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We Come Running: Big Moves in “Silver Linings Playbook”

David O. Russell flirts with absurdism, flinging characters into a chaotic universe before using Hollywood convention to reel them back in.

I'd rather have someone human and available and raw and open. Don't give me someone cold, or cut off, or someone who considers themselves dignified.”

Lily Tomlin, The New York Times, Sep. 19, 2004

We live in suburban single-families just around the corner; we walk, run, or ride bikes to get where we’re going, and don’t use cars or even sidewalks (there’s a fuckin’ tons of roads to run in!). The second-hand soundtrack of our lives, overheard from other movies, is overplayed classic rock, usually Zeppelin, but sometimes a drum-heavy instrumental there to underscore abandon. Our clothes express where we’re at in life, not who we are. We come running from out of nowhere like we always have, like the security guard in I Heart Huckabees, tackling Jason Schwartzmann from outside the frame for planting trees in a parking lot. Like immigrants or the crew of a John Ford movie on location, our families are big and only get bigger, eventually encompassing everyone in sight.

We say You’re killing me when something bothers us—because we take everything to heart—and That’s confusing when we don’t understand each other, because characters in scripts always understand one another, and we can get a laugh out of undermining that, not to mention maybe we know something they don’t (We’re not liars like they are). We open up to you and hope you don’t judge us for it. We know the inevitability of human drama.

At home, we all talk at once.

The world will break your heart ten ways to Sunday, that’s guaranteed.
We can’t begin to explain that, or the craziness inside ourselves and everybody else, but guess what? The camera’s in the bed of a pickup, driving away as fast as it can; joy is in the streets with our sloppy feelings and the screwed-up faces we make at all the crazy sad shit in our lives. We’re in a David O. Russell movie, of course, and it’s one hot mess of a screwball dramedy.

***

In Russell’s world, even the camera comes running, swooping in on the human face in a flourish of melodrama. Next to Wes Anderson, Russell has the most expressive camera in comedy, telegraphing his tracking shots (as well as their meaning) with trajectory and almost moronic assurance. If his cinematography is undignified, it’s because so are his characters. For Russell, who owes his career to framing socially inappropriate behavior within Hollywood convention, making a rom-com about bipolar disorder and a loyal, married-to-a-dead-guy slut (Silver Linings Playbook, 2012) comes as naturally as using the hackneyed structure of triumphant boxing biopic to tell the story of a dancing crackhead and his kid brother (The Fighter, 2010).

The Fighter is a pictorial, oral history of Massholes—the definitive comic, if not dramatic, portrait of Greater Boston—while Silver Linings Playbook is a glimpse at Philadelphia through its western suburbs, with Bradley Cooper the homegrown son in place of Mark Wahlberg, and a family of Italian- instead of Irish-Americans. Raised an atheist, now a humanist, Russell flirts with absurdism, flinging his characters into a pointless, chaotic universe before using Hollywood convention to reel them back in, except for in the outright absurdist Huckabees (made while he was going through a divorce), the least conventional of his films, in which characters grapple with the meaning of the universe out loud, vocalizing themes left unspoken in Russell’s other work, with only the loosest of three-act structures to constrain their activity and nothing but existential detectives to come to their rescue.

Russell’s films rise and fall depending on how funny they are; even The Fighter succeeds as comedy more than anything else, starting out as vernacular grotesquerie before eventually shading into drama. Russell builds up to screwball-like crescendi by piling socially inappropriate behavior atop mundane psychological detail atop, in the case of The Fighter, acutely hilarious regional observation. Just as Silver Linings could’ve been called That Face Jacki Weaver Makes, The Fighter could’ve easily been titled A Photo Essay on the Faces of the Seven Actresses Cast to Play the Eklund Sisters (Including But Not Limited to: Pork, Tar, Beaver, Red Dog & Little Alice). When haircut and bone structure establish character, jokes tell themselves.

Typical of Russell’s films and their screwball nature is the scene in The Fighter in which a limo pulls up to a crackhouse and Dicky (Christian Bale) jumps out the back window into a dumpster full of garbage bags to avoid seeing his mother (a recurring gag); comedy is in the Frankenstein-like body language of the crackheads as they perceive danger; the nonchalance with which Dicky jumps from the window; the casual way Micky yells at his brother as Dicky emerges from the trash; the undignified acts of a father pulling his grown son down from a chain-link fence and a son hitting his father (reprised for screwball drama in Silver Linings); and Micky in turn yelling at everyone with further nonchalance. Then there’s those seven Eklund sisters, whose every scene is a comic masterwork of everyone talking all at once…

Favoring hysterical outbursts like some kind of Capra-corn Cassavetes, Russell paints feelings in sfumato, collaborating with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey) to create in Silver Linings an ugly beige beauty from Steadicam shots that emphasize raw emotion over clean cinematography, precise blocking, or perfect match cuts. An actor’s director, who insisted that sets on this film be lit 360 degrees to allow actors the freedom to move around, Russell is nonetheless a coherent stylist. Silver Linings displays a sense of rhythmic visual rhyming throughout—something like the running-in-place dance steps Pat Solitano (Cooper) and Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence) pattern after Singin’ in the Rain—with a structure that sways here and there but leans heavily on shot/reverse-shot, on top of which structure Russell shows off two signature moves, or techniques, that make the look of the film really stand out:

  • Steadicam swoop-in to facial reaction shot (used multiple times at the dance competition in Silver Linings and once earlier in the film to reveal Pat’s realization about the letter), which depending on usage is sort of his triple axel or triple Salchow.
     
