A Parallax Case: Gender Performance in Wings of the Morning
Murray Pomerance / Ryerson University

The male student amuses himself with free flights of thought, and thence come his best inspirations; but woman’s reveries take a very different direction: she will think about her personal appearance, about men, about love; she will give only what is strictly necessary to her studies, her career, when in these domains nothing is so necessary as the superfluous. It is not a matter of mental weakness, of an inability to concentrate, but rather a division between interests difficult to reconcile.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 369

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In Wings of the Morning (1937), a young girl, Maria Duchess of Leyva (Annabella), pretends for a sojourn to be a Spanish duke who, mixing with a gypsy colony in Ireland, meets a handsome young Canadian horse trainer, Kerry Gilfallen (Henry Fonda). A number of early scenes engage in a particularly interesting form of gender play, wherein, for example, this “Duke” encounters Kerry in his bath or, later, is forced by circumstances to spend the night in a small barn sleeping with him in the hay. Dressed carefully as a boy, yet at the same time clearly enough for the viewer a girl in disguise, this character puts on a gruff voice and does the best she can with gestures and attitudes befitting a certain bratty masculinity. For his part, Kerry is entirely innocent of the disguise through these scenes, until one particular moment when, having retrieved the Duke’s horse Wings of the Morning and returning with the “boy” and the beast to his camp, he decides they should pause for a pre-breakfast swim in a tranquil lake. The boy runs off “modestly” but Kerry corners him in a huge bush and proceeds (hors scène) to tear off the clothing. As we see shoes and fabric flying out of the leaves we suddenly hear Kerry exclaim, “Oh! I didn’t know!” Not long later, in his estate, the heroine appears in full female regalia at the top of a flight of stairs (regalia decorated with burgundy red, indeed, a color to which the camera was especially sensitive and one which led a viewer to exclaim special delight [see Mayer qtd. in Street 206], inspiring him to gaze in wonder and exclaim, “Holy mackerel! My friend the Duke!” It is at this point, of course, that the two can begin a romance, and this they do, doddling beside a little pool and dipping their feet together, Kerry in a pale yellow turtleneck and Maria in a pale yellow straw hat. (( Mayer, J. P. British Cinemas and their Audiences. London: Dennis Dobson, 1948. ))   (( Street, Sarah. “‘Colour consciousness’: Natalie Kalmus and Technicolor in Britain,” Screen 50: 2 (Summer 2009), 191-215. )) Sharply limning all of these proceedings is the splendid pioneering three-strip Technicolor cinematography by Ray Rennahan and Jack Cardiff: this film was the first shot in Technicolor in England (see Slide 37). (( Slide, Anthony.”Wings of the Morning: an Important Film,” American Cinematographer 67: 2 (February 1986), 36-40. ))

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The gender game which constitutes the preamble to this love affair is a kind of foreplay, organized according to a central (and, in the cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, frequently reprised) parallax. The young “boy” who is Maria in disguise appears simultaneously one way to Kerry and another way to the audience–who of course view her from a different point, yet she turns her way through the scenes so that the precise angle of sight becomes insignificant.

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This receptual parallax is a standard convention in gender disguise plots (such as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night): the audience must be able to see the disguise as such, just at the same time that a principal character is blinded to it; and in this way the disguise proper, not merely its eventual result, brings viewing pleasure. As in the barn Kerry spoons close to “Mario” in his sleep, we are to imagine him nestling next to a girl he does not yet know he loves while he remains innocent of nestling close to a boy he would (presumably) not wish to nestle close to (an obverse possibility: thinking “Mario” a girl he might love he “transgressively” engages in a homoerotic encounter).

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Kerry’s considerable strengths as a horseman and as a friend to the other adult males in the plot must be openly and seriously compromised by his utter incapacity at discerning “Mario’s” bizarre masculinity. Indeed, while he is distinctly gruff with this “boy” who is afraid of a mouse in the hay, and whose posterior does not seem quite well enough developed for riding the fierce Wings, while he thinks the lad strangely behaved and eccentric, still he gives absolutely no exact indication of finding “Mario” questionable in his masculinity. By the 1950s, the kind of “soft” masculinity purveyed by Maria in her camouflage—a masculinity that is to be read as entirely fabricated, and fabricated, indeed, by someone ill equipped to fabricate—can be read in terms of a discrete gender identity, the effeminate male (or the homosexual): for example, Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. But here, at least for Kerry, this form of identification is unthinkable, or unthought: the cultural apparatus for subtending the “feminine masculinity,” as it were, has not yet been erected (see as well George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett [1935], with Katharine Hepburn’s entirely boyish “Sylvester”).

