Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Analysis of a Scene: Dead Ringers
I recently watched "Dead Ringers" for the first time in about 20 years and finally connected to a film that had left me cold back in 1988. This was the first film directed by David Cronenberg after one of his rare box office hits "The Fly". Cronenberg is an interesting director, as his films often create unsettling moods, though he usually relies on almost unstylish medium shots and close-ups as coverage for his scenes.
The reason I analyzed a scene from this was due to the special circumstances of editing a film where one actor plays two roles opposite each other. Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists Bev (short for Beverly) and Eli (short for Elliot). Bev is considered the more shy, reserved twin, while Eli is more an extrovert which helps with attracting women for either one or both to sleep with. However, as the movie progresses, you can tell their characteristics become less and less distinctive from one another.
In this scene, Bev is depressed after mistakenly believing his girlfriend Claire is cheating on him, a woman that both he and Eli had taken turns bedding before she discovered it. What I want to concentrate on is how a director can cut a scene like this together believably with minimal special effects and, quite importantly, with a terrific lead performance. We also want to concentrate on how music plays an important part in the cutting rhythms. This is a shot by shot analysis of this scene through stills with the scene itself presented at the end, first silently with shot reference numbers and lengths, then textless with original sound. The Quicktime video can be downloaded.
Shot 1: (28 seconds & 1 frame)
The scene starts with the longest shot, as well as the only one to employ compositing effects to have both Jeremy Irons in the same frame. Nowadays, this kind of compositing would seem old hat, as there are clear lines where the two images are cut. I would guess the matte in the frame is represented by the edge of the couch, the inside edge curve of the stairs and the doorway at the top of the stairs. Eli and Arlene (played by Lynne McCormack) never cross that line when they dance into the frame.
This shot also starts with the first chords of the song "In the Still of the Night", allowing the first few lyrics to be heard and absorbed with this image of loneliness. There's nothing more uncomfortable than realizing you are the third wheel and Irons' body language shows this without a single word being said.
Shot 2: (6s:3fr)
Now, that we observed all three people from distance, the film cuts to a very tight close-up shot of Eli and Arlene. The lyrics "Because I love you, love you so..." heard as they kiss one another. This shot is then countered by...
Shot 3: (4s:2fr)
The reverse angle of the previous shot. We see Bev's lonely figure on the couch from the angle of Eli and Arlene if they were paying attention to him. The lyrics "I promise I will never let you go..." are heard turning this song from a love song about a man and a woman to a love song about two brothers.
Shot 4: (5s:8fr)
Back to a medium close-up of Eli and Arlene finally taking notice of him. The small gestures with this shot express a great deal about how casual Eli is about suggesting Arlene seduce Bev and how Arlene does not think twice about going through with it.
Shot 5: (3s:11fr)
We return very briefly to Shot 1. Notice that Arlene doesn't put her hands on the couch to avoid crossing the matte line. Otherwise, from this point, the scene stops using this shot to sell the idea of the twin Irons on screen at once and relies on cutting between both of his performances.
Shot 6: (2s:21fr)
A much tighter shot of Bev from the same angle as Shot 3. Arlene's arm comes into frame to complete the action of leaning on the couch she started in the previous shot and helps sell the believability of Shot 5. The action is cut smoothly so that her not crossing the matte line in the previous shot is not distracting.
Shot 7: (2s:8fr)
This close-up of Arlene is the reverse shot of 6, looking up at her alluring face. Anyone in Bev's position would easily be tempted, but...
Shot 8: (8s:12fr)
Return to Shot 6, but held longer as Bev considers and turns Arlene down. Just when the cuts in the scene pick up, Bev's answer slows it back down.
Shot 9: (3s:0fr)
Return to Shot 7, which is used beautifully to cut to the next shot. She turns her head to the left, so that the eyelines in the single shots all match. Cronenberg could have cut to a medium shot with Eli behind Arlene, but keeps the characters in singles, as they attempt with futility to make a connection.
Shot 10: (3s:0fr)
This is the same length as the previous shot. Also, this is when we begin to appreciate the subtlety of Irons' performance. Eli moves slightly to the music which counters with the disheartened Bev unwilling to budge from the couch.
Shot 11: (2s:4fr)
The same as Shots 7 & 9, as Arlene tempts Bev just a bit more.
