Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Juxtaposition Comedy...(Or The In-Between Scene)

Remember these?


Once staples of screenwriting, these two 'transitions' have more or less fallen by the wayside. And it makes sense. Even as a young gun I remember wondering..."why do I have to put 'Cut To' at the end of every scene when that's what is going to happen anyway?" It's the medium - it's how you tell a cinematic story...you 'cut to' the next shot/scene. Now I can see you can putting in DISSOLVE TO or FADE TO BLACK or FADE TO WHITE if you want to convey a desired feeling or style or pace to the reader...but otherwise, to cut to is the norm, so there's no need to write it.

There are, however, instances where I still think it can be sparingly and judiciously utilized for some extra punch...especially when you want to point a big finger at the juxtaposition (there's that word again) of the final image/moment of one scene, and the first image/moment of the next scene. In horror, action, sci-fi, even drama...

But today, I was thinking about comedy.

I admit I'm stepping a little outside my comfort zone, but hey...it's just a friggin' blog (still dwelling in the cellar of blog world according to Technorati).

So a quick study in the 3 parts of the SMASH CUT TO: for laughs.

The movie 'Parenthood' was about the intertwining lives of several parents and their families living in the U.S.. It starred Steve Martin as Gil and Mary Steenbergen as his wife Karen...and the movie had a sequence that always stood out for me.

First off, Gil and Karen and kids are at a large family gathering, and Karen gets the kitchen pep talk from the womenfolk on ways to spice up the marriage/sexlife with the hubby - like to do something you wouldn't normally do...to 'surprise him' etc. That was the set up scene. The next scene has Gil and Karen in the van driving home on the freeway. It's now night, kids are asleep in the back. And he's babbling on about the day and she's looking kinda sly and sultry. Then she starts to get cuddly...and then leans over and begins to go down on him while he's still driving. I call this the in-between scene. And the last image we see in this scene is Steve Martin's wild bug-eyes as her head disappears beneath the steering wheel, and we... SMASH CUT TO:

A tow truck, lights flashing, drives off - pulling away the cracked up family van and revealing Gil sitting on the curb with his head in his hands while Karen talks to a police officer.

It was a laugh out loud moment. The setup of the prude wife getting a little tipsy and some encouragement to be nasty from the girlfriends was in and of itself a funny scene. Then the surprise bj whilst driving - on its own, a funny scene. But the payoff or big punchline was the 'cut to' the sad 'climax' of the totaled van. In a millisecond we filled in the blanks of everything that had happened between those two cuts, and we laughed.

The other scene that came to mind is from Woody Allen's 'Annie Hall'. Allen's Alvy Singer is visiting the parents of his girlfriend Annie, played by Diane Keaton, and he meets her strange brother Duane (played by a young Christopher Walken).

In a memorable set up scene, Duane asks Alvy into his room to 'confess' something -and proceeds to describe that when he's driving at night, he likes to stare at the approaching headlights and then imagine swerving into the oncoming traffic...hearing the crunch of metal, the burning flesh, etc. Alvy politely excuses himself saying he's due back on planet earth. This scene on its own is damn funny - meeting the strange relatives...someone you don't really know wants to 'confess' something to you...and the confession is just plain bizarre.

Then the scene in between. The parent's are debating over who will take Alvy and Annie back to the airport when Pop's says, "this is stupid, Duane can take them." And we SMASH CUT TO: ...

Duane behind the wheel, blankly staring straight ahead. Pan slowly to see Annie sitting beside him, smiling and oblivious. Pan continues to find Alvy glancing nervously over at Duane - you can practically smell the pee running down Alvy's leg...

Watch and revel...

Three part juxtaposition comedy gold.

Now you could've cut to Allen reacting right there in the living room...and you would've got a laugh for sure. Or you could have cut right from the bedroom scene to the driving scene and probably got a guffaw. But it was the scene in between that gives the sequence the appropriate beats and necessary rhythm to pay it off in the most effective way. And I'd wager writing CUT TO: or SMASH CUT TO: would've enhanced the reading of the script.

And as we all know, they have to enjoy the 'read' in order to want to 'make the movie'.

I'm sure there's dozens of better examples out there (what do you say, Ken Levine) - these were just two I really liked. And I had a tougher time coming up with samples from television - it seemed to be more of a movie thing.

So I throw it to the room - your fav moments of juxtaposition... comedy?

SONG & ARTIST? - "Seems like old times, dinner dates and flowers,
Seems like old times, staying up for hours
Making dreams come true,
Doing things we used to do,
Seems like old times, being here with you."


DMc said...

That's one of my favorite cuts, too. (Annie Hall)

I've used SMASH CUT myself, but I've always found it interesting to think that there was ever a need for a transition that was faster or more powerful than the instananeous transition CUT TO implies...

