The Royle Family is a Manchester set television series set almost entirely within a family’s sitting room and kitchen. The drama comes to them, if you were to reject it as narratively lacking, it has to be said the characters keep you company. Considering micro events in cinema one thinks of many old Hollywood films for example William Wyler’s The Heiress Carrie, The Children’s Hour and The Collector. Also films that are seen as typically French like those of Jacques Doillon which focus on love triangles, The Crying Woman ,Too Much (Little) Love, Amoureuse and Love Battles. Of course Tsai Ming-Liang took this idea of micro event even further with his films such as Vive L’amour, The River, The Hole, Goodbye Dragon Inn and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.
In the case of The Royle Family, shot on 16mm and made to look like a Shane Meadows film or Ray and Liz, Ricky Tomlinson’s Jim is initially made out to be a grostesque Mr. England, he’s overweight, hasn’t worked since Thatcher robbed him of his job in the 80s, he’s never been on a plane, it seems no one in the show has, except for Irish neighbour Mary (Dolores Kehoe) a direct loving reference to co-creator and actor Caroline Aherne’s mother. The show aired between 1998 and 2000, Aherne left the show in 2001, returning for five one-off Christmas Specials between 2006 and 2012. The visual look and detail of the first series is probably the most refined, camera placements in the kitchen doorway, close-ups for longer periods. Part of the show’s humour which is very much based on banal comments, even bad jokes, very English, very Manchunian. The main element of the comedy/drama is situations discussed through the watching of television, reaction shots are key. Often reaction shots are conventional filler for Hollywood films, here the reaction shot is a constant punch-line, there’s no joke as such it’s just about getting that sense of annoyance from a counterpart character.
William Wyler is often discussed as not having a signature visual style, Kent Jones being a contemporary champion of Wyler has argued for a re-evaluation and also dismissal of the opinions about a strictly check-listed group of auteurs (Hitchcock and Ford etc.) with distinct visuals as being the only ones worthy of such a high level of appreciation. The filmmaker James Grey has said ‘people who don’t think Wyler was a great filmmaker really don’t know what it means to make a movie.’ Looking at the films, The Heiress, The Children’s Hour and Carrie they concern issues of class, public outrage, alienation, lack of new beginnings. The stories include inheritance (The Heiress) a well-off man leaves his wife and moves in with a younger working class woman and suffers poverty (Carrie) anda child who claims her head teachers are lesbians (partly a lie) one teacher does unrequitedly love the other without her knowledge (The Children’s Hour). Andre Bazin is perhaps the best known champion of Wyler, in 1948 he wrote a long essay focusing particularly on The Little Foxes and The Best Years of Our Lives, he talks of the Wyler secret, to make cinematic something which is based on a play. He uses the example of deep focus in The Little Foxes focusing on Bette Davis’ face with Herbert Marshall dying on the stairs in the background.
Another Bette Davis film Beyond the Forest was Davis’ last for Warner Bros. dismissed by her and the director King Vidor at the time. If we are to look at Micro-plot, we find in Beyond the Forest an environment of empty dreams far more intriguing than Vidor’s later Ruby Gentry. It’s the environment of the former that gives it its strong point. Davis’ husband is doctor, like his patients short on money. Davis wants the high life in Chicago and falls in love with another man, a millionaire (David Brian). We know nothing of her husband’s (Joseph Cotten) life away from his work. Davis is contrasted with her maid (Dona Drake), little care for responsibility with a carefree attitude; although the maid does claim responsibility with Davis in ill health towards the end. As empty as the Wisconsin town that the film is set in is and the lack of interactions Davis has compared to Jennifer Jones in Ruby Gentry make the former a more layered film for the way it lays out more ambiguously character motives, though Ruby Gentry has its intrigues too. Visually the use of strong mid shots and close-ups of Davis along the empty street with the moving camera and interesting angles convey a sense of the ghost town, the ghost town of the dream factory of Hollywood. We know from Davis’ trip to Chicago that the film is telling us that cities are shit, heightened up the lack of perspective of the environment and Max Steiner’s music. As Raymond Durgnat argued in Film Comment in 1973 and again in 1988 for a book he co-authored with Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American; “It was not merely a low budget that dictated the sparse presentation of Chicago – where Rosa flees in mid film to her temporarily distracted millionaire – by the song of that title and as a series of constricted spaces (a rear auto seat, a hotel room, dark porches, very brief and confined exteriors). This cramped minimalism evokes quick, restricted meetings, suffocated feelings, Rosa’s narrow toehold in the cliff face of her dream world. The film’s free space is in the town she disdains.”
