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Tell, don’t show

Wednesday | January 6, 2010   open printable version open printable version

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Exodus.

DB here:

Watching the film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reminded me how common fragmentary flashbacks have become. Granted, we’re living in a period of flashback frenzy, one comparable to the delirious 1940s and 1960s. But the format of the flashbacks has changed a bit. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, like many other films, gives us mere glimpses of earlier events–literally, flashes back to the past.

The technique is actually quite old. American films of the 1910s often interrupted present-time scenes to remind us of actions we’ve already seen or been told about. But the fragmentary flashback waned during the heyday of sound cinema. There conversations did nearly all the work. Of course there were flashbacks, as I’ve discussed in an earlier entry. But those flashbacks tended to be extended scenes, not the jagged bursts we get now.

A cynic might say that today’s audiences are so thick-headed  and impatient that simply mentioning what happened earlier isn’t enough. Viewers now would chafe at the long interrogations in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.  The scenes would need to be split up by images showing what the characters were explaining. The new rule: Add redundancy, but dress it up in whipcrack visuals.

So are the flurries of mini-flashbacks there just because filmmakers doubt that viewers can follow a twisty intrigue given in dialogue? Not necessarily. I suspect that these flourishes are traceable to a piece of current screenwriting advice. It’s usually formulated as Show, don’t tell.

The very distinction has some ancient ancestry. Plato and Aristotle both distinguished between verbal narration, as in the Homeric epics, and theatrical presentation. Aristotle, always more interested in craft than Plato, went on to point out that the distinction couldn’t be absolute. Epic narration could include simulated conversations, for example. Aristotle did not, so far as I can tell, urge composers of epics to avoid “showing” or dramatists to avoid having characters report offstage action.

Today’s bias in favor of “showing” is probably traceable to the emergence of the modern novel. “Dramatize, dramatize!” Henry James (a failed playwright) advised the novelist. That is, make the action on the page seem vivid and palpable. It was Joseph Conrad, not D. W. Griffith, who first claimed that his purpose was “to make you see.” A major trend in the theory of prose fiction ca. 1900 was the effort to turn words on the page into a surrogate for visual storytelling; hence the very term “point of view” and James’ comparison of unfolding narrative to a “corridor” that we traverse. It remained for Percy Lubbock, in The Craft of Fiction (1921) to sum up this trend. “A novel is a picture,” he claimed, and he suggested that novels, either “panoramic” ones like Vanity Fair or “dramatic” ones like The Awkward Age, can make us forget that they are actually verbal contraptions:

The art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself.

Screenplay manuals have picked up on the general advice, even while modifying it to suit the particularities of film. Novices are advised to reduce dialogue to the minimum. Even a novel committed to “showing” will rely on conversation, but in cinema long stretches of dialogue, and especially, God forbid, monologue are uncinematic and run the risk of boring the audience. Cinema, the reasoning goes, is a visual medium, and whenever you can replace a word, or a string of them, by images you should try to do so. The aim is what we now call visual storytelling.

Now I’m all for presenting the story through pictures. Show, don’t tell can challenge the screenwriter and director to get story points across through imagery and character behavior rather than expository dialogue. One mark of filmmaking skill is to guide the audience to make inferences rather than simply take in bald information.The question is: How far to go?

In their urge to picture every bit of action, contemporary filmmakers may be missing a chance to exploit another resource of cinema: the sustained scene in which a character talks about a past event without any visual supplement. A long verbal account of the past has unique virtues.

In other words: Filmmakers, consider telling and not showing what’s told.

Talking it through

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In Persona, the nurse Alma has grown more intimate with her patient Elisabeth, a famous actress who has frozen on stage and now refuses to speak. During their time together, Elisabeth’s treatment becomes therapy for Alma. Compelled to fill the silences, she gradually reveals more about herself. Tonight, a little drunk, Alma confesses something shocking. Once, while her lover was away, she and a girlfriend had sex with a couple of young men. Her telling of it makes her more and more distraught, until she breaks down weeping in Elisabeth’s arms.

