December 8, 2007

Writing Cinema

In film, we talk a lot about being heavy-handed versus being subtle...using a feather versus a frying pan to get a point across.

Seems that good writing and good film is also about where you make that distinction--oftentimes where you finish. In The West Wing, for example, Aaron Sorkin played around a lot with the set to suggest things. He used the set a lot.

I remember a scene, I think when President Bartlet contemplated war in the Middle East. For a somewhat subtle effect, the camera put Bartlet's profile shot beside George Washington's portrait. Or, at the end of season two and beginning of season one, when President Bartlet wracks his brain over whether to run for re-election, a tropical storm blows the Oval Office doors open and shut. At the big press conference, the storm has soaked Bartlett's coat. He's almost dripping when he addresses the reporters finally. It's like Shakespeare's King Lear; the outside mimicking the inside.

Other times, when Sorkin wants the viewer to remember the awesome scope of the presidency--or its limitations--he focuses in on a portrait of the White House hanging on the wall before moving to another scene.

In the William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the concluding scene rests your eyes on the trim cruiser in the distance, connecting you from the war on the island to the war on the seas. Makes you wonder if "civilization" beyond the boys' savagery is really that civilized.

The above picture of Steinhatchee Harbor, if you were filming it, could be sliced several ways for different meaning. You could keep the camera a couple hundred feet away, giving the audience a perspective shot of the harbor's size and the size of the fleet coming back to port after a long fishing day. Or you could focus in on one boat and look at each member of the crew. Or, you could focus on the boats quickly one by one.

Or, for the most intimate shot, you could set the camera right beside the skipper of one of the vessels, like a parrot on a pirate's shoulder, and see the world through his eyes. I wonder if that isn't the best way to tell a political story. One episode of The West Wing is called "In the Room." I think that says it all.

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