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Two or Three Things I Know about the Filmic Object   

Hoi Lun Law



Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?

— Henry David Thoreau (1)


… photographs are of the world, in which human beings are not ontologically favored over the rest of nature, in which objects are not props but natural allies (or enemies) of the human character.

—Stanley Cavell (2)


1. Quoted in the preface of Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Enlarged Edition (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1979).

2. Ibid., p. 37.

Coffee and the World



Teeming with alluring consumer goods and groceries, Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) nonetheless abstains from dwelling on these desirable objects until its closing tableau. The film is instead arrested by something unassuming – a cup of coffee – in an elaborate scene one-third in. It is precisely this mundane object that the camera beholds which makes a world. In a café bar, the camera restrains its intimacy with the occupants, but moves increasingly close to the unexceptional object. A stir. The swirling coffee turns into a spiralling galaxy in fast motion. A sugar cube drops. Bubbles surface, forming and departing. Stars born and unborn. These extreme close-ups, like the images of nature in Godard’s late films, inspire an overwhelming experience of awe. With a whispering voice-over that mediates and muses on the essence of existence and communication, this curious scene dares to transcend the limits of filmic presentation – of ‘what can be represented, of what we can grasp’ (3) – which leads further to the questions of how things are filmed and how they can be grasped. Through a cup of coffee, the film achieves the disclosure of the poetic possibilities in and of this object, encountering the sublime when it is unanticipated – a powerful sensation that cinema never falls short. Turbulence in tranquillity; weight in the insignificant; grandeur in the minute; the beauty in and of the perfunctory. Coffee and cosmos. It is the universe in a cup, a world in a shot. (4)


The transformation of the coffee in Two or Three Things forcefully renders Cavell’s answer to the question ‘what becomes of things on film?’. The relation between a thing and its filmed projection, Cavell proposes, is ‘thought of as something’s becoming something (say as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, or as a prisoner becomes a count, or as an emotion becomes conscious, or as after a long night it becomes light)’. (5) These examples hint at a metamorphosis which involves difference (i.e., prisoner or count) and continuity (i.e., night into light) but, most importantly, invokes liveness (caterpillar and butterfly; emotion and consciousness). Mystical as it may sound, the liveness of the object can be understood as Cavell’s account of ‘ontological equality’ in film. If objects are as alive, thus present, on film as their human counterparts, they can naturally be allies or enemies of the characters. And indeed, the author closes ‘What Becomes of Things on Film?’ with a brief discussion of what the coffee becomes in Godard’s film, and how the images of the object should be interpreted together with the shots of the human figures in the scene.







3. Daniel Morgan, Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2013), pp. 74-5. In his insightful discussion of the role of nature and natural beauty in Godard's late films, Morgan argues that these images are not only an aesthetic preoccupation but also relate to historical and political concerns. Natural imagery, he asserts, is ultimately Godard's way of exploring the medium's possibilities.  

4. Although this essay concerns only how film calls attention to objects and gives them significance in the fictional world, there is another possibility, for objects to call attention to themselves due to their ‘natural weight’ (Cavell, p. 25). See Christian Keathley, ‘Otto Preminger and the Surface of Cinema’, World Picture, no.2 (2008).  

5. Cavell, ‘What Becomes of Things on Film?’ in Themes out of School: Effects and Causes (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), p. 174.  





In a place where not only space but solitude is shared, the camera in Two or Three Things connects, if not intimates, the characters through objects. The swirling and bubbling of the coffee is not presented in a single continuous take, but broken down into several shots, scattering them across the scene. The object is first introduced as an insert, sandwiched between a close-up of the female protagonist Juliette (Marina Vlady) gazing off-screen, and a profile shot of a stranger in the café-bar. ‘Maybe an object is what serves as a link between subjects, allowing us to live in the society, to be together’ – the narrator whispers, as if letting us, and only us, in on a secret. ‘We are in the habit of reading consecution as consequence’. (6) This succession of images, which recurs throughout the scene, appears to establish a curious pattern of human/object volley, with a myriad of ambiguous gazes and a web of points-of-view. It is as if the coffee cup somehow demands our attention, gazing back at us. Little by little, the coffee stains and soaks up the filmic space. The small café-bar expands and escalates into a world, a world that envelops and embraces subjects and objects alike: ontological equality. The coffee serves as a link between these strangers, allowing them to cohabit, to be together. Faces and the universe. The scene exemplifies cinema’s adeptness in connection and association.


