October 11th, 2011 / 2:16 am

Let’s watch a scene from “Drive” and analyze it

Three scenes, actually:

What do we have here?

Let’s start by calculating the Average Shot Length (ASL). There are 24 shots in roughly 2.5 minutes, yielding an ASL of 6.2. Of course that doesn’t give us the ASL for the entire film, but let’s ignore that for now. Keeping in mind that this figure might be wrong overall, let’s compare it to some recent Hollywood films (all from 2010–2011):

Battle: Los Angeles: 2.9
Hanna: 3.7
Midnight in Paris: 13.3
Rise of the Planet of the Apes: 3.5
Super 8: 3.7
The King’s Speech: 6.7
Transformers: 4.6
Tron: Legacy: 4.6
Your Highness: 3.0

(My source is the Cinemetrics database; I can’t vouch that those figures are individually accurate, but they look right to me.)

So, the shots in Drive aren’t as long as in a Woody Allen film (hardly shocking), but so far they do seem longer than in most other Hollywood movies. The closest comparison is The King’s Speech, which doesn’t surprise me; Drive is in many ways an art film, and art films tend to be cut more slowly. (But this is a clue that it’s not just a typical action film.)

What else can we say? Let’s look at the framing of those shots. In the first scene (up until 1:12 or so—and do note that we’re seeing only part of this, not the whole scene), most of the talking is done by Bryan Cranston, but look at how little we actually see his face. He delivers a lot of his lines while either out of the frame or with his back to the camera. Indeed, he’s a practically a silhouette in many of the shots. That’s a little unusual, don’t you think? Usually Hollywood actors are very well-lit, and we get clear close-ups of their faces as they speak.

Indeed, most conversations in Hollywood films follow the pattern of shot-reverse-shot, in which the actors are positioned to face one another, and we cut back and forth between close-ups of them while they speak. That isn’t the pattern here, not at all. We’re never quite sure when the director (Nicolas Winding Refn) is going to cut from Cranston to Mulligan, or even to Gosling, or whether all three of them will be in the same shot, or just two of them, or just one of them. The resulting footage isn’t confusing in the slightest, but it isn’t 100% predictable.

Oh, if only we had some other scene we could look at by way of contrast, some example of the standard way of shooting dialogue…

Oh! Wait! We do!

(You’ll have to click on that link to see the relevant scene from Inception; YouTube won’t let me embed it. But do go watch it; it’s short.)

Inception‘s ASL = 2.3, by the way. That’s of the entire film, mind you. In this clip, the ASL is 3.1.

Fun fact! There are actually more shots in that 1:26-long clip—28—than in the entire 2.5-long clip from Drive we just watched. (Are you seeing the difference?) (But to be fair, Christopher Nolan is addicted to cutting for no real reason. … Well, he has to, really, to keep viewers “interested” in his insanely boring shots.)

Turning back to our Drive example. Rather than focusing entirely on Cranston while he talks, the camera spends a lot of time looking at Carey Mulligan, then at Ryan Gosling, after he enters the shot, which he does from the background. And that part’s atypical, too: early on, in some of the early shots, while Cranston is speaking, we can shift our attention away from him and look instead at Gosling and the kid (Kaden Leos) in the shot’s background. The two of them are pretty tiny, to be sure, but they’re there.

(Obviously they’d be more noticeable if we were watching this in the movie theater. And in fact one reason why films these days tend to avoid more complicated compositions like this—compositions that employ actual depth of field—is because their directors know that more people are going to watch them on home video—or, hell, even on their cell phones, nowadays—than in the movie theater. And so they compose more for TVs and laptops (and now cell phones) than for the theater. Refn doing otherwise is yet another sign of this film’s otherness.)

(Needless to say, there’s no compositional depth in the Inception clip. Quick quiz: describe one of the extras in the backgrounds of those cafe shots. … But don’t worry if you can’t; you weren’t really supposed to notice them. They were just there for ambiance. Keep looking instead at the very pretty actors!)

I think, by the way, that the acting is all really excellent in this Drive clip. But that’s not surprising; acting is really fucking great in Hollywood these days. Nearly every film I see has incredible acting. (DiCaprio and Page, by way of contrast, are just reciting their lines while scrunching up their faces. Well, they have a lot of exposition to motor through! And notice how the ultra-close framing limits what they can do. They aren’t really free use their bodies, the way that Cranston and Mulligan and Gosling are—I mean, just look at Cranston’s physical performance! And how Mulligan begins the scene pretty nervous and withdrawn, her arms folded tightly, but then opens up—due to Gosling’s joking—by the end. Meanwhile, DiCaprio and Page are restricted to Leaning Forward and Looking Very Concerned.)

Moving on; Drive. The shots get closer in the second scene, when they get inside the car. Well, that’s understandable; they’re inside a car. But even then, it’s as though Refn is trying to keep the camera as far away as he can. The first two shots of Gosling and Mulligan are slightly from behind—again, is he trying to avoid shooting the beautiful faces of his beautiful Hollywood stars? And the three shots following that keep both Gosling and Mulligan in the same shot; he’s as interested, it would seem, in letting us observe the reaction of the listener as he is showing us who’s speaking. Or just looking at them while they don’t speak.

