Music in movies

Moviefone recently published a list of the best music scenes in movies.  Many of the choices I support.  Particularly, I really liked the Tiny Dancer scene from Almost Famous.  However, they left off some essential scenes, and I list some of those here.

Magnolia–the cast sings with Aimee Mann

This is a sprawling, ambitious film.  Director Paul Anderson (also of There Will Be Blood) is not short on vision and style.  Much of this film is rather fast-paced and high-energy.  In this scene, all of the main characters, each of whom is at a relative low-point, stop to sing along with Aimee Mann on the song Wise Up.  It is a powerful scene.  Though not as interesting as the ones following it (think Exodus 8:3).

Goodfellas–Sunshine of Your Love

Jimmy (de Niro) and the gang have just committed the ultimate heist.  Jimmy starts to wonder if he can trust the other guys to keep quiet.  He considers what to do.  The music doesn’t directly relate to the scene. but it fits it well.  De Niro’s acting is top-notch.

Rushmore–revenge

You could easily include one or two each Wes Anderson film on this list.  I include on two.  The first is from my favorite Anderson film.  Max Fischer decides to get revenge on Herman Blume.  War ensues.  The Who track is excellent accompaniment.  (Forgive the spanish dubbing.  This was a good HQ clip.)

Now the end title sequence from The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou, accompanied by David Bowie.

That last scene is an homage to the end of The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension–which is a fun, campy eighties cult flick.

Inglorious Bastards–getting ready

The moviefone list included several Quentin Tarantino films.  Here is my favorite music scene, with another Bowie song.  This annotated clip was the best one I could find.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/15489427″>Sally Menke, Editor (1953 – 2010)</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user2222857″>Jim Emerson</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Casablanca–La Marseillaise

This is the most egregious mistake of the list.  This is one of the greatest scenes in film history.  It is a powerful and stirring scene.  See it here.  The scene ends with one of the funnier lines of the movie.

Paths of Glory–the last song

This is one of the more effective anti-war movies.  It is one of Kubrick’s greatest film (which is saying much).  This film sums up the folly of war as much as any other scene.

And speaking of Kubrick,

Paris, Texas

Director:  Wim Wenders

USA, 1984

“I knew these people . . .”

A man is found wandering in the wilderness in Texas after disappearing four years previously.  He reunites with his son.  The man then seeks to reunite his son with his mother, realizing he can never again be apart of the family.

That is the basic plot of the film.  It is beautifully told with tender care and acute observation.  It is one of my favorite films.  I have seen it several times, and it haunts me each time I think about it.

Here is probably the best scene of the film.  It takes place toward the end of the story.  The man has tracked down his wife, who is working at a peep show (absolutely no sexual content in this scene, or the movie for that matter).  She doesn’t know who he is (at first).

This scene affects me every time I see it.  I think the dialogue is great.  So simple, yet so poetic.  The lighting and the camerawork and the editing very effectively convey the feeling and the emotion of the scene.  The music (a wonderful score by Ry Cooder) nicely compliments the image.  This is a great example of visual storytelling.

I would highly recommend this film.

Rating: 10/10

How we watch films

As much as I try to watch good films, I try to be a good watcher of films.  That takes practice.  It also takes understanding.  You must understand something of how films work, and how they are constructed.  I wrote before on visual storytelling.  I am quite the novice in this area.  David Bordwell is not.  He is an eminent scholar and professor of film studies.  His blog at Observations on Film Art is wonderful reading if you want to learn to be a better film watcher.  He recently invited a guest blogger who studies what our eyes do when we watch a film.  The article is very fascinating.  I recommend reading it, as well as the articles it links to.

The article speaks about the film There Will Be Blood.  I really enjoyed this movie.  It is one of the better films of the present century.

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Director:  Carl Th. Dreyer

France, 1927

The Faces.  It is the faces that haunt you.  The faces of the judges are haughty and sanctimonous.  They sneer and despise.  They are fearful and confused.  The faces of the guards are ignorant and crude.  They are leering and mocking.  They are full of cruel, carnal glee as they torment their prey.

And we see the face of Joan–soft, sweet and innocent.  Seldom are we able to peer into such deep and honest emotion as we do when look at the face of Joan, played with such amazing skill by Maria Falconetti.  She shows a vast range of emotion–from fearful to peaceful, from shocked to amazed, from delighted to despondant.  Her face will haunt you for a long time.

The power of this film comes from Dreyer’s incessant use of close-ups.  They have been used many times before and since, but never with more artistic skill.  The film was shot on an elaborate, expense set, but we rarely see it.  Dreyer’s purpose with the film was not to make a period piece.  He did not want to focus on the externals.  He wanted to focus on the emotional and spiritual core of the story.  This is where the close-ups are effective.  By focusing almost solely on the faces, any artiface and distraction is removed.  All we can focus on is the characters and the spiritual struggle taking place.