Connecting in cinema, in its most technical, material sense, involves cutting, decision-making and piecing: editing. At the centre of Godard’s style is an aesthetic of juxtaposition and a politics of the dialectic. Sensitive to these characteristics, Cavell reads the pairing up between a barman drawing a beer and the coffee cup shots as ‘a rebuke to our willingness for a poetic meditation on universal origins when we do not even know where the beer and the coffee we drink on earth come from’. (7) This interpretation is not only responsive to the film’s critique of capitalism and its alienating effect, but also demonstrates the usefulness of an ‘object-responsive’ approach to cinema. In a film where ‘dead objects are still alive; living people are often already dead’, the heightened presence of objects and the object-like presence of subjects are crucial guides to our understanding. While most cinema theories champion the human characters and their psychology, there also exists a possibility to understand a film with or through its objects. A beer and a coffee: they collide and open up a new dimension of understanding the sequence, illuminating a materialist undertone in an otherwise predominantly metaphysical scenario.


6. Jacques Aumont, Montage (Montreal: Caboose, 2013).  






7. Cavell, ‘What Becomes’, p. 182.  


If Cavell deepens the significance of the coffee cup scene by broadening the scope of his discussion to an ideological consideration, Brian Henderson develops the ‘philosophical puzzles’ posed by the film into a matter of film-philosophy. ‘It seems to me that Godard’, Henderson writes, ‘does not resolve his philosophical puzzles with philosophy, but with cinema’. The remedy to the isolation and self-absorption of the scene is offered elsewhere in the film:



Toward the end of the sequence, the voice-over speaks of a rising of consciousness. Godard achieves this cinematically, not philosophically, by cutting to four fluid, somewhat repetitive shots of Juliette walking outside. Aided by Beethoven's String Quartet #16, the passage suggests a rising up out of the coffee cup and the isolation/immobility of the cafe into motion, space, joy. Even if that too is solitary, the sense of emergence into the world from the prison of the self, and into clarity from ambiguity, is achieved strikingly. (8)


8. Brian Henderson, ‘Harvard Film Studies: A Review’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 35, no. 4 (Summer 1982), p. 33.

To translate abstract ideas into audiovisual materials and to convey concepts with concision are the filmic medium’s distinguished possibilities for entertaining a unique engagement with philosophy. To discover a world in a coffee cup and to rediscover the world outside are Two or Three Things’ exceptional achievements, created by its nuanced organisation of image and sound, and its equally subtle handling of its subjects and objects. The film ‘returns to us and extends our first fascination with objects, with their inner and fixed lives; and it studies what is done in and with them’. (9) It treats object as subject.




9. Cavell, The World Viewed, p. 43.  


Two or Three Things I Know About Her studies what is done in and with a coffee. As a centripetal force, the object invites immersion: a diving into the solitary, if not solipsistic, universe that it creates. As a centrifugal force, the object encourages conversation: a reaching out to the solace of the entire fictional universe. From a cup of coffee to the world, it seems that we have gone very far. Nevertheless, as Godard’s film teaches us, they can actually be one and the same.


Gun I

One and the same: one single filmic object can always embody both immersion and conversation. The two tendencies are, in fact, inextricable, and essential t
o the intricacy and richness of an object in film. The worldliness and the otherworldliness of the coffee in Two or Three Things are qualities disclosed by the film’s sophisticated découpage, not values merely added. The values of the object lie in its relationship to the world of the film, not least in its significance for the moods and meanings of the fictional universe, but also in its contribution to creating that world. Closing into the coffee but not closing off the world, the film opens up the extraordinary possibilities embedded in the ordinary: the phenomenal lyricism and phenomenological sensibilities of cinema.


From Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953)


Immersion and conversation, centripetal and centrifugal forces, object functions and the world. These are ideas appropriated from Raúl Ruiz’s novelistic theory about the elemental filmic unit: the shot. ‘Every shot of a film is a world that is separate from other shots’. Nevertheless, independence and autonomy are not the sole attributes of shot-worlds; they further assert a ‘will to connect’. (10) In this sense, Ruiz’s theory is simultaneously about continuity and discontinuity, connection and disconnection, or in Jerry Lewis’ words, ‘hanging here’ and ‘groping there’. A film’s achievement in turn rests upon ‘the co-existence and intermingling of these functions – not the polemical privileging (whether for classicist or modernist ends) of one over the other’. (11) Ruiz’s insights into the two equally crucial spectatorial involvements – immersion and conversation – can be re-appropriated and turned into a productive approach to the filmic object. His theory addresses the tensions between spectacle and succession, the energy flowed and halted in a film, proposing a solution of synthesis without compromising any position.


The spectacle of the object (and the energy it radiates) is a fascination of early writings on film. (12) Jean Epstein, for example, attributes the ‘purest expression of cinema’ to its rendering of photogénie, the ‘photogenic’ aspect of things, a quality of ‘personality’ and ‘mobility’. He champions cinema’s power of animism, its ability to bestow the gift of life on things, such as we find in ‘charms and amulets’. Objects in film possess a mystical, morphing quality. They are unassuming yet unfamiliar, sublime and unfailingly alive. Cinema ‘inscribe[s] a bit of the divine in everything’, and everything in turn is united into a ‘single order’, one with ‘majestic vitality’ – a prefiguration of Cavell’s ontological equality. Indeed, Epstein praises the capacity of objects – ‘a revolver in a drawer, a broken bottle on the ground, an eye isolated by an iris’ – to develop personalities, rising into consciousness. (13) In a famous passage, he elaborates the narrative opportunities offered:



10. Raúl Ruiz, ‘The Six Functions of the Shot’, Screening the Past, Issue 35 (2012).  

11. Adrian Martin, ‘Hanging Here and Groping There: On Raúl Ruiz’s “The Six Functions of the Shot”’, Screening the Past, Issue 35 (2012),

12. For example, the Surrealists, with their particular interest in the everyday object, keenly discuss objects in film; see Paul Hammond (ed.), The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema (San Francisco: City Lights, 2001).  

13. Jean Epstein, ‘The Cinema Seen from Etna’ and ‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie’ in Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul (eds.), Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), pp. 287-292; 292-6. Emphasis added.


There was a time not so long ago when hardly a single American drama was without a scene in which a revolver was slowly pulled out of a half-open drawer. I loved that revolver. It seemed the symbol of a thousand possibilities. All the desires and desperation that it represented, the multitude of combinations to which it was a key. It allowed us to imagine all sorts of endings, all kinds of beginnings; and all of these endowed this revolver with a kind of freedom and moral character. (14)




14. Ibid., p. 290. Emphasis added.

‘A thousand possibilities’: Epstein is referring to the dramatic potential of the filmic object, its freedom to have a thousand probable and plausible dialogues with other objects and subjects alike, its desire and desperation not only to perform but also to provoke the narrative imagination. This particular idea of object-becoming-character (to paraphrase Cavell) is what prevents Epstein’s account of the filmic thing and thingness from being read as a mere cinephilic fixation, if not an outright idiosyncrasy. The photogénie of the filmic object is simultaneously a matter of its specificity and ‘variations in space-time’, its centrifugal and centripetal forces. (15)


Epstein’s invocation of the revolver is emblematic: an object which is among the most cinema-destined things par excellence. It affects and carries, absorbs and triggers drama (or tragedy). Immersion and conversation: the filmic destiny of the revolver. However, Epstein does not solely accredit photogénie to the object’s singularity and circulation in a film, but also to how it is filmed. The revolver returns (again!) in his writing; and, this time, he specifies the revolver-character transformation in the use of a close-up – ‘the soul of the cinema’. (16) Tight framing succeeds in bringing out the object’s ‘impulse towards – or remorse for – crime, failure, suicide’. (17) In this sense, not only can a close-up of an object call attention to itself and its connotations, it can also evoke contents elsewhere in the film, carrying meanings. Being attentive to the flow of the narrative and the filmic devices, Epstein’s idea of photogénie is less aesthetically and critically naïve than it has appeared to some.





