There’s a scene in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man that I watch over and over again, mainly because I am so ferociously soothed by the dulcet tones of Fred Melamed’s voice. The scene is set in the Gopniks’ kitchen, and Sy Ableman intrudes on Larry to force on him a bottle of wine (“A bordeaux,” as Sy is keen to mention).
Now, I imagine that many would eagerly write about how impeccably staged this scene is. And they should. Because it is. But I want to speak to something different, which this scene has in spades.
As one might easily deduce, this scene has little to do with bordeaux. This scene is about establishing the uncomfortable dynamic between the characters of Sy Ableman and the protagonist Larry Gopnik. What we get from this scene is twofold: Firstly, we understand exactly what kind of person each of these characters is, and they are about as similar as chalk to cheese. Sy sees no reason not to invite himself into Larry’s home (literally and figuratively, as he is also sleeping with Larry’s wife), voicing through action both his imposing manner and a disinclination toward a mindfulness of others. Meanwhile Larry’s back is literally against a wall; he is framed exclusively in down shots, over Sy’s shoulder, making him look boxed in and small, so as to suggest his character’s impotent, futile nature (again, this film is impeccably staged). Secondly– and this is what I wanted to write about– in establishing the nature of each character the Brothers Coen display for us just how these characters interact. How they behave around and towards each other. That is to say, their dynamic.
The dynamic between any two characters is like a chemistry of tensions. Tension can range from Al Pacino intensity to Owen Wilson ease. In a scene like this the dynamic is so rich with tension and subtext that it hangs between Sy and Larry like a third, invisible character. Ghost mistletoe, if you will. And, in a way, it is the dynamic which is the central character of the scene. It can only exist between these two particular characters, which makes it like a clearly defined character unto itself. Throw in a third person and the dynamic shifts, and becomes a different character.
My point is, always keep your characters’ relationship in mind, because it is unique, and will inform their action. What’s their history? How well do they know each other? How do they feel about each other? Do they trust each other? What is their status relative to the other? It’s the dynamic between the characters that will drive the scene and, ultimately, the story.