Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Californication shows that emotional moments should be seen and not heard

Though most other premium cable viewers have spent the last few days gushing about the twist that closed out Dexter, I want to take a few minutes and discuss a trope used in the final minutes of Californication's season finale.

As viewers of that episode know, the closing scenes of that episode featured Hank Moody telling his soulmate/mother of his child Karen a MAJOR secret that had been building up over the last few seasons. It couldn't have come at a worse time, as the two had finally worked through their differences and were preparing to move back to New York with their daughter. To say Karen didn't take it well would be an understatement. She starts shouting at him, practically breaking down. Then it gets worse for Hank as he goes outside only to run afoul of the cops, who are looking for him thanks to a fight he got into earlier. Hank, in no mood for this, decks one of the cops and is hauled off in handcuffs as his daughter cries.

What I found interesting about this scene is the decision not to let the audience hear either Hank's confession or Karen's reaction. As he starts to talk, a remixed "Rocket Man" comes up on the soundtrack and plays under all remaining action in the episode. Though there are a few phrases that can clearly be read on Karen's lips, the intent is that the audience isn't privy to the full conversation.

It's a trick I've seen other places, and it's been used to good effect here. While some might see it as a cop-out that the writer's didn't fully pen Hank's confession, I think they made a smart choice. It's a device that's useful when the audience's imagination is far more powerful than any dialogue the writer could craft.

The first time I saw this technique used was in an episode of ER called "Love's Labor Lost," the famous episode when Dr. Greene spends the whole show trying to save a pregnant woman, only to lose her on the table. Earlier in the show, the baby had been delivered and the father went to the maternity ward to check on him. After the mother dies, we cut to the father rocking his son, smiling, still clearly unaware of the tragedy. The shot is framed through the glass of the door, from outside the room. Greene enters, and that's where the shot stays - behind the glass. Green has his back to us and is at some distance, and since "we" are outside the room, we can't hear what he says. We don't know exactly how he breaks the news to the father, we don't know how he attempt to console him. All we see is the father react, his head turned skyward in shock.

The scene had stronger tension for not being able to hear Greene. We already know the bad news, and the direction has forced us to watch from a distance, almost voyeuristically. It's more creative and probably more effective.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer also used this technique at least twice, both in scenes involving characters being told that other characters had been killed. (In case you're interested, the episodes are called "Passion" and "The Body.") Another reason this is probably a wise move is that it keeps the emotional moments from becoming to overwrought and unbearable. We're spared the anguished hysterical cries of grief. Our mind fills in the blanks without subjecting us to the uncomfortable sounds of a teenage girl breaking down as she hears her mother has died.

Never forget the power of silence. Sometimes you need to cut yourself off from the crutch of dialogue. To give a Yogi Berra-like bit of advice, if the scene is emotional, don't be afraid to let emotion carry the scene.


  1. Well, I'm not the brightest bulb in the shop and that scene pissed me off because I didn't know fully what was going on. I figured Hank told her that Mia's book was really his, but then why would she get that upset? That's Mia's lie, not his.

  2. Especially in "Passions" that moment is about Angel watching them get the news and feeding off it, and since we're watching most of that episode from his perspective, we see them learn about Jenny Calendar the way he would, unable to hear but able to see their pain.

    That's the first episode of that show where I realized we had something special going on here.

  3. I tend to agree with BSR on this. By comparison, our minds will always play worse than what can be shown or told to us. It works with scare factors (prime example: the ear in Reservoir Dogs) and works in situations such as this.

    Additionally, Hank's facial expressions and reactions to the irrate Karen were unlike any of the previous "discussions" they shared. He wasn't trying to be smooth or talk his way out of it, just somber and finally at his end to submit to embracing that he truly has failed.

    Coupled with no audible dialogue went well. The entire episode played into this culmination that represents the future of Hank. His nightmares do hold weight.

  4. @Christina

    SPOILER warnings for those who don't know Hank's secret:

    There's more to the secret than the fact Mia stole his book. Hank actually slept with her two years ago after picking her up in a book shop. At the time, he didn't know who she was, but soon discovered that (1) she was 16 and (2) she was the daughter of Karen's then-fiancee. Karen treated Mia like a daughter and BOTH of them actively kept that secret from her for over a year.

    In this case, it's the cover-up that totally did Hank in. She could take him sleeping with other women, but to do this and hide it for so long was understandably beyond the pale for her.

  5. I finally got around to watching the episodes, and if you pay close enough attention, you can tell almost everything Karen says. Hank's dialogue, on the other hand, was so short that it's hard to tell exactly what he told her. It seems like he mustn't have said more than something like, "I fucked up. Two years ago, I had sex with Mia." And then he chooses not to qualify it with much an explanation.

    It played out wonderfully, in my opinion.

  6. Has anyone found a site or a good lipreader who can transcribe the dialogue?

    I know it's not the point, but I'm desperately curious, as are a lot of folks :)

    It will come out sooner or later, I just want to know if anyone has figured it out so far?