In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
The first time I saw Brick, at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, I went in planning to walk out after half an hour. Nothing against the movie, about which I knew only the basic premise; as a Bugsy Malone fan from childhood, I was more than ready to roll with high-school Dashiell Hammett. No, the problem was a scheduling conflict: The movie I was most excited about that year, Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy, started about an hour after Brick did. There was no way I was gonna miss Dear Wendy. (Yeah, I know that sounds weird now. It made sense then, several years after Vinterberg’s The Celebration.) But I had time to kill, so I figured I’d look in on this goofy little stunt, and if it showed any promise, then I could try to catch the whole thing later on. I grabbed a seat on the aisle to facilitate a quick escape, and set my phone’s timer to remind me via silent vibration when it was time to bail.
Here’s how much of Brick had elapsed when I decided there was no way in hell I was leaving that theater until it was over: 68 seconds.
On the surface, there’s nothing especially arresting about that minute-plus. It shows a guy, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, squatting at the mouth of a tunnel, looking at the body of a young woman, who appears to be dead. That’s it. Certainly it made me a little curious, in a way a generic establishing shot wouldn’t have, but the flash-forward gambit (as this turns out to be) wasn’t what grabbed me so firmly. It had just been a long time since I’d felt a first-time director’s unmistakable presence from the instant the film began. This Rian Johnson fellow clearly knew exactly what he was doing, and I was already prepared to follow him anywhere, just on the strength of his invitation into this world he’d created.
Rian has since become a friend of mine, so we’re gonna do this installment a little differently. In my original draft, I kept referring to conversations he and I have had about Brick over the past few years, and it got a little name-droppy. So rather than present that stuff secondhand, I’ve decided to analyze the scene (plus a subsequent scene at a pay phone) as I normally would, then let Rian add his own observations (in italics). Among other things, this is a chance for me to find out whether filmmakers actually think about the tiny details I tend to discuss in this column, or whether I’m just pulling all of that stuff out of my ass. Take a look at the opening of Brick, and its writer-director and I will meet you on the other side of the clip.
Even before the first image fades in, Brick already has a leg up on the vast majority of indie films, which are generally not renowned for their scores. All of Rian’s films to date have been scored by his cousin, Nathan Johnson, and while Rian beats the drum for Nathan almost ceaselessly, I think Nathan’s contribution still tends to be severely underrated. His theme for guitar and xylophone here ranks among the most haunting pieces of music I know—in part, I think, because the xylophone doesn’t quite sound like a xylophone. It sounds more as if someone’s playing frozen, empty milk bottles. Viewers have no idea at this point who these two people are, or what they mean to each other, and Gordon-Levitt has clearly been instructed not to emote (which is a wise choice), so the sense that something has gone horribly wrong has to be conveyed entirely by the filmmaking. That plaintive rattling over gentle strums suggests a whole world of sorrow.
Rian Johnson: As far as drum-beating goes, I am and always will be Nathan’s Neil Peart. So many of the pivotal scenes in the three movies we’ve made together work on the screen because of what Nathan brought to them. The theme he uses here (he called it “Emily’s Theme”) is still my favorite of his; it not only elevates the scene with a melancholy weight, but sets the tone for the movie as a whole.
There’s also sorrow in the juxtaposition of a slow push into Gordon-Levitt’s face, half-hidden behind hands clasped together in a classic thinker’s pose, with inserts of the girl’s lifeless body at the edge of the water. It was during this back-and-forth, as the camera measures Gordon-Levitt by way of his non-reaction to shoes, hair, and odd-shaped bracelets, that I mentally wrote the note “Dear Dear Wendy: Sorry.” Until then, though, I couldn’t necessarily articulate what made this sequence of shots seem so powerful. Watching it again, I belatedly realized something: Gordon-Levitt’s eyeline never changes. We see him ostensibly looking at different details each time, but that’s never cued by eye movement. And then I realized something else, which I can’t believe I never noticed before: Those inserts aren’t from the angle at which he’s viewing them. From where he is, her feet should be at the top of the frame; instead, they’re at the bottom, shot from her other side. The other two shots are likewise reversed. You could call that an error, I suppose, but coupled with the fixed eyeline, what it suggests (and I think this is what I always responded to, unconsciously) is that Gordon-Levitt can’t process what he’s seeing. It’s so unthinkable to him that he can only take in tiny portions at a time. He’s abstracted the sight of her into objects. The images are technically “wrong,” but that contributes to the scene’s overwhelming sense of wrongness.
RJ: Part of this is reverse-engineering for me, both because it was so long ago, and because I don’t think about the shots consciously in exactly these terms. But I do think about them, and plan them very carefully. With every film (and every TV episode, for that matter) I take a chunk of time after the script is written, but before production, and storyboard every scene. They’re just chicken-scratch drawings, and the process is basically just seeing the movie in my head and jotting it down, but it gives me time outside the pressures and realities of the set to feel it all out visually. Visually, I remember consciously trying to use the camera to put you in Brendan’s head. For most of the movie, that meant wide lenses and solid, smooth moves, a clarity and purpose to each shot, but the opening is different. I know that when I see something traumatic, I don’t really process it in the moment, but I store it with an intense amount of detail and then watch the memory of it very carefully. Those disconnected, weirdly beautiful pieces of Emily are not what Brendan would see from his vantage point, but they feel like what he’d remember from the scene.
