In this piece for Dutch outlet De Filmkrant, video essay duo Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin weigh two similar scenes from a duo of wildly differing movies. Both in Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961) and in Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight (2014) one of the main characters is shown alone in a room, making a decision that will prompt an important narrative turn of events. Rossen and Allen use very different cinematic means to show their characters’ inner turmoil. Their directorial choices are the subject of this video essay (the second episode of an ongoing series titled The Thinking Machine in De Filmkrant).
Before offering up their own views, Martin and Alvarez play both scenes in their entirety, only giving us the narrative context that is necessary to understand the scenes’ function within each of the movies. It’s an inclusive and democratic move, giving the viewer the chance to digest (and formulate an opinion on) the scenes before they are confronted with the reading of the video essay makers. This may seem self-evident but in times of short online attention spans and of force-fed opinions it isn’t.
What follows is a beautiful example of one of the strengths of the video essay form. A detailed critical reading such as this, visually pitting two scenes next to each other (or one after or above the other, as is the case here) is an effective audiovisual strategy – even if you don’t agree with Alvarez’ and Martin’s opinions.
(This video essay may be more harsh than is warranted on the Magic in the Moonlight scene. It puts down Allen’s effort as a “flat, lazily undirected scene” that doesn’t make use of any cinematic elements. One might however rebut this by pointing to several directorial choices that serve to play up the prayerlike character of Firth’s monologue by using elements of mise-en-scène. There are the high back chairs and the bench behind Firth, reminiscent of church pews. The shot’s framing, perpendicular to the back wall, reinforces that impression of Firth at the front of a church. The scene is suffused in soft, golden light coming from the top left – a reference to similar lighting in religious paintings. The spacious quality of the sound, with Firth’s voice reverberating off the bare walls, reminds of a church setting. The tight framing with little head room, even when Firth directs his gaze upwards, can be interpreted as Allen’s refusal to even entertain the idea of the existence of a (literally, in this case) higher being. While this mise-en-scène does little to visualize Firth’s inner struggle, and while it is certainly true that Rossen’s direction and blocking of the silent George C. Scott is more imaginative and thought-through, there is more nuance in Allen’s effort than is given credit for).
The important lesson here however is the use of specific audiovisual techniques to make a point. The reframing of the Magic in the Moonlight scene, isolating Colin Firth and his performance, is a very effective little device. Fading out the image entirely and only keeping the sound makes Alvarez’ and Martin’s point even clearer. The end result is a truly audiovisual essay that takes its viewers seriously.