Police detectives and professional interrogators will tell you that what makes a story believable is the level of detail. Not just relevant detail, but any detail. It can be something substantive, like a scar on a perpetrator’s face, or something barely relevant, like a smell in the air. It doesn’t matter what it is, details help to prove that we were actually there, receiving all of the sensory input that an experience entails.
This principle can be applied to film. In most films, directors limit themselves to presenting only what is relevant. In Hitchcock films, we are only shown what is important to the plot. It’s a bit like a Hemingway or Orwell novel, where things are stripped down in order to increase their impact. Too much description can get in the way of drama. If you want a scene to have urgency and power, you can’t describe everything that everyone is wearing. However, it can also work in reverse. If what we read in a book or see on the screen is just the bare facts, the director runs the risk of losing the connection to his or her audience. Without some measure of description, it is difficult to invest in the world being presented to you.
In Jane Campion’s film The Piano, there is a scene where Alisdaire (Sam Neal) is attacking Ada (Holly Hunter). He grabs her and begins pushing her around the room, shoving her into the wall and the table.
To emphasize the tension, the camera is zoomed in, the editing is quick and abrupt, and the blocking is full of movement, but right in the middle of the melee, Campion chooses to insert a shot of several spools of thread tumbling across the table that Ada is slammed onto. Campion cuts to the tumbling threads twice. They are a minor detail, something not directly relevant to the scene, but they fill out the experience. The two shots are the details in the story that make it feel real.
The implication is that they are something Ada noticed during the fray. Something that you wouldn’t expect her to notice. Something we wouldn’t have thought to include in a retelling, and so impresses us with the idea that such a detail is a mark of truth. In addition, it makes the story more intimate, more personal, because it is the sort of thing only one person would notice.
In The Last Emperor, there is a scene where the toddler-aged king is taken to the palace for the first time. He is greeted by the grand pageantry of the dowager and her court. The scene could have been a simple conversation with a shot-reverse-shot exchange of dialogue, but director Bernardo Bertolucci includes smaller shots that emphasize the strangeness of this rarefied and exotic room. There is a shot of a live sea turtle floating in an enormous taurine. A man ladles a bit of murky water out of the taurine and offers it to the dowager, who refuses it. The detail doesn’t move the plot and is not integral to the scene, but it provides a specific and odd observation, as if the story is being told by a bewildered child trying to recall what the experience was like. We never see or hear from the turtle again, but its momentary presence contributes to a dreamy atmosphere and sense of the child’s amazement.
Not all movies are like this. In fact, most are not. From classics like On The Waterfront to action films like The Matrix, most of what you see on screen is directly related to the plot. Close-ups are rare and mostly reserved for faces or particularly pertinent details. In the famous kung fu fight between Neo and Morpheus in The Matrix, the only close-up is of Morpheus’ knee smashing through the tatami mats. It is a purposeful shot that emphasizes the high-stakes nature of their sparring. Imagine instead if the fight paused for a shot of a bug sneaking under the mat. It would interrupt the pacing and perhaps break the excitement. The scene is not about an intimate experience of a moment in time, it is a skillfully choreographed, meticulously paced fight scene that both celebrates and parodies the history of kung fu cinema. It doesn’t need small details because it doesn’t need verisimilitude to get its point across.
In considering a writer or director’s ability to draw the audience’s attention to a small detail of marginal relevance, it is only through film and literature that one can accomplish this. On a live stage, it would be very difficult to direct or manipulate the audience’s attention to something small.
It seems strange to say, but the two-dimensional medium of film is actually far more dimensional than the three-dimensional “reality” of a stage play. Cinema and literature allow the audience to move through space and time in any direction. Despite plays being rendered in the three-dimensional world, they are hampered by a motionless point of view. We, the viewer, are stationary, and so the images we see remain essentially two-dimensional.
Film and literature are similar in their ability to fluidly guide the audience’s attention, but they are not the same. Film can fool us in a way that literature cannot. It can trick our eyes and ears in a more immediate and visceral way. The power of moving images is too immediate, too instinctual for us to resist. We believe what we see before we are able to truly consider it. The idea that effects are fake, or that characters are actors, always comes second to our reactions to what is right in front of our eyes.
Whether directing us to details or addressing a scene as a whole, a director most often tries to imitate our lived experience. Even in a fantasy film like Lord of The Rings, there is an effort to make scenes feel “real.” The question becomes whether the creator of a scene wants the audience to have a subjective, intimate, and idiosyncratic experience, or a more generalized and objective point of view. That is not to say that details are subjective and generalities are objective. They are often correlated, but it is not always so. Just allowing us to hear or not hear Dave’s breathing in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is enough to shift us back and forth between objective and subjective. The experience can be fluid.
A magician has to find a way to misdirect our eyes in order to control our experience. A film director need only direct. They have complete control over what we see and what we don’t see. All storytelling is about what the author wants us to see and not see, but depending on the medium, the author’s ability to manipulate our attention changes.
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