Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Brief Encounter and the Art of Restraint

While reading another "Why do Hollywood films suck so much compared to old Hollywood films?" rant on one of the media commentary sites I frequent, I got to thinking. After a bit of pondering, I landed on the idea of censorship. Now, I don't by any means support censorship as a way to repress artists and artistic expression, but if you really think about it, the Golden Age of Hollywood owes an awful lot to the strict censorship codes of the era. A lot of directors and screenwriters had to shimmy their way around the "questionable" subjects of the day and the whole thing resulted in a number of positively brilliant sequences whose impact is owed mainly to the restraint and the implications of their situations. Cary Grant and Paul Newman had to be incandescent so that their allure would be transmitted in just a glance or a smile, without having their bedroom prowess blatantly spelled out. Old Hollywood was all about mystique, which in most cases is more powerful than explicit statement. For example, one of the most famous of these sorts of scenes:

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman's infamous balcony kissing scene in Notorious. Director Alfred Hitchcock famously taunted the censor's three-second kiss rule by having his actors embrace, whisper, coo, and stare smolderingly at each other. Would the erotic impact of this have been the same if they had been allowed to make out or even if they were shown hopping into bed together? I don't think so. The audience, thanks to this scene, is well aware of the great sex that they're having, and the great sex we can imagine is far more potent than any Hitchcock could have shot. And even the timing of the shot--the kisses seem almost cut off, building up the tension of the moment, prolonging the stares and the whispers. So in some ways, I think censorship was almost a boon to directors who were gifted enough to bring some ingenuity to their approach. Of course, without loosening of the codes we wouldn't have The Godfather or Step Up 2: The Streets, and then where would we be?

Now, one of my very favorite films is Brief Encounter, made in 1945 and directed by David Lean. It's sort of the filmic equivalent of wearing a corset, everyone is so tightened and constrained by the societal norms that even the slightest loosening is like a new breath of life. I imagine that young audiences today would find the conflict boring and the narration overwraught, but it is an incredibly moving story about longing and the fleeting glimpses into a different life and possible freedom.

The first scene of Brief Encounter is only about six minutes long, but it is one of the most brilliant sequences in cinema and is a fantastic example of the subtle drama that can be created through the art of cinematic restraint (regardless of censorship--that doesn't really come into play here). Lean stages it so expertly that after the first scene, we know almost everything there is to know--and no one has explicitly spoken a word about the plot. It's all in the staging, the camera, the faces of the actors. There's deft manipulation of the audience/camera symbiosis that rivals the work of Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window. 

To illustrate the sequence, I'm just going to take you through it step by step, with stills from the movie.

The opening shot sets the scene, a train station. The moody, gorgeous cinematography and melancholy, romantic score tell us the tone of what is to come.

 A train conductor checks his watch. The theme of time is established.

The conductor crosses the tracks and heads up and across the platform...

...and into the small station cafe, where the conductor stops to talk to the woman working behind the counter.

The two begin to chat, and we get the feeling that they're fairly well acquainted and have been carrying on this subtle flirtation for some time. But the woman is a bit severe, the man paunchy and their conversation holds little interest for us. So we (as the camera) casually glance around the interior of the cafe, and our attention fastens on...

A nice-looking couple sitting alone in the corner over two innocent little cups of tea. They are seated intimately; he sits next to her instead of in front of her. There is deep sadness on both of their faces and an air of melancholy around their small table. The man says a few words to the woman, but his voice is so low that we can't quite catch what he's saying. We strain to hear what is being said. And then, Lean denies us any more information. In a brilliant move, he turns the camera back away from them and back to the conductor and the woman behind the cafe counter. The result, of course, is for the audience to say, "Hey! Go back! I want to know what's going on with the two of them!" Lean captures our interest and our fascination in these two people by keeping them at arm's length from his viewers. 

And then--the quiet atmosphere of the little cafe is brutally interrupted by a loud woman who recognizes the woman seated at the table. She bustles over and we are immediately aware of her intrusion; we squirm in embarrassment at the loss of privacy of the quiet couple, yet we are still keen to know precisely what is going on with the two of them (audiences are, as a rule, the most nosy individuals in the movies). The loud woman begins to prattle on, and we notice (though the woman doesn't), the significant glance passing between Laura (the quiet lady) and Alec (the man). Both Laura and Alec remain perfectly polite, and Alec even offers to get up and get the woman her cup of tea. Immediately after he stands the woman leans forward to Laura.

"My dear, what a nice looking man, who on earth is he? Really, you're quite a dark horse. I shall telephone Fred in the morning and make mischief!"

And in response, Laura attempts a smile but can only manage this:

It's an expression of unabashed horror, and in that moment we know everything. She having an affair with Alec, he is not her husband, and they have been having a covert rendezvous that was brutally interrupted when this woman plopped herself down at the table. Alec returns, and the story unfolds. He is a doctor who is leaving for South Africa the following week. This is the last time Alec and Laura will see one another and this revelation (though it only takes a moment and is treated quite casually by the three of the table) expands the poignancy and sadness of the moment by a thousand. The conversation is punctuated with little sidelong glances between the lovers, clearly desperate to tell the old bag to leave them in peace, but unable to rebel against the societal mores that bind them. And then, the conductor calls the name of Alec's train. They stare at each other for a moment, wishing that the moment hadn't come so soon. He stands, pauses for a moment and:

With a final, polite touch, walks out of the door, while every line on Laura's face tells us that she wishes more than anything to have a small private moment with him, something far away from the horrible woman who is still talking, still completely oblivious to the turmoil she is causing. Laura glances up as Alec walks out of the door, and we (along with her) wonder if he will turn back. Will he smile, will he make some gesture of his feelings?

But no. He is out the door without a backward glance, and we, like Laura, feel our hearts sink. The woman's prattling continues and the camera rests on Laura's face as she hopefully watches the door. Perhaps he will come back. Perhaps he will miss his train on purpose, buy them a little more time together, makes some excuse to get her away from the dreadful woman.  But as the woman's banal chatter chugs along, and with Laura we hear the sound of the train starting, the whistle and with each passing second we realize that he is gone for good.

Finally, the chattering woman stands and walks to the counter and our gaze follows her. The express train roars by, its noise eclipsing everything else in the scope of the scene. After a moment we glance back--and Laura is gone! We are confused, startled, we search around for her (along with the ladies at the counter) and then finally she enters back through the door, looking shaken and a little dizzy. "I just wanted to watch the express go through," she says weakly, and we get the feeling that something (though we don't yet know what) profound has just happened to her. Our interest is piqued again and we are pulled into the current of the story.

It's a brilliant sequence, and the delicate handling of the situation and the gradual subtle revelations about the characters are like a finely staged piece of music, with themes and grace notes only gradually reaching our consciousness. The gentle shifting of point of view from the camera to Laura to the woman is easy and constructed in such away that we never know too much but feel as though we do. Would that all directors gave this sort of care to their films. Every time I see this sequence I like it more and the movie itself is lovely and incredibly poignant. I highly suggest giving it a watch.


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