The film is ostensibly about the conflict between organized religion and personal piety.  It illustrates this with remarkable skill.  However, Dreyer is so skilled he is able to obtain so much more from the story.  He is able to showcase one woman’s courage and devotness during a period of extreme persecution.  This is not an explicity religious film.

This film is generally regarded as one the greatest, if not the greatest, silent films.  It is one of my favorite films.  It is an absolute masterpiece.  Whatever you think of silent films, you should set aside your preconceptions and watch this film.

Rating: 10/10

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Director:  Mervyn LeRoy

USA,  1932

So begins the gritty prison drama, or at least an early incarnation of the genre.  Paul Muni stars as James Allen, a young man freshly back from WWI who wants to make a name for himself.  Instead of returning to his job at a factory, he hits the road looking for an engineering job.  He soon arrives in New Orleans, where he is falsely accused of stealing $5 and change.  He is sentenced to work on a chain gang.  The inhuman conditions eventually drive him to make a daring (and painful) escape.  He moves to Chicago where he finally gets a job as an engineer.  He works hard for several years, continually being promoted.  He ends up being one of the most respected members of Chicago society.  Along the way he meets a girl who discovers his past.  She uses this blackmail him.  He finally calls her bluff when he wants to marry the girl he loves.  The blackmailer turns him in to the police, who want to send him back to the chain gang.  The city of Chicago does not want him to go.  They feel he had paid his debt to society.  The prosecutors from Louisiana promise him that if he willingly returns, he will be pardoned after 90 days.  He agrees, as he merely wants to move on with his life.  Once back on the chain gang, the prison system soon recants on their promise.  He escapes once again, this time doomed to spend the rest of his life on the run.

It is imminently clear that this film has a social message.  The story is based on the true memoirs of Robert E. Burns.  He had hoped to expose the cruelty of the chain gangs.  One scene in particular that is highly effective is where Allen his plotting his escape.  The prisoners are working on removing railroad tracks.  He asks a fellow prisoner to hit the shackles on his ankles so that they will bend.  He will then be able to slip out of them.  This means that his ankle is being hit with a sledge hammer.  His desire to be free and the escape the torment of the guards is so strong that he is willing to endure this.  In the end it is implied that the injustice of the system has turned him into a fearful, desperate criminal.  He is willing to do almost anything to stay alive and free.

One particular movie that is of the same vein is The Shawshank Redemption.  Both are about a man wrongly accused.  Both are about a corrupt system.  Both involve escapes.  Shawshank is much more about the people and their friendships.  IAAFFACG is more socially aware.  It is effective at making us empathize with the convict.  Paul Muni does an effective job in his role.  He has almost a boyish quality about him.  In this movie it makes him seem like an innocent everyman.  Muni was also in Howard Hawks’ Scarface.  In that film, Muni’s boyish quality makes seem a childish truant, which is what his character essentially is–a heartless, sadistic one at that.

LeRoy’s direction is very good.  His visual style is not overly complicated, but it is nicely creative at times, and far from mundane.  There is a scene where footage of the chain gang working is overlapped with the picture of a calender.  The men are singing and swinging their hammers in time with the music.  The pages of the calender turn with each strike of the hammers.  I thought this was an interesting touch.   The final scene is also very memorable, as James Allen gradually faces into darkness.  Very effective.

Rating: 8/10

A guide to the camera as a storyteller

Film is a visual medium.  It is at its best when it utilizes visual storytelling techniques.  Some of these are similar to other artistic media, such as theater and painting.   Some of them are indigenous to film.  Understanding these techniques can enhance the film-watching experience.

When we talk about “storytelling”, we mean much more than plot or narrative.  Storytelling certainly involves both of these, but it involves much more.  Many times the “story” being told is a theme or an idea.  Sometimes it is just a mood or an emotion.  Story is what the film has to say, and storytelling is how it says it.

Composition:

Composition is the way the elements are arranged within the frame.  That is a basic and utterly insufficient definition.  Composition involves many different elements.  We could break it down further into set-design, lighting, camera angles, lens selection, and more.  It might be the most complicated aspect of storytelling.  There are composition principles that have evolved for centuries within painting.  There are other principles that are much more recent in genesis.  And, like any “artistic-principle”, there are ways to contort the established principles for a desired effect.  Composition is much more noticeable for certain filmmakers.  You can hardly watch an Welles’ film without thinking about composition.  With others it is far more subtle.  For Bresson, composition is extremely important, but not all that drastic.

