Notes on the Interplay of the Vulgar and the Funereal in Robert Mulligan’s Same Time, Next Year and The Man in the Moon

Critical idioms fail a film like Same Time, Next Year, which, despite its more eccentric moments, is a beautiful film about the passing of time. Mulligan is a master of adjusting to the modulations in subject, tone, and emotion within a scene: his films contain silences, pauses, and prolonged periods where we might simply observe the back of a character’s head as they turn away from the camera, or moments of quiet while somebody pauses to retrace their steps in an argument. Sometimes, a scene written with the subtlety of soap opera is filled out by these masterful gaps and his deftness with punctuating dialogue with small visual asides. He’ll often frame two figures head on in an argument, and much like Albert Brooks, his refusal to cut teases every detail out of a scene. Doris and George argue about politics in Same Time, Next Year: the scene, set in the late 1960s, depicts Doris’ transformation into flower-child and George’s newfound conservatism (both of which, initially, grate unbearably as playwright’s gimmick). The argument between the two, which at first seems to be heading towards didacticism, veers off into new terrain, as George admits that his worldview was soured by the death of his son at the hands of a Vietnamese sniper. A quiet falls on the scene, and like all these beautiful moments in Mulligan’s films, we are forced into a moment of staggering breathlessness.

Consider the scene in The Man in the Moon where the pregnant mother Abigail wanders into the yard at night, searching for Dani, her daughter, away swimming at the creek. Abigail steps out into the wind, and wanders aimlessly into the darkness. Spotting her daughter’s shirt, strewn on the back of a lounge chair, she takes it in her hand and calls out for Dani. As the young girl appears in the distance, running towards the house, Abigail, filled with worry, wildly sets out to meet her. Mulligan’s camera, with a fluid sideways motion, follows her path. It ducks behind the family truck as Abigail approaches the fence. As in Ford, we see her framed through a fence or a grid—first with the hood of the family truck peeping out from under the bottom of the frame, and then through the wind-shield and the passenger-side window. Mulligan cuts to a breathless Dani, who stumbles coming through the garden gate. This is then echoed by Abigail who, panic-stricken, lurches forward towards her fallen daughter. Her foot is caught in a sinewy tree root poking out of the ground and she falls forward. The camera ducks behind a tree. We do not see the fall, but, instead, the front door of the house flying open and Dani’s father Matthew emerging in confusion.

Dani approaches and sees her father tending to her incapacitated mother. Mulligan’s mise-en-scène is vividly subjective, and Abigail, lying amongst the tree roots with a bloodied forehead, is revealed to us only when the perspective correlates with Dani’s. The mother’s fall, which at first strikes us as broad and out-of-place, is then contextualised by the subsequent stillness; a new moment which suddenly becomes powerfully sombre. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, abrupt shifts in tone such as these could undo the flow of a film. In Mulligan, they deafen and overwhelm us with sadness.

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