One of the courses offered by my master’s program—indeed, one of the reasons I applied to the program in the first place—was “Film and Approaches to Writing the Novel,” taught by John Rechy (City of Night, About my Life and the Kept Woman). In it, we watched seven movies and then were assigned exercises based on the techniques used in the films. The instructions were very precise, calling for no more than a half a page, double-spaced. Over the course of the class we produced maybe seven pages of writing, but they were focused and honed.
The first film we watched in class was Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s experimental masterpiece about a nurse who is charged with caring for an otherwise healthy actress who simply won’t speak. As the nurse chatters away to her mute patient, she finds that her personality is being submerged into the actress’s. Persona is a still film, with minimalist compositions and extreme closeups, particularly of faces.
Watch Persona, then try one or two of these exercises (in class, we were assigned to choose two):
- In one paragraph, describe a face. In a separate paragraph, write the spoken words to which the person to whom that face belongs has been reacting. Match the expressions to the words heard.
- Describe a face in full light. Gradually “darken” that face into a silhouette (without using the word silhouette). Use words that evoke light, words that evoke darkness. Consider gradually subduing adjectives, verbs, etc., to create a fading effect. Consider sentence length to enhance a sense of diminishing light.
- Write a description of a natural backdrop. By carefully selecting language, suggest the mood (angry, sad, happy, etc.) of a person viewing it. Do not introduce the viewer within the description, but, separately, at the end identify him or her and the mood. (Project mood into description.)
- Describe a scene of silence, a person in silence, or a silent place. Do not use the word silence. Use words that evoke it.
- Without using the words black or white, describe a scene involving people and/or a place that conveys the effect of being “seen” in black and white; for example, stark outline suggests darkness, whereas snow suggests white light; ice might convey either, in different contexts.