One Moment Please | Movies

When there’s just you and the character on the screen, communing with each other

A still from ‘The Searchers’ (1956) by John Ford.

A still from ‘The Searchers’ (1956) by John Ford.  


Of movie characters who have isolated themselves — from civilisation, from their families, or even from themselves

In the final scene of Martin Scorsese’s epic The Irishman, protagonist Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sits old and alone in a nursing home; it’s Christmas, but he has nothing to celebrate. Frank has asked that his room door be left ajar, and the film’s last shot has the camera outside, watching him through the half-open door.

The shot worked for me on multiple levels. For one, it’s as intimate and heartbreaking as, though more static than, the closing shot of Scorsese’s previous feature, Silence, where we glimpse something of a man’s inner life after he has died — a Jesuit priest who renounced his religion but has a tiny cross in his hand as he is being cremated. Like Rodrigues in that film, Frank gave up something too, and we can’t say for certain how much he regrets it.

The Irishman scene also calls back to mind a mysterious moment earlier in the film where, shortly after Frank begins working for the powerful union leader Jimmy Hoffa, he spends a night in Hoffa’s suite — and sees that his boss has left the door to his own room partly open. This could be a personality tic, or a sign of trust. But for Frank, it also represents an entry point to another world. He goes from living a truck-driver’s itinerant life — spending time on the road, away from family for long stretches — to finding an identity in a new community.

Ominous signs

It’s a set-up in some ways, though, and will eventually lead to (moral and physical) desolation. At what should be the hour of Frank’s big triumph — a banquet in his honour, well-attended, by people he looks up to — he also gets ominous signs that he may soon have to pick sides against a friend. And this leads to his ultimate fate as a lonely old man trying to maintain some connection with a world that has passed him by: entombed, cut off from everyone, most notably from his daughter Peggy who could have served as his conscience.

That closing scene also reminds me of other movie characters who have isolated themselves — from civilisation, from their families, or even from themselves. And other doors in which such people are framed so that only we can see them. The most prominent such scene is from a work that Scorsese (part of a generation of American directors who were movie nerds first) was deeply influenced by as a youngster — a film made, as it happens, by an Irishman: The Searchers (1956) by John Ford.

The protagonist here, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), is one of the loneliest men in cinema, someone who is a wanderer to begin with but who, at the beginning of the story, at least has a family of sorts. When this family is massacred in an Indian attack, Ethan embarks on revenge but starts to lose his moral compass, even coming close to killing his niece who had been abducted as a child.

Steeped in madness

Eventually order is restored, and there is a “happy” ending — but not for Ethan, who is too far steeped in blood and madness. If the film began with a door opening and Ethan riding towards his brother’s house from a distance, it ends with him framed by another door, which then closes on him as he walks away. And between these two scenes, there is another crucial shot of Ethan silhouetted in an entryway, bent in grief, neither inside nor outside.

Scenes like these have a very particular effect on a viewer. When two or more characters are on screen together, occupied with each other, it’s easy to maintain the illusion that we are passively watching a story. But when we are alone with a lonely character, we feel more like participants — confidantes, sympathisers.

Late in The Irishman, Frank speaks to a priest but is unable to say what he needs to say. The priest doesn’t understand, but we viewers — omniscient, hopefully empathetic — have seen everything unfold over the preceding three hours. As we do with other lost people — like Ethan Edwards, or like Citizen Kane murmuring “Rosebud” on his deathbed, or Norman Bates at the end of Psycho (1960), looking into the camera, still possessed by his dead mother — we get to play the priest, listening, in a confessional.

The Delhi-based writer and film critic finds it easier to concentrate on specific scenes as he grows older.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 10:19:37 AM |

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