Film Intro Series — staging 1/4 — the dinner table conundrum

Today we are going to talk about the art of cinematic staging.

(This is part of a lecture series that covers the following topics: the filmic image, staging, camera movement, editing, montage, sound, narrative, genre, non-fiction film, the future of cinema. It is adapted from my own film intro class. Patient readers: this is not bite-sized reading. Be prepared to spend the time to sit through a whole class. But I hope your time and effort will be amply rewarded.)

The dinner table conundrum

The Last Supper — Juan de Juanes

The dinner table conundrum is a good place to start thinking about what do I mean by staging. David Bordwell in his Figures Traced in Light begins with this example:

You are a film director. Today the script requires four of your characters to have a conversation around a dinner table. How might you stage and shoot it?
You could place the camera a fair distance back and record the scene in one continuous shot. This can be efficient if your actors know their lines well; no need to change camera positions and relight several shots. But people tend to arrange themselves on all sides of a table, so unless you set up a Last Super composition, at least one person will be facing away from us. What if that person has some important lines? Even if that person merely reacts to others, don’t we want to see his or her face occassionally? Finally, what if during postproduction you decide that the pace is too sluggish? If you want to eliminate some dead spots, you’ll have to cut, but if you film one long take you have no shots to insert…

Bordwell went on to elaborate the problems of matching eyelines and propos that may occur once you decide to break the long take up. In the end he concludes, “Every choice eliminates certain possibilities.”

For more empirical examples, check out two lists of famous dinner table scenes at salon.com and brobile.com.

Bordwell’s description characterizes a filmmaker’s job as one of problem-solving. This is a highly original proposal and not everyone concurred; some are even hostile to this idea. In adopting a particular solution (such as the dinner table scene), we must first ask ourselves, what are the objectives of my staging? Although I imagine most directors do not ask this question explicitly, they nevertheless must have at least some of the following in mind when they choose one strategy over another:

  • consistency/clarity of space perception
  • dialogue coverage (including facial expression, gesture, etc., as well as reactions from others)
  • character interaction, including the objects they manipulate
  • the overall rhythm or feel of the scene

Look at the following example by Ang Lee, pay attention to editing, camera movement and choice of framing, ask yourself: what is the staging strategy used here?

Lust Caution (2007)

As the opening scene of this film (which contains some of the most authentic lovemaking scenes in film history IMO), this sequence is a master class in cinematic rhythm: smooth, compact editing accentuated by the occasional camera movement, which are themselves significant in many ways. They are agile, secretive, yet unflinching to the point of relentless, sort of like female intuition. Notice how close it gets to certain character at certain moments: this creates an effect of intimacy, but remains completely nonchalant. It is something you can’t explain well, but nevertheless feel.

Although this is confident and masterful filmmaking, the staging solution adopted here is rather conventional. Its solution to the dinner table conumdrum looks like this:

  • establishing shot
  • singles, singles/2 shots/3 shots etc.
  • establishing shot
  • singles, singles, etc.

Are there alternative ways to do this? What about some unorthodox solutions? In the following we shall go over several highly idosyncratic ways of staging a dinner table scene. These are:

  • the Ozu way
  • the Tarantino way
  • plan séquence (sequence shot) with or without camera movement
  • and… the Godard way

The Ozu Way

The following scene is in fact randomly chosen (I just picked a scene with a table and more than two people from a Ozu film at hand). But it is very typical of Ozu’s “unreasonable style” (a phrase used by Kristin Thompson in her Breaking the Glass Armor). It is easy to lump everything you don’t understand to some distant and mysterious entity such as “zen” or “traditional Japanese culture” and forget about it. But Ozu’s style is indeed totally weird; it demands explanation on both sides: the filmmaker’s choice and the audience perception. We will get to that in a minute.

In the meantime, here is my bullet summary of Ozu, if you don’t already know him well.

  • This is a loyal studio director (Shochiku) whose career spans from 1920s to 1960s.
  • Many of his early silent films are lost. He made a dozen sound films and only six color films.
  • In his early career he made several jidaigeki (period) films; but later on exclusively on gendaigeki (contemporary) film. This is actually a radical choice in the Japanese context.
  • He is not bothered by doing the same topic over and over again. The following film Floating Weeds, is actually a remake of his own 1934 film (remaking one’s own film is rather a rare thing and usually not well received).
  • For a certain period he is apparently obssessed with all seasons with the exception of winter: Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Early Spring (1956), Late Autumn (1960)
  • Last but definitely not the least, he is a movie lover and watched a lot of Hollywood content. His films are brim with references to them. Some scholars would say “influence”; but this is not the word I would use to describe his relationship with Hollywood. I think he is mostly making fun of them.
  • this list can go on…
Floating Weeds (1959)
A random but typical scene setup from Ozu

As you can see from my very non-professional diagram on the left, the staging of this scene involves placing the camera at very unusual positions (the letters represent character positions around the table while the shot numbers represent where the camera is located and arrows indicating the camera’s direction). The first shot does give an establishing view of the whole scene, but the second shot immediately jumps to the opposite direction with all the following shots scattered all over the left side sphere of the table.

