In Double Indemnity, after a scene laden with seduction and innuendo, there is a fade-out followed by a shot of Fred Macmurray, sitting on a couch with his head back, smiling as he puffs on a cigarette. Barbara Stanwyck sits next to him, straightening her stocking. There is no question what transpired between the fade-out and fade-in. The cigarette, the smile and the stocking tell the whole story. The post-coital cigarette is a classic signifier from an age when movies could not be as explicit as they can now be. In lieu the sexual act, you show happy smokers and the rest is left to the audiences imagination.
There are other signifiers that are more general in what they are trying to indicate. I am thinking of two cinematic conventions that indicate realism: black and white photography and, for lack of a better term, the nervous camera.
In the early days of cinema, color photography was a luxury that was reserved for prestige productions. Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz would be unimaginable in black and white, even though other prestige projects from the same era which might have looked gorgeous in color, like Wuthering Heights or Rebecca. By the Fifties pretty much every major studio release was in color. The common wisdom is that Hollywood had to compete with television and one thing the movies could provide was color. Sex and spectacle also gave movies a competitive edge, but that’s not germane to this conversation
Films of the Fifties which were released in black and white fell into two categories: productions from poorer studios or films intentionally released that way. Why are films like Marty, On The Waterfront, The Catered Affair and A Streetcar Named Desire shot in black and white? Why are Sixties films like The Manchurian Candidate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf not shot in color? My guess is that by this time in film history, black and white cinematography carried a cachet of ‘truth’ and ‘seriousness’ with it. Why this should be is worth thinking about. Possibly it was a holdover from the aesthetic of the newsreel, that ultimate purveyor of ‘truth’ in cinema. Possibly it was an attempt, unconscious perhaps, to imitate the great art house directors of the time (think Bergman, Fellini, etc.). Whatever the cause, a film today which is released in black and white seems to be signaling to the audience ‘I am a serious work’. Films like Nebraska or Ida or any of the later, pretentious Woody Allen features would fit this bill.
A film like The Artist is different, of course. The black and white cinematography was used to lend period authenticity.
A more puzzling signifier is the ‘nervous’ camera. I first noticed it about 15 or 20 years ago in TV commercials. It looked like commercial producers had run out of tricks to grab the audience. The 30-second commercial with 120 edits had wound up numbing the audience and not exciting it. Then came a series of car commercials, I believe they were for Lexus, where there was nothing but a car on a quiet set with a very calm narrator extolling its virtues. That was a one-off item and did not have ‘legs’. What came next in the attempt to grab the audience was the ‘nervous’ camera. You would be watching someone talking earnestly about a laxative or a financial institution, and instead of being filmed straight on with a fixed camera, you would get a shot of the persons’ mouth and left cheek from which the camera would slowly rise. Then there would be a cut to his ear, then to his shirt pocket etc. All this was supposed to increase interest by frustrating the viewers gaze. It was a horrible, horrible aesthetic that I hoped had died out ten years ago.
No luck. A much subtler and more annoying version is all over television now. You can watch the supremely conventional Downton Abbey and while the supremely block-headed Lord Grantham is talking, you will notice (perhaps just subconsciously) that he camera keeps dropping and rising a millimeter or two. Why? I have no idea. But I think, like black and white, the idea that the roaming field of vision is somehow more true to life is behind all this. This, of course is nonsense, because one of the glories of binocular vision is what we are looking at remains stable no matter what our head does.
I would love to hear if anyone else has noticed these two conventions, especially the ‘nervous’ camera and has any ideas why they have been accepted for the ‘truth’ they purport to show.