Tag Archive for suspense

The Sound of Suspense is Sometimes Silence

Yesterday, we took a good look at how Alfred Hitchcock refined the art of cinematic scoring to create suspense in unexpected ways. Today, we’re looking at the complete opposite: silence.

Most films have some kind of scoring. Even if it’s just an opening or closing theme, music is used to establish some kind of frame of reference for the viewer. Young Adult uses a 90s rock song, complete with tape deck and rewind sound effects, to show how the protagonist is trapped in the past. Anna Karenina has an elaborate score timed perfectly with the onscreen action to create a sense of whimsy and melodrama in the story. Original, adapted, or licensed, the origin of the music is not as important as the emotional or contextual reaction to the song.

But what happens when a film doesn’t use any incidental music or scoring at all? In the case of found footage horror and low budget thrillers, it’s a regular occurrence. Having the characters film the action as part of the film cuts the cost of licensing music or hiring a composer/arranger. There wouldn’t be scoring in real life, so why would music suddenly appear in the background in a suspenseful film?

suspensesilencethestrangers The Sound of Suspense is Sometimes SilenceThe Strangers is one of the better modern examples of this. The 2008 horror film became a surprise hit because of the unrelenting suspense onscreen. First time writer/director Bryan Bertino took the Hitchcock “bomb under the table” concept to the extreme. The unhappy couple vacationing in the remote cabin have no idea what is going to happen for minutes at a time as we, the audience, see the blood-thirsty strangers circle the house, reach for the phones, and set up their traps. It’s amazing the amount of suspense Bertino got out of one scene where the woman is standing in the hallway completely oblivious to the masked stranger staring right at her through the window for well over a minute.

More surprising is how The Strangers uses no traditional scoring to advance the mood. There are plenty of opportunities for wistful ballads and fast-paced chase motifs. The camera lingers on a very subdued moment of despair–the woman takes off the ring her boyfriend tried to propose with and sits down at the kitchen table–with no real scoring. A little music here and there could have gilded the lily and really tightened the film up. As it stands, The Strangers was as shocking and effective as it was in theaters because there was nothing in the film to release you from the suspense.

Funny Games, the original and the remake, used the same concept to much better effect. The films establish themselves as otherworldly–first too picturesque and perfect, then too artificial and gameshow-like–so the normal expectations of life and cinema no longer apply. By the time all hell breaks loose and the bad guys force the upper hand, you don’t miss the music. You’re too busy trying to think ahead of the characters onscreen to anticipate the end of the film.

The lack of music in a suspenseful film forces the viewer to pay attention to the screen. It means the screenplay and acting have to be tighter than usual because no amount of edits and special effects will distract from such intense scrutiny of characters and story. It also means that you can get your message across with subtlety and suggestion rather than over the top action set pieces.

suspensesilencethelastexorcism The Sound of Suspense is Sometimes SilenceThe found footage sub-genre really uses this to great effect. From the unfocused lens of The Blair Witch Project to the social commentary and character study of Chronicle, the elimination of incidental scoring in this kind of film lets the story breathe. Sure, you have misfires like Cloverfield where the story doesn’t evolve enough to maintain interest. But you also have shocking successes like The Last Exorcism, where the silence onscreen allows the director and editor to dictate when you get to breathe again.

If you want to film a suspense story grounded in real lives rather than over the top spectacle, it’s worth exploring a score-less film. An action-driven story needs the music to guide the mind to the narrative or emotional takeaway of a scene. A dialogue-driven suspense story or even a slice of life gone wrong concept doesn’t necessarily need the extra cross-hairs to align the viewer with the director’s vision.

Thoughts on suspense film scoring or the lack thereof? Share them below.

Hitchcock and the Sound of Suspense

Among his many strengths, Alfred Hitchcock had a good ear for film scoring. He didn’t compose his own music but he knew exactly what he wanted. Hitchcock showcased this attitude really well in a scene where he debated with his wife whether or not Psycho needed music cues during the shower scene. We all know how that turned out.

There are two modes of Hitchcock film scoring and both serve as potential models of film scoring as a source of suspense. The first is the introduction of a pervasive theme that haunts the mind as the story explores unexpected territory. The second is a hard set of stingers to amp up reaction and focus during key moments of visual storytelling.

