Tag Archives: Gesture

Economic Measures #3 | Neda Amiri in One. Two. One (2011)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a new, regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

The twelfth and antepenultimate scene in Mania Akbari’s One. Two. One (2011) takes place in a telecabin carriage ascending Mount Tochal, just outside Tehran. It begins with Ava (Neda Amiri) recounting to a date (Payam Dehkordi) an amusing incident that occurred days previously. Telling it, she stutters, looks away from her date and talks more quickly and assertively, with fewer breaths, as if to regain control of both the anecdote and herself. All of this happens in an instant. Ava punctuates the end of her anecdote by rolling her eyes, acknowledging its silliness, to settle back from its melodrama and to return the watchful gaze of her date.

After she has finished her story, Ava’s date informs her that she has some lipstick on her teeth. She wipes it off. “Is it gone?” she asks. “Yep,” he replies. She purses her lips and smiles, suspending that fleeting moment in which a woman realises she is the object of a man’s gentle scrutiny, and looks away with something resembling a coy laugh. The hand on which she has propped her head moves in a gesture that is at once unconscious and self-conscious, a defence mechanism against the unflinching attention she is receiving.

Ava’s fingers come across her neck to form a kind of shield. Her chin rests on the back of her hand. A finger dares to twitch – or is it a self-caress? Feeling less open to would-be advances, she moves her entire head back to face the man sitting in intimate proximity across from her, to confront him, test him, return his intensity by eyeing him direct. In what is perhaps an instinctive need to regain poise and power, she spots a stray hair on his bald head, and returns a favour by lifting it and blowing it from her own hand.

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All of this unfolds within a fixed frame and in the space of half of minute. It’s gently, harmoniously, relatably erotic. It captures that nervous energy of a first or second date so well. Here are two people whose interest in one another might primarily be physical but whose connection has a palpable electricity that goes beyond lust – that excitement one feels at the onset of a new companionship. Such excitement is twofold. It is not merely about finding someone new, but also about challenging and renewing oneself – and, here, one’s sense of self, for Ava has, we know, recently recovered from an acid attack by her jealous husband.

In these moments, Amiri embodies the extraordinary courage and trust a woman must sustain in a society whose primary criterion of judgement is aesthetic beauty. When she licks and sucks the lipstick from her teeth, she averts the spotlight in embarrassed acknowledgement that she is being looked at, admired, desired, analysed – in a word, “othered”. She doesn’t dislike it, but experience has taught her caution. She must give little away, must not reciprocate too much. This is flirting, that process by which otherwise innocent gestures become charged with possibilities, in which that fine line between ambiguity and clarity seems both to widen and to disappear. Flirting creates a veil of innocence to retreat behind at the same time as it creates an expanse of new terrain to chart.

Neda Amiri might problematise One. Two. One’s apparent argument against the value placed by society upon physical beauty by being arguably the most beautiful actress alive. This is not her fault. As demonstrated in this and other scenes, however, her skill as a performer transcends the formal limitations of Akbari’s film and occasionally elevates its more mannered and irritating aspects to the stuff of brilliance. Self-conscious, exposed, explorative, fearless, Amiri demands and commands respect simply by embracing that terrifying concept of making a mistake or losing control. It’s no wonder her date is enraptured.

One. Two. One has just been released on DVD in the UK by Second Run. A season of Mania Akbari’s films runs at the BFI Southbank until 28 July. Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

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Economic Measures #2 | A Native American in The New World (2005)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a new, regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

If you’re looking for an ostensibly simple dialogue exchange that also happens to be laced with a quietly devastating symbolism, you might struggle to find one more moving than the one which takes place between Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) towards the end of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). The former lovers are briefly reunited when the Native American accompanies her husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), on a trip to England. Small talk and heavy silences culminate thusly:

Pocahontas: “Did you find your Indies, John? You shall…”

Smith: “I may have sailed past them.”

Soon after, the film enters its concluding passage, a montage cut to the prelude from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Rolfe addresses his young son in voice-over, telling him and us that Pocahontas, the boy’s mother, took ill and died shortly before the return voyage to their Jamestown settlement across the Atlantic. Though Rolfe’s narration confirms her death, Pocahontas lives on in the subsequent sequence, in which she is seen playing with her son and dancing joyously in the grounds of their Gravesend estate.

Just as the music is beginning to swell, we are presented with an apparently incongruous image of a Native American. Played by Matthew Yeung and referred to in the end credits as a shaman, this otherwise anonymous character sits on a chair, as if posing on the throne of a European monarch, and directly eyes the camera. In the next shot, he exits the manor by bolting through a doorway and into the courtyard beyond. Confronting us one moment, he retreats in the next. Was he intruding? Is he chased? At any rate, one gesture appears to be contradicted by the other. Running through the door in a seemingly wounded fashion, Yeung’s physical vitality nevertheless plays out in contrast to that other, more celebrated doorway-silhouette, that of John Wayne at the end of The Searchers (1956).

It’s an odd moment. On first inspection it serves no narrative function. Yeung has before now appeared only briefly, on the periphery of the frame as Pocahontas alights a ship and steps for the first time onto English soil. Breaking the fourth wall, his gaze destroys in an instant what has until now been accepted as a seamlessly worked hermetic fiction. Later in the same sequence, we see an image of Pocahontas’ (imagined) grave in a present-day setting. Stitched into an otherwise conventional historical drama, both moments appear as violent ruptures. They force us out of the diegesis and contradict all notions of a harmonious narrative. Indeed, Yeung’s Native American resembles a history museum exhibit, static and lifeless – only in the next image to appear alive again, rejecting and rebelling against his own fate. The period setting is demystified.

