some blathering re: silver linings playbook, wherein i validate the swoopy cam of david o. russell

It’s hard to pinpoint why David O. Russell’s movies are so good. He tends to do projects that could be described in generic terms, but then he does a version that seems to transcendent the genre. The Fighter is a great sports movie, Three Kings is a war movie that makes the whole war movie thing seem fresh, and Flirting with Disaster might be my single favorite rom-com.

So I recently checked out Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, even though the previews made it look like a somewhat rote drama. Though the story was middling, the acting justified the attention (though maybe not the Oscar noms). Bradley Cooper doesn’t overplay the whole bipolar thing, and in one scene Jennifer Lawrence convincingly stares down Robert De Niro (also great), which is nothing to sneeze at.

But the aspect worth the most analysis hasn’t really gotten much notice at all, as far as I can see.

It’s a subtle note that builds from early on, never becoming obtrusive but pervading the story. Beginning at the beginning and continuing through the first act or so, Russell shapes a narrative that feels jangled up and a good approximation of what you imagine life must be like for the protagonist, Pat, as he wrestles with being bipolar. Part of this is pacing: The first scene plunges into Pat’s departure from a mental institution in an abrupt way that doesn’t feel at all like the warm-up we normally get with a movie.

The disjointed sense of time continues, and Russell also develops this uneasy atmosphere with awkward camera movements, like a quick dolly (and/or zoom? I’ve only seen the movie once) to a police officer that seems unmotivated and random. There’s no outright break in continuity, but several details accumulate to develop the sense of imbalance. It seems confirmed later that Russell is consciously doing this when the discombobulated feeling of the film settles down as Pat seems to find some kind of foothold in his life.

A one-star takedown of the film in Slant Magazine doesn’t mention this stuff, but Slant’s editor, Ed Gonzalez, gets into it in the comments, calling the camerawork “Scorsese-mongering” — which, I’ll be honest, I’m not even sure I could explain or define. He goes on:

…at least the movement of the camera in Goodfellas makes sense [his italics]. Here, when Cooper walks into the doc’s office for the first time and the camera starts swooping around his head, there’s no sense of this movement having any connection whatsoever to the character’s condition. It’s all empty affection.

I think Gonzalez means “affectation.” Anyway, this critique doesn’t make a lot of sense to me; I don’t recall the particular camera movement Gonzalez is describing, but is it really so hard to imagine that swooping cameras could be used metaphorically to represent mental illness? I mean, a lot of film effects serve mostly just intensify our experience of the film — the twirling cameras, the jittery handheld shots, the extreme closeups. Successfully defining many of these as carrying a fixed, distinct meaning strikes me as unlikely, and that’s what strikes me here. A swoopy camera is, at the very least, something I’m willing to grant Russell if his general m.o. seems sound, which it definitely does.

The fine print: I once shot Slant an e-mail to offer to write for them, and never heard back. Does that make me biased against them? I don’t think believe so, but do with that scandalous tidbit what you will.

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