Tag Archives: Ozu

When Not to Edit, Pt 5: The Kissy Face Workaround

Tod Browning was a masterful director of the 20s and 30s, once most famous for directing the original Dracula (1931) and now best known for making the infamous Freaks (1932). The latter is a documentary packaged as a melodrama, with real sideshow freaks in the cast. It also has the shot that is the inspiration for this post, yet another instance where a director let a single shot tell his story, instead of relying on conventional coverage and edits. (Prior posts has highlighted shots in films by Leo McCarey, Ozu, Oz, and Coppola.)

But first some context. I imagine filming a passionate kiss has always been a drag for filmmakers. The idea of putting the faces of your characters that close together is dramatically sound but cinematographically dull. Sure, if the script has organically brought us to the kiss, then we, the audience, can do without seeing their faces for a few moments, and if the acting is spot on, we can feel the passion. But still I’m sure some directors (and actors and DPs) dislike the visual element; it has a way of leveling the playing field, whether it’s Bogart and Bergman, Woody and Diane, or Edward and Bella.

Since the camera can’t see either face completely, what’s a filmmaker to do? Traditionally, they rely on other ways of conveying the passion: the blocking of the actors (how they move into the kiss and out of it); their moans, pants and words uttered in between kisses; music, of course; multiple angles and edits; and camera movement (ah, the old “360° around the kissing couple” routine). In Notorious, Hitchcock famously dealt with a kiss in a single shot that was long, intricate, and incredibly clever.

It’s also been talked into the ground, so I’ll leave that shot alone.

On the other hand, given the same visual conundrum every filmmaker faces, here’s how Tod Browning staged it.

Freaks is about life in the circus and the code of honor among the pinheads, dwarves and others of the freak-class. Many within the circus regard them as “less than,” though to others, such as Phroso the Clown, they’re (relatively) normal people and even their peers. Frequently the film shows us how these people are as domestic and as we are—they can roll cigarettes, pour wine, etc,–regardless of how few limbs they have. In the case of the conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, we even see their suitors.

In this brief scene, their first in the film, the sisters approach Phroso. They talk about Daisy’s pending marriage and Phroso seizes the opportunity to flex their genetic empathy, so to speak…

The sisters are just bystanders in the film’s plot—not even a subplot—and in a later scene, Violet gets engaged. Naturally, a newly-engaged couple will kiss and this is how Browning shows it…

An uncommon solution, but it always takes my breath away. And although this shot seems like a gimmicky excuse for a post, it stands up under scrutiny, with plenty of pointers for filmmakers.

For starters, use what ya got. If you have gifted people in your film, use those gifts to your advantage. Repeatedly in the film, Browning turns his casts’ unusual skills and features to his advantage, both visually and narratively. In this instance, he found a way to show his characters uniqueness and how their lives might be—and that it’s really quite wonderful.

Secondly, Browning gives us context. Long before this kiss happens, he sets up the payoff. The brief scene with Phroso touching Violet’s arm is played off as a parlor trick, not even a plot point, but only 17 minutes later we get the kiss and Daisy’s joy and know exactly why she feels the way she does.

Lastly, it’s simply a beautiful shot. Here’s how I know: I showed this film to my wife, Debbie, a few years ago. She’s by no means a film geek—she doesn’t get hung up on cinematic style or form—and Freaks really isn’t her cup of tea. She was rolling with it, somewhere between repulsed and bored, when this kiss happened. Her reaction was palpable and positive (kind of a gasp or an audible smile). It didn’t matter whether Daisy’s bliss was genuine or if she was acting (I doubt conjoined twins really do feel each other’s sensations as such); it was something Debbie had never seen, a moment of perfect visual storytelling, all the more impressive since she had not put the film or its filmmaker on a pedestal. In other words, its eloquence caught her off-guard.

Like I said, I don’t know if the Hilton Sisters really had this kind of symbiosis, but this is another example of Browning’s attitude toward “freaks”: they’re well-adjusted, domestic, special (in a good way), honorable, very human, and members of a community that we should respect. (Gooble Gobble!)

