The Art of Sitting Still (and Moving Forward) Pt. 1

This is an investigation of visual storytelling in regards to dialogue scenes taking place by a table between two or more characters.

As I find myself in troubling circumstances, whatever they might be, I have often found that writing myself through the problem at hand usually has a rather cathartic effect. There is something to be said, or read, about the transference from mind to text, from idea to a more fully fledged notion of what that initial spark could turn into. For me, the moment of writing has always been more important than reading that which has been written, since the threshold between no text and text is greater than that of text and textualization.

In this particular case, I find myself lost in thoughts of visual grandeur, or, should I say, the proverbial situation of “less is more, and thus, much less should be greater than more itself”. In just three days, we start a second round of shooting days of my new short film, “Short Film # 21“. As is written in the script (the screenwriter has not offered any suggestions as to how to stage, block or film his written scenes), we are required to shoot three whole, separate scenes that take place at the same table, with the same characters, but with some rather different content in the dialogue. If we make the assumption that the dialogue itself will carry the drama and keep the audience interested, and if the actors conveys the characters inner struggles and connects with the nerve that we all hope that the text offers them as craftsmen, we as filmmakers (mainly me and my Director of Photography) are still obliged to design the scenes in a visual fashion so as not to either hinder the effect of the drama or the actors with a visual language that makes the audience think more about the visual aspects than that of the dramatic function of the scene as a whole, or not live up to either of their promise. The question in this case is then: how do we find a balance between a great visual composition as a supportive tool, and a great look on the other hand? What makes a dialogue scene work when it comes to framing and camera movement? What different choices do we as filmmakers have and what are the consequences of asking these questions? Are there other ways of designing a dialogue sequence than the standard back-and-forth, angled over-the-shoulder shots? How does it effect the scene if we use dirty or clean overs? Should we connect or disconnect our characters from each other, and how do we do that? What psychological message are we sending if we use profile shots, and what is the emotional difference between placing the actors on the far screen left versus far screen right, in relation to placing them to the far screen right versus far screen left? How do we break the line of action and re-establish a new line without jarring the audience? How do we dare to do entire dialogue sequences in well composed wide shots? Should the camera be completely still, or should we use tracks in a Michael Bay-way? All of these questions are important ones, and are not to be taken lightly. The same piece of dialogue will unquestionably be interpreted in quite different ways depending on how you shoot them.

And, in order for the sitation to be a bit more challenging, all of the scenes consists of a third character standing beside the table in question, creating questions of eyelines, difference in height, angles and perspectives.

In order for us to find some kind of universal solutions, or atleast common used practices that point toward an established understanding of norm between the filmmakers and our audience, and even before we start to look at some classic dialogue sequences from some of the great visual storytellers of our times, it is important to identify the actual scenes in question – the reason, or root, for this investigation of visual composition.

In the script, these scenes are titled Scene 2, Scene 3 and Scene 15a.

Scene 2 introduces the relationship between the two main characters, Lena, 71 and Linus, 36. As we quickly learn, they are mother and son, and it is hinted at that they meet fairly often at this seaside, modern-architecture restaurant called Pumphuset, consisting of three gorgeous glass walls, revealing a small harbour to the left, a cement pier leading straight out from the restaurants edge and acting as a wave breaker for the harbour, and the ocean and beach to the right. At this location, secrets are hard to keep hidden, and everything is open for anyone to see.

Linus meets his mother at the entrance, and together they walk back to the third, round table to the left, facing the harbour. Lena sits down facing the pier, and Linus sits down with his back against it. It is revealed that the seat Lena is sitting at, is also her favourite seat. In the background, the young, 20-something man who accompanied Lena into the restaurant, is standing silently, waiting, observing them.

No sooner than they have sat down, they are joined by the waitress Deniz, who takes their orders. She leaves, and Lena asks Linus if he is doing okay. It´s obvious by their dialogue that they speak about alot of things without any real substance. An example, as Linus asks politely “So.. What have you been doing today?” Lena: “Oh, nothing special”. They are soon interrupted again by Deniz who serves Lena her water, and as silence descends on the both of them, Lena pours some water into Linus empty glass, inspite of him not wanting any, and they both take a glass of water at the exact same time, not looking each other.

Scene 3 starts sometime later, as Deniz walks towards us with their orders. Lena asks what Linus wanted to speak to her about, when he called her the previous evening, but Linus doesn´t seem to be able to remember. Lena reacts to her order, and informs Deniz that she has received the wrong dish. Deniz looks confused and insists Lena ordered the sallad, but Lena is firm: she ordered the pasta. Deniz gives in, takes the sallad and goes away to switch the order. While they wait, Lena reminisces about how beautifully Linus sang when he was a child. Linus seems uncomfortable, and starts to ask if she brought along the money he asked for. They are again interrupted by Deniz, who serves Lena her meal, and leaves again.

