Last week, we took a closer look at the opening scene from Reservoir Dogs, with an analysis of Quentin Tarantino's famous diner table sequence. This week, we'll examine a similarly table-oriented scene, albeit one from an altogether different film: Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot.
My Left Foot was released in 1989, three years before Reservoir Dogs hit theaters. In just about every respect, the films are polar opposites: the former tells the true and inspiring story of Christy Brown; the latter recounts a fictional morality play involving hard-nosed hit men. One is a feel-good family flick. The other certainly isn't.
Considering the narrative gulf separating Foot from Dogs, it's no surprise that the two would diverge stylistically, as well. Sheridan, after all, is concerned with a singular character. There is never any question of where our allegiance should lie, because from the very beginning, Sheridan aligns us with his protagonist. Tarantino, by comparison, takes a more constellational approach, bringing together an ensemble of seemingly disparate and morally ambiguous figures, before gradually piecing them together.
Yet despite obvious dissimilarities, the two films do have one important thing in common -- they both work.
What does that mean? On a rudimentary level, we can say a film "works" if its author succeeds in connecting with his or her audience. That sounds simplistic, but one need only look at any given multiplex to realize how many directors fail to do just this. Sheridan and Tarantino certainly don't. They may tell starkly different stories within starkly different contexts, but they share the same goal: to make you, the viewer, feel emotionally invested in their creations. They both start from point A and end up at point B; they just take different routes.
Take as an example this scene from My Left Foot. It unfurls shortly after Christy (Daniel Day Lewis) hosts his first big gallery opening, put together with the assistance of Eileen, his teacher and confidant. By this point in the film, it's clear that Christy has romantic feelings for Eileen. Here, he expresses them for the first time.
A few things to point out: notice that when the action begins, we're placed along the perimeter of the table, opposite Christy. It may be a round table, but from this vantage point, it seems as if Christy is at the head, subtly (if somewhat unnecessarily) reminding us that this scene will begin and end on his terms. As with Tarantino's diner scene, we begin at a distance from our principals.
He also positions his lens at a wider angle, giving the shot added depth, and allowing for more visual information to enter the frame. As a result, we can immediately glean important details about setting; we see well-dressed restaurant patrons in the background, fine dinnerware on the table, and a tuxedo clad waiter pouring wine with gloved hands. Compare that with Tarantino's approach, which provides hardly any spatial context, aside from the few, blurry figures we see drifting in the background.
With setting and focus clearly established, Sheridan suddenly brings us closer to the action, placing the camera slightly behind Eileen's head as she helps Christy sip his drink. After a brief reverse shot, the camera returns to this same position and lingers there for awhile, as Christy finally works up the courage to profess his love for her. It's important that the camera remain still here, because it allows the viewer to gauge Christy's reaction to Eileen's predictably tepid response.
After Christy attempts to remedy the situation by playing it off as a joke, the camera returns to its initial, more distanced position, as Eileen drops the bombshell: she and Peter (seated to her right) are getting married. Someone then asks Christy what he thinks of it. (This female voice, it's worth noting, comes not from Eileen, but presumably from someone else seated at the table. Because Sheridan never shows the speaker, though, it almost seems like narration -- or, perhaps, like Christy's internal monologue.)
Before he can answer, the camera cuts back to Eileen's perspective. Day-Lewis, as he does throughout the entire film, masterfully manipulates his face to convey meaning and emotion -- in this case, fury. Eileen instantly acknowledges this, as evidenced by the ensuing reverse shot.
What follows is nothing short of an eruption. Christy explodes in drunken rage, banging the table and raising his voice with incremental fury. Rather than focus on his outburst, though, Sheridan chooses to place his camera directly 0n the table, and points it outward at Christy's fellow dinner guests. Unlike Tarantino, whose pans remained confined to his table's periphery, Sheridan here allows us inside the circle. There's some seismic activity brewing beneath this table, and we're standing on its fault line.
The camera isn't exactly aligned with Christy's perspective, as evidenced by the very first shot of Eileen, looking at Christy on her left; but we're in a position from which we can survey the rest of the table, and observe everyone's reaction to the meltdown in front of them. Moving counterclockwise from right to left, the camera slowly sweeps across the table, capturing not only the principals seated at the table, but the other diners seated behind them.
The single take lasts all but a few seconds, but the volume of Christy's roar, combined with the relative silence of those around him, make it seem much longer. It's elongated even further by Sheridan's slow-moving camera, not to mention the uncomfortable looks and glances that everyone else exchanges. Sheridan, in effect, has infused this scene with a suddenly oppressive sense of anxiety; our hero is embarrassing himself before the only woman he's ever loved, he's making a scene in front of a room full of onlookers, and everyone is powerless to stop him. The audience, meanwhile, remains trapped at the center of this table, just as any dinner guest would be trapped during a similarly uncomfortable episode.
What's important to keep in mind here is that this sense of enclosure is a direct result of Sheridan's camera position. Had we not been positioned on the table, with Christy's bellow to our backs, his tantrum wouldn't have felt so direct. By panning slowly, moreover, Sheridan allows enough time for the tension to slowly percolate before finally boiling over, in the following segment.
Here, the director mercifully returns us to a position of relative comfort -- away from the table, and away from the turmoil. Instead, we now take a step back and evaluate the scene within its greater context. From this perspective, the audience becomes another diner at the restaurant, another witness to Christy's train wreck. The camera, once again, is still. Almost too still. Still enough to absorb the interstitial silence, and still enough to meditate upon the emotional carnage left in Christy's wake.
Having already spent the better part of an hour "growing up" with Christy, we can't help but wince in the face of his breakdown. Like rubberneckers at a crash site, though, there's something that pulls us in. Perhaps it's a fascination with the abomination, perhaps it's an ember of hope that Eileen will embrace him, rather than sit idly as he self-destructs. Whatever it is, Sheridan, in the span of just a few minutes, manages to both harness and channel it with indelible power. In short, he makes it "work."