Monday, January 22, 2007

Let's Analyze 2 Scenes

These scenes are similar in the sense that they both force arguments between two characters in order to establish a "backstory."

The first comes from Babel. This is the first and only scene in the entire movie in which we see these two characters have a real conversation.

Before the clip starts, Susan (Cate Blanchett) had asked Richard (Brad Pitt), "Why are we here?" Richard thought for a moment and responded, "To be alone." She looked at the people around them and huffed, "Alone," as if it was some kind of joke. There's a small argument about ice cubes, and then we see what follows in the clip:

Next, Children of Men, which tries to accomplish similar goals.

Do these scenes work?


ignatiusmonkey said...

First, let me say that I haven't seen either of these movies, so I know next to nothing about the characters or context in which these scenes take place.

I think they're both quick and effective ways of establishing history between the characters. I wonder if referring to unspecified events that have great importance but never get fully explained is a cheap technique, using the emotions behind a tragedy without ever having to justify it within the plot.

The character interactions seem authentic. In "Babel," Blanchett's character wants to bring the issue forth and seems prepared for combat regardless of the setting, and Pitt's tourist seems like he's trying to be above it all. Perhaps he feels that just by leaving the country he can leave behind his past. In this scene we perhaps get a microcosm of their entire relationship.

The "Children of Men" scene also shows a failure to communicate, to empathize. These characters' anger seems to show a greater interest in each other and in resolving their issues, where Pitt and Blanchett just seem fed up with each other, cold and almost indifferent. In both scenes we quickly get a sense of history and unresolved issues between the characters, and this can only be a good thing, right?

Do you think they don't work for any reason, MM? I'd be very interested in your anaylsis, as a screenwriting student working on my second screenplay. I have a lot to learn about what works, and this kind of scene analysis is great.

GimmeABreak said...

I haven't seen either of the movies and I'm not going to read monkey's post before I reply.

Scene 1 - Cate wants to talk, Brad doesn't. To him, what ever caused the pain was dealt with once, briefly, in the past, and, to him, that was enough. Cate, however, didn't think the previous discussion, however long it was, was enough and it (or them) still eat away at her. It's unresolved and she won't be satisfied until Brad has experienced the same kind of pain that she dealt with then and continues to deal with now. He won't ever talk about it again and she won't stop talking about it. An immovable object and an irresistable force. Both condemned to hurt (each in their own way) and inflict pain (again, in their own way) on each other.

Scene 2 - more on-the-nose than the first scene. It sounds like they had a child together and they lost the the child either by death or other means. They argue about who got hurt more and who got over it more quickly. They say exactly what they think. They don't care about each other any more so they don't couch the hurtful words.

Difference between the two as a stand-alone scene. For scene 1, this viewer is left wondering what the loss was - a death, rape, so many different potential losses. They probably still love each other, deeply, and she still wants (needs) him to help her heal. For scene 2 - they've gone their separate ways, each having found a coping strategy. They don't love each other now and may not have (at least not very much) in the past. They're inconvenient reminders of a past pain that sometimes boils to the surface. The pain in scene one, at least for Cate, is always there and will poison everything until she finds a way through it.

Mim said...

I like the first scene more because there are so few words and so much subtext between them in the looks they share as well as the looks they avoid.

The scene on the bus, although well played, is pretty typical Hollywood exposition. The anger and loss and blame come across, but are less subtle than the first scene.

The first scene seems more real: more lifted straight from life.

Tom said...

Having seen both films I find the Babel scene more engaging. It is shorter and express just enough in order to show that a history exists between the characters.

Scenes like these can be tricky and depend on a decent framework in order to function. In effect they draw an emotional context from outside of the scene, eg. not responding immediately to anything that happens in the scene.
Also, they are over rather quickly, and so can be a easily overlooked.

Seeing them here, as separate scenes illustrates what is happening in the scene. In my view, the key reference for the viewer is to see that the characters have a history outside the picture. It is less relevant what has happened than the fact that something has happened. And, that this event has not been fully resolved. In essence: an interruption.

