Friday, July 26, 2019

A Coke bottle, a fancy clock, a trolley: the dance of the inanimate

[My latest “movie moments” column for The Hindu – about ‘lifeless’ objects moving or doing unexpected things – and emphasizing human emotions in the process]

In a luxury ship’s dining room – grand, opulent, but for the moment, deserted – a strange waltz begins. An unattended serving trolley is moving about on its wheels, going back and forth, sometimes bumping into furniture. With its large hemispherical metallic “head”, this trolley looks like a prototype of the restless little droid R2-D2 from Star Wars. But there are no cute beeping sounds, just an eerie silence.

Because this is happening on the RMS Titanic, and the movie is the 1958 A Night to Remember – generally regarded as the best of the feature films made about the famous tragedy; or at least the one that presents the most authentic depiction of what happened, unfettered by fictionalized narratives.

Through much of its running time, A Night to Remember is a restrained film about British stoicism in crisis – it’s only in the final half-hour that we see people screaming and panicking, throwing themselves into the water, fighting for lifeboat space. But for me, some of the most chilling scenes are the ones involving the lonesome trolley, which makes very brief appearances at various points in the film. Shortly after the iceberg collision, we see it for the first time. It moves only a few inches, but this is still ominous: after all, in an earlier scene, a passenger had placed a pencil upright on his plate and impressed his co-diners with the fact that it stayed still – so serene was the Titanic’s progress through the water.

Later, with the evacuation underway, as a group of steerage passengers encroach on the lavish dining room – and stand transfixed, murmuring “First Class!” – it is the sudden movement of the trolley which shakes them out of their stupor and reminds them that they must hurry. And later still, as the ship starts to tilt and scenes of carnage unfold, our R2-D2 is lurching frenetically all over the room. It looks more human than before.

We think of emotional moments in films as being centred around people, or at least living beings: sentient faces, voices, even animal sounds will do. When a scene focuses on lifeless objects, there is a tendency to think of it as detached, coolly dispassionate. But sometimes, inanimate things can heighten the humanity of a scene.

If A Night to Remember is one example, consider another doomsday film of the late 1950s: On the Beach, set in a future where nuclear fallout is shutting down life on Earth and only a few survivors are left in the Southern Hemisphere (the story unfolds mostly in Australia). Then comes what might be a ray of hope: an indecipherable Morse code is picked up from the Pacific Coast. Naval officers travel to the US to investigate… and find that the signals were created by a vagrant Coca-Cola bottle knocking against the telegraph machine. Mankind’s achievements – our technological advances, our ability to communicate in complex ways – lie neatly exposed; much the same way that the iceberg put an end to the hubris that “God himself could not sink the Titanic”.

But if the scenes mentioned above suggest hopelessness, objects can also be used funnily and reassuringly. I can think of no better example than the final sequence – to be more exact, the last three or four seconds – of the great 1937 screwball comedy The Awful Truth, an early version of what Stanley Cavell called the Hollywood “comedy of remarriage”.

Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) have separated, but it is obvious to anyone watching that they are still in love, and made for each other. Misadventures, pratfalls and games of one-upmanship build to a climax where – on the very night that their divorce is to come through – they are staying in adjoining rooms in a cabin, both clearly awkward and yearning to be together. Two moving objects punctuate this sequence: a cheeky door that refuses to shut properly, giving them an excuse to stay up and chat; and a fancy clock with a tiny male and female figurine coming out of adjacent niches each time the quarter-hour is struck.

I won’t reveal what happens to this clock at the end, except to say that the last shot – which allows the film a way round the censorship restrictions of the era – is witty, perfectly executed, and might cause the first-time viewer to gasp in delight. Once again, an inanimate object has provided an achingly human touch.

[Earlier "One Moment Please" columns are here]

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