Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Musing Pictures: Lebanon (2009)

For a few years, I have been taking note of films set in very few or limited locations. In particular, as I was gearing up to shoot "A Modest Suggestion", the study of limited-location films became aesthetic research ("AMS" takes place almost entirely in one room). Although I finished that film, I'm still learning what makes these kinds of movies work (when they work) or flop (when they fail).

"Lebanon", an intense and intimate war film, is a superb example of the limited-location narrative. It's powerful, exciting, and builds up its story with wave after wave of tension and release, all in the claustrophobic confines of a tank. "Lebanon" also confirms a pattern I've begun to notice in limited-location films: The best of them subtly remove us from the confinement of their primary setting, often without leaving the space itself.

In "Lebanon", much of the narrative takes place outside the tank -- encounters with other soldiers, enemy fighters, civilians, and the chaos of war. We don't see any of that from outside the tank, though. Instead, our perspective is that of the tank's gunner, as he looks through his scope. Without leaving the tank, we are brought in to the world just outside of its walls. In that way, the claustrophobic atmosphere in the tank remains with us, but we are given opportunities to experience the context as well.

Aside from providing us with this visual/spatial contextualization of the story, the shots through the scope serve an additional, perhaps less "artful" but no less important purpose: They keep the story from getting "boring". Although I believe that it is possible to contain an entire film within one space without coming up for air (see Hitchcock's "Rope"), it is still important to maintain a rhythm of sensory variation. An analogy: Repeat a word enough times, and it loses its meaning and becomes mere sound. In film, a location can lose its effect in much the same way. By taking us outside of the tank, "Lebanon" gives our spatial sense a moment to shake off the dust and reset itself, so that when we return to the tank, we are affected by it anew.

In his book "Making Movies", filmmaker Sidney Lumet discusses this when he writes about his one-room classic, "Twelve Angry Men". In that film, Lumet begins with high angle shots, and gradually brings the camera down, lower and lower, until we can see the ceiling in the film's third act. The effect is claustrophobic, but the variation in the way that we see and relate to the location is engaging. The room doesn't look the same, so we continue to feel its presence and its effect.

I would argue that Lumet does something else that keeps the narrative alive: He takes us entirely out of the location without taking us anywhere. Here, it's a more subtle transportation than our glimpses through the tank's scope -- we never actually leave the jury room. Instead, as the jurors discuss their case, they attempt to re-enact the murder as they understand it. They push furniture around, and imagine the door, hallway and staircase where the murder took place. In doing so, they invite us to imagine that space as well. Although we don't actually see the door, we're imagining it just as the jurors imagine it, and that in itself transports us outside of the jury room and in to a seedy apartment building.

Other limited-location films and even isolated scenes that take place in confined spaces tend to do this. In particular, I'm thinking of the scene in "Jaws" where Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint sit in Quint's boat, exchanging stories. Quint tells of his experiences on the USS Indianapolis, detailing its sinking, and the perils of its crew in the shark-infested ocean. The performance is arresting, and the story horrific. Spielberg, through the character of Quint, transports us to a world filled with sharks, hidden danger and terrible death. But we don't see a frame of it. The entire time, we're in the bottom of Quint's boat, listening to him speak.

"Lebanon" uses this technique as well. In a quiet moment, the tank's gunner tells a strange story of his adolescence. We are transported with him to the scene of the tale, but we never leave the tank.

I can't think of a limited-location film where all of the action is immediate, where no stories are told and no memories are brought up to transport us elsewhere. If such a film exists, and if it's any good, I'd like to see it.


For a convenient list of Israeli films, visit