When the scene is repeated, the same actions happen, but there's a huge difference in how the scene is presented, which means there's a huge difference in viewer reaction.
Director: Rian Johnson
(Mighty) Young Joe: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Is he in a movie where he doesn't use a gun?: Bruce Willis
The Dude: Jeff Daniels
She shows up out of nowhere, especially because I didn't know she was in the movie: Emily Blunt
Futuristic Eli Sunday: Paul Dano
Forgot about her: Piper Perabo
Just when Jeff Daniels thought this guy couldn't possibly be any dumber, he totally is: Noah Segan
CREEPIEST KID EVER: Pierce Gagnon
Gets to be cute for a paycheck: Qing Xu
What It's Good For:
-going to see in theaters
-JGL and Rian Johnson and Pierce Gagnon
-escalation of plot elements
-the "death of future Seth" scene
-people are going to talk about this movie for a long time
-lots of killing
-dares to bring up some philosophical questions
-the JGL make-up could ruin the movie for you
-slows down a little a little after half way
-some people could be disappointed there isn't more future
-lots of killing
-brings up some philosophical questions but doesn't dive into them
Watch the video below.
...the second time we see Young Joe see Old Joe for the first time.
The actions are the same. We see Willis appear, GL pause, Willis spin, GL shoot, GL try to reload, Willis throw the gold bar, GL flinch, Willis get up, run over, and face-punch GL. GL goes to the ground.
The first time I saw the scene, I went: "Cool". The second time I saw the scene? I laughed out loud. Like, "HAHA".
Because the second scene takes place from an extreme distance, at a high-angle, as though the camera were a bird on a power line, and the shot is one take, no cuts. We don't get the slow zooms building tension. We don't get the cuts from character to character, their facial expressions. We don't have the close-proximity to the blunderbuss's eruption or impact, so the roar and bite aren't as ferocious. We don't hear the groans of Willis, or see the gold bar coming at the camera followed by Willis charging the camera and punching it out.
What the distance does is weaken the visceral impact on the viewer of the actions taking place.
There is less sound. There is less fine detail to notice about the characters, so less to care about (we care more about what's going on with the characters than with the dry land or the corn field, right?). There is less camera movement, whether it be panning, zooming, or cutting. And the distance of the camera means we view a larger amount of world, in this case the larger world is dry land and a corn field and sky, a static scene that also has very little movement, which means the actions of the characters are marginalized, are swallowed up by the scene's scope (much like the phrase "which means the actions of the characters are marginalized" is swallowed up by the other clauses in this long sentence).
Have you ever been in a fight with someone? Maybe you didn't throw punches. But you were pushing. Maybe you weren't pushing but screaming and face to face. Or maybe two people right next to you start going at it. There's a palpable sense of vulnerability, right? Adrenaline kicks in. Have you ever been at a concert and a mosh is born right beside you?
Keeping in mind everything said to this point, I want you to watch two more videos. You don't have to watch all of them. But maybe a minute of each (I realize the second video is only :55), or skip through them. But pay attention.
And this is what's going on in our scene in Looper. When we're removed from the action, when we're NOT FEELING what the characters are feeling, we're simply observing.
This is one of the cool things about the medium of film. A director can pull a viewer into and out of situations.
Usually this is done by cutting. Warning, this video is gross. It's from one of the Saw movies. You can fast forward to the 3 minute mark.
In The Godfather, watch as Coppola pulls us in and takes us back out.
Really, what we're talking about is immersion. And what I'm talking about: shot selection determines immersion. Well, shot selection and sound. But the sound of a film is usually synched to the proximity of the camera to the source. So if the camera is close-up on a gong, we REALLY hear the gong. If the camera is on a character half a mile away from the gong, we hear the gong from a half-mile away. Some directors would choose to cut back and forth between the gong and the character. So the viewer REALLY hears the gong, then doesn't, then DOES, then doesn't, THEN DOES, then doesn't, THEN DOES, and the camera rests on the gong, so the viewer HEARS, AND HEARS, AND HEARS, AND HEARS the gong. Then we go back to the character as the character goes to do something in response to the sound of the gong. Imagine then if the camera wasn't on the gong or the character a half mile away but on someone in a watch tower two miles outside of the city. The gong is faint. And from the tower we can see people in the town running, reacting to the gong. It looks like the mosh scene above (the second video). Now imagine we're from the character's perspective, running towards the gong. With people running away from the gong. So it's very much like the first mosh video, bodies everywhere, collisions, screams, heavy breathing, confused yelling, and the increasing sound of the gong.
