Thursday, April 24, 2008

Breathing Room in Films

I really enjoyed a recent post on Emerson’s scanners in which he talked about an interview of Ramin Bahrani, the director of Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. I, too, completely agree with Bahrani on the kinds of movies he says he values:

“Film is really 24 frames a second in the present, and I realize when you leave certain gaps, it allows space for the viewer to enter the film. That requires a viewer who wants to be engaged, who wants to have an emotional connection to a film, which should not be confused with films that elicit emotions like weeping and whatnot. You watch a certain movie, and the director puts you in a headlock through ways of dramaturgy, music, camera moves and excessive acting. It hits certain synapses in your brain and makes you cry, then you leave, and the next day you're having a hamburger and you don't really remember what the film was. Despite that those are the kinds of films that get lots of accolades and attention, it doesn't attract me as a person nor as an artist. I'm more interested in the ones — because of your participation — [that] seep into you, and two months later, are still a part of you. I don't know if I've accomplished this, but it's what I'm striving for.”

That’s exactly how I feel. Emerson added:

“What he describes -- that space that allows the viewer to enter the film -- is a quality I particularly treasured when going through No Country for Old Men with the audience at the Conference on World Affairs last week. Although the first time you see it you're aware of pulse-pounding tension, suspense and unforseen eruptions of violence, the movie is really full of breathing room. Long wordless sequences encourage you to get inside the heads of the characters and see things through their eyes, to experience what they're thinking and feeling moment by moment: the opening sequence (which I played once without sound so we could simply look at the progression of images, then see and how they play off of Ed Tom's voiceover); Lleweylyn following the trail of blood to the two trees in the desert; Llewelyn methodically assembling the tools he will need to place the satchel in the vent; Chigurh tending to his wounds in the motel bathroom...”

I would agree with that as well, although I’d hate for anyone to turn off the dialogue in any of my films so that they may feel like they’re getting inside the heads of my characters or so they may experience what the characters are thinking and feeling. You should be able to do that just as well with the dialogue. I’m not belittling what Emerson did. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that kind of exercise, per say. It’s always great to study the visuals. But when it comes to dialogue, the problem, I think, is that too many films and scripts are filled with words that are on-the-nose. Characters that are saying exactly what they’re thinking and feeling defeats the purpose of the visuals and puts the audience in the awkward position of being just observers rather than active participants in the story. Hence the need for
subtext in dialogue, which is more difficult to write, but the payoffs are magnificent. When you realize the characters in a film you’re watching are saying one thing and meaning something else in order to accomplish X, Y, or Z, you get sucked into the film without even realizing it, because you’re asking yourself questions about the characters, about the conflict, about their motives, etc. In the recent subtext example from Gilda, you knew that Johnny and Gilda had a past and absolutely hated each other while they were behaving so politely to each other in front of Ballin and not saying one word about their true feelings. That, to me, is essential to encouraging audience participation. Subtext is the greatest trick of screenwriting.

This also brings to mind Hemingway's ICEBERG PRINCIPLE. In his famous
Paris Review interview, Hemingway said:

“If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”

How this applies to screenwriting and films is obvious, I think. All the audience can see and hear is what appears within a frame, which is the tip of the iceberg. But for the audience to lose themselves within the story within the frame, the whole of the story has to be lying underneath. In other words, by NOT explaining everything verbally, by allowing the actors to reveal the interior dialogue of the characters, which may be at odds with the words they're speaking (hence, subtext) you suck the reader (and the audience) more into your world. When 3:10 to Yuma came out, I recall having a discussion with someone, Mickey Lee, Joshua James, maybe, I don't remember, about Elmore Leonard's earlier western novels. Leonard didn't have chatty heroes with compelling motivations to define their actions. They were men who were who they were and they did their jobs. Period. That was it. I know Leonard has in the past
complained about how some of the best westerns in cinema history, which were adaptations of his own frickin’ books, were fouled up because the movies didn't allow his heroes’ bravery to stay quite as mysterious as he wrote it. I think, generally, there's wisdom in that. The filmmakers that give you breathing room and make you want to revisit their films and characters again and again are the ones that don’t verbally explain everything. Thus, I've argued repeatedly to writers for less backstory and more mystery.

Obviously, I have a thing for mystery.



terraling said...

These wonderful posts of yours keep reminding me of the core lessons I've come to learn in my own limited writing experience so far. And the pearl from today's post is that mystery needs clarity. If you are to create uncertainty in the mind of the audience that gets them thinking about what they are seeing, there is no room whatsoever for uncertainty on the part of the writer. As the quote from Hemingway evinces, any fudging will be all too clear. In the opening sequences of one of my stories I wanted to create a certain ambiguity about the morality one of the principal characters, and when a reader challenged me about the confusing messages, I had to admit it was because I hadn't really nailed in my mind why he made the choices he did. Confronting that made for a much stronger character and now I could really put that ambiguity to work constructively. Winging it doesn't work.

bob said...

leaving spots for some empty space, breathing room is one of the great weaknesses of my scripts. I've been drummed to get in/get out, which while good advice, doesn't mean that EVERY scene all the time has to be frenetic. There's times where it's important to reflect on what you've just seen or set you up for what you're about to see. Now if I could remember to do that myself!!

Joshua James said...

I think subtext is extremely important - the challenge is that the best subtext isn't always apparent on the first superficial read (hence the description of it as, ah, subtext, heh) . . . since scripts often only get one read (done in an hour) then it can often get missed.

It's frustrating, but it's a part of doing business, I guess.

Laura Deerfield said...

The caesura.

I've been thinking about this, and the way that all forms of art seem to need some variation on it. A pause, a slow moment, a clean space - otherwise it becomes noise, like someone who shouts all the time.

Planning on my next blog post being on this subject.

Zane said...

I prefer breathing room in films as well, but would argue that the majority of movie goers (not video geeks, but families going out to Saturday Matinees) want their films simple, direct, and manipulative as hell. Without Oscars, "No Country For Old Men" didn't do too hot at the box office. And the majority of our population - people of "average" intelligence - don't understand the ending, and therefore don't like the entire movie.

Then again, Pulp Fiction made bank in '94 (pre-Oscar bank). And there's plenty of breathing room in Pulp Fiction. So maybe the open ending of "No Country" was just too much for the average asshole to comprehend.

But I love subtext in movies, and I strive for it in my writing. It makes the struggle more intense. But emotionally, you learn more about your characters, you learn more about yourself, and I would argue that's the key to Quality Writing - intense personal discovery.

And terraling makes a wonderful point - if you don't figure out your characters, you won't be able to write the space between. Not successfully.

Christian M. Howell said...

Thought-provoking as usual. I myself HATE back story i.e. some explanation as to why a character does what they do.
It would be like James Bond making a speech about how his past has contributed to his defiance in the face of horrendous death.

The hero is defined as what he does not why. Though I guess a reporter could ask why, it is totally unnecessary for a good story.

The situations can be manipulated to say - subtextually - anything you want.

The beauty of cinema is that you can use pacing to show that perhaps with thought a person may have done something different, but with the fluidity of life, sometimes your intuition will impact your immediate decision.

This makes for a plethora of opportunities to build conflict based on that immediate decision.

The essence of cinema is the use of images and sounds to emphasize these choices and consequences.

Matt said...

I know this post is old (sorry, MM!) but I must say that anyone reading this needs to make sure that when Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop is released on DVD, they buy a copy, take the day off, go home, shut off the lights, and watch it.

It's only 85 minutes, but once you see it, you won't be able to think about anything else for the rest of the day (and maybe a few days thereafter).

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