15. Ibid., p. 294.  



16. Jean Epstein, ‘Magnification and Other Writings’, October, Vol. 3 (Spring 1977), p. 9.  

17. Epstein, ‘On Certain Characteristics’, p. 296.  

Gun II

Wes (Gene Barry) is having his measurements taken for a tailor-made rifle in Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 1957). Bodies close and intimacy grows: he woos the gunsmith’s daughter, Louvenia (Eve Brent). Their bodily language is playfully flirtatious, their verbal exchange safely suggestive. The two negotiate the making of the firearm as much as they tease their courting prospect. Wes and Louvenia have fun making love and making business. Shying away from the girl’s hint at marriage, the man withdraws. Fleeing to the other side of the shop, he picks up what he is supposedly bargaining for: a rifle. Wes looks into the barrel and the film cuts to his POV. Tender music swells, stirring up romance. Louvenia is hardly a doomed figure under the mercy of the lethal object (a prevailing visual motif, for instance, in Fritz Lang’s cinema) but a framed token in a trinket, an image of cherished love, not terrible death.



‘Never saw any better. This kind of rifle’s worth hanging around for’: Wes’ double entendre triggers the zoom-in of the camera. Louvenia’s image escalates in the circular frame until it becomes blurry. It is as if Wes leans toward her, approaching a kiss. Fade-out. The film abruptly cuts to a close-up of the couple embracing and kissing. The effect is shocking but moving, dazzling but refreshing: the film succeeds in making an otherwise threatening scenario affectionate. Not only can a rifle kill in Forty Guns, it also couples: its deadly effect is defunct, but its predatory power remains. ‘What is cinema? A girl and a gun’, Godard, following D.W. Griffith, proclaims. This scene in Forty Guns explores the profound potentials of the filmic object. The rifle brings together a man and a woman; unites the onlooker and the looked; bridges spectacle and story; collapses smooth movement and rough editing; condenses sexuality and violence, love and death. It set[s] things in motion … provoke[s] and articulate[s] a play of enigmas and investigations, of mystery and knowledge’. (18) It is a complex Epsteinian object that entertains ‘a thousand possibilities’. No wonder the gun is so insistently beheld in cinema.






18. Lesley Stern, Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing (Montreal: Caboose, 2012).





Nevertheless, an object, if unanchored and unmotivated, risks becoming indistinct, even obscure. The inserts of daily objects in Yasujirō Ozu’s cinema are notable cases in point: neon lights in lonely streets, teapots on tables, laundry hanging in the sun. These recurring shots encourage interpretation as much as they resist it, stubbornly remaining an obscure object in criticism. A sizable amount of critical literature revolves around seemingly out-of-place, inanimate things in Late Spring (1949), probing their significance. (19)


Noriko (Hara Setsuko) is getting married. She and her father (Ryû Chishû) are enjoying each other’s company in their last trip together, their final moments of closeness before the imminent parting. It is bedtime. The camera alternates between two close-ups of her and a medium shot of a vase. Close-ups and an object. Action and reaction shots. Is it not the dispositif of the famous Kuleshov experiment, the very muscle and bone of cinematic POV? But, unlike the experiment, in which the contents of the close-ups are kept identical, Noriko’s expression changes between shots. Reading ‘consecution as consequence’: if Kuleshov experimented with what and how emotion can be communicated through cinema, the vase-insert seems to beg the question: how does the flight of emotion happen? To paraphrase Pedro Costa’s film title: where does the hidden smile lie?


