I was a fan of Oren Moverman’s debut feature The Messenger. It’s actually the film that’s also made me a fan of Ben Foster’s acting style – though he takes some questionable roles at times. His follow-up – based off of a James Ellroy novel that reportedly changed significantly in the edit – deals with some similar dark emotions but moves lead character Woody Harrelson from role of soldier to corrupt NYPD police officer David Brown.
Moverman isn’t your typical director. His coverage from scene to scene is…different. I’ve got some examples of framing and how they work below, but before that, a question: is the zoom making a comeback in the independent world?
Sean Durkin’s debut Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene was chock full of zooms (to my aggravation, in fact), and Moverman doesn’t shy away from the mechanism either. I remember being on-set in film school. A friend of mine was directing, and working with the cinematographer for the first time. My friend set up the shot and stated that we’d be zooming in on the protagonist. The DP’s response: “We don’t zoom.” Wow. Really? I mean, it’s a function for a reason. Shouldn’t the answer have been, “We don’t zoom without a purpose”? Altman would puke in his grave.
But seriously, I’ve noticed the zoom in more and more “serious” indie dramas. We’re not talking the referential action snap-zoom, or the POV, security camera zoom, or the now-annoying small reframe zooms ala The Office. We’re talking a straight-up, emotionally motivated zoom that replaces the dolly.
I wonder if it’s a reaction to “standard” coverage – a calling card of sorts. For sure, MMMM stuck in my mind for that reason. Whether I enjoyed the tactic or not may be a moot point. Like Durkin’s camera, Moverman’s roams and searches as it zooms. Like MMMM, Rampart follows an emotionally disturbed character, lost in a dark surrounding world. Unlike Durkin, Moverman covers the hell out of his scenes. There are a lot of shots (where Durkin was generally satisfied with about 3 shots per scene). Also unlike Durkin, Moverman’s zoom isn’t always slow and steady. It falters and halts, looks left and right, and sometimes doesn’t land where you think it might.
This all ties into a larger question: what makes an indie film indie these days? While technically it’s still studio affiliation or not, most people can agree that it’s become representative of the narrative (open-ended, vague goals), character (listen to modern, equally indie music – Moverman includes awesome songs by Grouper and Leonard Cohen in his soundtrack, wayward), or aesthetic (avoidance of your usual wide-shot, shot-reverse-shot strategy; read here: zoom).
Here’s a look at an early conversation between Dave and Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), who plays his criminal hook-up. In the middle of the scene, Moverman cuts to this shot:
That’s a high angle behind Hartshorn’s head, which blocks Dave’s face. Why? Hide Dave’s emotion, perhaps. Make us focus on the words rather than the reactions? To decapitate (emasculate) Dave?
He goes into some fairly standard coverage from there with these profile MCUs:
The remaining coverage isn’t too different. Moverman punches out to two wide-shots, which could be the buttons at the end of any conversation scene. Nothing too fancy here from a framing perspective, but what about that use of shadow and green light? The hot spot on the wall – much more eye catching than the characters. It feels like these guys are in some nightclub rather than a side booth at a bar. It all adds a sickly-rich feeling, which is consistent with an overall feel for the film.
Hartshorn and Dave have another meeting at a much more critical time. Moverman uses only three shots for this scene and its far more unorthodox.
The tone here has really changed. Though it’s the same location, much of that green is gone. Less sickly, but also not as rich/saturated. The scene is much darker in tone overall. And look at this framing:
It should be noted that both of the above shots also haltingly and incrementally zoom in and out. Both Hartshorn and Dave are afterthoughts in the frame, hidden by a curtain in the foreground as they peek through at the man across the table. They’re relegated to a small portion of the frame, but also are forced to ostensibly look through a slot like a jail cell.
The wide-shot looks like this:
What odd frame design! There’s that couple on the bottom right of frame. Hartshorn and Dave are center frame, but blocked by the foreground material. Despite being deep focus, the frame feels flat, probably because of the positioning of the aforementioned couple, who could be reflected in a mirror. We have to search to find our protagonists. It’s not so much that this is voyeuristic – it’s not really from a perspective where we’d be peering, but it’s rather just distant.
Moverman has more odd tricks up his sleeve in a conversation with Dave and Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi’s characters. Each of these frames below use a wide-angle lens, distorting the frame. And each is constantly panning:
The effect is a whirling, disorienting conversation, where Dave refuses to cooperate and it’s unclear who has the upper hand. That last frame is an in-joke: the three irrelevant characters are simply wall ornaments (they rhyme with the painting above them).