Back-ting and Mirrors

If you’ve been around here for a while, you know how I love moments where actors have their back to the camera (back-ting) and moments where characters stare at themselves in the mirror. I started mulling about this 15 years ago, it’s insane, and I’ve devoted two pieces solely to these two things. It started as an observation about men in 1970s movies. You basically couldn’t call yourself a male movie star in the 1970s if you didn’t have a good mirror moment. But then … I’d catch a mirror moment in a movie from the 30s, or the 50s, or … then I’d catch them in the silents. Mirror moments are a constant in cinema. And then I started seeing mirror moments stretching back in literature before cinema. It’s a great metaphor: man confronting himself, DEALING with himself, either checking in or glorifying himself in a miasma of denial and grandiosity. (Mirror moments are more common for men than women, and we can speculate on why. I do so in the mirror piece. This is not to say that women haven’t had great mirror moments, they have, but a lot of cultural baggage about women’s appearances have to be gotten out of the way.) And then there’s back-ting: it’s a test of skill for the actor, to convey emotion through the back, and it’s another great metaphor for how closed off we can be, and how also we don’t need words to communicate.

Two movies I watched last month BOTH have a great back-ting moment AND a great mirror moment.

Once you start looking for them, you see them everywhere.

Jack back-ting in “Five Easy Pieces”. He knows what’s through that door. He’s gearing up. All expressed through his back.

Jack’s mirror moment in “Five Easy Pieces”. Where he makes up his mind what to do in the final moment of the film. A brutal choice. He’s reckoning with himself: Should I do this? Or: Okay, I am GOING to do this, so let me take one last look at myself in the mirror, because I won’t be able to face myself from here on out.

Harriet Andersson back-ting in “Summer with Monika” – our first glimpse of her, in stark contrast to her dead-on to-camera stare later in the film.

Andersson’s mirror moment in “Summer with Monika”. She’s left the Eden of her first love affair. She’s trapped. She is 17 years old. She’s staring at herself, taking a look at who she is, looking for her essential self, now lost. Also perhaps contemplating what she wants to do, a moment of reckoning similar to Nicholson’s in “Five Easy Pieces”

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2 Responses to Back-ting and Mirrors

  1. Lud says:

    You mentioned “mirror scenes” in literature and I immediately remembered Sydney Carton’s on Tale of Two Cities. That one really affected me, so I instantly thought of it, but I wonder how many others are there that I have missed…
    I really love this kind of posts.
    I know nothing about acting, but I feel as if you were teaching me a bit! So thank you.

    • sheila says:

      Lud – ooooh Sydney Carton!! that’s such a good one and I’m sorry i didn’t think of it – thank you! He is a character MADE for a mirror moment, right? Because of the public persona vs. the private man – because of the inner conflict – a mirror allows us to SEE all that.

      I’m going to look that passage up today. (He’s one of my favorite literary characters!)

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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