘balance and linkage’. (1) That is to say, not a cinema of striking, detachable moments or strong, set-piece sequences, but a cinema of relations between all the elements – where these elements in themselves may not be at all spectacular, but the meaning and force they convey derives entirely from their overall context in the entire film. Truffaut, Mulligan, Jacques Tourneur, Monte Hellman, even Fritz Lang in his quieter, late American films of the ‘50s: these are filmmakers (among others) whose work is characterised, on the surface at least, by a certain smoothness, what Kent Jones has described (in relation to Hellman) as ‘a feel for mood and overall tone rather than dramatic attack.’ (2) And because that smoothness is unostentatious – because it does not stand up and announce itself like the stylistic effects in Godard or De Palma – it can easily, unfairly be underrated as conventional, unadventurous, bland, telemovie-like. Even Elvis’ ‘Loving You’ is a remarkably muted song-performance: a sure sign of Mulligan’s aesthetic preferences and decisions at work.

In applying Moullet’s terms of balance and linkage to the work of Robert Mulligan, I believe they can be fruitfully recast as (respectively) modulation and transition. Mulligan’s style – apparently so effortless to the untrained eye – consists of subtly passing through the different moods of a scene or a situation, and ensuring, as a net result, an equal, even weight and distribution to these various stages. It helps, in appreciating Mulligan, to bring in from the field of theatrical dramaturgy the theory of steps in a scene: the discrete phases or building blocks that the director and actors define in order to give it structure, form, colour, rhythm, and that shifting constellation which Brian Henderson once called (in reference to Welles) ‘a delicate and precise sequence of emotions’. (3)

Within scenes, Mulligan modulates. Indeed, few directors have shown such mastery of so many devices for mood-modulation. Music, for example: not only does Mulligan here put the ‘found’ samples (of Elvis and other pop standards) in a clear, limpid place in the film’s overall structure; he also holds off for a full eight-and-three-quarter minutes before introducing the first note of James Newton Howard’s folk-orchestral score. The result of such overall restraint is that, when he does punch in music cues, it counts as a major mood-shifter – for example, that first Howard cue accompanies the splash Dani makes as she dives into the water for the first time. Another seemingly conventional scene technique that Mulligan uses sparingly and for maximum expressivity is the gradual découpage or shot-breakdown that, once a shot/reverse-shot volley for a dialogue exchange has been established, not only takes us closer in, but also progressively sets the background into an out-of-focus blur: such focalisation always serves an intense (and often fleeting) surge of emotion, as in the kissing scenes between Dani and Court.

Across scenes, Mulligan carefully engineers transitions. Again, it can seem TV-like, this penchant for beginning a scene on an insert of a physical action, accompanied by its sharp sound; or employing a leisurely lap dissolve from one establishing shot of a location to another. But even these apparently simple instances of craft have an expressive dimension in Mulligan. Always at stake is a specific mood and the tension it involves: passing from lightness to darkness, from cramped interior space to airy outdoor space, from noise to silence – in all imaginable permutations and combinations – brings with it emotional effects of release or dread, relaxed contemplation or quickening involvement. Consider a peculiarly affecting transition in The Man in the Moon. Matthew (Sam Waterston) at the hospital, in close-up, exits the frame; Mulligan lingers for a moment on the white wall. From this ‘empty’ frame we pass, in a lap dissolve, to a blurred shot of falling rain. In this stunning transition – where the televisual mingles with Ozu’s depopulated interiors and the colour-field effects of Brakhage or Grandrieux – we glimpse the touch of abstraction inside the concreteness of Mulligan’s style, the non-figurative inside the figurative.

To the two terms of modulation and transition, I would add a third: articulation. Like Douglas Sirk, Mulligan loves to build a narrative architecture that is built on all manner of contrasts and comparisons, echoes and affinities, that are gently insisted upon by the work of mise en scène and montage. For instance, the Dani-Maureen relationship is echoed by the close tie between the mother, Abigail (Tess Harper) and her long-time friend (Gail Strickland) – it’s easy to miss the off-hand line informing us that the father, Matthew, dated the latter before he chose the former. Another motif that receives such an articulation – this time more on the dialogue level – is the notion of knowing: Dani says to her father (in a sequence discussed below) ‘I know how you feel’; she makes the intimate-sexual declaration to Court, ‘I wanna know you more, all I can’; and she cuts him off with the dismissive ‘I already understand’ – where what is at stake, every time, is precisely the different sorts of understanding (or misunderstanding, or complete lack of understanding) involved in what Dani imagines she ‘knows’. This is a fine articulation of the ‘universal’ story element of adolescent emotional confusion.

