Deadpan as a Filming Technique in Roy Anderson’s Films
Deadpan is not ordinarily ascribed to a style of filmmaking. It is more often associated with the lack of emotion on an actor’s face during a scene. Buster Keaton, of course, is a prime example of dead pan acting. No matter what happens to Keaton’s character his face remains unmoved.
In his movies Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You The Living (2007), A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) and About Endlessness (2019) Roy Anderson’s characters often have dead pan faces and demeanor but more than that the camera and editing also display aspects of the deadpan delivery. Anderson’s camera never moves. It doesn’t pan, or zoom, dolly or swivel, it is completely immobile. In addition there is no montage editing in how Anderson presents his material. The only editing is simple cuts between scenes. Within a scene there are no close ups or changes of angle. Most of his scenes are shot with flat, even and diffused lighting. This lack of expressive camera work results in a dead pan delivery of dead pan material.
This may well sound like a sure recipe for a boring film, but all this lifelessness is used to create a hilarious irony. The struggles of the characters on screen are both belittled and aggrandized at the same time. A bland world of florescent lights and industrial flooring tiles plays host to characters struggling to accomplish empty tasks that they take very seriously. We sympathize with their plight but we also laugh at their pointless suffering.
Many of Anderson’s scenes are funny even before anything happens. Just the setting and the positioning of the camera is enough to show us the ridiculousness of whatever situation he has composed. A man stands alone in a bland apartment with an enormous parade drum. The joke is already half told. After a few moments he begins to beat it and the ridiculousness is driven home. All the while the nameless man’s face is expressionless. He is resigned to his fate. He has practiced like this before and he will practice like this again. There is no enthusiasm or relish in his demeanor only a dreary sort of determination.
It appears that all of Anderson’s scenes are filmed through a wide angle lens. Wide angle lenses are often used to comic effect. The bulging at the center of the screen can make faces look clownish, or make people or objects pop out in a funny way. Nothing in an Anderson film gets close enough to the lens to distort very much but the overall effect is odd enough to create cartoonish edge to what is being presented. It alters what we are seeing just enough to offset it from reality and key us in to Anderson’s way of looking at the world.
The dead pan techniques Anderson employs highlight the absurdity and inevitability of life and its hassles. The electric chair technician has trouble getting the electric chair working, while the condemned sits strapped to the chair waiting. Life is a relentless, pointless bother. This absurdity quickly rises to the level of existential dread. It is straight out of Sartre’s book Nausea. Anything, anywhere can be absurd. The meaninglessness of life can abruptly surface into our line of sight without warning. Suddenly the magician sawing a man in half on stage is an impossibly surreal insanity. Then when the trick goes wrong and the volunteer trapped in the box cries out as he is cut it’s as if our circuits are overloaded. The preposterous nature of it all is unbearable and becomes hilarious.
Using editing to time the humor, or a close up to emphasize a reaction shot would bring us too close to the action. We will empathize with he characters too much. The motionless indifference of the camera mimics the indifference of the world to our struggles. These characters are all little Sisyphuses trudging through their meaningless tasks while we laugh not only at them but at the world we recognize as our own. We are those little Sisyphuses. We are ridiculous as they are.