The following extract of Jane Mills’ The Money Shot – Cinema, Sin and Censorship (Pluto Press Australia, 2001) is published here with the permission of Pluto Press Australia. The book is available at the recommended retail price of $AUD32.95 or at the online purchase price of $AUD29.65. For information on purchasing The Money Shot, click here.
Please note: this extract appears without the chapter’s endnotes.
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There are those who believe that the come shot, or, as some refer to it, ‘the money shot’, is the most important element in the movie and that everything else (if necessary) should be sacrificed at its expense.
– Stephen Ziplow, The Film Maker’s Guide to Pornography
The Money Shot
Professional photographer L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries is having a hard time. He broke his leg on an assignment and he’s now housebound, stuck in a wheelchair with his leg in plaster. A summer heatwave in Manhattan is sending the temperature soaring and Jeff has nothing to do but look out the window, day and night. He becomes fascinated by the lives of the residents in the apartment block across the courtyard as he sees them moving from room to room through the windows of their apartments: sad ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’, pretending to dine with a non-existent beau; sexy ‘Miss Torso’, constantly practising her jazz steps and entertaining numerous gentleman callers; the newly married couple who, despite the extreme heat, keep their blinds drawn all day; the composer whose clock, at one point, is wound by a portly, balding gent; the salesman who argues constantly with his nagging wife.
Jeff’s nurse reminds him that ‘Peeping Toms’ used to have their eyes put out with a red-hot poker. Jeff is undeterred, and, using binoculars and the long lens of his camera to get a close-up look at what’s going on, comes to believe the salesman is acting suspiciously. He watches the man wrap up a knife in brown paper, clean a saw and bring in some rope. When he notices that the wife is no longer around, Jeff decides she’s been murdered by her husband.
Jeff is so absorbed by all this that he has little time for his beautiful blonde girlfriend, Lisa, a top model. When she kisses him, Jeff’s mind wanders away from her lips to the mysterious goings on in the salesman’s apartment. Lisa thinks Jeff’s obsessive spying on his neighbours is diseased: lots of people have saws, knives, brown paper and rope in their homes, she rationalises. But Jeff persists, and there comes a moment when Lisa suddenly rises to her feet, looks out of the window as if hypnotised, and commands Jeff to go back to the beginning, tell her everything that he’s seen, and what he thinks it means.
It is at this moment, when watching James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, that my toes curl with pleasure and I give my mind, body and soul up to the plot. It’s the shot that gives me total satisfaction, one that I’m more than happy to pay to see, and which makes me want to return to the cinema again and again. I treasure many such shots: there’s the moment in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot when Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis can’t keep their eyes off Marilyn Monroe’s beautiful, undulating backside and describe her as ‘Jell-O on springs’; the uncanny scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction when the middle-aged John Travolta dances the twist, and we know that he knows that we know he once danced like a dream in Saturday Night Fever; the haunting funeral scene in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, when thousands turn up to pay their respects to the African-American housekeeper (Juanita Moore) while Mahalia Jackson sings; the arresting moment in Charles Vidor’s Gilda when Rita Hayworth’s hair, closely followed by her head, shoots up into frame (a shot that’s wittily, but less orgasmically, borrowed by Amy Heckerling in Clueless); and the extraordinary moment in Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s 1936 documentary, Night Mail, when the commentary breaks into a poem by W.H. Auden.
There are many, many more such sublime, revelatory moments. I think of each as ‘the money shot’, although strictly speaking, this isn’t what the term means. Originally mainstream filmmakers’ slang for the image that cost the most money to produce, the phrase was subsequently appropriated by the pornography industry for the male ejaculatory climax, ‘come shot’, or ‘cum shot’, because porno producers paid their male performers extra for it. It’s the shot the punters pay to see.
I must have seen Rear Window more than fifty times. Each time I see it, I learn more because I see more. This makes each viewing that bit more pleasurable than the one before. Until I discovered the pleasures that a knowledge of screen theory brings, I can honestly say that the film was just another Hitchcock movie. Now, I get all the pleasure of a well-told suspenseful narrative plus that of seeing a film commenting on the very subject of spectatorship. It’s because of this that I use Rear Window, especially the scene culminating in my personal ‘money shot’, whenever I teach introductory film theory.
I reach even higher climactic heights as I observe my students realise that Jeff’s back window view is similar to a multiplex, or a multi-channelled television: each of the windows in the film’s apartment block offers a different narrative which Jeff can select to view at will; like Jeff, cinema spectators sit in a darkened room, pinned to their seats. The gigantic camera lens which the emotionally impotent Jeff carefully places in his lap takes on what now seems unmistakable importance as a phallic signifier. Lisa’s initial reluctance to get sucked in now represents a refusal to suspend her disbelief and accept the illusion of reality that mainstream cinema provides. Jeff, a photographer, is seen to be a professional voyeur, with the implication of perversion that includes; Lisa, a model, is the perfect representation of objectified female, sadistically controlled by the male gaze. Jeff might say girls don’t have to go anywhere to be noticed, they just have to be, but my students note that it’s Jeff who sits passively in his wheelchair and Lisa who actively pursues the clues and provides all the action. The insights offered by film theory are seemingly limitless.
