Sunday, December 16, 2012

How to Manage Expectations, Step 7: Put A Frame On It

When you know that there’s a danger that your audience will be asking the wrong questions (“Whodunit” instead of “Howdunit”, or “Will they survive?”, rather than “How will they survive?”) then there’s no more effective way of heading them off at the pass than with a framing sequence and/or a past-tense voiceover (as opposed to a present-tense voiceover, which has a different effect).

A framing sequence does just that: establishes the outer bounds of the big picture, keeping some possibilities in the frame and cropping others out. Types of framing effect include:

(1) A scene in which a character is telling the story to another person, so we see the whole thing as a flashback…
  • This is used in a lot of noirs (Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, D.O.A., The Usual Suspects) where it serves many purposes: It allows us to sympathize more with the morally dubious heroes because we’re getting the story through their skewed point-of-view, it allows their voice-over to establish a hard-boiled tone, and it allows the story to move at a faster clip by using voice-over to bridge gaps.
  • It’s also used in movies like Stand By Me and Forrest Gump to paint the scenes in a nostalgic hue they wouldn’t otherwise have.)
  • It can sometimes create a specific mystery: Why is Marlowe now blind in Murder My Sweet? Why is the hero dying in D.O.A.? This gets us asking the question the writer wants us to ask, rather than other questions that might come to mind.
  • You can even deliberately mislead. A bio-pic I wrote ends with a suicide, but I begin the movie with a cryptic flashforward that implies that it was murder, so as to trick the audience into paying closer attention to the story, as they would with a whodunit. The hope is that, by the time they get to the end, they’ll enjoy the story enough that they won’t mind being tricked.
(2) Something similar but different: Begin with a cryptic flashforward, then cut back to the story in “the present”:
  • “Alias” and “Breaking Bad” are two (otherwise very different) shows about heroes who whip back and forth between quotidian domestic problems and international gunplay. Both shows often employ a structure in which we begin we begin the episode with a flashforward in which the hero is about to be tortured to death, only to cut to a “one week earlier” title card, and then show the same hero dealing with some ho-hum domestic problem. This not only plays up the irony, but makes those domestic scenes hum with tension, as we wonder when the danger will strike.
  • These can also be used to deliberately mislead. The flashforwards throughout “Breaking Bad” season two implied that Walt’s house was about to be blown up, which ratcheted up each home scene. When the truth came out, it was far more bizarre, but just as satisfying. (And it also tricked us into being more forgiving of Walt’s actions, since we falsely assumed that retribution was coming.)
(3) A past-tense voiceover:
  • Both Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty are narrated by heroes who explains to us right away that they’re now dead and this will be the story of how they got that way. Obviously, this is an extreme risk, since it gives away the ending. Once again, this tricks us into paying much closer attention to the seemingly-low-stakes domestic problems, wondering how one could possibly lead to the other. As Hitchcock would say, the writers are sacrificing surprise in favor of suspense, hoping that the trade-off will make the whole move crackle with tension.
  • These can also prepare us for difficult transitions. The fantastic voice-over in Days of Heaven not only sets a powerful mood, but it prepares for the fact that the young girl will become the main character late in the story.
In each of these cases, the writer is asking certain question early on to keep us from asking others. The case of American Beauty is the most basic of all: If we didn’t know that Spacey was going to die, then our question would simply be “So what?” Why would we care about some random shlub’s mid-life crisis, since these things never have any real consequences? Writer Alan Ball knew that the only way to get us to care was to assure us up front that this time was different.

Tomorrow: More devious tricks…


Sean said...

This post helped me twig onto why the voice-over in the first version of Blade Runner was so famously unsuitable. Besides being cheesy and overly redundant.

But considered as a sympathy mechanic, the v.o.'s also in competition with the main structural aim of the movie: to get the audience to identify with the Replicants even as we lose sympathy for Deckard's actions, until Roy Batty's dying gesture of mercy inspires Deckard to become the helper, instead of the user, of a Replicant.

The v.o.'s constant sympathy drip-feed (as well its ceaseless assurances that Deckard finds all this stuff as sordid and repugnant as we do, honest!) violates this structure; in consequence, Deckard's actions can come off even worse than intended.

j.s. said...

There's another kind of framing scene that doesn't necessarily even involve the main characters or the use of voice-over or a flash-forward but is still crucial to setting up expectations. Call it the "this is the way the world works" prologue, as in a film like THE HURT LOCKER where we see Guy Pearce get blown up by a roadside bomb just so we know that this is the kind of life-and-death edge all of the characters will walk for every minute of the film.

Matt Bird said...

Good point, J.S. I sort of cover that type of tone-setting in the next two pieces (today is specifically about effects that look to the future), but I don't put it as clearly as you just did.