Shaping Scenes — even if by accident

10 02 2008

Cristian Mungiu directed the Cannes sensation 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS. This is a film that had me scratching my head during most of it. The direction is so formalist (virtually every scene is done in a single shot master) that, for me, it undercut the emotion of the characters. Many critics disagreed with me though, oddly, the Foreign Film Branch of the Academy pointedly omitted the film from its list of nominees this year.

Despite the rigidity of the direction, however, a great example of editing did come through and Sean Axmaker, in an interview with Mungiu on his blog, highlights it in a very interesting way.

There’s one scene in particular that stick out stylistically, with the two girls talking to Bebe in the hotel room, which is the only scene where you actually cut in the middle of a scene. You cut from the two-shot of Otilia and Bebe to a close-up of Gabita, where she realizes the gravity of the situation and what’s really at stake for Otilia and she tries, late as it is, to take the responsibility upon herself.

Honestly, you are the first person to identify something which is a mistake in the film. That was not supposed to be like that, I can’t claim that I have an explanation for this. It only happened because I changed the dialogue that Bebe had to say and I needed to have it off-camera, that’s all. I don’t have an explanation for this. It doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t happen like this.

So, in order to solve a storytelling problem he chose to break his formalistic structure. That happens all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a film where we could afford to be dogmatic and rigid in our structure (is that where they got the term Dogme for that filmmaking manifesto?) (and that’s a joke, by the way)

However, the next question and answer is particularly revealing.

I feel that, because it’s the only time you cut in the middle of a scene, and it abruptly jumps into a big close-up, it brings the scene to her in a very powerful way.

This is why I hope that this is why I decided that I will change the dialogue and go for this, but this is not what triggered the decision. What I wanted to do was to make sure that I never make a formal decision belonging to me as an author and not divide from what the characters do in the shot. If you watch the film from this perspective, you will see that there is no pan in the film unless there is a line by some other character or there is a movement in the shot triggering the camera into a specific direction. We were very much following what was happening in the scene, except in this scene.

In other words, despite his claim that he would never make a formalistic decision separate from what the characters would do, if it wasn’t for the fact that he had to cut to her in order to change the dialogue, he would have blown off the possibility of emphasizing her emotion in that moment.

I understand that there are many ways of emphasizing character and plot moments beside editing. In fact, my upcoming book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, is all about that. So I don’t think that he needed to make a cut all of the time. But this is a perfect example of form leading function, and it seems wrong in my mind. It also drives home, perhaps, why I didn’t respond to the film — since the decisions seems to be based on form rather than the individual storytelling needs of a moment.

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