Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Signature Shots: Raoul Walsh
One of Raoul Walsh's signature shots is a medium two-shot with the actors cut off around the waist, and favoring a lot of gazing and some occasional bold body language. It's a shot that's continued to assert itself with a shocking amount of personality over and over again in varying contexts throughout my steady diet of Walsh pictures over the last handful of months, and the moment it pops up on screen, there is no doubting the author of the picture being viewed. It's become something of a minor obsession for me lately - the question of what gives this fairly common, simple setup such a unique presence and vitality in the hands of Walsh? I suspect it is connected with the idea of Walsh's cinema being one of the individual, or to be more accurate, runaway individualism. Characters drawing from an endless and unexplainable well of restless, eccentric determination repeatedly populate the Walsh oeuvre, so much so to the point that a great number of conversations that take place in the Walsh world can barely be considered conversations, so littered are they with agendas and selfish motives. Thus, it becomes something of a rarefied mini-event in a Walsh picture when a pair of characters actually engage with each other in an honest and meaningful way through language, instead of simply talking past one another, and the frame of this signature shot seems constructed around this awareness. Additionally, as Tag Gallagher points out in his Senses of Cinema piece on Walsh, "Walsh’s cinema is not presentational like Griffith’s, or self-reflexive like Godard’s. It is interactive." Walsh's actors make a point to cheat their chests out towards the camera during these special scenes, giving the viewer not so much the impression of eavesdropping, but of participating in - or, more accurately, of being asked to participate in - a conversation of which their inclusion seems imminent. The actors consistently seem, through this deliberate blocking strategy, on the verge of turning their gaze towards the camera at any moment to address the viewer. Similar to the sing-a-long at the end of The Strawberry Blonde, or Jackie Cooper firing his slingshot at the camera in The Bowery, these moments are gestures towards the audience, acts of inclusion. An interactive cinema of the individual. In other words, a remarkably generous cinema.
Images from top to bottom: Sailor's Luck (1933); The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945); The Bowery (1933); The Yellow Ticket (1931); Me and My Gal (1932); Under Pressure (1935)