From afar, a person might look like a socialite. They might look like the sweet, sprightly neighbourhood teenager, or the remote and reserved watcher who is in our lives to bear witness. The truth though is that people are often all of these things – these and more actually. The truth is that while we think we might have a grip on who a person is, and what they are all about, we may not know very much at all.
Midway through Robert Altman’s 3 WOMEN, we see the shot above play out where bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Pinky reads he diary of Millie, her co-worker and host. She’s holding on to it for dear life – holding with both hands. She’s reading it aloud fervently. It’s as if it’s the instruction manual to a better life, or the key to being thoroughly modern. Ironically, it’s not. However, it’s the way Altman chooses to frame this shot that’s most telling. He lets the camera linger with the aquarium blocking our view. The top metal frame of the fish tank swipes across the frame and redacts Pinky’s identity. We see so many identifiable things about her, except the most identifying feature; her big bright eyes.
While we get to know so much about her in this moment, this shot is telling us that we still don’t know her at all. She could be the doe-eyed babe in the woods we’ve been getting to know for the hour or so the film has played to this point…or she could be a sociopath…or a con artist…or a guardian angel. She has shown us what she has chosen to show us, and how much of that is true, only she knows. The same way that this shot holds something back from giving us the full impression of Pinky, so too do most people hold some part of themselves back from the world.
That part could be the curious child (like Pinky), the flighty poseur (like Millie), or the quiet observer (like Willie – the artist usually seen in this film painting mythical multi-headed monsters that underline the metaphor that much more). Sometimes what we show and what we hide is deliberate…other times, it’s subconscious. All of it is there, on the face of the individual. So what happens when we can’t get a clear look?
I used to think that blacking out a person’s eyes was a very half-assed way to conceal their identity. If one saw Sissy Spacek’s bright red hair and freckled cheeks, how much of her identity would be concealed by keeping the eyes at bay? In a film like this though – in a moment like this – it becomes clearer. By concealing one key detail, we are reminded that we don’t know all that there is to know. There could be all sorts of things that remain hidden in an image like this, the same way there could be all sorts of things hidden within the parts of a person’s personality that they choose not to show.
So many other things might seem to tell the tale; their demeanour, their clothing, their voice. However, the truth is that everybody is holding something back; everybody keeps something blacked-out.
Three more from 3 WOMEN for the road…
This series of posts is inspired by the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience. Do check out all of the awesome entires in their series so far