A good beginning takes you into a film with a bang, with a sense of expectation. The problem then is how to sustain that interest for the next half hour or hour. A lot of the problem is solved if you have provided yourself with a solid structure for the film. Even so, there will be pitfalls that can be avoided if you have thought a little about rhythm, pace, and climax.
These are obviously not just elements of documentary films but elements that every writer—whether novelist, playwright, or feature filmmaker— has to worry about. How often have you heard someone say, "Well, the book runs out of steam halfway through," or "It started dragging and then never seemed to end." This complaint of a slow, dragging film is, unfortunately, too often made about documentaries, particularly documentaries that are determined to give you every detail of a process, every fact about a person, whether interesting or not.
And the problems occur in the best of films. Harlan County, by Barbara Kopple, rightfully won an Academy Award a few years ago. It was a courageous film about a Kentucky miners' strike for a decent contract. The first two-thirds of the film was brilliant, but then it became repetitive, discursive, losing all its energy. There was one glaring central problem: The film had a natural ending that Kopple ignored. The result was that after the natural climax, the film began again in a more boring way and seemed to go on and on forever. Points made earlier in the film were merely repeated in different circumstances without adding very much to the viewer's knowledge. My view is that Kopple, in her obsession with her subject, had ignored or forgotten the basic rules about rhythm, pace, and audience demands.
What do we mean by good rhythm and pace? Quite simply, that a film should have a logical and emotional flow, that its level of intensity should vary, that its conflicts should be clear and rising in strength, that it should hold our interest all the time, and that it should build to a compelling climax. Unfortunately, it is easier to point out the problems than it is to offer all-embracing solutions. Here are just a few of the most common problems:
• There is no connection between sequences.
• Too many similar sequences follow each other.
• There are too many action scenes and too few reflective scenes.
• There is no sense of development or logical or emotional order to the sequences.
Are there any hints about how to deal effectively with rhythm and pace? I can offer just a few, very personal suggestions. For one thing, you need to get into the film fast. Establish what you are going to do, then do it. Another suggestion is to build the film with a variety of scenes and a gradual crescendo of climaxes.
Allan King's A Married Couple is an excellent example of a well-paced film. It deals with three months of a marriage crisis between Billy and Antoinette Edwards. Halfway through the film, we see a party. Billy is wandering around with a camera, ignoring Antoinette and taking photos. Antoinette is sitting next to the fire and pointedly suggesting to a New York visitor that they could become lovers. The scene sets up a tremendous distance between Billy and his wife. The next scene, however, shows Billy and Antoinette in bed together, with Antoinette weeping on Billy's shoulder. As the audience, we imagine her thinking, "Why do I have to do these things, make passes at other men? I really do love my husband." The conjunction of the two scenes is perfect.
The film also illustrates the value of establishing a series of rising climaxes. During the months of shooting, Billy and Antoinette were involved in three or four violent quarrels. In the most vicious of the arguments, which came near the beginning of shooting, Billy basically threw Antoinette out of the house. Though this was the second argument chronologically, it was the most powerful of the four, and King made it the climax of the film.
The need for variety between the scenes is a point that bears repetition. We see such variety in feature films, and it is just as important in documentaries. What we need is variety in the types and tempo of the scenes. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, written by William Goldman, was one of the most successful "buddy" movies ever made. Part of the success was due to Goldman's marvelous sense of structure and his masterly sense of variety and tempo. The film is full of sequences of action, pursuit, and gunslinging, but even these get boring. So in the middle, Goldman inserts an idyllic scene of Paul Newman riding his girlfriend around on his bicycle in between the trees while the music plays "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." It's a light, funny scene that allows us to breathe and relax before we return to the chase.
Yet another way to deal effectively with rhythm and pace is to put in a definite ending or resolution. These words of advice seem obvious but are often ignored. You ignore them at your peril. Many films, especially crisis films, have natural endings. When the end is not so clear, many documen-tarists shove in the "montage" ending, doing a fast recap of the major figures in their film. Sometimes it works, but it usually seems to me a confession of failure. If you have built your script logically, then the ending should be obvious — for example, the completion of the school year, the graduation ceremony, or the medical recovery. If you really have no ending, then I suggest a sequence that is fun and visually striking—for example, the high school dance, the celebrations at the end of the war, the boats arriving, the planes vanishing into the sunset. Finish with a flourish, and let them know the film is over. In The Chair, Paul Crump's execution is waived, and we know the film is finished. In a more open ended piece like Best Boy, the film concludes with Philly shaving himself. Such an act would have been impossible for Philly when filming commenced a few years earlier and symbolizes both closure and a new beginning.
What do we mean by a good climax? Well, just that. The film should give us a sense of finality, of completion, of catharsis (to use the old literary term). This seems obvious but isn't, and I've seen documentary after documentary that trails away with no sense of an ending. I know there is a deeper problem here. Life doesn't wrap up easily; not all stories have a neat beginning, middle, and end, and there is a grave danger in implying that it all concluded nicely. The Irish problem goes on and on after we finish our story of the pursuit and capture of the IRA man. The problems in Rwanda and Bosnia continue after the refugees cross the border or the United Nations troops arrive. And they don't live happily ever after. I
acknowledge all this, but I still insist that the particular story of the film must have a strong sense of conclusion.
All this is easier to write about than it is to do in practice. You are often uncertain about where the climax comes, whether the obvious ending is the best ending, or whether you can spare the time to wrap up the story. In 1990, I made the film Special Counsel, a documentary drama about the making of the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and the public and private personalities who helped resolve the conflict. There were tremendous battles and conflicts along the path to peace, and in one sense, it was very easy just to end the film with the signing of the peace accords on the White House lawn in March 1979.
That provided a very effective ending, but I felt there were still too many questions left unanswered regarding the fate of people and issues mentioned in the film. I therefore added a ten-minute section showing the actual Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and the battles to evict settlers forced to leave under the terms of the treaty. I also showed what happened to the main players of the film: the assassination of Sadat, the election defeat of President Carter, the death of Moshe Dayan, and the award of an honorary doctorate to one of the private but significant participants in the drama. It was a difficult choice, because this section might have been anticlimactic. I think it works because there was both a psychological need for the information and a physical need to cool down after the rush of the great events.
What is the job of the editor in solving all these problems? As I have argued, it is the job of the writer to establish the essential solutions to problems of pace, rhythm, climax, and ending. Obviously, the editor also plays a major part in establishing pace and rhythm. The rhythms and solutions that you as a writer put down on paper may not necessarily work when translated into the realities of filming. So, as often happens, the writer, editor, and director must work together to find an answer. However, the writer should not try to avoid tackling the problem in the first place; if you fail to provide the basic skeleton, you end up just dumping the problems in the editor's lap. But the editor must have the initial blueprint, something to react against. With that blueprint in hand, the rest is comparatively easy.
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