Anatomy of a Scene: 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999)

In every film there are little moments that can serve the story in a multitude of positive or negative ways, from fusing together themes, scenes, and/or characters, etc, to subterfuge or flat-out self-sabotage. Personally, I love when a bridging moment or scene can nourish the transitive nature of Hollywood film structure in the Eisenstein-ian way.

Few genres follow classic film structure quite like the rom-com, or in the case of the film I’m highlighting, the teen rom-com. In my house, 10 Things I Hate About You has remained a movie-night rotation staple since it came out at the end of the 20th century. Set in an upper-class modern high school, the film tells a loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”, which imbues a richness to the text to begin with. The plot of the original play is as follows (per Wikipedia):

The main plot depicts the courtship of Petruchio and Katherina, the headstrong, obdurate shrew. Initially, Katherina is an unwilling participant in the relationship; however, Petruchio “tames” her with various psychological torments, such as keeping her from eating and drinking, until she becomes a desirable, compliant, and obedient bride. The subplot features a competition between the suitors of Katherina’s younger sister, Bianca, who is seen as the “ideal” woman.

Thankfully, the depravity of the psychological torment is dialed back in favor of the only-slightly-less dubious genre staple – the gentlemen’s wager. A nefarious classmate, the air-headed pretty boy, Joey (Andrew Keegan), hires a loner, Patrick Verona (the late, great Heath Ledger), to court and ultimately date “the mewling rampallian wretch”, Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles), in order for Joey to get closer to Kat’s younger sister, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik). Witticisms, melodrama, and hilarity ensue.

Much like the play, the courtship between Patrick and Kat is the A plot, while Joey, Bianca, and her nerdier, though more steadfast and appropriate suitor, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), represent cogs in the larger wheel within the narrative. This B plot occupies center-stage at the outset and never fully crosses the finish line in terms of resolution for my taste, but proves to be an essential catalyst for Kat and Patrick’s story.

The scene I’m highlighting takes place in a music/book store at around the halfway point of the film and it plays as a sort of visual and spiritual banter between Patrick and Kat. Previous to the scene, the pair experienced a breakthrough at a house party that soured at the very moment their courtship might blossom. Instead of seizing the opportunity, Patrick rejects Kat’s drunken advance, an act of nobility in spite of his dishonorable adherence to dating her for monetary gain. His display of integrity appears all the more valorous when taking into consideration how a “shrew” might react when she allows a brief glimpse of her vulnerability and the gesture is not reciprocated. (Stiles and Ledger are terrific here, which makes this and many other scenes work). To no one’s surprise, Kat reacts angrily and the budding spark of romance is quickly extinguished by an all-pro defense mechanism and a healthy dose of ego-protection, something all-too-familiar in the uterine stages of teenage relationships.

The aftermath of this encounter coalesces in a wordless waltz between Patrick and Kat through a music/bookstore while Joan Armatrading’s achingly lovelorn ballad, “The Weakness in Me“, guides our drifting gaze between the stacks and bookshelves. One of the things I love most is how the song spiritually complements the scene in a very specific way. Many songs in film are agents of affectation, but this mixture of a remorseful melody and Armatrading’s earnest delivery offers reflection and patience exactly when these qualities are needed, which affords the scene a strange feeling of comfort.

The camera establishes itself outside Gil’s Music, the apparition of love gazing through the window as Kat seeks peace in her connection to music. The first-person POV floats across the store-front, its eye trained on the retracted, beguiling figure of a rejected teenage girl. As the camera pushes through the doorway and settles in behind Kat, it is revealed to be Patrick’s gaze. There’s a moment of indecision and familiar angst when Patrick nearly musters the courage to speak to her, a feeling that comes part-and-parcel with the sub-genre, but it’s followed by the uncommon repose of a matured soul.

Patrick instead retreats out of frame to rethink his approach as the low-angled camera zooms in on Kat, who senses a presence despite her efforts to block out the emotions she’s hiding from. There’s a give-and-take happening within these moments being expressed purely through visual language. We anxiously wander into Gil’s Music with hopes of reconciliation for these characters. They’re painfully close in physical proximity within the frame, so close Patrick could easily reach out and tap Kat on the shoulder. But the emotional barrier is palpable and the film knows there’s a time and place for a reconciliation to crystallize.

The scene then catches back up with Patrick gliding through the aisles, aided by Heath Ledger’s sinewy, gaunt stroll between the bookshelves. He resumes his gaze, catching up with Kat browsing the rows of books as Patrick populates the next aisle over from hers.

It’s here where the camera finds itself shifting sides. The camera dollies down the aisle that Kat is walking through while we spy between the books, following Patrick’s eyes in the next aisle over. Now we are in Kat’s shoes, and we can only anticipate what type of interaction will take place once they run out of bookshelf dividing them. This transference shifts the spotlight from Patrick’s previous voyeuristic position and manifests a moment where he must take action. With the bookshelf running out and the camera now staring him in the face, Patrick is at the mercy of Kat’s gaze.

Shifting perspectives and melancholic music certainly are not uncommon in films like these, but here these elements are used with maturity and with purpose. The introduction of the scene was heavy with the emotional low of longing and remorse, of missed opportunity or unlucky circumstance. But over the course of 70+ seconds, the melody and the visuals shift the winds of possibility to hopeful opportunity, which is just another reason to love this film.

Please enjoy the scene below:

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