Reading Film: Seeing the Mark in Nightmare Alley (2021)

What is Close Reading?

Nightmare Alley poses the question: when should you stop reading? It focuses on a man who cannot stop manipulating people’s deepest need, going beyond just entertaining them and descending to a far more intense and lucrative game. This ‘game’ is framed as a type of reading, a close read if you will. The con man, Stan Carlisle, learns how to close read from a magician’s manual, one which teaches you how to find people in little details. Everything from the way they hold their clutch to how they style their shoes and hair. It all holds meaning for those willing to seek it. While Stan’s ability to close read people is astonishing, even praiseworthy, he goes too far. He abandons his teachers’ fundamental code to apologize and stop the magic after a show, should it begin to go too far or get too emotional. When he first learns how to read a mark, he is told to never lie about your ability. Essentially, to show people behind the curtain just to politely let them know that your reading is not absolute. You are just interpreting what you see, and while your interpretation might feel true, it’s not the only truth.

“People are desperate to tell you who they are. Desperate to be seen.”

Close reading is a dangerous skill. It’s when you can look at something and see more then what is initially present. It’s looking at a pair of shoes and knowing what kind of terrain the wearer comes from, or what kind of person they are depending on how clean they keep the laces. It’s little details that make up large impressions, those which ultimately tell you everything you want to know about a person or object. Sometimes these are conscious clues, because deep down, most people want you to know what kind of person they are, they curate a specific outward version of themselves. The same goes for media, details that the creators include for the audience to find additional meaning in. Creators actually perform a kind of close reading while filmmaking, as they add visual and dialogue cues in scenes, even in the way they position a shot. Knowing how to close read can help you establish power dynamics to further comment on a character’s choices or role in a scene. Close reading is thus crucial to filmmaking, not to mention a crucial skill in one’s personal life. It’s having the ability to critically analyze what is in front of you. Take a newspaper, for instance, how does it word a certain article? Why use one word versus another? What impression does that word hold versus a different one? One of the most useful exercises I was ever forced into was defending a school essay word by word. The professor and I went through the paper together, and she would routinely stop reading and ask me to defend my word choice. If I couldn’t, then I was using the wrong word.

I first heard the term close reading while studying English, as it’s essentially what every literature student does. There is an old joke about English that goes, ‘sometimes, a curtain is just a curtain’ or ‘sometimes the curtains are just blue”, because some feel that close reading is just overthinking, and those readings are not the author’s intention. Even I go a bit far, as close reading tends to attach meaning to potentially insignificant things that not even the author/creator would agree on. If somewhere were to tell me ‘sometimes, a curtain is just a curtain’, I would probably reply by asking what colour the curtain is. How does it move in the scene? Is it concealing something or symbolic of something larger? I would just fall further into the joke. The beauty of close reading is that every person will see something differently, and each perspective is equally valid if they have enough evidence to support their argument. It all depends on your context, which is actually my favourite thing about close reading. It says more about you as viewer than it ever will about the subject. It’s not even a matter of authorial intent, because as much as they engaged in the creation of that thing, there is a sort of distance between author and work once that work is released. I think one should still research if the creator or person would totally disagree with your reading, but ultimately your reading is still up to you. Most viewers or readers will never seek out the creator or research them, and so their experience with the media is their own. I struggle with this sometimes because I can’t always separate the author from their work, and it’s often impossible to not mention where a work comes from. There are abusive creators out there and neglecting to mention that while praising their film feels wrong. So, close reading is a rather contradictory and subjective thing, as is the very conversation about close reading.

“When a Man believes his own lies, starts believing that he has the power. He’s got shut eye. Because now, he believes it’s all true.”