Compared with my other posts in this series, Browning’s Kiss is perhaps the most unusual in the bunch (maybe closest in intent to Ozu’s static wide-shot), but I’m certain of one thing: if there were even one more cinematic ingredient (i.e. edits, coverage, a close-up of Daisy’s face, a music cue, even a dolly in) it wouldn’t be as powerful as it is. He cast it well, set the stage, and stood back. After that, it was all up to us.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Kubrick knows how to make us hold our breath.

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When Not to Edit, Pt 4: Coppola’s Eavesdropping Camera

Time for another post discussing an instance when a director chose a sustained shot as opposed to a more conventional, edit-filled approach. Today is all about Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the camera in one scene in The Conversation.

My prior examples in this series (Laurel & Hardy’s The Finishing Touch; Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus; and Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) were static shots, with all the movement occurring via the blocking of the actors. Today’s example broadens the scope a little, since the camera does move, yet it’s the way it moves that makes it note-worthy. Coppola does something I call character-driven filmmaking, which is when a character’s emotions dictate the mechanics of the film, such as the editing, the lighting, and, in this case of this entry, the shooting. (I wrote about this before in my post about the editing in Silkwood.)

The Conversation (1974) is about surveillance expert Harry Caul. It’s a 70s character study disguised as paranoid thriller: Harry eavesdrops for a living but, not surprisingly, lives in fear of being watched or even noticed, preferring solitude.

In this scene, which happens early in the film, Harry enters his apartment at the end of the day. He checks his mail, calls his landlady, and takes off his pants. Such a straightforward scene could be shot and cut several different ways, all expanding our understanding of Harry. These possibilities include:

• a handful of medium shots where Harry’s décor is visible in the background, each with Harry in the frame as he walks from room to room
• a dolly shot either in front of him (camera dollying backwards) or behind him, showing only his back; in both cases his décor would be visible on the sides of the frames
• a slightly more esoteric approach: static medium shots or close-ups of parts of his apartment, without Harry in frame

So how does Coppola shoot it? Well, I think when a filmmaker is crafting a scene, he or she needs to constantly ask, “What information does the audience need to know right now?” Here’s how Coppola answers that question…

I love this shit. Coppola’s tableau is wide and sparse. Harry lives simply, so the director foregoes showing us his apartment in detail and instead lets the camera behave as an extension of Harry’s state-of-mind, which is one of surveillance. In fact, the first time he leaves the frame, he appears to be consciously trying to get away from the camera.

Gratefully, Francis Ford Coppola did an audio commentary for this film, so I can let him speak for himself. Here’s a minute-long clip of his explanation of this shot and its style:

Couldn’t be much clearer than that, could he? It’s nice to hear him say that, but, truthfully, when I first saw this film in the 80s, it was crystal clear to me.

(For what it’s worth, I think the lone CU in the scene—a generic birthday card from his bank—is so sad it only reinforces our understanding of Harry’s isolation. Instead of showing us one of Harry’s personal belongings, Coppola shows us the exact opposite: what could be more impersonal than a form birthday card?)

Obviously, such a self-conscious shot could be perceived as gimmicky, but if you haven’t seen the film, believe me: Coppola successfully uses this style for maximum effect, abetted enormously by Gene Hackman’s performance.

I could go on and on about this film—I freakin’ love it—but I’ll leave it at that. However, if you’re interested in a great essay about The Conversation, I recommend this post at Precious Bodily Fluids.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Director Tod Browning thinks freaks work best without too many edits.
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By the way, the DVD for The Conversation is unique: It not only has a full-length commentary by the director, it has one by the editor. Why? you ask.

Those familiar with the history of this film are aware of the uncomfortable relationship between Coppola and editor Walter Murch. The director had to leave the project prematurely (to begin pre-production onThe Godfather, Part 2) and left a good deal of The Conversation in the hands of the editor. Murch’s changes to the structure of the film were radical enough for some to claim he saved the picture, and it seems it’s been a sore spot for both men ever since. Case in point: for the aforementioned DVD, they each say surprisingly little about the other’s input on the film.

