For some reason I put off watching The Band’s Visit for awhile. Bad move. This movie is awesome. Some brief plot, and then lots to talk about in terms of composition.
A band of Egyptian police/musicians arrive in Israel to play at a cultural center. An innocent misunderstanding lands them in the wrong town…if you can call it that. The only real building is a small diner run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) where the unemployed Itzik (Rubi Moskowitz) and the lovelorn and shy Papi (Shlomi Avraham) spend their days. Tawfiq (Sasson Gabai) is the taciturn, hard-edged band leader, Haled (Saled Bakri) the young, lascivious lover of Chet Baker (when convenient with women…sort of) and Simon (Khalifa Natour) is Tawfiq’s faithful right-hand man, perpetually sad, and working on the ending of his own concerto.
The film is basically these characters – along with a few side characters – over the course of one night in the dust town.
So let’s talk some framing. I recently read a David Bordwell blog-entry where he talks about a question I’ve asked my classes before: can a frame be inherently funny? That is, without a true joke – slapstick, verbose, or otherwise – can camera positioning be funny. Bordwell answers yes and cites some shots from Shaun of the Dead. In my class I’ve used a great moment (among many others) from American Movie.
The Band’s Visit is another that does this quite well. Reminiscent of Roy Andersson’s deadpan humor, the beginning of the film, and much of it thereafter, though it subtly evolves alongside the character-relations, is mostly filmed in flat wide-shots. Two of the early “frame-jokes”:
First shot: a white van in center frame and wide-shot. It’s at a gas station. Silence. The driver gets out of the van, walks slowly to the back, pulls out what looks like a yellow medicine ball, gets back in the driver’s seat, throws the ball in the back, and drives off. Revealing, behind the van, the entire band – 9 members – all in their powder-blue uniforms, standing in a straight line and facing the camera.
There’s no “joke” here, but the framing becomes funny for numerous reasons: first, the van hid the characters and the absurdity inherent in their standing patiently behind it the entire duration of the rather-long shot is comical. Second, the slowness of it all – deliberateness is a better word – gives a sense of the slow-moving humor we’re about to see. Third, the flatness of things – with the band facing camera as if in expectation – is funny in its unexpectedness.
Director Kolirin also finds jokes in sound. Consider the first time all of the men move at once. A slow rumble starts and builds to a crescendo. It’s the combined sound of their rolling suitcase wheels. It fills the empty soundtrack in a hilariously loud way, replaces what will eventually be their actual music for the time-being, and is generally awkward as plastic wheels rumble over paving not meant for them.
Second: One of the best frame-jokes comes shortly after this first one. All of the band members exit the moving walkway at the airport to a man asking if he can take their photo. They all line up in a row, again facing camera. Their silence is still the joke. Their blue uniforms contribute. Silent glances at one-another establish character (button your coat) and make it all seem more ridiculous. But the real joke comes at the end. The offscreen sound of wheels squeaking eventually reveals itself to be a janitor slowly pushing his trashcan all the way across the wide-shot, past each individual band member. Kolirin strategically places another trashcan – the janitor’s destination – hugging frame-right. The janitor stops. Blocks Tawfiq. Snap. The photo is taken. No freeze frame to show the result. We get it. It’s beautifully orchestrated.
The key here is that these shots would not be funny were they not framed as such. The flast composition in wide-shot makes the uncomfortable crossing by these side characters (van driver and janitor) the joke. Their slow progress, the painfully diegetic sounds they produce, their positioning vis-a-vis the band members, all make the frame itself the joke.
The Band’s Visit is a great example of what a director can do. Tawfiq and Dina’s beautiful interaction (and complicated later on, when Haled becomes involved) comes to a poignant head when he relates the experience of conducting an orchestra to her. He cannot say it. Instead, he conducts an imaginary group of musicians. This scene is fine by itself. Nothing special, but touching. It really works, however, because of Kolirin’s direction at the end scene. The band reaches their destination. They are set to play. Tawfiq readies himself to conduct. Kolirin cuts from Tawfiq’s close-up, to a detail shot of his hand as it clenches at his side, raises dramatically and insists on the music’s beginning. The audience immediately relates this hand, given our previous context, not only to his love of music, but also to his conversation with Dina, which covered more personal aspects of his character, namely his wife and son. Kolirin turns the shot into a symbol that stretches back across the film, and in fact across the character’s unseen history. It’s perfect stuff.