It’s a ‘Reel’ Piece of Work: Art in THE REF
11 December 2011
Ted Demme’s 1994 comedy The Ref (originally titled Hostile Hostages) would have been and instant Christmas classic had it not been released in March. Complications with the studio displaced the holiday film to a late winter release, that awful time of year after award season when nobody goes to films because, generally, nothing is worth seeing. The outlandish release date hit The Ref hard, and to this day many people still don’t know about this hilarious holiday treat.
In brief, The Ref is takes place on Christmas Eve when the Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline (Judy Davis) Chasseur (that’s 18th century French Huguenot) are held hostage in their own house by a burglar, Gus (Dennis Leary). Gus attempted to rob a rich home in Old Baybrook, Connecticut, where Lloyd and Caroline live. The robbery went wrong and Gus must hide out until his partner, Murray (Richard Bright), can help him escape Old Baybrook. Unfortunately for Gus, Lloyd and Caroline are on the verge of a divorce and bicker with each other relentlessly. Although Gus is the one with the gun, Lloyd and Caroline are the two constantly taking aim and firing. Additionally, the extended Chasseur family (again, that’s 18th century French Huguenot), consisting of Mother Rose (Glynis Johns), Gary (Adam LeFevre), Lloyd’s brother, Connie (Christine Baranski), his wife, and their two children, John (Phillip Nicoll) and Mary (Ellie Raab), arrives about half way through the film to celebrate the holiday with Lloyd and Caroline. Not wanting the family to know he is a burglar on the run from the police, Gus poses as a Lloyd and Caroline’s marriage therapist, which puts him right in the middle of their conflict. As it turns out, the guests bicker just as much as Lloyd and Caroline, which makes the audience howl with laughter, but Gus fume with frustration. Ultimately, evident from the film’s title, Gus’ role becomes referee in the dysfunctional, yet uproarious family.
Mother Rose is a wealthy woman, but does not share her wealth with her children; in fact, Lloyd and Caroline’s house is Mother Rose’s, a detail she never lets them forget. Mother Rose requires the couple to pay her rent, which she ups with interest charges each year. Additionally, the house is full of artwork and antiques, all belonging to Mother Rose. Demme uses the artwork and antiques to enhance his visual storytelling. At one point in the film, Gus notices a Marc Chagall piece hanging on the wall. Caroline comments, “It’s my mother-in-laws. Every time I pass it I feel her eyes on me,” and then offers it to Gus as a way of freeing herself. It is important the painting is a Chagall because, at times, and specifically in regards to the piece of art used in The Ref, Chagall’s work represents Jewish oppression and the Holocaust. Although The Ref does not discuss Jewish culture or the Holocaust (it is a Christmas movie), Caroline’s feelings of oppression aligns with the theme in Chagall’s piece. Demme uses the art to subtly enhance the moment in his film; this interaction with artwork continues as the film nears its conclusion.
Toward the end of the film, during the climactic family brawl in Lloyd and Caroline’s living room, a few pieces of art play intricate roles. First, as the family members make their way into the room, Mother Rose, irritated, asks why per portrait is not hanging over the fireplace. To pacify, Gary places the large painting of Mother Rose over the mantle. The painting’s placement the painting in relation to the actor’s blocking and camera positioning enriches the final conflict.
The family’s fight kicks off when Lloyd gives Mother Rose, who sits in an armchair in front of the fireplace, a check for Christmas, as a payment on the loan he and Caroline owe. Caroline, under her breath, insults her mother-in-law by calling her a vulgar name, which, of course, everyone overhears, including Mother Rose, thus igniting the (much-needed) fight. As soon as the sparks begin to fly, which, at first, is between Caroline and Mother Rose, Lloyd stands between his mother and her portrait: his mother sits in the chair in front of him, and the painting is hanging behind him. Initially, Lloyd is irritated with Caroline for beginning this argument and tells her to “stop it.” Interestingly, when Lloyd tells Caroline to stop, the camera captures Lloyd in a medium shot with a full view of Mother Rose’s portrait behind him. At this point in the argument Lloyd’s disapproval of Caroline’s actions align with Mother Rose’s feeling toward Caroline, thus her painting valiantly stands tall behind him.