(Note: in Gladiator Ridley Scott provides some long shots and medium long shots during gladiator fights, but he never once takes us outside the Coliseum (why would he?). The furthest away we get from the action is a shot from the upper deck. That is, until Maximus is wounded, then we get the tease of seeing a world with a dark sky and a big stone wall with tall wooden doors set in it. Then we cut back and forth between Maximus in the arena and Maximus entering the afterlife (which is, for him, his home in Spain, being with his family), the warrior finally being set free from the battlefield, the warrior allowed to breathe in love rather than blood. Had Scott chosen not to show this, to not give Maximus this peace from the carnage, the viewer wouldn't have a respite from the carnage. And, of course, with the last shot, we rise out of the Coliseum and see the wide world beyond, mountains, distant buildings, a glorious sunset.)
So. Looper. We have no gongs. No mass hysteria. What Rian Johnson gives us the first time (in the one scene we've been discussing; in case somehow you forgot that scene it's the one where Willis throws a gold bar at JGL's face) is detail, tension, emotion, the tarp being rippled by the wind, a gun shot, exclamations. He immerses us in this interaction between JGL and Bruce Willis. He is attempting to make us emotionally invested in this interaction the only way film can: with proximity.
The second time, Johnson could care less about our reaction to something we already saw. Think about his options. He could repeat the same scenes. He could make some slight adjustments, but why? He could have not repeated the scene at all, but that's not really an option because seeing the scene again helps us understand the flow of time (we've now seen Willis appear on the tarp 3 times; the first is actually the second time Willis appeared (going back to try and change the future), and the second is actually the first time Willis appeared (JGL "closed his loop", and this JGL goes on to become Willis), and the third is the second time repeated). So he has to repeat the scene. But if he repeats the same shots, he's simply repeating himself (as I'm prone to do) and that gets boring (which is why I'm boring). The most logical option, to me, is to make a drastic change. And that's what Rian does. He sets the camera WAY back from the action. He's basically saying: "Fuck it, I have to show you this. Here you go."
And this is why I laughed out loud. Because I'm no longer emotionally invested in what's going on (this is what Scott provides the viewer at the end of Gladiator, a bit of disassociation from the melodrama that just occurred). I'm an unbiased observer. And what I'm observing is one guy throwing a gold bar at another guy, the other guy staggering and not recovering right away, the gold-bar-throwing guy closing ground in order to punch the staggering guy, and, finally, the punch. To me, this is hilarious. A guy with a deadly gun can't reload and gets knocked out. And there's no reaction. The dry land doesn't gasp. The corn isn't suddenly concerned. The sky does nothing. There's been this flurry of activity, and then JGL is as still as everything else in the scope of the shot.
Johnson had us in the scene and then out of the scene. And I think one of the things that makes Looper so good is the way Johnson manipulates immersion. Four other moments come to mind.
1. The death of Seth. We're immersed with Future Seth rather than Regular Seth, and it's hard to decide which is more horrific.
2. The first time we see Bruce Willis taken by the Rainmaker's men, they break in and we cut (out) to the house on fire. We think Joe's wife has left the house. So when Bruce Willis tells GL about what happened to his wife and we go back to the scene, we go back to the time between the Rainmaker's men entering the house and the start of the fire. We're immersed in the capture now. And what do we see this time around? The death of Willis's wife. The failure to immerse us the first time leaves us without specific details. In other words, we don't know the wife is dead. Which means when Willis is going on about his wife, we think he wants to get back to her because she's alive and he misses her. Nope. She's gone, baby...gone.
3. ALL THE LOW ANGLE CLOSE-UPS OF CID SCREAMING. It's terrifying in a way, right? I'm not alone here, right? The kid was freaky, right? We're immersed in this kid's anger.