In this nearly seven-minute monologue, Alma describes the incident. She mentions a few details, such as the weather on the isolated beach and the blue ribbon on her straw hat. Mostly, though, she simply describes what happened, in laconic but vivid sentences. The result is an anecdote of absorbing eroticism. Lacking any images of the events, we get to imagine the scene of sexual exchange. Bergman releases us from what James once called “weak specificity”: perhaps no imagery this side of pornography could be as arousing as this bare-bones account.

But the fairly neutral words are given emotional coloration through Alma’s manner of telling. Her reaction mixes astonishment at the pleasure, guilt at betraying her lover, and shame in telling it to Elisabeth.  By the end, she collapses into weeping confusion; the incident has made her doubt what sort of person she is. Here Bibi Andersson’s performance is crucial, with trembling sincerity giving way to anguish and self-reproach.

In sum, by presenting this monologue wholly in the present, Bergman gives us two layers of action simultaneously, a charged sex scene and its long-range emotional consequences. But there’s more. Had he given us flashbacks, he could not preserve the flow of the present-time action. The staging and cutting during Alma’s confession use simple film techniques, but they add another layer to the scene.

The master shot, seen above, gives us the two women as Alma begins her tale.  Then straightforward analytical editing isolates each woman.

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In a classic gesture of intensification, the next shots of Alma and Elisabeth are closer than the earlier ones. This  pair of shots accompanies the highest point of what Alma is telling us—the first couplings.

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The tight shot of Alma, in which she describes achieving orgasm, lasts almost two minutes and is the lengthiest shot in the sequence. Then the action pauses as Alma nervously curls over to grab a cigarette, goes toward a distant window to light it, then settles on the sill to resume her story.

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The earlier close shot of Elisabeth had hidden her reaction behind her hand. Now she watches Alma in a sort of enjoyment. Friendly empathy or triumph at eliciting a damaging admission? It’s hard to say. Alma retreats to another window and turns away, as if responding to Elisabeth’s smile.

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Alma finishes her tale by saying that that night, reunited with her lover, she had the most pleasurable sex of their relationship. Turning from the window, her face is angled in such a way that her confession seems at once indifferent to Elisabeth (the eyeline doesn’t seem angled toward the bed) and challenging to her: “Can you understand that?”

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The next line of dialogue—“And I got pregnant of course”—introduces a rupture in the action’s space and time.

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Now Alma is in bed with Elisabeth, as if her question had impelled her to the closest physical contact yet. As Alma twists in pathetic uncertainty, weeping, Elisabeth’s reaction is again initially suppressed (Alma’s arm blocks her patient’s eyes) before finally revealing Elizabeth’s face during the embrace. Yet the expression remains ambiguous—sympathetic, or victorious in having exposed her nurse’s inner life.

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Later we will learn that Elisabeth’s caresses aren’t as affectionate as they might first appear. In any event, given the tenor of Alma’s revelation, it is hard not to see them as erotic gestures in the present, parallel to those Alma recounted.

By telling rather than showing, then, Bergman has been able to tell and show. Bergman lets Alma’s telling provide a sort of virtual flashback, while he also creates a ripening interchange between characters in the present. Instead of simply sandwiching fragments of the past into the present action, he has built up two smooth arcs of action, one that we imagine and one that is set before us in precise detail, with its own emotional modulation. The bliss of the past events is refracted through the pain of telling them.

Telling as therapy

Part of the rationale for telling rather than showing the beach orgy is, of course, the fact that much of it couldn’t be presented so literally on film; censors would object. More important is the fact that showing a heavy-breathing sexual encounter would be likely to undercut the developing revelation of Alma’s present feelings, the tension between the memory of uninhibited pleasure and the lingering shame and confusion.

