When this third season of Hit Me with Your Best Shot started some months ago, I brashly, pridefully sent an e-mail to the series’ host, Nathaniel R, pledging to put up an entry for each and every single week that he ran the game. Since then, I will not lie, I’ve had some moments when I regretted that promise: weeks when I had to run around like crazy to find a movie at the last minute or scramble to find a working internet connection. But it’s always been worth it.
This week, though; this is the first week that I’d have flat-out skipped if honor did not prick me on. For this week, Nathaniel has rather sensibly (in light of the holiday) picked the 1955 Oscar winner (one for Editing, one for Art Direction) Picnic, a movie that I just watched for the very first time last fall and didn’t like whatsoever. And this owes to many small things, such as how, in general I prefer my 1950s films about 1950s social mores to come in the form of tawdry underground pictures and nasty genre flicks than in the form of opulent prestige pictures, and mostly to director Joshua Logan, who I understand to be some kind of well-regarded midcentury Broadway director, and whose 11-entry filmography is peppered almost exclusively with demonstrations that theater is not cinema – movies that are among the very lousiest stage-to-screen adaptations I can name, thanks to a director who could not even start to adjust his visual sense and his work with actors to the extremely different medium of film. He oversaw things like the arid romantic drama Sayonara, and the leaden, shot-on-location Camelot and Paint Your Wagon, and the blisteringly inept South Pacific, arguably the worst imaginable film adaptation of that show.
But anyway, I gritted my death and marched towards my date with Picnic; for was it not shot by James Wong Howe, as great a cinematographer as has ever drawn breath? And there came a point when I remembered that the titular event offered Howe some extremely good opportunities to show off with night exteriors, something he did better than pretty much anybody else working at the same time, and so it became a simple matter of not rewatching a whole movie, but just a few scenes.
And upon doing that, I came up with a pair of shots – I broke the rules! I’m sorry! – that I thought summed the movie up nicely. The first one is my “best shot” pick, if it must be limited to one; the second (which comes immediately after), is there to lend context to the first.
The story in brief: in a small Kansas town boiling over with repressed feelings (aren’t they all, in ’50s soaps?), a certain Hal Carter (William Holden) comes along and upsets everything everywhere during his short stay. Among those he upsets the most is Madge Owens (Kim Novak), who falls in love with the stranger despite her better judgment and the judgment of those around her.
At the town’s Labor Day picnic that takes up a large chunk of the film’s center and acts as its dramatic pivot, Hal and Madge go dancing, and the shot I’ve picked comes right the moment that they slow to a virtual stop, looking at each other – and the distinction between “looking” and “gazing” is, in this moment, quite important, for it speaks to the ways that Picnic is, or anyway wants to be, a very serious and sober movie about adult feelings. This is still the moment that they both realise that they’re in love, but it’s a quiet moment, not a boisterous one.
My favorite thing here is the blackness behind them, interrupted by the dinky paper lamps in pastels that so clearly declare this to be an unsophisticated community in the 1950s and the people on the boat, hugely unconcerned with what’s going on between Hal and Madge; the blackness indicates how clearly the couple feels, at this moment, that there is nothing in the universe besides each other, while the handful of lights interrupting the frame remind us that no, there’s a whole town around them, and this love story does not take place in a vacuum.
Then we cut to a reaction shot:
That’s Madge’s teenage sister, Millie (Susan Strasberg), who was Hal’s “date” to the picnic, and boy is she not happy; just a quick glance at the way she’s slumped tells us all that we need to know.It’s a cold splash that reminds us that in Picnic, nice emotions don’t happen easily; everyone has agendas and secret lives and even something as sweet and real as that Hal/Madge moment has to run aground in the face of everybody else’s grueling, messy lives. A neat little pair that swiftly encapsulates the tension of the entire second half of the movie.
It’s also just about the only shot in the entire movie that makes really fantastic use of the CinemaScope frame, so there’s that, too.
Anyway, now that I have had done with Picnic for the second time, my thanks to Nathaniel for the challenge: it’s easy to write one of these for a movie that I’m enthusiastic about, but doing it for a film I find completely lifeless? That is a challenge indeed, and we should never allow ourselves to shrink from a challenge.