  • Camera-on-the-back-of-a-truck-as-it-speeds-away, which is his “Big Move,” to use Silver Linings terminology.

Deployed only twice so far, towards the beginning of The Fighter and the end of Silver Linings, the Big Move is the most blatant, flagrant tracking shot in all of cinema right now, a record of enchantment designed to elicit one reaction, the one the gal next to me had the last time I saw it: “Oh my god, this movie’s so fucking good.” In Hollywood, happy endings are quotidian, but the characters in Silver Linings go out on a limb to earn theirs, fighting for it the entire time, framed from all sides by a camera—emotional, indecorous, melodramatic—that risks believing in magic.

“I feel like I'm being crushed… I'm, like, suffocating,” says Ronnie (John Ortiz), covering his face with his hand. “You can't be happy all the time.”

“Who told you you can’t be happy?!” asks Pat, as if speaking for the movie.


Sure, this is formula. It’s Hollywood. Russell creates a comic landscape then fills it with melodrama, big deal. But if Pat espouses an empty positivity, responding to the hard knock life with pseudo-intellectual placebos, Silver Linings reflects a more complex vision, realized in the film’s third and final act through the impressionist interplay of expressive camera movement and bodies in motion working in harmony with themes Russell’s been coloring in for years. Sure, plot contrivances abound, and yeah, tertiary characters are there for no reason—but look at the cinema of David O. Russell long enough and you may see a reason: his families are big and only get bigger, expanding with every outburst. Silver Linings, like The Fighter, shows what Huckabees only tells: that interconnection grows from the manure of human trouble.

Like any David O. Russell picture, Silver Linings Playbook is a love letter to human cookie monsters of neuroticism and the dysfunctional families that love them.

To be honest I think russell is one of the most overrated directors I have ever seen. I am very confused about why this movie is getting so much hype. All of his movies that I watched feel as if they should work well in theory but when watching it I am always baffled at how they fail to deliver anything that has coherence. His scenes are either too self-conscious of its own credibility or too enchanted by its own emotional gimmicks. Also where he puts the camera is not peculiar but just down right incompetent. There are dozens of scenes that I feel uncomfortable because the camera is off. honestly I don’t think he really knows how to compose a shot. But besides all that his movies don’t have the heart that they boast to have. I feel like he knows what a dramatic scene is suppose to look like but he doesn’t know how to make one because he’s always making things around how how effective a scene can be. It’s just a chaotic mess and all the confusion can opens up space for ambiguity but I refuse to think that perhaps he is a good director because I am so sure that he isn’t.
While I agree with willythesalesman about how his recent work is overvalued, particularly in his storytellings skills (rather than his ability to craft narrative logic, pace, or a functional performance), and at times his efforts are clearly self-conscious, I do find there are some masterful things about his process of direction that include the a means of obtaining and maintaining an energy of performance that is cohesive and specific, even if if the moment is meant to be chaotic -these moments are clearly co-ordinated in that the pace of the scene often works well in its capture and coherence, despite an intense and improv-ish energy (that seems appropriately cited by Otie as Cassavetes-esque), which is a clear sign of great work. What might allow these moments of great chaotic energy (and perhaps a confirmation of his philosophical beliefs inherent in Huckabees) is that each character clearly has their own pace, level of energy and performance design that is often in conflict with all the other uniquely designed performances -another sign of clearly intelligent intentions (that happens to further support a Huckabees world view, as well as the self-conscious and overly-controlled nature of his work). Finally, what is perhaps most interesting is that his photography is often given the challenge to capture this work against it’s own physical challenge (such as an unbalanced a steady-cam that must fight to get it’s shot, or a second a.c. that isn’t given clear actor marks are great examples to applying this chaotic philosophy to its technical capture, that perhaps result in what willythesalesman is perceiving as ill-composed photography. While O. Russell remains one whom is growing as a ‘story-teller,’ he certainly has strengths and vision as a director, whether he is completely successful or not, and should be recognized as talented despite failures.
Mac
Capra-corn cokehead.
I’d prefer Capra-corn Cassavetes, what with the clear lineage linking the three. As to his personal life, I’m with Simone Weil: “To write the lives of the great in separating them from their works necessarily ends by above all stressing their pettiness, because it is in their work that they have put the best of themselves.”
Mac
The man is his work, and his work has a bloody nose and a grinding jaw, not to mention is extremely loud and hideously loquacious. Every time I watch one of his movies I feel like I’m looking through the eyes of a Hollywood Agent who just closed a deal with Katzenberg and just got a blowjob from Sherilynn Fenn.
Gold lioning is better than silver lining.

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