“Do you like those ugly concrete boxes?”
(add difficult horizontal expression to the eyes and lips, meaning the most supreme contempt)
“Well do you?”
“What could you ever see in them?”
(I start to sweat a little. I don’t want to be rude to my recent acquaintance holding a glass of white wine. I mumble an excuse, a quick and nasty betrayal on my actual thoughts on the matter – aesthetics doesn’t make good conversation)
So here is my answer, unfortunately with esprit de l’escalier:
There is morality in the box
As most films that have their origin in a play, the 1996 film adaptation of Henry Miller’s “The Crucible”, an account of the 1692 Salem witch hunt, has to develop its themes in a compressed, recurring setting, the result of the transposition of stage into set.
(I immediately think about another 1996 movie, “American Buffalo”, that I saw as a 13 year old kid. Completely lost in its dialogue I only realized at the end that the whole movie was set in the same room.)
In “The Crucible” we are constantly reminded of the size and the isolation of the community, to the point where one starts to be able to draw a mental map of the small village – the courtroom, the preacher’s house, John Proctor’s house, the forest.
It’s a good sign.
In the most powerful sequence, close to the beginning, we see the village’s population coming together, descending on the courtroom. It’s a significant moment – from then on Salem is no longer in the same state, it has gone from the dichotomy of daily life, shared between the family and the community, the fields and the homes, prayer and profanity into a state of exception and hysteria.
For the plot to work,
(and remember, the plot did work, people did hang)
there is a need for something to represent order and man’s daily struggle to overcome nature.
That’s where the buildings come in.
The village’s buildings all look very similar. They all carry the vague proportions of a castle; slightly higher than they are wide: not many openings.
One connects very easily the houses to the people that built them and their context. They are a result of a transformation of wild and unruly matter into strict shapes.
And that is the tension that pervades the whole movie, a tension between what happens in the forest and what happens in the village and we are always aware that from the forest came the village and that it still carries within it some of the forest’s anima.
The camerawork reinforces this tension:
The exterior shots are informal and focus on the monumentality of the panorama and on the desires of the individual.
The interior shots are symmetrical. We see tables, places of gathering, rows of people, pulpits.
People subordinated to the geometry of spaces and things.
This is the morality in the box:
A codification of behavior that is both symbolic and functional and that is given by the simplest shapes, the embodiment of puritanism.
And when it’s not fetishized and mocked, it is one of the many incarnations of beauty.