Monday, January 11, 2010

Before he was Obi-Wan . . .

I think movies offer us the worst examples of formulaic writing, but we can still learn from some cinematic techniques. I recall a famous example about a screenwriter who was having trouble depicting a marriage that had grown stale -- no amount of rewriting could get it to less than a page of explanatory dialogue. He passed the idea to a more experienced colleague, who came up with a brilliant wordless visual for this complex situation: The married couple step into an elevator. The man keeps his hat on. The elevator stops, and another woman steps on. Only then does the man respectfully remove his hat. A classic example of the "show me" principle.

My favorite movie is the 1949 Ealing Studios comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, perhaps best known for Alec Guinness's bravura performance as all eight members of the doomed D'Ascoyne family, although it does tend to overshadow the coherent neatness of the plot and Dennis Price's outstanding portrayal of the suave murderer, Louis Mazzini. A constant criticism of the film is that it is too verbal, with a witty, Wildean, deliciously cynical narration delivered by Price. But the narration supplements brilliant visual storytelling; it never substitutes for it.

One brief, wordless scene from near the beginning of the film packs so much information into a single image: a woman dressed in black pushes a perambulator along a street of modest houses and mails a letter. What do we get from that? A young woman, recently widowed, her late husband no doubt the father of the newly born child in the pram, already living in modest circumstances and now by his death deprived of all income . . . Clearly the letter she is mailing is of crucial importance to her situation, perhaps her only hope. Turn the sound off and you've still got the entire backstory conveyed in ten seconds of screen time.

Later, our first glimpse of young Henry D'Ascoyne is through the inverted viewfinder of an old camera, caught emerging guiltily from a village pub. Yet he can't resist coming over to inspect the camera. Again, it shows us all we need to know about Henry -- secret drinker, photography enthusiast, a man whose life is about to be upended (terminated, in fact) by a lethal combination of these very interests. Louis substitutes gasoline for kerosene in the lamp in Henry's darkroom, frying the young man when he adjourns there for a furtive drink away from the censorious view of his abstemious wife.

Now, if we could find a written corollary for these celluloid moments...

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