Anyway, I had planned the second half of this post to dissect that seemingly rocky relationship, but, alas, that will have to wait for another post.

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When Not to Edit, Pt 3: Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting

In my prior posts about instances when filmmakers refrained from editing unnecessarily, I wrote about Laurel & Hardy holding a shot for the full impact of a joke and how Yasujiro Ozu’s unobtrusive camera enabled a documentary-like use of space and performances. And today it’s about a shot in Frank Oz’s 1988 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a shot where the blocking of the actors replaces the needs for edits.

This is going to be a short post—and this shot may not be the best example of my point, to be perfectly frank—but with the director himself explaining it so succinctly in his commentary, it’s hard for me to pass up.

Here’s the set-up: Laurence Jamieson (Michael Caine) and Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) are two conmen duking it out in the South of France. A turf war. By this scene, their animosity reaches its crest, and they realize that neither is going to back down. Here’s the clip, followed immediately by the same scene with Oz’s commentary.

“This is what the movie’s about.”1   Accomplished in a single shot. Well, sustaining it for thirty seconds and having three “shots” in one, ending in an extreme close up, certainly makes it unignorable to the audience that something important is happening.

And while their blocking is a little stagy (i.e. Michael Caine stepping up that last step into his ECU), I think that when it comes to traditional, male territorial behavior, it does matter who’s standing on the highest step. In other words, I’d believe that these characters would end up at the top of a staircase, staring each other down.

So, does Oz prescribe to Eisenstein’s dare to filmmakers to stage as much as possible in a single shot, to maximize the “frame” and its space?2  Hell yeah. It’s clear from Oz’s entire commentary that he gives this kind of thing a lot of thought, whether it’s for a comedic or dramatic purpose. (More below on that commentary.) Moreover, his Director of Photography was Michael Ballhaus. Before the German DP ever met Oz, he was mentored in his youth by director Max Ophüls; and shot sixteen Fassbinder films in the 70s and three Scorsese films in the 80s. In other words, Ballhaus is no slouch when it comes to use of space, and Oz relied heavily on Ballhaus’s sage advice. The result is one of the more intelligently-shot comedies of the 80s.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Francis Coppola’s use of the camera as an extension of his character’s state of mind.
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By the way, I had originally planned to write at length about Oz’s commentary for this film, but I’m saving that for another post. It’s one of my favorite commentaries. Oz intelligently illustrates ways to direct comedy, as well as thoroughly explaining the necessary collaborative process, especially when it comes to Steve Martin. In fact, the post will be about Steve. (Also, I was lucky enough to be the session producer for this commentary, and I’ll write about how that went.) Be on the lookout for it.

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BACK TO POST 1 While I think it’s cool that he points out that “this is what the movie’s about,” it is a little troublesome that this happens at the film’s 45 minute mark. I’m not gonna lie to you: I love Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but I do wish it were a reel shorter.

BACK TO POST 2 In the early 30s, when Eisenstein taught film direction at the Moscow State Cinema Institute, he challenged his class to shoot an entire scene in a single static shot. His idea was simple: through a combination of camera placement, lenses and blocking, the dramatic impact of the scene can be accomplished without editing. He strongly believed that a filmmaker must exhaust all possibilities within the shot before resorting to an edit. He called this mise-en-shot (“staging in the shot”).

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When Not to Edit, Pt 2: Ozu’s Unobtrusive Camera

Two weeks ago I did my first post in a series about instances when directors chose to use a single shot to tell a story, even though a filmmaker’s instinct might be to use several shots. I referenced a lecture by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Although he was typically a supporter, promoter and innovator of montage editing,1   he taught the principle of storytelling-via-a-single-shot, which he called mise-en-shot (“staging in the shot”).

Today I’m going to focus on a clip from Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus, a 1931 silent domestic comedy-drama. Ozu was a Japanese director who made approximately fifty films between 1927 and 1962. Many focused on family life and the day-to-day struggles between the generations. I’m certainly no expert on him—I’ve seen very few of his films, sorry to say—but everything I’ve seen has keen insight into human nature, frequently gentle but rarely melodramatic.