19. For a survey of the debate and an insightful reading of that scene, see William Rothman, ‘Notes on Ozu’s Cinematic Style’, Film International, Vol. 4, Issue 22 (2006), pp. 39-40.  


Most accounts of this scene follow the logic of linearity and cause-and-effect; they limit themselves in trying to understand what the succession of shots conveys, circumscribing the rich possibilities enabled by the ambiguous shot organisation. A complementary or alternative way of reading the scene would be sensitive to the conversations between shots, to the nuanced synthesis between form and content, and to the complex interactions between style and substance. Apart from contemplating the meaning of the vase, it is also productive to acknowledge and respect the ambivalence of this character-vase exchange, especially in a film where privacy is observed and secrecy respected. Healthy human relationships are based on respect, which requires us to consider each other’s privacy. There are always some aspects of other people’s lives that are inevitably out of sight, unclear to us. Cinema, on the contrary, has the almost uncanny (some say voyeuristic) privilege of bearing witness to the unadorned moments of its characters’ lives, catching them unawares and unprepared. Sometimes, it even reveals their inner feelings and intimates their thoughts. An enormous number of films, mostly commercial ones, champion character transparency and motivation. Nevertheless, we should not mistake this convention as cinema’s vocation (there exist films that are led by actions, animated by light and shadows, inspired by ideas or driven by rhythm). As a delicate portrayal of human relationships, Late Spring reminds us that not knowing the psychological details of other people, even of our own beloved, is the very fact of our existence, something to be accepted.


Throughout, father and daughter stubbornly keep their intentions and designs hidden from each other. The camera, observant to and yet complicit with them, sometimes bars the viewer from accessing crucial information. Just as the high dramas are often deliberately elided (most notably, Noriko’s wedding), the vase scene is an inventive variation on this preoccupation, a microcosm of elliptical narration. What is missing and what is present in the scene are equally central to our understanding. The vase insert eclipses Noriko’s reflective flight as much as it crystallises her thoughts. (20) Our engagement with the character is disrupted but her change of mind, like in some other dramatic moments, simply continues off-screen. Noriko emotes; however, the emoting is deliberately withheld from the viewer. Here, the unrepresented speaks to style and meaning, and fits into the design of the whole. The achievement and secret of Late Spring, and notably of this sequence, lies in its eloquence and elegance in expressing themes of reticence, muted pathos and regret over things lost.


The scene’s ambivalence in intention and impact is what prompts its diverse, devoted critical discussions past and present. We fetishise certainty, just as we are forever obsessed with pursuing motivations and meanings in cinema. A missing expression and a vase: Late Spring is comfortable with not showing us everything. Yet, in another way, the film opens our eyes to all things human, natural and man-made: after the vase-character exchange, the camera cuts back to the object, then to a landscape of rocks. Before resting, it gazes on a pair of old friends (the father and his pal). An arbitrary conceptual leap? No; a poetic and appreciative concern for everything in this world. Human beings exist on the same continuum as all this natural matter’. (21)





20. ‘[T]hose thoughts [that] shuffle indistinctly between, perhaps, the possible still tranquillity of marriage and vague feelings of non-human, ornamental lifelessness, of being stilled’. See Andrew Klevan, Disclosure of the Everyday: Undramatic Achievement in Narrative Film (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000), p. 137.  



21. Adrian Martin, ‘Things to Look Into: The Cinema of Terrence Malick’, Rouge, no. 10 (2006).





In or out of frame, objects can always find a way to assert a strong presence. While an on-screen vase perplexes us in Late Spring, an off-screen chest persists in haunting us in Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948). In fact, not only does the latter present us with a series of objects, it is also permeated by these very objects, moving on, with and through them. The chest which the action hinges upon; the rope which kills and incriminates; the hat which is both a clue and a piece of evidence; the gun which threatens and summons attention. These objects, however, depart from their ordinary functions, and perform according to a perverse logic. It is as if their latent, dark potentials are brought forth by the sick minds of the murderers. The ‘chest-coffin’ turns into a ceremonial dining table; the lethal rope bundles books for the victim’s father; the hat reminds us of a dead man. Although the revolver, surprisingly, is therapeutic rather than deadly – the gunshot at the dénouement is a call for help, not a cry for blood. These objects unleash the uneasiness accumulated throughout, transcending the claustrophobia imposed by a confined narrative space. Rope not only adeptly employs objects for narrative suspense and succession, but also explores their prospects for surprise.




