Film Thought: The Tableau Vivant in Halloween (1978)
Each year I will revisit the original, classic Halloween at least once. This year, owing to the new Blu-ray box set I will be revisiting the whole series anew. However, the one I will likely come back to more than once, and always find new things to say about, is the first.
With very good reason there has been much made about the use of Steadicam not only in the film as a whole, but also during the opening sequence (one of the last shots in the can during principal photography) where Michael’s POV is taken as he stalks around the house and kills his sister, Judith (Sandy Johnson). Now in technical, artistic and production terms this shot is quite a feat. In the narrative terms it, of course, begins the film with some mystery, a thrill when the POV is broken and a great reveal. However, over the course of time that has obfuscated something of almost equal intrigue (if not anywhere near as hard to achieve as the prior sequence).
The shot that immediately follows reveals Michael to be a young child of six years of age (Will Sandin). Here again narrative shock may distract you from absorbing what’s happening in its fullest implications. The cut occurs when his mask is removed. We see his face and pull back. As we do, we are introduced visually to Michael’s parents. They look shocked, try to get his attention and the camera continues to methodically crane away. As the camera makes its move there is an unnatural lack of movement in the mise-en-scène, it can be argued, by all parties. Even if you’ll give a pass to the fact that Michael doesn’t move; owing that to some semblance of shock he may be feeling (which would be the last time he really, totally felt any sort of human emotion), then you still have to consider the parents who having found their six-year-old with a bloody butcher knife merely stand there befuddled and scarcely move or comment after having merely called his name a few times, mom crosses her arms and dad takes a step back. That’s it.
Previously, I believe I had dismissed such concerns owing to the fact that the shot needed to happen, and being a director that sufficed. However, the shot can still go on with some more movement by the players as the camera drifts away. So, what was it that was compelling this blocking? It’s a choice so conscious it cannot be dismissed as an oversight and has to be viewed as intentional on the part of the director.
As I watched it this time it struck me. It was so obvious I can’t believe I hadn’t considered it before. What is being created is a cinematic equivalent of a tableau vivant. This is a technique that is rarely implemented on film, however, it’s one I always felt a powerful to implement on stage, and when one considered some instances in which they are used (such as in fairly tales or religious stories) it starts to make sense.
The tableau vivant is described as:
Tableau vivant (plural: tableaux vivants) means “living picture”. The term, borrowed from the French language, describes a group of suitably costumed actors or artist’s models, carefully posed and often theatrically lit. Throughout the duration of the display, the people shown do not speak or move. The approach thus marries the art forms of the stage with those of painting or photography, and as such it has been of interest to modern photographers.
Usually the only times this has been approximated on film or television that I can recall off the top of my head is is in very obvious circumstances where a character would say “Freeze” or some other directive like it and rather than freeze framing the actors stop moving. One notable example of this was the children’s sitcom Saved by the Bell. Now here you have a far more subtle form and the reason I believe it is: one, is that it is allowing the events to sink in; two, building a legend; three, ending a chapter in the story prior to moving to another one. In the world of this film, in this town, this is the local legend; this is the boogeyman. Now that we the audience know what happened, have ruminated on it for 29 seconds during the shot (Yes, 29 whole seconds this shot runs uninterrupted; quite nearly unconscionable now) here is a story set in the present (1978) about the same town, and what happens when he comes home.
It’s the kind of time-taking and camera move that you wish was easier to get away with in the modern language of cinema. However, it is the way that this shot works, the way it so perfectly caps off the opening salvo of this film that has allowed it to stand the test of time and multiple viewings without even being subject to tremendous amounts of scrutiny. Although, as with most things in Halloween, added scrutiny only enhances the mastery of the work, and doesn’t diminish it in any way, shape or form.