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
Midnight in Paris: 13.3
Rise of the Planet of the Apes: 3.5
Super 8: 3.7
The King’s Speech: 6.7
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?
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
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…