Suspense and surprise: Hitchcock exercises these mutually complementary qualities, creating an intimidating world of relentless oppression. (22) To understand this complex mechanics, we can follow the journey of the chest. Concealing the corpse, the object, from the very beginning, drives the action – the likely (un)exposure of its content is the source of narrative momentum and suspense. But surprisingly, the murderers, with a sense of ingenuity and perverse bravado, do not hide the chest but call attention to it by turning it into a dining table. Quietly sitting in the middle of the party, the object invites the guests’ passing speculations and mocks their recklessness. The film, meanwhile. Spends time scrutinising the sick minds of its anti-heroes. The chest is pushed to the periphery of the narrative, yet persistently lurks on the edge of the frame.


22. Although the filmmaker often prioritises suspense over surprise in interviews, his films in fact incorporate both elements majestically, as in the shower scene of Psycho (1960). 


The object’s stillness offsets the camera’s fluidity: the chest is confident in the latter’s omnipresent knowingness, in its ability to find its way to reveal the morbid secret. For example, in a perilous scenario after the dinner party, the camera observes the action from an angle that expertly produces one of the rare moments of conventionally heightened suspense. Trying to replace the books back into the chest, the housekeeper travels back and forth to the dining room three times. The camera patiently captures the ‘interaction’ between her and the object, in a careful framing that excludes the murderers, suggesting their ignorance of the precarious situation (although they can be heard off-screen). Rupert (James Stewart), pertinently placed on the edge of the frame, will prove to be an important figure in the crime’s exposure. It is only when the housekeeper and Rupert eventually attempt to open the chest that one of the killers suddenly breaks into the frame, disturbing the calmness of the shot and interrupting the precarious situation. The shot teases discovery, milks suspense and toys with our anticipation. (23) The chest is waiting silently to be exposed by the knowing camera – it is all a matter of time.






23. For a penetrating discussion of the shot, see V.F. Perkins, Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1993), pp. 124-7.  


While Rope unfolds, its narrative space becomes enclosed; the camera moves dangerously close to the chest-coffin and its revelation. ‘By the relentless increase of our confinement Hitchcock makes us feel that the exposure is as necessary as it is inexorable’. (24) In a film where the illusion of real-time is strived for, the presence of the object, in fact, thickens with time and the materiality of it is slowly realised. Not unlike the ‘bomb under the table’ that the filmmaker often spoke about, the chest is a bomb that steadily approaches explosion – a timed exposure. That is why, when the object is finally opened, the camera’s view is totally eclipsed by the chest. (25) A blackout. It is as if time has stopped in the fictional world. A truly breathtaking moment; this cinematic gesture not only reveals the corpse but also releases the darkness and emptiness of the antiheroes’ misguided ideal.


The pressure of time is strongly felt during Rope, and is only deflated after the gun is shot, near the ending; the ensuing anticlimactic temps mort soothes as well as distresses. The pathos of the moment is the earned corollary of the subtle, overall design — as painful as it is relieving. Hitchcock succeeds in manoeuvring the chest from the cusp of the viewer’s consciousness to the central stage of the drama. As the camera gently pulls back in the very last shot, it gradually confines all three main characters plus this object in the frame. The tableau hints at the equality between human figures and the realm of the inanimate within the filmic world. The chest has travelled far and become a truly weighty object by the time of this shot. We feel its heaviness; we recognise its significance. To paraphrase Robert Bresson, ‘the object looks as if it wants to be there’. (26) In fact, it needs to be there.


