To tackle the current social climate through popular art is a delicate task. Any attempt to correctly render the mistrust, uncertainty and helplessness of daily life in a “post-truth” age runs the risk of coming off as too on-the-nose or condescending, content to simply list our woes rather than address them. Ticking off obvious boxes can be satisfying but falls short of being cathartic, and is hardly ever memorable. In times like this, one can get a more authentic view of our times through the works that appear as a result of them rather than attempts to explain them.
By Peggy Nelson
Pickpocket – 1959 – dir. Robert Bresson
He sidles up to her. A quick glance, suspicious, complicit. Does she know? Does she notice? Ostensibly they are betting on the horses. His long fingers spread, ever so slowly, over the purse. The pressure is subtle, slight, relentless. His fingertips tease the edge of the clasp. Gently, gently, yes! he pops it open. His eyes flicker. Her face is still calm, a nimbus of white against his dark intensity. The fingers slip inside the folds: one, two, three . . . we suddenly hear the horses thundering along the track. Louder, more insistent, until—he emerges with the money! The horses are unstoppable! The finish line is breached! And, it is over. The crowd disperses, he blends into the Brownian motion. He has gotten away with it! Drained by the effort, he walks/stumbles away.
And is immediately caught. End Scene One.
The Public Enemy – 1931 – dir. William A. Wellman
It’s one of my favorite Old Hollywood vignettes, and I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not. I stumbled across it in the Turner Classic Movies glossy Leading Men: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actors of the Studio Era, and it revolves around the famous scene in director William Wellman’s 1931 gangster classic The Public Enemy where James Cagney spontaneously shoves a grapefruit into co-star Mae Clarke’s face. According to the book: “The scene made Clarke’s ex-husband, Lew Brice, very happy. He saw the film repeatedly just to see that scene and often was shushed by angry patrons when his delighted laughter got too loud.” I love the story because it’s silly and ridiculous and not-outside-the-realm-of-possibility: spiteful exes have been known to do worse. But the story also gets at some of the key elements of an uncommonly enduring movie scene, one so memorable that, as critic Carlos Clarens notes in his book Crime Movies: “Not one reviewer failed to mention it, and it undoubtedly contributed to the film’s success.” (Even Pauline Kael’s pithy two-sentence capsule review of The Public Enemy namechecks Clarke as “the girl who gets the grapefruit shoved in her kisser.”) The grapefruit bit remains a shocker, and was even more jarring in its day, but, as Brice certainly understood, it’s also kind of humorous in its utter nastiness. It catches many a viewer – if not Brice on his hundredth viewing – off-guard, leaving them helpless to do anything but gasp or laugh.