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“Mario” is taken as fully, completely, independently, and unquestionably male; yet also as badly behaved.

What I wish to point out is not only that, taken seriously, Kerry’s erroneous reading would be insubstantial and inadequate, in itself, for promoting the plot (as it would be: this isn’t a story about a horse trainer meeting a boy); and therefore that it is mandatory we should be given some alternative view, a continuing portrait of “Mario” as a flawed construction being mounted by a (legitimately) conniving young woman; but that the performance must be only a little flawed, or at least, not so flawed as to call into question Kerry’s perception (and thus, his dignity). If we must continually be prodded to see a femininity that he is continually missing, that femininity mustn’t be so categorically obvious that he becomes weak for missing it (note in this light Judith Butler’s consideration of gayness as “necessary drag” in “Imitation” 227ff). (( Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in John Storey, ed., Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, 4th edn., Harlow: Pearson Education, 2009, 224-38. )) Nor can the fact that he is missing it be left for attribution to any fault of his own, or to the overriding cinematic convention that binds the elements of this story (and consciousness of which, on our part, would remove us subtly from engagement with the moment). I think it is possible that the maintenance of tension between Maria’s intentions at disguise and Kerry’s (for us, somewhat difficult) naivete is achieved not so much by virtue of what Annabella and Fonda manage to accomplish before the camera (although they are both very precise in directing their gazes, exhibiting poise, and using movement to playfully cajole one another as two young males might) as by virtue of a state of desire that can be taken as applying to the viewer.

Offered two viewing positions at once: that of Kerry, with whom we may identify and whose placement in the scenes we can easily imagine adopting; and our own, outside the film and observing all of this intrigue; we may make a judgment and a choice as to which position offers the deeper, the more exotic, the more tantalizing pleasure. As viewers, we see a woman merely pretending to be a boy who wants to get his horse back, in short, both a performance and its own backstage. This cheapens the masquerade, to the extent that every gesture and nuance is “merely” the result of a conscious strategy. The erotic warmth of human encounter, offered as a possibility in the scenes of these two together, is cooled and distanced as tactic and as achievement. At the same time, the potentially noble Kerry is reduced by every twitch and smirk of Maria’s performance, his keen senses dulled, his desire misled, his masculine sense of self compromised by an apparent inability to detect a beautiful woman in his presence (in spirit, if not in form) and a failure to discern “Mario’s” eccentricities. But if Kerry is an innocent from the viewer’s point of view, he becomes the powerful, pedagogical, playful older male if we see the world as he sees it. Since there will be plenty of time in the story for the encounter in the bush that will reveal Maria for what she is, he may be permitted to enjoy a particular pleasure available to males who encounter younger versions of themselves. He and “Mario” both like horses, they both like to banter, they are both proud. Indeed, the homosocial—and even physical—contact, framed as competition or as friendship, is permissible and exciting, especially with a beautiful stallion protecting the bond.

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Recognizing that Kerry does not see what we see, we have the choice of sincerely holding to our own perspective or thrillingly adopting his, in short, crossing over to the point of view of a young man who cannot discern a young lady when he is confronted by her. And given the pleasures—“transgressive” or not, as the case may be—of affiliating with Kerry’s point of view on “Mario,” the viewer can be relied upon to require only the slightest reminders of Maria’s presence and predicament, none of which actually work to disconnect the viewing intelligence from its bond with the hero. The enticement of the pleasure of watching a male-male bond becomes a fulcrum for the story, since it allows us to value and fix Kerry as our center of emotional connection. Also, and more importantly, this possibility of pleasure energizes a central narrative mechanism by which the viewer comes into engagement with purely fictive points of view. When Maria is revealed and Kerry falls in love with her, we may share that love. Bonded through perspective with him, we are readied to share his excitement at the moment of discovering with surprise what in another life we already knew.

