Windows or Doors: Doors and Windows

John Szarkowski’s 1978 show (and book) Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960 explored the movement in the American photographic scene from concerns with public to concerns with private issues, what, later, some critical theorists would think of as the de-politicisation of contemporary thought.1 But there is another extremely fruitful way to think about the “doors and windows” metaphor, politics notwithstanding: a careful attention to a critical distinction in framed art, including photography, painting, and the motion picture, that would separate views of the world on one side from views of views of the world on the other. Windows show us. Mirrors show us showing.

Begin by considering some of the great number of canvases Paul Cézanne painted at the Jas de Buffan in his very late nineteenth-century period. He made numerous paintings at this spot near Aix, both horizontals and verticals, almost always concentrating on the trees as a principal subject, to the extent that one could claim any object within his frame as Cézanne’s subject rather than the painting itself. Here are three examples, for each of which I propose a casual claim:

[1] Note the house, and the two central trees forming between them a gateway.

[2] Note the path beneath the boughs.

[3] Note the oval “shadow” of dark grass.

In all three, the [1] “Trees and Houses near Jas de Bouffan,” the [2] “Près du Jas de Bouffan,” and the [3] “Tall Trees at Jas de Bouffan,” we have no trouble catching the atmosphere of the place, the way the sun drops into it, the way the land is bordered off or that pathways meander through it, the evocation of shadows, the dignity of the trees and their plenitude. In short, these and other canvases of the 1890s are all discernable as pictures of. But they also have a powerful quality that transcends this expository one. Like so many of this artist’s later canvases and many of his early ones, as well, they call attention to themselves as framings, reflect to the viewer an “image” of the painter composing, and in this way they function as mirrors, not windows.

Consider in [1] how although the brightness of the farmhouse draws the eye first to the center of the picture there is a kind of magnetic attraction produced by the branches curving off at the left and right borders that makes very distinct the framing itself as a bounding off from something continuing and greater that is not shown. One can frame a picture and illuminate a subject in such a way that this kind of marginality is not explicitly produced. In [2], see the central path and its point of origin somewhere “before” the picture to the right, and the out-of-focus blur of the leaves at both edges. In [3] the unmistakable slicing off of the tops of the “tall trees” makes their tallness a matter of the viewer’s conjecture: when the viewer makes conjecture she is self-aware as a viewer of a canvas. These are minute examples of a painterly eye that Cézanne displays again and again. By contrast, something he would likely have been thinking himself to contrast against:

Left: John Singer Sargent, “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (1892) / Right: Thomas Gainsborough, “The Honourable Mrs Graham” (1775-77)

By comparison, in these two portraits, the Sargent contemporaneous with Cézanne’s Jas de Bouffan work and the Gainsborough a century earlier, we find a perfunctory use of background elements merely to stand as conventional contrasts against the central figure, and it is this figure and this figure alone that comprises the “reason for” and the “attraction of” the painting. These are windows, perhaps on the world far less than on some commanding presences of that world, yet windows all the same.

One could make the same distinction in photography, taking a different turn than Szarkowski did. Dorothea Lange photographs a rural scene in 35 mm, bringing centrality not only to a painted sign but to the message inscribed on it, as an ironic commentary on adverse social conditions. The sign is the reason for the photograph. Walker Evans photographs a storefront under similarly adverse social conditions, using a 4 x 5 view camera, packing his frame fully with attractions, so energetic in drawing the eye around from point to point, that it finally conveys a sense of the photographer at work as much as of the people depicted. The photograph is the reason for the photograph.

Dorothea Lange, “Gas Station, Kern County, California” (1938)

Walker Evans, “Roadside Stand near Birmingham, Alabama” (1936)

Admittedly, I use these works cursorily and grossly, only in order to craft a sharp illustration of the distinction between images that transport us through them directly to some supposedly relevant subject matter and images that – although every image is bounded – announce their boundedness, their having been intentionally framed by a framer, pointedly to the viewer’s eye. One could go through a history of classical and recent cinema to find examples at both of these “extremes,” Godard’s typical boldly colored textual overlay being a rather definitive example of a mirror and Cukor’s typical social portrait, albeit delivering a view of entirely fictional beings, working solidly as a window:

Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)

Holiday (George Cukor, 1938): Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan

With the Godard, here and elsewhere in his work, it is impossible to look without at once conceiving a creative force thinking to use language this way, daring, proposing, articulating, placing, riddling. Filmmaker as Fool. With the Cukor, one sees by identifying class and character, location, event, all as happenings that must be attended to here and now. That they are being shown is incidental, indeed invisible to the exercise.

