I remember seeing the monumental black gallows of Andy Warhol’s Telephone many years ago. Like Louis Aragon, for whom the objects of modernity were transfigured by a kind of æsthetic frisson, Warhol seemed to have painted the platonic ‘Form’ of the telephone: the black Mercury who calls for us in the dead of night, the psychopomp bringing only bad news, upon whose line we hang, breathless.
As Aragon observed, what brings out the ominous symbolic shadowface cast by this homely object is cinematographic découpage and cadrage: ‘To endow with a poetic quality something which does not yet possess it, to wilfully restrict the field of vision so as to intensify its expression: these are the two properties which make décor the appropriate frame for modern beauty.’—Dean Kyte, “Black Mercury”
About twelve years ago, when I was writing film criticism for magazines on the Gold Coast, Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art hosted a major retrospective of Andy Warhol’s art. It was quite a coup for GoMA, which in those days was still fresh and shiny: it had only opened its doors a year before.
I scribbled a feature article on the exhibition for one of the magazines I was writing for, focusing on the connection between Warhol’s art and the art of cinema. For the most part, I was underwhelmed by the bewigged one: there was something self-consciously fraudulent about Warhol’s art (the title of the article I was published was “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Fraud”), but one painting stood out for me.
Telephone  (1962) is a monumental floor-to-ceiling canvas, as hieratic in its overwhelming authority as an altarpiece. Painted in stark monochrome, this enormous gallows handset caught in its shaft of light and stretching over one’s head as ominously as an actual gallows revealed a rare degree of sustained patience on the part of Warhol in his finely observed rendering of it.
It’s perhaps an unremarkable painting, except for its size, but as I state in the video essay above, in cutting this homely instrument out of the cadre of everyday life and magnifying it in extraordinary close-up, Warhol seemed to me to paint the platonic ‘Form’ of what a telephone is:—an ominous messenger on whose line hangs life and death.
That painted close-up reminded me of a shot early on in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). It comprises the third scene, in fact, just six minutes into the picture: a close-up of a black gallows handset, vaguely limned by moonlight, while white net curtains billow behind it.
The phone’s ringing rather urgently on the nightstand in the apartment of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). There’s a few other objects grouped in a loose still-life around it: an alarm clock crouching rather furtively on a copy of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America; a radio set, stoically silent; a racing rag, its leaves loosely folded; Spade’s pouch of Bull Durham tobacco, its puckered mouth half-open in a toothless sneer; a shallow enamel bowl in which a pipe sleeps, the dark, seductive curve of its bowl like the haunch of a curled-up dog.
A groggy hand reaches out from off-screen and fumbles the ameche off the nightstand. In quite a lengthy sustained shot, elegant in its simplicity, Huston holds on the vacant space left by the absent telephone without racking focus: as you might do when someone takes a phone call in the room with you, the camera continues to stare vacantly into space, its gaze politely out of focus as it pretends to interest itself in the breeze playing idly with the net curtains in the background.
All the while, our lugs are hanging out half a mile rightwards as we strain to make out the muffled voice off-screen informing Sam Spade that his partner’s Christmas has been cancelled.
Permanently, you dig?
One shot, one setup, one scene.
It’s masterful filmmaking—and one ought not to forget that The Maltese Falcon was Huston’s directorial début: right out of the gates, this thoroughbred writer-cum-director demonstrates his capacity to elegantly tell stories through simple yet potent images.
Key to the effectiveness of this scene, I think, are the cast of props who support the peerless Bogart—particularly that memorable black gallows telephone which takes centre stage on the nightstand, ready for its close-up, ready to trill into life as a herald of death.
I remember seeing The Maltese Falcon on the big screen at the South Bank Piazza in Brisbane, and this shot of the telephone, as a kind of cinematic subtext that communicates, sotto voce, the ‘mood’ of the scene it sits at the head of, has an outsize impact when viewed at scale.
The magnification of the close-up, in detaching an everyday object from its circumambient reality, is what brings out this potent symbolic aspect—its platonic ‘Form’ as trumpet, herald, fleet-footed, instantaneous messenger—and it was this that I apprehended so powerfully—as a visceral sensation—in Warhol’s painting.
