I watched Peter Bogdanovich's "They All Laughed" again tonight, and was reminded of two things: my favorite kind of humor, and my favorite kind of filmmaking. At his best, Peter has a way of walking you not into the movie's story, but into the story within the story.
The second sequence in "They All Laughed" is broken up into three mini-scenes. We watch John Ritter (dressed impeccably as Peter) follow Dorothy Stratten with the help of his ... nosy ... accomplice Blaine Novak.
And, really, you don't care why they are following her. That would be the story: Why are they following her? Instead, we get the story within the story first: How does John feel about her? It's not until later that the PLOT part of it comes in. Even when it does, you can hardly call it a plot. The Detective Agency is more of just a hub where people happen to have jobs and relationships. What's cool is that, just like the story within the story, there's the audience within the audience. Here's the second of the three mini-scenes:
John watches Dorothy...The sequence has a lot of nice unfolding emotions, that come one by one as each new shot occurs. All three parties are separated, so each new shot tends to give us one new miniature emotion that all string together to become more and more coherent as we piece each part together.
Now John really watches Dorothy...
It was on my third viewing that I caught the only audible bit of Dorothy's dialogue: Her friend asks, "Do you love him?" She responds,"No, no I don't love him." Again, we know how she feels, but it is only later that we know what it means.
And then John practically looks into the camera at us, the audience.
He likes her. Boy, he likes her.
But he's actually looking at Blaine; the audience within the audience. Jokes on you. And, here's the joke within the joke: Blaine gives John a silly, faux detective gesture that I have yet to decipher. Funny, though, how life works out; I can just go ask Peter tomorrow on the way to set.
And we're back to John, who really likes her. Note the heart thump pantomime.
But Blaine's disappointed. The audience within starts manipulating the audience without. Why shouldn't John like her? The question of motivation arises. The question of purity. Maybe this isn't a good idea. And the joke? Maybe you should not be getting involved with this woman, and just leave the relationship at spying on her.
At the end of this shot, Blaine looks over to see Dorothy leave. John follows with equal parts professional obligation and wistful romance. He swings along the street pole as he exits.
And we're off to the next mini-scene in the sequence as soon as the motivations start coming into question. A lot of fun stuff going on, with very simple but very precise silent action. There are so many cuts in the sequence because of this precise measure, I think. Peter has to tick out these emotions and hit the jokes and build the mystery, but you have no damn clue what the story is. There's only these little emotions within the big picture that you can't quite see yet.
My favorite joke in the whole movie:
Cristy: Charles, this is Jose.
Jose (with heavy accent, mispronouncing): Who are you?
Charles: I'm Charles, how are you?
Jose: I'm Jose.
Charles: Oh, that's good.