An exploration of the ideological inconsistencies in the directing of Kurt Hale’s The Singles Ward.
(Note: This work is strictly a critical commentary on the film The Singles Ward. No consideration was taken for aspects outside of the work itself, and anything read as such is unintentional.)
In part one of this series, an interrogation of the internal and external workings of the film, in particular the writing, revealed pronounced contradictions that disable the film’s moral project. Now, we focus a similar examination on the directorial choices.
Upon casual observation, The Singles Ward is a comedy not unlike many others. For generations, the modus operandi of the standard comedy – and specifically, the romantic comedy – has been rather hands off in terms of directing. Performers were the ones who drove the comedy. Most directors, through the vaudeville and screwball comedy eras and beyond, used the camera frame as a sort of stage in which the actors performed as they would in theater. This “proscenium lens” (as I will refer to it) provided a large space for the long-take antics of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and so on. Even Academy Award-winning comedies such as The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940) tended to keep a two-shot distance, thus adapting theater for the masses by simply transporting it to the silver screen. Eventually, comedies would adopt the use of the four standard shots – establishing, two shot, close up, and reverse – but continue to leave the comedy in the hands of the performers. Still, the proscenium lens remains popular among the likes of Woody Allen and Kevin Smith, comedy directors who keep the actor within the performance space through use of the “traveling two-shot.” In essence, directing comedies has traditionally been, as far as the device of film is concerned, an exercise in artistic passivity.
For the most part, Hale’s directing is no different. His use of the standard four is interrupted only occasionally, usually when the character of Jonathan (Will Swenson) begins speaking to the audience. In these instances, Hale’s proscenium lens follows Jonathan around, allowing him the freedom to perform on what amounts to being a moving stage.
So, how significant is it that in the film’s climax, Hale abandons his performer in favor of filmic device? The scene in question occurs when Jonathan accepts the invitation of a calculating seductress named Allyson (Michelle Ainge) to come up to her apartment for what promises to be an immoral liaison. While Allyson sidles off to slip into something more comfortable, Jonathan opens the window onto a view of the temple. When Allyson returns, Jonathan resists her predatory advances and not only leaves her, but withdraws from society altogether in order to enter into a sort of chrysalis state of repentance, from which he will finally emerge a changed man.
For Jonathan (and arguably the audience), having just been upbraided by his saintly love interest Cammie (Connie Young), there’s no question as to the scene’s intent. Jonathan’s commitment to the Church will be given its ultimate challenge through a trial of sexual integrity. That his determination to commit to the Church is symbolized by sexual fidelity attaches additional significance to Cammie, who now not only serves as the love interest, but also as a microcosm of the Church. This is standard fare for a romantic comedy, but for all its predictability within the genre, the scene is a seemingly strange one, rendered so by the suddenly conspicuous directing.
The most unusual moment in the scene, and perhaps the entire film, occurs when Jonathan opens the window onto a view of the Salt Lake Temple. In an earlier scene, Jonathan and Cammie sit together overlooking the temple with Cammie offering spiritual wonderment while Jonathan waxes comedic. Now, as he’s about to face his climactic test, that same temple literally assaults Jonathan in a short sequence of alarming zooms and frenetic editing. The question isn’t whether or not this is funny (I know of no one, including myself, who doesn’t laugh at this). However, the choice of device over performance, particularly in the context of the rest of the film, is quite telling.
Hale’s joke is an utterly directorial one. The bit is funny because of what the director is doing as opposed to the actor. While unusual, the practice is by no means unprecedented. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones, 1975) features a scene in which a bloodthirsty Lancelot (played by John Cleese) runs toward a castle to avenge his fallen manservant. The guards at the gate stare perplexedly as, through editing and the use of a wide-angle lens, Lancelot never seems to get any closer. After several cuts showing Lancelot running across the same distant patch of ground, the payoff comes when he “surprises” the guards as he inexplicably leaps into frame and kills them.
However, it must be noted that the use of device as punch line is almost universally a form of parody. The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) featured the same device leading up to its climax when Benjamin Braddock must overcome the flattening effect of a wide-angle lens as he runs to prevent a wedding. Like devices are common. The drug-induced dream sequence in Zoolander (Ben Stiller, 2001) can trace its roots back to the whirling, fuzzy camera effects meant to convey the drunkenness of the hotel porter in Der Letzte Mann (F. W. Murnau, 1924). The infamous dolly zoom – invented to enhance the main character’s fear of heights in Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) – has since been assimilated into comedies such as Undercover Brother (Malcolm D. Lee, 2002), wherein the effect introduces the titular character to his worst fear, a libidinous white woman. In fact, the most original use of the device-as-punch line choice probably occurs in Warner Bros. Looney Tunes classic Duck Amuck (Chuck Jones, 1953), in which Daffy Duck quixotically battles his own prankish animator. But even this example proves exceptional as animation calls attention to device by its very nature, whereas the vast majority of live-action film seeks to hide it, thus to preserve the illusion of reality.
