A Tale of Two Chairs

Or, Why Did My Paper Get a B?

It seems fairly common these days to find an explanation of what letter grades mean on course syllabi, and in my experience the difference between B work and A work is… unclear. It’s clear to the professor, of course (sometimes in that ‘I know an A paper when I see one’ kind of way), but the way it’s typically worded – “a B paper does everything well” vs. “an A paper exceeds expectations” – I mean, what the hell is that supposed to mean? And it’s difficult to explain, especially to irate students, until now.

Let’s say I have two students: we’ll call them Sherlock and Hannibal. They’ve got some interesting similarities [literary adaptation, showrunners of comparable age, English-language], although Sherlock is a bit British public school while Hannibal is somewhat more multicultural.

I give these students a semester-long assignment: tell me the story of a psychologically damaged man with a bit of a dark side, who’s been through hell and has trouble sleeping,

Sherlock “A Study in Pink” (2010)
Hannibal “Apéritif” (2013)

and what happens when he’s introduced through a mutual acquaintance to a singularly, and disturbingly, perceptive man.

Sherlock, “A Study in Pink” (2010)
Hannibal, “Aperitif” (2013)

Throughout the term, students turn in assignments that reveal a slowly unfolding friendship (or “friendship”) between the two men, and they use these assignments to bolster the emotional effects of the two men becoming estranged from one another entirely as a result of the bone-headed manipulations of the more flamboyantly-named man.

Sherlock “The Reichenbach Fall” (2012)
Hannibal Savoureux (2013)

For the final project in the class, students are asked to foreground the absence of the one man in the other’s life, making sure that – however they choose to do this – they include an empty chair.

Now, student 1 – Sherlock – is a really smart kid. He’s intimately familiar with history,

Sherlock Holmes Museum, London

has a visual flair, and he makes use of its actors in such a way that the characters’ growing emotional closeness is communicated throughout.

He also establishes his evidence for the empty chair assignment consistently throughout the semester, with one character claiming his seat early on

Sherlock, “A Study in Pink” (2010)

and the other sitting opposite him through to their estrangement by marriage.

Sherlock, “A Study in Pink” (2010)

And, in particular, this student does two things that constitute especially good evidence going forward to the final project.

The first is introducing a musical motif that’s essentially shorthand for the first character’s loneliness (and later, that character himself), played in the opening scenes of his waking from a nightmare and then repeated at moments of particular emotional distress. The second is a scene that takes place immediately after the other character’s feigned suicide:

Sherlock, “The Reichenbach Fall” (2011)

The combination of these two things – an empty chair where the one character typically sat and musical motif – sets the stage for the final project to the extent that it comes imbued with a certain degree of melancholic gravitas that borrows emotional heft from the seemingly more permanent feelings of despair the first character exudes in his empty chair scene:

Sherlock, “The Sign of Three” (2013)

Which is to say, Sherlock has done everything well. He’s supported his claim to emotional upheaval through strong evidence, he’s layered on meaning through music to augment the visuals – this is really good work.

In contrast, Hannibal is a bit of a smart-ass – the film geek who’s a bit too much in love with his knowledge of film and formal composition,

Hannibal “Sorbet” (2013)

to the extent that I kind of worry, at first, that all his work is going to be tiresome variations on a Kubrickian theme.

And at first, it seems like my fears are being realized. Hannibal, like Sherlock, establishes the seating arrangements between these two characters early on, and from there it keeps to them almost religiously.

Hannibal, “Buffet Froid” (2013)
Hannibal, “Oeuf” (2013)
Hannibal, “Releves” 2013
Hannibal, “Savoreaux” (2013)

To the extent that I wonder if Hannibal is going to be able to imbue anything with real emotional weight when the time comes, or if it’s all just going to be form for form’s sake.

As I expect, when the final project comes in, Hannibal plays on this established seating arrangement in the same way Sherlock did.

Hannibal, “Kaiseki” (2014)

And, at first glance, he doesn’t seem to do anything particularly different or noteworthy – he also does everything well. But on closer examination, a couple of very subtle things become clear – things that reward an attentive viewer.

One is that, rather than using a now-familiar musical refrain to invoke memories of the estranged man, Hannibal relies on the viewer to recall that the incarcerated character’s standing appointment with the other character is at 7:30 pm – so that when we first see the clock reading 7:35, we know (if we’ve been paying attention) what – or who – is on that character’s mind.

The second, and the thing for which I’d give this one an A, is the scene’s frame composition. In the above frames – and, indeed, throughout the first season – symmetry is the name of the game. The two characters  are always equally balanced in the frame, which is always divided neatly down the middle by either the support beam behind the desk or the wall between the two tall windows.

But here…

Hannibal, “Kaiseki” (2014)

everything is just a little bit off.

The frame is canted in the direction of the empty chair and the support beam is off-center, the cumulative effect of which is to reveal just how much this character’s world is (literally) off-kilter in the wake of the other character’s absence.

So that, where both Sherlock and Hannibal establish the chair relationship enough prior to these scenes to allow them each to demonstrate effectively how much one character misses the other through cuts from that character to the empty chair, only Hannibal reinforces this by changing up something that has been strictly consistent throughout – the visual equivalent of showing in addition to telling.

In the process, Hannibal demonstrates that maybe all of that style he’s been flashing around isn’t just style, but instead serves specific substantive ends – a confident move that, for being successful (and it’s a gamble) I’m inclined to reward.

Both of these students do what they do well – they’re both better than average and both of them stand out in a class. But Hannibal earns an A for going just a bit further and doing something unexpected – for “exceeding expectations.”

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