Tag Archives: Chris McNicolls

Crosses: A Response to ‘Lovers Rock’ by Chris McNicolls

First, crosses. Crosses everywhere. Big and small. This film seems rife with
what appears to be the ultimate Christian symbol. But crosses are ancient
ciphers, they don’t only represent the crucifixion and they don’t only belong
to Christianity. Crosses, crossroads, and crossings, are deeply embedded
in Afro-Atlantic cultures and rituals. (e.g., Robert Johnson, the legendary
blues guitarist is said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroad in
return for his otherworldly skill and technique). The various crosses in the
film not only hold the Christian significance of hope and salvation but also
raise questions of oppression and captivity. (As Martha begins her journey
by bus [out of Babylon?] she observes through a window an old black man
carrying a large white cross on his shoulder, a deliberately emblematic
image that seems to stand Kipling on his head “Take up the white man’s
burden”). These various crosses also function as symbolic passages:
passages of belonging and identity, crossings between worlds,
intersections between past and present (the presence of the past), body
and soul, matter and form, the living and the dead. These various crosses
suggest an alternate cosmology along with alternative spheres and forms
of existence. This, we see in the film’s bold exploration of music and dance.
Second, music and dance. Music and dance are fundamental to this film,
and they seem to be scripted into the film in such a way as to highlight a
kind of movement of return, a kind of passage and return to a more original
time and place, a more heightened spiritual realm that remains
nonetheless deeply rooted in the bodily-material sphere (I’m here reminded
of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [1939], a work that
evokes a nostalgia for an imaginary homeland of the spirit). Thus, within
the film’s unflinching carnality we also witness a sublime ascent, a crossing
over that takes place through an abstractive movement away from very
recognizable forms, first in the popular song-form (verse/chorus/bridge),
e.g., (“Kung Fu Fighting” (Carl Douglas) “He’s The Greatest Dancer” (Sister
Sledge), “After Tonight” (Junior English), “Mr. Brown” (Gregory Isaacs),
“Silly Games” (Janet Kay), etc. These are all songs with recognizable lyrics
and strong, recognizable melodies accompanied by recognizable body
movements and dance-floor moves (kung fu postures, disco poses , slow
grinds, etc.). But these soon give way to a second, more stripped back,

instrumental, percussive and rhythmically driven minimalist dub aesthetic.
In this deepening of the Afro-British aesthetic, the music is stripped bare of
words and melody and is held in place in the lower register solely by drum
and bass. (“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”).
Guitar and horns and keys are interjected percussively and rhythmically,
and like the dancing that now accompanies it, they appear distorted,
floating in sonic, otherworldly fashion. (This is made to happen through
delay, feedback, and reverb, etc.) And so with “Minstrel Pablo” (Augustus
Pablo), we begin the ascension, the crossing over from the material to the
spiritual, the worldly to the ascetic. Couples give way to individuals dancing
by themselves but within a collective. And the dancing is fierce,
transcendent, the mood majestic and eternal. The song now on heavy
rotation is “Kunta Kinte Dub” by The Revolutionaries. (Remember
“Roots”?) To maintain this ecstatic moment, the record is rewound three
times. By the time the music and the dancing crescendo, arms are lifted
and there is a repeated, collectively euphoric shout of “Jah Ras Tafari.”
(The lifting of the arm in this manner is an old Kongo gesture, a way of
touching the most elevated moment of the sun to gather up the energy and
force of the divine. Yet, this ancient Kongo gesture of the dancers is equally
deeply intertwined with the Christian-Hebraic tradition: “Sing unto God, sing
praises to his name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his
name JAH, and rejoice before him.” [Psalm 68: 4]).
We’ve just been to “church,” an electronically, sound-system driven version
of a “binghi” (an all-night drumming session) and have witnessed a
collective, spiritual transformation.
As the young protagonist Martha boards the bus to return home, who does
she see? That old man again, and he is reassembling that big old white
cross to lift once more on his shoulder. We’re reentering Babylon, but not
quite the same way as when we left.

An observation on colour design in Scarface

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The image above is from one of Scarface‘s most iconic moments: ‘say hello to my little friend’. Practically everyone knows or has heard the line either in the movie or cited or imitated elsewhere. Pacino’s performance is galvanising and his reading of that line unforgettable: we now have over 35 years’ evidence that this is so. But what caught my eye in my most recent viewing is how the film’s set, costume and colour design — not to mention all other elements of mise-en-scène — also build up to this moment.

The red-carpet is like a pathway of blood, leading up to that oh-so-white and oh-so-deadly — ‘don’t get high on your own supply’ — little mountain of coke on the desk, all the darkness of the furniture showing edges of gold, including those two big bars that seem to frame the desk itself. It’s like the colour of killing leads to the whiteness of the coke, which is nonetheless enshrouded in the darkness one has accept and travel through to get to the gold. It’s patterned, meaningful, great use of colour and set design. Note also that foot and the patch of purple or violet on the lower right-hand side of the frame. Most of this post will be about that.

