Desegregating the Two Shot
A formalistic analysis is a tried and tested staple of film studies. Looking at the formal elements of a film and how the makers deployed those elements in strategic and meaningful patterns is still relevant, and the many video essay channels that try their hand at it are proof of that. But like any form of film analysis it will only get you so far. Every film theory and every analytical approach has its strengths and limitations: each has its own vantage point that may be able to provide a different insight into the same audiovisual study material.
In his video essay Desegregating the Two Shot: The Use of the Frame in The Defiant Ones (1958), film historian Henry Rownd takes the formalistic approach. He focuses on framing (and to a lesser degree on camera movement and the blocking of characters) to offer up a new reading of Stanley Kramer’s film. The Defiant Ones is often frowned upon for the way it wears its politics and righteousness on its sleeve. It’s the prototypical “message movie”, and a crude one at that. But Rownd’s close reading discovers a big divide between the film’s thematic heavy-handedness and its much more subtle use of the formal parameters.
In particular, Rownd singles out the two shot for examination. He lays bare a pattern in its use that must have been the result of thoughtful planning. Motivated and strategically placed camera movements, and the use of similar blocking techniques at important points in the narrative, further strengthen this insight. With these formal patterns “the film invites us to consider its treatment of race beyond the narrative insistence on interpersonal understanding,” as Henry Rownd writes in his author’s statement in MOVIE: A Journal of Film Criticism. That the movie’s aesthetics can be understood as a more complex comment on racial relationships (than the one contained in its obvious plot) is a powerful point that is well made in his video essay.