The Dinner Table

Friends with Kids (2012)

We’d put an awful lot of money into the season opener. So I was asked to write a show with no locations, no guest cast, no new sets and minimal extras. So I wrote a play.

– Aaron Sorkin on “17 People

Party hosts know well how adding more people to the mix can breed complications. Fiction works no differently, and Orson Scott Card explains in his introduction to Speaker for the Dead how two characters have one relationship between them, three characters have three, four have six, five have ten, et cetera. Keeping this straight beyond a certain point takes a steady focus.

The number of characters involved will have a necessary relation to how a creator structures a story. It’s easy to notice this in how we refer to filmed entertainment with a small set of characters as more “theatrical,” or in the association of genre fantasy and science fiction with a wider cast. World-building as an end in itself involves introducing more information, often in the form of more people. Fiction which puts a premium on level of detail can achieve this scale by bringing long lists of characters along for the ride.

The timeframe for a story also has a clear impact upon the structure of a story. The first tier of American epics—films like Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Raging Bull—have no stronger unifying thread then the wideness of their gaze. Years and decades pass by within two, maybe three hours, making for a decisively different tenor than a more compact dramatic scope.

The limits on the length of a film constrain the medium’s ability to stage the passage of time, and this has an inevitable effect upon the way in which these stories feel. Unlike a novel, a comic strip, or even a miniseries, there’s no way to fill in the sweep of a wide expanse of time with anything approaching thorough detail. So in precisely the opposite way from a one-day film, where the mundane, through its accumulation, becomes profound, nearly everything we see in these films feels significanta milestone along an important path.

These two axes—the number of characters, and the temporal scope of the story—so deeply fix the contours of a story as to be almost inseparable from the story a work chooses to tell. No matter the process and the sequence in which the creative hands fix these elements, they set down the shape of what the viewer will experience. You may be able to know more about a film in advance from knowing the number of major characters and the length of its story than from where it takes place and what it will be about.

I’m not familiar enough with romantic comedies as a genre to know whether Friends with Kids makes a decisive break from its governing conceptions. People who know better seem to say no. I can’t help but suspect, however, that its eight major characters and its six-year timeframe aren’t the normal approach. Few romantic comedies seem willing to push forward on both fronts. The all-hands-on-deck entries tend to organize themselves around a specific time of the year or event, as in Valentine’s Day or Love Actually. The stories of love over a lifetime narrow the cast lists appropriately. And the run-of-the-mill romantic comedy typically has a contained cast and a few months of events. Thus, even if Friends with Kids is simply expanding the scope and scale of the same old undertaking, it’s a modification with a significant impact upon the experience of the film, and a fascinating demonstration of what axes of time and breadth mean for a narrative.

There’s an energetic air to this film which is difficult to find these days, and the spring in the step has everything to do with its ambitions and with the ways in chooses to address them. The time-scale, the number of characters and the level of attention the film wants to provide to what’s happening on a macro level necessitate something very basic: short scenes. There’s simply no way to travel through an eight-character film and a complicated romantic arc within two hours without industrious efficiency, and the film takes every effort to elide details it deems unimportant and to exit scenes early on a punchline. Scenes are there for illustrative detail with an eye toward narrative economy.

The film makes the most of what it’s doing, too, and it’s compelling to take in the fortunes of the character’s lives. The changes within the group as people fall apart and grow close together feels remarkably true to the real-life experience of how sets of friends and partners interact over time. And even if its actual narrative makes no moves outside of what’s expected for the genre company it keeps, these moves feel far different when taking place amid a wider and more filled-in backdrop.

Whether or not its depiction of real adult relationships feels true to life, which will affect whether you can take from the film anything of significance beyond the novelty of its storytelling form, the film also features one terrific scene. The eight characters are together in a room only once, for a dinner at a cabin retreat. The meal feels like a riff on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” with alcohol gradually turning ruminative monologues into directed assaults. There’s a playful deployment of as many interactive pairs as possible among the damn near thirty relationships around the table, and Chris O’Dowd, Adam Scott, and Jon Hamm get a chance to run wild with Jennifer Westfeltdt’s script. It all coheres into an arresting, riveting scene, one simply not possible without the accrued character history and expanded cast afforded by the film’s approach.

The film can only bring about this scene because of the expanse of the story it tells, and that’s meaningful. Friends with Kids may be no greater in the scale of its ambitions than its cohorts in the modern romantic comedy, but its scale is ambitious, and to tell its story well is no small achievement.

A year from now when I think about the movie, what I’m most likely to remember is that scene. Works great and minor compress themselves into easier reference points. There’s something curious about this, and the way that scenes introduce themselves to first-time audiences, relative to the way they live on in the memories of fans. There’s almost no way to know heading into a unit of fictional storytelling that what you’re about to encounter is or is not “iconic,” is or is not a setpiece, is or is not a part of the story worth talking about after. It’s antithetical to art (though unavoidable) to decide that such-and-such scene is the work, midway through, but it’s an almost-inevitable shorthand.

There’s an aspect to this which doesn’t do violence to a work, though, for scenes in films bear the unmistakable mark of their surroundings. They carry with them a great deal of embedded information. In films, with their limited run times, long scenes must justify their existence. Film’s intrinsic compression makes the obligations of a scene to the wider aims of the story of paramount importance. And their nature, the significance we take from them, bears the indelible shape of the narrative structure. The constraints or the freedom of the scale and scope are there for all to see.

Films, unlike less constrained mediums, have only so much time to achieve what they’ve set out to do. It’s no accident that the cabin dinner in Friends with Kids is the longest scene in a film marked mostly by short episodes, as depicting the level of detail the film wishes to go into about the characters’ lives would not be possible if every scene were five minutes long.

One consequence of the sweep of the American epics I mentioned earlier, or any work with aspirations toward playing a broader canvass, is the inevitable need to achieve something different with each scene. The demands of providing information and exposition are greater, and a scene can’t simply tell a pleasing short story. What the viewer sees must not only have an immediate narrative stakes, it must also evoke and suggest a larger transition. It must stand for what’s occurring outside the frame, or at least catch you up on what else has occurred. Each unit of the drama must focus on illustration, sometimes to the detriment of immediate emotional impact. While this may not be the case for a pivotal or climactic event, where the import is up close and evident, key transitions by their nature are rarer by their nature than the events that clear the way for them.

The greater the temporal scope, the greater the tendency toward the inclusion of more scenes in the same amount of running time, and the same appears to be true for characters. Where there are more people in the mix, there is more of a need to stage their individual stories. The average scene length for a sequel will go down as the need to balance familiar faces with new introductions takes hold, and keeping tabs on an entire house party will need more nimble steps than staging a dinner between friends.

These proportional relationships are at work in television, as well, though more often due to financial constraints. The smallest ensemble and most focused vision on television, Breaking Bad, has a marked tendency toward lengthy, prolonged scenes. And perhaps the most thoroughly built-up and filled in world, on The Wire, made for a series where anything past two minutes counted as noteworthy.

There are, of course, ways to counter these inclinations, which don’t have the status of iron laws. A work could make its longer scenes always include more characters, and accomplish the work of bringing forward many individual stories in one go. Editing can allow for cross-cutting between one long scene and smaller illustrative episodes in a way that preserves the ability to tell a short story with some heft yet keeps the narrative moving. Yet where both aspects are in place, many characters and a longer view, the force pushing toward a greater number of scenes is strong, and the length of any given scene will trend downward.

The scale and scope of a work has a relation to its narrative, then, not only in the larger sense of story structure but in setting a baseline rhythm. The tenor and the default purpose of a scene changes, what a scene has room to do and what it must achieve in that time.

The idea of constraints on the basic unit of a work of storytelling is not unique to film, and in many ways it’s far less circumscribed in its possibilities than other mediums. No method of storytelling has a more exact restriction on its basic tempo than the comic strip, for instance—a certain width, a certain height, forever and for always, with no one strip failing to land a punchline. It’s no accident that Calvin & Hobbes trades have a tangible exuberance on the Sunday pages, the one time in the week where Bill Watterson could trade off the restrictive tempo of the six-weekly one-and-done. Television, too, as rich and varied as its forms have become, remains dependent on creating episodes with their own smaller stories and subdivisions for commercial breaks, HBO aside.

Film is free from the medium-dictated necessity of doing things in a certain way, and short of franchise-starters they’re not in the service of long-term narrative obligations. They can slide into a separate register of scene length far more readily, and more unexpectedly, even if the structure will limit how often it can let loose.

As a consequence, you don’t quite know heading into a given situation whether something will last for a short time or a long time, and an hour or so of a film isn’t often enough to establish any kind of rigorous rule to how the work will choose to depict events. We can encounter something truly unexpected. If poetry remains film’s closest kin, then cinema nonetheless speaks unconstrained by meter.

The potential for an air of unpredictability, however, depends in part on what kind of story a film is telling. The way extended scenes feel in a story of heightened temporal scope and with more lives depicted, as in the epics above, is noticeably different. Their function intertwines more tightly with the needs of the wider of the wider narrative. They must exist as illustrations, photographs of a longer life, something meant to evoke an inflection point and give the sense of a wider transition.

That these scenes serve a more explicitly narrative-driven purpose, rather than the possibility for something genuinely tangential or revelatory, often contributes to the ability to recognize certain scenes, before they fully come to fruition, as something demanding the utmost attention. We can sense, often because we are more or less told, that something important is upon us. Boogie Nights makes for a magnificent example, unsurprisingly given P.T. Anderson’s clear understanding of the tradition of the American epic and the film’s unabashed aspirations to become their peer. Prefacing a scene with a “Long Way Down (One Last Thing)” title card—an uncannily appealing phrase which works well in the strangest places—the drug deal cues you into its status as something to watch even before Alfred Molina appears in all his scenery-chewing glory.

That’s not to sell the scene short as a standalone narrative in its own right, a short story with razor-edge tension and a magnificent use of music. It’s no small feat to make some idiots sitting on a couch watching a lunatic expound on pop music carry such visceral intensity. If only by explicitly making clear that the scene is an inflection point, the expositional and illustrative purpose of the scene within a longer epic is out of the way, and PTA is free to let loose with a compressed mini-narrative. We know this is an ending, imbued with significance, and he pitches the storytelling to the meet the import of the moment.

The chops of a filmmaker like PTA, however, can distract from how his scene-by-scene talents acquire a radically different feeling depending on the context of the narrative; and his mature work bears out the importance of the two basic axes of scope and scale with surprising clarity. It also helps to make sense of how out-of-nowhere There Will Be Blood appeared when it first came on the scene, for from the right perspective it’s simply a novel assortment of constituent arrangements PTA had already mastered. Combine the uncomfortable character focus of Punch-Drunk Love and the temporal sweep of Boogie Nights, and you’re got a head-start on the skewed weirdness of Daniel Plainview’s life on the screen. Maybe the most unrecognized stylistic difference between Boogie NIghts and Magnolia, two ensemble films often treated as a pair, emerges from the latter’s lack of temporal diffusion.

PTA’s four major films neatly represent the four available configurations of few/many characters and short/long timeframe, in the order of many/long, many/short, few/short, and few/long, a lockstep progression between fundamental narrative confines. Simply focusing on these two axes provides as much a guide to the differing feels of the various films as their differences in style, subject and presentation. And it clues the viewer in to how the feel of the scenes changes along the way, how the hand of a master can bring to bear the same capacities to any given staging and yet use the overall context to create differences.

The scope of the characters under examination and the scale of the time depicted appear to be deep in the bones of narratives, perhaps the defining way to sort between them. How the film is set up can affect how we take even a straightforward scene, shorn of the immediate visceral and sensory impact of something from a younger director. Eyes Wide Shut, has precisely one scene where there’s a direct confrontation between the malevolent forces behind the drama and the perpetually baffled protagonist. With the typical Kubrick flattening, it plays out in a subdued key. Yet because of the compression of its narrative, the conversation between Bill and Ziegler has a far more bracing and fear-inducing force than if it were embedded within a wider scope, or if there were far more characters whom we knew. Among a small cast, Ziegler’s knowledge becomes a near-mathematical certainty, and what he will reveal to Bill is a foregone conclusion. Yet knowing something will happen, and knowing, almost from the outset, that it must happen, only heightens the fascination with the manner in which it unfolds. Where we know in Boogie Nights what would happen on the level of narrative structure, we know in Eyes Wide Shut what plot detail is on its way; and knowing one but not the other is more than enough to keep our interest. What form our interest will take depends on factors beyond what actually unfolds in the scene.

It’s an open question which of these configurations most closely conforms to our lived experiences. The formative moments of people’s real lives can have different shapes. An unexpected death or an endlessly planned wedding are both a part of life, no more or less true than the other. We can’t know what’s in store for us some of the time, while other times we know all too well; we can anticipate turns in the road but not the view beyond the bend.

The only constant is that something will happen, and then something else will happen, and perhaps this gives us a need for this variety of arrangements. We can recognize the weight of anticipation and the weightlessness of excitement in our own lives, at different moments. And for this reason, whether we take in the story of a few people or many, depicting a day or a lifetime, there will be no mistaking the signature of what occurs.

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