As I state in the video essay, Surrealist poet Louis Aragon seemed to be the first to notice this subtle interplay of cutting and framing in cinema as the means of making visible the poetic quality that everyday objects invisibly possess, and yet don’t possess at all.
In his article “Du Décor” (1918), Aragon stated (and as I translate it in the video essay): ‘Doter d’une valeur poétique ce qui n’en possédait pas encore, restreindre à volonté le champ objectif pour intensifier l’expression: deux propriétés qui font du DÉCOR le cadre adéquat de la beauté moderne.’
It would take a Surrealist to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary, and that the intense découpage and cadrage of the close-up is the means by which filmmakers can make the invisible, poetic, dream-like quality of ‘le merveilleux’, beloved property of the Surrealists, visible and manifest.
One need only look at a shot like the famous close-up of the key clutched in Ingrid Bergman’s hand in Notorious (1946) to see, for instance, how Hitchcock makes the tiny object at the centre of the scene the overwhelming impetus and motive of the entire expensive party around her, surcharging it with a dream-like freight—a mood of irrational anxiety.
But Aragon’s prescient observation is not without precedent. He seems, in fact, to be re-stating in terms precisely geared towards the nascent visual art-form of the cinema a provocative maxim that Charles Baudelaire had stated, several decades earlier, for painting.
In Le Peintre de la vie moderne (1863), Baudelaire states that beauty is composed to two elements, the general and the particular, the timeless and the timely—or, to put it another way, the ‘classical’ and the ‘modern’.
One gets the sense with M. Baudelaire that he regards the absolute value of ‘Beauty’ to be, in its quintessence, something like a chemical compound that can be ‘extracted’ and ‘distilled’ into its constituent parts.
In his most provocative assertion, M. Baudelaire states that this quality of ‘modern beauty’ must always contain an element of the weird and strange about it—‘Le beau,’ he says in Curiosités ésthétiques (1868), ‘est toujours bizarre.’
That quality of ‘weirdness’ is the ‘novelty’ of modern beauty, a certain seductive repugnance we sample with reluctant, distrustful fascination, only to find, in time, that we have acquired the taste for it, incorporating it into the economy of ‘good taste’ which characterizes classical beauty.
When Aragon says, therefore, that cinematic décor, the set-dressing of mise-en-scène, is ‘the appropriate frame for modern beauty,’ he is, I would argue, enunciating a Surrealist ésthétique du merveilleux which has its roots in Baudelaire’s proto-Surrealist conception of the Beautiful as inherently ‘bizarre’.
Take a flânerie through Taschen’s All-American Ads: 40s and All-American Ads: 50s if you want to see to what extent a cinematically-derived æsthetic of grandiose enlargement and removal from quotidian context magnifies the ordinary commercial objects of modernity and transfigures them, through advertising, as the surreal, dream-like keys to the problems of everyday life.
Once you’ve seen a packet of Old Gold cigarettes dancing, with shapely stems, on a burlesque stage, you have seen how the Surreal went mainstream—or perhaps, how fundamentally surreal the ‘mainstream’ is.
What the French Surrealists (like the Italian Futurists only slightly before them) were trying to communicate in their sense of ‘the marvellous’ behind the ostensible objects of their commodity-lust, was, I think, their inchoate apperception of classical beauty, the eternal and timeless couched behind the bizarrerie of modern objects.
Cars and æroplanes and trains, for instance, are merely visual metaphors which, when cinematically rendered, communicate the poetic impression of the platonic Form of speed, as once, in pre-modern times, the horse did.
Likewise, the telephone, that quintessential object of modernity which has transcended and remade itself to become the quintessential object of post-modernity, potently symbolizes the speed with which news—and particularly bad news—carries, and which once was personified by the ancient figure of Hermes, or Mercury.
We have assimilated the novelty of the uncanny phenomenon which the telephone represents so thoroughly into our modern economies of taste that we cannot readily see this archetypal dimension, the magic of an ancient deity, in the banal faces of our mobile phones.
