Hands play an integral role in daily human life. From being incorporated into communication, and helping to highlight important aspects of a speaker’s message, to serving a fundamental and utilitarian purpose like extracting a pesky booger from one’s nasal cavity, hands are a critical tool in our experience on this planet. In film hands can be great communicators of an actor’s dramatic or comedic message, often times saying far more than words could ever hope to convey.
The trailer for the new Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln, seems to be fully aware of the importance of hands. This turgid, self-aggrandizing piece o’ film features our ol’ pal, the mighty thespian, Daniel Day-Lewis, engaged in many scenes of hand slapping, table-pounding, and especially finger- pointing, which, coupled with the overly dramatic music unfortunately makes our beloved fifth President look more than a little buffoonish. Still, even though the preview fails to communicate Lincoln’s hilariously aggressive finger-pointing in a serious fashion the trailer seems to successfully pull off one important feat – that is of course showing how necessary the incorporation of hands are to the actor’s process.
You of course might be thinking, “Well, shit, everyone knows that you verbose pontificator.” But, I implore you to bear with me my loyal readers and put away your thesaurus, I have more to say on the subject. In the hand gesture cannon of the performer none are more complex (or seemingly as widely perpetuated) than the epic finger-point, which of course simply means a finger-point designed to communicate a huge message.
It is unclear exactly when the phenomena of the epic finger-point first emerged. Some Pulitzer Prize winning film theorists speculate that a pointer finger may have been extended once or twice in the seizure-inducing frenzy that constituted Dziga Vertov‘s landmark film, The Man With the Movie Camera. However, while an extended finger may have indeed snuck into Vertov’s orgy of images, it’s highly unlikely that it would have been imbued with the requisite narrative weight to qualify for being the godfather to the use of finger-pointing in film, and it would certainly not qualify as being “epic” in any way.
No, what seems more plausible is that the finger-point reached the level of epic during some point during the 1930′s era of the monster movie. At that time, in the age of Godzillas and King Kongs, it is irrefutable that finger-pointing became much more widely circulated on the big-screen. But, was this truly the beginning point of this glorious hand gesture? Can we make the case that these characters were truly living in an epic state of being?
In a semantic sense it seems like a no-brainer. These black and white colored characters, standing knee-deep in the charred, smoking rubble of some city-scape, mouths gaping, eyes bulging, and fingers extending towards a rampaging behemoth currently decimating their homes, friends and family immediately appears like an obvious moment of epicness. But I say to you that it is simply not enough! Because my friends what we can see from a closer look at those sequences is that the epic quality of the finger-pointing by those poor, wretched creatures of the King Kong and Godzilla era does not come from that actual finger itself, but what the finger is pointing at.
What we have come to then is the conclusion that part of what makes a finger-point epic is it being an externalization of an internalized force. But while the finger-point is indeed often a physical manifestation of powerful emotions, it still is much more complicated than other ways that actors have typically expressed the most tumultuous of feelings. Consider the period of between roughly 1930 through the mid 1950′s, which, of course, is when the silver-screen was ruled by many of cinema’s iconic “tough guy” personalities, particularly Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. What is immediately clear from watching their work is that, despite getting into countless verbal altercations, these legendary actors very rarely employed the finger-point to highlight or enhance their emotional states. If anything these men took an even more direct approach, something which is depicted in the clip below.
These clips address another important point about how the epic finger-point has subtleties that one cannot begin to unpack by simply examining this cinematic phenomenon in unhelpful generalities. Also, what these clips elucidate is that finger-pointing, especially epic finger-pointing cannot be just a simple depiction of rage and that by extending one’s finger, and pointing it at someone else or at something else, while it is a physical movement, does not necessarily imply that the figure doing such extending will actually become physical in any significant way.
At this point we have identified what an epic finger-point isn’t. It can’t simply be someone jutting that finger away in the opposite direction from their body while standing in a so-called “epic” setting, nor are epic finger-points precursors to simple, unadulterated rage or frustration, as our boys Cagney and Bogart have shown through their complete non-reliance on finger-points to warn others or non-verbally say, ”Hey, I’m about to mess you up.” So, then what exactly makes the finger-point become epic in nature? When will this insane investigation come to a close? And, I’m sure the most important question you’re asking yourself is: “Why am I still reading this ridiculous essay?”
Well my friends, I can only answer the first question by telling you that epicness comes not from any one source. In fact, there are many contexts where the epic finger-point may or may not make an appearance. It is through examining these contexts where we may hope to gain some understanding of the powerful relationship that exists between hand movement and thespian, and, potentially, where the inception of this inimitable technique may have first reared its finger, I mean head. So, to begin with, the use of the epic finger-point can be broken down into four different contexts: connection, theatricality, self-perception, and finally good ol’ fashioned dominance or intimidation.
