Take a close look at the painting above. (Thank you, David Bordwell, for your superb piece on narrative paintings.) This is a special moment, isn’t it? Notice their body language. He seems casual, relaxed, but detached. His legs are pointing away from her. Is he just shy and that’s why he has three books with him? I wonder, is he working up the courage to converse with her? Is he interested in her? His left hand is conveniently close to brushing her arm. She, on the other hand, seems stiff and stoic. She wants to interact with him. I dare say, she wants to be touched. She’s rigid in her posture, almost nervous, and with her right hand unfolding the shawl, there’s a hint of invitation.
Would you like to know its title? Married by Walter Sadler. To quote Mr. David Bordwell, “Once the title tells us that the couple are husband and wife, we can infer that their passion has subsided, largely through the husband’s self-absorbed inattention. Did he really need to take three books into the garden? The single-word title also lets us see certain elements as iconographic clues. The woman’s white dress and bouquet recall the wedding, and the fallen badminton birdie and racket suggest an earlier time when they played together. Kristin sees sexual symbolism in the flowers in her lap and the books in his. The gallery’s caption suggests that the turtle is going off to hibernate and that the blocked-off back garden suggests no future for the relationship.”
I can imagine this as an opening scene in a film. The audience would be sucked right in with curiosity, wouldn’t they? Not only that, I would rather watch a scene like this with music and no dialogue and just observe these two characters interact and wonder what’s going to happen next than five pages of talk. Everything we need to know about this couple is told to us through visuals and body language and acting. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say it would be rare to read about a scene like this one without dialogue. We would only discover a scene like this in a script if it was composed by a writer-director for his/her own film. Screenwriters are filmmakers, too, but I believe too many screenwriters (amateurs and pros alike) don’t think visually enough, which is in part why I wrote such a glowing review of Cinematic Storytelling. It isn’t enough to write a good story. We have to render that story cinematically.
Consider this next painting, which was also in Bordwell’s article.
Two seemingly prosperous young women are seated together in a garden. One is reading a letter. The other just observes and listens. The painting is by Marcus Stone, dates from 1889, and is titled, Her First Love Letter. To quote Bordwell, “The girl on the left, bathed in light, leaning forward eagerly and wearing the pale frilly dress, can be seen as the more inexperienced of the pair, caught up in the anticipation of the young man’s ardor. The more worldly woman sits relaxed, perhaps a little skeptical but also tolerant of the ways of young love… Narrative paintings like this are evidently one source of early cinema’s approach to staging and composition. This ‘full shot’ somewhat recalls the sort of thing we see throughout European filmmaking of the first twenty years.” (Those of you who watched all the episodes of Cinema Europe can certainly attest to that.)
Marcus Stone had some other interesting narrative paintings.
Notice the lady in the background dressed in black, on the other side of the wall, hiding in the woods, and jealously watching this moment.
It’s titled “My lady is a widow and childless.”
And here we have an interesting painting. This one is titled “In Love.” Hmm... Are they really?
Well, it seems to me there must be some obstacles between them that’s getting in the way of their love, wouldn’t you agree?
I also love the works of Cali Rezo.
The above image reminds me of a quote by Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish cinematographer, Sven Nykvist: “The truth always lies in the character’s eyes. It is very important to light so the audience can see what’s behind each character’s eyes. That’s how the audience gets to know them as human beings. It opens up their souls."
Consider the different emotions conveyed in the image below when a character covers her face with her hands compared to when she hides her head in her arms.
In these next two images, the light and darkness poured onto the females implies a conflicted inner nature:
In fact, these two images bring to mind Billy Mernit’s Light and Shadow posts (Part One and Part Two). (Billy also just celebrated his two-year blogoversary. Congrats, Billy! You're still an inspiration to me. Wait. I just had an anniversary. Hey, congrats to ME! WOO HOO! Hehehe..)
I’m going to do a few more articles like this. It would be great if other screenwriters blogged about visuals and the meaning of images.
I recall Robert Evans saying in “The Biggest Mistake the Writers Make:”
“I can pick up a screenplay and flip through the pages. If all I see is dialog, dialog, dialog, I won’t even read it. I don’t care how good the dialog is – it’s a moving picture. It has to move all the time… Screenwriters do not get the lesson… It’s not the stage. A movie audience doesn’t have the patience to sit and learn a lesson. Their eyes need to be dazzled. The writer is the most important element in the entire film because if it ain’t on the page it ain’t going to be on the screen.”