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Allgemein The First and The Last

The First and The Last: The Florida Project

I recenly saw “The Florida Project” for the first time. The film episodically captures the events in the life of six-year-old Moonee over one summer as she lives in a budget motel near Disneyworld with her unemployed mother, mucks around, and wreaks havoc on the residents and the motel manager with her friends.

Despite the lack of actual plot, I found it to be oddly captivating and it had me in tears by the end of it. It was a refreshingly authentic, unbiased and unexpectedly well-acted take on the life of lower-class America, largely portrayed through the eyes of a child. In honor of this excellent film (and because I am a firm believer in the significance of beginnings and endings in media), I thought I’d take a look at the first and the last shot of The Florida Project in order to determine what exactly made the ending so touching. Obviously, spoilers ahead.


Plot Summary

As my interpretation will focus on protagonist Moonee and her friends, I will summarise only the events necessary to understand their relationship. The film gives commentary on a whole lot of other interesting aspects and I can only recommend to see the film for yourself.

The film starts off as Moonee and her friends Dicky and Scooty pay a special visit to newly arrived residents at the neighbouring motel: they spit on the newcomer’s car which seems to be an established practice. However, they are caught by the woman who owns the car and have to clean it up. They meet Jancey, the woman’s granddaughter, whom they befriend and take with them on their adventures around the area, which include (amongst others) scrounging money from tourists to buy ice cream, annoying the motel manager, and breaking into abandoned holiday homes. When they set fire to one of said homes and Dicky’s mother finds out, she forbids Dicky from playing with Moonee again. Around the same time, Scooty and his father leave the motel, leaving Jancey as Moonee’s primary friend. Throughout the film, it is also established that Moonee’s mother Haley continuously struggles to pay the weekly rent. Her measures to earn money become increasingly more desperate, which finally prompts a child care service to show up. Moonee is afraid of being separated from her mother, so she runs away from the social workers to find Jancey. Together, they run away from the motel and escape to Disneyworld.

The First Shot

The first shot of the film sees protagonist Moonee and her friend Dicky sitting on the ground, leaning against a purple wall. Both stare around relaxed but disinterested, Moonee’s feet tapping together every now and then. Everything is silent except for the distant sound of cars rushing by and the cawing of seagulls. Then, from the distance of the off screen, we hear a boy call out their names and they turn their heads, excitement spreading on their faces, towards the approaching Scooty.

The shot is static and perfectly captures the perceived passivity of the two children, even as the atmosphere shifts from bored indifference to one of excitement and curiosity. They are merely reacting to their surroundings and they seem a bit lost. This is a stark contrast to the upcoming scene where they will go on to spit on someone’s car and an even stronger contrast to the rest of the film where the children are shown bossing everyone around, randomly insulting people and basically just doing whatever they want. I think this opening shot and its contrast to the rest of the film serves to ground the viewer and remind us that these are after all just children. Foul mouthed, bratty children, but still children after all. Of course, the seemingly peaceful shot is immediately inverted by Scooty’s arrival and his almost battle cry-like declaration “Freshies at the Future!”, which prompts them to run over to the Future Land Motel and just, well, spit on a car. Still children.

The Last Shot

The last shot tracks Moonee and Jancey, hand in hand, as they run through the crowds at Disneyland towards the iconic Magic Kingdom Castle, dodging bystanders. Jancey is clearly the one in charge, being more decisive and guiding Moonee through the crowd. Contrary to the first shot, the two children here do not seem lost at all: they seem to know exactly where they are going. They run towards the Castle, and here the movie ends.

This shot is obviously more active and chaotic than the first one. The sense of chaos is heightened by the shaky camera work. While it is unclear whether this scene actually happens or only takes place in Moonee’s imagination, the feeling of loss of control, which Moonee certainly experiences, is expressed here, not only by the chaos but also through the characters themselves: It’s Jancey who leads the way, she’s the one making the decisions.

A re-occuring motif that is – in my understanding – key to understanding the ending is kingdom. Moonee lives at the Magic Castle Motel which is, quite literally, a magic castle to her: Here, she can do whatever she wants. It often seems like she has more control over the place than the manager Bobby himself. At various times the movie shows her easily escaping from infuriated adults because she just knows her way around the motel so well. She also knows where the important maintenance rooms are and messes with everyone as she switches off the electricity at one point. Bobby is left to deal with the situation and try to limit the damage. And while she is often reproached for her antics, she never gets into any serious trouble for it. The motel is her kingdom and she is the ruler.

Now, I have never been to Florida, so I don’t know if these motels are maybe all really as exceptionally coloured as in the film, but I’m sure that director Sean Baker chose the outstanding purplish colour for a reason.

Purple is a regal colour and is often associated with magic. Moreover, it is a colour many young girls might want their house to be painted in if you’d ask them. Some of the film’s more quiet scenes in which we see Moonee play with fairy dolls and unicorn toys tie into this notion that the motel really is a magic, fantastical kingdom to Moonee. It’s her paradise.

