The next investigation focuses on miss-en-scène, the process of creating the stage upon which the story will be told. As the starting point we are given a long take from Goodfellas (1), a three minute sequence of Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, and his girlfriend, played by Lorraine Bracco, entering a nightclub via the kitchen entrance.
Before considering the clip we are confronted by the question; why start with cinema?
The first reason is that narrative and still photography are not natural partners. Henri Cartier-Bresson suggested that it was very rare for a photograph to possess “such vigour and richness, and whose content so radiates out from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself” (2) He is talking of reportage or documentary but the point is broader than that; David Campany (5) simply states that still photography struggles with narrative as storytelling. A narrative in photography is more easily accomplished by a series, or for the single frame to fit into such a widely understood context that it draws in much of its narrative from outside the frame. In practice the factual, real-life, single frame narrative is so difficult to accomplish that, with a story to tell and given the choice of mediums, we might select the written or spoken word, music, a combination of text and photography, the photo essay or film as more effective methods of communication. Newspapers, magazines and television news all use mixed media for a reason.
If we accept this and still insist on using the single photograph as a narrative form something has to give and for artists like Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson factuality was the disposable criterion; stop searching the world for the perfect image that tells the whole story, dealing along the way with finding the decisive moment and managing the unpredictable variables of location, subject and environment; create the world you need and place your narrative within it. Which brings us back to cinema because while photography was busy evolving as a way to capture the truth or to mimic painting’s loftier artistic themes (i) cinema, soon after its inception, mostly detached itself from documentary and any desire to mimic other art forms and developed what David Campany describes as “its popular narrative form”. (5) Cinema has perfected that narrative form to such an extent that photographers can not only use its technical approach but can appropriate its iconography and motifs.
There is another reason; Ingmar Bergman said of cinema that “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” (6) Cinema is very complete, it can draw on photography, acting, music, lighting, set construction, props and dialogue to tell the story; each element can be designed and delivered with engineered precision simultaneous with drawing on its own historical and ever evolving reservoir of symbolism. A long take of three minutes, such as the Goodfellas sequence, can be crammed full of signifiers that the director knows will be consciously or subconsciously read by the audience. Because Cinema is wholly constructed questions regarding the content of a documentary photograph do not arise, with cinema we know that every object is placed with intent, every word is scripted (iv), the sound track is carefully chosen or composed and because it all flashes by in a moving stream the director can include six signifiers when just one would do to be certain we don’t miss the point.
The cinema offers photography the methodology for building the set, for creating the scene; the photographer becomes screen writer and director, they select actors, location, lighting, props, vantage point and story line. And, by appropriating the methodology and thereby the aesthetic of cinema the photographer gains access to cinema’s motifs and established symbolism.
On returning to the Goodfellas’ long take we are exposed to the intentional stream of signs that have been placed by the director to connote status, power, influence and a hint of threat.
- The over generous tips we see being pressed into waiting hands are a statement of influence, patronage, largesse, class differential, superiority of the giver versus the receiver. If we miss the point that he has money and influence through these visual messages Lorraine Bracco’s character tells him (us) that he has given everyone a $20 tip.
- We know he is street-wise, a man who knows his way around from the moment he leaves his car on the street, not in a secure parking area and avoids the queues at the front door and heads for the back entrance.
- The relationship between the male and female characters is established not just their script and gestures which suggest quickly that this might be a first date but also by the sound track. The Crystals song “And Then He Kissed Me” is a narrative of a first date through to a marriage proposal in just thirty eight short lines.
- Scorsese then establishes that he is regular visitor to the club, we have guessed it is a club from the glimpse of the front door and the act of descending; we expect night clubs to be below street level, within the first minute Henry Hill tells us “every time I come here” and separately greets a staff member by name.
- The actors then enter a large busy kitchen, we now know that it is a substantial establishment, not a dive; The kitchen scene potentially references a multitude of film sequences where Presidents or film stars enter and exit hotels via the kitchen thus underlining Henry Hill’s status.
- The Head Chef, the only man in the kitchen with a tall chef’s hat, smiles at Henry Hill, once more establishing his privileged status, he is welcomed by the “owner” of this space. We know, from film and television that chefs are aggressively protective of their environment (ii) so this is an important gesture.
- Henry Hill keeps looking around him for more people to greet, he wants to show off his acceptance in this area, his special status, to emphasise this point to his date. By doing this we know this is all being done to impress her. (iii)
- After a minute and a half we eventually reach the interior of the club and passing a long queue of people waiting to be seated meet the maître d’. He waves Henry Hill over, greets him by name, calls a waiter to add a new table right at the front (the waiter is already on the way – he saw this coming) and to underline that this is an exception the maître d’ verbally brushes off a customer who is already waiting “I know you’re waiting for a table”.
- Three waiters set up the table and Hill hands out more tips before being greeted by the people at the next table. More signs of importance and acceptance.
- Champagne is sent by Mr Tony, a sinister looking man in dark glasses. The Director is able once again to draw on established motifs. We assume Mr Tony is an Italian American gangster. Hill underlines the Italian link by toasting Mr Tony “salute”.
- The girl asks what he does, if we weren’t sure that it was a first date we are now certain, he answers that he is in construction, a union delegate. The gangster film genre is drawn on again, we know he is “mob”.
Notes on Text
(i) Gerry Badger (3) describes the early schisms within photography between its role to record the world and the desire of many of its practitioners to create art that could rival painting. Sir William Newton, a painter of some renown, told the first meeting of the Photographic Society that photographs could be useful so long as they were taken “in accordance with the acknowledged principles of Fine Art”, he recommended taking the picture slightly out of focus and to apply liberal retouching as some of the ways to achieve this goal. (4)
(ii) As someone who works everyday with professional chefs I know that this is a dramatic construct. Chefs generally enjoy visitors to their space as long as they don’t get in the way or touch the food.
(iii) No doubt powerful film directors know that businessmen select restaurants where they are well known and recognised as good customers when they entertain clients. The client is impressed by the way their host is treated, it confirms that they are dealing with someone of importance and subconsciously they are potentially being positioned as inferior, put on the back foot in the next round of business dealings, even when being treated to a special evening out.
(iv) Including the ad-libs according to Groucho Marx.
(2) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture.
(3) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.
(5) Campany, David ( 2008) Photography and Cinema. London: Reaktion Books
(4) Britannica. Photography as Art (accessed at Britannica 21.8.15) – http://www.britannica.com/technology/photography#ref416392
(6) Bergman, Ingmar – (accessed at St Petersburg College 21.8.15) – http://www.spcollege.edu/Film/
(7) Crystals. And then He Kissed Me (accessed at Lyrics Freak 21.8.15) – http://www.lyricsfreak.com/c/crystals/and+then+he+kissed+me_20275913.html
(1) Scorsese, Martin (1990) Goodfellas – (long take excerpt accessed at Youtube 19.8.15) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJEEVtqXdK8