Anatomy of a Scene: “Rear Window” (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1954)

This week, Fathom events is showing Rear Window in theaters across the country. The first round was yesterday; the rest are Wednesday. It’s one of the greatest films of all time, so I suggest going, and in its honor I’m posting an edited version of a paper I wrote in my freshman year in college about the film’s climax. The paper was a close-viewing that was essentially a prototype for what my little-used “Anatomy of a Scene” series is, so I’m going to present it with few changes.

The Unarmed, Silent Standoff: On the Climax of “Rear Window” as a Battle of Truth against Evil

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window may be best defined by its climactic scene of confrontation between protagonist L.B. Jeffries and antagonist Lars Thorwald. While the rest of the film is more comedic and literal that this climax, no other scene in this picture is a strong metaphor for the universal theme of the battle between truth and falsehood. Its power derives largely from the low-key lighting with a few high contrast shafts of light that draw attention to details such as the doorway and Lars Thorwald’s eyes. Hitchcock skillfully cuts short, repetitious shots; hardly allows any sound to be audible; and utilizes low-key and high contrast lighting in order to manipulate the viewer into viewing this climactic scene that acts as almost the entirety of the film’s third act as something apart from the rest of the picture and also as something more meaningful than perhaps most of the film is. Continue reading

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Anatomy of a Scene: “Annie Hall” (Woody Allen, USA 1977)

Annie Hall, one of the greatest films ever made, is at once devilishly complex and remarkably simple. On the side of simplicity, it wears its point on its sleeve and never hides what it’s saying for a second. However, it also is built on a remarkably complex narrative structure (essentially the same structure that director Marc Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber would use years later for the also-brilliant [500] Days of Summer [USA 2009]) and filled with the type of sophisticated, intellectual humor that only Woody Allen can pull off.

The film can be summed up quite well with two scenes: the opening and the ending. Technically, the ending as I am defining it is actually a sequence rather than a scene, but it’s my blog and there are technically very few scenes in Annie Hall longer than a few seconds.

Opening Scene

The film opens with Allen, by then a star both as a comedian and as a filmmaker, standing in front of a plain red screen and telling us a joke. The character, Alvy Singer, is also a comedian (though we don’t know that yet), and so he relates to the world through humor, even when he isn’t using it for the sake of humor. He tells the joke, but he tells it to make a point.

The joke ends with an explanation: “That’s essentially how I feel about life–full of misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” Alvy Singer is now quickly defined for us–someone who has a sense of humor, but a sense of humor that is informed by a real sense of moroseness. We also now know something about how this film is going to work–it doesn’t care about the fourth wall and it lives inside Singer’s head. Originally, the film was much longer and included many more sequences like the one that follows this opening in which Alvy discusses his childhood. While the final film is no longer quite so much in his mind, we still have to know quickly that Alvy is our narrator and not exactly a reliable one.

“I would never want to belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member. That’s the key joke of my adult life, especially in terms of my relationships with women.” This may be more personal than any of you want to know, but I used to have a very close friend who told me that she loved Woody Allen, “because he reminds me of you.” I think this line is why. In general, the more I like someone, the more difficulty I have talking to them. Maybe Alvy and I are the only two people like this on the planet, but it’s an important thing to know about Alvy before the film really gets going.

The entire scene is just Allen in front of a red background. It’s not exactly the type of shot that turned cinematographer Gordon Willis into “The Lord of Darkness,” but the restraint and simplicity that Allen and Willis show here is great, and the red background is nice for the way it sets the scene apart from the “reality” of the rest of the film. Red is a decidedly unnatural background color, so this speech is clearly Alvy talking to us as an audience, not talking to someone who is in the audience’s position.

Aside: The Guy in the Movie Theater Line

Yes, I realize that I basically am that guy. (Though his opinions are ridiculous.)

Ending

While this scene is not continuous with the ending, it’s important to understanding the ending: Alvy arrives at a crowded outdoor L.A. restaurant in a long shot that barely allows us to notice him. He’s part of the crowd to Annie now, and as much as he doesn’t fit in with the style of these Californians, he feels like a background character when he’s out here. Allen then cuts to a close-up of Alvy as Annie walks by on the edge of the frame, entering the restaurant unseen and then joining Alvy for the final conversation. It’s shot in simple close-up one and two shots, always showing us whichever character is talking.

A few minutes later, when the ending proper begins, we get close-up one-two shots of two actors repeating the same conversation that Alvy and Annie just had. Then it moves to a longer shot showing us that it’s two actors working in front of a small group including Alvy. He has changed the ending of the conversation–he gets up to end it instead of Annie doing so and she changes her mind and decides to go with him. Then, a close-up of Alvy as he admits to the silliness by saying, “What do you want? It was my first play.” Again, the fourth wall is broken and Alvy relates to the audience through a telling humor. This time, though, one thing that’s different is Alvy’s face as he delivers the line. Before, while he was making a point rather than trying for a joke, he was also pleased with himself. This time, he’s disappointed–Woody Allen has never really been much of an actor, but he’s had his moments, and that look of discontent is definitely one of them.

Then, we get a short montage that begins with a long shot through a restaurant window of Alvy and Annie having lunch as Alvy tells us that they ran into each other and just caught up. It’s a distant shot like what we saw in the restaurant, once again telling us that Alvy is no longer part of Annie’s world but now, with both of them sealed off from the world, Annie is also not a part of Alvy’s. They may be together, but they are also apart.

The rest of the montage is just vignettes we’ve already seen of their relationship that are really just filling time for Alvy’s voice over until it ends with Alvy and Annie standing on a street corner shaking hands. Alvy is again reminded of a joke, “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy–he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ ‘Well, I would, but, uh, I need the eggs.’ I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships. You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.” While he’s telling us the joke, he and Annie shake hands, he kisses her on the cheek, and she walks away. Then, the “Don’t Walk” light over Alvy’s head changes to “Walk,” and he walks away. It’s a pretty obvious message, but it cannot be delivered much more beautifully and succinctly than that street sign. And that type of obviousness, done well, is still effective, as Willis showed with some very respected other works of his that you may recognize.

Maybe I’m something of a sucker for that message as someone who is far too shy and reserved to listen to it (After all, I have been trying for months now to find some way to learn to play this admittedly silly song–and yes I am mentioning it because I still am trying!) and I can admit that it’s rather simplistic, but Annie Hall delivers that message as well as it can be delivered: relationships are absurd and crazy, but if we don’t go for them, we wind up just standing still while all the traffic passes us by on a street corner.

Anatomy of a Scene: “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Ethan Coen/Joel Coen, USA/France 2013)

Introduction to Anatomy of a Scene Series

I’ve been thinking that I might try writing some more non-review things out here, so here is the first crack at a new concept, which I am calling “Anatomy of a Scene” as an extremely pretentious reference to Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, USA 1959) (he said, as if there were non-pretentious references to 54-year-old movies).

The basic idea is that I’m going to just write about one scene and what everything in it means, and how it is either just a great scene or an exemplar of the entire film. Since I can easily tell from the traffic data that WordPress provides that older films are essentially blog-killers, I thought I would introduce this “series” with a recent film, Inside Llewyn Davis. I do feel I should note that the film is not actually in front of me as I write this but rather it has to come from memory. (That’s not ideal, obviously, but like I said older films are traffic-killers!) I did watch the film in theaters twice, so hopefully my memory doesn’t get any of it actually wrong, but I cannot guarantee that. If something is wrong, by all means mention it in the comments.

Setting the Stage

I have already reviewed Inside Llewyn Davis on the blog, but here is essentially the story up to the scene I am discussing: Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk musician in Greenwich Village in 1961. He was slightly more successful in a duo with Mike Timlin, but Timlin’s suicide left him an angry, embittered solo folk act in a world of harmonic, inoffensive groups and robotic, gentle singers. He alienates his friends with his self-centered “artistic temperament” so that he is eventually driven to tag along with two old jazz musicians on a car trip to Chicago to take one last shot and finding management with Bud Grossman, owner of the Gate of Horn club. Importantly for this scene, his friends Jim and Jean have met a new up-and-coming solo folk singer in the robotically inoffensive army veteran Troy Nelson, who has a music career lined up for when his enlistment ends in the near future. Davis arrives at the Gate of Horn too early for Grossman but waits and then meets with him only to discover that his crooked manager, unsurprisingly, never sent Grossman his new solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, as he promised to do. Grossman asks Davis to “play me something from inside Llewyn Davis,” and it’s clear that those last three words do not mean the album.

The Scene

Davis and Grossman enter on a very long shot of the stage area of the Gate of Horn. The shot is from a balcony far above, showing us a cavernous, very dark auditorium with a shaft of bright light essentially pointing down at one table near the back. The room has a smoky, hazy look that not only evokes the image of the time but also emphasizes the almost dream-like feeling this pilgrimage has had for Davis as he takes one last stab at staying in the music industry. The dark backdrop with such a bright, high-contrast shaft of light lends the auditorium an almost religious quality, as though Davis is seeking his final salvation (which, of course, he is).

We cut to the two men arriving at the table. Grossman, walking with the confident air of the guy who actually owns the place, takes a chair down off the table and sits, facing the stage. Davis crosses in front of Grossman to take down the other chair and sit in front of him, taking out his guitar and briefly checking its tuning (but not actually having to adjust any of it, since the guitars in this film are magically always in tune). Davis has certainly never had any question of his own musical abilities throughout the film, but this moment is essentially the only time we see some doubt creep into his mind: Oscar Isaac (Davis) walks tightly, like a man who is concerned where his every footfall lands and what it will mean to the other person in the room, and then he almost starts playing before thinking better of it and waiting a second, indecisive about the start. I have played guitar for about 13 years, and I can certainly recognize that behavior, because it’s how I feel anytime I play and anyone even might be able to hear me, but it’s out of character for an egomaniac like Llewyn Davis.

But then he starts to play, and the nerves drop away quickly, so much so that his performance is absolutely dripping with ego. Not only is he performing without a hint of worry, but he is continuously looking over at Grossman with a canary-eating grin, certain that he is impressing the old manager, who looks back completely impassively throughout. He even decides to deliver the ending a cappella, so overflowing with pride in his own voice is he. And for good reason: it is, like all of Davis’s performances in the film, essentially pitch perfect from start to finish.

He finishes and looks at Grossman, certain that he’s won the management that will turn his career around. And then Grossman responds, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Shocked and devastated but desperate enough to want to hear what Grossman has to say, he listens further: Davis is certainly “no frontman, that’s for sure,” but Grossman is putting together a trio of two guys and a girl and hasn’t filled the last slot yet, so would Davis be willing to cut some of his facial hair and be a sideman there? No. “I don’t have what, say, Troy Nelson has.” No, “he connects with people.” Davis explains that he used to have a partner. Grossman responds, “That makes sense. My advice? Get back together.”

Davis stares back angrily and says, “That’s very good advice.” This exchange is executed with typical back-and-forth medium shots of the two actors, but the Coens and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel add an extra element, shooting Davis straight on and Grossman from slightly lower. It’s a clear but subtle enough effect, making Grossman clearly the more powerful member of the conversation, even though Davis is the protagonist and the one doing and saying interesting things. It emphasizes what Davis is feeling at the moment, essentially putting us in his shows as he faces this stunning rejection.

Aftermath

After this brilliant scene, we are left with one clear question: Why was Davis, so clearly such a talent, rejected?

First, look at what happens before he plays. A confident performer wouldn’t sit down next to Grossman when the stage is about thirty feet away and available.

Then, he’s asked to play something from inside himself and what does he actually play? A traditional English folktale about a C-section that results in the mother’s death. We already know who Davis is at this point, and it’s not anything like this song. He’s a cynical, angry, almost brutish artist who scowls on anything that receives popular attention. And yet he plays a mawkish ballad as his audition. The idea that Davis’s unwillingness to look inside himself for his music is a theme throughout the film, most clearly referenced by the title and Bob Dylan’s arrival at the end, Dylan of course being someone who plays the exact kind of music that Davis should be playing, if he were only willing.

Further, we have already seen some examples of what kind of music actually will sell in this world: Troy Nelson is so robotic that Davis asks him if he has to “plug himself in” somewhere, but his simple-minded inoffensiveness draws him a favorable crowd and, as Grossman says, allows him to “connect with people.” Jim and Jean always draw a crowd because of their good looks, which is clear enough even before Pappi outright says it later on. Jim writes a guaranteed hit with a silly little topical novelty song about the silly idea of sending people into space. Davis’s hardcore, rough-edged, cynical take on traditional folk music is nowhere to be found in any of these examples, and indeed is the antithesis of what makes those examples popular.

There is even an example in the two different performances we get of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”: The recorded version from Davis and Timlin is a country jaunt that’s as much about love as the loss of it, driven by a two-man harmony. In contrast, Davis’s solo performance is a raw, spare outpouring of pain and loss. His performance is powerful but receives no more than polite applause from the audience and a comment from Pappi that “you and Mikey used to do that song,” intimating that he prefers the duo performance.

The film is essentially about Llewyn Davis as a character, and he is never more clearly defined than in this meeting. His ego, his talent, and his failures are all obvious in this scene. Without seeing another moment in the film, one could understand what it’s about quite clearly just from this scene. That’s why this scene is so great, and such a great example of why this film is so great.