The Moviegoer Part II: Montage in Cinematic Writing

“Tell Mother that I’m fine and that I will be down later. I am not hungry.” Then I will indeed be fine, Kate as good as says. It is her sense of their waiting upon her and that alone that intrudes itself into her mezzanine. (176)

Round and round goes the ocean wave screeching out its Petrouchka music iii-oorrr iii-oorrr and now belling out so far that the inner bumper catches the pole and slings around in a spurt so outrageously past all outrage that the children embrace the iron struts for dear life. (230)

The two Moviegoer passages above come from two scenes that employ the cinematic technique of cross-cutting. In my opinion they are the most elegantly assembled of the novel, and it is evident why they author would’ve spent more time on these moments over others. Since Walker Percy leaves his chapters untitled, I’ll call the first scene, occurring in part 1 of Chapter 4, “The Mezzanine”. The second scene, which can be called “the ocean wave”, unfolds in part 2 of Chapter 5. The Mezzanine cross-cuts between two interior house levels juxtaposing a conversation between Binx and Kate in the house mezzanine and their ‘cut-up’ fragmented observation of a simultaneous conversation in the dining room [see footnote 1 at the bottom of this post for semiotic importance]. It is a scene mixed between a calculating logic of dialogue and gesture mediated by vision. The “ocean wave” scene, on the other hand, is an exterior cross-cut between Binx’s observations of kids playing on a playground—on a contraption called “the ocean wave”, his telephone conversation with a former love-interest’s roommate, and the extension of the landscape to reveal Kate entering and contradicting the existing landscape. These two scenes apply ‘cuts’ as a means of disagreeing with a series of surrounding circumstances throughout the novel: but through the dimension of an ‘in-between’ space which necessitates the cuts. In terms of social contexts, these circumstances include everydayness (or inauthenticity), the superficiality of early 20th century urban nobility (by cutting across dialogue), and other moral codes of the time. But as far as aesthetics is concerned, the cuts disagree with dialogue and the use of conversation as a means of developing plot, while these ‘lines of flight’ leave open a possibility and added dimension of reader ‘thinking’ where plot otherwise attempts to close stories through dénouement.

One of the primary characteristics of films, and television sitcoms more frequently, is the entrance into the frame. Several significant reasons for this entrance include underscoring the dominance of space and landscape, establishing the point of view, and isolating or highlighting ‘figures’ in that space. In the vocabulary of both film and cartography the ‘frame’ is called a ‘projection’ and its [overlooked] edges are called ‘cuts’ (See Black 2000: 29). In the mezzanine of their Kate’s upper class New Orleans residence, the scene maps Binx entering the frame by identifying the cuts.

It is a place one passes twenty times a day and no more thinks of entering a picture, a tableau in depth wherein space is untenanted and wherefrom the view of the house, the hall and dining room below, seems at once privileged and strange. Kate is there in the shadows. (175)

Several visual components of the mise-en-scene (set-up) have been established in the passage. Kate has been ‘figured’ in the noir sense, their view of space in the upcoming dining scene will be ‘cut’ from high angles, and from the first sentence Binx establishes himself as part of ‘a scene’ by “entering a picture”. He will further note the angle and the scene to be juxtaposed a few paragraphs later. “The angle is such that we can see the dining room and its company. (176)” Kate has, in the previous scene, attempted to take her life by overdosing on sleeping pills shortly after a 4 hour conversation with Sam Yerger, a [superficial and hyperbole-prone] writer and close family friend who has arrived in town to give a lecture.

In the mezzanine above, Kate talks to Binx talk about potential marriage and the possibility of a meaningful life. This meaningfulness is juxtaposed with the superficiality of the conversation unfolding below that, ultimately, will ensure the centrality of her dialectic and the eventuality of everydayness. A point-of-view shot begins to project this mounting dilemma. “Kate, who has been sitting back and peering down her cheek at Sam lie a theater-goer in the balcony, begins smoothing out the cellophane of her cigarette pack. (177)” She continues her verbal memory of the previous night’s conversation with Sam, cross-cut with Sam’s exaggerated “way of talking” in the following paragraph.

Away from Sam, a reverse-shot cuts back to Kate’s acknowledgement of being moved by Sam’s way of talking the previous night. Below (Binx, the narrator’s high angle view), a house servant passes a dinner tray around, and some whispers are witnessed but not narrated to remind the reader that their visual position does not assure their auditory one—we can see more than we can hear. In a flashback back to 1951, Kate narrates her time spent with a family friend in Memphis and the silence of her room there which motivated her back to New Orleans after a bout of depression—the silence meant anticipation, for conversation with her hosts and uncertain future which the reader knows to be associated with the abrupt death of her fiancé.

