Sight Unsound: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and ‘The Inner Most Cave’
In this edition of Ten Minute Textualism, writer and director Ted Wilkes breaks down some of the more iconic and important ten minutes of film and TV to try and give future visual storytellers an insight into how even the smallest details can be used to effectively advance a narrative forward.
In this video essay, we talk through the process of getting your characters in and out of ‘The Inner Most Cave’ – the part of the story where the protagonist has to fight the villain who has been plaguing them since Act One.
An excellent modern example of this is the hospital scene in Me and Earl and The Dying Girl.
For those who haven’t seen it, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is about a high school senior called Greg who navigates through life wishing only to be considered everyone’s acquaintance; staying clear of any particular clique, believing that is what he needs to do to survive in the frightening world of being a teenager.
However, one day Greg’s mother says that he needs to hang out with Rachel, a girl down the street who has been diagnosed with leukaemia. This sets Greg off on a journey where he must confront his own insolation, culminating in his visit to Rachel’s beside in hospital on prom night.
For American teens, prom night has many semiotic signifiers. It is a night for expressions of love, and often a time when certain rites of passage are fulfilled. However, Greg will spend this evening in a hospital. A place that is more obviously coded as where people go to die. This is rather ironically foreshadowed to us at the beginning of the scene, when Greg is nearly run over by an ambulance on his way into the building. It appears from the outset that this will be a scene which will literally be about death when it should more traditionally be about love. This depicts the dichotomy of the scene at its most basic level. It is to be one where both love and death are examined.
During the film, Greg has been in the process of making a short film for Rachel. This will be the first time that he will show it to her. An act that will take on a huge amount of metaphorical significance.
Structurally this is the part of the narrative where our hero must enter into the ‘inner most cave’, the scene where they must do battle with the antagonist of the piece, which has been plaguing them since Act One.
During this moment of the film our protagonist must suffer their moment of darkness where all hope is lost, which is usually accompanied by an instance of near, actual, or metaphorical death, so that they are able to leave behind their old life, and finally realise their new identity in Act Five, where they will return to their ordinary world with the elixir of knowledge that they have retrieved from their adventure world.
For Greg, he is his own worst enemy and this is the moment where he can finally defeat evil and admit that he does not want to be a recluse any longer and ultimately confess his love for Rachel. As he puts the film on he states: “It’s not what I want to say to you.” The subtext screams right out of the frame and into the audience. What he’s actually saying by creating the film is, “I love you.”
Although Greg has tried to admit his feelings for Rachel before, he has only superficially explored them as he half-heartedly asks her to prom during the midpoint of the film. Now he is truly able to embrace how he feels and metaphorically shows her exactly what she means to him by using the film as a visual representation of his love.
Throughout the film, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has used the camera to heighten Greg’s ideas that the world is an acutely organised place that he’s able to structure in his own head with categorised groups of people. He believes that everything has a place, and the framing of the piece reinforces this with specifically composed shots and transitions that rigidly obey the rule of thirds, keeping things perpendicular and within quadrants of the screen.
However, as Rachel and Greg’s friendship develops, Gomez-Rejon deliberately begins to break these rules with shots drifting around, or making greater use of negative space within the frame to highlight Greg’s changing mindset as he begins to examine his way of thinking. This technique is at its most extreme within this scene. Greg has finally spiritually altered his outlook on life and is able to see the world differently. It also brings us some of the tighter close ups of the piece, allowing for greater intimacy between us and the characters.
However, this tragedy and growth has come too late for Greg as it did for Lester Burnham, Charles Foster Kane and Macbeth. The non-diegetic sound of Brian Eno’s The Big Ship is broken momentarily for Rachel to cough, signalling to us that she is indeed dying. Greg rushes to get help, and her mother and a nurse arrive to try and attend to her. The music continues though, only getting louder and more overbearing to mask the frantic attempts of those in the room to assist her. Nothing, it seems, can stop what is about to happen.
Rachel allows herself a single moment to lock eyes with her mother to say goodbye, before returning to look at the screen in front of her. Now though, Greg is stood in front of it obscuring her view. This literally joins Greg with the film itself. Rachel continues to stare. She doesn’t just love what he has done for her. She loves him too. At her moment of death all she wants to do is look at him one last time and confess her feelings for him.
Greg is then ushered out of the room into the bright halogen lights of the corridor. He has gone through his moment in the cave, fully vanquished his spiritual enemy and has now been born a-new, back into the ‘real world’, where he will begin to showcase the lessons he has learnt in his adventure world as he tries to navigate life without Rachel for the first time. Lessons that she has taught him.
Despite everything pointing towards the awful things which have to happen during this section of the film, the scene actually offers a moment of catharsis for an audience. It is one where we now understand that both our character’s journeys are completed with them finally being able to show one another the things that they have been trying to since we first met them at the beginning of the film.
Although it’s a scene which is literally about death, all we can see is the love that Greg and Rachel have for one another. An amazing handcrafted moment that easily reduces even the most stone-hearted to tears.
So, what do you guys think? Are there any other things that you think a scene could really be about other than love or death? Do you recognise any other inner-most cave moments from film or TV? Or has this video helped you with your own writing or filmmaking?
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In this video essay, we talk through the process of getting your characters in and out of 'The Inner Most Cave' - the part of the story where the protagonist has to fight the villain who has been plaguing them since Act One.