Friday, January 25, 2013

The Explanation in Cinema: A New Synthesis

[1/27/2013  It turns out that The Departed has a fabulous, nearly canonical example of an Explanation, in a different scene.   That scene can be seen, so to speak, here.]

We contend that the highest form of the filmmaking art, the very pinnacle, is the art of the explanation. In this cinematic form, a character explains "what is really going on" to another character or characters in our drama. It may or may not be in the form of a confrontation, or it may be a pleasant chat over dinner, or in a hallway.

The exciting new structural form is superior to the old method of filmmaking which might show the character doing something.   How dreary it is to see in film after film, characters demonstrating who they are through their actions.   Another giant robot fight, another planet exploding, another superhero revealing him or herself as a super villain and so on and so forth.   What a relief it would be to have one of these superheroes make a conference call and just explain to all the super villains why what they are doing is a bad thing to do and that they really ought to stop doing it.    This new approach, the explanation,  is much less expensive, avoids unnecessary action, reduces noise, and can be very dramatic and memorable for those few films which indulge in that optional element of filmmaking, the story. We will review these advantages in this essay.

The first benefit of the explanation is that it is always much more efficient and cost-effective to shoot then actually showing what happened. Why bother to show it if you can just talk about it? For example, instead of spending millions of dollars showing giant robots beating the shit out of each other, you might have one character say to another "Wow, did you see those giant robots beating the shit out of each other?" Then the other character might say "I sure did, we were lucky to get out of there! Whew". The plot point having been established, giant robots beating the shit out of each other, the film can move on and has saved millions in production costs.

Jack Nicholson and Leonardo di Caprio preparing to have a little chat.

The second advantage of the explanation is that it avoids the drag of too much action. Many movies have too much stuff going on, it would be much better if they just had a few characters talk about what was going on. I suppose that is an aesthetic choice, but I think having too many giant robots or exploding planets in a film is an impediment, not an asset. Maybe that is just me.

And that leads to our third advantage of the explanation: less extremely loud noise. Although the film industry today creates product in many very different but important topics, from giant robots fighting, to mutant superheroes saving the world, to hordes of zombies eating every brain in sight, these very different themes do seem to involve very long sequences of things exploding and hitting each other, loudly.   How much more civilized to have several members of the cast narrating the action instead of showing the action:  "Look!  The horde of zombies!  Oh my!  A planet exploding!"   Then one would not have to bring earplugs to the theatre as one has to do so often today.

But nothing in life is free, and the explanation does have its downsides in that it makes certain requirements and demands on the script.  The biggest demand, and the most problematic, is that, generally speaking, the script needs to have a story.   This by implication may mean that the production may have to have a writer who, naturally enough, writes the story.   Many modern films have neither writer nor story, and without one our new technique here does not work well.  

But when it is done well, the explanation can be some of the most memorable in film. We have previously presented several such explanations, see herehere, and here.

Here we present another one, from the movie The Departed (2006).

Reaction between Costello and French to something the diCaprio character says. 

(In the following, "Schylur" is Billy's given name. Costello knows Billy's family, so he knows this.)

Costello: Schylur.
Billy: (grunts)
Costello: Do you know who I am?
Billy: No.
Costello: You met my friend, Mr. French, the other night.
Billy: (looks)  Is his real name "Mr. French"?
Costello: No.
Costello: Come with me.
Costello: I'm not the cops, I'm not asking you.   
Costello: You know something? They just do not stop having the mafia in Providence. And this
        can cause me a lot of problems.  
Costello: Those guys you tuned up?   They're connected down Providence.   What they're gonna
        do is come back with some guys and kill you which, sure as you're born, they will do.
        Unless I stop them.   Do you want me to stop them?
Billy: (shrugs)  This something I can't do personally?
Costello: I'm gonna have my associate search you.
Billy:  No, no ones fucking searching me, search me for what?
Costello: Contra-fucking-band.  Take your shoes off.
French: Shoes.
Costello: I knew your father.
Billy: Yeah, you know he's dead?
Costello: No, sorry.  How'd he go?
Billy:  He didn't complain.
Costello: Yeah, that was his problem.
Billy: Who said he had a problem?
Costello: I just said he had a fucking problem.  There was a man who could have been
Billy: Are you saying he was nothing?
Costello: I'm saying he worked at the airport.
French: He's clean.
Costello: Arm.
French: Yeah.  Come on.
Billy: Arm, what fucking arm?
French: Show me your arm. (proceeds to slam arm on table to break cast).
Billy: (ouch!)
Costello:  It makes me curious to see you in this neighborhood.
French: He's clean.
Costello: And if I can slander my own environment, it makes me sad, this regression.  I dont know
        if its beyond some fucking cop prick like queen to pull you out of the "staties" and send you
        after me.   I just can't know.  I don't know what they do in that particular department, anyway.
        (hits Billy's broken arm with a shoe)
        Are you still a cop?
Billy: No!
Costello: Swear on your mother's grave!  Are you still a cop?
Billy: I am not a fucking cop!
Costello: Are you going to stop doing coke deals with your jerkoff fucking cousin?
Billy:  Yes, yes, yes...
Costello: All right, all right (pats Billy on the back).  You'll be all right.  (pulls out money) Get
        your hand taken care of.  (drops all the money on the table).  I'm sorry, it was necessary.
        As for our problem with Providence, lets not cry over spilled guineas.

Ok, so I lied.  They didn't just talk during the conversation, there was some violence which seemed more real to me than 100 giant robots fighting or even 10 exploding planets, but basically what we have here is a concise and memorable scene with three people, a back room, an arm cast, and a shoe.   Its a great scene.   Many things are explained.

The scene from The Departed on Youtube:

The Departed on IMDB

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