Watching this sequence, you should feel a jolt with the second shot and get completely disoriented with the 4th, 5th. But as it happens, you would most likely focus on dialogue delivery and quickly abandon this spatial awareness. The idea of not using subtitle here, therefore, is to precisely force you to stop paying attention to what they say and notice how these different shots suture up a space.

Another important thing is that Ozu film many of his shots fully frontal, with the character directly facing the camera. Yet you don’t get the sense that they are addressing the camera (or you as audience) because the eyeline is slightly off-kilter. This is not the place to discuss the intricacies of this maneuver, but let me say this: it is this desire to position actors frontally, and consecutively similar way (called graphic match) and has led him to disregard the conventions of continuity editing. His 360 degree editing system is a major alternative system of unifying shots, a principle of montage.

Tarantino’s way

Reservoir Dog (1992)

Tarantino demands no explanation as Ozu does. So I will be brief here. What Tarantino did here is to combine almost continuous arcing camera movement with closeups and heavy blocking. This is original. How would you describe the effect here? If you feel that the movements and blockings are slightly disorienting, this is precisely what Tarantino had intended.

One thing to add here though. If you are filming a dinner table where food has some importance, this is not going to work. As it shows literally nothing except faces and shoulders. Also, I would say that the dialogue does a good job balance these flashy shots which become boring quickly by themselves.

Sequence Shot (with static camera)

A sequence shot is a shot that lasts the whole scene. The idea is simple: to make the audience feel the uninterrupted duration of the whole event portrayed on the screen. If every cut is a cheat (it often is), then a sequence shot is a way to pursue maximum “truth” of performance in staging.

Is this the easiest way out? Isn’t it true that even an amateur knows how to put a camera on tripod and record a whole meal? Well, there is a huge difference between “simply recording” and “staging the scene so that it feels like a simple recording”. Watch this next sequence from Hou Hsiao Hsien’s epic City of Sadness (1989):

Bordwell in his chapter “Hou, or constraints” has some praises for this. He points out that our attention is directed “to the key participants through composition, lighting, and discreet blocking and revaling.” In other words, everything you see here is carefully staged to make you notice things that are important. Yet the staging is subtle; it gives you choices. It doesn’t raise a closeup underneath your eyeballs, saying “hey, you! look here!”.

Instead the camera keeps its distance from the action. This is not only for reasons of coverage. This distance is intentional, and part of the signature style of the film (and several other Hou films, too). The closest this film gets is medium close-ups, such as the first shot shown here. The only true close-up of the film is of a photograph Wen-ching is touching up: a family portrait. The majority of shots in the film are close enough to make facial expressions legible, but still maintains a respectful distance from the action. It emphasizes the relationship between characters, between characters and the space they live in. Sometimes this literally translates to a cultural emphasis on the family before the individual. It might be said that in contrast, American movies showcase a cultural obsession with individuality, hence the abuse of close-up.

Abé Mark Nornes and Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh in their study of Hou call this “a style of self-restriction” and summarize it as follows (I have listed only those related to staging):

  • The use of relatively static, extremely long takes
  • Minimal use of tracks, pans, intrashot reframing
  • Tendency toward tableaux-like long shots/few closeups
  • The geometricization of space
  • Delimitation of the frame
  • Locking the camera/spectator onto a single axis
  • Rare, strategic use of the shot–reverse shot figure
  • Gradual revelation and construction of spatial relationships

Clearly, this is not a style invented by Hou; nor does it belong to Hou exclusively. That’s why I didn’t call it “Hou’s way”. Most of these remarks can be applied to Tsai Ming Liang’s film, which we shall conclude with in the end.

The Godard Way (bonus):

Tired of all the above ways? Think they are all too pretentious? No problem. There is always a Godard way.

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)

If you have actually watched the entire length of the scene, congratulations! You are very patient and intellectual! You are an ideal audience (for Godard)! How do you think this works (or not working)? What is the idea behind it? What does Godard reveal by hiding actor and actress’s faces?

next: this obscure object of mise-en-scène