The most iconic of the first style is the theme from Vertigo. Bernard Herrmann introduces a maddeningly cyclical motif that matches the literal highs and lows of vertigo the disorder. The arpeggio switches between the violins/clarinets and the bells as the horn section overpowers the disorienting pattern with dissonant chords. The theme evolves beyond the literal cycle of the strings over the course of the film. Yet the opening prelude forces the association between the balance of the orchestra and the sensation of vertigo, building suspense in unexpected places.

By the time the protagonist is forced to climb up the bell tower, the literal representation of vertigo is gone, replaced with fast, moody scoring. The association remains because of the chord progression and orchestration.

Compare that to the stinger school of suspense. The film will have limited or ambient scoring until a key scene is in progress. Then it switches to loud, shocking blasts of sound that force you to focus. It’s the film screaming, “Pay attention!” The sudden sharpness of the direction creates suspense. Now you don’t know when the shock will come back but the knowledge of what it could be sets you on edge.

Psycho is the clearest example of this. Bernard Herrmann scored Psycho at Hitchcock’s insistence and used a different technique entirely. The opening theme–a feverish and syncopated blend of strings and low reed instruments–is used intact throughout the film. It doesn’t draw attention to itself because of the lack of clear melody. There are four bars of an actual theme played only twice and it’s not nearly as impactful as the violent bowing of the strings. All the rest is ambiance until the shower scene.

The shower scene does not play on previously established music until the final moments of bass and bassoon. The screech of the violins, violas, and cellos comes from bowing below the bridge where the strings are at their highest tension. The shifting pitch comes from which pair of strings is being pulled on which instruments. The lowest screeches at the end are on the viola and cello.

There is nothing inherently cinematic or suspenseful in that composition. There’s a rhythmic quality that establishes a fast pulse and the high pitch disorients the viewer after so much low-key exposition. It’s bad enough that Hitchcock shocked the world by killing off his signature Blonde a third of the way into the film; he rubbed it in our noses by SCREAMING out the importance of the turn with film scoring.

These aren’t the only Hitchcock films to employ these same techniques. Miklos Rozsa’s Academy Award winning score to Spellbound works the same way as Vertigo, with the haunting beauty of the theremin brought back in various forms to disorient the viewer. Most of the score is lush orchestral arrangements, but those moments of theremin send a tingle up the spine like nothing else. Sala and Remi Gassmann pushed the shock factor of Psycho to new levels with Hitchcock’s vision of a scoreless film in The Birds. Everything was done on one of the earliest synthesizers including the bird calls and the music only appeared in the big attack scenes.

As I said yesterday, a huge draw for me to do the Spring Into Suspense theme for April is the chance to deconstruct how suspense works in various media. I have another post on suspense film scoring planned that looks at the third most prevalent style in cinematic history. Hitchcock was hesitant to pull the trigger on that scoreless film in The Birds but many directors since have gleefully taken on the challenge. Sometimes, the only thing more tense and foreboding than a well-planned music cue is well-crafted silence.

Thoughts on Hitchcock’s suspense scores? Sound off below.

Guts by Chuck Palahniuk and Non-Linear Suspense

When I decided to dedicate April to suspense, I wanted to cover a variety of approaches in a variety of media. Hitchcock suspense is the most prevalent and recognizable at this point. It’s the style that I refer to in reviews with the “we know the bomb is under the table but the characters don’t” imagery. The disconnect between audience and the character is a strong, time-tested method of building suspense.

gutsbychuckpalahniukhaunted Guts by Chuck Palahniuk and Non Linear SuspenseThe opposite can be just as effective. Chuck Palahniuk uses it to great effect in his short story “Guts” from the portmanteau novel Haunted. The novel, a spin on the Amicus-horror film anthology style, has a great set of short stories surrounded by a bizarre framing device. The personal stories of the various participants are more engaging than the story of the artist commune that connects them all, which is the conceit of the novel.

“Guts” is the crown jewel in the collection. This is the story that will live in infamy for causing people to pass out at bookstore appearances across the country. It is a strange, unsettling, and ultimately graphic tale of sexual exploration gone wrong. It’s a perfect storm of hot-button issues to create publicity that could easily overshadow the story itself if it wasn’t so well-written.

The unnamed narrator recounts a series of really stupid decisions by young people who are trying to eek out a bit more pleasure in their lives. Whether it be by carrot, by towel, or by candlestick, the young men in the story are put in great peril and humiliated for exploring their sexual urges in unconventional ways. The little stories are broken up with brief looks at language, society, and the backdooring of sexual culture.

