This column is an experiment in writing about film: what if, instead of freely choosing which parts of the film to address, I select three different, arbitrary time codes (in this case and for future columns, the 10-minute, 40-minute, and 70-minute mark), freeze the frames, and use that as a guide to writing about the film, keeping the commentary as close to possible to the frames themselves? No compromise: the film must be stopped at these time codes. Constraint as a form of freedom. Feel free to pick apart the frames even further in the comments.
Raising Cain (1992, dir. Brian De Palma)
Raising Cain came after a series of films which seemingly departed from the auteur qualities that marked many previous De Palma films as “De Palma” films. These included Wise Guys (1986), the Untouchables (1987), Casualties of War (1989), and Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Although the film was anticipated as a return to form for De Palma, the reviews were mixed, and mostly negative, the general approach being: De Palma now mocks and parodies the content and style that distinguished him as a director in the 1970s and early 1980s. I saw the film upon its release, but not since, and was curious as to whether watching it again, and applying the constraints 10/40/70 method, might offer a small reassessment the film. This movie requires a little more set-up for the initial screen grab.
A lot happens in the first ten minutes. Carter Nix (John Lithgow) has abducted a mother and her child from a playground, presumably to take the child to Norway where Carter’s father can use the child as one of his subjects in his study of the psychological development of children. Carter’s “brother,” Cain — also played by Lithgow, in a black leather jacket, with a constantly smoldering cigarette, in a performance that almost shatters the screen — gets in the car and offers to dispose of the mother’s chloroformed body.
The shot is ideal De Palma, with multiple actions happening simultaneously: the car (with Carter driving) pulling into his driveway, the garage-door opening, and the woman pushing the white baby carriage into the frame. Baby carriages show up several times in the movie, not only a nod to Sergei Eisenstein’s “Odessa Steps” sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925) but also as something uncanny: familiar, but strange. In this and other “classic” De Palma films, these uncanny object-images include elevator doors, yellow taxis, red-light-behind-narrow-vertical windows, and wigs. This frame is like a photograph, or a hyper-realistic painting. The light, especially in the leaves of the trees, is just right, and makes the moment more horrifying, because we know what madness is unfolding in the car.
Carter discovers and watches as his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) makes out and rubs bodies with Jack (Steven Bauer) in a park. On the other side of the tree is Cain, cackling and taunting Carter, whose eyes never leave his wife:
Cain: C’mon, be a peeping Tom on your own time. We’re gonna lose that kid.
Carter: That’s my wife.
Cain: No shit?
Carter: I married her too soon. She never got over him [Jack].
Cain: No question of that (laughs).
Lithgow, playing several characters, gives a wildly expressionistic performance, and the marvel of the film lies not in the usual De Palma trademarks (split and multiple screens, slow motion, long takes, extended tracking shots) but in prolonged shots like this, that allows the actors to act with their faces. There is nothing campy or ironic about Lithgow’s performance at this point. In nature, in the Garden, he witnesses the forbidden transgression, with sorrow, disbelief, voyeuristic curiosity, and lurking fury. In these moments, Carter is pitifully human, his combed hair, middle-class jacket, falsely-ordered life, none of this can compete with the perpetual crisis in his brain.
Carter is now Josh, a frightened boy, talking to Dr. Lynn Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) in a scene made all the more creepy because there is not a trace of camp in Lithgow’s performance. Josh, afraid his father (the elder Dr. Nix, also played by Lithgow!) is lurking about, is afraid to talk to Dr. Waldheim, who also happened to work with Dr. Nix and collaborated with him on a book years ago:
Josh: He’s here. I gotta go.
Dr. Waldheim: Your father isn’t here now Josh. So you don’t have to be afraid.
Josh: He’ll hurt me.
Dr. Waldheim: No, he can’t hurt you now. I won’t let him.
There’s a slight red glow atop the Doctor’s head and portion of her back, coming from screen right. The hint of blood that is to come. Lithgow underplays his hand as the boy Josh, conveying a child’s fear in hunched shoulders and a lowered head, as if he could fold into himself and disappear from his father. His eyes dart back and forth; his eyebrows are raised like antennae in search of a warning signal. It’s the sort of acting unrecognized by institutions like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, because it is lost within a genre unworthy of fake gold statues, the lowly thriller.
Lithgow is all buttoned-down repression; his “real” self buried in the sediment of abuse in the name of science. Or maybe there is no real self, just a series of performances. From this angle the film is not really a psychological thriller at all, but instead a film about acting, about playing different parts, about performing and inhabiting different roles, which is exactly what John Lithgow is doing.