Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The agonizing secret meaning of a faulty lightbulb

Illustration for article titled The agonizing secret meaning of a faulty lightbulb

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.


One of the most useful and sneakily versatile entries in Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary is the “Law Of Economy Of Characters.” “Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters,” Ebert observes. “Therefore, all characters in a movie are necessary to the story—even those who do not seem to be.” His idea was that somebody lurking around the fringes of a mystery, even for no apparent reason, will eventually prove to be crucial, if not the killer… but one can and should apply that notion to elements of a movie other than characters. Stated more broadly, a General Law Of Cinematic Economy would read something like this: If it required even minimal effort to be included, it’s there for a reason. That’s not to say that the reason is necessarily a good one, but somebody clearly thought it was important at the time; anything that seems baffling or inconsequential at least demands some pondering.

Sometimes I get a bit obsessed with such anomalies. And sometimes they turn out to be happenstance—hence the words “minimal effort.” The pilot episode of Twin Peaks, for example, featured a scene lit by a flickering fluorescent lightbulb; it turned out that the bulb in question was genuinely on the fritz, but David Lynch liked the effect, so he opted not to fix it. (There’s a flubbed line of dialogue in the same scene that was left uncorrected for the same reason.) There’s another faulty lightbulb that haunts me, though, which can be found in the middle of Red, the final film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy. The scene is a fairly simple conversation between Valentine (Irène Jacob) and Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), as he talks about his former career as a judge and his power over other people’s lives. There’s an overt rupture at one point, when a rock breaks one of Kern’s windows—his neighbors are angry with him for eavesdropping on their phone conversations via ham radio. But it’s dusk, and the room is growing dark, and Kern’s casual attempt to turn on the light produces another kind of rupture altogether.

The first time I saw Red, at the time of its theatrical release, the lightbulb moment just seemed like a welcome bit of verisimilitude—one of those things that happens all the time in life but is virtually never seen in movies. In my experience, bulbs almost always die exactly like this, at the moment you switch them on; you get a teasing millisecond of illumination before the loud pop and the blackness. Usually, when this happens in a movie, it’s immediately significant—the hero needs to see and now can’t, indicating some kind of imminent danger. Here, however, it’s of no apparent importance whatsoever. The bulb blows, Kern replaces it, and the scene continues. If this detail were entirely removed, nobody unaware of it would ever sense its absence. And yet it somehow appears crucial, and while it’s possible that it was an accident that Kieslowski seized upon, the way Lynch did the flickering fluorescent bulb, I strongly doubt it. The framing is too deliberate, and you don’t start shooting a scene at this time of day, with the sun about to set and leave your actors in darkness, unless it’s by design.

When I saw the movie a second time, I focused more on the sheer beauty of this brief interlude. For one thing, it inspires a sudden shift in angles—Kieslowski had been shooting Valentine and Kern in profile, from a medium distance (the scene begins a couple of minutes prior to the start of this clip), but he switches to a closer three-quarter shot of Valentine as Kern screws in the bulb, and their subsequent conversation continues at a more intimate remove. More arresting, though, is the way that the bulb, once screwed in, casts a sudden harsh glare on Valentine’s face, which then gets muted when Kern replaces the lampshade. I should confess at this point that I’m colorblind, and that my particular form of colorblindness involves a diminished capacity to see red; while it’s obvious to me that red is everywhere in this film (to the point where I’m pretty sure I’d have noticed even without the title as a prompt), I know that I don’t perceive it as vividly as do people with normal vision. So if I’m seeing that the lamp casts a reddish glow on Valentine (but not on Kern), I can only imagine what everyone else is seeing. It must be fairly intense.

Is that explanation enough? Possibly. The trilogy is color-coded, so Kieslowski would certainly have been seeking opportunities to include more red. But he could have accomplished that without the blown bulb. What’s more, Kern says that he’s out of lightbulbs, and had to poach one from the room’s overhead light. There’s something about the swap that seems meaningful, without being pushy about it. Red repeatedly casts Kern in a godlike role—he worked as a judge, deciding who did and didn’t deserve punishment; he listens to ordinary people talk about their problems; he even appears able to influence future events—so one easy interpretation of the lightbulb moment is just “Let there be light!” And I’m guessing that’s very much intended, since the conversation is about a case in which Kern inadvertently gave someone a second chance. But why have him say that he’s out of bulbs, and steal light from another source, rather than just have him grab a new bulb from a nearby cupboard or drawer? I don’t have a ready answer for that question, yet the distinction seems significant, and the choice Kieslowski made seems correct. That’s where art ultimately lives, I think, at least for me—in the choices that feel absolutely right, even if (or maybe especially if) I can’t articulate what it is that’s right about them.

Other aspects of this scene are immensely pleasing, by the way. I’m inordinately fond of Kern telling Valentine to place the rock that was hurled through his window on the piano, where we see a bunch of other rocks that have broken other windows; his decision to keep them in a conspicuous spot, like totems, suggests a desire for penance that’s never otherwise spoken. (I also like the soft little boom into the piano that Kieslowski employs to underscore their import.) And the dialogue in the scene is aces, raising key questions about serendipity and fate that will ultimately link all three films in the trilogy. The truth is, though, that in the years that pass between my viewings of Red, I always forget the content of the scene, whereas I always remember the lightbulb. In fact, the lightbulb is the most memorable thing in the entire movie for me, more than any aspect of the narrative. Its apparent irrelevance overwhelms all else. Perhaps that’s a different, more personal law: If you can’t get it out of your head, the reason doesn’t matter.