ANATOMY OF A SCENE: Mise-en-scene in the Safdie Brother’s GOOD TIME

Good Time: A Luddite Robot Conversation - Luddite Robot
photo courtesy of Luddite Robot

The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time is an excellent film that is rich in the use of mise en scene. One example that I thought was very strong was the sequence right after the brothers Nick and Connie rob the bank and begin to make their getaway. This scene, through the use of sound, composition, and hair and makeup, grabs the audience’s attention and puts them in the middle of the intensity felt by the two main characters.

Immediately after dumping their clothes and masks, Nick and Connie emerge from an alley and wait for their getaway driver to pick them up. From the moment he enters the film in the first five minutes, Connie, played by Robert Pattinson, is in control. The scene begins with a close up, shot seemingly from across the street with a zoom lens, of Connie nervously talking to the driver on his cellphone. It is an extremely tight shot on his face and there is no mystery as to how he is feeling as we are able to see the anxiousness in his eyes. The scene then cuts to a wider shot of Nick wandering away before Connie calls him back. The close ups then continue as the driver shows up and the brothers get into the car.

The scene inside the car was very reminiscent of the opening scene of Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Similar to Bresson’s film where Fontaine is being transported to the prison in the back of a car, we see the main characters, Connie and Nick shot in close up sitting in the back seat of the car. The close ups once again are very tight so we can barely see the windows behind their faces. Even the driver is shown in close up with a shallow background so we don’t really know where he is going. Inside the car is where the sound becomes extremely important. As they ride away we hear police sirens in the background. Without seeing flashing lights we still know that the sirens are close because of the volume. When the sirens fade away, the brothers, and the audience get a moment of relief. Connie then smiles at Nick and asks if he wants to hold the bag of money. Feeling like it is a victory lap, Connie hands Nick the bag, which we see in close up. Immediately upon receiving the bag, Nick rests it on his lap as a high-pitched beep is heard. Cut to the driver in close up asking nervously, “What’s that sound?” We then cut back to Connie as he looks at the bag nervously. Once again the close up is very effective as the tight shot of Connie’s expression tells us that he knows what is about to happen.

The next shot is a close up of the bag combined with a long hissing noise. The bag slowly bursts into a cloud of pink dust. A cut to a tight close up of Nick’s face until the dust explodes and all we see is pink. The pink covers the screen creating a type of black out. We cannot see the brothers anymore. We can only hear their screams of panic as the car is engulfed in the dust. Then we cut outside of the car to a wide shot of the car spinning out of control and smashing into a parked car. The sequence inside the car ends with a close up through the windshield of the driver’s lifeless hands resting on the steering wheel covered in a pinkish hue. Although we only see the hands, the use of the pink dust covering everything lets us know why the car crashed.

I believe that close ups are essential to a film because not only do they give us a window into the thoughts and feelings of our characters but they can also create tension in space and setting. The Safdie brothers’ use of close ups in the car heightened the tension of the film not just by showing emotion but also creating a claustrophobic and trapped feeling for the characters once the pink dust exploded and all hell broke loose.

REDS (1981) A look back at Warren Beatty’s tour de force

Reds (1981)
image courtesy of IMDB.com

Just before the last credit crawls on the screen at the end of REDS, the voice of one of the “witnesses” says “…grand things are ahead, worth living and worth dying for…”.  The witness is referring to John “Jack” Reed, the main character of the film but one wonders if this could also refer to the writer, director, and star of the film as well.  If you know Warren Beatty’s career then you certainly know that he has been the master at convincing producers, cast members, crew and audiences that if they give him the chance “grand things are ahead.”  REDS, his passion project about American journalist John Reed and his involvement in the Communist Party in the United States as well as his intense coverage of the Russian Revolution of 1917, is a grand achievement of cinematic brilliance.  The film is not without its faults.  Some would say that Beatty bit off more than he could chew with such a large scale production or that he was maniacal and egotistical on set causing friction among everyone involved with the film.  Both of these are fair criticisms.  With a fresh eye I’m going to look deeper at the greatness and shortcomings of this epic and try to offer a humble critique.

THE PROGRESSIVE ERA and Mise en scene

The attention to detail in this film is nothing short of perfection.  This is not Beatty’s first time making a period piece as we know from BONNIE AND CLYDE where he marvelously brought to life  Depression Era Texas.  In REDS he goes a step further with Progressive Era New York.  The moment “Louise Bryant” played impeccably by Diane Keaton steps off a trolley car with the Flatiron building in the background I was lost in time.  Nothing of this film felt fake or portrayed.  Horses strolling down Greenwich Village streets.  Dark, candlelit basement bars where Jack Nicholson, dressed in suspenders drinking whiskey, plays the intense “Eugene O’Neill.”  Louise sitting on the beach reading a letter from Jack Reed, looking like the subject of an Impressionist painting rather than a Hollywood actress.  The entire film is a collection of theses shots that are as beautiful as they are authentic. While Beatty had the vision it is clear that the real credit goes to Vittorio Storaro.  Fresh off of his Academy Award win for Best Cinematography for APOCALYPSE NOW, Storaro would be awarded by the Academy again with his second of three wins for Cinematography for this film.

Outside of the New York city atmosphere was where Storaro really flexed his artistic muscles.  Early in the film when Jack and Louise vacation at the beach there are several breathtaking shots besides Louise’s letter reading scene.  Whether it is group gatherings on the beach or Jack and Louise strolling alone through the sand dunes, the filtered shots make the landscape and characters glow in the warm light.  Later in the film, when Louise is trekking across the Finnish tundra, we also see a long shot of the cold, snow covered landscape beaming with the reflection of the sunset.  Storaro counters these warm and cozy images with some beautifully darker images of those very same locations.  Whether it is Eugene O’Neill walking on the beach at dusk or the Finnish landscape after dark the frame is drenched in a cool blue texture matching the intensity of theses scenes.

THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION

The most interesting and effective scenes of the film are, not surprisingly, the sequence of Jack and Louise’s eyewitness account of the ‘Ten days That Shook The World.”  These two characters played magnificently by Keaton and Beatty(more so by Keaton) capture the beauty, intellect, danger, and romance of their collective experience in Russia.  While it was no surprise that their romance would rekindle when they arrived in Petrograd, it wasn’t sappy or overly dramatic.  In fact I believe that the portrayal of Louise as a witness to not only the drama of the Russian Revolution but also the transformation of Jack from American journalist to Communist revolutionary was riveting.  I don’t know why Beatty felt the need to add eyewitness testimonies sprinkled in between the narrative action but I really wish he hadn’t.  The wide eyed close-ups of Diane Keaton cut with shots of Beatty giving rousing speeches to crowds of Russian workers were so much more effective.  Everytime the film got some narrative momentum going it unfortunately was cut off by a “PBS-style” documentary commentary.

The signature shot of the film is Louise Bryant as she watches “Jack”, slightly raised above a crowd of people cheering as he makes a grand spectacle.  But really the entire film is us, the audience, cheering as we watch Warren Beatty, high up on the screen making a grand spectacle.