Tokyo Chorus is the story of Shinji Okajima, a young husband and father in contemporary Japan, which was in the thick of the Depression. This is an early scene, one that introduces the family. As Okajima is preparing to go to work, he and his wife discuss his salary bonus and he interacts with his son and daughter.

I love this scene. It’s chockfull of moments, mannerisms, and feelings. I don’t know much about Japanese cinema—much less their silent cinema—but this strikes me as more realistic looking than your average American film from the same period. The production design, costumes and even the performances seem less stagy that what I’d expect from its American counterpart.2

As for the shooting, Ozu uses his share of conventional angles one would expect in a narrative, such as this angle/reverse angle exchange…

…but later in the scene, there a there’s a single comic shot that relies on blocking for its effect. It’s the shot immediately after the son (unnamed in the film) breaks some of Okajima’s records…

This is great narrative comedic staging and directing since the timing of the joke is decided by the blocking: we register Okajima’s disappointment and, in lieu of a couple cuts and close-ups, the son steps out, delivering the smile that makes the joke.

This is cute but not what I’m referring to when illustrating how Ozu uses a single short for maximum effect. That shot is, of course, the final one in the scene, the one that stikes me as the one most like a documentary. The camera is static, low to the ground and unobstrusive. I see three-and-a-half shots in one:

“Shot” #1 is Tsuma (the wife) on the tatami mat, and it’s framed for her (which explains why the camera is low to the ground). Okajima enters frame right, though we can only see him from mid-torso down. While this is a perfect place for a conventional cut-on-action to a medium of him, Ozu holds his ground.


“Shot” #2 is Tsuma sending her husband off to work, with only the lower half of their bodies visible. Ozu foregoes shots of their faces in exchange for seeing the wife caringly brush her husband’s blazer, the final touch before sending him on his way.


“Shot” #3 is their departure, a family parading by the camera like a family of ducks, which ends beautifully with the camera already perfectly framed for Miyoko, the daughter.



The “half shot” is the 2-and-a-half seconds after Tsuma leaves the frame and before the children enter…

This is a very atypical-Hollywood “dead air” shot, where the audience is left in the dark. My guess is that for a Hollywood film, the walking would have been choreographed so that the procession would have been tidy, rhythmic, and uniform. However, Ozu and his unobtrusive camera let the action happen at a more realistic pace, like a vérité documentary, and he doesn’t worry if we lose our bearings for a moment. Hell, there’s always their home to look at, isn’t there?

So, does Ozu prescribe to Eisenstein’s dare to filmmakers to stage as much as possible in a single shot, to maximize the “frame” and its space? Kinda, though I don’t think that was his goal. I believe he searched for the one place to put the camera that would give him the maximum number of shots. This kept his budget down and allowed his actors to move organically and realistically within the space. And that’s as good a reason as any.

Tokyo Chorus is currently available on Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies, a 3 DVD set by Eclipse, Criterion’s “bargain” series. It also includes his next film, I Was Born, But…, another domestic comedy. That will be playing in NYC at the IFC Center for two weeks, beginning June 25. As these films rarely screen, I highly recommend it.

Next up in the When Not to Edit series, Frank Oz will make an appearance on Peel Slowly, to talk about using a static camera to stage comedy.

Add’l posts in this series:

       • Frank Oz Lets the Actors Do the Heavy Lifting

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BACK TO POST 1 A perfect example of Eisenstein’s affinity for montage if this clip from his 1929 film The General Line. Thanks to an abundance of quick edits, he shows us the kinetic energy in a roomful of peasant farmers witnessing for the first time a creamer in action. (Is it my imagination or is it awfully sexual?)

By the way, the version I saw with English subtitles had the phrase “It creams!” for this shot. Whoa.


BACK TO POST 2 And the children’s actions and reactions ring true, whether it’s the son mimicking the father trying in vain to repair the broken records or the siblings choosing to play with those broken records instead of the ball that caused the problems in the first place.

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