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Walking and talking with Louie and Liz

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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:

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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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