The issue of what should be shown comes up in another classic scene of confession, the moment in Exodus when the Jewish teenager Dov Landau admits that he was an accomplice in running a concentration camp. Again the result is a tearful breakdown. Here, however, a conversational partner coaxes out the truth by quietly corrosive questions.

Dov is trying to join the Irgun, a guerrilla band seeking to drive the British out of Palestine. The senior officer, Akiva Ben Canaan, lets the cocky youth expand on his boast that he began fighting Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto but then was captured and sent to Auschwitz. At first Akiva probes gently. How did the camp officials decide who would live? And what did the Nazis do to the girls? Dov starts to shift uneasily. How was the killing accomplished?

Like Bergman, Preminger employs the standard method of providing closer views as the tension rises. Dov starts to relax as Akiva provides softball questions, but then he has to confess that the bodies were dumped in mass graves. Who dug the graves? Dov admits that demolition squads used dynamite to blow out trenches. Akiva induces him to admit that this was Dov’s job.

In the course of all this, Akiva moves around the room and leans closer to Dov, but the boy remains motionless in the same setup. The fixed framing accentuates his subtly changing expressions across the scene.

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Akiva retells what Dov must have done: shave heads, collect bodies, harvest gold fillings. Dov crumples like a child under the admission (see the frame surmounting this entry), and like Alma at key points in her monologue hides his face in shame. “What could I do?”

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What else has he to confess? Dov won’t say, until he collapses again: “They used me . . . like you use a woman.”

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The distant framing here prepares for the scene’s final phase: the men rise and swear Dov into their group.

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Today a filmmaker would be tempted to show at least some of what Dov tells us. We could get glimpses of life in the camp, along with subjectively distorted imagery of sexual abuse, perhaps from Dov’s point of view. But this could turn out to be James’ “weak specificity.” “Let the reader think the evil,” James advised. Accordingly, Preminger sticks obstinately to what Dov says and how Akiva’s softly voiced but damning interrogation brings out the truth.

Again, the scene’s power comes from the character’s emotional development during the telling. We can imagine the horrors that Dov faced as a boy, and our pity comes from empathizing with his changing expressions–bravado, ruffled concern, realization that he has been caught lying, revulsion at his betrayal and the sexual assault. That is, we sympathize through his response now, rather than through direct vision of what he encountered. We react to his reactions.

By the end, Dov seems dazed that his confession has been accepted. Partly this is surprise that he isn’t being rejected, but also it’s as if he has awakened from a dream–that of himself as a resistance hero. Akiva Ben Canaan forces him to confront what he had not faced. Once more, the confession becomes a talking cure.

As in Persona, the confession also characterizes the interlocutor. Akiva ‘s gentle manner fuses wisdom and severity, making him a quietly stern father confessor. He’s also a shrewd exponent of psychology, one who picks the moment of the boy’s greatest self-revulsion to declare that Dov is accepted into the Irgun. The confession has broken him; the Irgun will remake him. Having surrendered himself utterly he will prove a more loyal soldier than any recruit with an innocent past.

Again, the scene of telling has given us two continuous emotional arcs in two time frames, one concrete and one virtual: a past event we’re cued to imagine and a present stripping away of the teller’s defenses. People who complain that the dialogue scenes in Inglourious Basterds are overlong should consider the tradition of movies like Exodus and Persona.

Psycho babble

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Persona and Exodus suggest two virtues of sustained recounting: arousing the viewer’s imagination, and providing an unbroken arc of present-time action that can generate sympathy through face, gesture, and voice. There’s one more advantage that isn’t perhaps so evident nowadays.

Current films give us “lying flashbacks” fairly often. But in the old days, with very few exceptions like courtroom films and tales like Rashomon, a flashback was veridical. In recounting a story action, a character might lie or make mistakes, but if the film’s narration showed us that action, we could trust that as the truth. As a result, many detective stories presented suspects’ versions of events through question and answer but climaxed in a flashback that showed us what really happened.