And yet I’m reminded of a passage in Proust, in Le Côté de Guermantes (1920-1), where the Narrator recounts the surreal experience of telephoning his grandmother in Paris from the garrison town of Doncières. These were days, Marcel tells us, when the telephone was not yet in as common usage as it is today.
And yet habit takes so little time to strip of their mystery the forces with which we are in contact that, not being connected immediately, the only thought I had was that this was taking a very long time, was very inconvenient, and I had almost the intention of making a complaint. Like all of us these days, in my opinion, she was not fast enough in her brusque changes, that admirable fairy for whom but a few moments suffice to make appear beside us, invisible yet present, the being to whom we might wish to speak, and who, remaining at her table, in the city where she lives (for my grandmother, this was Paris), beneath a sky different to ours, in weather that is not necessarily the same, in the midst of circumstances and of preoccupations we are ignorant of, and of which this being is going to tell us, finds herself instantaneously transported hundreds of miles (she and all the surroundings in which she remains immersed) close to our ear, at the moment when our fancy has ordered it. And we are like the character in the tale to whom a genie, acting upon the wish that he expresses, makes his grandmother or his fiancée appear with a supernatural lucidity, in the midst of flicking through a book, of shedding some tears, of gathering some flowers, right beside the spectator and yet very far away, in the same place where she currently is. We have only, in order to accomplish this miracle, to bring our lips close to the magic horn and call—sometimes for a little too long, I admit—the Vigilant Virgins whose voices we hear everyday without ever seeing their faces, and who are our Guardian Angels in the dizzying darkness whose portals they jealously guard; the All-Powerful Ones by whose grace the absent rush to our sides without it being permitted that we should see them: the Danaids of the invisible who ceaselessly empty, refill and pass to one another the urns of sound; the ironical Furies who, at the moment when we are murmuring a confidence to a lady-friend, hoping that no one might overhear, cruelly shrieks at us, ‘I’m listening!’; the servants constantly irritated by the Mystery, the shadowy priestesses of the invisible, the Young Ladies of the Telephone!—Marcel Proust, Le Côté de Guermantes (translated by Dean Kyte)
Like all of M. Proust’s exquisite observations, that passage reminds us palpably of his awareness of and presence to the ‘livingness of life’ that easy habit and overfamiliarity with our devices (who haunt us like magickal familiars) have made us blind to.
His ‘personification’ of the inanimate device of the telephone as a classical deity—fairy, genie, Vestal Virgin tending the wires, guardian angel, Danaid, Erinye—to be appeased and placated, a tyrannous servant who carries us the news instantaneously, and yet, despite circumnavigating the globe at the speed of sound, is a household god we still regard as much too slow, reveals the poetic quality of this quotidian object which, in Aragon’s words, ‘does not yet possess it.’
The telephone is too ‘new’ to be classically beautiful, but when, whether through M. Proust’s exquisite attentions to it, or through the cinematic poetry of detaching and framing, it is decoupled from its surroundings and regarded as an æsthetic object in itself, it too is as weirdly noble as a classical statue personifying our human foibles and passions.
I watched Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) a couple of nights ago, not having seen it in many, many years. Much like M. Proust’s vision of the telephone as the thread of the classical underworld, there’s a scene late in the picture where the telephone as symbol becomes the wires of the web which connects the criminal underworld of London, drawing inexorably tighter to entrap hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark).
Suddenly the innocuous sound of a telephone bell becomes a harbinger of betrayal as Fabian realizes that the fellow crook hiding him out has already phoned ahead to the gangster who is hunting him.
In a wonderful piece of acting, beautifully abetted by the lighting and décor, Widmark gently takes the receiver from the hand of his host and gently lays it down in the cradle with that beautiful hollow click the old Bakelite handsets make.
It’s a lovely gesture in its economy, conveying by means of acting, lighting and décor—just as in The Maltese Falcon—the potent yet underlying mood of menace which the big black rotary dial phone, similar to one I feature in my video essay, has as an æsthetic object—the telephone as weapon.
You can’t shoot a man with an ameche and you can’t knife him with one. But that sweet trill of the bell can be a death sentence, as it is to Harry Fabian.