Shot 12: (3s:15fr)
The same as Shots 6 & 8, as Bev finally gives in. Now the scene is ready to cut directly from one Irons to another...
Shot 13: (3s:13fr)
This is the same as Shot 10, but now a tighter medium close-up. At this point in the scene, you accept that these two are sharing the screen space. Irons' reaction in this shot, the way he drinks the glass with the slight feeling of self-satisfaction that he has landed another woman for his brother. This is Eli's odd way of showing love for Bev.
Shot 14: (19s:8fr)
The second longest shot of the scene, as we see the reverse angle of Shot 13. The shot cuts in just before Bev and Arlene enter the space, allowing for the trepidation Bev feels for dancing with her. Once again, the gestures in Irons' performance are important. Arlene attempts to put both her arms around Bev's neck, but he stops her and grabs one of her hands instead, making it almost feel like he's taking dance lessons.
The awkwardness continues when she strokes his head, eventually causing him to fully drop his head on her shoulder. At this point, it seems less like a dance between potential lovers, as much as a man almost looking for a motherly figure. This shot also plays out with the chorus of the song.
Shot 15: (5s:4fr)
There is a cheat going on with this shot. It feels much like it belongs with Shot 10 & 13, but it is clear that Eli has already moved to another part of the room, since starting from Shot 14, we are now shooting towards the windows in this penthouse but behind the couch. I can understand cutting out Eli's move, but sometimes Cronenberg keeps his camera locked down to a fault. I would have had a very subtle pan to watch Eli move into this position if even we caught just a couple of steps. It would have provided a couple of seconds more of Eli surveying the situation.
Shot 16: (6s:13fr)
This is the first shot of the scene where we now have Irons acting with his body double. In this shot, Irons is Bev, as we pan down he and Arlene as they dance, until the double, playing Eli, comes to them with a loose embrace. The shot also cuts in on a beat, which often allows the viewer to get caught up with the rhythm of the shots without noticing the sleight of hand. The camera is also not locked down anymore, allowing for a more fluid, dream-like feel.
Shot 17: (8s:17fr)
At this point, we are not cutting shot/reverse shot, but more wider/closer & upper-body/mid-body. We return to Irons playing Eli in this medium close-up, as these three bodies begin to move as one, which is emphasized by...
Shot 18: (5s:3fr)
A tighter shot of their mid-sections with no space between their bodies. The cuts are also continuing to happen at music beats.
Shot 19: (3s:10fr)
Irons is now back as Bev, where you can truly see how his character is on the verge of tears. Contrast this with Shot 17 where Irons' expression is cool and focused.
Shot 20: (4s:3fr)
Eli grabs Arlene's hand which is on Bev's back. Once again, a simple gesture says so much, as it is clear Arlene has feelings for Eli, but is dancing with Bev out of pity.
Shot 21: (12s:14fr)
A very tight close-up of all three within the same frame with Irons now as Eli. This shot takes in the sensuality of the moment, as Eli seems to be taking back Arlene for himself. The camera also moves just slightly with the actors, but less so than the previous shots as they seem to be circling in the same exact spot.
Shot 22: (5s:0fr)
This first long shot of the three of them dancing truly emphasizes how awkward this is becoming. What seemed more natural in close-up now seems like three characters whose movements are not in sync with one another. This shot unsettles the rhythm of the scene effectively.
Shot 23: (8s:15fr)
Now, we return to a close-up shot of all three, but pulled back a bit from Shot 21 to allow them to break apart. This is the first time Irons has been one character (Eli) for three consecutive shots now, as his character begins to demand the audience's attention for a scene that started out about Bev's loneliness.
Shot 24: (1s:21fr)
Irons returns as Bev, grabbing back the focus of the scene though with a medium close-up where he realizes that he is the third wheel in this. There is also a slight lull in the song...
Shot 25: (1s:11fr)
We cut to the reverse shot medium close-up of Eli and Arlene together on a strong beat of the song, which signifies a turn in direction of the scene.
Shot 26: (2s:18fr)
Same as Shot 24, but now the moment when Bev pulls away to the point where he cannot look at either Eli or Arlene anymore. What impresses me about how the previous shot cuts to this one is that the editor allows that slight pause before Irons' words. It truly feels like Irons is reacting to Irons and that this moment could have been shot with two cameras running at the same time.
