(For our new study.)
My non-verbal example comes from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. As you may know, it took Marie a few years to… umm… consummate her delicate marriage to Louis XVI. But consummate they did, and over the course of Act II, we see Marie give birth to two children - first, a girl and then a boy. Toward the end of Act II, servants hang a painting on a wall of Marie Antoinette with three children indicating that she’s given birth to another boy. Then, a quick flash forward, and we see those servants take down that painting and replace it with a new painting of Marie with only two children and an empty carriage.
Cut to a sad funeral.
GOOD & BAD VERBAL EXPOSITION
My good and bad examples shall be in the form of a comparison between Richard Lester’s and Richard Donner’s version of Superman II. (I love comparing these two films. I wrote about it here and here.)
BAD, VERY BAD
30 minutes into Richard Lester’s version, Clark and Lois just sort of show up in a hotel in Niagara Falls, and Lois mutters the most horrifying line of exposition: “Can you believe this? Us posing as newlyweds in order to expose a honeymoon racket in Niagara Falls.”
Yes, Lois, he can believe it. HE WAS THERE when Perry White sent you two on assignment. HE FLEW WITH YOU TO NIAGARA FALLS. And… you’re explaining this to him IN NIAGARA FALLS? Are you kidding me? But, of course, this line was thrown into this scene not for Clark’s benefit but the audience’s and they had to endure a bunch of whining and moaning to get it. And then, of course, we’re forced to sit through her SLOW revelation about Clark being Superman. (Lois TALKS TO HERSELF to show how she’s putting two-and-two together.)
BETTER, MUCH BETTER
Donner doesn’t make us wait for Lois to eventually put two-and-two together. He just hits the ground running in his opening scene with a great plot twist that’s completely rooted in his characters. Lois sits at her desk. She sees Clark enter. She looks a front-page photo of Superman. She looks at Clark. And then she happily draws Clark’s glasses, hat, and suit over that front-page photo.
And she whistles.
(How beautiful is this non-verbal moment? Lois never says a word to anyone to explain that she figured him out. And none of this talking to herself crap, either. THIS was purely visual. And fun!)
Clark strolls up to her. “How are you, Lois?”
With a sly wink, she says, “Oh… just super, thanks.”
Next, they’re inside Perry White’s office in a wonderful scene filled with subtext and happy banter. Perry orders them to go to Niagara Falls. He wants them to pose as honeymooners to expose a newlywed racket. Clark is stunned. “Newlyweds? Us?” Lois is thrilled. “That's a great idea, Mr. White.” But Clark protests, “I'm right in the middle of my series on the City Council…” Lois interrupts. “Oh, it won't take long, Clark. We can just... fly right up there and then sort of... zoom right back again. You know. Like Superman.” Perry says, “Hey. If Superman could give you two a ride we could save a couple of bucks.”
The exposition of Perry ordering them to pose as newlyweds in Niagara Falls would have, first of all, gotten a laugh out of the audience, because that’s the ideal setting for these two lovebirds who are, as they stand in front of Perry White, pretending to NOT be in love. Second, the exposition heightens the already growing tension between them about Clark's secret. Third, the exposition is fed to the audience in the context of SOMETHING ELSE. This wasn’t just about setting up Niagara Falls. This was about turning up the heat on Clark, foreshadowing what’s to come, and giving the audience the sense that Niagara Falls might be Clark’s undoing. And, indeed, it is. Lois would prove, once and for all, that Clark is Superman. SHE outsmarts HIM in a wonderful “gotcha” moment. Fourth, this setup in Perry’s office is fun because we see Clark and Lois react in ways we wouldn’t expect. Lois would’ve despised an assignment like that but she CAN’T WAIT to go. Clark, who would’ve gratefully accepted anything Perry gave him, tries his best to wiggle out of this losing battle with Lois.
And finally, the growing tension in this scene between Clark and Lois reaches a wonderful climax. Clark says, “Lois... you're priceless... you know that? I mean, that's the single funniest thing...” She shows him the newspaper. “Get the picture?”
“Su... Superman? You think I'm Superman?”
“Think? I’ll bet my life on it.”
And she jumps out a window.