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In The New World, history records, tells and observes at the same time as it perceives, distorts and contradicts. As such, it bears during its most powerful passages the markings of an essay film, confident in nothing if not its own self-questioning. As with the violent battles that took place earlier in the film, for instance, Malick treats an otherwise finite act such as Pocahontas’ death as multifarious. It unfolds in a staggered and self-contradicting way. Edited as something that is about to happen, as something that is happening, and as something that seems already to have happened, the everyday is given urgency – and the historical is rendered immediate, even contestable. Yeung’s bounding leap through the doorway of Pocahontas’ manor seems in this way to be an active refusal of some sort – even if it is merely a refusal to be enclosed by Malick’s film.

The past and the present, the perceived and the actual, the old and the new, the historical and the mythic, the natural and the imposed – all of these and more are seen not as opposites, but as co-dependent. Because of this, The New World is able to complicate its own rueful riffs on the trajectory taken by western civilisation upon the discovery of and expansion across the Americas. In this version of the John Smith-Pocahontas fable, the romantic ideal is problematised by scientific endeavour and imperial expansion – currents and phenomena that coincided with the formation of capitalism itself. This is the essence of the heartbreak that pervades that would-be reunion between Pocahontas and Smith. When the latter remarks that he may have sailed past the Indies he had been tasked to find, he seems to be acknowledging something else entirely – a missed opportunity for moral and emotional purity.

Such notions are of course romantic in themselves. The deeper devastation, the one that makes this the powerful anti-romance film that it is, is that Pocahontas doesn’t so much reject Smith as accept that history itself would have always denied them a happiness ever after. Put another way, abstractions such as moral and emotional purity are incompatible with historical particulars. Indeed, Smith left Pocahontas in the first place because he was sent on an expedition as part of wider economic imperatives – the same imperatives, to be precise, by which Pocahontas’ peoples were to be annihilated. And somewhere amidst this terrible realisation, an anonymous Native American retreats, rejects, turns his back in disgust. Capitalism annihilates these gestures too.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

Economic Measures #1 | Robert De Niro in Heat (1995)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a new, regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

As he drives to LAX to catch a one-way ticket to finer climes, professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) makes one last call to his fence and friend Nate (Jon Voight). All is as scheduled. The plane is in the air, Neil is on time, there are to be no hiccups. Nate tells Neil that he is home free. “Home free,” Neil repeats to girlfriend Eady (Amy Brenneman), who sits next to him in the car, all smiles and optimism. But something else Nate said continues to nag. An elusive traitor has been tracked down, checked in under a different name at a nearby hotel. Neil told Nate he no longer cares about said traitor, but from the moment he ends the conversation it’s clear that he does.

What follows is one of the many indelible moments in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). McCauley enters a tunnel, whose lightning-white lights engulf the car. Illuminated in a sublime sheen of sustained mercury flash, Eady and McCauley share a momentary, wordless paradise. We see them in profile, against a sea blue that is not, sadly for them, a blue sea. Though Elliot Goldenthal’s becalming string score seems to prolong the moment, the light subsides as quickly as it had begun. Returning to reality, McCauley begins to mull. He enters that zone, of having to weigh up his options and make a split-second decision. The dilemma, we know, is whether or not to go after his betrayer – to continue on course for the airport or to make the detour and settle a score.

De Niro’s face straightens, intensifies. Just as his character’s driving becomes an involuntary mechanism, the actor channels energy and focus through his eyes and facial muscles. Stiffening up causes him to blink more than usual. Eady looks across at him. Feeling her gaze, McCauley adjusts his fingers that grip the steering wheel – to relax, to loosen up, to battle a nervous energy he’d rather not have. And De Niro twists his face. Is he about to cry or about to laugh? It’s difficult to say, but it recalls a similar register seen in The Deer Hunter (1978), when his character Michael Vronsky is forced to play Russian Roulette at gunpoint.

In that instance, an unimaginably distressing situation becomes so silly, so absurd (it’s a game after all) that tears and laughter become the dual face of anger, terror and everything in between. The dual face, because the two emotions co-habit the same instant rather than preclude one another. Indeed, that’s the absurdity of it. But in Heat, McCauley’s profession denies emotion. Throughout, he repeats the code he and fellow thieves must live by, that if you feel the heat at any moment, you have to make the decision to walk away in thirty seconds flat. “That’s the discipline,” he boasts to Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), the cop who’s hot on his tail.

Discipline indeed: just as sentiment begins to take over him, McCauley seems to fight against it. De Niro contorts his mouth, licks, stretches and pouts away whatever complex simmers beneath. His knuckles re-tighten and his eyes lock once again into a zone of decisive action. In these small, combined gestures, we’re witnessing McCauley’s future bliss fall away from him. True to his word, he takes thirty seconds of narrative-time to make his decision, knowing fine well that he’ll live or die by it. And there’s something terribly accepting about his choice. Prohibiting emotion, he resigns himself to a fate more fitting than the quiet getaway he has temporarily allowed himself to humour – a resignation that might be, of course, just as romantic.

It’s less do-or-die than do-and-die. Because as McCauley told Hanna over coffee earlier in the film, “I do what I do best: take scores.” That a future with Eady is less easy to imagine than his next heist reveals the extent to which McCauley’s arc was doomed all along.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

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