The View

When David Leland’s lovely WISH YOU WERE HERE came out, he did a Q&A in Edinburgh and said the main difference he’d found between theatre and film directing was that “In cinema, there’s only one seat in the house, and it always has to be the best one.”

This is cute, glib, somewhat true, but worth unpicking. A director in the theatre has to consider what can be seen and heard by audience members scattered around the auditorium. In cinema, though obviously there ARE lots of seats, the view controlled by the director is that of the camera. The camera, Leland is saying, always has to be in the best position. But what IS the best position?

Looking at creatively directed movies soon demonstrates that the best position is not necessarily the most explicit view. Sometimes the camera withdraws somewhat to aid the emotional effect of the scene. Billy Wilder suggested that a character having an idea, or receiving terrible news, is best filmed from behind, enlisting the audience’s imagination, showing a certain discretion, avoiding cliché (the lightbulb over the head), and maybe saving the filmmaker from the impossible task of showing the unshowable (what should MacDuff’s face do when he’s told his entire family have been killed?)…

In THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and again in THE LIMEY, a massacre occurs inside a building while the camera waits, timorously, outside. Refusing to serve up the usual action shots creates an awe-inspiring sense of something too horrible to be seen. In TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese slides his camera off Travis when he’s on the phone to Betsy, preferring to show us the empty corridor down which Travis will inevitably walk once rejected. Mike Hodges pulled back from George Segal’s breakdown in THE TERMINAL MAN, feeling “It’s too painful,” and wanting to give the character some privacy. The suits couldn’t comprehend this choice, and wanted him to close in, to “show the emotion,” an approach Hodges found pornographic.

Choosing to conceal rather than reveal can be terrifically effective, and always indicates a creative filmmaker at work (unless it indicates pure ineptitude). I can sort of respect the choice even when I don’t think it works. In Peter Brook’s KING LEAR, he includes fairly frequent shots of the backs of people’s heads. He explained that in Shakespeare, there are moments when the words are doing everything and images would detract. (In the continuous longshot of the stage, this is less of an issue, apparently.) Brook didn’t feel he could just cut to black, but he and his cinematographer DID feel they could get away with filling the screen with a centrally-framed, often blurry, rear view of Paul Scofield’s cranium. They were dead wrong, and Brook is no filmmaker if you ask me. But it was certainly an example of creative thought in action.

(Why I don’t think it works: the blank walls of hair and scalp serve as interruptions; they make the audience wonder, futilely, what is going on; they aren’t incorporated into a blocking and cutting pattern; they distract from the words far more than simply holding the shot would have done.)

There’s a particularly great example of directorial discretion in George Stevens’ film A PLACE IN THE SUN. Montgomery Clift arrives hours late at Shelley Winters’ place. He was supposed to spend his birthday with her (his official girlfriend) but instead has been with Elizabeth Taylor. Winters feels miserable about being stood up. Clift feels miserable and guilty for doing it (but would totally do it again).

And Stevens films the whole thing from outside the room.

As the scene develops, the angle comes to seem, in a conventional sense, less and less adequate. When the characters sit, we only have Shelley’s back, a Brooksian lump of hair. By the end of the scene, both characters are almost entirely unreadable, you would think, Shelley still just a blind slab of back, Monty crouching on the floor, hidden behind her with just his hand in shot. Our expensive stars are turned away from the lens AND blocked AND tiny in frame. “Shoot the money” this ain’t. But as the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene mounts continuously, and is obviously the correct emotion, nobody could reasonably say the action isn’t well-covered. Stevens’ bold choice delivers the required feeling. And paradoxically, by showing discretion and averting our eyes from the angst-ridden subjects, he doesn’t protect us from suffering, in a way he elevates the agony. Big close-ups of blubbering faces are often so repellant that you’re prevented from pity by sheer revulsion. Wide empty frames enlist the imagination — in this case, the empty bed forms an accusing plain.

What makes this even more impressive is what we’re told about Stevens’ filming style. “He shoots in a circle,” they said, meaning that Stevens would start aiming north and film a wide shot and singles of different sizes of every character, then arc around the action ninety degrees and shoot from the east, repeating all the shot sizes, and then do the same for the other points of the compass, acquiring a colossal amount of footage, most of it useless as soon as he made his choice in the cutting room about what view he liked best. Incredible to think he began as cinematographer to Laurel & Hardy, who didn’t even rehearse.

In this case, either Stevens made a single bold decision before turning over a frame of film, suggesting that the conventional view of his approach is exaggerated or incomplete, or he went ahead and filmed every possible angle on this scene and, in reviewing the material in the cutting room, noticed that this take worked, sustained interest all the way through, and was better than anything he could get by cutting back and forth between different angles (meaning, presumably, he’d have had to cut the scene together a few different ways to be sure of this). Either explanation is hugely impressive to me.

I once read an article by Arthur Koestler explaining that computers would never be able to play chess. This was written decades before computers learned to play chess. Koestler explained that, since computers were not intelligent (which is still true), they could only attempt to play chess by considering every possible move, even the ones that make no sense and are instant suicide. “This is a very stupid way to play chess,” he argued. Since the number of possible moves increases as you project more and more turns ahead, and quickly becomes astronomical, Koestler argued, reasonably enough, that there would never be enough computing power to pull it off. Well, now there is, and I assume computers still play chess the same way, considering all the choices, but can really consider ALL the choices, so a good chess computer is just about unbeatable.

Stevens seems to have been trying to direct films the way computers play chess. And it IS, usually, a stupid way to direct films. Dump-truck directing tends to look bland, and just filming a wide shot and many many medium and close shots does not even guarantee that you’ve covered the scene. John Frankenheimer found that an ECU of a raindrop hitting a stopwatch was just the shot required to solve a huge storytelling/pace/continuity/weather problem on GRAND PRIX. The kind of thing that can only be attained by imagination, which is a fuzzy and chaotic approach, not a methodical one.

What blows my mind with Stevens is how he frequently got imagination to thrive within what would seem to be a rather arid methodology. Hats off!

8 Responses to “The View”

  1. “unless it indicates pure ineptitude)”

    I have to say that my first thought on seeing your Tweet about this post was “Ah – Doris Wishman!”

  2. The example I nearly used was Scorsese! In Raging Bull there’s a family scene where Joe Pesci’s wife makes a remark, attempting to be helpful, and Pesci turns on her. Scorsese never got a shot of her saying the line — since then he always makes sure to use multiple cameras for scenes with improv. It’s not a great example though because Scorsese at least spotted the ommission and, with much wrestling, Thelma Schoonmaker was able to make the scene play coherently using the existing material.

    I have to wonder if the reason the shot wasn’t taken was that Scorsese had already decided that Pesci’s wife wasn’t important in this masculine story.

  3. Interesting things to think about. I do think at some point the “not showing big emotional moments” turned into a cliche and became cover for “not showing moments that are difficult to express” A couple of years ago (more like a dozen, now that I think of it), I was watching the film BRIGHAM CITY (nicely made low-key indie thriller with lots to recommend it) and there’s a scene where a police officer has to break the news of a child’s death to her parents. I was all set up for the scene to cut away right before the sobbing, because it seemed to me that (a) that would be the conventional thing to do and (b) trying to show grief would open up the movie to all different kinds of failure (looking ridiculous in some way or other). But he stayed with the scene — didn’t cut away — and let the actors play it out, and it was devastating in a way that it couldn’t have been in our imagination partly because the director hadn’t played it safe; he had put our engagement in the movie on the line and had risked coming up short. That scene had a major impact on the way I watch movies and now when I see someone cut away it’s always in the back of my head that they did that because they didn’t have confidence that they could pull off something difficult; that they’re afraid of looking ridiculous.

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    In David Lean’s film of Noel Coward’s play THIS HAPPY BREED, two characters learn of the death of two family members when they walk outside into their garden. The camera lingers for a painfully long while on the empty room, while the radio plays a banal tune in counterpoint, before the characters re enter the room, their lives irrevocably changed. I do not know if the staging was Lean’s or Coward’s, but it was most effective in its reticence.

  5. One thing that may be a factor: if the scene is simply about a character learning something horrible and the question is whether to allow the audience to witness this moment, reticence may be more useful than explicitness. If the audience is with the character bringing bad news, confronting them and the audience with the messy, upsetting and embarrassing responses to that news would seem an almost essential part of the story, making both the This Happy Breed and the Brigham City scenes appropriately rendered in their different ways.

  6. Joel Coen mentions his bewilderment on the Team Deakins latest podcast episode (@36:00) of the scene from A PLACE IN THE SUN.

  7. Thanks! I only just heard of this pod the other day and now this comment convinces me it’s time I checked it out.

  8. I’ve listened now. Coen apparently hasn’t heard about Stevens “shooting in a circle.” But he still makes a great point.

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