What is a Pillow Shot?

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About ten years ago, I watched”Tokyo Story” which was the first film I ever saw by director extraordinaire Yasujiro Ozu, and I can honestly say it changed my life. Not just my movie life, but my whole life in general. For those who haven’t seen an Ozu film, here’s what you need to know. His films are mostly based within a family unit, usually at a time when it is at a point in crisis. There is often a change going on, whether it’s a daughter about to be married off, or a parent dying, they are small moments in life, but Ozu makes them monumental in the grand scheme of things.

Of any director I have ever seen, Ozu had the power to look very humble in his cinematic style. He rarely moved his camera, usually keeping with the idea that one shot equals one scene. His compositions were extraordinary, and so finely crafted that he didn’t bother with continuity between his cuts since he never thought the audience would ever notice as long as the picture itself kept their interest.

Ozu didn’t cut his films the usual way, he never used fades, or establishing shots to move from one scene to another or to indicate any passing of time, what he used instead became his signature shot, this was known as a pillow shot. Simply put, the pillow shot is a small cutaway from the previous scene to something visual. These visual elements, which were usually shots of something like an empty room, or a clothesline hanging outside someone’s yard, didn’t really have any point to the main narrative of the film, but he would usually stay on these static shots for about five to six seconds before moving on to the next scene.

 Describing a pillow shot within the context of his films might seem like an intrusion or disruption of the rhythm, but it actually becomes more of an extension on the whole viewing experience. Ozu’s films can be thought of as leisurely paced, and certainly compared to today’s editing techniques particularly by that of a Michael Bay, they could be down right slow, but that’s ok. Every film, or I guess maybe every good film has its own rhythm, and the best ones seem to go fluidly to their own beat, this is what Ozu did so well, he started with a film, and like a perfectionist conducted each shot, movement, into his own unique pace.

But let’s get back to these pillow shots, why did he decide to use these rather non-sequitur images in his films? Well I’m not sure there is a logical meaning behind them, but what I do think is they are used to evoke a certain feeling from the viewer. To me they feel like moments of contemplation or meditation, it’s as if Ozu is inviting us to reflect on what we have just seen. Ozu’s films have never been heavy on plot, they were always about the characters and their situations, in fact it has been said you could sum up the whole story of an Ozu film in one sentence. An Ozu film is never in a rush to tell you what it’s about, it waits to reveal itself to you, and often the results are devastating,  heartwarming, or funny. The pillow shots are meant to savor these small but monumental moments in the lives of these characters, it’s much like life, how it all seems to pass so quickly, we rarely get time to reflect on the changes we’ve experienced ourselves, and sometimes it’s only later that we realize how much of an impact that certain moment had on us.

The world itself moves pretty fast, and it’s very difficult to keep up with it sometimes. Even when you go to the movies these days, films themselves don’t seem to be asking you to pause for any moment of reflection, they ask you to try and keep up and enjoy the ride, which is fine, but what the best films have taught me whether in life, or in art, it’s that nothing beats capturing those special moments, where life seems to stand still, and you can cherish it for all that it’s worth, and what Ozu taught me was even a small thing like the shot of an empty room, or hanging laundry on a clothesline could remind you of the special things we have in life.

Inside Llewyn Davis

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I believe there are some movies that just speak to us as individuals. We don’t seem to pick these movies, they seem to pick us. Whether it’s a  moment in our lives that reflects what’s going on on the screen, or a certain mood it conveys that either makes us feel  content or at ease, these are the movies that are special to us. I believe movies, the best movies are less like literature, but more like music, we return to our favorites like we would a favorite song or album. I’m gonna to try explain why “Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of these movies for me.

Most movies made in Hollywood are about success, that’s part of why they can be seen as an escape, or a refuge from everyday life; it’s easy to go to a movie about someone being successful and be inspired by that. Hollywood is drenched with rags to riches stories about poor people making good and living the American dream and ultimately overcoming something in the end. It’s easy to forget that in a medium that so often applauds the winners of this world, the losers are usually cast aside and forgotten, mainly because their stories aren’t about success, they’re about failure, and who wants to go see a movie about that? If you look at the box office grosses of “Inside Llewyn Davis” a story about a failure which came out in 2013, you would think the above statement is true, no one went to see it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t special. Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk singer in the early 60s, talented for sure, but he never seems to get anywhere. He’s stuck in a loop like a needle on a scratched record that’s doomed to repeat. Is Llewyn doomed to repeat his mistakes? He seems to be, he certainly isn’t doing much to change who he is and what he’s doing.

