Friday, April 5, 2013

Rhythm in movies

Rhythm creates many of the most memorable moments in cinema. A temporal pattern of gestures, movements, vocal inflections, and images can quicken the pulse of the scene and thicken your affective response. A good film can take your breath away through rhythmic intelligence.

Three examples: 

1) No one on planet Earth films an SUV pulling into a Miami nightclub better than Michael Mann. And no one finds the rhythmic essence in that event better than Mann does. Miami Vice begins with a undercover sting in a nightclub. The first few images establish beats through cutting and in the accompanying music. We are dropped into the swelter of a Miami nightclub and forced, as viewers, to gather our bearings. Sonny Crockett, a recognizable character, gives us something to hold on to, flirting with a bartender. The rhythm, thus far, is fairly straightforward.

But then something extraordinary happens. A white SUV pulls up in front of the nightclub. I have never been able to get over how exciting I find this very simple event to be within the rhythmic context of the opening sequence. It has very little to do with the narrative which will unfold: the SUV itself is ultimately a MacGuffin, for the story swerves a few minutes later when Crockett takes a phone call from an informant on the run. But when that SUV appears, it generates a discrete change in the tempo and melodic quality of the music on the soundtrack. In tandem with the music, as it pulls up front, it quietly overwhelms us. Within the film's world, it is an event that happens every night and every minute this club is open for business. But for Mann it is a vehicular gesture of exquisite beauty that changes the way we move through the space. Mann is fascinated with the way things move, especially the way this particular white vehicle moves (in tandem, as in a dance, with another identical vehicle that pulls up, after a beat, right behind it):

(NBC-Universal has blocked my Miami Vice video. Drat! Here is the rhythm in pictures):

Moments of rhythmic excitement like these accumulate as Miami Vice unfolds. These rhythms immerse us in the feeling of movement and life in Mann's world.

2) Many classical Hollywood films, particularly screwball comedies, involve courtship and woo. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers boiled this down to a kind of essence, but there is no formula to understanding what they achieved together. Every dance was different, with fresh kinds of loving rhythms. 

In The Gay Divorcee Rogers wants a divorce and to get one she has to set up a situation in which her husband will discover her cheating. Astaire uses this as an excuse to woo her, and eventually take the place of the hired lothario who will be playing the role of her illicit lover. As usual, Rogers resists Astaire's initial advances. In their first dance sequence, he tries to get her involved. She resists. She tries to leave the framing of the image, escaping into the off-screen space. He pulls her back.

At a certain point in this scene, though, Rogers decides she wants to dance with Astaire. It is hard to locate the exact moment this happens, because the the dance begins slowly. She looks down at their feet moving, suddenly, in unison. They then begin one of the most quietly extraordinary dances in movies. The entire tempo of the film, as established up to this point (even-tempo classic cutting) now surrenders its authority over rhythm to the intra-frame movement of these two glorious individuals:

Usually screwball characters will throw caution to the wind in a "madcap" series of events that ensure a fast-paced tempo. They are brilliant people and their rhythm is a manifestation of that quicksilver intelligence. In this scene, though, things actually slow down. Rogers' character is still not quite yet convinced Astaire is the man for her. The dance must convince her, and this takes time. The dance is a careful consideration of his movements, and an effort to see if his will match hers. This is one of the great thoughtful dances in movies.

3) My third example involves voice. Voices have fascinating rhythms: the changing speeds at which words are delivered; the ping-pong tempo of conversations; the change in pitch over time. My example involves the various rhythms of a laugh.

In Alice Adams, Katharine Hepburn is walking down the street with Fred MacMurray. She is nervous; her family is poor and she feels she isn't worthy of her suitor, even though (or perhaps because) she is in love with him. Every time MacMurray is on her character's mind, Hepburn expresses Alice's nervous energy in various ways. Later in the movie, she will nervously fiddle with a pillow; and in another scene, she will expend this energy by arranging flowers in a vase. (The vase scene itself is a master class in how voice and gesture can work together).

The lilt in Hepburn's voice is underappreciated, generally. Critics usually make remarks about her "Bryn Mawr drawl" but say very little about how she could manipulate it in various ways. But like other greats of the immediate post-silent period (Myrna Loy, for example), Hepburn always does extraordinary things with her vocal delivery in her films. The rhythms she could create are on fine display in the street scene with MacMurray, and remind us that rhythm in cinema does not always have to involve cutting or music. Alice expresses her nervousness in this scene through a pattern of nervous laughs that work in tandem with body gestures that attempt to convey a certain confidence, even as they betray the enormous crush she has on MacMurray:

The tempo of her speech is punctuated at various points by this laughter; and the melodic detail of each laugh involves us emotionally with her character. At certain moments the laugh is a high-pitched exclamation mark, nervously bracketing what she has just said. At other points, she rushes through her sentences breathlessly, as if quickly speaking her words to her beau might more quickly lead her to her goal (his love); the laughs which punctuate these quickly delivered lines are often more like extended breaths, as if her nervousness were being channeled into the effort to work up the courage for the next sentence. And sometimes she is so breathless that the laugh we are expecting at the end of certain sentences is not always there; she's literally out of breath to produce it. (Of course, she does muster up one more great, hilarious laugh at the end of the sequence.) The character Alice may be ineptly pattering her way through the uncertain tempo of a potentially embarrassing social interaction; but the actor's carefully detailed voice is assuredly in control of the rhythmic content of the scene.