Sunday, August 12, 2012

Directed by Clint Eastwood - Part II: show, don't tell

One of Eastwood's characteristics is his willingness to deliver exposition in images and not dialogue (a technique he might have learned from working with Sergio Leone on the Dollars-Trilogy). This is one area where animation filmmakers may directly profit by studying Eastwood (or Leone or Melville) films.

Classical Hollywood protagonists have to face and finally resolve a more or less suppressed incident of their past. Just think of Casablanca (1942) or The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Eastwood, however, likes to play taciturn characters whose past stays vague at best.

As a director, he doesn't like to explain too much or talk down to the audience. He'd rather leave as much as possible to the imagination:
"don’t lay out so much that it insults their intelligence. I try to give a certain amount to their imagination. [...] I think that audiences are smarter than a lot of producers think they are, and I think the audience will draw with you"

It is thus self-evident that Eastwood doesn't like expository dialogue. Whenever possible he establishes character relationships through staging in space. For that he relies heavily on master shots and shots with two or more characters visible at the same time. In a time when even Martin Scorsese (in The Departed and Shutter Island) has started to favor the single character shots, it is a real treat to have at least one mainstream director left who leaves the choice to the audience which character they want to focus on.

Eastwood's use of cinemascope for his larger scale stories comes in pretty handy as well. However, thanks to Joel Cox' perfected editing rhythm the individual shots do not attract attention to themselves or distort the spatial relationship like in a Sergio Leone film.

It's worth mentioning how many observers (innocent or not-so-innocent bystanders) there usually are in his western scenes. Ever since the "man with no name", Eastwood himself is often introduced as an outsider to the community who observes for some time and only reacts after a long time.

The exposition of the strange town of Lago in the surreal morality play High Plains Drifter may be one of the best examples of the Eastwood way of setting up a story. Communication is reduced to glances and sounds. Nevertheless, one immediately gets the notion that the townspeople of Lago do not welcome the stranger. 

0:10 Eastwood's head in shadow, filmed from behind, no facial expression visible 
0:13 With the music fading away, the rhythm of the horse noises is carrying the scene acoustically. 
0:23 low angle shot from behind an unsettled citizen. 
0:29 Eastwood's face visible, in shadow; horse sounds obtrusive, audible seagulls to remind us of the presence of an eerie lake. 
0:39 the stranger in silhouette in the shadow, his fearful observer behind glass following his every move.
0:52 through the unfinished building we see a white figure standing high above on the balcony of the town hotel. 
0:55 Close-up on white woman from below. Her face is in the light, she looks down suspiciously but seems less fearful, has a broom in her hands so we know that she's working (which is always a good thing in Eastwood's universe). 
1:09 the next woman's face is in the shadow. She is one of only three women in this town but will not have an important role and thus doesn't get a reverse-shot or a close-up.
1:20 the barber stands outside and the camera in the dark room. He gets a reverse-shot. 
1:32 The third woman is introduced in a shot with Eastwood. She's the only person who crosses Eastwoods path. Her face is shaded by her hat. Eastwood seems to follow her with his eyes. 
1:48 the white saloon door and one person sitting and one standing leave no question about the size of the dwarf coming out of the white door, although we only see him from waist up. At least he's coming out, is not paralyzed like the rest of the townspeople.
1:55 real close-up on Eastwood's dark face, reverse shot on sweating observer
2:07 the Lago mining company is visible, two men about to leave town in a carriage 
2:12 bullwhip sound, Eastwood immediately turns his head 
2:14 first words of incidental dialogue, carriage sounds obscure horse's noises
2:22 another bullwhip cracking, Eastwood turns away disgustedly.

There's no way one cannot get the importance of the bullwhip to Eastwood's "stranger" character.

Staging talking heads
As you might have noticed, Eastwood likes to block his actors so that their heads are hardly ever on a horizontal line which is abetted in the western by having some of them sit on horses or stand on boardwalks.

This is not a publicity photograph but an actual screenshot from Flags of our Fathers (2006): the characters' heads' are not on a horizontal line and we can actually choose on which character's reaction we'd like to focus.
Eastwood also likes to stage dialogue scenes in contemporary films with one person sitting and one standing which creates visual dynamics. When the camera is facing the sitting person in a shot-reverse-shot sequence we often see the hip (where the guns hang in a western) of the standing character. I have nicknamed this recurring type of shot the "hipshot".
Eastwood's Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet (1977) gets his next assignment in alternating overshoulder- and hip-shots.
In Gran Torino (2008), Kowalski's opposite doesn't even sit and we get low-angle hip-shot.
Of course this is no exclusive Eastwood trait, but he likes to hark back to it more often than other directors. The same can be said about the moving camera from the point of view of the rider which leads to a slight encircling of standing characters. While this is commonplace in scenes involving horseback riding or cars, Eastwood transplants this short camera movement to all kinds of different movies as can be seen from the following non-exhaustive montage:

Note: I haven't decided yet if there will be a next installment of this series and what area it would cover. In the meantime you may be interested in this earlier post on Bronco Billy (1980).

There are many books on Clint Eastwood's career both as a director and an actor. One of the more rewarding is Laurence F. Knapp's analysis of Eastwood's first 18 films aptly titled: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Unfortunately, I don't own a copy and Amazon will only send used or new books to Americans, but I have read it in a library a few years ago and Knapp is really digging into Eastwood's visual style (without the benefit of pictures, though).

Last but not least, there's also an interview book edited by Robert E. Kapsis and Kathie Coblentz from which I have excerpted many of the quotes in these two posts.

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