Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Less is more

As a sometimes digital filmmaker, I try to learn a little something from every film, TV show, Internet feature or commercial I watch. One such lesson is that less is almost always more. Here are two very different examples.

Example #1:

I finally got a chance to see No Country for Old Men this week. Putting aside my usual issues with the Coen Brothers' dramatic films (aggressive naturalism was once again out in force) and my praise for the performances (Javier Bardem in the scariest SOB alive), this has to be one of the most effective horror films I've ever seen. Of course, it's not primarily intended to be a horror film, but it builds suspense and tension so perfectly that I don't know if I've ever been more disconcerted while watching a movie.

It's all about threatening violence. To be sure, it's a violent movie -- it's tough to watch -- but, particularly early on, all of the scenes that depict actual violence are pretty quick and straightforward. It's the scenes where Bardem never actually does anything -- the scenes where he just talks, watches or listens -- that create the sense of dread. Roger Ebert's review has a good discussion of the coin flip scene, which is probably the best example of this. This scene should be taught in film school: the dialog and editing is so perfect. You're on the edge of your seat the whole time, expecting the other shoe to drop... and then, it never does.

The use of silence is also brilliant. There are numerous long shots of deserts, highways and urban settings where nothing is said and no music plays. Similarly, many of the dialog scenes include long pauses as the characters (and the audience) contemplate what's going to happen next.

In many ways, it's the anti-Hollywood blockbuster: nothing whiz bang, no quick edits, no special effects. Things are just allowed to unfold, very deliberately, and the audience is left to fill in the blanks as they do.

Example #2:

Thanks to John Swansburg at Slate for extolling the virtues of my current favorite series of TV adds: the Bud Light "Dude" spots. I love these commercials! The concept is so simple and the execution is perfect. Every choice in these commercials is right: the piano music, the documentary-style cinematography, the performance of the "dude" Dude. And the best part is there's only one line of dialog: but it's used to convey so many different meanings (Swansburg counts 6 distinct connotations of "dude" in the first spot).

My improv inspiration Brandon Beilis talks a lot about "finding the game" of a particular improv exercise. By this, he doesn't mean "game" in the sense of the premise of the exercise (e.g. "this is the one where we speak only in questions"). He's talking about the unique hook or catch to the particular exercise you're now performing that makes it interesting or compelling: it could be the relationship between the characters, it could be a particular line or catchphrase, it could be the central conflict of the scene. In improv, Brandon stresses the importance of identifying the game early on in the scene and then ruthlessly focusing later choices in the scene around playing to it and strengthening it.

The game of these Bud Light spots is so simple and the attention to it is so singlemindedly focused. What an object lesson for aspiring directors.

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