November 23, 2009

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MOTIF AND A PROP

I have been hesitating to write this blog because I can’t study the scene from Inglourious Basterds because it isn’t out on DVD yet. I may do things illegally on the downlow but I don’t do illegal downloads. But since this is just a blog, I can be sloppy, vague and maybe even wrong, right? Well, if I am, I promise you will still learn something.

IB is actually an example of a movie that succeeds (or fails) mostly on the scene level. This movie isn’t about the “structure”. If you are engaged by the several long mini-story scenes, then the movie works for you. If not, it probably doesn’t. So I want to look at one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie. It’s the one where Hans (the “Jew Hunter”) talks to Shosanna at the restaurant to vet her for the movie premiere to be held at her theater.

This scene has a lot of really high-end craft stuff that excites the film school geek and art-film lover in me. The way Tarantino plays with point-of-view is amazing.

FROM THE SCRIPT:

The empty chair next to the young Jewish girl is suddenly filled with the bottom half of a grey ss officer uniform


In the script, Tarantino has him sit down almost immediately, but by allowing him to stay standing up, we get a cool allusion to the opening scene. In the film Tarantino chooses to hold on the isolated CU of Shosanna while only Landa’s uniform can be seen behind her.

CU SHOSANNA


A bomb is dropped and detonated behind her eyes. But if she gives any indication of this, her war story ends here.

Although it’s a bit of a cheat, the moment is done so well that I forgive it. It’s not a gimmick or a stretch that she would recognize the voice of the man who executed her family. It echoes the opening scene but this time we get to see “it” from Shosanna’s POV. Earlier, she was offscreen and had to quietly and helplessly listen to Landa.

There is another little cheat.

FROM THE SCRIPT (his typos):

The fluency and poetic proficiency of the S.S. Jew hunters French, revels to the audience, that his feigning clumsiness at French with Monsieur Lapadite in the films first scene, was simply a interrogation technique.

Sadly, my four years of French in high school weren't enough for me to “get” this on my first viewing. It shows Tarantino’s considerable craft. It’s a clever demonstration of Landa’s character. Tarantino seemed to intend it to be for the audience and not for the characters themselves. But it’s possible that Landa's fluency could actually play in the scene. It would be an additional source of surprise and, possibly, fear for Shosanna in the scene.

Imagine this. She comments on his fluent French. He asks her to clarify why she would suspect that he speaks proficiently. And then she would have to cover by diverting attention from the fact that she has heard him speak before. Tarantino could have easily used this not just for the audience, for the characters.

INFORMAL DEFINITION ALERT

Actually, this question of whether his fluent French is recognized by her or just the audience, is a way to look at the definition and differences of motifs and props.

A motif is an image or idea something that has cumulative power from rhyming with a collection of other images or ideas like it. It may be the way that “eyes” and “seeing” are used in Silence of the Lambs or flawed eyes in Chinatown. It might even be the way oranges or the color orange shows up in The Godfather before most of the deaths. Motifs are there for the viewer or maybe even the reader. They aren’t there for the characters in the story. No character in The Godfather should be able to say “Orange! Boss, duck!” although maybe a henchman ordering Chinese takeout could ask, “Orange Duck, Boss?” (What? It could happen.)

A “prop” in the metaphysical sense of anything physically in the world of the story differs from a motif in that the characters are very much aware of it. It might be the expensive dress the wife has just bought with the husband’s credit card. It might be the murder weapon. It might be the bill at the restaurant over which two people argue. That item is part of the scene, story and the characters react to it.

Sometimes a motif and prop can overlap. Two characters with a chain link fence between them have to deal with the fence as a physical obstacle (reaching fingers through, being frustrated by inability to achieve physical contact) but the fence might also represent something bigger in the story: separation, being trapped, the nature of the relationship. And it might rhyme with other images of consriction. If I were watching a movie where three consecutive murders all happened in a red room, the appearance of another red room would have some effect on me. But if I were the character of the detective in that red room and I knew the pattern, I might also be suspicious or anxious. Why didn’t Brad Pitt in Se7en say, “If I don’t get to anger management class and FAST, I could be in big trouble”?

In the scene from IB, Tarantino has another really clever touch that walks this prop/motif line. While Landa is interrogating/talking to Shosanna, he orders milk and cream. I immediately got off on this in a film school geek sort of way. I get the irony that she was a dairy farmer and it is someone like her family that made or provided the milk for this cream. And the glass of milk harks back to the opening scene.

FROM THE SCRIPT:

COL LANDA: Yes, two strudels, one for myself and one for the Mademoiselle. A cup of Expresso, with a container of steamed milk, on the side. For the Mademoiselle, a glass of milk.

Considering Shosanna grew up on a dairy farm an the last time she was on a dairy farm, her strudel companion murdered her entire famiy, his ordering her milk is, to say the least….disconcerting.

We probably get it without the 4-line (in the script) cheat, but Tarantino is so effective in making all of these ideas and images resonate, I don’t mind it. It seems that the usage of the cream here is definitely as a motif, i.e., as a Christmas tree ornament for the audience only. There are several cuts to close-ups of the dairy in the scene, but (I believe on my 2 viewings) the characters don’t react to it at all. It’s only there as an extra layer of meaning, irony and stakes for us, the viewer and reader.

Just like his proficiency in French wasn’t recognized by Shosanna, but could have been, we can ask a similar question here. Could the cream be used as prop and not just a motif? I was careful not to ask the question with should. I am not judging (Myers-Briggs: I am at least 99% P, I swear); I don’t judge. I am about the process. And here the process is “what if?” What if Tarantino used this fact in the scene for the characters, not just the audience?

Could Shosanna look at the milk or cream and get flustered? Or would it distract her at a key point in the scene? Could she have to determine whether or not it’s a ploy by him? I am not saying that it takes over the scene but notice that it would be an organic reaction very much within the character, her background, her familiarity with dairy and its association with the milk-drinking nazi who gunned her family down.

I think because we have already seen Landa have the upper hand in an interrogation in the opening scene (where he asked for milk), then it might be redundant to do it again here. But at least be aware of what a powerful tool it would be to have him use her reaction to the cream as way to put pressure on her or call her bluff might seem a bit redundant.

There is a cool moment in Ronin when a guy knocks over a thermos to force another guy to catch it. This seemingly physically unassuming guy betrays lightning quick reflexes in grabbing it and we AND THE CHARACTER realize that this was a calculated trap to out him. The cream could be a way to Landa out Shosanna.

This sort of paradigmatically powerful moments is one of the most densely packed moments in recent film. It’s one of those moments where so much is going on that it’s almost mind boggling. It reminds me of two of my favorite moments in cinema: when Noah Cross asks "Mr. Gitts" in Chinatown if he is sleeping with his daughter and the opening of Midnight Cowboy. (Hey, I just got ideas for more blogs!)

I am surprised that some more of the elements of the scene didn’t rise up from the unconscious world of motifs to the conscious world of props, but IB is done and over. You now have to ask questions about your scenes to help them dig deeper AND be more cinematic? Are there images or items I can add to the scene to make it resonate more? Do these elements have thematic meaning? Do the characters respond to them? If not, could they? Do the characters’ responses help to define them? Is the characters’ interaction with the element/prop/motif the only way for the audience to understand this subtle point?

There is so many cool and advanced stuff – points of views, motifs, allusions - going on in the IB scene that make it exciting. Make sure you aim as high. How high? Check out the name of the blog.

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