A Romantic-Comedy and Real Internal Concerns

Paper by Genesis Anahi Garcia Zetino.

“Sleepless in Seattle” is a romantic comedy directed and cowritten by Nora Ephron in 1993. The film can be expected to be another click flick movie that does not have anything else to offer than a romantic story with a happy ending. However, “Sleepless in Seattle” (Nora Ephron, 1993) offers a narration of real-life concerns that anyone can relate to. Even though the film can even be predictable, that does not change the emotions that the viewers may feel through its form, style, and cast. For that reason, “Sleepless in Seattle” (Ephron, 1993) was positively received when it was released in 1993, and even nowadays it still gets the same positive reaction from viewers. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film had an audience score of 75%. In addition, it was nominated in the 66th Academy Awards and won Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Song (TCM). The film addresses serious themes in a digestible way due to its narration, cinematography, and music included. The themes are not addressed in an explicit way, but it allows the viewers to analyze them deeply. The story involves the viewer to connect with it and interpret what is behind the characters’ actions.

The scene selected to analyzed occurs around the middle of the film (47:24 – 51:05) during the night when Jonah has a nightmare and his father comes to check on him, and then, there is a following short sequence that shows Sam and Annie simultaneously. This scene represents a decisive moment for the film because it is after this that important decisions by the protagonists are made and at the same time connects to previous scenes. In addition, this scene, through the use of mise-en-scene, illumination, close-ups and long shots, acting, dialogues, and music, manipulates the viewers’ emotions and captures the main themes in the film regarding single parenting, death, widowhood, maternal need, love, authentic happiness, infidelity, and craziness. Consequently, this scene is vital to the film because it allows the viewer to anticipate the next moves from the characters, and it serves as a unification of the other scenes in the film’s narrative and meaning.

The scene opens with a shot of the outside of Sam’s houseboat in the dark night while the voice of Jonah can be heard calling his mother after having a nightmare. The next shot happens fast without a transition, and then Sam can be seen running up stairs to check on his son through the dark hallway. During this, the shot is longer that the previous one and allows the viewer to follow Sam’s urge to comfort his son. In addition, it shows the pain and responsibility of a widowered father who is taking care of his son by himself without even being able to sleep while his son is unconsciously showing that he has a tremendous maternal need. The next shots show the conversation between them. During the conversation Jonah, in shot 3, describes his bad dream about their houseboat sinking. In addition, they mention a song called “Bye-bye, blackbird” that Jonah’s mother used to sing for him, and Jonah says that he misses his mother and is starting to forget her. This song is the one playing in the background later in the scene, and it influences the film tone since the beginning. In “Soundtracks and Film Score News” Ephron is cited when she says, ““When you put music in a movie, you try to find one or two songs you can start out with that make you understand something about the music you want to use,” she says. For “Sleepless,” those songs were the Joe Cocker version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” and Jimmy Durante’s rendition of “As Time Goes By”” (Olson). Thus, the song has its significance for the film in the way the director wants to manipulate the viewers’ emotions. In addition, the inclusion of the song title in the dialogue between the characters affects the way the viewer reacts to the song later because the song is not only in the background but as part of the story in the film. After that, there is a hug between them, which strengths their relationship on screen, and Sam shares with his son something about his mother. Sam tells him that his mother could peel an apple in one long, curly strip. During this last shot, their expressions changes and music starts playing, which influences viewers’ roller coaster of emotions. The next shot comes in a blink without even notice a transition. During this following sequence of shots, Annie and Sam are seen simultaneously in different places; however, those places and their actions are similar. They can both be seen walking at a deck surrounded by water and streetlights, as well as sitting on a bench in the cold, dark night as they sink into their thoughts with the music playing in the background.

During this particular scene, mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, acting, and sound contribute to create emotional and intellectual effects for the viewers, and at the same time help them to understand the themes addressed in the film as a whole. The scene takes place late at night. For that reason, the sequence of shots lacks lighting to create this atmosphere of nostalgia, difficulties, and intimacy. Outside, the only source of lighting includes two streetlights, the two wall lights in each side of the door, and the reflection of the water. This emphasizes the time and space in which the scene is going to take place, which is in the middle of a cold and dark night. Inside the house, the hallway is just illuminated by the light that filters through the blinds, and this lack of illumination continues in Jonah’s room. The lack of lighting together with the close-ups to Jonah and Sam’s faces contributes to deliver an intimate and important scene between father and son. It strengths the relationship between them that had not shone yet at this point of the film. The camera movement is almost motionless, and the transitions between each shot are unnoticeable during the whole sequence, which allows the viewers get immersed in their moment. During their conversation, the shots are being taken below eye level when the camera is focusing Sam, and above eye level when focusing Jonah. This allows to have both perspectives, but without being framed directly as point of view from each character. Moreover, the weight of the sequence of shots during the father-son scene falls largely on the facial expressions of both actors. There is not room for full body language during these close-up shots, so the actors have to make sure that the characters emotions are reflected through their eyes, and facial expressions. For example, Jonah has his eyes wide open while he listens to his father to reflects his desperation, fear, and excitement in shot 11. Another example of this includes Sam’s frown showing his concern for his son from shot 3 to shot 12, and later in shot 16 a half smile appears when he talks about Jonah’s mother trying to comfort him. These small details contribute to the message being received by the viewers and they can connect with the emotions of the characters and in a certain way empathize with them.