Each little vignette in “Guts” gets a little more extreme than the next. The payoffs are bigger each time–in humor, sadness, anger, or pain. Then it begins to dawn on you that the next story doesn’t end after two or three paragraphs. The next story is the last story and it’s longer than all the other stories combined.

From what you learned already in the story, the narrator is going to face consequences for trying to pleasure himself with the aid of a pool. He even warns you right at the start that holding his breath will be his downfall.


Take in as much air as you can.

This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.

gutsbychuckpalahniuk Guts by Chuck Palahniuk and Non Linear SuspenseThe obtuse warning is quickly forgotten with all the asides and near-rambling that happens when the narrator diagnoses the world’s problems. Once the narrator breaks the surface of the water for the first time, you know something bad will happen. Then that bad thing gets worse with each paragraph until the result is almost unbearable. The story ends and you can breathe again but the fresh air does not erase the panic from the page.

Chuck Palahniuk doesn’t exactly use misdirection to make “Guts” work. True, the actually story isn’t revealed right away but the circumstances do not change. Young men are punished by fate for doing stupid things for pleasure. The only shift leading into the narrator’s own story is the level of detail. The stories are dirty little anecdotes and bar facts until the consequences hit home for the narrator.

In Palahniuk’s story, the bomb has already gone off. We’re left with a narrator trying to pick up the pieces and let you know exactly what the explosion was like. The story is so personal and traumatic that he keeps deflecting–to other people and other topics, anything to delay the recollection of his fate. We don’t know what’s going to happen and how far the story will go and that creates suspense. It’s not that we know the bomb is under the table but the characters don’t; it’s the character knows when the bomb went off but he doesn’t really want to tell you.

You can read “Guts” at Chuck Palahniuk’s site.

Thoughts on “Guts?” Share them below.

Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates: Twisting Fate

Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates might be the most perfect horror novel ever written. It is a masterpiece of suspense that never tries to misdirect you. What you read is what you get and that’s what’s so terrifying about it.

Oates uses the Poe device of the self-proclaimed unreliable narrator to create a piece of Hitchcock-style suspense. We know the bomb is underneath the table and the narrator will not escape, but he doesn’t know that. He really believes his plans are not only foolproof but logical and just.

Quentin P. is a disturbed young man. He is already a registered sex offender for his previous attempts at sexual conquest. Quentin knows he likes teenage boys and will do anything within his power to create a perfect sex slave. He has a master plan that can’t possibly go wrong more than one time, right?

zombiebyjoycecaroloates Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates: Twisting FateThe genius of Zombie is Oates’ refusal to pull any punches. You keep reading this novel because you cannot believe that Quentin will go through with his plan. Then he comes up short and starts the exact same plan again. Zombie is relentless in its pursuit of truth in this Dahmer-inspired tale. Quentin will pursue his obsession at any cost and for any small reward he can get out of it.

Zombie is a short novel and a quick read at that. There is not a lot of text on any page to reflect the mental capacity of Quentin. Name, locations, and entire paragraphs are redacted as if you’re reading Quentin’s diary after the evidence at the trial is released in the public records. The sentences are short, blunt, and succinctly descriptive. It only takes so many words to describe what he has in mind for his young victims and yet he provides increasingly terrifying variations on the same actions.

The suspense comes from knowing there is no way Quentin’s plan can succeed. That is proven early on in the novel. What makes Zombie a true masterpiece of suspense is Oates’ choice to double down on the insanity. Quentin’s failure leads to a second attempt to do the exact same thing to his next victim with only a minor change. Every misstep is not so much corrected as it is repeated.

If you trip on the third step that’s just a little higher than it should be every time you go up the staircase, it doesn’t make a substantive difference if you lead with your left foot or your right foot. In Quentin’s twisted mind, that third step will magically not be a problem because, this time, he’ll count to three before stepping on it; then he’ll count to four or change his socks for the fourth attempt.

It takes a brilliant mind to create such a believably disturbing yet compelling narrator. Joyce Carol Oates finds a sense of brevity in Zombie that’s as profound as her novels several times its length. The suspense generated by a cycle of self-destructive choices that only change in superficial ways make the novel an experience you can’t just shake off.

Thoughts on Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates? Share them below.

Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

I’ve played through the Xbox 360 game Alan Wake twice now and really enjoy it. It’s super-moody with a lot of noir notes and an emphasis on storytelling. It builds great suspense in the first hour of play and only escalates from there with an unpredictable story. Yet, in an attempt to provide a psychological action thriller rather than a psychological thriller, developer Remedy tipped their hat toward third person shooter tactics that don’t evolve nearly to support the story.

Alan Wake is a well-known writer with a bad case of writer’s block. He goes on vacation with his wife to try to restart his creative juices but winds up plagued by dangerous nightmares instead. Possible stories he could be writing come to life at night. His only source of protection is light, a scarce resource in the middle of the woods.

alanwakelight Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

See the lights? Good luck getting there

The light conceit is excellent. It’s evocative of the writing process itself. I couldn’t help but recite Emily Dickinson’s “Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant” the first time the game went into the nightmare world.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

Light is the source of inspiration for writers. It is the lens that focuses your perspective of the world. It’s everything you see and care about in the subject you’re covering. You put your own spin on what you want the audience to see but the spin must reflect reality. If it doesn’t, the audience feels betrayed and no long buys your conceit.

alanwakecover Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

Alan Wake: A Psychological Action Thriller

Alan Wake uses light as a savior and a weapon. A lone street light on a winding path can be the difference between life and death in the middle of the night. A found flashlight, however, becomes a weapon of mass destruction. Point it at your enemy and he loses his ability to hurt you. Wake’s greatest weapon is overexposing his opponent so that no mystery or fear remains.

The trickiest aspect of the exposition is Wake’s use of light. Part of the mystery in the dark is eliminated each time he fights, chipping away at the threat the night poses. The exploration during the day is, by comparison, beautiful but nonthreatening. If you’re walking down a dark hallway, something will confront you; if you’re walking in a lit room, nothing will happen.

This creates an interesting situation in Alan Wake. The early scenes in the dark build a really palpable sense of suspense. The first nightmare has a sequence inside a cabin that almost made me pause the game and walk away. I was trapped, unable to do anything while the threat of a vengeful hitchhiker was held back by an old wooden door. I knew what would happen if the villain reached me, but I was powerless to save myself until the game provided a way out.

alanwakemoregunplay Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

More=harder in Alan Wake

Yet as the game progresses, the tricks become less effective. The technique of building suspense is a constant and repeating series of cinematic tricks that would work great in a two hour film. Yet, in an eight hour or longer video game, the tricks become predictable. The story has enough twists and turns to hold your interest. It is the in the moment gameplay that poses the greater problem. Even if you can’t figure out where the story is going, you can sense when the story is going to change or a new challenge is going to pop up.

Alan Wake doesn’t help itself with the difficulty curve. The third-person shooter aspect of flashlight plus other weapon is harder to control than necessary. Even if you assume an intentional device of a writer not being a crack shot right off the bat, there’s a lack of responsiveness in the firearms and a disorienting aiming system that adds more challenge than the actual narrative-driven changes of the story. The gameplay does not always reflect the style of storytelling. The suspense signals during in-game action sequences wouldn’t be as distracting or predictable if the game mechanics were challenging, not distracting, in their own right.

alanwakeaction Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

More exploration, less run and gun would be great

This is not to downplay the quality of Alan Wake. It is a very engaging suspense game for people who want horror to go beyond zombies or vampires. The control/pacing flaws are only a distraction because the rest of the experience is so strong. Wake’s story, in and out of the nightmare world, is great. The characters are interesting and the environmental conceit strong.

I just have to wonder if the game wouldn’t have benefited from a less action-oriented approach. Without the sameness of the fights drawing extra focus to the structure of the game, the darker areas could have focused more on surviving the story rather than fighting the game itself.

Thoughts on Alan Wake? Share them below.

Stoker Review (Film, 2013)

Stoker is the most beautiful horror film I’ve seen since Three…Extremes (2004/2005 US). Coincidentally, it’s also the first Chan-wook Park film I’ve seen in theaters since Three…Extremes. Park knows how he wants to tell a story and he is not afraid to move at a crawl to get there.