4. Johnson has no problem showing us Gat Man Jesse exploding. But he does the same thing with Willis killing the kid that Saw Number Whatever did with the crushing wall. The viewer is brought to the moment of horror, the the cut occurs. In Saw Number Whatever it's the beginning of a human being crushed by two closing walls. In Looper it's the pulling of the trigger. Cuts save the viewer from witnessing the worst of the horror. It may be the only time in the film Johnson pulls a punch.
Immersion isn't anything special. Every director does it. Every film does it. Praising a film for immersion is like praising a novel for using words. But some novels, like those of Don DeLillo, or Julio Cortazar, or Virginia Woolf, use words in such a way that the words are beautiful. We see this with filmmakers like Terrence Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson. On the other end of the spectrum, you have John Grisham or Stephen King, the words are industrial, they are there to do work, to convey meaning rather than to earn "ooo"s and "ahh"s from the reader. These authors are concerned with story, not beauty. Here you have filmmakers like Walt Becker, who directed Van Wilder, or Tony Scott, or Ivan Reitman, or the Farrelly brothers. This is the general group of novelists and filmmakers. They are technicians rather than artists. Artist immerse into beauty. Technicians immerse into story. And then you have speciality directors like Alfred Hitchcock (immersion into suspense), Michael Bay (immersion into squalor), Scorcese (immersion into violence), Burton (immersion into weird), George Lucas (immersion into a low-IQ zone), and Spielberg (immersion into emotional manipulation).
What Looper immerses us in isn't sci-fi, or dystopia, or action, but psychological horror. The movie plays out like some sort of nightmare of fears: rejected romance, having to kill yourself, running out of money, getting married and finding peace only to have that peace torched and your wife murdered, having to go back in time and do battle with your younger self, seeing your body parts disappear and knowing that means a young version of you is being horribly mutilated and you're trying to reach a certain spot in order to save young you and thus yourself but you keep losing fucking body parts!, having to murder a child, being hunted by gangsters and police alike, a creepy fucking kid, drug withdrawal, having to mutilate yourself to send a message, having a message appear on your flesh as a scar, murdering an entire building full of people, having to stalk a mother and son, having to make a crazy life or death decision. If you see the movie again (or for a first time...and uh...sorry about the spoilers?), pay attention to how Johnson shoots these scenes and what would happen if the camera were further away or closer.
Did I Like It:
Yeah. As it ended, I texted a friend and said "Looper is an instant classic." People love revenge stories, and it has that going on. But it also has just...awesome moments. The Death of Seth! The revelation of Cid's power. The final decision. Willis kicking two people in the balls. Kid Blue may be one of the saddest characters in the history of film. I just...I can easily see people going "Have you ever seen Looper? NO?!!? LET'S WATCH IT NOW!" The same way people do with Memento, or Seven, The Departed, or The Matrix.
Christopher Orr of The Atlantic Monthly, who I often have qualms with, but whom I keep reading, described JGL's make-up as that of "a marionette that didn't make the final cut of Team America: World Police." It's probably the most accurate and hilarious description possible.
A friend asked about the logic in going back in time to kill the Rainmaker. Isn't it a good thing that he's killing all the mob people? Probably. But Willis wants to kill the Rainmaker so he can get his wife back, regardless of whether or not the Rainmaker is doing good or bad stuff in the future. I thought the Rainmaker was still doing bad things on top of killing the other bad people. Like a shark killing a shark and just taking over the shark's territory (shark's are territorial in this example). I think the film is even better if the Rainmaker is actually doing good stuff in the future and Bruce Willis is just being really selfish. But, judging by Cid's personality, I'm sure he wasn't doing the best of things.
% Character / % Actor's personality / Uniqueness grade
-movies with time travel: Twelve Monkeys; Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure; Donnie Darko; Terminator
-movies with blunderbusses: Master and Commander; Hot Fuzz; Straw Dogs
-movies with telekinetic ability: Chronicle; Carrie; X-Men: First Class; Akira; Firestarter; The Lawnmower Man
-movies with repeated scenes: Ocean's Eleven; The Bourne Identity; Fight Club; Limitless
-movies with scary kids: The Good Son; Deliverance; The Bad Seed; The Omen; Cheaper by the Dozen