One of the things I notice about nearly every movie I like is that there isn’t only one brilliant idea whose sheer ingenuity makes the movie great. Usually, it’s just several smaller good ideas, each one maybe a little unremarkable on its own, which add up to something transcendent.
Recently, The Good Wife had a sequence that made me feel that way. It’s one of the more affecting moments I’ve seen as of late, not to mention one of the more creative editing schemes I think I’ve ever seen outside of an actual film.
There’s some slight spoiling here, since this episode comes well into the show’s fifth season, but I can sketch the general psychological dynamic without really giving away much at all: At this point, Will, played by Josh Charles, is feeling terribly wronged by his sometime lover, Alicia (the show’s star Wife, Julianna Margulies). They’re both talented lawyers, and Will is preparing for the next day in court, when he’ll have to cross-examine a combative Alicia as a witness.
The scene begins with a few jump cuts around Will opening a beer and setting up his paper and pen. The abrupt cuts are an unnecessary bonus, but they break up the flow of more prosaic shots and editing patterns.
Anyway, Will begins writing and tries aloud the questions he might ask Alicia. It’s a little contrived, but the rest of the scene more than makes up for this quibble.
Alicia, imagined by Will, responds, and they begin a duel of wits, all in Will’s mind.
One reason I like this way of showing Alicia is that it comes close to imitating what it’s actually and literally like to picture or remember another person. The context and the details are blurry and vague, just as when we draw up the image of someone in our mind’s eye and we only partially fill in the background or the subject’s torso, so those secondary elements are only present in a nebulous sort of way. Instead, when we imagine someone, we put most of our mental energy into detailing the face, that sin qua non of human identity.
The framing of Alicia here almost perfectly simulates that effect, showing but only barely revealing the context (presumably a courtroom, but there’s too little of it to really say) and the rest of her body (there, but an afterthought).
Also, notice that we first saw Will from his left side, and, even though Alicia is, in theory, “talking” to him, she’s looking straight ahead at the camera, and shown in different proportions than he is. It’s an unusual set-up, camera-wise, for a conversation – you might expect the camera to cut to Alicia’s right to give us a similar view of her in a kind of mirror image of Will. However, the awkward imbalance makes a certain sense in context, since the whole interaction is taking place in Will’s head, where the geometry of the conversation is somewhat more fluid and imprecise than it would be in reality.
Around here we finally get to see what Will’s really doing: He’s making a decision tree. There’s nothing super-dramatic here, but of course, just as with any scene depicting logic and deduction, it’s fun to see a sharp mind at work, and the decision tree is a nice way to visualize that (and original, which is almost surprising given how obvious it seems in retrospect). Plus, don’t you just want to be the one drawing this neat logical map of contingencies? It’s appealing for the same reason that infographics are.
Moving forward, Will is interrogating Alicia, but he’s reached a dead end. By now, the camera has shifted over to view him, at a very slight angle, from his right side. I’m thinking here of David Bordwell’s interpretation of this kind of violation of the 180-degree rule, where he suggests it’s a way to create tension (in The Way Hollywood Tells It, I believe). And indeed, this seems to be Will at a critical juncture in the questioning of imaginary Alicia.
After some more back-and-forth with Alicia, we see Will beginning to crack a little, angry but also sad at her betrayal. Another reason I like the view of Alicia that has her speaking head-on to the camera is that it makes it easier to identify with Will. If we were given a more standard shot-reverse-shot series of views of their confrontation (where they might mirror one another’s silhouette on-screen), we’d be a bit more at a distance from the proceedings, watching as disinterested spectators.
But the unusually tight framing on Alicia’s face — a somewhat unnatural, affected way to view her — means you never really lose sight of the fact that this Alicia is entirely in Will’s head. That makes for a more powerfully subjective experience.
Finally, as Will begins to give way to his emotions, Alicia looks off to her left. This glance alerts us, almost subliminally, that Will is now (or always was) with her in that fuzzy imaginary space she’s been occupying.
And indeed we now see Will off to her left, dressed for court and angry. For a second we might think the scene has jumped to reality. But then we get a shot of the two of them, alone in a courtroom. Will slams his hands down, and their dialogue is ended.
Now the decision tree is complete, with a sad finality to it. It’s a finished piece of work, but one we enjoyed building.
Coming back from his fantasy, Will is back in his pajamas, and we see some hands slip onto his shoulders. You’d half expect them to be Alicia’s, but it’s just Will’s girlfriend, and her presence is almost jarring. And that tells you just how effective the scene has been.