The attempt to foster a connection is obviously one of the most common forms of the epic finger-point, and the one context which seems to threaten one of our earlier observations – that finger-pointing does not become epic through a character simply extending their finger in an epic moment towards an exterior source. How are these two contexts different you may ask? Well, consider the scene below from the Farrlley Brothers 2003 comedy, Stuck on You, where, in the final scene, the two formerly conjoined twins (played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear) who have recently been separated, whip out a completely epic finger-point directed at each other.
Now, this sequence, with the cheering crowd and general feeling of elation which pervades the scene, should certainly qualify as existing in an epic setting. Similarly, the finger-pointing is wholeheartedly directed at an exterior source. However, what differentiates this scene from the shots of hapless Tokyo or New York inhabitants snapping off finger-points towards each of their respective, city-destroying monsters is the emotion that connects the two finger-pointers in the scene. The movement of finger-pointing in Stuck on You is an internal impulse (brotherly love) become externalized, not the other way around. The action is not something that is simple or observational, in fact, in many ways this action articulates more about the two brothers, their past dynamic, and the continued bond that both share better the entirety of the movie which precedes this moment. Now that’s epic.
The second instance of where finger-pointing has the propensity to go epic is in the case where the characters in the story (and by extension the actors giving life to them) use finger-pointing to create larger than life personas and achieve very specific goals. One of the greatest recent examples of this technique is in Paul Thomas Anderson’s larger than life film, the masterful drama from 2007, There Will be Blood.
In the final scene from Anderson’s film, the “false prophet,” Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano, comes to Daniel Day-Lewis’s half-crazed oil tycoon, Daniel Plainview, for financial help. By this point Anderson has done such a spectacular job building up both the animosity between the two characters, especially in regards to the psychology of Day-Lewis’s ambitious, indomitable, and frankly monstrous Plainview. Because of this careful build up, which includes scene after scene of these two characters jostling for power, the audience is already well aware of how intense Plainview’s loathing is for Dano’s character, especially for the intense theatricality that informs Eli’s preaching style. In this final scene between the two men Plainview’s finger is shooting out in every direction, including aggressive finger points (that turn into actual shoves) towards Eli’s body and also points which help create a hilarious depiction of how Plainview’s oil rigs have already completely sucked up the oil that Eli is interested in, similar to how one sucks up a “milkshake” through a straw.
The “point” of the finger-pointing here is not about connection or to show simple aggression. Plainview is determined to completely degrade Eli, to prove conclusively that he is the better man. With Dano’s Eli needing him for financial salvation Plainview is free and secure to bring about his revenge and to even adopt Eli’s verbose, hyperbolic, and theatrical style in order to increase his revenge’s humiliating effects. The hand gestures here (and you can guess which one I am referring to) are critical components of Plainview’s epically vindictive spirit.
We have covered how epic finger points are built upon the internal becoming externalized, and also how the emotion between two characters is often essential to whether or not a finger point becomes epic. However, what happens when a finger shoots out in the direction of an inanimate object? Can it still be epic? The answer is of course.
In certain situations the epic finger-point does not focus on exterior forces - that is, it is not directed at another human being. The central premise of the epic point however still needs to be there; there is an internal to external movement that must shoot down through the arm and eventually explode outward through the pointer finger.
Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s infamous novel, American Psycho, contains just such an instance. The moment of epic finger- pointing comes through in a scene which was initially sliced out of the film. This scene is the disturbing three-way sex scene between our main man, Pat Bateman, and two sex workers whose services he retains.
In this sequence Bateman has set up a video camera to film his bedroom escapades. However, despite the visceral thrill that should come from being involved in a sexual act far removed from what many will ever experience in their lifetime, Bateman seems disinterested with his sexual partners and in sexual action in general. Instead, Bateman is fixated upon his own image and the act of creating a film, which is apparent through his constant flexing in front of the mirror, instructing his partners to, “…look at the camera,” in between panting, and finally a moment of incredible finger-pointing glory where Christian Bale is able to contort his face into one of the most grotesque poses in maybe all of cinema.
What’s happening in this sequence still resonates as an example of internal to external movement. The intriguing nature of this particular cinematic scene however is that the Patrick Bateman character is an empty vessel, there is nothing inside of him that registers as human empathy or even as a stable identity. As Bateman states in the film’s introductory monologue, Patrick Bateman is “…simply, not, there.” What’s real to the Bateman character is external media and his own self-absorption. With this in mind one can see that the finger pointing in the scene, and the intense, habitual stare-downs that he has with his reflection are moments where his self-perception gains greater clarity. Bateman’s complete emotional and mental disengagement from the sexual proceedings, and through his focus and gesturing to his reflected self communicate volumes about the character. It brings his internalized self-absorption, disconnection, and obfuscated connection to reality out into the light of day in a much stronger way than words ever could.
