Essay: Sophie's Choice 1982

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Film Analysis, Sophie's Choice

Film Analysis: Sophie's Choice

Sophie's Choice is one of the most compelling films of all time, a gripping drama that is not only a good film, but a great one with fantastic acting, a superb musical score, and fantastic cinematography, which work to place it among the ranks of the greatest American films of recent time. So many factors play into great film making, but often the critical acclaim, box office revenue, or award nominations overshadow the more subtle qualities that make a film what it is. Certainly these factors may play a part in a movie's overall "success," but to me, a really great film is simply one that leaves you thinking about it long after you've left the theater or shut off the television. It is this kind of movie that really stays with you and gets into your mind. Like me, you find yourself thinking about the scenery, the costumes, the characters and their lives, not once focusing on the notion: "it's just a movie." In viewing the class text by Barsam and Monahan, as well as suggestions from acting coaches and authors, Stella Adler and Howard Kissell, Cinematographer, Blain Brown, and author and music therapist Neil Narine, I was better able to see how acting, cinematography, and sound work together to create greatness in film. In essence, this is good filmmaking, and it is this kind of filmmaking that is not only seen in Sophie's Choice, but has made the movie so memorable for decades after its release as well as one of the most moving movies I have ever seen.

Acting

Barsam and Monahan (2009) note that different roles have different demands, and all actors have their own approaches, whether they get inside their characters, get inside themselves, or do further research (297). Sophie's Choice, a 1982 drama, centers on the life and secrets of a Polish immigrant living in Brooklyn in 1947, several years after the end of World War II, and this film and its role of Sophie, place many demands on lead actress Meryl Streep. From the opening of the movie and its initial glimpse at each character, it is clear that Sophie Zawitowski, played by Meryl Streep, has a troubled and hidden past that she is reluctant to discuss in full detail. Sophie is flanked in the film by superb performances by Peter MacNicol, who plays Stingo, a young southern writer and the film's narrator, as well as Kevin Kline as Nathan Landau, Sophie's romantic interest. While MacNicol and Kline do more than hold their own with the heavy material, each actor's presence is meant to bring out the full range of traits and feelings of Streep in her leading role. As actor Jack Lemmon, once said, acting is "like laying bricks . . . you start at the bottom and work up," which is essentially what Streep does in building her comple character (Barsam and Monahan 297).

Authors and acting coaches Stella Adler and Howard Kissel note that no actor is a success unless he feels the character inside himself, which Streep most certainly does in her portrayal of Sophie (Adler and Kissel 12). In this role, Streep is unlike any character she had played previously. With a spot-on accent, a new sexier image, and the ability to hide her character's pain and torment behind her eyes for the first half of the film, Streep is able to touch on every possible emotion in the human condition, and she does so in a way the makes the viewer feel it for themselves. Playing opposite characters like Stingo, who is coming into his own clumsily and Nathan who is completely over-the-top and dramatic in every sense of the word, Streep's Sophie is incredibly complex while being incredibly natural, which makes the performance so spot-on in my opinion.

Perhaps the most moving and pivotal scene in the movie is Sophie's ultimate "choice" in the film, when she is forced to choose which one of her children to save upon being sent to Auschwitz. After a series of unfortunate events, Sophie and her children, Jan and Eva are sent to the concentration camp, and upon their arrival, one Nazi soldier torments Sophie by telling her she may only save one of her children from the gas chambers. In this moment, Streep is able to convey the sheer horror and million-thoughts-a-minute reaction that any mother would have to such a nightmarish situation. In listening to Streep's plea of "Don't make me choose!" To the Nazi officer, I never once saw her as an actor but as a grieving mother. The line between the actor and the story isn't just blurred, it's erased. Streep is Sophie and you are suddenly there, watching this event transpire. Unable to decide, a soldier yells to take both children away and Sophie quickly responds, "Take my little girl!" The child is dragged away screaming and Streep is left on screen perfectly embodying the sense of guilt and despair that Sophie feels.

In seeing this film for the first time and discussing it with others, I have found that nearly everyone I talk to remembers every split-second of this scene. It is Streep's acting during this time that engrains this scene in the minds of viewers, who, like me, were left haunted by it long after the movie is over. In my opinion, this isn't just good acting, it's great acting, and that makes all the difference in making a film's impact last, and such compelling acting stems throughout all the choices Sophie must make in the movie, including her final choice to commit suicide in order to finally escape the many horrors of her own past. I don't believe there are many people forced to make such difficult choices in their lives, but I do believe that Streep's acting makes such decision-making real in the minds of every viewer who watches the film.

Sound and Musical Score

While many people immediately associate film as being a visual medium, the truth remains that a film's sound has so much to do with how that film is perceived by the viewer. Barsam and Monahan (2009) note that music can be intrinsic, helping to tell the story, which I feel is more than relevant in viewing this film (384). Viewers of Sophie's Choice are transported with the help of sound and particularly the film's musical score, into different locations, time-periods, and encounters. The score, composed by Marvin Hamlisch, is written in a manner that moves seamlessly from times of happiness and contentment in the movie to times of despair and turmoil and works to engage the viewer with the scenes taking place on screen.

In viewing the movie closely, one can see that Hamlisch uses certain sounds and portions of his score to allude to specific characters and their past experiences. For instance, Sophie's memories of Auschwitz are "signaled throughout the film by Hamlisch's flute, which provides the soundscape of her fantasy-infused flashbacks, while her companion Nathan's delusional memories of the war are safely repressed when the oboe supplies him with his ego's anthem, and sounds from Stingo's childhood lay to the nostalgic soundtrack of violins" (Narine 33). Such sounds in the film are nonsimultaneous, occurring familiarily when characters have mental flashbacks to an earlier time, and as the audience, we recognize the sound because it has been previously established in the movie (Barsam and Monahan 377). These moments and the accompanying score are critical to the perception of the movie, and allow the viewer to subconsciously connect what they are hearing to what they are about to see.

Cinematography

The term cinematography is from the Greek roots meaning "writing with motion" (Brown 2). At the heart of it, filmmaking is shooting, but cinematography is more than the mere act of photography; it is the process of taking ideas, words, actions, emotional subtext, tone and all other forms of nonverbal communication and rendering them in visual terms (Brown 2). In Sophie's Choice, so much of the conflict comes from what is unsaid. For example, in the beginning of the film, Stingo notices Sophie's serial number concentration camp tattoo on her forearm and the accompanying slash scars on her wrists.

In this instance, the way the camera focuses from Stingo to what he is seeing on Sophie's arm and wrist allows the viewer to understand the backstory that is about to be laid out in terms of Sophie's time as a prisoner as well as Stingo's growing infatuation with Sophie.

Additionally, Sophie's Choice makes use of "eye-level shots," which are made by using the camera's attitude toward its subject to be neutral, allowing the audience to naturally feel neutral about the subject (Barsam and Monahan 243). It is in this manner, that the characters are introduced on an even playing field, before more is introduced throughout the film. It is in using cinematography in this manner that the movie takes complete shape. It doesn't matter how good a script… [END OF PREVIEW]

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