24. Ibid., p. 90.  



25. It is, in fact, a ‘seamless’ way to disguise the cutting.   




26. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, trans. Jonathan Griffin (London: Quartet, 1986), p. 101.  





‘Some objects seem to want, more than other objects, to be there. They look back at us, they want to be touched’. (27) Indeed, not only can inanimate objects rise into our consciousness through the use of découpage, they can also be invested with life when being touched, handled – when interacting with characters. This kind of interaction (the little ‘business’ of film performance), if handled with imagination and delicacy, carries powerful dramatic and expressive potential, and often enables a disclosure of the ‘real action’ under the ‘pretext action’. (28) But how does an object look back at the characters and invite their touch? ‘The telephone rings. All is lost’, Epstein proclaims. (29) Here, he is referring to the destruction of photogénie by the pressing narrative demand in classical Hollywood film: a call needs to be answered, the telephone demands to be picked up, the story has to move on, the spell of cinema lost. Nevertheless, a phone call is not necessarily inimical to the charm of film – the diversity of approaches to a telephone conversation allows for rich possibilities of suspense, drama, meaning and spectacle to play out.


‘I want to be alone’, the ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) distressfully declares in Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932), in a breathy delivery that is scant of self-pity but full of self-absorption. It is as if she is addressing herself: Grusinskaya really wants to be, and already is, alone. The paradox of revealing her feelings yet maintaining her solitude exemplified by the line is subsequently developed into the character’s very existence. In this case, telephone conversation – an essentially solitary communicating experience – is a perfect way to fulfil the dancer’s wish to be alone, and yet be known. There are twenty-one phone calls in Grand Hotel; she participants in most of them and devotes a large amount of her screen time to the most elaborate of them.


27. Lesley Stern, ‘Paths That Wind through the Thicket of Things’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, no. 1, (Autumn 2001), p. 335.  

28. Keathley, ‘Otto Preminger’.  

29. Jean Epstein, ‘The Senses 1(b)’, Afterimage, No. 10 (1981), pp. 9-16.







Charles Affron, in his exquisite and exhaustive study of Garbo’s acting, praises the extraordinary interactions between the performer and objects. Garbo’s glances possess a ‘self-awareness and areas of feeling’ that ‘[invest] the flowers [in A Woman of Affairs (Clarence Brown, 1928)] with all the energy lodged in her eyes, abolishing […] the distance between people and things’. Garbo’s touches ‘seem to fondle a room and its objects [in Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)], creating a version of a love nest for remembrance.’ ‘Her love for a man is evoked in the solitary contact[s] with [these] object[s]’. Describing the three telephone calls Grusinskaya makes in Grand Hotel, Affron discusses how the performer, in one, ‘uses the instrument to extend conversation into reverie’, and then sustains it by ‘twist[ing] the phone several times before putting it down’. And how she later skilfully ‘transforms the phone three times from surrogate lover to frustrating instrument’. Garbo, in Affron’s account, is at her most eloquent when among the inanimate. (30)


Communication fails Grusinskaya: her phone calls always end up in a rueful retreat from or to the receiver. Nevertheless, there is an occasion when the character successfully connects and communicates to others. After a night with Baron von Geigern (John Barrymore), her chéri, the ballerina anxiously telephones him soon after his departure. Expelling the maid and the impresario from her room, she secures and prepares a private world for romantic yearning. Grusinskaya closes her eyes and calls out her beloved’s name amorously, ‘cherish[ing] and cradl[ing] the phone with [a] tenderness’ that she reserves for the Baron. (31) The character’s absorption demands the audience’s attentiveness as well as the camera’s immersion. The film stays with her and follows her actions patiently. Grusinskaya is in a state of nervous euphoria: the liveliness she dancingly exhibits earlier in the scene transforms into a choreography of restless eyebrows and darting eyes. The mercurial vicissitude of her countenance parallels the intensity of her shifting emotions: from longing to expectancy to relief to exhilaration, all rendered in a seamless continuum. Garbo mobilises her face and body with a ballerina’s delicate precision, elegant dexterity and effortless fluidity. The resulting expressions are abstract but affective.