What, now, of some other, third possibility, not a hybrid of the window and mirror, not a mirror that looks like a window or a window that looks like a mirror, not even a blunt denial of both mirrors and windows, but an image that is both fully a window and fully a mirror at one and the same time, so that in looking patiently and reflectively, we are in a position to oscillate between appreciations? Now it is a window, now it is a mirror, but essentially it has not changed. Implicated in an arrangement such as this, of course, is the actor/character formula, since to the extent that one looks through a window (at some displayed “reality”) one is seeing a character (demanding and receiving committed belief) and to the extent that one looks at a mirror one sees oneself watching, therefore the thing one pauses to watch, therefore the structure of the thing, therefore the production, therefore the actor (and director and writer, etc.). One cannot see the character and the actor at once in a single view, but one can vibrate between poles in viewing, noting first one and then the other of the character and the actor. The accomplished actor – many actors are far from being accomplished, even if they are attractive and famous – can take the eye of the viewer, once it is swung over to seeing the actor as actor, and draw it back into the committed stance where the being onscreen is a character. In short, this actor can effectively persuade, through a pulling and pushing, that the production does not have ascendancy over the story world, as any viewer might first think it did when drawn to the actor under the character. “Oh, this is actually, basically, in truth not a character but an actor putting on a character.” We can see that, but then, swiftly, be lured to see the character again.

Judith Anderson

As a fascinating case study I want to treat a tiny moment that is performed by the great Judith Anderson in Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). Anderson, born in Adelaide, did her first stage work at an early age, in Sydney. She migrated to America around the time of the First Great War. In Laura, already veteran of many stage appearances in New York and London and significant film work (including Kings Row [Sam Wood, 1942] and a characterisation in Rebecca [Alfred Hitchcock, 1940] that would put her in the pantheon of film actors evermore), Anderson is cast as Ann Treadwell, an important socialite and aunt of the murdered girl for whom the film is named. Ann has a younger man acting as her protégé, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) and he was pitiably in love with the deceased Laura (Gene Tierney), whilst Ann was pitiably in love with him. Ann wishes to have him. Spoiler alert: at a critical moment in the film, while, inside her apartment, he is patiently and doggedly investigating the victim’s murder (in which she was shot in the face), detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) hears the apartment door open and in strides Laura herself. It turns out that she was not present at the shooting, and in the shadowy moment another young woman died in her place. Laura gathers all of her friends and associates at a soirée. A brightly lit event at the apartment, all of the space filled with people, not to say much interpersonal confrontation between the central characters because of their several conflicting passions. Ann tries more than once to corner Shelby, to no effect. Shelby and McPherson do not like each other. All of this I leave to the side, however, in order to drop into a particular instant when Carpenter grabs McPherson and the detective responds instinctively with a brutal gut punch. The gigolo tumbles back in agony, into an armchair. And now Ann moves in.

She has earlier stood in the face of Shelby, a characteristically (for Price) statuesque and eloquent, if also somehow damaged, man, and all but proposed marriage, giving him the best of reasons in a calm and rational speech. He has backed off, hung up on Laura. Now, however, crumpled and defeated, here he is in front of an audience, lethal for his affected egotism. He is in Ann’s arms, in a two-shot medium close, because she has stepped over to encircle him. The action is both visceral and muscular, not dialogic. We are witnessing nothing less than a pietà. And suddenly something oozes to the surface of the relationship that, we can see now ­– now and only now – was present before and always, but never admitted, never confirmed. This is the radical difference in the two characters’ ages and Ann’s very clear role as Shelby’s surrogate mother. It is as a person harboring a maternal instinct, then, that she felt attracted to him earlier and that she clutches him now, someone who could see that for all his imposture what he needed in this life was protection and safe withdrawal. Shelby is not only a mamma’s boy but also a wounded male, whose wounds she has come to know even better than he, and for whom she knows she can provide guard. To the degree that we can have any sympathy for him, the “weakest” of the trio of men in the film – Andrews’s Mark is tougher, less sympathetic, more active; Clifton Webb’s columnist and broadcaster Waldo Lydecker is far more effete – we now wish for Shelby some enduring rest in Ann’s careful and tranquilising arms, some realisation and acknowledgment that as a life partner she could (reasonably be thought to) be the right choice (as her pose conveys that she knows).

