I’ve been reading a book called The History of Sex in American Film by Jody Pennington for mysterious reasons I can’t reveal until late-August. There have been scripts I’ve read in the past where, in some scenes, there are characters in a room and it’s obvious the writer didn’t know what or where to put those characters.
Well, consider this.
The dynamics of relationships, even sexual dynamics, can dictate where to place the characters. Or how they’re behaving. Or whether certain characters should be in the foreground while others are frozen out in the background. Or who has their back to whom. Because you can make visual statements about the relationships without resorting to dialogue and with the simple placement of the characters.
In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George (Richard Burton) and Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) are having some marital issues. We know in a scene in a kitchen the degree of Martha’s discontent, because she tells George (in a scene filled with subtext) about the fate of Rosa Moline, a character in Beyond the Forest. “She’s a housewife… She buys things… She’s discontent.” As Jody writes in The History of Sex in American Film, “Martha’s allusion signifies her dissatisfaction with her own gender-coded role of housewife. It can also be read as a parallel indication that she is aware that her sexual desires and her plans to use sex to escape George’s world for a part of the night parallel those of Rosa Moline to escape the world of her husband…”
Then comes Nick and Honey for a night of drinks. Nick is a new colleague of George’s at a New England college. Consider these two paragraphs from Jody’s book and how placement of characters emphasized new sexual dynamics between the characters:
When the two women return, Martha has changed into something more comfortable. George greets her with a term of endearment – “my pet” – and an ironic “your Sunday chapel dress” (it is early Sunday morning). George reacts to Martha’s change of attire but tells the guests, “Martha is not changing for me.” Verifying George’s suspicions, Martha sits on the couch beside Nick and begins flirting with him. The sequence of shots begins with an extreme close-up of Nick taking a lighter and lighting Martha’s cigarette after George refused to do so…
[Mike] Nichols [the director] underlines the bond developing between Martha and Nick by shooting Martha and Nick in close-ups and medium close-ups and positioning them in the foreground. George and Honey are frozen out and left in the background. As Martha flirts with Nick, close-ups of her are intercut with close-ups of him, with Honey in the background saying that Nick had been “intercollegiate state middleweight champion.” Martha, framed in close-up, remarks, “You still look like you have a pretty good body now, too, is that right? Have you? … Is that right? Have you kept your body?” George’s interjection from the back of the room, “Martha… decency forbids…” is silenced by a loud “Shut up!” from Martha framed in a close-up. When Nick says that his body is “pretty good,” Honey, in a medium two shot with Nick, confirms what Martha thinks she sees: “Yes, he has a very firm body.” Then in quick succession there is a cut to Martha in a close-up, then back to Nick and Honey followed by a medium shot with George behind Martha, sitting at a desk reading a book. George breaks in again, and Martha retorts that George does not “cotton to body talk.” Nichols, with the deft framing of Haskell Wexler, who won an Oscar for his camera work, visualizes the way in which sexual desire can focus the minds of two people that are attracted to one another to the detriment of those around them.
Now consider The Graduate. I’m not even going to set this up, because you should already know this film. Here’s Jody again:
Eventually, Elaine returns from school, and Ben is manipulated by his parents into taking her out. When he picks her up at the Robinsons, Mrs. Robinson is sitting in the jungle room, her legs covered by a leopard-skin patterned blanket as she smokes a cigarette with The Newlywed Game playing unwatched on the television. Ben and Mrs. Robinson have a moment alone, and she tells him that she is “very upset.” He promises he will only take Elaine out this one time. Elaine and her father come in, and while the camera focuses on Mrs. Robinson’s forlorn face in a close-up, her husband advises Elaine “to keep your wits about you tonight. You never know what tricks Ben picked up back there in the East.” Ironically, we see Ben’s real teacher while her cuckolded husband mouths the sexual platitudes heard at Benjamin’s party. The scene is not completely humorous, though. By having this comment occur in this room where Mrs. Robinson first began her pursuit of Ben in earnest and by framing Mrs. Robinson’s despondent face so closely, the film shifts her from a position of superiority to one of vulnerability.
Ironically, Mrs. Robinson eventually intrudes into the intimate space Ben and Elaine share when Ben comes to pick Elaine up for a date. As Mrs. Robinson forces Ben to drive around the neighborhood, she attempts to coerce him into dropping Elaine by threatening to expose their illicit relationship. In his first burst of rebellion, Ben responds by deciding to tell Elaine himself…
On a final note, I must say, I love this paragraph about the montage:
In The Graduate, the fluctuation between the visible adherence to norms and the surreptitious deviation from them are best represented in a European-modernist inspired montage. In a sequence inspired by Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, we see Benjamin’s transitions, and the symbiotic relationship, between his two lives. Benjamin is seen leaving the pool and going into his parents’ house only to enter a hotel room with Mrs. Robinson; he gets up from a bed and goes to shut the door of the dining room where his parents are eating dinner, lies down on his bed again, but is now in the hotel bedroom. In the hotel bedroom, Mrs. Robinson walks back and forth in the foreground, getting dressed, and then leaves, followed by Benjamin leaving his own bedroom, going past his mother (Elizabeth Wilson) to the pool for a swim and diving onto Mrs. Robinson in bed.