Ignoring Lloyd’s statement, Caroline and Mother Rose continue their argument; however, inevitably, Lloyd reenters the fight, after which it becomes, primarily, between Lloyd and Caroline. As Lloyd attempts to express his feeling and thoughts calmly and sincerely the room erupts in chaos, forcing Lloyd to take a fireplace poker over to his Christmas tree and start whacking it feverishly, shutting everyone up (except, perhaps, the audience who are doubled over in laughter). Once Lloyd reclaims the room’s attention, he resumes his initial stance—next to his mother in the chair and in front of the looming portrait on the mantle. He blasts Caroline for problems within their relationship. This is a different Lloyd; he is angry and unrefined. And, to compliment the change in Lloyd, the camera continues to capture him in a medium shot, but Mother Rose’s head in the portrait behind him is cut from the frame. Literally, the shot decapitates Mother Rose, and figuratively Lloyd’s new-found voice severs his mother’s ability to control him.
Yet, while still seated in front of Lloyd, Mother Rose, not recognizing the significant change in Lloyd, tries to interrupt him, saying, “What difference does any of this make now. You’re getting a divorce.” The camera, which had maintained the medium shot of Lloyd with the decapitated painting in the background, now switches to a low-angle shot of Lloyd. Low angles generally signal the person or thing captured is in a position of power, as the camera looks up at him/her/it. Furthermore, with this angle, the painting in the background is once again in full view, head and all. Enraged that his mother has interrupted the argument he was having with Caroline, Lloyd, for the first time, lashes out at Mother Rose, saying, “Mother. Is it possible for you to shut the fuck up for 10 seconds?”
This line paired with this camera positioning is perfect. Mother Rose is still seated in front of Lloyd; they are facing one another, thus there would be no way to include both her face and Lloyd’s straight on in one shot. Demme came up with the next best thing. In having Mother Rose’s portrait hanging behind Lloyd, and reintroducing her face in the frame, the camera’s low angle shot is looking at Lloyd and Mother Rose’s faces (hers in the portrait) as he delivers his wickedly sarcastic question. What makes this even more perfect is that Mother Rose sits in the same position in the living room as she sits in her portrait. Therefore, the audience can see, straight on, Lloyd deliver the line and Mother Rose receive it.
While the Chagall and Mother Rose’s portrait were clever and subtly communicative incorporations of art in The Ref, there is a final placement of art, also during this climactic family fight, which is much less sophisticated. Caroline stands on the far side of the living room during this scene. At times she remains stationary in the corner, and other times she paces. Yet, no matter where Caroline positions herself in the room there are always dogs behind her: in the corner there are two ceramic statues of white dogs displayed on a shelf, and as she paces there is a painting, hanging on the wall behind her, of two dogs fighting. Like previous inclusions of art, Demme is incorporating the artwork that decorates the set to enhance the film; however, unlike his clever inclusions of Chagall and Mother Rose’s portrait, the dogs around Caroline are objectionable.
Surrounding Caroline with dogs is dehumanizing and degrading; moreover, the obvious implication from the shot is that Caroline is a bitch. Additionally, as she paces, and the painting of the two dogs fighting comes in the frame, the first person she fights with is Mother Rose; therefore, the dogs fighting represent Caroline and Mother Rose. This insinuation is unnecessary and sexist. Again, at this climactic moment in the film, the fight ensuing between the characters is quick-witted but profoundly poignant, so this cheap and thoughtless insinuation by the director through the statues and painting of dogs demeans and undercuts the emotional moment occurring within the film.
All in all, Demme’s attempt to pull in artwork from the set is respectable, as it enriches and builds complexity in his storytelling. Overlooking, for a moment, Demme’s misstep at the end, The Ref is one of the funniest holiday films, and it is a shame such an entertaining film got cursed with an unfortunate release date.