Strangely enough it took me the longest time to become a Meryl Streep fan. I recognized that she’s a wonderful actress, but something about her rubbed me the wrong way. Thankfully I’m past that. Because Kramer vs. Kramer is awesome.
I’ve always been a Dustin Hoffman fan. Until recent missteps (Perfume, anyone?) he’s taken on consistently challenging roles: Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate, and Tootsie are just a few that come to mind.
I bet everyone already knows the plot: Kramer and Kramer are the Mr. and the Mrs. Mrs. – Streep – leaves Mr. – Hoffman – in the lurch and with their only son. This is in the first 10 minutes. The entire second+ act of the film is Hoffman and Son (sounds like a sweet 70s sitcom, doesn’t it?) getting used to one another. It’s sweet, well-acted, and dramatic.
One thing that KvK does really well is avoid being a courtroom drama. There are courtroom scenes, and at times it teeters towards falling into boring genre conventions (rough-and-tumble lawyers, crying on the stand, miracle witnesses), but every time it approaches said contrivances the film pulls back and away – in general, it cuts out of each of these scenes earlier than most.
This is a good thing. There’s a great mantra in screenwriting: late in, early out. This means, start a scene as late as possible, and get out as early as possible. Trim the fat. Avoid wasted space.
Sometimes this is a great tactic (sometimes not…but that’s for another post and generally for directors less interested in formal narrative and more in the artfulness of cinematic language…though the two can most certainly be married). In KvK it’s a perfect tactic and the jumps out of scenes, the jumps in time, throw us headlong into the midst of newly dramatic moments. It keeps us on our toes and keeps a predictable script feeling fresh and unpredictable (a tricky maneuver).
There’s a very celebrated scene in KvK and it’s justly celebrated. Hoffman & Son (sounds like a sweet moving company, doesn’t it?) have been living together for awhile. We’ve seen their disaster of a breakfast routine already, their bathroom habits, the space of the apartment. This scene is entirely silent. The two “men” work around each other efficiently. One comes out of the bathroom and the other goes in. One goes into the bathroom and starts breakfast the other follows with needed ingredients. Both meet at the breakfast table. Newspapers open. No words. A very smart camera follows the movements in such a way to emphasize their walking paths (ie these paths are tried and true – they’ve settled in). It’s beautiful.
Later in the film Hoffman and Child (sounds like a sweet law firm, doesn’t it?) have another nice moment, this time involving the dreaded Streep. She returns. She asks to see the boy. Hoffman can’t refuse. They’re in a park. Hoff & Son (tired of this yet? Restaurant, perhaps?) are in wideshot at one end. Cut to Streep at the other end. Hoffman wants to say something meaningful. He leans down but his son is already off running into the arms of his mother.
Here’s a tough decision for a director (and editor): do you cut to the closeup of Hoffman or stay in the wideshot? Obviously you need to get his reaction, and you know they shot both…so how do you make this call?
Well, both shots mean something slightly different. The closeup registers the emotion but has Hoffman fill the frame. If he fills the frame he doesn’t feel as alone, as he does in the wideshot now that his son is gone. But of course this wideshot leaves us distanced, and less able to read his specific reaction.
So what do we go with? Benton goes with the wideshot. It’s the right call. Why? I’m glad you asked. No, I really am. It’s because we already know his emotion. We’ve been with Hoff&Hoff enough to this point. So by hitting the wideshot we’re still passing on emotion – loneliness, emptiness, etc – but we’re doing it via the frame and not the face. Smart move.