Linus realizes that Lena has wet herself, and turns to look at the young man, who walks up to the table, takes Lena by the arm and goes towards the restrooms. Linus rises as well, walking to the reception. In this part of the script, however, it it clearly stated that we stay by the table, as Lena´s purce is still by the table, and we see Linus walk away from the table, and up to Deniz. They seem to argue, but she leaves and quickly comes back with a mop, and he walks back to mop his mothers urine away from the floor. Then he realizes that the purce is still at the table, looks into it and takes an envelope filled with money. He continues to mop. The scene ends.

In scene 15a, we are closing in on the end. We have learned that Lena suffers from Alzheimers, and she has just been led back to the table by the 20-something caretaker. Linus has just had a revelatory monologue by the entrance with Deniz, revealing some key information about his childhood and how his parents met. In short, she wrote hundreds of small paper rolls and left them in the laundry room of their commune living apartments, where she dissected one of her favourite songs with notations, as his father, then only his mothers neighbour, was a church tenor.

On his way back to the table, he passes the young caretaker, who is walking in the opposite direction. He stops by the table, and asks, surprised, if Lena doesn´t want to change seats, since she isn´t sitting in her favorite seat, overlooking the cement pier and the ocean. She tells him no, and Linus realizes that the Alzheimers has made her forget. He slowly sits down, but, as it turns out, they have nothing to say to each other. There is only an awkward, but yet serene, silence.

Out by the entrance, Deniz notices this, and makes a split-second decision. She walks up to them, and asks Linus for an autograph, infront of his mother. Startled, he agrees to sign her notepad, only to realize that her pen has no ink. All of them start to search for a pencil: Deniz in her pockets, Linus rises and looks into his jacket, and Lena starts to look around in her purce. Then, at the same time, several playing cards and casino chips fall out of Linus inner jacket, and hundreds of folded paper rolls from Lenas purce, falls to the floor, simultaneously. Linus falls to his knees, embaressed, knowing that his gambling addiction has been revealed. He looks at Deniz, who is standing beside the table, feeling guilty for causing the situation by asking for the autograph in the first place. He collects both his own chips and cards and his mothers rolls, and starts to get up, as a pen is revealed mid-air, as Lena has found one. He rises slowly, takes the pen, and signs the notepad. Deniz silently makes her departure.

Sitting again at the table, Lena has pulled out another envelope from her purce, realizing the amount of money in it. She asks him is the envelope is his, or if he´s supposed to have it. In a final, soul-redeeming moment, Linus choses to say “no”, even though both he and we as an audience knows that if he doesn´t make his payments to his bookmaker, he will in all likelihood face a very grim consequence. At that moment, Linus firmly tells Lena that she has to leave.

The scene then continues on to scene 15b, the final climactic scene which is a direct continuation of 15a.

Now, we should attempt to summarize these three scenes and try to interpret the emotional consequences of their narrative content.

Scene 2 is in the beginning of the film. We have seen parts of the restaurant in scene 1, but this is the first time we´re at the table. It is also the introduction of Deniz, and there is a looming presence in the background of the 20-something man whose roll or function we know nothing about yet at this time of the story.

Lena and Linus walk up to the table and sit down. Their conversation is very neutral and treading. They really don´t have anything to talk about, and on an emotional level, they are far apart. The characters are small, and distant. They are also far apart. We can´t really see what they are thinking of each other. They are neutral, and equal. Not personal with each other. It is almost as if they are treading a minefield. No sudden movements.

Deniz is still a formal stranger, just another waitress, without any kind of personal interaction, relationship or altercation with either of them. At the same time, she has to be featured in such a way as to inform us that she isn´t just a “glorified extra character”, but perhaps her characters continued interaction with Lena in scene 3 is enough of an evolvement of her stature. This scene is about the communicative dysfunction between Linus and Lena. There isn´t any real depth between them here, only rough edges. Everything is on the surface, rather stale, and slow. You can almost taste the stale air between them (but not in a hostile way). It is almost as if the bright light from outside darkens them, obscures them, highlights their mood.

Scene 3 takes place sometime after scene 2. Deniz arrives with the food, and Lena gets agitated that she has received the wrong order. This is the first time that we´re seeing more of her own character in relation to another character than Linus, where she is showing somewhat of an attitutude. This grand elder lady knows what she wants and isn´t afraid to show it.
Lena is also revealing more of their relationshp: she informs us of a personal detail about Linus childhood, and Linus is under a lot of pressure to secure the money she has brought with her. These are highly personal bits of information, and as such, they are key factors to the characters motivations and their power struggle. We are getting into “Revelatory Land”

And, in the end, the dynamics shift, when Lena wets herself in a public restaurant, forcing Linus to think about something else than just getting the money. It is a long walk of shame as he walks from the table to the reception area and then back again. The table is the fixed fixture. And then, when he least expects it, is actually placed in a situation where he can put his hand on the money he so desperately wants, but is still very ashamed to do it. The act says more than his reaction to it. The detail is in the hand taking the money.