Barry Lyndon–opening

This is one of the most exquisitely composed films.  Tremendous care went into setting up each and every scene.  This opening scene is as beautiful as a fine painting, which is exactly what it is supposed to be.

Playtime–window cleaning

Playtime is a wonderfully funny and brilliantly directed film  Every frame is filled from edge to edge, corner to corner with witty and significant elements.  This scene is an example of how Tati using composition for an amusing visual gag.

Movement within the frame:

This type of movement is borrowed directly from theater.  In theater, there is essentially one frame, and all the movement must be within that frame.  Much early film focused primarily on these techniques.  They were much more theatrical than cinematic.  Over the years, filmmakers have devised ingenious ways to make movement within the frame more cinematic.

The General–canonball scene

Buster Keaton was amazing.  Few comic actors have been as subtle and athletic as he.  Notice how he uses the frame and the action within the frame to tell a very humorous story.  As the commentator on the clip notes, that is a real train that is really moving the track, and this is really Keaton doing all the stunts.

Singing in the Rain–the dance

There is nothing for me to say here.

click here

Movement of the camera:

Only in film can there be this type of storytelling.  No other medium allows for it.  This is possibly the most misused technique.  Many filmmakers (i.e. Michael Bay) move the camera in every scene for no discernable purpose.  With all these techniques, there must be a motivation behind them.  The story is not the fact the the camera is moving.  There must be something more behind it.  With the great filmmakers, the camera moves for a reason.  Not coincidentally, many of the filmmakers that are good at moving the camera are also good at not moving the camera.
Mirror–fire scene

Tarkovsky moves the camera often.  He uses many long, slow tracking shots.  They allow for much thought and observation.  They give you chance to enter the time-universe of the film.  This is a beautiful, wonderfully choreographed scene.

Touch of Evil–opening shot

This is the tracking shot of all tracking shots.  It is one of the best opening scenes.  Everything you need to know about the border town where the film takes place is in this shot.

Editing:

Editing is another technique indigenous to film.  Early filmmakers noticed you can imply many things by juxtaposition.  They also learned that precise editing allows for a smooth flow of the narrative.  We normally associate editing with action scenes, where it is most often misused (i.e. Michael Bay, again).  Editing is also very important in dialogue scenes, maybe even more important than in actions scenes.
Psycho–shower scene

Because of the brilliant set-up and editing of this scene, you think you see more than you actually see.  I think this one scene took several days to shoot.

Raging Bull–final fight (Warning: graphic and intense)

Scorsese used the same shot set-up and sequence as in the above scene.  Notice also how he uses camera movement and composition.

This list is far from exhaust.  The scenes included are far from the best examples.  They happen to be the best examples I could think of and find on YouTube.  Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

If you have not watched the movies, you should.  They are all very good.

Brief thoughts on Eternal Sunshine

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Director: Michel Gondry

Writer:  Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman writes movies with uniquely bizarre premises and utterly human themes.  In Being John Malkovich, he deals with identity, aspirations, and the hard reality of existence.  Adaptation is about the creative struggle and the need to adapt and evolve with the circumstances.  In Synecdoche, New York he presents us with a stylized look at our perception of life and other people.  In Eternal Sunshine he searches through the meaning of love and memory.  All of these descriptions are trite, insufficient, and probably inaccurate.  They are, however, what I recall learning from and seeing in the films.

I just re-viewed Eternal Sunshine.  I think it is his best script, and one of the best scripts of the 00’s.  In all his films, Kaufman is able to create a bizarre world filled with eccentric characters that are surprisingly like each of us.  I have not had to deal with the rise and fall of a relationship like Joel and Clementine do in the movie.  I have had to deal with the peaks and valleys of ones.  I can most certainly understand the place memory holds in our value system.

I recently saw a lecture on the meaning of happiness.  The speaker noted that there are two main types of happiness:  that which comes from experiencing and that which comes from remembering.  This movie very effectively illustrates that there is a disconnect between the two.  The lecturer noted that people who moved from Ohio to California would say that they are happier.  They aren’t.  They remember the hard winters and are comparing their present experience to their memories.  We tend to filter our memories to extremes, either very good or very bad.  We tend to not place emphasis on the middle.

One of the many problems with Joel and Clementine in the movie is that they place more emphasis on present experience rather than memory.  In the end, Joel comes to realize the importance of memory, and its supremacy to the present.  Even though he knows his relationship with Clementine will probably fail, he is will to move ahead, if only for the pleasant memories of pleasant times.

The themes of this movie are similar to the themes of Dark City, another very good movie.  The two might make an interesting double-feature, even though the forms of the movies are very different.

Rating:  9/10