Towards the ending this paradise, her kingdom, is intruded by forces far out of her control: The child-care service threatens to destroy her perfect life. Everything falls apart as she is threatened to be separated from her mother. Her reign over this place is coming to an end, so the only option for her is to escape and oh, escape she does. She runs away to Future (!) Land Motel where Jancey lives. She gives up her leadership and is lead to Disneyworld by Jancey.

This is an interesting shift in the dynamic, considering that Moonee has been the more dominant figure in their friendship throughout the film. Moonee “surrenders” in a way to her friend, trusting that Jancey will make the right decisions and care for her. This is what makes the ending endearing in a rather wicked way: Moonee goes through the emotional turmoil of being separated from her mother and for the first time in the film, she doesn’t come up with a plan to evade a difficult situation. She is out of control.

Jancey’s destination is the Magic Kingdom Castle in Disneyworld, the manifestation of dreams come true for people of all ages. It stands for fantasy, and magic, and harmony, it is a promise of the classic fairy-tale ending. All will be well and they lived happily ever after…. It is a beacon of hope to these two lost children, a last resort, a safe place they can turn to when everything falls apart. It is peak escapism; Jancey wants to take Moonee here because she thinks this is where everything will be all right. It is her attempt to provide comfort for Moonee after Moonee has helped her feel comfortable and at home after moving to Future Land.

The film’s tag line, Find Your Kingdom, parallels this sentiment of hope: Somewhere in the world, there is a place where you are safe. I don’t think that the safe place for Moonee is Disneyworld, I think the safety comes from her friendship with Jancey: After all, in the touching climax of the film, Moonee runs off to seek out Jancey’s help and when she finally finds her, she is unable to detail her current situation. She only knows that she might not every see Jancey again. And Jancey, despite not understanding Moonee’s distress, wants to help, knows she needs to help and she takes care of the situation by seeking out the Magic Kingdom Castle. Jancey’s willingness to help Moonee is more decisive and significant than their going to Disneyworld (which we have no proof of actually happening). I find the ending to be a wonderful testimony to their friendship, especially seeing that when they first met, Moonee literally spat on Jancey. So even though the starting point of their relationship seemed to be hostile and unfavourable, something wonderful still managed to flourish from that point on.

“You know why this is my favorite tree?”

“Why?”

“‘Cause it’s tipped over, and it’s still growing.”

Moonee and Jancey

The First and The Last will be a series of essays aiming to examine the opening scene, shot or line of a film, chapter or line of a book, verse of a poem or song, or the first episode of a series and compare it to the last scene, shot, line, chapter, verse or episode in order to highlight character evolution, thematic shifts and plot development.

Categories
Literary Analysis

Jane Eyre & Physiognomy

A curious aspect that struck me while reading Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 classic Jane Eyre is the particular way in which she tends to describe her characters: physical features are often linked to character traits, a practice that was apparently very popular in the 19th century and that we nowadays have come to know as physiognomy.

The following contains minor spoilers for Jane Eyre. Proceed at your own risk.


“[…] there was something about his nostril, his mouth, his brow, which, to my perceptions, indicated elements within either restless, or hard, or eager.”

Bell/Brontë, 1847, p.351 *

The above mentioned quote describes protagonist Jane Eyre’s cousin St. John Rivers. What’s so special about it, you ask? Well, apparently, our protagonist can, with a simple glance on the facial features of her companion, determine at once that his character is of a rather ambitious, determined and/or uneasy disposition. It is just one of many examples throughout the book that showcases this practice. Another instance of it can be found, although in slightly different fashion, earlier in the book, when Jane and her employer, Mr Rochester, converse about the latter’s appearance:

“He lifted up the sable waves of hair which lay horizontally over his brow, and showed a solid enough mass of intellectual organs, but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have risen.”

Bell/Brontë, 1847, p.134 *

Here, apparently, the shape of Mr Rochester’s forehead leads Jane to believe that he is considerably intelligent while simultaneously lacking in benevolence. What is going on here are two very similar practices: physiognomy and phrenology.

What are those?

Physiognomy is the practice of deducing character traits from someone’s (usually facial) features. It is closely linked to phrenology which is a practice based on the assumption that certain characteristics and psychological traits (like memory or intelligence, for example) are located in certain regions of the brain. A strong development of a certain area would then cause a protrusion of the cranial bone which then enables you to determine someone’s traits by examining the shape of their skull. According to charts assembled by German doctor Franz Joseph Gall who propagated this theory, the “spirit for murder”, for example, is located behind one’s ears towards the back of the head, so a protrusion of this part of your skull would suggest to a phrenologist that you are a particularly murderous individual.

It can be easily seen from the explanation of these two practices that they are not… well…. unproblematic in their implications. Classifying people on the basis of their looks opens the door towards a lot of problems, raging from discrimination to blunt racism. Nowadays, we have stopped assigning any credibility or scientific value to physiognomy (it is in fact classified as a pseudoscience) but in the eighteenth century, it was considered as a respectable scientific endeavour of great utility (cf. Fara, 2003, p.495).

