Drama, Narrative and Restricted Fields of Action


Critical couple David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, in their jointly authored textbook Film Art, argue that the concept and physical actualization of ‘setting’ is key to the art of film-making. Far more so, in fact (they claim), than in the realm of the theatre to which they so directly compare and contrast the cinematic, in doing so arriving at the conclusion that “[cinema settings] need not only be a container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action.” (pg. 179)

It is ironic, then, that the methodology of the ‘restricted field’ of action or setting is, if anything, based on an explicitly theatrical convention that plays to the limitations of the stage: many famous plays are set entirely in one room or area so as to capitalize on the intimate and generally static nature of the stage area, including Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer-winning 1958 play J.B. (set entirely in a circus ring), Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men (adapted into a single-set Academy Award-nominated ensemble film, directed by Sidney Lumet) and Patrick Hamilton’s Rope’s End (adapted into the single-set film Rope, famously directed by Alfred Hitchcock), to simply name a few. Establishing a restricted field to mean the restriction of the narrative to the fewest possible settings and the least amount of physical space, why, then, does a restricted field of action still work in a cinematic context?

Firstly, from an artistic point of view, one of the most obvious advantages is that it allows your audience to focus entirely on the performative aspects of the piece.

Quentin Tarantino, in a 1994 interview with Film Comment coinciding with the launch of his Oscar-winning film Pulp Fiction, discussed his intentions behind setting the majority of his first, independent, picture Reservoir Dogs (1992) in a single warehouse, and came to the conclusion that, “…it plays with theatrical elements in a cinematic form–it is contained, the tension isn’t dissipated, it’s supposed to mount, the characters aren’t able to leave, and the whole movie’s definitely performance-driven.”

Tarantino has a point. It’s the very tension implicit in the constriction of spaces and spaces between characters used in films built around restricted fields that leads to moments of memorable dramatic tension, such as the famed “They’re coming for you, Barbara!” outburst in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, or the endlessly imitated Mexican standoff (and the preceding hour’s worth [Tarantino again: “…it takes longer than an hour…because you go back and see the Mr. Orange story…every minute for them in the warehouse is a minute for you.”] of overly-verbose bickering) from the final moments of Reservoir Dogs. Stuffing your characters into (figuratively speaking) a little box together forces them to interact, and (a favourite technique of Romero’s, though also in vogue with John Carpenter [see 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13 and 2001’s Ghosts from Mars]) often with time and the necessary ratcheting-ever-upwards of the tension factor, brings out the worst in them as an advisory on the worst excesses and tendencies of human nature.

Siege films may have perfected a manner in which to draw out the dark, exploitative heart of a restricted field, but submarine films deserve a mention for putting the sordid technique to a better, more illuminating use: Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), clocking in at anywhere from two and a half to nearly five hours long depending on the version under discussion, is regardless of its extreme length almost entirely set aboard a cramped, claustrophobic German submarine and is incredibly revealing in its depiction of men under intense pressure and forced to live together, a sensation and experience replicated with somewhat less success in by a film emanating from somewhere closer to the heart of the Hollywood system, The Hunt for Red October. Indeed, Das Boot may well simply be the modern expression of a tradition in naval films extending at least as far back as the pioneering The Enemy Below (1957), a tradition promptly and firmly secured in the new year by Run Silent, Run Deep (1958).

There are, of course, always exceptions, films that set themselves strange restrictions outside of the generically imaginable: Die Hard‘s Nakatomi Plaza is an exception to the rule by virtue of the skyscraper’s sheer colossal size: it singularly comprises the vast majority of the film’s sets, including carparks, offices, veritable labyrinths of air vents, elevator shafts and sub-basements, a hefty rooftop, and that’s only at a glance). The semi-documentary Russian Ark, too, falls into this category (filmed as it was in its entirety in the Winter Palace), restricted to a single location but exempted from the standard constraints by the scale of the locale. Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000) makes more than fair use of the semi-barren island on which the film is mostly set, with its network of caves, expanse of beach and rocky peaks, and all in a fashion very similar to that of John Boorman’s 1968 Lee Marvin/Toshirō Mifune vehicle, Hell in the Pacific.