But before that let’s just establish how the colour is designed and patterned. Note below, Tony Montana’s phone call after the chainsaw scene with the Columbians were he manages to obtain both the coke and the money in spite of the suspicion that he’s been set up by by Omar (F. Murray Abraham). It’s what leads to his first contact with Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia) The image is almost the inverse one of the scene where Lopez himself decides to off Tony Montana and which will instead lead to his own demise. See images below. It’s like the colours of the shirt in the picture on the left have been rendered onto the landscape that’s a backdrop and then combined so that the landscape is painted in the colours of the shirt and then transposed as the wallpaper that is a backdrop to a newly endangered Tony in Frank Lopez’s office. The first is a ‘Hello Frank’ moment. The latter is a ‘Goodbye Tony Montana that ends up being Goodby Frank Lopez’ moment. And the link between them, how one is the result but opposite of the other is partly communicated through a similar inversion and transposition of colour.

Another example of this consistent, patterned and expressive use of colour is the use of red. The first frame-grab below on the left is the two pillars of red that frames the entrance of Tony and Manny (Steven Bauer) into Frank’s house. In the second we see that the house is meant to evoke rich Miami moderne, so the red remains an accent if vibrantly evident. In the third as they sit down to discuss business with Frank, the red occupies the bottom third, but now the black predominates in the leather sofas, and Frank is wearing the colour of his merchandise, cocaine. Then compare this again to the final shootout at Tony’s mansion on the last frame, where the red predominates, the black, gold is evident and carried through, and the the sculpture that ironically proclaims the world is yours is in gold and dead centre.

To return to the ‘say hello to my little friend’ image from the beginning and the peek of purple at the bottom right of the frame, the colour of the nightgown Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the person Tony loved most was wearing when he killed the second person he loved the most, Manny. She’s still wearing it after being killed in his own office. When I saw it I wrote a note to myself:

‘Colours converge at the end, sister wearing husband’s mauve which he’s been associated throughout, the carpet of red, leading to the gold, the black and the cocaine, all the dominant colours of the last set-pice in the house with the world is yours fountain at the end, borrowed wholesale from the neon sign in the original film.

‘The World is Yours’ appears often in the film, sometimes written onto airborn Zeppelins, sometimes as a sculpture outside the new Montana headquarters,, sometimes in Tony’s own office, and at the end as the centrepiece in the middle of the dual staircase (see below).

I had a theory about the colour purple based on this image below:

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It’s the moment where Tony kills Manny. Manny has been dressed in or surrounded by the spectrum of colours between red and blue that generally centres on violet. Manny is newly married and robed in white (and, after Tony, shoots him splattered in red). As you can see below there is hardly a scene in the film (I noted two important but brief exception) where Manny is not wearing some form of violet. My theory was that marriage had transferred his colour onto that of his wife.

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Even when naked Manny is surrounded in violet (here through the colour of his bed). Note also the golden hues of the bedding and the blonde.

However, looking back on the film I see that this is not quite the case. Gina has also been wearing that colour throughout the film and in fact in their first proper meeting where he takes her home, they’re both wearing slightly different shades of the same colour.

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When Tony makes his sister’s dream come true neither Gina nor Manny is wearing violet but they are surrounded by its various hues. Would it be too much to say it’s as if surrounded by a kind of love?

If violet/purple can be seen as the colour of Tony’s loves, then that little peek of purple by the foot in lower right hand corner of the image that began this post signifies all that his striving to make the world his has cost Tony. The darkness, the coke, the blood is still there with more intensity to come albeit only for a brief time. But that which was love is now dead, barely there and receding fast. It’s great and expressive use of colour throughout the film and this is only but a brief example.

Patricia Norris deserves credit for the costume design; Bruce Weintraub for the set decoration, Edward Richardson for the Art Direction, and Brian De Palma for drawing on Ferdinando Scarfiotti as visual consultant and co-ordinating all of it.



Chris McNicolls has brought to my attention the following: ‘Along with black, violet/mauve are colours of death and mourning in many cultures, so in a way its use seem to foreshadow how things are going to end with Manny and Tony’s sister. But in Cuban culture in particular, especially in its African inflected influences, mauve/violet are the colours of the goddess Oya, that imperious lady who rules the cemetery. And in that frame where Tony emerges from his office on that red carpet with his little friend. The entire setting is dominated by violet/purple and that raging red which, not surprising, is the colour of Oya’s one-time consort, Chango/Shango the lord of fire, lightning, and destruction. And let me tell you, his manly prowess is far from little, hence Tony’s ironic description.’

Andrew Griffin has noted that, ‘I assume that De Palma has a Roman Catholic heritage, as do some of the others on the design team for this film, and knew the Liturgical Colour Code, sort of a Handkerchief Code for Catholics. Purple/Violet is the colour of sacrifice; red the colour of the passion of the Christ.

More things to think about and pursue.


José Arroyo