Shot 27: (3s:3fr)
I love this shot which starts with Irons as Eli in profile close-up as the Irons body double as Bev crosses from screen left to screen right. That movement lets Irons move into a close-up to deliver the pleading lines, "Stay with us. Stay with me." The expression on his face gets across the love and perversity of their relationship.
Shot 28: (6s:21fr)
Irons as Bev crosses the room to head towards the balcony. Nothing particularly special about this shot, but establishes the space while showing the effects that drugs are having on Bev.
Shot 29: (8s:17fr)
We cut back to where Shot 27 ended, but pull back to reveal Arlene behind Eli, screen left. A deceptively simple move to return these two characters back to the intimacy they had at the beginning of the scene. Although they rub noses with each other, Eli looks off to where Bev went at the very end of the shot.
Also, just before it cuts to Shot 30, the song fades out and the underscoring of the scene fades in, foreshadowing that something bad will happen to Bev.
Shot 30: (5s:23fr)
Once again, using eyelines to cut from one Irons to another. This time, we get a beautiful wide shot as Irons as Bev faints on the balcony, framed by the window panels through blinds.
Shot 31: (3s:21fr)
Same as Shot 29, as both Eli and Arlene react to Bev's fall.
Shot 32: (3s:12fr)
I quite like this shot from outside the window looking into the penthouse through the blinds. It actually establishes the space a bit more clearly for me than Shot 28.
Shot 33: (6s:23fr)
Same as Shot 31, as Arlene goes to check on Bev. Even though a man has fainted, I appreciate that Cronenberg still lets the scene play out patiently. It is almost seems a bit distant and chilly that the reactions of Eli and Arlene seem almost subdued, but Cronenberg is not afraid to let the melancholy of Bev, in particular, pace the scene.
Shot 34: (3s:22fr)
Same as Shot 32, but we see Eli walk towards the balcony door though only a third of the way.
Shot 35: (5s:23fr)
The first shot of the balcony area unobstructed. This medium shot of Arlene trying to resuscitate Bev is functional although it is the first shot in the entire scene that doesn't thrill me. Why?
Shot 36: (2s:0fr)
Because we cut to this shot, Eli has already reached the balcony door. At this moment, he becomes enraged that Arlene is touching his brother. But, I wish the scene had built up to this emotion a little better. I almost believe the action of Shot 34 could have been taken to Shot 36 without any edits. You do not really need to see Arlene giving mouth to mouth to Bev. Hearing it is more than adequate.
However, seeing Eli's reaction when he walks across the room towards the balcony would probably have made his rage more understandable. Combing Shots 34 & 36 with the sound of Shot 35 would have sold the moment more effectively. It's odd that at this point Cronenberg does not allow the superb performance by Irons the space to make the scene more effective.
Shot 37: (1s:21fr)
Starting with Shot 36, the cuts arrive much quicker. In this shot, Eli runs over to push Arlene off Bev (not sure which one Irons is playing), the action which continues to...
Shot 38: (1s:19fr)
Arlene's back hits the wall. The quick motion the actress makes to feel the back of her neck seems a little forced. The moment her back hits the wall, the sound effect is used to ramp up the score to dramatically finish the scene's last beats.
Shot 39: (5s:3fr)
A close-up of Irons as Eli trying to resuscitate Bev, which does a nice job through lighting and camera placement of not calling attention that Irons' body double is playing Bev in this shot. Thankfully, the scene lets Irons performance become front and center again.
Shot 40: (3s:9fr)
Same as Shot 38. I guess you need to cut there, so that you can feel that Arlene has been completely cut out of this relationship. I wish the actress was a little better at conveying this.
Shot 41: (4s:8fr)
Same as Shot 39. Once again, the desperation of Irons' performance sells this shot. The scene is about the brothers detaching, reattaching, detaching again and finally reattaching for good. This shot shows the strong bond that these two have that sets up the rest of the film.
Although I have some quibbles how some of the final shots serve the dramatic purpose of the scene, I still believe overall the compositions, lighting and slower editing rhythms set an eerie mood. It also demonstrates that a reliance on performance and editing helps to sell the believability of the special effect of the scene.
What is more important to notice is that the scene does not call attention to itself for its trickery. Cronenberg's direction is about the emotion and the bond between these two brothers. It is after this scene that they begin a parallel downward spiral, forever trying to pull apart but ultimately glued together.