Some students, as they comment on the filmic presence of Hitchcock as the clock-winder in the composer’s apartment, launch into an inquiry of auteur theory. Looking for narrative and stylistic evidence to link this film with other suspense movies, other students discover the pleasures of genre theory. Fascinated by the way voyeurism is represented in the film, some find themselves catapulted into the rich world of psychoanalytic film theory, while others discover the intellectual excitement of exploring the erotics of cinematic eavesdropping. As they analyse the questions about movement, time (that clock-winder again!) and image raised by the film, an increasing number become absorbed by the theories of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. An investigation of ‘suture’, the way audiences become ‘sewn in’ to the narrative by means of realism, lies at the heart of this Hitchcock classic. It also works to stitch students into the project of critical analysis. This lies at the heart of reception theory, the study of the sense that audiences make of the movies they see. It also lies at the heart of why I wrote The Money Shot, although it’s not the only reason. I wrote this book because I believe politics and polemics are an essential part of film criticism, because I wanted to make some aspects of screen theory accessible to a readership wider than academia, and because I believe cineliteracy is crucial if we are to turn from uncritical consumers of the moving image into critical analysts with the skills to make sense of our own and other cultures and the world we live in.
I first became excited by screen studies when, as a documentary filmmaker, I started work on a film about the Turkish director Yilmaz Guney. Initially, I thought all I needed, in addition to my directing and producing skills, was some knowledge of Turkish cinema history, but it quickly became clear that I would have to get to grips with the concept of ‘national cinema’ if I was to get beyond asking simply when and how he made his films, and to learn why he made the films he did. I cautiously dipped my toes into the pool of theory, and the films of Yilmaz Guney came alive for me as never before. The next step was a documentary I made about the way cinema represented rape. Once more I tiptoed nervously up to the books of film criticism, this time by feminist film theorists, and again light bulbs lit up and fireworks exploded. Since then, like Lisa in Rear Window, I’ve wanted not only to know what’s happened, but also to analyse what I think it means.
I admit I’ve become evangelical about screen studies. I believe that not only filmmakers but also audiences would benefit from a greater understanding of the moving image. For me, the benefits are intellectual, emotional and sensate; I’d like others to experience the pleasures that a theoretical appreciation of cinema offers. I also enjoy sharing the pleasure I derive from my knowledge; I particularly like popularising, or making accessible, complex ideas written in what, to many, appears to be incomprehensible jargon. The widespread intolerance towards the language of academic film theorists is understandable, but I don’t necessarily share it. Cinematographers don’t think twice about referring to their lights as a ‘blonde’ or a ‘redhead’, since this is understood by everyone else on the set. So why should academics desist from using their own terminology? Part of the pleasure I’ve experienced from my position as Head of Screen Studies at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School has come from encouraging my students and readers to meet the theorists at least halfway. Jargon doesn’t exist purely to exclude outsiders; it can help to focus on issues specific to a particular discourse.
Since my arrival in Australia in 1995, I have been given many opportunities to teach, broadcast to, and write for, a wide range of people: from full-time filmmaking students with a non-intellectual approach to their craft to students who broadened my intellectual horizons; from avowedly anti-intellectual, professional film industry practitioners to cineastes who could discuss arcane theoretical concepts of realism all night; from academics with a shared belief in an interdisciplinary approach to the study of film culture to those who gained enormous insight from a more formalist, textual study; from secondary school English teachers and students anxious to make some sense of a field about which they felt they knew absolutely nothing (they were usually wrong on this) to those whose minds were closed (only initially, I like to think) to the whole film-teaching project. I’ve broadcast on popular radio and television to audiences I could not assume were filmgoers, let alone film lovers, and to audiences whose knowledge of cinema was infinitely greater than mine. I’ve written for specialist cinephile and academic journals and for the mass media. I’ve declared my views on censorship to those who agreed with my every word, and I’ve addressed those who let me know that they disagreed one hundred per cent.