Rian then uses the last image to signal a leap backward in time, showing the bracelets on the dead girl’s arm now adorning the wrist of a girl who’s alive and shoving a note into a school locker. In Looper, he did something similar when he went back to a previous moment at the edge of a cornfield: In order to ensure that viewers recognize it as the same instant, he digitally added a unique contrail to the sky overhead. The bracelets are even better—so memorable, in fact, that they became the movie’s primary marketing image, dominating the main poster and the DVD cover. Technically speaking, it’s possible that two different people could be wearing them in these two shots, but the natural assumption is that it’s the same person, so the audience immediately knows it’s now in a flashback (or, more accurately, that it was in a flash-forward). It’s a beautifully elegant construction that obviates the need for some clunky “TWO DAYS PREVIOUS” Chyron, and I remain annoyed, years later, that there nonetheless is one. Because there wasn’t when I saw the film at Sundance. You chickened out, Johnson! Why go to the trouble of solving the problem visually if you’re gonna force-feed us exposition anyway? Grumble. (I’m also still irked that he for some reason later changed the font on the title card, which at Sundance was in a flowing, calligraphic script that played nicely against the word.)
RJ: For years, I’ve told you you’re crazy, and stuck by my guns with the flashback title, but I’ve finally come around on this, and I think if I made the movie now, I’d drop that “TWO DAYS PREVIOUS” and let the filmmaking tell the story. But I do have one very strong case for it: There’s an elegance and a cleverness to the flashback being told without the title, but just from a storytelling point of view, there’s real value in knowing that when we hop back, it is only two days. Without that title, I agree that we’d all know we had flashed back, but it could have been six months previous. Two days gives it all an urgency and sense of immediate dread. When Brendan and Emily meet up, we know the next time he sees her will be in that tunnel.
The font of the main title, I have no excuse for. The cursive one was better, and I honestly can’t remember why we changed it.
Gordon-Levitt retrieves the note, written in feminine curlicues, which contains only a time, 12:30, and a location, the corner of Sarmentosa and Del Rio. CUT TO: A street sign of the corner of Sarmentoso (this discrepancy I assume is an error) and Camino Del Rio, followed by a close-up of Gordon-Levitt’s watch, which reads 12:45. That’s so clean, it almost makes me giddy. Most young directors, I think, would be leery of doing something so bone-obvious; if you’d handed me this sequence of shots, my instinct would have been to de-emphasize the signs somehow, make them visible but unobtrusive. Rian shoves them right in your face: “Here we are, Sunset and Camden!” It works because the content of the scene—the phone conversation between Gordon-Levitt and the girl, Emily—makes no immediate sense, being mostly a hodgepodge of apparently meaningless words spoken at breakneck speed. (Indeed, there’s an entire scene later in the movie devoted to parsing this conversation, with Gordon-Levitt seeking definitions from his buddy The Brain.) The visual clarity and literal signposting amounts to a sort of contract with the viewer: “Don’t worry, I’m not deliberately trying to confuse you. When you need to know something, you will.”
Brick is a Hammett homage, as well as (stylistically) a Coen brothers homage, so there’s still a high likelihood of getting at least temporarily lost. But I’ve rarely seen a film that exudes so much confidence so immediately, to the point where wresting myself free of its grasp seemed impossible. I made my commitment without hesitation, and it’s been a joy, so far, being repeatedly proved right. Unless his notes tear my theories to shreds, in which case fuck Rian, he can’t even spell his damn name right.
RJ: That clean delivery is also very much in keeping with Hammett’s writing style—short bursts of information, no words wasted. I was so in love with his writing that I wrote the first draft of Brick as a prose novella, imitating his writing style in hopes that it would shape the storytelling. But Hammett aside, I also just love that clean meting out of information piece by piece as a filmmaking technique. I hope what saves it from being precious is that the story is being told with each shot, it isn’t just presentational, but with each beat, new information is being presented. The sign: “We’re there.” The watch: “She’s late.” The phone: “She isn’t coming, she’s calling.” Then it rings. Some of my favorite sequences in my favorite movies are these kind of efficient non-verbal stacks of information. The Miller’s Crossing alleyway scene with Rug Daniels, the kid, and the dog comes to mind. Though that’s a Hammett homage, too. So maybe it all comes back to Hammett. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
I’d also like to use this space to apologize to the entire Sundance community and the world at large for what Mike reminded me was my headshot in the Sundance catalogue. I guess I must have thought it was funny at the time, but looking back, I’m pretty shocked and grateful that anyone at all saw that picture and showed up at the theater. [In the picture, he’s smoking two cigars and wearing two pairs of sunglasses. —ed.] I’m also grateful that as an adult, I found a healthy way to express the desire to punch one’s younger self in the mouth.