Also, we should note that, even before all of that, when we cut, we cut to the kid in the backseat; it’s momentarily startling, disorienting. And overall there’s not much talking, except for the following exchange:

Gosling: “Hey, do you wanna see something?
Mulligan: “Yeah.”
Gosling: “OK.”

There’s a real contrast, in fact, between all the talking that Cranston just did in the last scene, and how silent Mulligan and Gosling are now being. So it turns out that when you don’t insist that your characters talk all the fucking time (like in Inception, where no one ever shuts up for a single goddamn second), you can use dialogue to personify the characters. Some can talk a lot, while others are taciturn.

Now, it’s true that Cranston’s character gives us some exposition about the Driver in that above clip, but let’s pay closer attention to it for a second. What is he really telling us? Nothing all that important, really; he hired the Driver 5–6 years ago; the Driver’s a great mechanic; the Driver remains about as mysterious as before. Meanwhile, Cranston has told us a lot about himself—that he’s a cheapskate and not really the Driver’s friend—possibly without even meaning to. But we should also wonder—is he being serious? Or is he just making small talk? Is he the kind of guy who talks a lot because he’s lonely and socially awkward? (Most of the characters in Drive are lonely. And, interestingly, Cranston’s ultimate fate will result from his talking too much.)

He also tells Mulligan that the Driver is “a good guy.” Is that true? Does Cranston really know the Driver?

(Who was it, again, who was complaining that the characters in this film are shallow? They’re not shallow; they’re actually pretty psychologically complex. They just don’t explain their psychologies to you; the viewer has to observe them, and actively interpret the film. Which, of course, a lot of people can’t really do anymore, because Hollywood has trained them not to bother.)

After that brief exchange, the music comes in: “A Real Hero” by College. Let’s check out those lyrics:

back against the wall and ours
with the strength of a willing to cause
a pursuit some call outstanding
or emotionally complex
against a grain left to stop at claims
of all the thoughts your actions entertaining
and you
have proved
to be
a real human being
and a real hero

Huh. Well that’s…not entirely obvious, is it? (Is it Language Poetry?) I mean, the film’s overall form here is familiar—this sequence reminds me of something I’d see in an ’80s Hollywood film—but what do those lyrics mean? “Back against the wall”? “Against a grain”? “Emotionally complex”—that much seems appropriate. Anyone who’s seen this film knows of course that the sweetness of this gradual courtship (“a pursuit”?) is about to take a pretty severe right turn—and then another right turn, and then another…

That College song will of course return at a much later point in the film, where it’s meaning will be even more complicated…

OK, let’s leave it there for now. More later. Until then, we can chill out…


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  1. spencasaurus

      Because this movie is stylistically similar to, and has the same influences as, Inception. (…………………………………..?????????????????????????)

  2. A D Jameson

      I just picked Inception as a standard example; I think it makes a pretty good one. I mean, Nolan’s the most popular director in Hollywood right now, isn’t he? Most young filmmakers I talk to want to be him.

      But in any case, the point is that Nolan’s style is Pretty Standard (which it is). But feel free to suggest a different film; we can compare/contrast that!

      (Overall, I want to point out how Drive is different from most Hollywood films these days. I made that claim in the comments section of my last post on the film, and folks there disagreed with me. This is the beginning of my counterargument.)

  3. A D Jameson

      Related: see this post for my thoughts on how I myself would have directed that cafe scene (it’s about halfway down).

      And if you like it, You Can Be The First To Like That Post.

      Also maybe related: my defense of Nolan. (I’m schizo.)

  4. JW

      This clip shows the usual formula of nice girl falling for nice guy after finding out that he is really kind and sensitive rather than the substandard lunk that others treat him as being.  Along with the requisite synth-pop-falling-in-love soundtrack.

  5. Sks

      If most of the filmmaker friends you hang out with want to be Christopher Nolan you need to hang out with different filmmaker friends.

  6. deadgod

      That “lyric” sheet linked to is an interestingish mondegreen.  Here’s what I hear her singing:

      back against the wall – at odds
      with the strength of a willing to cause
      if the suits are called outstanding
      or emotion’ly complex
      against a grain of dystopic claims
      of the thought your actions entertain
      and you have proved
      to be
      a real human being and a real hero

      I’m pretty sure about “at odds”; it’s what her phonemes sound like and the phrase ‘at odds with’ is not difficult. 

      I’m less sure about “a willing to cause”–it sounds like she’s singing ‘a will and to cause’, but that’s (even) less sensible.  ‘militant’ is barely possible, but I’m pretty sure she’s singing a)  w and not m, and b)  the oo of “to”.  ‘militant’ would make nice sense . . .

