November 13, 2017

Watch: For the Coen Brothers, Stillness is the Move

Some of the duo's most powerful scenes owe a debt to the absence of motion.

Early on in their career, the Coen Brothers made a name for themselves with their odd brand of raw violence in films like Miller's Crossing and Blood Simple. Of course, the brothers would only continue to sharpen this trademark blend of dark humor and bold action as their career went on, perhaps reaching their apex at 2007's Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. 

But what sets these action flicks apart from their blockbuster studio counterparts? Well, a lot. Namely, their attention to every little detail within a frame of their film. While some of these efforts are clearly evident in their production design and composition, one thing that may fly under the radar is camera movement.

When should the camera or the subject of the scene be moving and when should they be still? How can these decisions juxtapose a theme, feeling or even the movement in another scene in the film to make the emotional takeaway from any given scene more effective as a whole? As we see in the following video essay by Alessandro Tranchini, the Coen Brothers are truly masters of this art.

As you can see, sometimes the best way to build up suspense is to keep the camera completely still. Especially when something frenetic or intense is happening on the camera, that juxtaposition alone sets up an uneasy feeling in the viewer's mind. 

Yes, we often see their camera move in the supercut above, but again, the move plays against stillness from a character. In fact, we often see the tactic employed throughout the brothers' numerous death scenes.

Another cool tactic the Coen Brothers use is highlighting moments when one of their characters may be breaking down or moving a lot and setting them up against another that is completely stoic and motionless. One piece of the puzzle is moving, the other is still.

So perhaps the best takeaway from this piece is that, yes, the Coen Brothers can make a pretty picture with a camera set in place, but the emotional intensity of the scene is really ratcheted to the next level when that stillness plays against something frenetic. After all, frantic energy is another feeling the Coen Brothers do so well. It'd be a shame to waste that skill.      

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I can't recommend The Big Lebowski (1988) by the Coen Brothers enough, it looks like this: https://cinestills.eu/big-lebowski-1998/

November 13, 2017 at 4:19PM

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I can’t remember which Deakins interview it was, but the one thing I remember him saying was that the Coen Brothers have every shot planned before he even comes into the picture. Something like, “all I have to do is point the camera and shoot.” That really resonated with me because it just goes to show how much you’re seeing in the frame of a Coen film is almost directly from their heads. If I find it, I’ll link it.

November 13, 2017 at 5:44PM, Edited November 13, 5:44PM

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Seth Burke
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