As a writer, I tend to do a fair bit of what editors sometimes call “throat clearing.” I’m doing it right now, as a matter of fact. Partly, that’s because diving straight into a piece’s subject matter, sans prelude, lacks a certain elegance—it reminds me of school essays and their ungainly topic sentences. Insecurity plays a role, too, I suspect. A thesis that’s stated baldly at the outset risks coming across as specious, even ridiculous; a thesis that’s laid out via several tangential examples—or perhaps via a simple metaphor, like one’s own prose style—rests on firmer ground. I’m a total hypocrite, though, because I hate movies that squander their first few minutes on tiresome, unnecessary exposition. The more time a film initially devotes to ensuring that we know exactly where we are and precisely who everyone is in relation to everyone else, the more liable I am to tune right out, bored. Should my readers feel similarly, they at least have the luxury of skipping ahead to the next paragraph, in the hope that I’ll finally get to the damn point. (I will.) In a movie theater, though, there’s nothing to do but wait the throat-clearing out.
Which brings us—At last! Thanks for indulging that meta-intro—to All The Real Girls. Released in 2003, David Gordon Green’s sophomore feature chronicles the extremely tentative romance between Paul (Paul Schneider), a small-town ladies’ man opening himself up emotionally for the first time, and Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the inexperienced younger sister of one of Paul’s best friends. Right from the start, the film seems slightly off-kilter, in that it offers no expository signposts whatsoever. On the contrary, its opening scene creates the impression that you somehow mistakenly dropped into the story about 15 or 20 minutes after it started and now need to play catch-up. We’re not talking here about a standard, instantly recognizable in medias res kickoff—the sort of out-of-nowhere grabber that you watch in total comfort, secure in the knowledge that a flashback to earlier events is right around the corner (and may well constitute almost the entire movie). This is something altogether different—unique and beguiling. Take a look:
Back when All The Real Girls first came out, I remember reading an interview with Green—which I can’t find online now, alas—that went into detail about how this became the film’s opening scene. My not-necessarily-trustworthy memory is that Green claimed to have written (with Schneider) and shot an entire reel’s worth of footage that originally preceded Paul and Noel’s first kiss—maybe 15 or 20 minutes of narrative throat-clearing, all of it designed to gradually build to this tender moment between them. During the editing process, however, Green realized that he didn’t need any of that material, and that the movie would be far more arresting if it began with the lovers already on the cusp of declaring themselves. (After extensive Googling—just working out what to search for was tricky—this page is the best confirmation I can find.) Even if that isn’t quite how it happened, though, this scene does very much feel as if it’s been airlifted into this spot from a later point in the film. Here we have two characters we’ve only just met, and one of them immediately asks the other why he’s never kissed her, then receives an almost painfully earnest reply. Few American indie features showcase such a direct expression of emotion at all; offering that up within the first few seconds is bold enough to catch viewers off guard before they’ve so much as removed their coats.
It’s significant, I think, that Green chooses to slowly fade up on Paul and Noel just silently standing there. Once upon a time, virtually every screenplay began with FADE IN (and ended with FINAL FADE OUT)—it was the default way to ease viewers into the picture. Nowadays, however, most movies just have the first image crash right onto the screen, often in a deliberately jarring way. The slow fade comes across as old-fashioned, even quaint, which serves Green very well here. It helps that Will Oldham’s “All These Vicious Dogs” sets a somber mood while the screen is still shrouded in blackness. His pensive guitar, Green’s slow fade (revealing a tableau that, even once fully illuminated, is still pretty dark), and the actors’ utter stillness all combine to create a hushed reverie that makes you hesitant to breathe, for fear of disturbing it. When Paul and Noel subsequently disturb it themselves, with words that suggest an evolving relationship to which we haven’t been privy, the cognitive dissonance is palpable. If there’s another recent film that begins at once so glacially and so abruptly, I’m not familiar with it.
Then there’s Schneider and Deschanel, both of whom were largely unknown in 2003. (He’d played a supporting role in Green’s debut, George Washington; she was mostly familiar as the protagonist’s older sister in Almost Famous.) Watching this scene then, it would have been hard to predict that they’d both end up starring on network sitcoms. Schneider never really fit in on Parks And Recreation, to the point where it’s easy to forget that he was Leslie’s quasi-love interest throughout season one; this character’s sheepishness (the bit where Paul looks both ways before kissing Noel’s hand, making sure they’re unobserved, is sweetly hilarious) is much more his speed, and it’s probably no coincidence that they share a first name. Those who know Deschanel only from New Girl and similarly “adorkable” roles, however, might be surprised by how far removed this performance is from what’s since become her persona. Both actors speak at roughly half normal speed throughout most of this scene, not just pausing between words but sometimes drawing individual words out like taffy. They match Green’s tempo, or perhaps he matches theirs. Either way, it transforms what might otherwise be standard indie quirk, like Noel’s suggestion that Paul overcome his nervousness by kissing her hand first, into something more courtly.
That’s not to say that All The Real Girls qualifies as subversive, mind you. While the placement of this scene and its execution are both unusual, it’s essentially selling the usual romantic claptrap. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Everyone wants to feel that they’re special, and all of the dialogue here involves Paul telling Noel that she’s unlike every other girl he’s been with, and Noel encouraging him to express those feelings in an appropriately atypical way. The charm lies in the details, like Paul’s weirdly gallant preparations: warming Noel’s hand with his breath, brushing it off. Strange and lovely, too, is Green’s decision to hold the shot for a while after Paul and Noel kiss for real. Most movies cut away from a kiss, either to something sexier or to another scene entirely, because sticking around afterward can often be awkward. Here, that awkwardness is built into the moment, and the movie embraces it by lingering. You might even say that the throat-clearing, in a different form, gets shifted from the front of the scene to the back. In any case, more films could stand to commence as unceremoniously as this one does. If need be, shoot an opening and then just throw it away.