Park’s oeuvre is a master class in exploring the psychology of revenge on film. Oldboy, his most well-known film, tells the story of a man imprisoned in a windowless room for years before being set free without fanfare to take revenge. His Three…Extremes segment involves a film producer fighting a losing battle against the clock to figure out who the madman is that is brutally torturing his wife for revenge. Even Thirst, a film about a priest who is tragically transformed into a vampire, deals with revenge in a very shocking way.

stokerreview Stoker Review (Film, 2013)

A young woman chooses her own life lessons

Stoker might be Chan-wook Park’s revenge masterpiece. India Stoker is grieving the shocking and unexplained death of her father, Richard, when her long-lost Uncle Charlie comes to stay with her and her mother for a few days. India is different. She has enhanced sensory perception, letting her hear distant sounds, see minuscule details, and feel everything so strongly she can’t stand human contact. As India rejects her uncle’s attempts to befriend her by any means necessary, she witnesses mysterious disappearances in the household. Slowly, she begins a transformation into a strong person capable of fighting her own battles.

Screenwriter Wentworth Miller and contributing writer Erin Cressida Wilson play on an old Edgar Allan Poe trick to set the audience on edge. Poe’s greatest strength was convincing the reader that the narrator he identified as untrustworthy in the first paragraph is a realistic arbiter of events. India Stoker shares the same gift as the protagonist in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” giving her the ability to see and hear things far better than anyone else. These things have no real bearing on her life. She concocts stranger and stranger explanations for what’s happening with Uncle Charlie that are refuted time and again by her mother. Nothing will convince India except her exceptional sensory perception. Since, with one exception, we only have India’s take on the story, we have to rely on a very unreliable narrator to slowly put the pieces together in a satisfactory way.

stokerinvestigation Stoker Review (Film, 2013)

India watches her own life from the outside

India’s perception of reality is off in a very clear way. The young woman is so afraid of human contact that she observes everything she obsesses over as an outsider. She walks outside and stands a good distance away from a door or window to eavesdrop or spy on her mother and uncle. She has quiet, intimate conversations no closer than four feet away and freezes her body with an unnerving stoicism. No one can talk to her directly to clear up what’s happening because she refuses to open up with her concerns. This includes her anger at the mysterious death of her father that slowly becomes a thirst for revenge. The refusal to actually ask questions does not stop India from investigating on her own without actually interacting with witnesses, suspects, or evidence.

Her precious hearing and exceptional eyesight are amplified to an unnerving level onscreen. Chan-wook Park loves a good cinematic conceit to establish his alternate realities and Stoker is no exception. The sound design is loud and unexpected. The cracking of a hard-boiled egg on the kitchen table during a wake is louder than the voices in the next room. The gentle whisper of India’s name floating in the wind from over a hundred yards away creates a distracting cacophony of echoes at the funeral. The metronome on the piano is so loud to her that its steady click can be heard clearly upstairs, on the opposite side of the house, with the doors closed, in a fabric-covered room.

stokertexture Stoker Review (Film, 2013)

India’s exceptional sight is illustrated through heavy contrasting textures

The cinematography is even more unnerving. The opening credits are a visual feast you won’t soon forget. As India describes her life and her abilities, the cameras freezes on minute details–a solitary hair, the individual seeds in a beautiful red and white flower, the stitches on the hem of her skirt–that any other film would ignore. In art class, while her fellow students sketch a still-life of a staged table, India draws a macro-photographic view of the art deco pattern inside the rim of a tall, slim vase. India’s life is all about observing details at an alarming level and Stoker does not let you escape her reality.

Park allows this level of detail to build an otherworldly sense of suspense before India’s abilities have any real impact on the story. When the technique begins to intersect with the plot in a meaningful way, the results are terrifying. A piano duet turns into a moment as tense as a Hitchcock chase scene on a train. The ringing of a cellphone becomes a harbinger of doom and a single drop of blood from a minor injury is more startling than most of the death and destruction chronicled in the film.

Stoker is a modern Gothic suspense story brought to life in beautiful detail on the big screen. Then, after the first act, it shifts into full blown horror and never backs down. It is a slow film, crawling to its conclusion in a flurry of sound and visual wizardry that makes the short walk from the school bus to the front door a moment of unbridled terror.

Rating: 10/10

Thoughts on Stoker? Share them below. And for those keeping score, that make two 2013 horror releases (with Resolution) that are likely to make the cut in my Best Films of 2013 list. It’s March. Just saying.

