Wednesday, December 03, 2008

An Old-Fashioned Two-Shot

I watched a bit of The Pelican Brief on TCM the other day -- not much of a movie, but a good-looking one thanks to the late Alan Pakula. There was one scene that was shot in a way that I particularly liked, and I wanted to bring it up because you hardly ever see a scene like this any more, not just now but for many years before 1993 (when this film was made).

The scene features two guys in the back seat of a car, talking to each other about The Conspiracy. It's a two-shot, almost head-on, with each character occupying half of the Panavision frame. And instead of cutting to different angles the way I expected, the scene just plays out all the way through with no cuts; the characters turn toward each other, turn away, turn back, and it's all done in one take. Normally, when you have two characters sitting together and talking, the scene will start with that shot (the master) but quickly cut to closer angles for each character.

I like this kind of shot, for one thing, because it doesn't overstate the importance of a scene. For an exposition scene, or a light comedy relief scene, or any other kind of scene that isn't all that big, all the cutting just seems to make everything bigger than it is: look at that person's reaction, now look at that other person's reaction, now look at his face while he's talking. Cutting within a scene like this makes sense if the characters are seated or standing in such a way that you can't see them both clearly at the same time. But if they are both in full view of the camera at the same time, like in the back seat of a car, why not let the scene play out (and let us enjoy their reactions in real time) instead of pretending that this is the back-of-the-car scene from On the Waterfront?

This doesn't make The Pelican Brief a great film, but I just like that Pakula bothered to shoot a scene that way. I wish more big films -- and little films, too, which seem to me to have too much reflexive cutting -- would rediscover the principle, once well-known, that a short scene often fits better if you don't edit it so much.

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