DMc said...

By the way, you can't do "Seems Like Old Times" -- please? Loeb, sure-- and yes, the Arthur Godfrey version...but I have a great version of about nine or ten singers singing this.

It's a standard for godsake.

wcdixon said...

Hey there D - what...no brilliant examples? Ya know, I saw the tune as less of a test, and more of a fitting close (the closing song in Annie Hall, and the going back to the old 'Cut To' times)...like I need to explain myself - nobody's reading anyway (according to Technorati)

Good Dog said...

Favourite moments of juxtaposition in comedy?

As a delaying tactic, I'll say that you've probably picked the two best examples:

Beginning and end, with the middle taken out because it serves no purpose in Parenthood.

Information from scene one and scene two combine to produce laughs in scene three in Annie Hall.

Obviously there are examples in Airplane! but those are juxtapositions driven by content rather than an edit...

Well, I can think of a really great dramatic smash cut/juxtaposition. But that's not what you asked. So what good am I?

Must try harder next time.

wcdixon said...

go for it good dog - let's play...

Good Dog said...

The best dramatic smash cut, which is beginning and end, with the middle taken out:

Phil Kaufman's The Right Stuff.

Ed Harris’ John Glenn has orbited the Earth in Freedom 7 and is attempting re-entry with the heat shield and landing bag no longer locked in position.

The capsule cannonballs down through the atmosphere. Glenn starts humming to himself as sparks flare around the tiny space craft.

As Freedom 7 swoops right into the camera…


A sky filled with tickertape as Glenn, his wife Annie and LBJ ride through the streets of New York. Marvellous!

Of course later, there is the marvellous juxtaposition between the Mercury astronauts being feted at Houston with a fan dance and Yeager trying to push the outside of the envelope in the NF-104, but the cuts are much 'softer'.

Still left me with my jaw on the floor.

Much like the Academy Awards ceremony that saw Terms of Endearment beat The Right Stuff to Best Picture.

wcdixon said...

Yeah - more I think about it the in-between scene doesn't necessarily apply - in dramatic/action stuff. Or maybe its a comedy thing - set up, complication, punchline - or maybe... where's MM or Unk on all this?

Good Dog said...

I know what you mean. Whereas the smash cut in drama allows the audience release after sitting there with bated breath, a comedy smash cut results (hopefully) in laughter from the punchline.

Tried to think of other comedies. Preston Sturges or even the Coens must have employed the device. The more I reach for titles and examples, the ffurther they slip from my grasp.

Portnoy said...

oh man - there's nothing like a good CUT TO:

and i'm with DMC - i don't like the word Smash.

Drama / comedy - Betty Blue after the opening highly erotic love sequence. CUT TO The guy driving his truck and honking his horn.

The Annie Hall is a classic and a favorite.

Lawrence of Arabia - holy shit cut to Larwence riding to camera as a dot on the horizon. preceeding is the assignment with the Claude Rains character. with the Barry score I think that is one of the most powerful images ever.

But then there's 2001. the ape tossing the bone in the air and the CUT TO the space ship.

Lost In America - The toast at the party then they hit the road to Steppenwolf

WithNail and I - when they drive home from country. Withnail says I'll drive. and it's insane. a great film if you haven't seen it.

well, this will be a fun post to consider before bedtime. you may see me again on this one.....

wcdixon said...

Good ones Portnoy - yes Withnail & I was great - I saw it opening weekend for some reason, maybe I read a review in ...1987? ulp.
And now you've got me thinking I need to see beginning of 2001 again - was it a cut or dissolve to the spaceship from the bone?

Good Dog said...

2001: A Space Odyssey had a straight cut from the bone to the orbiting missile platform.

Of course, since I've been banging on about them over on Reel Hollywood, I should mention Powell & Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale.

Starts with one of Chaucer's pilgrims releasing a hawk. The bird flies up into the air and it cuts to a Spitfire swooping down over the English countryside. The pilgrims have been replaced by soldiers on maneuvers. And made in 1944.

Good Dog said...

Oh, and Withnail and I? Over here they've just released a two-disc 20th Anniversary Edition DVD.

Twenty years?

Even the cinema I saw it at in Central London isn't there anymore.

Still... Here. Hare. Here.

Portnoy said...

you know, what we're talking about is great visual writing. a somewhat fading artform. 2 films were directed by Paul Brickman. Risky Business and Men Don't Leave. there is something incredibly poetic about his work. I love a good long non dialogue sequence....

there are others. but for some reason Brickman used the classic tools that I am so attached to. damnit!

if you've never seen Men Don't Leave - grab some tissue. the score by Thom Newman is one of the most beautiful I have heard...

sophie said...

That film was "saved" thanks
to the editor -
and first time the editor
was placed in the opening
(i think even first?)