Hitchcock Review (Film, 2012)

Imagine, if you will, the story of a director told in the style of the director’s films. Hitchcock takes a big stab at doing just that. John J. McLaughlin adapts Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book about the making of Psycho into an old-fashioned Hitchcock suspense film.

hitchcock Hitchcock Review (Film, 2012)

All the players are there. You have the dark, sarcastic leading man with a strong wit and great intelligence in Hitchcock himself. You have the level-headed female lead with the gorgeous figure in his wife, Alma Reville–a Hitchcock blonde with fading red hair. You have the male challenger in novelist turned screenwriter Whitfield Cook, the sage young woman reflecting everything the leading man wants to hear in Janet Leigh, and the antagonist who sets the story in motion in Hitchcock’s obsession with Ed Gein.

hitchcockjanetleigh Hitchcock Review (Film, 2012)The problem is that director Sacha Gervasi just doesn’t take it far enough to work. The opening sequence shows Ed Gein kill his brother with a shovel as Alfred Hitchcock addresses the audience ala Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The attack looks like the violence in a Hitchcock film, but lacks the shock or edge of his deft editing. It’s almost like every step is taken to pull back the concept so as to not alienate the audience.

It’s a big mistake. Hitchcock soars when mistrust gives way to full blown paranoia and obsession. A big throughline for the film is that Hitch and Alma both suspect that their spouse is cheating on them with their new working companions. Alma is convinced that Hitch is once again pursuing his fantasy Blonde and Hitch fears his wife is chasing after the novelist she’s pushing onto Hitch. With the undulating string cues of Danny Elfman’s score and a whole lot of lingering shots of worried looks and evidence discovery, genuine Hitchcock suspense begins to build. This isn’t the tepid suggestion of a modern suspense film; this is full blown “build suspense by showing the audience that the bomb is under the table but the cast doesn’t know” Hitchcock suspense.

hitchcockmirren Hitchcock Review (Film, 2012)It’s a shame that the film pulls so many punches as the actors are clearly in on the main gag. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren trade acidic barbs at each for 98 while playing into the exaggerated melodrama of early Hitchcock films. Mirren, especially, sells the Hitchcock Blonde archetype, acting the crap out of a role that starts as eye candy and moves into something much deeper and psychological.

Scarlett Johannsson plays Janet Leigh as the unexpected equal of Hitchcock. You might want her to go over the top and be foolish while pursuing the doomed leading lady of Psycho, but Johannson takes a much more rewarding, level-headed approach to the character. This is a bright woman who knows all about Hitchcock’s reputation and refuses to play into his tricks. She’s smart enough to read his every move in real life and on the sound stage before he gets a chance to throw it in her face.

Hitchcock has all the pieces in place to be a stunning piece of meta-suspense. The devices set up to turn Hitch’s own life into a Hitchcock film are strong. The volume is just turned down too much. You can see where the concept could have been great at one point. What shows up onscreen is watered down into a tepid brew that won’t leave much of an impression at all.

Rating: 5/10

Thoughts on Hitchcock? Sound off below.

Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

I decided to put the time in to watch the entirety of Death Note over the weekend. It is a 37 episode anime series adapted from the manga series of the same name. Essentially, it’s a twisted detective story/crime thriller hybrid. A super intelligent high school student named Light finds a supernatural notebook that allows the owner to kill anyone by writing their name and imagining their face. Light begins to kill all of the violent criminals appearing on the news, attracting the attention of L, the world’s top private investigator and Light’s equal in every way. From there it’s a slow trek to any sense of resolution, with tons of repetition and a lot of style to distract from the pace.

thekillingcar Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Tune in four weeks from now to see what's in the trunk on The Killing.

In a lot of ways, Death Note reminds me a lot of another detective show currently airing: The Killing. This show follows the investigation into the murder of a teenager. Season one has 13 hour long episodes that only cover two weeks of the investigation. The case is not resolved by season end. Season two–another 13 episodes–promises to reveal the killer in the last episode. The performances, style, and investigation are interesting. It’s just the information is revealed so slowly that you might lose interest in who killed poor Rosie.

I’m not willing to call a shift toward slow and methodical plot pacing a trend on television at this point. Long story arcs driving prime time series are not common. There are overriding arcs–The Big C has coping with the cancer diagnosis, Glee has nationals, etc.–but the individual episodes are more contained. Longer arcs are typically saved for genre shows, but even American Horror Story and Fringe break things up with stand alone episodes.

The issue at play with all of these decisions is pacing. How fast do the writers want you to realize what’s happening? How much information will they give you at any given time? How much time passes in a given episode? Where is the story focused?

deathnotereflection Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Even the characters on Death Note are bogged down in slowly revealed TV drama.