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With thanks to Wheeler Winston Dixon and Graeme Metcalf

Image Credits:
Stills Captured by Author

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“Who Lives?”: Notes on a Cinematic Moment
Murray Pomerance / Ryerson University


I would make the claim that the moment, not the shot or scene, is the unreducible element of cinema, both in terms of the way audiences interpret and experience what is onscreen and in terms of what filmmakers ultimately use their shots and scenes to accomplish dramatically or informationally. In The Horse Who Drank the Sky (36-61), I elaborate this thought theoretically by means of a number of “momentary” studies, some of which involve Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955). If the moment is as hard to define and describe as a quark, nevertheless in the true, unfolding experience of watching cinema, in our actual presence with the image, our sense of being struck depends on our relation to, and on the reverberations produced through our presence in, telltale moments. To explore one particularly fascinating such “event,” and possibly to learn in the process something about what the filmmaker’s mode of operation made possible in this medium, we might concentrate on something that happens early in Rebel, a film that has occasioned substantial comment already (( see, for example, Andrew 90-96; Eisenschitz 229-55; and Slocum )).

The sweet-tempered and tempestuously anxious Jim Stark (James Dean) has discovered that living as his neighbor, in a genteel home on the other side of a curving backyard alley, is the neurotic and compulsive, but smashingly attractive girl he met in the police department’s juvenile division when the picture opened (Natalie Wood). Heading off in the morning for his first day in a new school, he has caught sight of her through the dining-room window, her lithe figure clad in an avocado-green suit utterly distracting him from his mother and grandmother spatting nervously about how he should be nourished.

Judy Sighting

He leaves without breakfasting, and catches Judy just at the moment she has paused beside a white budleia to furtively light up a smoke. Ray’s CinemaScope screen spreads this bush across almost half the screen, briefly turning Judy into a butterfly attracted by its scent.

Butterfly Judy

The sun shines with promise. Nobody is around—one of those delicious morning instants in which a kid catches herself in the quick of being alive, snatches a breath away from parental observation and constraint, gets prepared for the show.

“Hi, wait a minute,” Jim calls, bouncing up over the top of his white picket fence (constructed for the shot) rather like a Jack-in-the-box.


She doesn’t want to wait, thinking, perhaps, only about the gang, who are about to materialize as escorts (and mock Jim, when he asks directions to “University and 10th”); her slight blush and still irrepressible smile indicate that she finds him attractive. But he will be embarrassing baggage once the gang is here.

Jim’s rhythm of thought and movement is flawless. He foregoes bringing out his car and trots after her, down the little slope that runs beside her house. Judy is used to being chased, knows how to turn her back on a boy without stepping on the gas. When he comes up beside her and offers that he’s seen her before, it is a defensive—some would say “cool”—tone of sarcasm she adopts: “Well! Stop the world!” She doesn’t have to be unfriendly, he suggests, and at this, in a beautifully casual gesture, she drops the cigarette (a prop for a quite different performance) out of her right hand and fluidly reaches up to run her fingers through her hair: in a single move, she thus both gathers and rejects formality of presentation. “Life is crushing in on me,” she says, blithely, again offering double meaning.

Judy's Casual Gesture

Her mock sententiousness indicates that she is quoting an unreliable source, and we may take this to be the adult generation that spends so much time these days decoding young people and trying to manipulate them through sympathetic understanding (a generation busy reading Frederick Wertheim on juvenile delinquency, and Ray’s target audience). Judy’s own parents are perfect monsters of guardianship: in their house, life is crushing in on her. Jim picks up her double clue doubly, and without losing a beat. “Life . . . can be . . . beautiful!” he intones, again mock quoting a well-meaning but totally out-of-touch adult perspective. She turns her head as she walks, giving him a peculiarly open regard. He is an object of appraisal, a spirit to meet, a focus for doubt and desire. Judy swivels her head to confront him offscreen-right. An orange silk scarf is knotted about her neck, to match her auburn hair. Behind her are roses. The picture is composed so that the edge of her profile as she looks right comes just to the middle (pictured at beginning of article). The right side of the screen is Jim’s absence.

Jim looks over her shoulder: “You live here, don’t you!”
She turns and walks left, her face souring. “Who lives?”