Cutting back to the present, Sam is telling stories with an excessive tone that seems to agitate the other dining room guests. Up above, Kate is in her own narrative world telling Binx climactically that her suicide attempts, where she only meant to “break out, or off”, could be diagnosed as “a matter of waiting. (181)” The camera quickly cuts back to Sam’s miscalculating joke, a punchline which offends rather than joins his listeners in agreement. In the scene both dialogue, two delineated spaces, and several characters are ‘cut’ through Percy’s cinematic style of juxtaposition and the overall arrangement of the elevated mezzanine. In any case, Kate is presented as sick, and the shot-reverse-shot between she and Sam cuts between symptoms and treatment in the larger metaphor of modernity [see Footnote 2]. At the end of the scene, the frame is exited, alongside their world as previously represented, with Kate and Binx planning to board train en route to Chicago. Through the cinematic montage written into literary staging of the scene, the conventions and lasting qualities of times and spaces for these two characters are shot through with cuts and contradictions. The images lead the reader to a new starting point, as the two make their way to Chicago.

Arriving there by train, Binx and Kate spend some time in Chicago, meet an old Korean War friend from ten years, and return on a bus back to New Orleans. On the bus Sam speaks with a ‘fashioned’ romantic (bespeaking the failure of authenticity in modernity) reading Stendhal, and then a farm machinery salesman who Binx calls “a better metaphysician than the romantic” because of his sincere belief in his product. Upon arrival in New Orleans, Binx is reprimanded by Kate’s mother-in-law (Binx’s aunt Emily) for taking Kate to another city without consideration for her ‘suicidal’ behavor and without telling anyone beforehand. After having confided in him over the years, she continues, he is now a stranger to her just as much as he is a stranger to civility. This civility in fact, is what the mezzanine scene has destroyed, a long line of aristocratic morality where everything is ‘open to view’. Binx and Kate have faded from the aristocratic fabric sending Aunt Emily into a final moral plea:

What has been going on in your mind during all the years when we listened to music together, read the Crito, and spoke together—or was it only I who spoke—good Lord, I can’t remember—of goodness and truth and beauty and nobility? (226)

Binx reflects on his demoted status and heads to his car when Kate approaches. In all her sickness and anxiety, yet “dry eyed and abstracted” Kate reveals “I heard it all, your poor stupid bastard” (from the library, which reminds of Mathilde overhearing Julien Sorel’s conversation with the abbe Pirard, from the library, in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black). Kate asks Binx to meet her later that day, which brings the reader to the “ocean wave” scene.

Like the opening description of the mezzanine, Binx carefully crafts the cinematic landscape of a neighborhood schoolyard wherein resides the “ocean wave” contraption where he sits thinking. But instead of describing grass, trees, buildings, and weather conditions, Binx inserts images of modernity’s “dark pilgrimage”, “the great shithouse of scientific humanism”, the futility of a quest for knowledge, and the temporality of this his 30th birthday, all into the figure of the “ocean wave.” The cinematic landscape of the scene is the application of cuts to the horizon of the story: “what people fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall—on this my 30th birthday”; “My search has been abandoned”; “Men are dead, dead, dead.” Cuts close one frame as a means of moving abruptly toward another, and the story is leading into the uncertainty of new beginnings rather than closed and coherent worlds of dénouement. Amid the uncertain landscape, Binx reiterates his being disoriented, “I am beside myself. (228)” He seeks reassurance, but his anticipation in waiting for Kate leads to a growing anxiety. And this is where the narrative cross-cutting begins. The scene cuts away to children riding on the ocean wave, though they “ordinarily…ride only the merry-go-round which is set close to the ground and revolves in a fixed orbit. (229)” Everything in the scene, like an ocean wave, has been set adrift and outside it’s normal “rotation.”
The visual motif of the ocean wave is a reference to two earlier explanations of the narrator’s self-coined concept of “rotation” as applied toward a phenomenological mode of living.

A rotation I define as the experiencing of the new beyond the expectation of the experiencing of the new. For example, taking one’s first trip to Taxco would not be a rotation, or no more than a very ordinary rotation; but getting lost on the way and discovering a hidden valley would be. (144)

In another reference to the term, Binx had noted, in his departure from Chicago “[i]t is good to be leaving; Chicago is fit for no more than a short rotation. (213)” A rotation is a spout of being disoriented or, as Binx experiences by the ocean wave, to be “beside” oneself.