In the case of Death Note and The Killing, there is no sidebar content. If you’re not dealing with the crimes, you’re dealing with the lives of the people connected to the investigation. They’re all consuming narratives that rely on the novelty of the story arc and character development to retain viewers. There’s also a certain emphasis on style.

Both of these shows have a distinctive style. The Killing is simultaneously pale/dreary with supersaturated environmental elements. The grass will jump out at you more than the people investigating in a field. There’s a common joke at this point about the presence of rain, but it is a moody detective series. Rain makes sense.

deathnoteimagination Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Hyper-stylized noir makes Death Note stand out.

Death Note is animated and hyper-stylized noir. As soon as Light or L begin to piece together a plan in their minds, the world is transformed. Everything is gray scale except for eyes and hair. Light is bright red, L dark blue, and Light-stalker/enthusiast/ally Misa bright blue. Space and time fail to exist any longer in their imagination.

When it takes so long to make any progress at all in a story, is a strong visual style enough to keep your interest? I don’t think so. It comes down to how the story is told. And in the case of long form storytelling on TV, that’s all about pacing. If the pacing or character development is too slow, you’ll lose the audience before you resolve the story.

thekillinggrass Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Look how high the grass grew before they got a single clue in The Killing

The Killing has a major inertia issue. It’s not that the story is taking too long to unfold. The problem is that the writers don’t know how to maintain the pace without frustrating the viewer. Can you really expect people to stick around for a detective show where a red herring is explored to the end almost every week? The Killing is taking a serpentine route to its conclusion. It’s covering a lot of ground in each episode, but it’s not really advancing the plot.

Death Note has the other issue going on. The story moves at a quick pace, even if time itself is moving slowly. The characters, however, are static and underdeveloped. You learn everything you need to know about Light, L, and everyone else as soon as you meet them. Their motivations and approach to the investigation/crimes do not change so long as they are in their original states. The overriding story is hindered by the character development issues. Why should you care who wins in the end if the protagonists are Mary Sue’s and everyone else is static?

I’m drawn to slow and methodical storytelling. Charles Dickens is one of my favorite authors and I love to sink into a two+ hour film with small stakes and oodles of character. The problem with this long and slow approach on TV is the episodic format. The genre is designed to be told in installments.

deathnotenoir Pacing is Everything: Long Form Storytelling on TV

Slow and stylish works if the characters and pacing match the story.

If you want to tell a twenty hour continuous story over the course of a few months (doled out a half hour or hour at a time), you need to find a way to keep the audience interested. This is why shows like The X-Files have monster of the week episodes. You go off track for a week or two in order to recharge the audience. It’s the intermission at a play or halftime at the football game. Even then, if you put the break in at the wrong part of the story, you lose interest. Anyone else remember the outrage when Trey Parker and Matt Stone inserted a nonsense Terrence and Phillip special in between the two-parter about Cartman’s real father?

Do the challenges mean that people should avoid creating long form stories for TV series? I don’t think so. Some stories need more time to develop. Some of those stories could make for interesting television. It comes down to how much work the writers are able to put in to get everything mapped out in a way that makes sense. There needs to be a delicate balancing act between character development and story pacing that stays internally consistent. It’s not simple, but I would imagine getting it right is rewarding.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Thoughts on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy received some great news at the BAFTAs. The film earned eleven nominations, one shy of the benchmark set by The Artist. The more I think about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the more I fall in love with it.

Think of the kind of thriller that tends to play well to a big audience. It’s loud, heated, and very open in its presentation. There are secrets, but they’re secondary to the here and now on the screen.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is just as thrilling as those louder films. It just happens to be quiet, slow, methodical, and driven by subtext, subterfuge, and secrets. It’s never about what is being said. The point is what is not said: the body language, the memories of a Christmas party, the placement of a handshake or the people slowly being removed from the office.

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George Smiley sees all in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Set at the height of Cold War paranoia in England, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is two-plus hours of film dedicated to finding one informant at the highest level of British security. After the failure of an intelligence mission in Turkey (the spy is shot because his cover is blown long before he steps foot in the country), Smiley (Gary Oldman) is told by Control (John Hurt) that someone in the office is a Soviet informant. He quietly narrows down the suspects without even letting the audience know who is no longer suspicious before separating and revealing the truth in a very fulfilling climactic scene.

