During my first visit to the MILFcast we talked about the movie Shame. We had a lot to say, but for a movie concerned mainly with the sexual addiction of Michael Fassbender’s character “Brandon,” we sure ended up discussing Carey Mulligan’s “Sissy” quite a bit. Most of our discussion concerned the relative merits of the extended sequence wherein Mulligan sadly croons “New York, New York.” We talked at length about the function of the scene, its length (it runs a solid 5 minutes), and how it affected us. This scene bothered Kai, because its extensive run-time caused him to disconnect from the movie. Indeed, the scene focuses almost entirely on Sissy, rather than the film’s alleged protagonist. Brian and I, however, felt very differently about the sequence. It was while Brian and I discussed our enjoyment of the scene that I realized something: women sing onstage in a lot of movies that aren’t explicitly musical.
Some of my favorite films include sequences where women perform alone onstage, singing torch songs and ballads in otherwise diegetically music-less movies. In Shame, as well as in films like Annie Hall, the female (and secondary) character is acknowledged as a singer, so the act of performing onstage is explained by her occupation. These sequences still seem surprising, however, since they (literally and figuratively) pull focus from the film’s male protagonist to the secondary female character. These segments are presented with few cuts, with the bulk of the scene focused squarely on the performer, with close-ups of her facial expressions. In Shame, the extended long take and close-up on Sissy is almost invasive–it’s a confrontation of a performance. One gets the sense that the spectators in the film are merely seeing a sensitive girl in a sexy outfit singing a beautiful song, while those of us privy to an impossible viewpoint (who are forced to see her face at an uncomfortable distance) are in fact granted access to the sadness visibly manifesting on Sissy’s face–the quivering and bit lip, the slight appearance of a tear, and wandering eye.
Sequences like this utilize the female performance to provide us with information about both the female performer and her relationship to the audience, including the male protagonist. Perhaps our impossible closeness (via close-up) is meant to emulate Brandon’s experience of the song–he is the only person in the audience who seems to connect with Sissy’s performance in an emotional way. As she performs, the otherwise stoic Brandon begins to tear up. In this scene we learn (both from our experience of the close-up and from the reaction shots of Brandon) that there is some darkness and sadness–some unexplained trauma or shared experience–that has led Brandon and Sissy to their dysfunctions. So from the sad performance of the film, the impossible closeness of our view, and the reaction shots, we learn as much about the protagonist as we do about the secondary female character.
The musical sequences in Annie Hall function in much the same way. The camera (and we spectators, and Woody Allen’s “Alvy”) all focus on Annie’s (Diane Keaton’s) lovely performances of “It Had To Be You” and “Seems Like Old Times.” While Keaton’s performances are more sweet than sad, they still serve to explain her feelings about Alvy. “It Had to Be You” sounds like Annie’s pre-First Date hopes for her and Alvy, as she sings hopelessly ignored by almost all around her. By the end of the film, Annie has a rapt audience–including Alvy–as she sings “Seems Like Old Times”; it’s a goodbye to Alvy that tells him that old times were both bitter and sweet. “Seems Like Old Times” lilts in the background as the movie cuts to their final goodbye on the street. Like Sissy’s “New York, New York,” this song tells us how both characters are feeling.
Films like Annie Hall and Shame illustrate how the act of performance can be utilized to enrich our understanding of characters’ emotional states in comedies and dramas alike. “New York, New York” appears about midway through Shame, providing us with back-story (or at least the hint of one) to enrich our understanding of Brandon, Sissy, and of their relationship. The performances in Annie Hall, by contrast, serve as bookends marking the beginning and ending of Alvy’s and Annie’s love, as well as the beginning and ending of the film itself. The varied placement of these scenes illustrate the many ways a staged performance may be utilized within a film, to heighten the emotional impact, to enhance our understanding of a character, and to provide us with a chance to see the characters in a new way. Watching Sissy crumble on stage is hard enough, but watching Brandon watch her makes the impact that much greater. Ultimately, though these female performers may seem like the focal point, they are really a means of reflecting back on the male protagonist.