And this is the moment to which I wish to draw attention: “Who lives?” Ray composes a startling shot, that viewers are all too prone to absorbing without reflection or particular attention, a shot, indeed, that gives what we might think of as a “pungent” effect. “Pungent” from “pungere,” to pierce, prick, or sting. The word “punctum” is part of this verb, and gives us both “punctual” and “punctuate.” In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes expanded the notion of the “punctum” in a photograph, and in Johnny Depp Starts Here, I borrowed from Barthes and addressed the idea of the cinematic punctum, the stinging point, if you will, at the heart of the cinematic moment. Even though more literary analysis than mine might suggest that Judy’s—somewhat celebrated—line of dialogue could be seen to take its meaning from the syntactical flow of this tiny conversation as it has been developing over the past few shots, its emplotting; or from the way it has been generally framed by the earlier encounter of these characters in this story or by the more general sociological observations that the filmmaker is offering as to his characters’ styles of life and the contingencies that appertain therein; still I think the most punctual reading depends on the organization of the shot as part of the construction of this moment in which Jim and Judy are both meeting and not meeting one another, discovering and still wanting to discover. As she says “Who lives?,” Judy is composed in the center of the expansive screen. Behind her, at the side of her parents’ house, and slowly shifting rightward as she moves left, are emplotments of a different kind, stunning roses in deep scarlet, sweet pink, off-white. The roses are dug into a well-defined bed at the edge of the road, bordered by a swath of drying grass and then, at the house wall, by taller, amber flowers. Two observations, merely to show how meticulous the filmmaker’s method is and to suggest lines of possibility for further inquiry:

First, Judy’s line, an epitome of ennui, alienation, even depression, but certainly a scathing social comment about the hollowness of teenage life so widely celebrated as wild and vivacious, is set against a flood of color, a simple and direct statement that there is life, and life here. Judy is herself a kind of flower, more alive than she knows herself to be (Ray’s affecting statement about youth, perhaps). And the flowers insist themselves on the viewer’s consciousness as pure instantiations of color and vivacity: insist themselves even as the conventional mode of reading figure/ground compositions with an eye that always defers to what it hears tends to obliterate them. Ray, of course, was contending against this mode. Further, the young people’s lives in this film are as fragile as flowers, easily picked off. We will discover this in many ways later in the film, just as we have been given hints already that a sensibility like Judy’s can so easily be snipped, left to moulder or dry up.

My other observation is more horticultural and sociological. The rose garden that belongs to Judy’s parents is, for all its brightness, also—as we see plainly in the composition—a more meager and less enthusiastic implantation than it might be. It’s for show only; to demonstrate to the neighbors (this sequence was filmed in the Baldwin Hills areas of Los Angeles–in order to gain authenticity, we are informed by Douglas L. Rathgeb in his dvd commentary) a requisite “fondness” for nature and financial capacity to acquire and display it. To affirm a proclivity toward bourgeois décor. But nobody in this house loves roses, or the girl who is now being compared with them through the agency of this metaphorical shot.

In this moment, we may say in summary, there is no separation between the action and the vision, between the performance and the composition. All of what is onscreen—gesture, expression, tonality, color, field, depth, extension, rhythm—contributes to our involvement, at once and in complex harmony.

Image Credits:

1. Judy’s Moment – Screen capture by author
2. Judy Sighting – Screen capture by author
3. Butterfly Judy – Screen capture by author
4. Jack-in-the-box – Screen capture by author
5. Judy’s casual gesture – Screen capture by author

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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,
and What We Know

Murray Pomerance / Ryerson University

Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives

The presence of the past in a present that supersedes it but still lays claim to it: it is in this reconciliation that Jean Starobinski sees the essence of modernity.