What of this pietĂ  pose that involves Anderson so fully?

Part of it involves cradling the wounded Shelby, both as a way to protect him from further attack in this socially disintegrated world and as a way to embrace and warm him. She aims to wrap his head into her clutch, although his head was not directly touched in the aggression. Yet at the same time she stretches herself so as to at least symbolically round over his whole form. She is “saying”, all at once: (a) you are mine, you are my treasure; (b) I am here to guard and defend you (and always will be); (c) I warm and nourish you, who are destitute (and always will); (d) all this is my natural role (because we have been destined for each other); and (e) all this is my fervent desire. We see a certain urgency in her movement, an extension in her posture to exhibit earnestness and depth of commitment, and a kind of half-blocking of Shelby’s body so that even the viewer can not fully get at him. Anderson’s postures change slightly as the moment progresses, with the camera steadily on the twosome for a very long shot, and she adjusts and re-adjusts herself like a professional model on a posing stand. One might immediately be led, noticing this, to wonder whether the actor had had an early career in ballet or modern dance, but she had not. Price as Carpenter is stony in his affliction, shocked and frozen. He is an object for her to caress. And of course the actor, in this instant supporting his colleague, must behave so as to give her the camera, give her the action. Many who reveled about Vincent Price for numerous reasons have failed to see his quintessential professionalism.

When he falls back from Andrews’s punch, Shelby is careening backward. The actor has lacked rehearsal, apparently, because in a movement we can see – all too well – he is cautious, even stumbling, and takes a speedy glance to make sure his rear side is actually aimed at the requisite chair. A slicker performance would have eventuated from meticulous preparation, counting the steps, trying out the move over and over and over, so that in flailing backward Shelby would have moved in a fluid, continuous, uninterrupted way. Such fluidity would have been entirely bogus, of course. The truth of the moment is a displacement, both physically and spatially, so that Shelby here believably gives off the impression of having lost his sense of space. Therefore he is “actually” vulnerable. If he stood up to McPherson nobly and also, being out of his league, a little impetuously, his reward was to have the wind knocked out of him. (When one is hit in the solar plexus, the effect is utter disorientation briefly.) Winded, but also propelled by the thrust of the blow, he falls back without grace, and we feel as relieved as he must feel when his body slumps backward into the (minimally) supportive chair. Ann is upon him instantaneously.

Here in six excisions is her move:

[1]

Initially to throw her arms about Shelby, a move that is perhaps not as easy as it looks. Note that in her left hand Ann is still clutching a purse, and this she must manage while using the same hand to cradle him without letting the purse come between her hand and his body. Note, too, the floral bouquet that the set designer has placed to accentuate in one breath Ann’s intention of delicacy and charm, and Shelby’s “floral” innocence and weakness. Bending a little at the waist this way, and bringing her right shoulder into a diagonal alignment with the camera, she (a) leans into the picture (she references herself being pictured) and (b) maintains therapeutic facial orientation toward him. We have the slightly disarming sense that she is both moving toward and pulling away from Shelby at the same time.

[2]

Preminger’s frame absolutely fixed, Anderson is now bending over further so that her head and upper body are more clearly encompassed within the frame. Her right hand is opened in an affectionate contact, her head twisted so that, looking into his face, she can get a superior view of Shelby’s condition, in this way emphasising (perhaps for him but certainly for us) her sharp concern and diagnostic gaze. The left arm with the purse in hand is now a kind of diagonal border keeping the twosome separate from the background of the frame (trivialised by this gesture).

[3]

Shelby has moved forward marginally so that Ann’s left hand has circled further in the frame and is heading around him; the embrace is gaining fullness. But as she twists a very strong diagonal has been struck along Ann’s shoulders, running from the right rear to the left foreground of the image. Her right shoulder is in fact all but nudging the frame surface. And her head is turned, giving emphasis to her (fashionable) veil. The sharp line of the lips indicates purposiveness, gravity, urgency, even anger. “You have wounded my child!” Shelby, his hands folded in fear (and, for the actor, to help emphasise his scene partner’s hand gestures) is of course quite unable, still being winded and catching up with Ann’s coddling, to argue that he is not her child, and we may even wonder whether for a brief respite he is calmed by the thought that he needn’t stand up for himself in Laura’s world.

