Warning: this post contains mild spoilers (if it's possible to "spoil" a film that's been out for fifteen years).
"The Hudsucker Proxy" is a film by Ethan and Joel Coen. It's an interesting movie - definitely worth seeing - but pretty eccentric and definitely not for everybody. It's a very slick and well-directed movie, but much like "The Big Lebowski" the stylization of the movie is so strong that the hands of the filmmakers are felt on every frame. Many people feel that the strong stylization of the film creates such an artificial feeling that the film is never really able to reach a sincere tone and doesn't ever get to an emotional place.
Be that as it may, the film is undeniably well directed and does a lot of things really well. It's one of those movies that just viewing it will teach you more about film making than a year of film school could. For all it's quirks it's one of my favorite movies of all time.
I could write about this film for months but here are just a couple of interesting things I like about it. This first clip isn't very spectacular but it's a really great example of a few subtle touches that the Coens utilize to great effect.
Okay here's the setup: Tim Robbins is an earnest but not-too-bright guy who's been promoted, unexpectedly, from the mailroom to be the CEO of the Hudsucker Corporation. He doesn't realize it, but the board has secretly placed him there because they are hoping his stupidity will depress the stock price of the company so the board can buy all the stock back up at a discount (confused? Not to worry. Understanding the film's plot is not essential to this discussion so don't fret).
Jennifer Jason Leigh is a hard-bitten newspaper writer who senses that the board of the Hudsucker Corporation is up to something and she got a job posing as Tim Robbins' secretary to get the scoop. She wrote a story exposing Robbins as a boob and a puppet of the board that has gotten him in hot water with the investors, but he doesn't realize his secretary and the writer who exposed him are one and the same. So, as you can tell from the scene, while Robbins is pouring his heart out to her she feels guilty for being the cause of all of his troubles, and wants to tell him the truth, but is afraid to.
This post relates specifically to the part staring with the speech that Tim Robbins has at about 2:30 into the clip, up until the end of the scene at about 5:15 into the clip.
Anyway, one of the challenges posed by the scene is fact that the film is very stylized, and the Robbins character really has been played as an earnest doofus up to this point, and Leigh's character is a tough-as-nails fast-talking newspaper woman. So how do you play a sincere love scene between these two? Their characterizations are built to play comedy well but it's really hard to write an honestly sincere scene between the two of them, unless you totally soften them, making him less of a doofus and making her softer and gentler.....which wouldn't be true to the characters that have been set up, and would feel like they were from another movie. It would just feel like a cheat if they changed their personalities to accommodate what this one scene needs them to be.
So I think Joel and Ethan wrote a brilliant scene that doesn't compromise their great characters. Tim Robbin's great speech about being animals in a previous life is so perfect. It can play sincere and you really believe it could sound romantic to her, and yet it's also goofy and he breaks the sincere moment by making the silly "deer" joke and laughing at his own bad pun, which is true to his character and yet also sweet in a certain way. It's a great solution to a very tricky scene.
Also I just think this is a great example of how important music is to a movie and how it can make or break everything in a film. The music is so amazing as he tells his story. It comes in at just the right moment, as the scene switches gears to a sincere place, and it builds wonderfully, reaching a climax at just the right point. The beauty and sincerity of the music carries the scene and makes sure that the silliness of the speech is minimized and it comes across as a real romantic moment between two people who are falling in love.
Imagine the scene without the music - it would be very empty and wouldn't play nearly as well. It would be much more of a straightforward comedic scene.
The camera placement for that speech is wonderful too. Being able to see both of their faces at once is really great - you can see his earnest sincerity and her hesitation and regret all at once. Having them looking down at and commenting on the people in the street below is a great way to naturally get into that kind of camera setup where they're both looking at the camera (and us). It's important that he can't see her face so he doesn't realize the turmoil she's going through as she struggles with how to tell him the truth.
The long take of this speech scene - doing it without cuts - is such a key to making it work. It allows the scene to build beautifully. Imagine it with cuts and you can see how that would undercut the power of the scene.
Also, before Robbins begins his speech, notice how the camera, looking at the two of them, starts a long, slow push-in on their faces. This is always a great camera trick to give a moment a building intensity. If you look for it you'll find it in many, many movies and it always works well, although you'll probably never notice it unless you're looking for it. It helps ramp up the intensity of the scene before he begins his romantic speech.
Then the camera does a pull back to a wider framing as he makes his joke and breaks the intimacy of the moment - the camera is helping to tell the story, getting closer as they get more intimate, then pulling back as they pull back on their intimacy. Tim Robbins, as he cracks his joke, steps back which gives the camera a physical reason to pull out just a bit and keep him in frame, so his movement motivates the movement of the camera. Then notice how, after that, as the setups become closeups of each of them, he continues to step closer to her, and she turns towards him, then away from him, and then back towards him - their physical proximity takes over as the clue to how intimate the scene is getting.
So after his joke breaks the romantic moment, the tension is lost briefly, the camera pulls back, but then their closeups and physical proximity begin to build the tension all over again, until they kiss. Then the camera jumps back to enable a faster push in towards them which is a shot that builds quickly in intensity (in contrast to the slow push in we saw earlier). Push-ins (or trucks) with the camera are always great for building intensity.
Again, the music serves the scene well, although not nearly as subtly here. True, it's an ancient cliche to have the music swell as two characters kiss, but it's earned here, I think, because the music started out so soft and gentle, and has built to this big swell of emotion here.
And what a great choice to have the light on them drop out before the camera fades out, instead of just doing a regular old fade-out (which would be the more obvious and expected choice). Doing it this way feels more dramatic and, again, helps push the scene away from comedy towards a more dramatic feel.
The structure of this scene - with his joke breaking the intimacy - may seem like a misstep. It could easily seem like that joke ruins the building intensity. But actually I think it's a great touch. To slowly build intensity and passion over a long scene doesn't always work as well as you think it might. Passion is intense and tends to reach a saturation point very quickly. I think it always works better just like the Coens have played it - let it build slowly to a climax, then release the tension a little, and then you can crank up the intensity more quickly to a more intense height, and then you usually have to get out of the scene rather quickly, because once you reach that fever pitch of emotion, you can't sustain it for long. If it goes on too long it runs the risk of starting to feel false or manipulative to the audience.
Okay, I could talk about this film forever (heck, I could talk about this clip forever), but I will stop for now, and maybe I will talk a little more about the film next time.