-Marc Augé

Uncle Boonmee, slowly perishing of kidney failure, is in the Thai countryside being nursed by his sister, her son, and a Laotian day-worker. Slowly as his days go by, as he watches workers harvesting tamarinds and meditates on his life, he is visited by ghosts. His dead wife, who is as beautiful as the day she left this life; his son, who went off to the jungle and mated with a flying lemur, becoming in the process a lemur himself. He remembers an aging princess who is enchanted in a forest pool by a giant carp. Is this story important, should we be trying to piece it together? Does it make sense of some kind? One suspects that it might, but that in the end the sense is fruitless and hopeless, disconnected if not from the rationale of our world then from the essence of the world itself. We frequently watch Boonmee and his company at night, in darkness, at twilight, in the forest greenness, when the light is weak, when light is gone, in a cave, in the forest greenness, at his bedside, in the forest greenness speckled with the ruby red eyes of lemurs watching. The film begins with a water buffalo who tears away his rope and wanders through the bamboo forest, groaning, belching, mawing, groaning, pacing, waiting, listening, watching, listening, pacing, listening, groaning. This sequence with the water buffalo, that is colored blue, is shot at length, perhaps five minutes, and the buffalo ceases to be a perfunctory part of the surround and is transmogrified into a soul. “Ghosts,” Boonmee’s wife Huan tells him, “are not attached to places, but to people.”

I could describe Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s sense of what a shot should look like. Educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, he knows form, and he knows something American culture could not have taught him, even in a highly rated academic program, namely peace of mind. He is not a filmmaker who feels the need to make things happen, or to move his camera, or to stop from resting upon a subject. Boonmee at his table eating cooked vegetables, Boonmee watching a dog among the tamarind trees, Boonmee lying in a cave as the last moments of his life flow out of him, all these are matter of fact. And matter of fact, too, is the presence of life all around him, the forest full of lemurs, the empty space at the table where Huan will appear, the water buffalo, the carp, the princess. What happens to the water buffalo? It groans and walks, it paces, it waits, it listens. A herder comes and reattaches a rope and leads it away, and it paces after him, obediently, fatally. This is not drama, this is film. What happens to the ghost, Huan? She sits in the cave with Boonmee, watching his ending as the sun fades, and reaches over him to detach his catheter. Urine trickles out of him like a dark little river upon the dry ancient stones, and we watch, and suddenly we notice that she is gone. Simple.

Still from Uncle Boonmee

Boonmee himself is a reincarnation. He was other, once. Many times. To recall a past life is not only, perhaps not even, to remember, but to invoke again, to summon, to bring forth, to make appear, just as a filmmaker does. The past lives all around suggest in a fertile, troubling way the condition of a world which is all spirit, all things that were alive once and that have returned. All animals are spirits that became the people we are. Or another way to see this: there is nothing in the world but spirit, here, there, everywhere. All of what Boonmee sees is himself, of course: the Boonmee that was. He was his wife, he was his son, he was his princess, he was his water buffalo, he was the lemur in the forest. Can it be that we are capable of seeing—with our vast technology and hyperstimulated imaginations—only what was once ourselves, only what we have survived?

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The sister’s nephew has also been participating, and finally we discover that he has entered a monastery. He is clothed in saffron. One night, unable to sleep in the company of the sacred, he sneaks away and shows up at his aunt’s tiny apartment. He wants to stay there. She protests. But he insists, and asks to take a shower. We watch him enter the bare bathroom. Harsh blue-white light bathes unpainted walls. He is undressing. The vivid saffron robes are coming away from the tawny flesh. It is amazing how many parts there are to the monk’s robe, how long it takes him to remove it all. Sheaths of saffron cotton, folded upon the skin in a particular way. He turns on the water and steps into the even harsher light of the stall. We continue to watch as he washes himself. Are we watching ourselves?

At this moment in the film, a little stunned by the young man’s nakedness being held so long on the screen, I turned in the vast theater where I was watching this splendid film, turned into the holy darkness, and yes, there were the hundred eyes, their whites gleaming and twitching with reflected screen light. They were mesmerized by the young monk in the shower, watching his every gesture, watching wash his arms, his torso, his groin.

In the green forest, at night, in the green shadows, the dozen glowing ruby eyes were ours, too.

The monk emerges, dries himself off, slowly dons a pair of shorts, then blue jeans, a t-shirt, some faded sneakers. “Let’s eat.”

What we watch onscreen is all ghosts, too, attached not to the movie theater but to us. We are also able to recall our past lives, by opening our eyes in the darkness.

Image Credits:

1. Uncle Boonmee Still
2. Uncle Boonmee Still
3. Uncle Boonmee Still

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