Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What's in a Face? A small moment from AMERICAN DREAM (1990)

There is moment in Barbara Kopple's documentary AMERICAN DREAM (1990) that, for me, distills the entire film into a single, emotional punch. The moment is very small, very quick, very easy to overlook, and seemingly insignificant (maybe it is). Whatever meaning the moment does have resides in a human face, something which surely contains enough mystery to mislead, confound, and confuse all of us on a regular basis. I watched the moment a few more times after the film was over to see if I thought there was something there or if I was just imagining things, and when I felt reasonably sure I hadn't deceived myself I copied the moment to my computer with the intention of using it as part of a future blog post.

* * *

Lev Kuleshov very famously edited together the face of a actor (Ivan Mozzhukhin) with a bowl of soup, a coffin containing a little girl, and a woman. When the actor followed the image of a bowl of soup he appeared to express hunger. Following the coffin he expressed sorrow, lust when following the woman. But the face was static and unchanging; it was the same exact shot repeated over and over. The audience, however, thought it was different each time, and even raved about the acting. What really happened, of course, is that they brought their own emotional response to the images and applied them to the actor.

* * *

A few weeks ago I watched the moment from AMERICAN DREAM again, and this time there was nothing there. I couldn't see what I had originally seen (or thought I had seen). But yesterday I watched it yet again and it couldn't have been any more clear: I was right the first time! There was something there, something powerful and moving. It wasn't in my imagination after all, and I don't understand how it could have looked so different to me a few weeks ago. (But of course I do understand. It's just strange because I am unable to return to how I saw it a few weeks ago.)

Here is the scene. What do you see? (Again, apologies for the choppy video.)


Watch it again. The moment takes place before :14.

Nothing? The woman, looking around frantically, waving the American flag, somewhat energetic, seemingly content...

Watch her again.

Now, for those of you who haven't seen the film, here is some information: AMERICAN DREAM is a documentary about Reagan-era union busting which gives a behind the scenes look at a major strike that took place at a Hormel meat packing plant in 1985-86. The context of the scene is very bleak. The workers have been on strike for quite a long time with no end in sight, and scabs are showing up to fill up the vacant jobs at the plant.

Here's what I saw:

The woman, looking around frantically, waving the American flag, somewhat energetic, seemingly content... Then her eyes, as they dart around -- quickly, just for a moment -- lock with the flag she is waving. As soon as this happens (or just before) she stops waving the flag the same way and her face changes inexplicably. And obviously it's very cold out. Everyone sees these things (more or less).

Here's what else I saw: A profound moment, some sort of epiphany captured. It's as if the woman just realized that what she thought of as America -- how she's seen America her entire life -- has suddenly changed because of the experiences she's recently been through. (We, as viewers, have been through a similar experience, though by no means a comparable one.) When she realizes this there's a deep sadness in her face, a deep resignation, even confusion. A kind of "What am I doing / where am I / who am I?" moment. Something she took for granted vanishes instantly and her worldview no longer makes sense.

The moment is doubly powerful because it's not an actor trying to convey something but an unguarded moment captured without fuss (though, as Marlon Brando was often quick to point out, we're all actors in our day to day lives to some extent). These small realizations are crucial moments in our lives, and how we choose to proceed from them is of the utmost importance. It's where our "character" lives and dies.

Or maybe she just realized she left the iron on. That's important too.

* * *

The first time I watched UGETSU (my first Mizoguchi film) I didn't like it. I didn't get it. I couldn't fall into its rhythms. Because of its reputation I gave it another try the following day, this time with the sound off. The first 20 minutes had me entranced. I put the sound back on, watched the whole thing all the way through, and loved it. When it was over I was sure I had seen a masterpiece.

I haven't seen it since.

I've also had the opposite happen: a favorite film seen a second time leaving me cold.

* * *

There is an unintentionally humorous 4-star review of AMERICAN DREAM on Netflix that relates to the "What am I doing / where am I / who am I?" moments and how we do everything we can to resist, ignore, and forget them. It ends with a threat turned lament.

"I would have given it 5 stars [if it] hadn't shown the pigs/hogs being taken to the slaughter house, then slaughtered and such. I [know] these people were meat packers, but they really didn't [need to] show that part. I just might become a vegetarian now."


Anonymous said...

Have you seen Harlan County, USA?

Hectocotylus said...

Yes - an excellent documentary. AMERICAN DREAM has the same feel as HARLAN COUNTY but never quite reaches the same level. Nevertheless, it's still very good.