The Money Shot addresses all these audiences; it investigates the pleasures of all styles and types of cinema and aims to blur the distinction between high and low art, elite and popular culture. It also reflects the ways in which I’ve been fruitfully forced to find different ways to express the same thoughts, which enabled me to develop my ideas as I reworked them. In Part One, Cineastes, Cinephiles and Cinesnobs, I explore why cultural elitists seem to think there is something morally ‘wrong’ with an art form that aims to give pleasure and make money. It also raises questions about what I perceive to be the general timidity of the Australian national cinema, its filmmakers, critics and audiences. This is not to say that I don’t admire Australian cinema — I do, some of it very much. But it offers a good example of a national cinema, like many other national cinemas, struggling to make sense of the relationship between the local and the global. Australia’s cinema is particularly valuable to analyse because, as Tom O’Regan, author of an exemplary analysis of Australian national cinema, comments, in any positive assessment of Hollywood cinema the Australian cinema suffers because it is patently not Hollywood, and it also suffers from a negative assessment of Hollywood because the Australian cinema is perceived to be imitative and lacking in prestige.
The next two parts, Is There Enough Violence? and Is There Enough Sex? explore the issue of film censorship. As censorship stealthily increased in Australia, I became concerned to explore the implications of this for a society deeply involved in trying to make sense of its history. Australia is by no means unique in displaying a growing determination to prevent its adult citizens from seeing certain images on the screen. But because of film’s ambiguous ability to simultaneously reveal and conceal, censorship in Australia in the 1990s offered particular insight into the whole censorship discourse because of the growing number of politicians and historians simultaneously vying with each other to conceal or reveal aspects of the past. Censorship, of course, is connected to knowledge and education, and I became aware of the fact that screen literacy fails to occupy a significant place in the Australian nation’s education policies. Writing The Money Shot gave me the chance to examine the way these two concerns are linked. The issue of screen education is a crucial one for me, and I it explore from a number of angles throughout the book.
Part Four, Woman, Word, Image, reflects a long-held, politically inflected passion of mine for exploring the links between feminism, film and language. Influenced by an interdisciplinary and intertextual approach to screen culture, these chapters offer a slightly unusual perspective compared with much other critical writing on cinema, one which I hope contributes to our knowledge about how spectators produce meaning. My love of linguistics, however, is not confined to these chapters, any more than my feminism is.
In Part Five, The Hungry Eye, I draw together the insights I have gained by looking at issues explored throughout this book from the particular perspective of the role the image plays in popular culture. It is the latest version of a lecture I have delivered a number of times, in several different forms, as my ideas on the subject have altered and developed. It’s not intended to be the final word on the subject, because my ideas aren’t fixed, any more than meaning within culture itself is fixed. In Rear Window, Lisa asks Scottie what he ‘thinks it means’, but she spends the rest of the movie discovering what she thinks it means. She soon learns that it’s very hard to fix meaning to the image because the window is wide open to a number of meanings flowing between her and what she sees through the windows in the block of apartments across the courtyard. I try to give readers some idea of how important this notion of ‘unfixedness’ is to me, by sharing some memories and autobiographical details every now and then. In doing this I hope to create a sense of dialogue between myself (as spectator) and cinema, and between myself (as author) and the reader. Similarly, by including the occasional fragments of imaginary film script, in addition to forming a bridge between the filmmaker and film critic parts of my life, I hope to share a sense that cinema offers openings, not closure. ‘The world of the film is not closed,’ as US film academic, Christian Keathley, emphasises. ‘It welcomes, it aspires to, alterity. Often the film is nothing more than an impure mediation, the necessary element, bubbling with culture, which leads from one source to another.
While it’s important to me that my politics and ideas remain consistent, I’ve never thought it made sense to use the same language in an article aimed at highly cineliterate filmmakers as in one aimed at the general readership of a popular magazine. As I collected and reworked my articles, broadcasts, lectures and speeches for this book, I became aware that the many different styles of communicating could make it seem as if I’d stepped out of a scene in The Three Faces of Eve. I like to think I responded to this challenge by remembering the advice of my mentor, the late Sir Denis Foreman, who told me at the start of my filmmaking career: ‘Never overestimate your audiences’ knowledge and never underestimate their intelligence.’
I freely confess, however, to an extremely low tolerance for the cinesnob: the pleasures of cinema’s money shots come as often from popular, mainstream cinema as from art house cinema. What I’ve tried to do in The Money Shot has been expressed by Colin MacCabe, a British cultural analyst who is deeply committed to screen education, as follows:
What seems positive to me in the commitment to popular culture is that element which is determined to break with any and all of the formulations which depend on a high/low, elite/mass distinction. Those who isolate themselves within the narrow and exclusive traditions of high art, [and] those who glory in the simple popularity of the popular, both effectively ignore the complex way in which traditions and technologies combine to produce audiences.
Cinema can be a great leveller. When a film reviewer damned Rear Window because the hero spent all his time peeping out the window, Hitchcock responded: ‘Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all?’ Practitioners and critics forget at their peril what Lisa tells us in the final frames of Rear Window: there must be room in our lives for the filmic equivalent of both a high-minded book like Beyond the High Himalayas and the frivolous Harper’s Bazaar.