With a filmmaker like Tsai Ming-Liang the sense of space shown in Beyond the Forest’s beginning of the empty street is part of his aesthetic. East Asian Cinema from Ozu to Hou to Diaz is very comfortable with the idea of the frame being empty for long periods with actors walking in and out of it over several minutes. There is no Max Steiner score to emphasise the situations or feelings, just you and the film with Lee Keng-shang at the helm of visual experiences with little dialogue which question narrative norms. Sound emphasising upon flowing water, street noise, a feeling a place, such sounds are not presence in Beyond the Forest as Hollywood generally only used essential sounds like rain and gunshots until the 1960s. Both Beyond the Forest and I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone convey environment and atmosphere with stillness, the latter with a higher degree of contemplation.
If we look at two examples of micro worlds in cinema, take The Fountainhead shot at Warner Bros. studios, offices are used for two different characters in the opening sequence, then later a third office (clearly an inspiration for Paul Newman’s office in The Hudsucker Proxy) it is clear that each office is the same set, the background is a sort of unconscious of corporate greed, clearly fake. It is an afterthought of an outside world which goes on beyond the prisms of its characters, when we see a wide shot of Raymond Massey’s office near the end of the film is shown, the contained self assertion and self worth is deafening visually. Nearly all of the characters are in turn self made financially (Raymond Massey’s tycoon) artistically (Gary Cooper’s architect) psychologically (Patricia Neal’s columnist) intellectually (Robert Douglas’ critic) and in turn self destructive. Light is used to emphasise the darkness of corruption in The Fountainhead whereas in Beyond the Forest Joseph Cotten is overexposed by light and shadow when he delivers a baby, ever the passive character (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Duel in the Sun, The Third Man) Cotten is shown in body and soul as too considerate to be anyway ambitious which suits viewers well as an identification point. Perhaps the light throws Cotten in the shadows by default, as his characters in the films mentioned never get what they want.
King Vidor emphasises betrayal with rain and dirt on a newspaper in The Fountainhead. There is a sense that for the viewer that the sets can’t go unnoticed so it adds to strange feeling of theatre, the thoughts of socio-political issues are given by Robert Douglas’ critic in the film, typical Hollywood doing the work for you. The set up of oppositions in its characters is stark; Cooper as egoist, Neal as neurotic, Massey as powerful and Douglas as narcissist, happiness won’t last, it can’t. It’s simple story on the surface of Gary Cooper’s refusal to conform to the conventional expectations of architecture, think of it as an auteur fighting with the studios. It must be noted that Vidor’s films, Beyond the Forest, The Fountainhead and Ruby Gentry were all written by women screenwriters in the case of Ruby Gentry it was a co-written with a man. A question audiences might often wonder is about the psychology of gender on screen and its representation as most films are written by men, Beyond the Forest and Ruby Gentry were sourced from novels written by men. Leonore Coffee (Beyond the Forest) also wrote Vidor’s Lightning Strikes Twice with Ruth Roman and Sudden Fear with Joan Crawford. With Davis, Jones and Crawford in the women’s picture as they were known, the actors were as definitive in a character study as anything with Isabelle Huppert. A physical presence and mastery of psychosis on screen in the micro events like putting on lipstick (Beyond the Forest) or putting glass in a young woman’s coat pocket (The Piano Teacher), these moments stay fixed in the viewer’s mind.
The second example is Marnie, famously praised by Robin Wood as the best Hitchcock film. Hitchcock is making more of a world within a world approach than Vidor; the large ship, the storm, with camera moves around the office, not to mention the fade colour schemes. Such an artistic statement like Cooper’s architecture in The Fountainhead demands to be taken on its own terms regardless of expectations like Marnie. The idea of the setting as fake is a world away from Tsai Ming-Liang’s usual settings nevertheless each artist asks of the viewer to take on varying degrees of solitude. Vidor’s actors have gaunt, haunted faces (Davis, Cooper, Massey), quite the opposite in fitting with the tone of Tsai’s films his lead actor Lee has a face of sorrow and loneliness of life passing by beyond his fingertips perhaps at times Cotten can express this too. Hitchcock and Vidor want contemplation to be like a vortex of emotion through music and camera placements, whereas Tsai feels that the moment micro or not speaks for itself.
© Peter Larkin