I’d posit, here, a key difference between ‘restricted’ and what, for want of a better term, I’d have to call ‘restrained’ fields of action. Taking Rope as my foremost example of a film with a restricted field (that is, the story plays itself within the apartment), compare and contrast a film like Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo (2002), which has few locations but is narratively gifted with geographical and physical freedom and mobility, no matter how relatively scant. The most restricted set of films that come to mind are those issued by notaries of the original Dogma ’95 manifesto (Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration [1998] and Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots [1998] are perfect examples of how this short-lived attempt at crazed purity-minded avant-garde extremist minimalism worked).

Conversely, films stuck in a kind of cinematic No Man’s Land regarding the whole issue might include those belonging ‘road trip’ genre (prime examples include Bonnie and Clyde [1967], Wristcutters: A Love Story [2006], Easy Rider [1969], Sugarland Express [1974] and Two-Lane Blacktop [1971]), explicitly about travel, mobility and movement but constantly constricting their characters within intimate vehicle interiors, bringing incredible technical restrictions with the decision to film on the road, and as such these films are often more concerned with fetishising the sheer joy of motion and travel than depicting the places where the film might stop for a while.

I think, so that my point might be outlined in a slightly more vivid set of colours, it would be best to contrast all of the aforementioned with, for instance, the sheer breadth of geographical focus present in Francis Ford Coppola’s disarmingly diverse Apocalypse Now (particularly in its recut three-hour-plus Redux form), the Italo-American transnationalist attitude towards geography of The Godfather, the city-wandering aesthetics of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Sunset, the glamourised globe-trotting of the Indiana Jones tetralogy and James Bond: 007 series, or even the vast fantastical world-creation of sword and sorcery epics like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. These films are all lousy with, if anything, a lack of restraint and restriction: they instead revel in their own narrative freedom. Take Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series (2002, 2004, 2007), for instance: the titular heroic character is based at a fundamental level on the dynamics of movement, which in turn causes the film to run along similar lines; where would it be without those trademark city-traversing Tarzan-esque sequences of swinging from building to building? Films like Babel, with their postmodern insistence on the conflation of time and space and their globalized attitude towards narratives, jump from continent to continent and socio-cultural background to background with the ease that might otherwise come from the flicking of a switch.

Leaving the previously-elaborated artistic considerations of a filmmaker to one side, then, let’s consider the slightly more pressing and always over-riding financial considerations involved in the ever-industrial process that is movie-making in today’s braver, newer world:

The locating of a filmic narrative within a restricted field can often be related as much to the financial impediments of a geographically or visually wide-ranging period of principal photography as to any personal attachment on the parts of the writer and/or director to narrative or creative minimalism. Take, for example, Vincenzo Natali’s remarkable independent sci-fi effort Cube (1997), a “low-budget” film financed by the Canadian Film Corporation: it takes place on a single 14′ x 14′ set endlessly replicated throughout the film.

The early works of George Romero, most especially Night of the Living Dead & its slightly more ambitious bigger brother, Dawn of the Dead, are similarly restricted to a single house and a mall respectively, and Day of the Dead, while made with access to a relatively larger budget, focuses its attention largely on the inside of a claustrophobically self-contained military installation. Peter M. Nichols of the New York Times suggests that Romero made Night… with $114,000 American dollars and Day… with a reduced budget of $3,000,000, figures that Katrina Onstad concurs with in the same paper but a decade later, simultaneously pointing out that the far less contained and more recent Land of the Dead (2005) cost roughly $16 million to make by comparison, which is telling in itself.

Another bastion of indie hope would be Kevin Smith. His Clerks (1994) was made on anywhere between $25,000 and $27,000 American dollars (see Peter Mitchell’s interview with Smith on the topic, or Brian Johnson’s similar piece filed with Maclean’s, or even Owen Gleiberman’s short piece on Clerks II for Entertainment Weekly , all of which concur roughly with the above-quoted figure), and is set almost entirely inside a tiny convenience store and carried in a similar fashion by the sheer eccentricity of its rapid-fire dialogue, all, I’d posit, as a result of such a tiny budget.