And who is Llewyn Davis? Maybe it’s too harsh to say he’s a loser, a lot of times he seems like a nice guy, but he’s also an idiot. An idiot who can’t keep his mouth shut,  who sleeps with his best friends wife, gets her pregnant then when she wants an abortion, he asks that same friend for the money in order to pay for it. An idiot who is hired as a session musician, but because he needs the money right away, asks for the cash up front instead of signing up for the royalties, which would take longer but would secure him much better in the end. An idiot who gets an audition for a big time music manager and decides to sing him a heartfelt yet depressingly un-commercial song which doesn’t impress him.

Maybe it’s too harsh to call Llewyn an idiot, after all through this whole series of misadventures he’s acting on his own instincts, and to say he’s an idiot is saying that all of his instincts are wrong. It’s like that “Seinfeld” episode where George decides to do the opposite of what his instincts tell him and suddenly he finds success, he and Llewyn are cut from the same cloth, it comes down to some people just aren’t that lucky. Near the end of the film Llewyn goes by a movie theatre and sees a poster for the Disney picture “The Incredible Journey” a true story about two dogs and a cat who make it through the Canadian wilderness just by their instincts. I felt this moment was the ultimate joke on Llewyn, if two dogs and a cat can have their own success story, why can’t he? Maybe he’s just not as smart as them.

Speaking of cats, there is one in this film, or two, or three, depending if you think it’s all the same cat, or as it’s pointed out by a secretary over the phone in one scene, maybe Llewyn is the cat. The cat is always something Llewyn is chasing after, or he keeps losing. It disappears and comes back over and over again, at one point it’s abandoned, at another time it looks like Llewyn hit it with a car and it goes off into the woods wounded maybe going somewhere to die. But no matter how many cats you count, another one seems to pop up. The cat could be Llewyn, he is the one that is lost, that’s running away, that’s wounded over the death of his old partner who we learn has died by throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge.

Grief is constant throughout the film, and it’s part of what Llewyn is going through. His partner committed suicide, and in a way being with him was all he knew as a professional artist. He’s trying to make it as a solo act, but he’s constantly reminded of his old partner who keeps popping up either in conversation or copies of his old albums with the two of them on the cover, or by the song “Fare the well” which they sang together, and which is that last song Llewyn sings by himself in the film.

While Llewyn is going through this grieving process the repercussions of his bad choices also come back to haunt him, such as finding out his old girlfriend who he also paid to have an abortion didn’t go through with it, meaning he most likely has a child somewhere which leads to another decision he will or most certainly will not act on.

What can I say? I love this movie, I think it’s because it never acts on what we think is right, or how we think a story should be told. It’s a movie that plays on its own rules, and that’s probably why it’s so unpopular, but that’s also why it is so unique.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” was written and directed by the Coen Brothers who have always played by their own rules since their humble beginnings as independent filmmakers. They have made big studio films with big name stars, but you would never know they were ever playing with big budgets with the types of movies they make. They’ve always played against the grain and sometimes they hit some sort of success in box office numbers, but most often than not their films play off the grid, the Coens don’t seem to keep track on which one of their films have made an impact, it never seems to deter them on what they’re going to make next.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” plays with the same kind of dark humour the Coens are used to, they are often criticized for hating their characters and for having some sort of glee with watching them suffer. I feel that’s unfair, and it’s never more pertinent than in this film. I feel a great sadness permeating throughout “Llewyn Davis”, I don’t know what it is, but the more I watch it the more beautiful and rich it becomes. It’s still funny, and it’s still warm in a way with its sense of time and place and wonderfully performed music, but I can’t shake the melancholy I get everytime I see it. I think it’s because I feel bad for Llewyn, I truly do. He’s an asshole sometimes for sure, and he’s an idiot, and a lot of it is because he will never learn what to do in order to get ahead in life. But you see him in this world doing what he does, trying whatever way he can to make things work, even if it just takes him back to where he was at the beginning, there’s a certain tragic truth in all of it.

In life we all have our successes, sometimes big, sometimes small, we see people who are big winners in the world and we can admire them and we get inspired by them, and one day we hope to be like them. We don’t like thinking about our failures or our missteps because it’s never pleasant to dwell on them. We don’t like being reminded when we screw up, it’s easier to look at our accomplishments rather than our failures, you can’t be perfect, and sometimes you can be downright stupid. If we look in the mirror and see who we really are, most of us can admit to a little Llewyn Davis inside all of us.