30. Charles Affron, Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977), pp. 125, 128; 180-1; 146, 160.  



31. Ibid., p. 159.

Her vitality passes on to the phone, endearing and investing it with ‘a life as vibrant as her own’. (32) The object summons the presence of the lover in her mind’s eye, even substitutes for his absence. Intimacy at a distance; togetherness when being alone. Grusinskaya finds familiarity and comfort in this otherwise importuning object, making it dance with her. A ballerina and a telephone: they are mutually responsive, equally alive. All her vigour and hopeful spirit eventually gather and pay off in her final line: ‘Just to tell you that I am happy’. From ‘I want to be alone’ to ‘I am happy’, Garbo animates an object to carry her eloquent performance, transcending the aloneness of the character, creating a world of joyous oneness.


32. Ibid., p. 127.  



Little does Grusinskaya know that this brief telephone conversation with the Baron will be their last. The object which she so lovingly dances with is the very weapon that Preysing (Wallace Beery) uses to kill her beloved. Oblivious to his tragic demise, the ballerina, still in a sunny mood, calls again at night. Instead of lingering on Garbo’s lively interaction with the receiver, the camera – for the first and only time – cuts away during this call. The deviation creates a subdued pathos. The Baron’s presence can be no longer summoned; the film shows us the trace of his eternal absence – his empty room. ‘The telephone rings. All is lost’. The unanswered call rings the loss of Grusinskaya’s love. Frustrated, the character renders the phone as a surrogate for the Baron: ‘longing for him…, invoking him, and despairing at his absence’. (33) ‘Where are you? Where are you?’ she desperately reiterates the question to the receiver, as if it really reincarnates her lover. Fade to black. The film replies with a shot showing the Baron being transported out of the hotel. Exit the Baron. End of Grusinskaya’s short-lived romance.





33. Ibid., pp. 161-2.

This telephonic exchange between the character and the camera suggests the vulnerability of Grusinskaya’s private cocoon of togetherness – the outside world is always unaccounted for, and unknown to her. Aliveness (of Grusinskaya) and death (of the Baron) both hinge upon the same object: the telephone communicates and separates, intimates and then betrays this ballerina. It is ‘not fixed in its identity but has the capacity to be […] things’ that are menacing or alleviating – hence ‘the mutability of things in the cinema’. (34) Grusinskaya, however at home with the object, is deemed to ‘[suffer] the solitude that is not overcome by love’ (35) – and certainly not through a telephone.



34. Stern, Dead and Alive, p. 319.  

35. Cavell, The World Viewed, pp. 206-7.



Objects and the World



Things mutate in film. At the end of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, the camera pulls back from a pack of Hollywood Chewing Gum and encompasses the museum of groceries on a bed of grass. This camera movement gestures a ‘rising of consciousness’ (to use Henderson’s phrase): from an object to a gallery of objects, the blocks of items slowly transform into a housing complex miniature. This tableau replaces the images of apartment buildings and bleak landscapes seen at the film’s beginning, reimagining a world of consumerism and capitalist obsessions. Not only does this playful, inventive final image achieve a powerful political rhetoric; it also neatly establishes a conversation between these objects and the world of the film. From an object to a spectacle to an allegory to a discourse to a presence that has risen into our consciousness – the ‘thousand possibilities’ the filmic object opens up are tellingly captured in this shot. ‘Something’s becoming something’: it is precisely these objects we behold that make a world. Indeed, the fictional world and its objects value each other and are mutually dependant, intricately linked.


Cinematic objects are alive when they achieve growth in our consciousness. They impress and evoke, figure and gesture, perform and transform. This is why a coffee, a rifle, a vase, a chest, a telephone, or a pack of Hollywood Chewing Gum, all behold us and tell two or three things about a film, and also about the ontological equality of cinema.



from Issue 5: Shows


© Hoi Lun Law and LOLA, September 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.