A Cinematic Touch: A Camera’s Dance in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
19 January 2014
The first sequence of August: Osage County begins with a voiceover of Bev (Sam Shepard) quoting T.S. Eliot, saying, “Life is very long,” as the barren and desolate Osage County landscape appears on the screen. Soon, the camera cuts from exterior to interior, now showing Bev from his left side sitting in his desk’s chair in his home’s study. As he speaks the camera cuts again, this time to another interior shot, an upstairs bedroom of the house where Bev’s wife, Vi (Meryl Streep), awakens. The room is mostly dark and the camera captures a balding Vi, also from her left, getting up out of bed. Another interior cut keeps the camera in the home, but is the furthest shot yet from these two characters (in a long shot); Vi makes her way down stairs to the left of the frame and Bev continues to sit in his study to the right of the frame. Vi descends the stairs in darkness, just as she was in bed, and, by juxtaposition, Bev basks in a considerable amount of light in his chair seated at his desk. Notably, the camera is careful not to capture either of these characters straight-on just yet; thus far, there is both indirectness and distance between the two characters and between these two characters and the audience.
As Vi makes it down the stairs and into Bev’s study, the first person to be captured in a direct shot at minimal distance is Johnna (Misty Upham), the Native American woman Bev hired that morning to help in the house. Until the shot of Johnna, it did not seem as though anyone except Vi and Bev were in the house; Johnna was intentionally not part of the film’s aforementioned expository sequence.
Having already established juxtapositions in the first few minutes of the film, with the play on light and dark, and up and down, juxtaposing the direct way Johnna is initially captured with the indirect way the camera initially captures Bev and Vi, respectively, a logical way to read this visual cue is that Johnna is an open, honest, and trustworthy character, while Bev and Vi each have something to hide. Put another way, the camera captures Johnna straightforwardly, leaving her no way to hide anything about her appearance or anything that could be read into her appearance by some proximity of distance or angle. Conversely, Vi can hide anything in the shadows that surround her, and only shows either one side of her face or her face at a darkened distance. Bev, too, only reveals one side to his face as he sits at his desk in his study.
At the start of the film, the audience can only speculate, based on how indirectly these two characters are captured, that Bev and Vi harbor secrets and may not be reliable, trustworthy characters. As the film unfolds, the narrative fills in, almost immediately, many of the reasons why the camera’s initial capturing of Bev was so roundabout. However, with Vi, the camera continues to capture her indirectly, and also captures this character’s indirectness, long before the narrative reveals many of the secrets she hides.
First, Bev goes missing immediately after the film’s expository sequence. [Interestingly, once missing, Bev and Vi’s daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts), receives a call with the news. The first time the audience sees her, she, like her mother, awakens in a dark room; the camera never catches a direct shot of her, including when she moves to her bedroom window, now fully illuminated, yet only revealing one side of her face. Her secrecy, however, is not as rich as her parents. In fact, the likeness between her first sequence and Vi’s in the film’s opening sequence is, likely, done to highlight the similarities between Vi and Barbara, not mark Barbara as untrustworthy.] Returning to Bev, his body is found a day or so after he goes missing; Bev committed suicide. Retrospectively, the camera shoots Bev’s face from the side in the opening, exposing half of his face and hiding the other, because he was harboring a secret, the secret that he was about to end his life.
Vi’s, however, is not revealed as quickly as Bev. So far as the audience knows, Bev really only had the one major secret; Vi has a lot of secrets, and the camera spends more communicating her deceit to the audiences through indirect shots and angles before her major revelations come forward.
When Bev is missing, Vi sits in her room, in front of her vanity, talking to her daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson). Vi’s vanity has a tri-mirror, and the camera is positioned behind Vi as she sits on a chair facing the mirror. That said, the audiences can see up to four Vis at one time: her back and three reflections of her face, one in each mirror. Visually, what is communicated in this scene is Vi’s instability and unreliability. As with the film’s exposition, the audience is not seeing Vi directly, there is always something, like darkness or various reflections, in the background complicating a straightforward, reliable view of this character. Reading into that, the way the camera captures Vi not only suggests she has secrets, but solidifies what the narrative begins to assert: Vi, a drug addict, is completely unstable and deceitful.
As Vi sits at her vanity speaking with Ivy, she challenges her daughter with, “Big, fat help you are.” Clearly, this is the daughter who has stayed by her mother’s side and is there to help her during this time that Bev is missing; yet, Vi, rather easily and carelessly, snaps at her caregiver. However, within moments Vi considers another daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis), one she has a more difficult time tolerating than Ivy, and tells Ivy, “You’re a comfort to me.” Evident from this second comment, Vi is backpedaling from her previous attack. Through this conversation, Vi’s unstable and deceitful nature take the forefront, and her placement in front of this tri-mirror, with the camera capturing several Vis, helps the film communicate, visually, that Vi is just as manipulative as the camera’s manipulation of her image.
When Barbara arrives in Osage County, still before Bev’s body is found, the camera stops being indirect when capturing and/or manipulating Vi’s image; instead, the camera directly captures how indirect and manipulative Vi actually is. As Barbara, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and Vi eat apple pie on the sun porch, Vi sits with her wig and sunglasses on, talking about Bev’s disappearance and the safe deposit box she and Bev have. Instead of capturing Vi in the dark, from the side, or attempting to distort her image (as was the case with the mirrors), the camera get boldly close to Vi in a high-key lit shot. The camera does not need to manipulate Vi’s image because she has already done it. The sunglasses and the wig are Vi’s own vain way of hiding her true physical appearance. While wearing these disguises, the camera can capture Vi directly and still reveal her deceit and own indirectness as well as it did when the camera manipulated its views of Vi.
After Bev’s body is found, the family attends his funeral, and Vi sits in the car’s backseat with her wig and sunglasses. The camera uses direct medium and close-up shots on her in the car in the disguise, continuing to highlight this disguise as her manipulative. Even later, after Barbara forces her to the doctor for her prescription drug abuse, Vi still adorns the sunglasses and wig, and the camera, unabashedly, never misses a moment to zoom in how Vi’s outward disguise aligns and attempts to mask her inwardly deceitful ways.
Eventually, Vi’s secrets begin to come out: she reveals her childhood abuse by her mother’s boyfriends, Bev’s homelessness as a child, her mother’s cruel treatment of her, her knowledge of her husband’s infidelity, and, the last and most staggering revelation, that she know Bev was going to kill himself, but chose to clean out the couple’s safe deposit box before trying to save him. In the end, not only was Vi the most secretive of all the characters (which is impressive because every character in this film holds secrets), but the magnitude of Vi’s secrets far outweighs all others in August: Osage County.
By the conclusion, Vi ends where she began, covering half her face. When she reveals her final secret—her knowledge of Bev’s suicide note—to Barbara, Vi finds herself all alone. Symbolically, Vi gets up from her seat at the table—a seat where and unfinished puzzle rests on the table, a strong metaphor for Vi herself—and tries to call back all her family. When that does not work, and dancing does not make her feel better, Vi climbs the stairs, nearly to where she began in the film, and finds Johnna. Cradled in her arms, the last shot of Vi echoes the first, as only half of her face is shown, the other half hidden in Johnna’s chest.
In all, August: Osage County, likely, is a stronger piece of theatre than film. The intense character-driven narrative packs a greater punch live, when audiences members, like those around Vi, are trapped like flies in her web. Nevertheless, the attention to cinematic technique, namely the way the camera indirectly captures the characters, specifically the treatment of Vi, make for a considerate and intelligent adaptation from stage to screen because it knowingly aims to add something to the cinematic storytelling that only cinema can do.