Even today, your budget severely restricts one’s options when it comes to how widely and freely you may range: independently produced Scottish BAFTA winner Outpost (2007) was completed at a cost of two hundred thousand privately raised British pounds (‘Govan zombies taste film success’, BBC Scotland, Apr. 16), and is set entirely within a cramped, supposedly abandoned Nazi bunker, but features almost exorbitant amounts of gun-action and professional-level special effects sequences, I’d suggest as a result of its investment in staying in the one location. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), which predates it by nearly three decades, was made on a shoestring budget, but has almost obnoxious amounts of splatter and latex-based gore to make up for the fact that the whole film takes place in a small wooden cabin, empty bar for two poorly constructed bookshelves.

The message seems clear: the less you spend on your locations, the more you have to spend on your film as a whole. Which is not to say that these financial and artistic reasons for reining in your own film don’t cross over: Dan O’Bannon’s spaced-out sci-fi comedy, Dark Star (John Carpenter’s first major film, 1974) takes place entirely on a tiny junker of a spaceship, and while the film itself was a tongue-in-cheek student film shot on 16mm, O’Bannon went on to reuse the skeleton of the script as a foundation for the much higher-budget science-fiction classic Alien [1979], validating the set-up, which remains basically the same (alien gets loose on a cramped, poorly-lit spaceship filled with late-seventies Average Joe types and subsequently wreaks havoc to the tune of wholesale slaughter, the thought of being locked in with an nigh-invincible biomechanical nightmare without any hope of escape amplifying for the audience and crew alike the atmosphere of horror by at least a hundredfold).

Extended consideration would suggest that, though films with unrestricted fields of action make up a significant majority of the number, restricted film making quickly carved out for itself a niche worthy of critical and commercial praise far beyond the realms of your average ‘art’ film, and justly so, coming as it does from a proud history of staged drama and allowing as it can, verifiably, the opportunity to free filmmakers with even the tiniest of budgets from the requirements of an unrestricted classical narrative, and instead to produce a character-based screenplay with many potential strengths and minimal associated costs.

Works Cited:

Apocalypse Now: Redux. Dir. Francis F. Coppola. Perf. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper and Harrison Ford. DVD. Miramax, 2001.

Before Sunrise. Dir. Richard Linklater. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. DVD. Columbia Pictures, 1995.

Before Sunset. Dir. Richard Linklater. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy. DVD. Warner Independent Pictures, 2004.

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art. New York: McGraw Hill, 2002. 179.

Dark Star. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Dan O’Bannon. DVD. 1974.

Das Boot (the Boat). Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Perf. Jürgen Prochnow and Herbert Grönemeyer. DVD. Columbia Pictures, 1981.

Die Hard. Dir. John McTiernan. Perf. Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Alexander Godunov, Reginald Vel-Johnson, and Paul Gleason. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 1988.

Gleiberman, Owen. Entertainment Weekly 28 July 2006: 44. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 3 June 2008.

“Govan Zombies Taste Film Success.” BBC Scotland. 16 Apr. 2008. 9 June 2008 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/7351019.stm&gt;.

Johnson, Brian D. Maclean’s 24 July 2006: 53-54. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 5 June 2008.

Mitchell, Peter. “–.” AAP General News Wire 31 Aug. 2006: 1. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 7 June 2008.

Nichols, Peter M. New York Times 12 July 1998, Late ed., sec. 2: 24. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 4 July 2008.

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley. DVD. The Walter Reade Organization, 1968.

Outpost. Dir. Steve Barker. Perf. Ray Stevenson and Julian Wadham. DVD. ContentFilm, 2008.

Onstad, Katrina New York Times 10 February 2008, Late ed., sec. AR: 8. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 4 July 2008.

Reservoir Dogs. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, Lawrence Tierney and Chris Penn. DVD. Miramax, 1992.

Smith, Gavin. “Interview with Quentin Tarantino.” Film Comment 30.4 (1994):  32-42. ProQuest. La Trobe Bundoora, Melbourne. 8 June 2008.

The Sugarland Express. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perf. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton. DVD. Universal Pictures, 1974.

Two-Lane Blacktop. Dir. Monte Hellman. Perf. James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird and Dennis Wilson. DVD. Universal Pictures, 1971.

Wristcutters: a Love Story. Dir. Goran Dukic. Perf. Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Tom Waits, Shea Whigham and Will Arnett. DVD. Autonomous Films, 2006. 


~ by Martin Kingsley on July 12, 2009.

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