Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Lotion in two dimensions

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A few days ago, Christina Colizza of The Hairpin published a sharp, funny article on the phenomenon of “night lotion,” as documented by the Instagram feed of the same name. It’s the curiously prevalent image in movies and television of a character, invariably a woman, who is shown casually moisturizing over the course of an unrelated scene, usually during a bedroom conversation or argument with her husband. The account, which is maintained by Beth Wawerna of the band Bird of Youth, offers up relevant screenshots of the likes of Piper Laurie from Twin Peaks, Claire Foy from The Crown, and Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad, and although I’d never consciously noticed it before, it now seems like something I’ve been seeing without fully processing it for years. Colizza contends that this convention is entirely fictional: “I don’t know anyone who does this.” Wawerna concurs, saying that she asked multiple women if they ever spoke to their spouses for five minutes while applying lotion at bedtime, and they all said no. To be fair, though, it isn’t entirely nonexistent. My wife has kindly consented to issue the following statement:

I am a skincaretainment enthusiast and take great pleasure in my elaborate skincare routines (one for morning and one for nighttime, naturally). Before going to bed at night, I stand in front of the full-length mirror and talk to Alec while applying a succession of products to my face and neck in a very precise order. It is one of my favorite parts of the day. Wintertime is especially good for this routine because I use more products on my face and also put lotion on my feet after climbing into bed. This gives me even more time to tell Alec inane stories about my day while he tries to read a book.

Maybe this means that I’m living in a prestige cable drama without knowing it—but it also implies that this behavior isn’t entirely without parallels in real life. Still, it seems to appear with disproportionate frequency in film and television, and it’s worth asking why. Colizza and Wawerna make a few cheerful stabs at unpacking it, although they’re the first to admit that they raise more questions than they answer. “It’s obviously some sort of crutch,” Wawerna says. “I don’t know if it’s true and I need to do actual research to figure this out, but are most of those scenes written by men?” Colizza adds:

This is neither death wish on buying Jergens in bulk, nor a critique on moisturizing; we all need a bit of softness in our lives. The problem here is that the lotion, whether sensually applied or rubbed vigorously, is a visual distraction during moments of potential character development and depth. “Is there anything else a woman can do?” Wawerna asks me in giddy exasperation. “Can we just sit with this woman, who’s clearly having a moment with herself, or going through something?”

Elsewhere, Colizza helpfully classifies the two most common contexts for the trope, which tends to occur at a pivot point in the narrative: “This moonlit ritual is either a woman alone having a moment before bed. Or a woman tearing her hubby a new one.” And I think that she gets very close to the solution when she wonders whether television “demands some physicality on screen at all times, especially so if it can help convey a basic emotion.”

This strikes me as right on target, with one slight modification: it isn’t the medium reaching back to impose a physical action on the performer, but the actor introducing a technical device into a scene. Actors are always looking for something to do with their hands. This notion of “stage business” is an established point of craft, but it can also have unpredictable effects on viewers. The great example here, of course, is smoking. If we see so much of it in Hollywood, it isn’t because the studios are determined to glamorize tobacco use or in the pocket of the cigarette companies, but because smoking is a pragmatic performative tool. A cigarette gives actors a wide range of ways to emphasize lines or emotional beats: they can remove it from the pack, light it, peer through the smoke, exhale, study the ember, and grind it out to underline a moment. (One beautiful illustration is the last shot of The Third Man, with what Roger Ebert once described as “the perfect emotional parabola described as [Joseph] Cotten throws away his cigarette.” Revealingly, this was an actor’s choice: Carol Reed kept the camera rolling for an uncomfortably long time after Alida Valli exited the frame, and Cotten lit up just to have something to do.) In terms of providing useful tidbits of actorly behavior, nothing comes close to smoking, and until recently, I would have said that no comparable bit of business has managed to take its place. But that’s just what night lotion is. Its advantages are obvious. It requires nothing but a commonplace prop that isn’t likely to draw attention to itself, and it offers a small anthology of possible motions that can be integrated in countless ways with the delivery of dialogue. Unlike smoking, it’s constrained by the fact that it naturally lives in the bedroom, but this isn’t really a limitation, since this is where many interior scenes take place anyway.

And when you look at the instances that Wawerna has collected, you find that they nearly all occur at narrative moments in which a character of an earlier era would have unthinkingly lit up a cigarette. What’s really funny is how a technical solution to an acting problem can acquire coded meanings and externalities—it’s literally an emergent property. The movies may not have meant to encourage smoking, but they unquestionably did, and it isn’t unreasonable to say that people died because Humphrey Bogart needed something to do while he said his lines. (The fact that Bogart smoked a lot offscreen doesn’t necessarily invalidate this argument. These choices are often informed by an actor’s personality, and I assume that television stars are more likely to take an interest in their skin care than the rest of us.) The message carried by lotion is far more innocuous: as Colizza notes, we could all stand to moisturize more. In practice, though, it’s such a gendered convention that it trails along all kinds of unanticipated baggage involving female beauty and body image, at least when you see so many examples in a row. Taken in isolation, it’s invisible enough, except to exceptionally observant viewers, that it doesn’t seem likely to disappear anytime soon. In the past, I’ve compared stumbling across a useful writing technique to discovering a new industrial process, and a convention like night lotion, which can be incorporated intact into any number of dramatic situations, is a writer and actor’s dream. Not surprisingly, it ends up being used to death until it becomes a cliché. Unlike such conventions as the cinematic baguette, it isn’t designed to save time or convey information, but to serve as as what Wawerna accurately describes as a crutch for the performer. Like the cigarette, or the anonymous decanter of brown liquor in the sideboard that played a similar role in so many old movies, it seems destined to remain in the repertoire, even if its meaning is only skin deep.

Written by nevalalee

June 2, 2017 at 9:39 am

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