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Walking and talking with Louie and Liz

[ 24 ] July 31, 2012 |

Jim Emerson’s appreciation of Louie captures something I don’t think I quite did in my initial comments about the relationship of form to content in The Dark Knight Rises. The episode, “Daddy’s Girlfriend II,” largely consists of a slow-motion Sorkinian walk-and-talk around New York City. The key features of the typical Sorkinian walk-and-talk are present in the linked clip: the characters approach a camera at a brisk clip and end up in a medium or medium close-up with a shallow focus. The world recedes into blurriness because the emphasis is on the dialogue and the characters’ reaction to it. The blurriness also imparts an unearned importance to the dialogue because it creates the impression that the characters have no time to waste and people with no time to waste are very important people. The viewer knows exactly where to look and how long to be looking there because there are, essentially, only faces in the frames and the one with words departing its mouth is the one to be paying attention to. But whatever narrative momentum the Sorkinian variation provides to what amounts to endless conversations between bureaucrats in the hallways of the Circumlocution Office comes at a high price: boredom.

Sorkin’s shows are exhausting not because of the amount of information his characters breathlessly provide, but because Sorkin leaves his audience with nothing to do. In any given sequence, he indicates exactly where we should be looking and dictates exactly how long our eyes should linger there. Thinking is not required to watch an episode of Sorkin’s shows, and not thinking for forty-two consecutive minutes dulls the wits. Not so with Louie. The stills Emerson pulled from the episode bear this out. Consider this medium shot of Louie and his date, Liz, stopping-and-chatting in front of a pool hall:

Louie02
Note the depth of field. We can clearly see what’s happening behind Louie and Liz, and even though the director, one Louis C.K., wants us to pay attention to the conversation. The movement of the pool players—which occurs, significantly, in the dead center of the screen—threatens distraction throughout the entire conversation. Our attention shifts from the conversation to the pool and back to the conversation and then back to the pool. It makes for uncomfortable viewing because we aren’t entirely sure what we’re supposed to be paying attention to. But it makes for compelling viewing for the same reason: when we don’t know what we’re supposed to be paying attention to, we start scouring the frame for visual cues. As our eyes dart from Louie to Liz to the pool players, unsure of where to find safe harbor, it becomes possible for us to be surprised. Because when we don’t know where to look it becomes possible to not see something coming.

The formal qualities of this stopping-and-chatting sequence create an awkwardness that borders on discomfort, but despite our misgivings we want to keep watching because we have no idea what might happen next. Do you know what that situation happens to be? Identical to the one Louie is experiencing during this conversation. Liz had informed him that him that her name was actually “Tape Recorder,” and as she spins out the story of how her parents named her that Louie is visibly uncomfortable. The medium shot allows us to watch his face as her increasingly improbable tale develops, and what his face tells us is that a mental assessment of Liz is being performed behind it.

In this sequence, then, Louis C.K., the director, replicates the discomfort felt by the characters in his audience via the formal elements of his shot composition. Which, to bring this post full circle, is why the formal incoherence of The Dark Knight enhances the film while a very similar one nearly ruins The Dark Knight Rises.

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  1. Hogan says:

    I heard Terry Gross interview Sorkin, and she asked about the invention of the walk-and-talk.

    Sorkin first mentioned the scene in A Few Good Men where Tom Cruise is driving down the street, stops, parks the car, gets out, goes into a store and buys a copy of Sports Illustrated, comes out, gets back in the car, and drives off. “That was the action scene.”

    The walk-and-talk came about when the director of the West Wing pilot told him he could string together four consecutive scenes with Jon Spencer by interspersing walks along corridors with dialogue in such a way that it seemed like one big movement, one extended scene. Basically he was trying to give the camera something to do, and that was the best he could come up with.

    • SEK says:

      The funny thing about Sorkin getting the credit for this kind of sequence is that he obviously doesn’t deserve it. The recent master of the extended take is Scorsese, but unlike Sorkin, Scorsese makes his walk-and-talks visually interesting. Sorkin’s responsible for ruining a visual cliché that, when used in moderation, is quite effective.

      • Hogan says:

        It’s very odd–why is he still writing scripts instead of novels? Is there anyone at his level of the film business with less visual imagination?

        • wengler says:

          And the dialogue!

