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.

More Notes on Film and Literature

A note on satire in film and literature, inspired by a viewing of the new film Easy A. This film, a skewering of the shallowness of high school gossip and peer perception, has garnered good reviews--especially for the first half of the film. The first half, like most satires, is the harshest, prickliest, the sharpest. That's how most satires function, since Moliere, since Mark Twain.

Even a weak satire, like the 90s Eddie Murphy film, The Distinguished Gentleman, inspired reviews that complimented the first half.

We might call the first half of a satire the "saber-rattling," and the conclusion the "truce." For whatever reason, be it only the end of the story, the skewering, pricking, and cutting stops. Sometimes, in a silly movie satire like The Distinguished Gentleman, the message-making happens and it comes across as disingenuous and cheap to the audience.

In good satire, like Easy A, the rush of good feeling at the end--in this case a girl gets guy scene--is delightful, if a bit cheap. In grand satire like Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, or A Modest Proposal, the saber-rattling is so rich that any respite, any break, any truce is sweetly earned. We still remember and celebrate Moliere, Swift and Twain. And their satirical works transcend the genre. But why is that so?

My follow-up question is simpler:

Is the first half of a satire always better than the last? Is that just a natural facet of satire? Should good satire even attempt a denouement if critics and cynics are just going to throw their hands up and complain about "tying everything in a bow"? Or, is good satire evenly talented throughout? If a metaphor is a tenor and a vehicle, what is the break-down of a satire?

September 16, 2010

In Stays

When you're immobile on your sailboat, waiting for a good gust of wind, or any wind, it's called "in stays" or "in irons."

Right now, I'm still waiting for the next step toward publication. I just finished re-reading Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos. My family is launching an official website for John Dos Passos--my maternal grandfather--in the next few months. Right now I'm pulling together sources and writing content.

Next on my night table for reading is Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast. A family friend advising my reading it years ago and now I'm delighted to finally to begin.