Nightmare Alley got me thinking about the way we read, the morals of it, and the need to be flexible with our thought. I might see something totally different than another person, and both perspectives can be true at the same time, if they come with valid evidence (details) and a measure of respect for the other person. For instance, I come from a horror background, so when my class was studying Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) I discussed evil doubles, devouring, and self-destruction. A classmate of mine came from a mathematic background and based her argument on geometric measurements both in text and illustration. I would never have thought of that avenue, but I still think it’s brilliant. Each of us looked at the same text and saw radically different things that still coexist. No one is more correct than another because being right isn’t of much use. It’s a collaboration, not a competition or debate. That is where Guillermo del Toro’s protagonist falls, as he starts the film by working in collaboration with people who see things with some dignity, to eventually scheming and betraying because he can and wants to be right, wants to be an authority.

“If you’re good at reading people, it’s mostly because you learned as a child.”

I plan on dedicating a proper post to del Toro’s latest film at some point, specifically to its female characters, but there is one other detail I keep thinking about. Madame Zeena reads tarot cards in the film, which opens an interesting discussion. Traditional tarot decks often come with a book that explains what each card means, unless you are inheriting an old deck, in which case you have to listen carefully as the owner explains each card. Even with a book, however, every card leaves room for interpretation. Someone has to bring meaning to a combination of cards, and the way they present themselves. My first tarot deck was just cards with pictures on them, not even the traditional ‘Knight of Clubs’ type cards. Just pictures like a woman in a bridal dress, a hose, a fox. I was reading Golden Compass when I received them, and its protagonist has a special device called an alethiometer, which is like a compass that points to little symbols when you ask it a question. The book explains that there are countless men who study these devices, and the specific/absolute meanings each symbol carries. Lyra innately understands these symbols, she speaks the device’s language just by trusting her first impression. The fox relates to cunning trickery for instance. I approached my deck the same way, and it ended up defining much of what I call close reading now. This deck inadvertently taught me to close read, long before I studied English. So, to see a deck in Nightmare Alley, to me, furthered its discussion on interpretation.

In one scene, Stan tries to turn his unfortunate card upside down to change the meaning. The implication is that although both Zeena and Stan can read the cards, they are not in control of what card they get or if they like what they see. Stan tries to control people by noticing what they feel are profound details about their life, when in fact most people can agree to the same details. Most have a difficult relationship with one parent or both, and almost everyone has lost someone they love. Stan can see that, and tries to manipulate it, but ultimately he is not in control of that subject, it’s always going to act independently. Even Mr. and Mrs. Kimball, two people Stan successfully cons, die because of his words. He didn’t kill them himself, and he didn’t want them to die, but they took his reading too far because he paraded it like it was absolute truth.

“It ain’t hope if it’s a lie.”

I mention this because I want to make it clear, I am not an authority on film. I am not sure anyone is really. What I love about film is that it’s a universal language, even if it’s technically in a different spoken language and you don’t have subtitles. You will see things, hear them, and will read them and find meaning in them. You’ll put yourself into it, bring your experiences, or your imagined experiences, into the reading. I say this, but it’s important to remember that you are no more an authority than anyone else, it’s just a matter of how strong your argument is based on these tiny details. I make a point of analyzing films I love here, because I believe spending too much time on the things you hate will just make you hate them further. It’s why I don’t do reviews here, because I am interested in so much more than just if a person enjoyed a film or not. That’s like a book report version of something. Go beyond, why did you like it? Was there a frame, a moment, a theme? There was something that made you like it or hate it. Something which resonated and finding that might help you better understand why you saw it. Or you can just acknowledge that something moved you, both are valid experiences.