Large-scale articulation in Mulligan proceeds by the already-noted interplay of similarity and difference. The opening scene announces the importance of the family home as the central location of the drama. It is, itself, a marvel of expressive production design: like the farmer’s dwelling in the middle of the field in Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), it is a home almost without a centre or even an ‘inside’, so open it seems, so porous, considering how easily it is invaded or intruded upon by outside arrivals (bodies, cars), and how swiftly Dani (in particular) flies through it to reach the outdoors (even the positioning of her bed on its outer porch-edge tells us how little ‘integrated’ into this home she is). But even more important than the ambience of this place as a freestanding structure is the way in which Mulligan works it into his succession of shots and scenes. Indeed, the seemingly conventional establishing shots of this house – repeated at regular intervals throughout the story – mark and cover an extraordinary range of states and moods. Extending the map of the film a little – but not terribly far in strictly realistic, geographical terms – we can see that this same/different ringing of moods takes in the house, the watering hole, and the distance in-between that Dani variously walks or runs, day or night. The diversified repetition of such seemingly ordinary gestures is what gives Mulligan’s films their shape, meaning and emotion.

It is tempting, in this light, to label Mulligan’s restrained style classical – and, indeed, to rank him in the crest-line of cinema’s classicists, alongside Jacques Becker, Howard Hawks and Clint Eastwood. Over a decade ago, after first seeing The Man in the Moon on video (it had sadly bypassed theatrical distribution in Australia), I called it a ‘moving example of small, finely-wrought cinema’ and a ‘quiet, classical film, old-fashioned in the best sense’, commenting: ‘There is traumatic pain, sexual awakening and domestic violence in this tale, but Mulligan films it with tact, from a respectful distance. His regard upon events, conveyed in every detail of camerawork, setting and performance, is one of compassionate reflectiveness.’ (4) Nowadays, being able to study the film more closely on DVD, I see the limitation of this favourite impressionistic (and somewhat mystical) cinephilic notion of the director’s ‘regard’ – as if the entire piece was shot from that single ‘respectful distance’! – and am more intent on trying to break down, analytically, the intricate secrets of Mulligan’s craft.

I am also wary of the assimilation of Mulligan to an unspecified and undefined notion of classicism – especially of the ‘classical Hollywood’ variety. Miriam Hansen has queried the paradigm of ‘American classicism’ in cinema bequeathed to us by the extensive historical work of David Bordwell and his colleagues. In her view, the particular values that Bordwell espouses as eternally and universally classical – clarity, organic proportion, symmetry, linearity, centring, ‘cool control’ (or, in my case, ‘tact’) – are more properly grasped as quite historically specific, neo-classical standards derived from the canon of eighteenth-century aesthetics. (5) And, indeed, it is hard to square any stable notion of Classical Hollywood with a field of production that encouraged, within a few short decades, the extremely varied stylistic options taken up by Ford and Tashlin, Hathaway and Fuller, Browning and Sirk, Lubitsch and Ray.

So-called American classicism begs for a new theory – and this goes every bit as much for Mulligan as for more obviously expressionistic (Vincente Minnelli) or cartoonish (George Sidney) directors. In his critique of Bordwell and the ‘Wisconsin school’ of film scholarship, Andrew Britton prefers to see the great age of Hollywood cinema as a complex extension of Romanticism, both as an aesthetic form and a cultural politics. (6) In the case of Mulligan, this would mean freeing our apprehension of his style from straitjacketing, specious notions of naturalism or (even worse) realism. The unostentatious nature of art that is deemed to be classical is too often, and too quickly, equated with self-effacing or invisible art – that famous ‘style that does not want to be noticed as a style’ – and, from there, commentators rarely move beyond the assumption of a mise en scène that must only be somehow ‘direct’, plain, merely ‘presenting the evidence’ (the kind of notion that has blocked analysis of the style of Hawks or Rossellini for decades).

Instead, a Romanticist orientation would direct us to what is subtly unreal or even irreal within the modulations, transitions and articulations of Mulligan’s films – watch again, on freeze-frame, those quasi-abstract transitions, or listen one more time to that prologue, how Dani and her Elvis record begin (against any strict logic) in ‘audio close-up’ over shots of the night sky, only then becoming sonically muffled and far-away as the camera approaches its human subjects – and, above all, grasping not only what is expressive here, but indeed lyrical. Mulligan – no less than Elia Kazan or Malick – is a lyric poet of the cinema; but lyricism, sadly, remains among the least recognised and analysed phenomena in this medium, even as the deeply-felt lyric effect is what binds us to a work like The Man in the Moon, whether as passing spectators or devoted fans.