Climactic is perhaps an overstatement. There are four moments in the film that show anything more intense than grass blowing in the wind: the initial Turkey scene, an interrogation scene, Smiley’s recreation of an interrogation scene, and the final part of the investigation. Even then, those scenes only get as loud as a fist on a table or a single gunshot.

The genius of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is this quiet and even presentation. Gary Oldman carries the entire film by playing a character who only once gets anymore expressive than barely moving his lips into a smile. He remains steadfast and in control everywhere except for that scene. I think it’s incredibly shortsighted to praise him just for that slightly louder scene but it’s what puts his performance into focus.

Smiley is meeting with an informant that the British intelligence department has abandoned. He describes in great detail how he learned to become this stoic figure. It boils down to going head to head with a top Soviet spy about to be turned over by British authority to the USSR and losing. Speaking about the interrogation brings him right back into the moment some twenty years before. You see his perfect veneer begin to crack as he can’t bring himself to admit defeat or vary his well-trained routine. Let’s just say that after that scene, I would gladly pay to watch two hours of Gary Oldman delivering monologues about the life of Smiley and queue up to watch it again immediately afterwards.

tinkertailorsoldierspyposter 202x300 Thoughts on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)The use of music in the film is very smart. Smiley keeps trying to remember exactly what happened at the most recent holiday party for the people in his office. He plays back who talked with who, who shook whose hand, and–ultimately–who went missing with his wife in the bushes behind the office. Instead of hearing a scrap of dialogue, you hear party music. The best is saved for last when the party is shown in full swing to a disco-hued French cover of “Beyond the Sea.”

A less skilled production team would have chosen a more cliched way to create a rhythm to the party. You would hear a cavalcade of voices and little snippets of identifiable and relevant conversation. Maybe it would all be silent except for the clinking of glasses or slow-motion and super-loud close-ups of forks hitting plates and shoes hitting the dance floor. It certainly wouldn’t be a silent scene synced up to a pop record.

The same goes for Alberto Iglesias’ original scoring. Frankly, it’s only a little more complicated than elevator music. It’s intentionally bland and nondescript. Instead of a thumping bass and shrieking violins to build intensity, Iglesias provides a calm and soothing midtempo score that feels as cool and calculated as Smiley’s almost smile.

The film is just a bit too slow and quiet to call a must-see for everyone, but anyone with the patience and focus to sit through two-plus hours of very subtle spy maneuvers should see it.

Full review here.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Film Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

There are certain things in life that are absolutely terrifying to me. These are things like cults, sexual abuse, and trauma-induced psychosis. Martha Marcy May Marlene spends 102 minutes swimming in these issues for a very powerful effect.

The film opens somewhere in upstate New York. Young women are seen preparing for dinner. The men come in from a hard day of work, sit down at the table the women just set, and take their time eating while the women wait for their turn at the table. It’s a different cultural conceit–an unexplained understanding that the participants seem comfortable with–that otherwise seems normal because the people behave normally. That is until one young woman sneaks out the next morning, runs through the woods, and has to hide from the pursuit of the other family members to complete her escape.

The young woman is Martha, known in the upstate community as Marcy May. She disappeared from her family in NYC two years ago and emerges unwilling to talk to her sister about anything that actually happened to her during her absence. She, too, has that veneer of normalcy until she does something odd.

The film unfolds in a series of contextually triggered flashbacks.

Film Review: Jane Eyre (2011)

Imagine your most confusing dream. You think you’re awake but you can never be sure of what you’re seeing because it’s just slightly off from what you’d expect. By the time you realize the truth of your situation, your dream has transformed into a horrific nightmare.

Director Cary Fukunaga’s version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic Gothic novel Jane Eyre is best described as dream-like. A gray haze hangs over even the brightest scenes, casting poor Jane’s world in a constant state of gloom. If the haze disappears, something even worse is coming around the corner. The visual choice is perfect to set the tone of unease and distrust that permeates Bronte’s work.

Screenwriter Moira Buffini tackles the weighty tome with style and grace. The difficulty in adapting Jane Eyre is the sheer size and scope of the novel. Characters with one line in the beginning of the novel wind up being the key to a subplot that wraps up two hundred pages later. Buffini’s strategy of setting the majority of the film as a flashback at St. John River’s estate after Jane flees Rochester’s mansion is perfect. This lets the story be told in an unobtrusive way. It doesn’t matter that large sections of the novel are cut out for the film because the film sells itself as Jane’s memory of what happened while she worked for Rochester.