Quentin Tarantino loves a cat-and-mouse scene, when forces of power and potential violence enter rooms, commandeer them, and play with their hapless victims. Think of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules taking care of two hapless, out of their depth frat boy dope dealers—all the while helping himself to their Kahuna burger—in Pulp Fiction. Terrifying, hilarious, and electrifying: it has become one of his hallmarks. By the time of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, he had perfected it so much that he devotes the film’s opening 20 minutes to one suspense-filled meeting between an unctuous Nazi and a French farmer, who is trying to hide a Jewish family under his floorboards.
Markus Madlangbayan (aka emotiondesigner) only has two film appreciation essays up on his Youtube site, and it’s a shame he didn’t do more. Here he takes us through Tarantino’s farmhouse scene, shot by shot, examining the director’s camera placement and composition, explaining his reasoning, and demonstrating why Quentin is a master of his craft.
Most directors use a standard form of coverage to shoot dialog scenes—a master shot of the two actors speaking, and then a close up of each actor with a tighter “punch in” shot of a face to emphasize drama. But Tarantino rarely does that, finding more interesting solutions to show the power dynamics in play. Farmer LaPadite at first has the upper hand, bluffing his way successfully through Hans Landa’s interrogation. That is, until he doesn’t. Tarantino will move his camera in an arc, breaking the 180 rule, and switching the positions of the characters on screen, even though they haven’t moved from their seats. The director has literally turned the table on LaPadite, just as Landa has done.
Tarantino is also very parsimonious with his close-ups. He gives LaPadite one as we see him steel himself for the approaching Nazis. He gives Landa one when all the social niceties are over, and instead he reveals he has known all along that they are sitting right above a hiding space. And finally, Tarantino gives LaPadite (and the actor that plays him, Denis Ménochet) a tight close-up as dread and impending death pass over his face.
Essayist emotiondesigner doesn’t do this, but this scene is asking for comparison with the aforementioned scene from Pulp Fiction. In 1994, Tarantino was hot and full of energy, but it’s actually a very conventionally shot scene, filled with close-ups and wides, but not without its wit. Fifteen years later, this short film-within-a-film opening shows how far the director had come.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.