If, however, you want to induce doubt about what really happened, you might have the detective’s climactic explanation pricked by inconsistencies. This is what seems to me to be happening at the finale of Psycho. (Do I really have to warn about spoilers here?)

After Norman Bates has been captured, halted in another murder attempt, the psychiatrist Dr Richmond explains the young man’s split personality—part Norman, part Mrs. Bates, his mother. Richmond claims to have gotten the truth “from the mother.” At this point, he says, the Mom part of Norman has taken over wholly, a claim confirmed when we hear Norman speak in an old lady’s voice in the epilogue. Richmond goes on to claim that his questioning determined that Mother “killed the girl.” To get literal, it was as Mother that Norman murdered Marion Crane.

A contemporary film would very likely replay the murder so as to validate the psychiatrist’s analysis: Norman dressing up as his mother, assuming a cackling old-bat accent, killing Marion in images that fill in the silhouette that we saw in the shower sequence. We would see that Norman-as-Mother is the culprit.

But this visual confirmation of Richmond’s diagnosis would be made problematic by the epilogue that Hitchcock includes. In the final sequence we see Norman, staring out at the camera, and hear Mother’s voice declaring that her son committed the murders. According to her, Norman is the culprit; she wouldn’t hurt a fly. How then can Richmond declare that Mother told him that she killed the girl?

We might say that the doctor is extrapolating: the truth he took from the mother is that she is dissembling, shifting the guilt to Norman. But Richmond could have stated that was his reasoning, and he doesn’t. The incompatibility between his explanation and Mother’s soliloquy opens up the possibility that he has not probed to the depths of Norman’s madness.

Despite the fact that the psychiatrist’s analysis arrives at the moment when a conventional movie delivers the whole truth, the very last minutes of the film incline me to doubt Richmond’s ability to grasp the whole situation. It’s as if our parting vision of the character disturbs the smug certainties of the diagnosis.

I haven’t dived deeply into the Talmudic sea of Psycho commentary, so it’s likely that this issue has been hashed out extensively. Perhaps my construal won’t stand up. Take it, then, as a possible instance of the ways in which a verbal recounting, “unconfirmed” by a tangible flashback, can stand as only a candidate explanation rather than the whole truth. In general, telling and refusing to show can induce what Meir Sternberg calls “anticipatory caution,” a warning that the telling is only one, and not necessarily the most truthful, version of events.

Show, don’t tell is usually good advice. But I’m suggesting a codicil. Consider showing the telling. Fill it out. Pack it with actorly detail and psychological implication. Stage and shoot and cut it so as to create an engrossing, unfolding rhythm. That’s visual storytelling too, and it requires fine judgment. Who knows? More scenes relying on telling might also teach audiences to be a little patient.


The best modern account I know of the subtle differences between showing and telling, and the cases when the categories blur and fracture, can be found in Meir Sternberg’s  Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction. I talk a little about the distinction in Chapter Two of Narration in the Fiction Film. See also The Way Hollywood Tells It for some comments on today’s vogue for unreliable flashbacks. And way back in 2006 Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a passionate attack on the idea of “Show, don’t tell” while defending the value of voice-over narration.

N. B. I’m not ignoring the possibility that film can present showing and telling in two simultaneous streams: imagery of the present situation accompanied, perhaps alongside, by continuing imagery of the past scene, as in Suddenly Last Summer. This can be a fruitful option, but it relieves the spectator of the obligation to imagine the past—an important advantage of the pure telling. There’s also the tricky matter of giving the two streams of information enough density. The past event needs to gain enough body to be more than a simple illustration, while the present-time telling could become merely a prop for the flashback. In the dual-presentation mode, the filmmaker risks dividing our attention and thinning the texture of each time frame, with the result that both lose vividness. That seems to me to happen in Suddenly Last Summer.

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Psycho.

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