Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: The Progress of the Problem in the Opening of The Babadook

The Babadook also exemplifies three more rules:
By the time the story begins, Sam’s behavior has already gotten pretty bad, and things are quickly getting worse. The first ten minutes feature breathtaking storytelling in every sense of the word: We begin with ten 30-second scenes of Sam’s escalating violence and monster-obsession, then at the 5-minute mark he’s kicked out of school. After ten more 30-second scenes, he pulls the “Mr. Babadook” book off the shelf exactly at 10-minute mark, and the real terror begins.

How on earth does Kent get such a richly-characterized movie to move so fast? How can you say anything with a 30-second scene, and how can you keep up that pace for 20 quick scenes in a row?

The lack of apologies has a lot to do with it. Presumably, after each of Sam’s problematic incidents he apologizes abjectly to his mom or she to others, but the movie has no time for that. It’s tricky, because those scenes are tempting to write: after all, that’s big drama …but it’s empty drama. The audience doesn’t want to watch characters talk about something that’s already happened, they vastly prefer to watch characters discuss things that might happen, or that are happening. What’s done is done.

Here’s what Kent has to say:
  • “Deciding the structure of it, I was always trying to make it more and more constrictive. It’s a matter of rhythm. For me, films have more in common with music than with novels or literature. The flow of this movie was determined by its musicality. We didn’t stop in the edit until it felt that way. We clipped out a lot from the first half until we got there, about 10 minutes, I’d say.”
Getting out of scenes also creates a nice effect near the end, cleverly manipulating our genre expectations. The scene:
  • Once we know that Amelia is over the bend, their kindly old neighbor knocks on the door to make sure they’re okay. We see wild-eyed Amelia trying to send her away. We then cut to Sam discovering their dead dog on the kitchen floor, only to have him turn around to find his murderous mother standing over him, explaining that the neighbor won’t be bothering them anymore.
So did Amelia kill her neighbor? Well, no, but we don’t find that out until the epilogue when the neighbor is babysitting Sam again. Not only is this a great example of the power of cutting away to keep tension high, it helps with the problem we discussed last time: In the end, Amelia kills no humans. This violates our genre expectations, but it’s necessary in order to have a semi-happy ending, so one solution is to cut away from that scene early, implying just for a while that maybe she has killed someone, which makes the rest of her rampage that much scarier.

It’s a brilliant cut: If we figure out that she’s not going to kill anyone, then the movie loses tension, but if we know for certain that she has killed someone, then we lose all hope of a happy ending, which also decreases tension (our tense hopes that this might still turn out okay).  By cutting away, both sources of tension are kept alive.


Brian Malbon said...

I loved that scene. I was certain we were going to find the neighbor in a closet or something for a cheap scare effect. The fact that she showed up just fine art the end did nothing to lessen the terror of the middle sequence.

Another great example of the "musical cutting" is when she's reaping the book. We see the last page with the terrifying thing hanging over the little boy, then we cut immediately to Samuel screaming hysterically and Amelia rocking him, then cut just as quickly out. There's no long drawn out scene where he gets more and more upset as she tries to reassure him, nor do we see her finally calm him down. It preserves the rhythm and, more importantly, the scariness of the scene.

Matt Bird said...

Yes, that's another great cut!