September 17, 2010

The Close-Up in Film and Literature

Everyone conversant in modern film knows the "close-up." The camera zooms in, usually on one character, for at least 4 seconds--and as many as 30 or 40. It is usually some sort of reaction shot, and the actor's handbooks say that "good acting is reacting," so close-ups are vital components to any film. They're crucial tests of acting talent.

Perhaps they're most important when no dialogue accompanies the close-up. Then the actor's face, wrinkles, cheeks, chin, and maybe the rest of their body, is the language spoken to the camera.

These moments happen often in written dramatic fiction, and it's important--and probably helpful--to compare them film. It helps me to imagine, in a particular written descriptive vignette of character A done with omniscient third-person narration, that character A has a camera moving in on his or her activity. And the longer the action is suspended and the description takes the foreground, the more pressure is on this close-up. The adjectives, nouns, and verbs really have to sing, here. When I know that the camera is sitting there, just waiting for some acting, I feel the pressure--I visualize the scene as if it were on a movie set. And that helps me write well.

For example, let's go back to the original comparison I set up, and apply film to written fiction. Take the 1989 film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington. In its final scenes, the film camera rests on Broderick for what seems like a full minute, as he considers the likelihood of his imminent death on the battlefield at Fort Wagner. There is absolutely no dialogue, and no other action but Broderick's face. This is somewhat compensated by having James Horner's gorgeous score amped up to full volume. But at least half of this scene is a screen test for Broderick. Each nervous gulp of saliva, each twitch of his mustache, each gaze out into the ocean, has to point toward his emotional state. Or else it's a waste.

Now consider the difficulty for a screenwriter to capture this close-up in words, or the prospect of a novelist writing it into a couple paragraphs of omniscient narration, without a film score booming in the background, or a good-looking actor. Sound difficult? It should. That should be the pressure cooker and one that produces great descriptive writing.

When the actual camera zooms in on the big screen, or when the metaphorical camera zooms in on the written page for a descriptive moment with the subject at hand, the author or director is announcing, "This is important. Look. Look closely with me." The set-up needs to deliver, or else two things are true: either there is no need for a close-up, or the acting/writing is bad.

"Cinematic writing" in biography and other genres has been a theme for me--especially in the past year as this blog has related to the creative writing process more than Florida.

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