          It’s as if one person is having a conversation with themselves through about 9 or 10 people.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            What do you mean? Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting for Louis C.K. and Parker Posey reading Chris Matthews transcripts, like they would on The Newsroom?

          • cackalacka says:

            This. My wife loves her some Sorkin. The other show she was enthralled with was Gilmore Girls.

            The aspect that GG and Sorkonian blah-mras have in common is the rapid-fire ‘wit’ that is so transparently the same voice funneling through multiple actors.

            The sad thing is, between the two of us she’s the one with the taste and familiarity of literary idioms, and yet she digs this shit. I mean, I’m the one that digs the 14-year-old boy humor and the ‘splosions, and she’s into the stuff with the dialogue that elevates the narrations one might find in a second rate porno.

          • Tim says:

            and all of them talk just like Aaron Sorkin!

  2. Pedantry with a ghost of a point:

    The show and the main character is Louie, not Louis, which is semi-sorta-important because the show places a lot of emphasis on the personality of the main character in a way that, say, Seinfeld does not. And in that context it’s important to acknowledge the distinction between Louis the awesome comedian/auteur and Louie the character. Not least because the show plays with that distinction too.

    Appreciation of the point of the post:

    The guy playing pool in the background between Louie and Liz turns toward them and smiles at some point toward the end of the scene as if he heard the whole thing. The viewer (or, at least, I) didn’t really expect this, because there’s several ambiguous elements whose presence would prevent that from happening; there may be glass between the couple and the pool player, and in any case there’s ambient noise that should have probably drowned out their conversation.

    And yet there’s a connection; we’re not sure how it happened, or whether it should have happened, but there it is. Which is another instance of structural awkwardness/incoherence that mirrors both Louie’s experience in the scene and the thematic points of the episode.

    It feels like this Louis CK dude is building up to something spectacular in his career, something like the American version of L’Avventura, but with dick jokes and constant profanity, and it’s going to be awesome.

    • SEK says:

      And in that context it’s important to acknowledge the distinction between Louis the awesome comedian/auteur and Louie the character.

      It is. I just thought I had it wrong — see the title of the link — and changed it back to “Louis.” Now I see it is “Louie,” which you’re right, is a distinction with difference.

      [Edited the post to reflect the earlier incorrect correction.]

    • SEK says:

      The viewer (or, at least, I) didn’t really expect this, because there’s several ambiguous elements whose presence would prevent that from happening

      That was a clever moment — unexpected, and like the rest of the episode, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. He seemed to look directly at the audience, as if to ask whether we believed what he just heard, but the fourth wall never really came down.

  3. Pith Helmet says:

    In this sequence, then, Louis C.K., the director, replicates the discomfort felt by the characters in his audience via the formal elements of his shot composition.

    Not knowing Louis C.K.’s background, I have to wonder if he had any thought about the “formal elements of his shot composition” or did he just think “this works.”

    • wengler says:

      From what I know, the deal between him and FX is they will let him do pretty much whatever he wants as long as his production costs are extremely small. So I would bet the latter.

    • Medrawt says:

      I don’t know if Louis CK has a formal vocabulary for discussing this sort of thing (outside of knowing what he needs to about the technology he uses, different lenses and such) that mirrors what academics use, but he’s talked somewhat about his longstanding interest in filmmaking and experimental films, etc.; I imagine he’s given these topics a great deal of thought.

      Not that you were doing this, but there’s a danger (particularly in music) of moving from the observation that a particular artist wasn’t formally schooled to the presumption that he didn’t “know” the rules or “need to know the rules,” and in particular you got horrible maxims like “his music was better because he didn’t know he was breaking the rules” or “learning formal theory would’ve messed him up.” People used to point to Wes Montgomery as a guy with no theoretical knowledge; then recently a concert film was released that included footage of him rehearsing the band and saying stuff like “Yeah, Db7 on that bar – no, don’t sharp the ninth”.

  4. wengler says:

    There’s a very real sense of discomfort in nearly every episode in a way that you just don’t get with other television shows.

    I like to compare this show to his previous one on HBO. It was a multicam sitcom but in a lot of ways was the anti-sitcom. It profiled a couple that was not loving each other at the end of each episode but instead was hating each other more and more until they divorced.

  5. Gregg Toland says:

    I’d like to get a little deeper into this discussion.
    Pootie Tang!!!

  6. mike in dc says:

    Louis C.K. is a national treasure.

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