[4]

Her right hand is approaching his face, her dark nail polish giving emphasis to the placement of this and her other hand. The front of her garment is slightly more rumpled, collapsing, in the heat and frenzy of the gesture. She has turned her head back so as to gaze directly down on Shelby, with the effect that the frame is centered around the oval floral wreath at the top of her hat, an ornament that echoes the floral bouquet and unifies the pictorial composition. Also more clearly visible now, because Shelby has lowered his head, is the wavy treatment of his hair: he is a man of manicure and self-decoration, and his hair has been given distinct attention. This makes him utterly floral in himself, demonstrative, emphatic, fey. With the head in this position the hair stands out as a figure in itself, rather than merely part of Shelby’s overall presence.

[5]

Ann has all but finalised her pose. The right hand has come up to cradle Shelby’s whole head – the full pietà. She has let go some of the force in her left hand so that the act of clutching the purse now seems perfunctory and irrelevant to her. He is stolid. She is maintaining the left-facing diagonal orientation, but this is given even more strength now by her having turned her face up again and her staring off with a bright concentration, a focus of attention that we can feel the need to share. Who is she looking at, Laura, McPherson, someone else? We see concentration in the points of keylight in her eyes, and in her partly opened mouth, quite as though she is on the point of uttering. The facial lighting is fuller because Anderson has turned more fully into her portrait light. Given the left-drawing angle across her shoulders, the extended, slightly bent left arm encircling Shelby now gains new emphasis as a partial border. She has not only soothed him but extended herself, bodily, to keep him bounded off from the rest of the party.

[6]

Shelby has wrapped his face into Ann’s palm and is kissing her. His hand has reached up to grasp hers on the front side. This is a kind of agreement on his part. But she looks down with a careful gaze, watching his every minutest gesture, and with her right arm she has formed a quite magnificent semi-circle that begins with her shoulder and extends all the way around to the point of his ear. The jacket has opened more, so that by implication the nourishing breast is insinuated into the picture. We can also see with Anderson that her posture is both elegant and firm and solid, that all of her movements have been from the waist up. Notable variation in posture, then, without losing her marks on the carpet and making focal demands. This is being shot with a 50mm lens; and the two bodies must be clearly in focus; but at this distance from the camera, the aperture at f5.6 or f8, there is clarity behind them only to some degree and also, given the intensity of the lighting that would have been required, any slight movement Anderson made in the depth axis, any bringing even part of herself toward the camera, would have broken the focus. Many who discuss screen acting note how a performer must be capable of doing a very great deal but within a very confined space; this is a telling example.

Through this little sequence of movements, therefore, Anderson is working through the twisting of her hips and the extension of her arms. The shoulder diagonal is produced by the hips and the formal posture of her upper body. While posturing this way, she works very finely wrought facial expressions that counterbalance her body form, offering alarm, displeasure, aggressive intent against her own securing, stabilising, enclosure of Shelby. In [5], she is clearly awakened, perhaps even alarmed, and we can read this new expression as Anderson’s way of articulating that Ann is now made sensible to the people around her in a whole new way. Laura, Lydecker, McPherson – they are perhaps not the people she thought. And as for Shelby: she seems to be expressing both hope and uncertainty as to what the future might bring him, at her side, an uncertainty perhaps slightly mollified in [6].

But as we study this tiny chain of moments, how can we see a mirror and a window at the same time? How does this complex gesture of Judith Anderson’s exemplify a “third possibility,” as I suggested above, and what might we note in order to understand it, beyond Anderson’s exquisite management of poise, careful movement, and precision of placement all seen against the relatively stabilising feature of Price’s stolid position?

A number of factors combine to establish an engaged view, that is, to see fully – and only – as through a window, Ann Treadwell nursing Shelby Carpenter at Laura’s party. These include:

