Literally Showing, Not Telling

Originally posted June 30, 2011.

Usually, I want to write about literature on this blog since that will be my focus at Oxford.  But for today (and maybe again in the future) I want to focus on another medium of storytelling: film.  I am a huge film buff and I do my film studying during the summer and winter breaks. Whenever I’m at home, my mom and I go to the movie theater.  We haven’t pulled a double feature yet this summer, but I’m sure it’ll happen at some point.  I am a little disappointed with the Paramount Summer Film Fesitval’s selection this year, but there are plenty of artsy films at the Regal Arbor Cinema and Hollywood Blockbusters at other theaters to keep me busy all summer long.  Recently, I’ve watched two movies that made me think about how film storytelling differs from the written word.  While I am a reader first, I appreciate that film gives us the opportunity to show things in a completely different way.  Teachers always nag, “Show, don’t tell” when you write. In film, that’s much easier to do.

And yet, not all films take this advice.  Sure, they literally show us the action instead of describing it in great detail.  The filmmaker doesn’t have to have any of the other characters describe the romantic lead as blonde with blue eyes, etc; we can see that.  But there’s another level to showing that only film can achieve.  In books, authors describe the daydreams and thought patterns of their characters.  And sometimes it’s annoying to watch a book adapted into film because we feel the loss of the character’s inner thoughts.  Because of two movies, I realized film could do this, too.

First, there’s Temple Grandin (2010).  This HBO movie chronicles the real life story of Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who struggles through school, but who ended up using her unique perspective to design a better way to care for and to slaughter cattle.  Claire Danes gives a fantastic performance.  I saw the real Temple Grandin at the Oscars and Danes pegged Temple’s mannerisms perfectly.  The coolest parts of the film, in my opinion, were the scenes that showed exactly what Temple was thinking.  For instance, when Temple’s high school science teacher asks her to think of all the good times with her favorite horse, Temple’s mind races with every image and memory and images of horses of all different shapes and sizes, in all different positions and degrees of motion flash across the scene.  When she explains the new cattle dip she’s invented, the camera slides through the new building, showing us how the cattle think, and how Temple has tapped into the cows’ perspective.  I didn’t think about it at the time, besides to reel at how quickly Temple’s mind worked, but these scenes helped make the movie.  They added humor, but mostly they showed me exactly how this autistic woman’s brain worked.

This issue of visually showing thought through film came up again when I went to see a less popular movie yesterday.  It was Beginners (2011), a film about a young man dealing with his father coming out of the closet at age 75 after 40 years of marriage, and then his death from cancer five years later.  It sounds like a really depressing movie about failed marriages, death, and cancer, but it was humorous for the most part. Part of this came from the father’s (Christopher Plummer) vivacity and energy.  He’s so happy to be himself and to live his life honestly.  And part of this came from the really cute dog that “spoke” to Ewan McGregor (he got his own dog after the movie wrapped and I can see why; he’s really good with animals and the dog in the movie is so CUTE).  But mainly the cinematographer, scriptwriter, director, or someone decided to set the scene within the main character’s mind with images.  He would show pictures from different time periods before telling the background of one character.  For example, at the beginning he narrated the present by showing a picture of the sky, the stars, nature, the president of the United States, etc.  And then to show how the present compared to when his parents got married (the crux of the movie’s plot) he showed the same type of images, but from 1955, the year of his parent’s marriage.  The best part was when Oliver (McGregor) heard about the state of his father’s lung cancer.  The doctor described the tumor as the size of a quarter and Oliver’s mind took that and ran with it.  In between shots of the doctor continuing to explain the disease’s progression, the film displays quarters, pennies, dimes, and nickels slowly popping up and multiplying across a black screen.  This is such a serious moment, but this literal translation ended up making me giggle nervously in the theater.  It was great to see how Oliver reacted to this news, because it demonstrated a lot about how he related to his father and his illness: he could only think of it in the most literal terms to deal with the news.  It was funny because it was completely understandable.

I was so inspired when I saw that last scene that I literally pulled out my notebook to scribble a note in the theater.  It’s very messy since I was writing in the dark, but thankfully it left such an impression on me that I could remember what I wrote as opposed to actually deciphering my handwriting.  I know not all movies can use this specific technique (it would become less powerful if used too much), but I appreciated the way these two different films used it.  Even though Oliver in Beginnersdid not have a mental disability like Temple Grandin, the presentation of mental imagery in the film helped me understand the character’s point of view in a similar way.  I hope I can continue to find these simple yet effective scenes in film.  I think it’s a great way for filmmakers to exploit a big advantage to using that medium.

Okay, enough serious stuff.  Besides over-analyzing movies, I have also ridden my bike (finally!), healed my cough (mostly), read more of The Trial (more reactions to follow in my next post), and visited with friends at Barton Springs.  I never thought that I’d be able to swim in 60 degree water—even in over 100 degree weather—but thanks to some supportive yet pushy friends, I took a leap of faith.  Still had goosebumps, but I feel like more of an authentic Austin-ite.  Which is good because I’ve lived here for over ten years now …  Thankfully it’s also been a lighter work week at Panera bread.  After I came in exhausted for an opening (a.k.a 5:30 am) shift half asleep, they realized that when I said part-time, I definitely did not mean 40 hours a week.

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About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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