Scene 15a comes after a very solmemn, one-take scene where Linus reveals his most personal emotional baggage (without it being dramatic) after having looked for Lena outside. The scene afterwards separates them, and in the scene before they have re-entered the restaurant, they have hugged. This scene is about slowly leveling out their relationship, and about acceptance. But, it is also a scene where truths are revealed, and sad facts are established. Good deeds, or their intentions, does sometime lead to painful situations. But it is also a scene where Linus´ and Lena´s emotional bagage are disclosed, for the world to see; they have nothing left to hide after this.
But it also a scene where Deniz is trying to connect with Linus after having had a personal talk the previous week, and failing miserably, for both of them.

As Linus falls to his knees in order to try to salvage what he can of his self esteem, he is really at the lowest point in his life. He feels as if Deniz is standing high above him, passing judgement.

Having summarized these scenes from an emotional and thematic context, and perhaps even hinted at some initial visual and atmospheric solutions, let´s try to give these scenes some kind of reference, and relevance, with other scenes that remind us of these. Thematics, emotional content, blocking, staging and setting are all factors in the analysis.

It´s important to try to get some kind of reference for scenes that remind us of the ones depicted in this text in terms of thematics, emotional content, and, above all, setting. The following examples will be analyzed in terms of shot sizes, framing, composition, lighting, camera movement and atmosphere. The selection is completely random, a mix between the essayists own selection and random search phrases such as “table scene”, “dialogue scene by table” and the like through Google and Youtube.

The first scene one could come to think of in terms of a dialogue scene by a table, could perhaps be the legendary first meet between Al Pacino and Robert DeNiros characters in Michael Mann´s epic crime drama “Heat” (1995). The urban legend is, due to the nature of the editing of the scene, that Pacino and DeNiro did in fact not shoot the scene together, but with body doubles to substitute the opposing actor. Mann has himself denied this on, amongst other venues, the films DVD commentary. Looking at the emotional context of the scene, there really is no reason for the two characters to share the screen with their faces visible. This is a very personal and honest conversation, and thus the characters are close to each other in the composition, but not close enough as to share the frame. It is intimate, connected, but not familiar. Definitely not secure.

Even though they have decided to call it a momentary truce, and even though they connect to each other out of a sense of opposed kinship and a dark, twisted sense of mutual respect for each others placing in their respective world, these two forces of nature does not share any love for each other. They are, in fact, adversaries. They are two different sides of the same coin; plus and minus, yin and yang. And by the end, only one of them will be left standing.

The scene starts off with two medium close-up (MCU), over-the-shoulder (OVS) shots. Their backs are clearly visible, indicating that they would never have their backs against one another. The shots soon close in, showing a CU, dirty OVS of DeNiro, and then back and forth, with DeNiro being screen right and Pacino being screen left. The camera is closed off. The background is constantly in flux, with a crowded restaurant and the other dinner guests close by, but still distanced. The CU OVS´s are not classic overs with the feel of the persons shoulder, but more of the side of their faces, occasionally an ear. The conversation consists of the same CU-shots for several minutes, until the shots have seemingly moved closer to respective actors faces. The shots are still placed on the same line of action.

About three quarters into the scene, Pacino and DeNiro starts to distance themselves from each other again. They are speaking about “taking each other down”. As soon as this happens, they have their first clean CU´s in the entire scene. They separete from each other; alone, disconnected both thematically, emotionally, and visually. They are back to who they are as dramatic functions in this film; opposing factors. They never again return in the same frame in this scene.

This scene is a glorious example of just how basic framing can be if the actors and the screenplay are captivating enough. Less, is, in this case, more. Nothing distracts from the dialogue in terms of camera movement.

Christopher Nolans “Insomnia” (2002) has a very dramatic scene between Al Pacino´s and Martin Donovan´s police colleagues, but done in a very basic way. The scene is interrupted in the end by Maura Tierneys waitress/hotell employee. (In the clip below, the scene starts at 0:35).

Pacino and Donovan´s characters share the frame in obvious MCU OVS-shots, but the choice of lens creates a distance between the two characters. In the scene, they are discussing what to do with an impending investigation by Internal Affairs, and Donovans character has just revealed that he´s about to confess to save his carrier.

When Maura Tierney appears by the table, we only see her in a quick cut-away shot (CA). Her shot is angled from below, so as to indicate that she is standing, but so is the preceding and following shot of Donovan. She is not part of the conversation, and as such, she is outside their world. Thus, she is depicted in an entirely different, separate shot. She is also placed a bit away from the camera, as to indicate that she is even further away from their world. Only in the opening and end shots of this scene, does Pacino and Donovan share the screen in a two-shot (2S), a MCU master-shot (MA).

(the article will continue with more references and a summarizing part of how the scenes are intended to be shot, based on this investigation)