  • The present absolute silence of Anderson’s Ann, given that she has very recently, and with the most refined articulateness, expressed herself verbally both to Shelby and to Laura (in private). Indeed, she has just come upon Shelby talking to Laura, seconds before, regarded them carefully, and with an explicit apology backed off. In short, she is a vocal one herself and respects the power of speech. But here now there is no vocality, only pose. The silence is her speech.
  • Thus we experience Ann at this instant as intensely and passionately devoted to Shelby, more than we may have expected from any (potentially ambiguous) verbal indication of hers beforehand. She is not only for Shelby here and now, she is with him, which means, inside the story. And to observe, we take an “inner” position as well.
  • Price plays Shelby as wounded at this moment – albeit perhaps letting Shelby be a little more expressive than the punch called for in order that his psychological weakness be stressed. Shelby’s pain reflects upon Ann’s tenderness, a tenderness expressed in several ways by Anderson, all at once: cant of the head to produce direct gaze at the man; twisted posture to permit this gaze along with the embrasure that protects; and that solid embrasure itself, emphasised by the positions and shiftings of the hands. All of this placing and shifting very refined, very devoted, and very spontaneous.
  • With her placements and movements during this gesture, Anderson commands the diegetic space as Ann. However interesting or important Shelby has become by virtue of sustaining his “wound”, Ann is the more interesting and important for her sudden effusion of care, gentleness, and protectiveness – something we have not seen from her before, either so explicitly or at all. Ann draws us in because here and now she is in metamorphosis.
  • And as to the facial expressions, the firmness of the mouth, the gaze of the eyes, and the extensions of facial expression carried out through the positionings and placements of the well-marked fingers, Ann is both precise and secure, she acts with a certainty that is fascinating to view. This is due in large part to Anderson’s extreme capability at both striking and, for some duration, sustaining gaze or oral shape. She acts, here and elsewhere – we may now suddenly see – with a profound inner tranquility and sense of purpose, almost a regality of form.

At the same time as all of this, we are enticed to see before us – as in a mirror – a beautifully crafted shot involving actors’ work, directorial decision, and camera placement (including lighting), all of which combine to make what is on display a picture showing the story elements I have described:

  • The absolute tension Preminger calls for between Anderson’s quick movement and shifting on one hand and the unchanging frame on the other, that the frame is held as though in a shocked freeze while the characters gesture within it. There are no cut-ins for closer views, no lateral repositionings of the camera. But given the quick movement inside the frame this camera stability becomes especially noticeable, distinctively part of a show put on by the production of itself.
  • Anderson’s gazes off-left on that striking diagonal are severely compositional just as well as severely dramatic. We not only wonder who she is looking at but marvel at the compositional form she is striking by twisting her body and shoulders this way and by turning her head to so marked a position of balance. She is clearly not only a character wrapped up in action at the instant but also an actor wrapped up in filling the frame. She knows, as she performs, precisely where the camera’s framing will cut off the picture, thus, just how much room she has for manĹ“uvring onside of her body and Price’s.
  • The lines of extension of Anderson’s body, not only as framed by the camera and lit so revealingly against a background that also had to be brightly lit, make for a skeleton of graphic composition that brings forward the 1.33:1 frame as a built rectangle. She has looked at the chair and at the flowers, at the angle the camera will take, and she has worked bodily gesture in such a way that the viewer will be conscious of her actorial presence in a rectangle just as much as her characterological presence at a party.
  • By keeping the veil of the hat down, as we see in [5] and even more expansively in [6], yet, in [5] being available for the eye-popping keylight, she performs to not only strike a momentarily meaningful expression but also to point to that composition, to point to her body in relation to light, camera angle, and an editorial pulse she can envision in advance.

Nursing Shelby in his chair, then, Judith Anderson and Ann Treadwell oscillate, each coming forward and receding for the briefest spate of time so that we are caught up with the agonising drama in this apartment yet also stunned by the articulateness of an actor’s work, her ability to do so very much in mime in so short a period in so confined a space. If Price and Carpenter oscillate as well, it is perhaps because Price was not then, and is still not now, really, known for submitting to tender embraces, especially from someone he had backed away from. The Carpenter pose and the Carpenter situation make us aware that an actor is performing both. But the actor performing Ann’s tenderness has more calculation, more shifting, more very minute delicacies to strike, more labor, still. This tiny excursion may help readers see how, in Laura, every moment of Judith Anderson’s screen presence is a complex devotion and accomplishment of this kind. She is never without a full armature of concentration and expressive power. Her filmic and television work is substantial, sometimes with key roles, sometimes with character parts, and she is never less than flawless. There was one Academy Award nomination, and not for this picture.

Endnotes:

  1. Szarkowski, John. Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978.

About The Author

Murray Pomerance is an independent scholar living in Toronto. He is the author, most recently, of The Film Cheat: Screen Artifice and Viewing Pleasure (forthcoming, Bloomsbury), Grammatical Dreams (Green Integer 2020), Virtuoso: Film Performance and the Actor’s Magic (Bloomsbury 2019), A Dream of Hitchcock (SUNY 2019), Cinema, If You Please: The Memory of Taste, the Taste of Memory (Edinburgh 2018), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (BFI 2016). He is editor of the “Horizons of Cinema” series at SUNY Press and the “Techniques of the Moving Image” series at Rutgers.

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