MOVIE OBJECTS (21)

By: Carlo Rotella
May 31, 2020

One in a series of 25 nonfiction narratives about significant objects spotted in movies. Presented to HILOBROW’s readers by Project:Object.

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POWDERING CONE | REIGN OF TERROR | d. ANTHONY MANN | 1949

Robespierre is seated in front of a mirror, having his wig powdered as he talks with another revolutionary, St. Just. The off-camera servitor doing the powdering is reduced to a disembodied hand holding a puffball on a stick. Robespierre holds a paper cone with a handle, open side toward him like a reversed megaphone, as St. Just urges him to consider the possibility that their associate Duval may be an impostor scheming against them. Robespierre has just lowered the cone from his face when the scene begins, and at one point he puts it back over his face, which causes his muffled voice to boom weirdly inside it as he says, “The man’s record is perfect.” He lowers the cone again as Duval enters and toys with it as the three men hold a barbed colloquy. After Duval exits to ominous music, the puffball steals back into the frame and Robespierre raises the cone to his face once more as the interrupted powdering resumes.

It’s a throwaway moment in a strange little film — Reign of Terror (1949), also known as The Black Book — but it has stayed with me because it marks a turning point in my education at the movies. I saw it in a film noir class in senior year of college, part of a surge of interest in movies connected to meeting Tina, a film major with very short very red hair, black fingernails, and no time for dolts. Until I met her, my idea of a significant object in a movie was the freshly poached deer carcass that Errol Flynn carries yokewise across his shoulders in The Adventures of Robin Hood, bonking chainmailed flunkies with it as he swaggers into a castle filled with his enemies.

Tina and her film-major crew taught me to appreciate Robespierre’s cone. You spend the whole scene wondering when the hovering hand will start powdering again, obliging him to put the cone up to his face, and you want to hear again what it does to his voice. None of this has much to do with the plot, but that’s the point. The resonant, rhythmic interplay of objects and bodies is part of the essential business of movies in a way that runs deeper than plot or theme.

Sometimes a resonant object does converge with plot and theme, of course. I also saw In a Lonely Place in that film noir class, and I was deeply impressed by Humphrey Bogart’s encounter with a grapefruit knife in Gloria Grahame’s kitchen. Bogart, Grahame’s moody new boyfriend who may possibly be a homicidal monster, marvels at the knife’s angled tip and straightens it out, wrecking it without a second thought because he’s never seen a grapefruit knife before. Harmless and easily corrected bachelor quirk or indicator of deeper intractable savagery? It’s the kind of question a resonant object can raise — and as a new boyfriend who had passed the powdering cone test but whose salvageability was still to be adjudicated, the answer mattered to me a great deal.

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MOVIE OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Ramona Lyons on EYE OF THE SERPENT (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) | Faythe Levine on BEDKNOB (BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS) | Gerald Peary on CUP OF COFFEE (THE BIG HEAT) | Christopher Orr on TOM’S HAT (MILLER’S CROSSING) | Lynn Peril on TRANSISTOR RADIO (DR. STRANGELOVE) | Whitney Bowers on DUCT TAPE (NOW AND THEN) | Kio Stark on CANDLE (DEBBIE DOES DALLAS) | Tom Roston on CALCULATOR WATCH (BREAKFAST CLUB) | Miranda Mellis on LIMOUSINE (MELANCHOLIA) | Carolina A. Miranda on HAUNTED ACCORDION (THE WIND JOURNEYS) | Vanessa Berry on FIBREGLASS MARLIN (LOVE SERENADE) | June Thomas on CERAMIC DUCKS (A TASTE OF HONEY) | Madeline Ashby on LETTERS OF TRANSIT (CASABLANCA) | Dave Walker on ETTINAUER 226-XL (REAL LIFE) | Jonathan Lethem on SINGLE-JACK HAMMER (EARTH ABIDES) | Guy Trebay on STAMPS (CHARADE) | Annie Nocenti on PASSPORT (THE PASSENGER) | Tony Arcabascio on SHEEPSKIN COAT (BEAT STREET) | Alix Lambert on TYPEWRITER (MARY AND MAX) | John Sellers on WHITEBOARD (A QUIET PLACE) | Carlo Rotella on POWDERING CONE (REIGN OF TERROR) | Laura Miller on SEVERED EAR (BLUE VELVET) | Josh Glenn on CASSETTE TAPE (BREATHLESS) | Vicente Lozano on NOTEBOOK (WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOME?) | Jeff Malmberg on SPAGHETTI SAUCE (THE GODFATHER).

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 2): INTRODUCTION | Joe Yonan on MACRAMÉ ART (ill. Theo Ellsworth) | Ben Katchor on LUCITE CARRYING CASE | Debbie Millman on GLASS POODLE | Lydia Millet on ROCKY HORROR NOVEL (ill. Berta Valló) | Ben Greenman on WARHOL CAN (ill. Clara Selina Bach) | & 20 MORE.

FETISHES: INTRODUCTION | Josh Foer on DEATH MASK | Beth Lisick on MURDERED-OUT KFC BUCKET | Christina Couch on LEECH ACTION FIGURE | Kenneth Goldsmith on THEWLIS SOCK | Abby Rapoport on MAGNATILES | & 20 MORE.

FOSSILS: INTRODUCTION | Allegra Huston on SKATAWAY JACKET | Kevin Obsatz on HOMEMADE NUNCHUKS | Ian Bogost on DESKTOP TELEPHONE | Jeff Lewonczyk on CHA-CHA JACKET SCRAP | Kelly Horan on VOLVO KEY | & 20 MORE.

FLAIR: INTRODUCTION | Cliff Kuang on ROLEX DATEJUST | Ethan Zuckerman on LAPTOP STICKERS | Ann Shoket on LEATHER JACKET | Kembrew McLeod on KEMBREW MERCH | Paola Antonelli on MERMAID TEARS | & 20 MORE.

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 1): INTRODUCTION | Kate Bernheimer on MULLET WIG (ill. Amy Evans) | Dan Piepenbring on COLOGNE (ill. Josh Neufeld) | Doug Dorst on STRATOCASTER (ill. John Holbo) | Paul Lukas on VANILLA BEAN (ill. Alison Bamcat) | Mimi Lipson on DODGE DART (ill. Mister Reusch) | & 20 MORE.

ILLICIT OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Kio Stark on PEEPSHOW TOKEN | Sari Wilson on TOMBSTONE PARTS | Annalee Newitz on CAR-BOMB REMNANT | Tito Bottitta on MOONINITE DEVICE | Eric Bennett on DIRTY MAGAZINE | & 20 MORE.

TALISMANIC OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | & 20 MORE.

POLITICAL OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Luc Sante on CAMPAIGN PAMPHLETS | Lydia Millet on PVC POLAR BEAR | Ben Greenman on MATCHBOX CAR | Rob Baedeker on PRESIDENTS PLACEMAT | L.A. Kauffman on WHEATPASTE POSTER | & 20 MORE.

SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018) | FETISHES series (2Q2019) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 2 series (4Q2019) | MOVIE OBJECTS series (2Q2020). ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.

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