Admittedly, I for my part am very glad that physiognomy is no longer an accepted practice because I am acutely aware of the possibility of misuse. However, I have come across a different proponent of the theory in a recent university seminar about Kant and teleologic philosophy. Now, Kant and his teleology might be topics for another time (or maybe not, he’s a real pain to read). In philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s work The World as Will and Representation I encountered the concept of physiognomy for the first time and, as I was reading Jane Eyre at the time, this is where I first thought, “Hey, that sounds a lot like how Charlotte Brontë describes her characters.”. And now, we’re here (hooray for the transfer of study content to private life!). Back to Schopenhauer: he gave us a different explanation for why physiognomy might be a meaningful concept.

Physiognomy as a teleological concept

First of all, let’s briefly talk about teleology: it is a doctrine that contends that there is an end or a goal immanent to every (natural) process. Schopenhauer in his principal work The World as Will and Representation presents his understanding that the will (as an aimlessly wandering instinct or principle) is the underlying force behind everything. He claims that all physical objects are manifestations of the will, in other words, he describes the will as a force that shapes the appearance of every entity, living or not. Especially in the case of humans the will plays an exceptionally outstanding role in the physical representation (cf. Schopenhauer, 1818, p.197). In Volume 2 of his work (which is titled The Objectification of the Will), Schopenhauer talks about different stages of said objectification: humans are on the highest level of the objectification of the will. There is a broad range of different characters among the human race and the individual will of each human is mirrored in its unique physique/ physiognomy. For Schopenhauer, each human is the representation of one unique idea (cf. Schopenhauer, 1818, p.198) and therefore, humans differ greatly in their appearance. However, the lower the level, the more is the individuality lost and the more dominant are the general traits of the species. A certain animal, for example, shares its traits with the rest of its species, there is little individual variance (cf. Schopenhauer, 1818, p.198). Plants exist on the lowest level, they all look more or less the same and their differences can usually be attributed to external influences (cf. Schopenhauer, 1818, p.198).

I found the notion that each human is its unique idea very poetic in itself, however it gives way to the same implications as discussed above. In general, it is hugely problematic to assign a specific idea (i.e. a fixed character) to a human individual because it is unclear whether any such notion is compatible with personal development, character growth and individual responsibility. The theory that we are all fundamentally different isn’t hugely beneficial for a social coexistence either. But this didn’t start out as a critique of Schopenhauer’s teleological theory. The question at hand is a different one.

what does all this mean for Jane Eyre, Though?

Reader, an excellent question. To be honest, it is (for me at least) quite puzzling that Brontë refers to physiognomy for her characterisation so frequently. After all, the novel constantly inverts classical beauty in a way that most of the characters described as beautiful, handsome or good-looking turn out as untalented, bland or not particularly kind. Blanche Ingram, the dowager’s daughter rumored to marry Mr Rochester, impresses everyone greatly with her “[…] sloping shoulders, the graceful neck, the dark eyes and black ringlets […]” (Bell/Brontë, 1847, p.175) but Jane sees right through her, calling her satirical and arrogant. Similarly, Jane’s pupil, Adèle, is a strikingly adorable child, beautiful with her long blond locks and cute face (cf. Bell/Brontë, 1847, p.102), however, as Mr Rochester admits, she isn’t outstandingly intelligent and while not completely talentless, she is not exceedingly successful in her artistic pursuits either. The third and last (and most striking) example is St. John Rivers, Jane’s cousin: he is tall and slim, his face is “pure in outline: quite a straight, classic nose; quite an Athenian mouth and chin” (Bell/Brontë, 1847, p.350). And even though he is an outstanding example of Greek beauty, he is cold at heart and obsessed with his self-declared mission to go to Asia as a missionary.

So, while the novel constantly reminds us that appearance isn’t everything, that looks are deceiving, it also puts emphasis on the fact that someone’s physicality can reveal certain character traits. How come? The most intuitive (and simple) answer I can find to this question is that Jane Eyre is simply a testimony to its time. Physiognomy was after all an established practice in the nineteenth century and it is not surprising for a novel written in that time to mirror this circumstance. On the one hand, it seems to be a common trope of 19th century fiction (which I cannot myself attest to yet but I will keep an eye on it). On the other hand, Brontë maybe wanted to emphasise Jane’s pure and unbiased character. Maybe being able to tell someone’s character from their looks is the skill of a true philanthropist, of an expert judge of character, such as Jane is. She can peer behind the veil of appearance and see one’s true human nature. And that, I guess, is what makes her a true independent, self-determined person.


* Sources:

– Brontë, Charlotte (2008): Jane Eyre, Signet Classics (the copy I used)

– Schopenhauer, Arthur (1973): Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Bd.1 (The World as Will and Representation, Volume 1), Darmstadt, pp.196-198

– Fara, Patricia (2003): Marginalized Practices, in Porter, Roy (ed.) (2003): The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 4: Eighteenth-century science, Cambridge University Press, pp. 495–497