Sunday, April 2, 2017

12 awkward pauses

Let me say this up front: 12 Angry Men is a five-star masterpiece, and I felt the same about it on my long overdue second viewing as I felt on my first.

But that doesn't mean it's perfect, and there was one particular device that bothered me on this viewing.

As you know, 95% of this film's action takes place in a single room where 12 jurors debate the guilt or innocence of a man accused of murder. Instead of being bored, we're enraptured by their exchanges, their contrasting styles, their differing opinions, their compassion or lack thereof, and their commendable skills of deduction, reasoning and reenactment.

Unfortunately, 12 Angry Men is not content with just that.

One of the most certain holdovers from the play, though I have never seen it staged so I can only guess, are the handful (it could be a dozen) one- to two-minute interludes that break up the flow of ongoing debate.

And do they ever break it up.

I was distracted this viewing by how unnatural it seems to have pairs of these men break off, more or less two at a time, to share small talk in between bouts of heated debating. It's not that this group wouldn't occasionally dissolve from its central focus and the task at hand for little breaks, moments to cool down both figuratively and literally. It's the way the film does it.

One minute, men will be shouting across the table at each other, leveling attacks on each other's heritage and character, and threatening physical violence. The very next moment -- and this was the awkward part -- two of them would be at the window together, as casually and carelessly as if they had found themselves standing next to one another at a bus stop, spouting small talk like "Hot enough for ya?" and "I think it's gonna rain."

I have to imagine that on stage, this was handled through ten of the men momentarily darkening while two others are caught under the spotlight for a little side conversation. (That's how I might have staged it, anyway.) There might have been something intentionally artificial about it, but that's okay in a dramatic space like the stage, where the form is explicitly used for things like this.

A movie is a bit different, especially a movie striving for realism as Sidney Lumet's does. In a movie, you can't have these abrupt changes of tone and pace. You want to believe that the action flows as it logically would, not that these characters would break off, almost as if receiving stage directions in real time, and have little shallow conversations with each other.

Not all of the conversations are shallow, of course. Many of them continue to push the film's themes, and probably establish important dynamics for how the deliberations will continue to reshape themselves. But it just isn't convincing -- not the way it's handled here, anyway. It feels a bit like those episodes of TV shows where characters who aren't usually matched up with each other get to participate in the same third subplot because the first two plots have involved all the rest of the other characters. Simply put, these little pauses in the action feel like a construction. They feel like the plot devices, the contrivances, that they are.

That noticing something explicitly weak about 12 Angry Men does not even prompt me to consider docking it half a star tells you just how good the rest of it is. And it is great. And I'm looking forward to my third viewing, in part because it's great to spend 90 minutes with a terrific assemblage of actors who went on to have really fruitful careers -- those that weren't already having them, that is.

Sometimes, it's imperfections like these that remind you how perfect something really is.

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