#489 Brick, Rian Johnson, 2006
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
On Monday evening Rian Johnson, whom you are most likely to know from last year’s Marmite-like sci-fi thriller Looper, was kind enough to take some time out of his holiday to visit the Prince Charles Cinema for an audience Q & A. The original programme was a double bill of Brick and The Maltese Falcon, but when Johnson contacted the cinema with an offer of making an appearance it was changed to an all-Johnson bill of Brick and Looper with the Q & A sandwiched in between. I’ve been a fan of his since I first saw Brick in 2006 so of course I jumped at the opportunity to sit up front and listen to him talk about his movie creations.
Rian Johnson’s picture of the audience, taken during his Q & A session. You can just about make me out at the extreme left of the front row.
The cinema has posted the audio of the Q & A if you fancy a listen. The person immediately to my left (visible giving the thumbs up in the picture above) video’d the whole thing too, but he left before the start of Looper so I didn’t get a chance to ask if he planned to post it online. I’ll post an update if I manage to find it.
Left: Johnson takes a photo of the audience.
Right: Q & A in progress.
Happily, Brick is on the 500 greatest films list, so on top of a chance to see a director I greatly admire I also got the opportunity for another review. I actually reviewed Brick on my other blog back in 2006 when it was first released, but that’s no reason not to have another crack at it. Back then I obviously had more difficulty appreciating the less mainstream style of the film, though I still liked it a lot and I urged everyone that would listen to me to watch it. I don’t know whether I’ve become more or less discerning since then, but I enjoy this movie more every time I see it.
For anyone who hasn’t seen or heard of it — which may well be many of you; it didn’t see a huge amount of success on its release — Brick is a classic film noir story of a private detective (named only Brendan, and played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) investigating the suspicious death of an ex-girlfriend and the knot of organized-crime politics that led to it. It has all of the hallmarks of film noir: the hard-assed gumshoe who plays by his own rules, the shady mobsters, the seductive dames. What sets it apart from other such films is that the detective is a highschool student, the mobsters are small-time pot dealers, and the whole thing takes place in a sunny California town instead of a rainy 1920s inner city.
Johnson says he loved noir books as a kid — I think he called out Dashiell Hammett specifically — and he wanted to make a film with that kind of exaggerated grittiness, but he was concerned that audiences are so familiar with the visual language that they would be prone to shutting off and failing to engage with the film in the way that he did with those books. His creative solution to that problem was to change the visual language by transplanting the story into a completely different context, while maintaining the other core elements of the genre. So the pinstripe suits and trilbies are out, but the intrigue, the danger, the snappy dialog, and the preternatural self-assurance of all of the characters are all still there.
The film makes an occasional nod to the incongruity of the setting. When Brendan finally manages to meet with the Pin, the town’s big crime boss, the two sit uncomfortably while the Pin’s mother goes through the fridge to see what she can offer Brendan to drink. The few scenes like that are strange, because the rest of the film makes it clear that these characters are for real; they aren’t just children playing at grown-up games. It’s like putting a scene or two from the Goonies into Lord of the Flies. You get a few laughs out of it, but on balance I would have preferred the film to be played totally straight.
One of the more amusing insights that came from the Q & A was about the film’s characteristic jump cuts. Some of the longer shots are broken up by flashes of what one assumes are either dreams or memories, which highlight Brendan’s increasing levels of both obsession and stress. It turns out these jumps came about because so much of the film was made up of very extended shots, many of which needed to be shortened. As it was impossible to remove the parts containing crucial information, and there were no alternative angles to move between, Johnson had to cut out bits of the middle of the shots:
Its nature, because it’s a detective movie, is “this interlocks with that, interlocks with that”. It’s not like a drama where you can start reshuffling scenes. And there wasn’t even that much we could cut out.
When I shot I didn’t do any coverage and I shot a lot of stuff in just single master shots, so when I got in the edit room it became a problem. I’d have a scene where I couldn’t cut it out because you can’t lose that information but at the same time the scene was running like 40 seconds and the movie was too long. The movie was 2 hours and 40 minutes or something. We had to cut time out of it, but how?
And that’s what led to… there’s a lot of scenes where you see these jump cuts that look like pre-planned artistic choices. I decided I would just cut the boring bits out of the middle of the shot, and so it compressed it. And saved our butts.
He mentioned that he was working on his next film, but didn’t give anything away about what it might be. Given the two year gap between Brick and the Brothers Bloom, and the four year gap before Looper, it might be a while before we see the next thing hit our screens. But when it does come out, I hope he will consider coming back to London to show it to us.