And in Babel this is achieved with a greater economy.

Mystery Man said...

Hey guys,

Thanks so much for the comments.

Ignatius – No, I agree with you!
Pat – A truly great analysis.
Mim – Right as always.
Tom – Loved your thoughts.

I, too, have seen both films. Both of the scenes are early in Act One. (I could write volumes here, so I have to be careful.) I agree with everyone that Babel is the better scene. We’re left wondering what the problem is and if it’ll get resolved. In Children of Men, we’re practically TOLD what the problem is, and the door of resolution gets slammed in our faces.

Hey, correct me if I’m wrong…

Both of these scenes ring a little false to me. Wouldn’t you agree? They both felt a little forced, a little contrived and melodramatic, just for the sake of establishing the fact that these are troubled relationships. I thought these were the weakest scenes in both films. Both scenes could’ve accomplished more with a whole lot less. To open a scene with “Why are we here,” as they did in Babel, is on a par with a cheap Sci Fi flic in which the assistant asks the head scientist, “So remind me - what are we doing again?” I mean, come on. Susan knew very well why he brought her there. I say, cut that line and start the scene with the argument about the ice cubes. And the line, “You know why” should go. OF COURSE he knows why and she knows he knows why, but she has to say this, a cheap gimmick, to convey to the audience that they have some unresolved issues. Just as much information could’ve been conveyed to the audience with greater subtleties.

To have a scene in early Act One in which you force arguments between two main characters in order to establish a "backstory" is just frought with peril. In amateur circles, it’s a technique that’s overused to the point of cliché because it’s so easy to do and even for pros, I think you’re running too great a risk of some heavy-handed melodrama. Depending upon the actors working the scene and the direction they’re getting, you could wind up with some horribly false notes. I mean, I just read this same kind of scene in a cheap B-movie horror script which I lambasted in the post Never Ever Sell Yourself Short.

You gotta give kudos to Cate Blanchett, though, who really pulled off that scene. She conveyed layers of emotion I’m sure you never saw on the page.

If it rings false, get the hell away from it. Don’t expect great actors to pull it off. Write something better. Subtlety is probably the solution.

And the moral of Babel is, I think, if you want to reconcile with your wife, don't take her to Morrocco.



Mim said...

Tom, I loved your analysis drawing emotional context from outside the scene.

MM, these kinds of scenes have become cheap gimmicks, but they didn't used to be. I commented on this exact thing in my breakdown of Rear Window. The audience used to enjoy the expository reveal and larger than life acting. But they have seen that so much that now they want something more realistic.

It's harder to achieve, but more satisfying when you do. And absolutely don't leave it up to the actors. Who knows who they'll get to read your lines?

James said...

Mim said everything I was thinking.

One thing I'd like to point out... listen to how many times the Children of Men scene uses the word "it."

Obviously, somebody realized this was a little heavy-handed in the exposition and tried to tone it down by replacing what they are really talking about with a pronoun.

Notice how most of us aren't fooled.

Mystery Man said...

That's a great comment, Mim. I absolutely agree! The fact that there's so much cinema history behind us really affects our approach today, doesn't it?

James - Hehehe... That's quite funny. I didn't notice that before. There are FIVE writing credits attached to this story. Was there not one individual among them who said, "hey, this is kind of weak because it's so on-the-nose." Personally, I think critics are overlooking the banality of the story/characters and praising the technical mastery of the film, which is really quite impressive especially the very long takes. It could've been a masterpiece had it not been for the dialogue.

Mim said...

I've written as part of a team of 3 and the agreement was that if 2 of us agreed on something, that's what we would use. There are several spots in those scripts that I'm not happy with, but the other 2 writers are. That's probably what happened with this scene.

Five writers! Phew.

Mystery Man said...

How ironic that Children of Men just got nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, because even a cursory glance of its scenes reveals a weakness in the writing, particularly the dialogue.

I've been debating whether I should blog about the Oscars, and I've decided against it because the Oscars is so political and NOT based on merit that it in the big picture it really means almost nothing who gets nominated and who doesn't.