Perhaps this is hypocritical, but I dislike YouTube essays and articles which claim to explain the real meaning, ending, or character of a film. There is a lot of these for directors like David Lynch, who has refused to give his films any definable meaning and actually seems to hate those who try to find absolute meaning in his work. They have titles like ‘The Real Meaning Behind Mulholland Drive’ or ‘Explaining the Finale of Twin Peaks’. Sometimes these can be really interesting perspectives, other times they feel a bit like SparkNotes. My intention here (with this blog) is to ask you read film, it’s a skill anyone can cultivate, regardless of academic background. Your thoughts on something are as equally valid when well defended. There is no universal meaning to a film or detail, and even if you see something many people agree with, it doesn’t mean that it’s true. Someone may read my thoughts on this blog and completely disagree. That’s fair. Another may understand my perspective, maybe even incorporate a degree of it into their work, but still have a different take away. That is also fair. I think it’s crucial to remember that close reading is not just about reading a mark, as Stan does in Nightmare Alley. It’s knowing that things and people are complicated and will always extend beyond whatever reading you might see. So long as you recognize that, respect it even, then it can bring true wonder to your viewing experience. It’s not a trick, it’s something more.

I do want to make it clear, the two crucial things you need to have for a credible close read are: respect and evidence. You can’t just say you like or didn’t like a thing; you go further. Likewise, if you encounter someone who has a different takeaway with just as much evidence, it doesn’t mean either of you are wrong. Further still, I am talking about film here, and reading media in general. I am in no way agreeing with any conspiracy theory type thinking, the old ‘I am just asking the questions’, because if you refer back to the two crucial things about close reading, this version of ‘thought’ carries no respect and is in no way credible, therefore it’s not close reading.

“You don’t fool people, they fool themselves.”

There is a sort of devastating joke to Nightmare Alley, and I don’t want to spoil the film because it is so new, so stop reading here if you have not seen it. The film ends almost like the famous Pagliacci joke in Watchmen, which goes:

“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci.”

Stan is a bit of a Pagliacci type here, but not because life was vague and uncertain, perhaps the very opposite of that. The film shares the joke’s undeniable direction, in that you know what is going to happen, but it’s still devastating to see. It’s the turn, the happy clown is actually depressed. The successful man has fallen to his lowest point. The undeniable outcome. While Pagliacci ends the joke sobbing, Stan ends the film laughing. There is so much foreshadowing in Nightmare Alley, that by the time you get to the conclusion, you see that this was always going to happen. It’s like the film told you in it’s first act how it would end. The way Clem characterizes how to ‘catch’ a geek (a horror and shock performer who bites off animal heads) describes the entire film and Stan, particularly his emphasis on casting something horrible as something temporary. What is especially interesting is that Stan isn’t the only character who is lured by temporary things. Temporary relief from grief, from sobriety, from unhappiness itself. Figures are constantly promising and waiting for things in the film, and like a mentalist show, the delivery is astonishing but short lived. It’s never enough, people want more. Stan gets what he wants, for a time, and its not enough. While some of the other carnies know when to stop, even though it means less money, Stan doesn’t. He can’t stop reading, and what’s worse, he thinks he can outplay anyone.

The geek becomes a symbol for that excessive reading, Clem even defines it that way in his first scene. When Stan and the crowd gathers around Clem and the geek, he shouts, “witness this supreme oddity. What did it come from…Come on in and find out”, which acts as a commentary on close reading. Clem is asking the crowd to close read the creature, if they dare to, if they can even look at him without closing their eyes. The geek is a product of too much close reading, of essentially descending into this sourceless place where you are neither “man or beast” but a by-product of some strange overlap between the two. Neither the first nor second geek in the film are given a name, making them both inhuman and unreadable. They could be anyone, they are so interchangeable, it’s just another poor sap. There is always an interchangeable aspect to Stan’s close reading, because everyone shares certain traits that you can just guess, meaning that no one is entirely unique. However, that interchangeable trait is so excessive in the geek that you can’t tell anything. There is a warning in that, not just a moral kind, but something a bit more intense. It’s akin to a Frankenstein complex, of thinking you are all-seeing or all-powerful. The subject is never completely yours, and you run the risk of losing yourself in your own reading, and that goes for close reading of all kinds.

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  1. Really thought provoking article .Loved your interpretation of the movie and your interpretation of interpreting movies itself .