There is a central concatenation of scenes within the lush rural setting of this film that serves to remind us, especially, of the Kazan who made such full-blown lyric melodramas as Wild River (1960) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). This particular passage allows Wingfield’s story to touch upon – and also gracefully leave behind – the difficult-to-handle, potentially sensational topic of domestic abuse. When the motor of the narrative kicks in – and it bravely takes its long, leisurely time in doing so – Dani’s lightly transgressive actions (sneaking off to see Court) inadvertently trigger a hospital crisis for the pregnant Abigail. Matthew’s rage and despair in the face of this compels him to march home and immediately start beating Dani – with only the entreaty from Maureen, and the shame of him precisely being seen in this act, deterring further violence. (Note here another major axis of articulation in Mulligan: who sees and is seen, as contrasted with who remains alone and unseen, for example Dani at the hospital). The next afternoon (cued by a palpably ‘relieving’ night-to-day transition), Dani and Matthew are sitting together in the family’s truck. Dani breaks the tense silence with a candid piece of character analysis: ‘I know you feel bad about taking the strap to me … You were scared, I know that.’ He does not respond; he keeps brooding. Then – in an impulsive, ambiguous gesture that seems to promise further menace or abuse – he gets out the truck, slams the door, and comes right around the truck to the passenger side. What we then see is a father-daughter embrace of the sort that Matthew has literally held back from in all his earlier scenes with Dani. The ‘delicate and precise sequence of emotions’ traced here offers almost a thermodynamic whirl of trans-personal sentiments, passions, affections and drives, the kind of ‘ball of fire’ which André Bazin saw racing between characters in Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947) (7): a kind of ledger or balance-sheet where the violence that emerges as a displacement of grief finds its countervailing force in the welling-up of a hitherto repressed paternal love.

Balance and linkage: isn’t that, in the end, what The Man in the Moon is really all about? The film comes close to saying it outright, in the only bit of moral-drawing sermonising that Mulligan allows into proceedings: Matthew telling Dani, out on the fishing boat, that, in life, one has to learn to recognise the pain of another person, beyond the intense and immediate sensation of one’s own suffering. When the characters in this story establish the links – when they can themselves make the connections and see the diagrams of echo and interrelation between them – then a certain kind of peaceful, reassuring balancing-act can occur, however temporary it may be (the final word of the film is ‘always’, but the mood is heartbreakingly fragile).

And that’s why The Man in the Moon must end – after the penultimate balancing of life and death, past and present, in the beautiful embrace of the two sisters at Court’s graveside – with an epilogue which answers, as in a mirror, the prologue: the girls on the porch, talk of that imaginary Man above, and a camera movement that takes us, this time, back and up to the luminous moon in the night sky … Is that simply the spectre of classicism again, the formal principle of narrative closure, of ‘the end answering the beginning’ as Raymond Bellour once described it? (8) I would prefer to think of it as a humanism – a particular, precious kind of human wisdom that we find expressed and embodied, with a tough Romantic lyricism, in Robert Mulligan’s best films.


Notes

1. Luc Moullet, ‘La Balance et le lien’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 410 (July-August 1988), pp. 26-32.

2. Kent Jones, ‘”The Cylinders Were Whispering My Name”: The Films of Monte Hellman’, in Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath and Noel King (eds.), The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), p. 192; on ‘the dynamic, vital and analytical movement given to the narrative as a whole’ in Lang, cf. Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier, 50 Ans de cinéma américain (Paris: Nathan, 1995), pp. 609-611.

3. Brian Henderson, A Critique of Film Theory (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980), p. 55. For an illuminating discussion of the dramaturgical concept of steps as related to the film actor’s craft, cf. John Flaus, ‘Thanks For Your Heart, Bart’, Continuum (special issue on Film – Matters of Style, edited by A. Martin), Vol. 5 No. 2 (1992), pp. 179-224; available on-line at http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/5.2/Flaus.htm.

4. Adrian Martin, ‘The Man in the Moon’, The Age, 31 June, 1993; available early in 2005 on my website, www.filmcritic.com.au.

5. Miriam Hansen, ‘Classical Hollywood and the Mass Production of the Senses’, lecture given at University of Melbourne, 15 November 1996. Published as ‘The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism’, in Modernism/Modernity 6.2 (April 1999): 59-77; and L. Williams & C. Gledhill (eds.), Reinventing Film Studies ( London: Edward Arnold, 2000). Available on-line at chnm.gmu.edu/courses/er/hist615/pdfs/hansen.pdf.

6. Cf. Andrew Britton, ‘The Philosophy of the Pigeonhole: Wisconsin Formalism and “The Classical Style”’, CineAction!, no. 15 (Winter 1988-9), pp. 47-63.

7. Cf. André Bazin, Jean Renoir (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973).

8. Cf. the essays collected in Raymond Bellour, The Analysis of Film (Indiana University Press, 2002).


The Man in the Moon

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