There have been occasions throughout history when device has interceded in behalf – rather than in lieu – of the performer. 1928′s Steamboat Bill, Jr. featured an up-and-coming Buster Keaton as writer, director, actor, and stuntman (Carl Harbaugh and Charles Reisner are officially credited as the writer and director, respectively, but historically dismissed in favor of the auteurist Keaton). In the film’s most famous sequence, Keaton’s William Canfield survives the spectacular devastation of a cyclone and finds himself nearly crushed when a building facade falls toward him. Oblivious, Keaton stands stoic as the attic window drops neatly around his body. The sheer audacity of the stunt, which very well could have killed Keaton, is enough to jar many viewers out of the scene. One either enjoys the slapstick impassivity of the performer or reverences the comedic audacity of the director, both of whom are the same person. Keaton’s craftsmanship of the stunt behind the camera only enriches his appeal on camera.
The irony in all of this is that, while The Singles Ward’s opening moments contain a salvo of introductory editing jokes, Hale otherwise maintains a very low profile throughout most of his own film. When one of Jonathan’s neighbors receives his mission call to Boise, Idaho, Hale cuts to the reaction of his four friends. It’s a full six seconds before one of them finally utters, “That sucks.” Each of the other three characters is given a chance to react to the news differently over the course of a shot that lasts thirty seconds. In other words, Hale frequently creates a stage from which characters enter and exit.
And therein lies the distinction. After an entire film’s worth of the kind of performance humor common to romantic comedies, Hale takes the comedy out of Swenson’s hands and places it into his own. Knowing that filmic device in comedy is dependent upon established drama, one discerns that Hale’s choice preempts the character’s reaction in favor of parodying the famous shower scene from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). Just as the wayward Marion Crane pulls back the curtain in a moment of vulnerability and discovers a knife-wielding psychotic accompanied by orchestral panic, so too does a deviant Jonathan open the window onto an unexpected and maniacal intruder. The suggestion that the temple – and by established extension, Cammie – is attacking Jonathan in the same way Norman Bates attacks Marion Crane is funny because it’s absurd, but Hale is the one who sells the joke, not Swenson. However, it’s crucial to note that by alluding to Psycho within the film’s climax, even jokingly, Hale changes the meaning of the scene.
Why does this seemingly harmless choice matter in a film full of hundreds – arguably no less than thousands of them? If either scenario would have ended with the same joke, whether at the director’s hands or the actor’s, how could that possibly matter in terms of the film’s ideological structure?
First of all, what does it mean that – directorially speaking – the temple is invasive but Allyson is not? Hale’s concern seems to be making safe choices that haven’t the remotest possibility of offending the even most unforgiving Mormon moralist. Hence, the entire seduction scene takes place in long/medium shot without close ups. The audience is kept at a very comfortable distance. Jonathan keeps his hands in his pockets at all times and any physical intimacy is largely indiscernible. At no point does a touch from Allyson receive treatment with over-the-top camera zooms and frenetic editing, even though it’s arguably as alarming, if not more so, than the sight of the temple. Why not? Perhaps it’s because Hale believed a scene giving equal dynamism to both temple and temptress would be offensive to someone. While that may well be a commercially legitimate reason, it bears an artistic price, nonetheless.
So, what’s the point? Does this choice really matter? It does if the film is trying to be anything more than simply entertainment – and therein lies the rub. By proposing a moral, Hale strays out of the realm of pure entertainment in order to propose truth, which means that in some small way – and yes, humor is certainly a way – the film merits review. The notion that Jonathan’s crisis will result in a happy ending only if he takes the Church seriously is not an entertaining one, but a moralizing one. Because the film’s moral ideal hinges upon Jonathan’s decision to resist or succumb to the carnal temptation offered him by Allyson, Jonathan’s choice becomes a injunctive absolute; one that we, as audience meant to sympathize with Jonathan, must learn to follow as he does. Yet as a depiction of prescriptive reality, the film fails to live up to its moral supposition for three reasons that work in concert. All of them occur in the aforementioned scene.