Every shot during the father-son conversation leads to connect them and talk with sincerity. Sam looks vulnerable and makes clear that he does not actually know how to deal with single parenting, and Jonah’s eyes emphasizes his maternal need. The dynamic change of shots that goes back and forth from Sam and Jonah emphasizes the struggles for which both of them are going through after loosing Jonah’s mom. On the other hand, Sam and Annie’s sequence help to unify their nonexistent relationship. Both of them are seen doing similar actions such as walking through the dock in the dark and cold night while try to make important decisions that will change their future. Annie is struggling with her feelings; however, that night she accepts the madness of having fallen in love with someone she does not know and the possibility of being unfaithful to her fiancé. Her facial expressions during shots 25 and 27 are the ones in charge to deliver this message to the viewers, and the message is received through the simultaneous shots 26, 28, and 29 with Sam. On the other hand, Sam is struggling with the idea of finding a maternal role for Jonah’s life. He debates himself of his decision to go to the date the next day and get over his mourning. That makes viewers get excited and hope that Sam will prepare his heart for when Annie appears in his life. The meaning of the entire film is delivered through these lovely and vulnerable sequence of shots. The importance of Jonah to Sam and their connection are not only demonstrated through their dialogue and facial expressions, but also through the chemistry the actors create between them in the screen.

The father-son scene connects to another scene in the film and creates an excuse to justify the ending in which both of them accepts Annie when they meet at the Empire State Building. During their conversation, Sam tells Jonah, in shot 16, that his mother could peel an apple in one long, curly strip. This could have been seen as a random and little necessary data for the narrative of the film, but in reality, it has a great relationship with a previous scene. In a previous scene, Annie is seen once again listening to Sam’s call on the radio while she peels an apple, and she peels it in one long and curly strip. This scene serves as a symbolism of the connection Annie is able to create with Jonah and Sam. She is even similar to Jonah’s mother, which will allow them to have a better acceptance of her in their little family. She will help to cover the maternal need of Jonah. In shot 16 while Sam is telling Jonah this fact about his mother, “Bye-bye, blackbird” starts to play and Sam smiles. This song accompanies the rest of shot sequences and serves to calm the previous tense and sad moment. Then the simultaneous sequence of Annie and Sam shots takes place to deliver the single parenting, widowhood, and maternal need struggles for Sam, as well as the authentic happiness, infidelity and craziness themes on Annie’s side through the film’s form. Through the lack of lighting, close-ups, blurry backgrounds, and the song in the background, the scene tries to make the viewers understand the internal concerns that the characters are going through.

“Sleepless in Seattle” follows the classical Hollywood cinematic structure of three acts (Maestu “Unit 4”), and the scene in question is part of the second act. During this scene, Sam’s decision to go on a date takes place, as well as Annie’s decision to investigate Sam. The scene in question serves as a transition between two key points in the second act. It takes place after Sam has called Barbara for a date, and after Annie has written the letter. In addition, it is the previous scene to prepare the audience when Jonah receives the letter, Sam goes to the date, and Annie starts investigating Sam. Moreover, this scene serves as a confirmation for both characters to their futures actions. During this scene Annie is truly convinced that she has not found authentic happiness and true love with her fiancé, so she tries to investigate Sam and see if her madness does not lead her life to a disaster. On the other hand, Sam decides to try dating even though he does not feel ready for it. During the second act, both make decisions based on their desperation, which is crucial for the rest of the film.

The explicit meaning of “Sleepless in Seattle” seems simple and without the necessity of a deep analysis; however, its implicit meaning depends a lot on the viewers perception and analysis. When the viewers talk about the film, the film can be reduced to a love story. It can be perceived as the story of Sam Baldwin, a widowered architect whose son calls to a radio talk show during Christmas Eve and makes him talk about how much he misses his wife. Moreover, Annie Reed, a reporter from Baltimore listens to him and fall in love, so she writes a letter for Sam and his son asking them to meet at the Empire State in Valentine’s day. However, the film addresses more serious themes. For example, the madness of Annie and her actions. She not only falls in love with a man who she does not know, but she also gets obsessed and is even able to pay someone to follow and investigate Sam. She is not only disrespecting her relationship with her fiancé, but also the private life of an individual who has no idea of her feelings. Her unsatisfactory relationship leads her to fall for an unknown and go crazy for him. The narrative of the film is simple, there is not confusion in any scene, but the interpretation of its characters’ action can be questionable if they are seen from different perspectives. For that reason, the film is rich in internal concerns.

In conclusion, the mise-en-scene, illumination, close-ups, facial expressions, dialogues, and music creates the essential combination of cinematic techniques to deliver the implicit meaning of the film, as well to drive the viewers emotions. The scene does not go unnoticed as it serves as a transition between other scenes of the second act, as well as the exemplification that the film offers much to interpret regarding the internal problems that all people struggle with at some point in their lives. Moreover, the performance of the actors can be appreciated more during this scene as they have several close-ups, a lot of facial expression and little dialogue. In addition, the scene follows the melancholic, and soft tone of the whole film, and it allows the viewers to get involved in their own emotions through the story of the characters. It is a scene full of promises about the rest of the film, and it makes the viewer get even more hooked and anticipating the next events.

Works Cited
“Sleepless in Seattle (1993).” IMDb, IMDb.com,
“Sleepless in Seattle.” Rotten Tomatoes, rottentomatoes.com,
“Sleepless in Seattle.” TCM [Turner Classic Movies], tcm.com,
Olson, Catherine Applefeld. “Soundtracks and Film Score News.” Billboard, vol. 110, no.
45, Nov. 1998, p. 22. EBSCOhost,
Maestu, Nicholas. “Unit 4: Parts of the Narrative: Classical Hollywood Cinema.” Online

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