Cutting away from the children on the ocean wave, Binx continues to wait for Kate, with a growing doubt surrounding their future. He makes a phone call to a previous love interest named Sharon Kincaid and, upon hearing about her engagement to another man, converses casually with her roommate Joyce. A reverse-shot returns to the scene of the children on the ocean wave who are finding ways to speed up its “rotation” to “watch the whirling world.” From an anxious anticipation for Kate’s arrival at the playground, the world has shifted into a superficial conversation in which Binx sets up a time to meet with Joyce. But alas, the landscape of the scene is extended, the spatial cuts adjoined into a broader horizon, and, out of the corner of his eye, Binx sees Kate approaching. She has entered an image established as an “other worldly space” in the previous sentence . “[T]he playground looks as if it alone had survived the end of the world. (231)” And then “she could be I myself, sooty eyed and nowhere. (231)” Binx reiterates his belief in the end of the world, and a promising salvation for the few who survive it. He means to say that ‘everydayness’ and inauthenticity can only be off-set by disaster. The scene returns to the rotations of the ocean wave, its sounds (“Iii-oorrr”), and its resemblance to the figure of “a young dancing girl.” Cutting back to Binx’s conversation with Joyce, Kate nearby, he reassures the latter by saying “may I bring along my own fiancée, Kate Cutrer?” Kate attends the scene, sitting nearby.

The scene ends in a jump-cut to an empty playground, a car parked alongside, with Binx and Kate inside discussing their marriage plans across the dashboard of her 1951 Plymouth (quick note: 1951 is also when Kate first considered suicide, and likely when Binx first encountered the possibility of his own death during the Korean war—times are referential and cinematic as figurative motives ‘jump’ and ‘shuttle’ between these events).

To sum up, both the mezzanine and the ocean wave scene are points of departure for a narrative otherwise ruled by conventions of nobility, everydayness, location, and inevitabilities. By cutting through these conventions, by juxtaposing the vertical position of the mezzanine with the superficiality of the dining area, or by cutting between the “rotations” of the ocean wave and the anxious anticipation of an uncertain future for Binx and Kate, The Moviegoer is able to assemble a series of disagreements. The characters, and the readers for that matter, are not partitioned or routed within a series of fixed avenues and conclusions. Instead, like a movie and like moviegoers, they must assemble the fragments within their own rotations. While most existing analyses of this novel (and in some ways the author followed this line for promotional purposes) the moviegoer is scene as ‘escapist’ and ‘selfish’. I am not sure why this misreading, and peculiar kind of ignorance, exists given the catastrophic ending of Binx’s most prized moviegoer in the novel’s epilogue. Lonnie, Binx’s half-brother, was fifteen when he died had become a moviegoer based on a certain ‘affect’ developed in response to his frequent illnesses. From Kierkegaard, to Nietzsche, and especially to Percy’s near-contemporaries in Albert Camus and Andre Gide, the possibility of any kind of search can only be partnered with a confrontation with illness—the sickness of modernity, or, more literally in the case of Camus, Gide, and Percy, recurring and disabling illnesses. Before Binx defines the concept of rotation (144), he is at the Moonlight Drive-In watching Fort Dobbs with Lonnie and Sharon Kincaid. “Lonnie is happy” he says, while alerting the reader to a ‘moviegoer’ secret the two share, “that Sharon is not and never will be onto the little touches we see in the movie and, in seeing, know that the other sees. (143)” The secret of the novel as a whole, especially the role of the moviegoer, requires reading the novel as though one is being led through cuts and moving images—or rotations, as Binx calls them. In this sense, Lonnie’s tragic early death is the final cut.

Black, Jeremy. 2000. Maps & Politics. London: Reaktion Books.
Chambers, Ross. 1994. Meditation and the Escalator Principle (on Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine). Modern Fiction Studies 40/4: 765-806.

[Footnote 1] The very definition of Mezzanine has to do with a vertical level “in between” the main floors of a building. This is why Nicholas Baker’s novel The Mezzanine (1988) figures his place of employment (located on the building’s mezzanine) as the figure of the entire story about in-between times: the action takes place during lunch break, he reads Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (meditating being a mode between thought and action), and so on. Developing an entire conceptual vocabulary from this novel, and using Ranciere like me, Ross Chambers (1994), has coined this cinematic movement between spaces as “the escalator principle”.

[Footnote 2]Kate is compared to the young Natasha Rostov, a character in War & Peace who’s suicide is averted by a doctor who arrives in time (171). Sam Yerger, a writer and not a doctor seems verbalize his self-awareness in the dining room as one who attends—like a physician—to the emptiness of others through the excess of his globe-trotting stories.

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