First, Jonathan never really owns his choice. This may seem ironic, given that Jonathan exits with the triumphant line, “It’s my choice.” But having been victimized by the sight of the temple, his choice to back down from temptation comes under duress; a spiritual coercion rather than a spiritual strengthening. The temple swoops in to save Jonathan from sin with Inquisitorial force. In a movie whose title evokes the importance of celestial marriage, it is not unimportant that Jonathan is delivered in the film’s climax by a literal deus ex machina. Just as in Greek theater millienia ago, herein heaven will apparently save you whether you want it to or not.
Second, because Allyson is rendered utterly unconvincing as a seductress, Hale sends an unwitting dual message: that while resisting carnal temptation is righteous, it is also dispassionate. While the first part of that message is surely the intended one, the second is the more dangerous and possibly more effective of the two. Much like a scene from Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), where the main character, Thomas, romps in his photography studio with two girls, the scene between Jonathan and Allyson purposefully lacks libido. The difference is that Antonioni’s choice was an artistic one, intended to emphasize through contrast Thomas’s passion for photography and conspicuous consumption. Hale, on the other hand, seems to have made the decision to avoid offending viewers, an arguably necessary choice in order to make good on investor faith. But that doesn’t change the fact that the film’s climactic, cathartic scene, seems utterly devoid of the emotion that supposedly drives it. With the audience kept at a safe distance, and with no directorial device to convince us that Allyson is a significant temptation, one is merely left waiting for Jonathan to leave. At no point do we interrogate Jonathan’s dilemma because we’re not even remotely allowed to experience it. Why would Jonathan give in to a temptress that isn’t the least bit tempting? He wouldn’t, hence the climax is really anything but and the viewer is left with the inescapable conclusion that dodging out on significant moral temptation is all-too-easy.
Third, Hale’s treatment of Allyson disables her claim as a legitimate antagonist. Rather, she is an enabler of his spiritual consternation, but not the source. As Jonathan starts to exit, Allyson questions his choice, accusing him of leaving her for “some stupid Church that tells you what you can and can’t do.” Visually, Allyson is right as Jonathan leaves her due to the impact of the temple’s assault on him. Both temple and temptress have been previously established in the story. Both are aggressors in this scene. But Hale makes the temple a much more violent one, a choice that links the temple inextricably to a schizophrenic serial killer while simultaneously diluting Allyson into nothing more significant than a prop. Thus, one is forced to look to the temple as the primary source of conflict within the scene. This conclusion may seem counterintuitive since Hale surely didn’t intend for this to be the case. But by abandoning the proscenium lens in favor of device, i.e., by swapping the actor for the director – regardless of the intention – Hale inserts himself into the scene.
At this point, one begins to arch an eyebrow at theoretical criticism by saying “but if the intention is obvious, does the execution really matter?” Absolutely. The certitude of the film’s moral conviction demands it. In other words, if there’s dissonance between the intention and the execution, then the moral conclusion cannot be absolute. The intertextuality with Psycho, combined with the drastic difference between the visual characterizations of temple and temptress thwarts any attempt to effectively vilify Allyson. At best, she’s the devil on Jonathan’s shoulder – another version of Jonathan, so to speak – inviting him to stay and sin in sight of the real antagonist, the temple. Rather than emerge victorious in the face of temptation, Jonathan instead comes away defeated by the symbol of LDS values. He leaves Allyson in order to put himself on a path that will ensure that the Church – as symbolized by the temple – never attacks him again.
This conclusion stirs up a whole different hornet’s nest of debate. Many people will disagree, citing Hale’s benign aspirations, the film’s sanitary humor, or the traditionally ax-grinding application of critical film theory to apparently innocuous entertainment. Theirs is the right to do so, but in so doing, they unwittingly open their door to every other film desirious to justify itself by virtue of well-intended but fatally flawed jocularity. By vilifying the temple and downplaying the power of temptation, one uncomfortable question becomes “is there cause for discussion over whether or not the film not only fails to advance its moral, but perhaps also inadvertently does more harm than good?” I wish to make clear that I pose the question purely for debate’s sake, not because I endorse a position either way. Certainly, Hale is guilty of nothing worse than making an entertaining, if not somewhat obsequious romantic comedy. And that Hale and writer John Moyer satisfy the genre’s requirement of, at very least, a vapid moral conclusion merits perhaps a degree of praise. But just as filmmakers and the general movie-consuming public have evolved since the birth of cinema – when audience members leapt to their feet in awe and fear at the sight of a train bearing down on them in L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat (Auguste & Louis Lumiere, 1895) – so too might it behoove LDS artists and audiences to engender works of greater ideological and aesthetic cohesion in an effort to achieve both poignancy and relevance in the landscape of contemporary cinema.
(Note: the audience reaction upon viewing L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat is the subject of historical debate and considered by many to be an urban myth.)