Wednesday, March 21, 2007

For Crying Out Loud

Example #2

There is a scene in the movie where the wonderful Abigail Breslin is talking about being concerned about her mother. Abigail bawls her way through the scene; it is moving, this little girl’s concern for her mom.

But just kinda moving.

Donald Sutherland tells a great story about shooting ORDINARY PEOPLE.

There is a pivotal scene where Donald confronts his wife (played to icy perfection by Mary Tyler Moore). It is late at night; Mary has discovered that her hubby isn’t in bed, and has come downstairs to find him crying in the dining room.

Donald bawls his way through the scene, telling her that they are a family, and they have to make a choice – to struggle on as a family, or be doomed by remaining aloof individuals. Mary turns away from him, goes up the stairs, and packs her bags.

It is a powerful scene, and Donald – mustering all the tears he could – thought it moving.

But just kinda moving.

Months later he called his friend, the director Bobby (Robert Redford to you and me), and said he can’t sleep thinking about that scene and how they did it all wrong. Robert said he was thinking the same thing.

The got back together and re-shot the thing – this time with no tears.

The thinking was that Donald’s character had been crying all night, and had no tears left. That is why he needed his wife – he had nothing left on his own. The tearless cut is the one that made it into the movie.

And when Mary turns and goes up those stairs – devastating. Not a dry eye in the house.

Basic rule of acting/directing: if the character cries, the audience doesn’t need to. If the character can’t cry (or is struggling not to cry), the audience cries for them.

Think about it – a crying baby earns your pity. A baby that looks up at you with eyes welling up in tears, shaking in an attempt to hold them back – demolishing.

There are times when a character must cry, no way getting around it. But that is where the director really needs to step up and not let the audience get release from the character.

For example, in THE QUEEN; at that pivotal moment of breakdown, the director wisely moves the camera – we know she is crying, but he wasn’t about to let us intrude on it.

And that is how you get nominated for an Oscar.

Aristotle in his POETICS warned us against making the crying mistake millennia ago. He said it is the job of the storyteller to give the audience – NOT the character – a cathartic release.

Abigail was directed to bawl through her scene, giving the character, not the audience, a cathartic moment.

So we have an okay, competent scene.

But a lot of dry eyes in the house.

Just my thoughts,


PS I am referring, of course, to scenes where the crying is a way of conveying emotion, as opposed to showing vulnerability. So Glen Close curled up naked while crying in the shower in THE BIG CHILL is a whole other ball of wax.


DanBuck said...

I agree... with one caveat.

I think it's more true for adults. Adults wear masks all day long, hiding their vulnerable selves from others. ("Your vulnerability is terrifying me right now, is it real?" - Therapist from "The Departed") It is when these masks no longer work, or they begin to crack that we all feel empathy. It's not devastating to see someone crying who has taken off their mask, it's devastating to see tears falling out from underneath the mask.

With children, they don't have masks. Breslin, in my opinion was moving, because this was pure unadulterated (what a perfect place for that word!) sorrow. It's devastating because we remember when we didn't need these damn masks and we could actually FEEL like that!

Uta Hagen - the legendary acting coach tells us that all senses and emotions are much more convincingly conveyed when we see the actor trying to battle with them. We believe an actor is hot, not if they stick their tongue out and wipe their brow, but rather when they pull garments away from their body to let air in The same goes for tears. The fight against them conveys the pain greater than the surrender to them.

Gaffney said...

I would disagree that children don't have masks. In fact, one of the things I loved about Abigail's character (both in the writing and the performance) was the mask she constantly wore -- the "I am too strong for this to effect me" tone, the "I don't care if you stay or go" attitude. She doesn't say she loves her mother, she says she doesn't hate her -- a sign if ever that this girl isn't going to go into sap without a fight. Even her wanting to ride horses -- all mask, all beautifully played!

Which is why I agree with Uta -- that open emotion scene would have been so much more moving if Abigail was trying NOT to cry.

The most unadulterated moment (and perhaps the most moving): "My wish was for a perfect day. And I'm finishing it right now." (Sorry for the by-memory paraphrase.)

You can hear the tears in her voice. Man, what an actress!


aliceb said...

I'm with you Sean, kids have tons of masks. They are not sin-free. Even my own son, whose mask making is his disability (autism) has masks & uses them!

It is a directing note that if the character cries the actor doesn't need to.

For the actor, I'm in agreement with Uta but will take it out of the acting realm. Real people try not to cry. Real drunks try not to stumble. So if you want to be an actor you must not stumble around pretending to be drunk. You must pretend to be sober, that's what drunk people do. Emotional people try to control themselves. And they both fail. It's playing the struggle that is the thing to do. Play with the failure to control.

Excellent thoughts on how to make a movie work! Thanks for the posts!

DanBuck said...

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Nobody said kids are sin free. I've got two little sinners of my own.

I'm just saying big emotional displays work on kids better than adults because their emotions are raw and so poorly disguised.

Perhaps that's the key. It's not that kids don't have masks, it's just that their pathetic masks are so easily broken it's heart- breaking to watch it happen.

And we're not sure if we are sharing their frustration at amateur mask-making or if we're wishing they'd never started learning.

And this is my chief pooint. People are moved when they seen their pain (past or present) in someone else's.

And when a kid cries, unabashedly we feel sad for th kid, sure, but the real heart strings are played when we are remembering what it was like when we could actually FEEL.