      (To be sure, “poetry” is ‘the use of language to make its own sense’, but there’s no compelling reason here to suppose that hermeneutic elasticity is completely detached from everyday usage.)

      ’emotion be complex’ is possible – a sensible subjunctive – , but I’m pretty sure she sings l between the n and ee sounds.

      “dystopic” is secure.

      The song works well both with and against the driver; it underscores the way that the movie discloses his ‘virtue’ – his heroism – to be problematic–of course, a thoroughly conventional use of soundtrack to guide (in this case:  ambivalent) emotion and thought.

  7. deadgod

      As to the question marks in the blogicle: 

      a)  “back against the wall” means ‘fight or surrender are the only options’ (because – metaphorically – one’s “back” is pressed “against” an impenetrable object, a “wall”).  The metaphor has a built-in twist:  back is also an adverb that means ‘returned (to)’, as in ‘back to the future’, ‘back to the j-o-b’.  So a secondary sense of the phrase:  ‘returned to being forced to fight or surrender’. 

      Not being able to flee – and not being able to flee again–that’s the driver, and maybe everyone in the crime/noir world, and maybe everyone period.

      b)  “against a grain” is an indefinite version of the metaphor ‘against the grain’, which refers to the course of tissue – the “grain” – in wood.  ‘To go against the grain’ means ‘to act or think contrary to norms’.  To be “against a grain of dystopic claims” would be ‘to contradict or act against a dominant world view of pessimistic (or perhaps nihilistic) commitments or expectations’. 

      Here:  perhaps referring to the driver, who doesn’t turn to violence as a constant first option but who is at home with violence.  (In other words, the driver doesn’t privilege or ‘believe in’ money or violence or a hierarchy of viciousness, but he knows them; he is capable of them without them constituting him.)

  8. A D Jameson

      I strongly disagree. Hell, I grew up watching The Gummi Bears and I decided I wanted to write
      experimental fiction. I don’t judge people based on what media they
      consume. I’m not a snob.

      And I didn’t say “all my filmmaker friends.” But Nolan’s had a huge influence, for good or for ill, on younger folk.

  9. A D Jameson

      Repeat with me: “It’s not what the film’s about, it’s how it’s about it…”

  10. deadgod

      But X used rapid cutting […] to create impressionistic micro-montage effects.

      That’s closer to true about Nolan than that he uses rapid cutting to smother narrative vapidity in noisier sensation.

  11. deadgod

      Okay:  yes, let’s.

      The scene starts with a reverse-angle conversation between Cranston and Mulligan, but experimentally shot from hip level.

      Then the driver is called over and we see reverse-angle shots of Mulligan and the driver (mostly) as Cranston speaks, Mulligan and the driver on the right and left of center, respectively, with Cranston on the left and right in those shots, respectively.  Cranston’s speaking mouth is, indeed, experimentally (mostly) out of the shots.

      In all of these shots, Mulligan’s angelic face is well-lit when the camera is on her, as is the driver’s when he is on-camera and speaking.

      Then, after the driver agrees to drive Mulligan “home”, we see the kid’s face well-lit as he waits in the car’s back seat.  The kid’s well-lit face is to the left of center-frame; now we have madonna-and-child.  Cranston’s face is obscure so far, but the nuclear family’s faces have been doing the acting so far.

      Now:  quickie MTV-video time–Do you  wanna see something?  We see reverse-angle shots through the front-seat windows, a briefly lingering hood-ornament view of the canal ahead (like zooming across New Zealand–I mean, Middle Earth), backseat views of the front-seat couple (to include the kid; to make a ‘family’), and front views over the hood and views from the side of the canal–the music swells:  we’re jammin’. 

      –to the end of the canal and turn.  –the no-exit interlude ‘out of’ the bad world is over.

      Cranston has told us three things:  a)  Cranston is an obvious and penny-ante grifter, which is confirmed later by Brooks (in telling the driver how Cranston got his pelvis pulverized);

      b)  He realizes that his driver knows a chick–that’ll be something he foolishly tells his boss;

      and c)  Cranston’s jabbering tells us – by pointlessly telling Mulligan – that the driver doesn’t care about money–in case we don’t understand the driver’s lack of interest in a share of the heist and his (stupidly) driving away from the dough at the end of the bloodshed.

      Adam, this is a tightly patterned sequence, but why do you see this as something more “European” than glamorously ordinary “Hollywood” storytelling??

  12. deadgod

      There are two misstatements in this catalog:  a) the kid’s face, when we first see him in this sequence, is to the right of center, as were his angelic mother’s (Mulligan’s) well-lit-from-the-side shots – balanced by the left-of-center framing of the driver’s easily-visible face; and b) Cranston’s face is mostly obscure after the back-and-forth between them is altered by his introduction of the driver to their conversation, so that that part of the sequence goes from Cranston/Mulligan to driver/Mulligan ‘over’ Cranston (the pairings l/r of center-frame, respectively).

  13. MJ

      Real talk.

  14. Leapsloth14

      I like the way you talk about film.

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