At last we arrive at what is the most common context where epic finger-pointing can and often does manifest itself - the good ol’ fashioned intimidation game (which as you geeks may remember was also the fake title for Batman Begins). Storytelling could not occur without conflict, and, occasionally, diametrically opposed characters must face off against each other (we have graciously provided you with a full list here). Still, when all of the raised voices, dancing eye-brows, flexing of biceps, and bloodthirsty snarls fail, one must again, as always, return to the cornerstone of human communication – you gotta’ jab that finger out towards your opponent and slam those points home.
The scene above is of monumental importance to our important investigation, as it fully encapsulates the intricacies of finger-pointing for intimidation purposes while also revealing who in fact may be the originator of the technique for the modern era. Harrison Ford is of course a man of many talents (interviews not being one of them but I digress),which include carpentry, telling people to “…get off his plane,” and an acute understanding of the Wookie language. However, perhaps his greatest attribute is his ability to point his finger like no other. In the scene above Harrison shows us the applicability of the finger point for intimidation purposes, and in emphasizing and clarifying the subtleties of his threat. For instance, when Harrison’s Jack Ryan tells Richard Harris’s Paddy O’Neil that he is going to “…fucking destroy him,” and that he is going to make it his “…mission in life!” there can be no question of O’Neil not knowing who Ryan is referring to, because he’s pointing right at him!
Our man Harrison has shown time and time again how a finger can deliver a message with the power equivalent to a bolt of lightning, and how this movement of a phalange can instantly imbue any conversation with a sense of intimidating and authoritarian weight. Throughout his illustrious career we have seen him use this technique to silence obstinate golden robots, challenge accusations of wife-killing, and also(unsuccessfully) attempt to overpower his father, James Bond (Sean Connery) in a verbal sparring match. In fact, Mr. Ford has helped solidify the importance of epic finger-points to such a degree in the world of celluloid that now the gesture can be used successfully to deliver an earth-shaking dose of awesome without a single word attached to it.
Look at the scene below, from one of the greatest films ever made, Remember the Titans. In this scene Gerry Bertier, who was the captain of the Titans, runs out of his way across the field to deliver one of the most amazing non-verbal moments of communication ever seen in a film. Watching this moment one can fully grasp the inherent value of this hand gesture and see the influence of the gesture’s modern pioneer, Mr. Ford.
Does anyone think that the opposing team’s coach is somehow confused about Gerry’s message, and, simultaneously not aware that his team is about to get the ass-whipping they so truly deserve? One can feel that movement of Gerry’s internalized rage being channeled through his finger and directed towards the coach. We understand the dynamic between the two forces and we can also see the presence of Ford looming large over the action. With one finger-point Gerry has been transformed into a being with the same level of dominant power as a Han Solo or Indiana Jones.
Film is a visual and multifaceted medium – with photography, color, costumes, lighting, and actors making bombastic hand gestures all coalescing to make it an art form like no other. Now, I’m sure that we all have our favorite actors that we could list, and that probably some of you (the true film nerds who never had a date) could even rattle off a list of your favorite techniques that they employ in the practice of their craft. However, this is not the venue! This is a celebration of the epic finger-point, and how its intrinsic, elemental malleability has allowed it to become a valuable tool for fostering connection, revealing new facets about a character’s identity, or simply increasing the intensity of one’s words so that people know they might need to step off.
It’s difficult to precisely ascertain when this marvelous and monumental movement came into being, although one could make the case that Han, I mean Harrison Ford made it fashionable for the modern era. The only thing that seems certain is that because of this hand gesture’s inimitable contribution to film history and, its continued perpetuation up to the present day, the epic finger-point will continue to be implemented both on and off the screen long into the future.
And yes, you heard me correctly. My friends the epic finger-point is not something reserved solely for these ghostly forms we see in film. As we all know, great film encourages an audience’s participation, and although we may never reach the authoritarian level of an Indiana Jones, never obtain the intimidating gruffness of Jack Ryan, or channel the same sort of passionate spirit displayed by Gerry Bertier, we can still adopt their methods. We can, and do, allow ourselves to enter into these dark worlds of the cinema and be transported into other universes, other times, and through these journeys have our souls and minds enriched, our funny bones tickled and our tear ducts tested. It is in these arenas that we reach the same level of intensity displayed by these characters, when we sit back in our seat, eyes wide, fingers outstretched at the wonders on-screen, living, just for a moment, in a state of epic sublimity.