Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Non-Verbal Writing

I'm a fan of bits of movies where, despite there being no dialogue, we get deep into character. It could be a quirk of behavior, the way someone dresses, or some specific action that's off somehow and makes us think, wonder about the character's background and motivations.

Like this scene in 'Conspiracy Theory' with Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts. Aptly directed by Richard Donner, though the camera style/editing is perhaps a tad dated in 1997. However, the real credit goes to writer Brian Helgeland who managed to make a stock moment visually interesting (on paper, so to speak) and get us deeper into character than would be expected in such a short scene.

First, we wonder why Gibson/Fletcher is parked at night watching a building. What kind of guy does this? It gets creepy when he uses binoculars and icky when we realize he is watching a woman, Roberts/Alice, although the moment is kept light because Fletcher, being wound so tight, has tried to look through the binoculars backwards, through the wrong end, and has to flip them around.

So, is this simply a perv thing? At :47 Fletcher's right hand is out of frame... Is the guy only after cheap thrills? We wonder.

Fletcher realizes Alice is singing and hunts the radio dial trying to match the station to the words Alice mouths.

Fletcher finds the station and the song turns out to be 'Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You' by Frankie Valli (appropriate considering). Okay, nice old song. Fits the genre, makes us feel good. But, then Fletcher's hand goes out of frame again and he's grooving to the song and watching Alice so...creepy again. That kind of action -- unclear, with more than one possible interpretation -- is funny but has a squirm factor too and gets under the audience's skin.

By 2:00, it's clear Fletcher isn't there to get his rocks off. In fact, Alice and Fletcher singing together is more intimate and touching than many love scenes. He's watching this person for some other, more substantial, reason. What? We keep watching and wondering. We want to find out what happens next.

We get our first close look at Alice. Her expression is haunted. Unusual, almost weird, considering she is running on a treadmill. Well...why? Again, we wonder. And so does Fletcher, who asks "Why do you do that? Why do you push yourself?" And, this gets us into Alice's character. It's symbolic that she is on a treadmill -- What is she running from? He wants to know, so do we.

By this point Fletcher has gone from being jittery and nervous to calm and contemplative. We know something about him and like him more than we did at the beginning of the scene. Now, he doesn't seem like a perv, he seems like a man who, for whatever reasons, has feelings for Alice and is concerned for her. But, it's a curious thing. What is it about just seeing this woman from a block away that would bring about such a change in this man?

We're hooked. We need to know what will happen between these characters. In just two minutes, without dialogue, Helgeland manages to sketch not one but two characters and their relationship to each other and does so in an entertaining, visual way in a memorable scene with good forward motion. Not bad.


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