Capturing What Cannot Be Captured: Filming the Way We Think

By  · Published on November 10th, 2016

Two scenes comparatively reveal the way movies depict the thought process.

In the lineage of storytelling, film is the child of literature, it inherited the traits of that medium and evolved them for the next generations, added dimensions that could only have been dreamt of before, and thus also added a kind of impact and resonance to narrative that had never been known. Whether or not film is a superior storytelling medium to literature is kind of like deciding who’s superior, you or your dad? We all know it’s you, it’s just not always polite to say so, he is your dad, after all.

But if there’s one area in which film didn’t inherit literature’s abilities, it’s in the realm of thought. Literature can describe for us, either abstractly or succinctly, what is going on in a character’s head, it can reveal their every thought and every feeling behind those thoughts, it can grant us unrestricted access to inner monologues, motivations, and mental prowess or illness. And yes, film has the ability to do this as well, but aside from using voiceover – and you’re not Chinatown or Blade Runner, so stop using voiceover – the only way film has to reveal a character’s thoughts is to show them, either through a visual equivalent of a voiceover like a flashback, or, as it’s most often done, letting an actor convey the gist of these thoughts through body language, expression, and maybe the occasional soliloquy, or through acting, in short.

But that’s not to relieve the director of any burden. There are ways such pensive scenes can be shot, scored (or not), framed, lighted, and positioned within the context of the narrative to aid in getting character thoughts across to an audience, or at least the results of those thoughts, i.e. decisions.

In the following video made for Der Filmkrant by a pair of the most insightful video essayists out there, Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin have crafted the perfect look at on-screen revelation of thought by comparing two pivotal scenes – the first from Robert Rossen’s The Hustler and the second from Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight – in which a character thinks on a decision that will serve as a major plot point moving forward. In the former, the scene in question involves George C. Scott’s character making the decision to seduce his pool-hustling partner’s (Paul Newman) girlfriend (Piper Laurie). In the latter film, Colin Firth is a skeptic for whom grief (and a lovely clairvoyant played by Emma Stone) has caused a brief lapse of his stoicisim; in this scene he is deliberating whether to allow this newfound open-mindedness to continue to grow in him, or to banish it back from whence it came. In each instance, the respective directors employ their respective techniques, narrative and filmic, to arrive at the same point: one of decision.

How these scenes overlap and diverge makes for an interesting look at the effectiveness of the methods used, and indeed the decision to show these decisions on-screen. Ten minutes is all it takes to broaden your appreciation for the power, and even the limitations, of film’s ability to capture the human condition; press play.

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Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist