"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
“Birdbath”: Particles of Speech
Film Festivals should offer Lila French’s lovely adaption of “Birdbath” as a primer to filmmaking tyros. “Birdbath” reminds me of a fine pen sketch by Sidney Paget or Edward Gorey. You see the finished work and surprise yourself by realizing how few strokes went into such a deft creation. It’s a short movie containing nothing but conversation enlivened with acting. When the actors, director, DP, and rest of the crew are excellent, the result is better than most anything around.
Ah, no, “Skook” had no business winning anything at NOFF. “Birdbath” was, like, way better, Dude. Fer sure!
At the time I caught the second screening of “Birdbath” at the New Orleans Film Festival, slacker films had swamped me. Hours of flat characters with nothing to say to each other just drains the creative impulse. I couldn’t think to review. After seeing “Birdbath”, it occurred to me how crucial good dialogue is in any film. Unfortunately, independent films shall remain saturated with too-cool losers who smoke, smoke weed, slouch, and detach themselves from everything, including those foolish enough to sit and watch all this.
My next essay, “Speech Impediments”, will break that detachment with an overdue violent assault. Now let’s focus on how Lila French uses dialogue to craft an excellent short film.
Craft shall be our operative word. All dialogue is crafted conversation. Remember that poetry and drama come from the same source: men (sorry ladies – but it’s true) standing alone reciting stories and histories in verse. The dialogue in drama only became prose after the Restoration, after a period when Cromwell had banned plays and broken traditions. While they work very differently, movies remain tied to plays in this regard. You need poise and purpose in the fabric of every character’s speech, Bill and Ted included.
In “Birdbath” we have the simplest of set-ups: two employees of a diner walk towards home after closing. Unlike a play written by the horrid Neil Simon, we have conversation rather than one-liners. Our characters are more realistic, but there’s a certain style in their speaking. Some of this is time-sensitive. Leonard Melfi wrote “Birdbath” in 1965, near the beginning of his career. Some of this is conventional playwriting. For those of us who have spent hundreds of hours watching drama, there’s an “Oh, Thank God!” sensation when we realize that there will be no “up-talk” cadence (say, “Dude, Totally!” to understand what I mean), and in fact we’ll spend time with serious people. We hear the dialect of the footlights.
That dialect insists on backstory and scene setting in the early conversation. Slacker films eschew this. Those scripts need little mysteries to keep us from falling asleep. The traditional pattern does require skill to keep the characters moving. Here Melfi may have erred: Ms. French told me in an interview that she found things she could remove from the dialogue and incorporate into her acting. A one-act should be all lean and no fat to cut. Unlike Shakespeare, Melfi doesn’t trust his actors quite enough not to overegg his aural pudding. Ms. French was quite right removing whatever passages she did. “Birdbath” never lags . . . or, shall we say, slackens.
Velma Sparrow and her coworker Frankie, a better drinker than poet (a Melfi staple), are young people from the bottom of the social world. In a play by a European or someone like Clifford Odets, we’d hear more about the societal injustices pushing these people downward. Melfi worked more internally. He deflected answers about his work using the term “encounter”, something of a marketing plug for two of his compilations. The slant away from the external creates a more timeless intimacy, perhaps why this has been his most performed play.
What we see are actually two conversations: surface communication, often involving small talk or minor self-revelation, and the deeper conversation as a man and woman size each other up for a potential sexual liaison. If you count the internal dialogue each actor skillfully displays, then we technically have four conversations going. Instead of slacker detachment, we see the effort to sincerely bond and connect through the static. Melfi’s later failures may have something to do with his continuing interest in sincerity and emotional exposure. The post-70s world didn’t take kindly to such interest, a world following Nixon into covering-up.
Here Melfi gives his two actors a dynamic movement to build their performances around. As gifted a director as she is an actor, Ms. French actually trusts us to watch carefully to see it all. As Velma, she hesitates, obfuscates, and surrenders, only to reconsider. Frankie stays interested, and goes from anticipation to frustration to resignation to acceptance. Real traps exist for both actors: this could have easily been bad Tennessee Williams-lite (see: Jasmine, Blue). Ms. French and Chad McKnight create an illusion of genuinely repressed pain slowly revealed. There are real chasms separating being on screen, acting, acting with finesse, and Al Pacino-scenery-gobbling. Our two actors here work with finesse and in harmony with the rest of the production. For a small, quiet movie, we have a lot going on if we know where to look.
The direction and shot selection really help point this out. As opposed to European circles, where societal emphasis requires wider shots (Socialism poo-poos beauty shots), “Birdbath” focuses on the person. We get a lot of close-ups. The historical setting is shown in small personal objects, like Frankie’s typewriter. As the two characters become better acquainted, the shots change from lots of clean singles to “dirty singles” where the other character is in frame, but out of focus. As “Birdbath” moves to denouement, you begin to really see the true beauty in each person. Ms. French, the director, gives Ms. French, the actor, along with Mr. McKnight nowhere to hide.
As social apes, we respond to emotional intensity in others. Again, the finesse comes into the play: we see emotion but not anger, which pushes the audience away. As Velma dithers, the camera closes in. We see her very blue eyes dart around trying to figure out what to do. It’s a series of beautiful frames showing a character who is beautiful but clearly can’t relate to that concept. She wants to be wanted, but finding herself wanted, finds herself frightened. It’s a sequence someone should show to Olivia Wilde or Kate Beckinsale. I’ve seen both sitting at tables in films talking and looking beautiful (Ms. Wilde shot just so in the awful “Rush”) but not having the scope to do this. It’s the type of moment Cate Blanchett strived for just recently, but Woody got in her way (or whatever happened). Mr. McKnight is a worthy counterbalance, matching Ms. French quite harmoniously. It’s rare enough to really appreciate (see Jasmine, Blue. supra).
Proper dialogue gives actors a chance to build their characters. Recall Shakespeare, an actor, offers his brethren almost solely dialogue. Actors need to trust that they can just flow out and the strength of the words will keep them from falling. You can’t act if the dialogue makes you look ridiculous, no matter how great an actor you are (see the recent filmography of Hopkins, Sir Anthony). But when the words on the page ring and sing, actors can find their personas in the smallest speech patterns or idiosyncrasies. They sense little particles of movement (here hidden in Melfi’s words) to add their voices to, which along with Lila French’s direction and the help of a talented crew have made 47 minutes of work worth seeing.
Reposted from Raymon on Film and Photography