29 June 2010

40. When Harry Met Sally

Look at the structure: they meet cute, their relationship unexplained, when they go on a roadtrip together and he's making out with someone else, hardly noticing her. They are opposites: he eats grapes, she doesn't like to snack; he talks death, is casual; she's uptight, rigid. It's all subtext, but it's there: opposites attract. Even more buried subtext: a continuation of something Woody Allen (and many others) explored a lot -- the Jewish gaze of shiksas, the split between Jews and WASPS in relationships.

At about ten minutes in, the inciting incident: "You're attractive", he tells her. She resists. Followed by the theme: "Men and women can't be friends." So now we spend the rest of the film, all the plot points, zeroing in on whether or not this thesis statement is true, and whether opposites do indeed attract.

In between the action, which takes place over a few decades, we get interludes with "real couples" in their old age, reflecting on the various plot points. It's almost musical in the way these sequences comment and reflect on the action, but in this case the music is comedic. The pay-off for these is that, at the end of the film, they are the old couple on the couch discussing their relationship.

Structurally, everything fits. I find films that take place over too long a time are much more unwieldy than those that are constrained, but this does well with the long timeframe. Everything is there: second act complications wherein they are older and wiser and divorced and hating single life; the subplot (Kirby and Fisher) as their best friends who get together and are a foil to relationship; the midpoint setpiece -- a NYE party where they kiss and realize concretely that they are attracted to each other; a compressed third act where they fight and makeup.

An examination of the "orgasm" scene: it works for a variety of reasons:
* it's right before the midpoint, so it's showing them growing closer
* it shows her character growing, opening up -- this is something that we would never believe of Sally in act one.
* it shows Harry learning something new, unexpected; it shows him getting comeuppance.
* teaches the audience something (possibly) new about life -- how many men STILL don't realize women do indeed fake orgasms?
* public showing of a private matter -- inherently cinematic, visual
* great acting (both action and reaction shots of the two MCs)
* great editing (reactions of the other customers)
* great writing -- punchline

Something to think about: to create a scene that stands the test of time, you have to structure it just right in the story, have it show the audience something new, make it technically well-done, and have it do several things at once.