The Art of a Well-Placed Scene

Over the Christmas holidays many of us have taken the time to enjoy a few classic Christmas movies and new releases. Now, with many provinces once again in lockdown, you may be continuing to keep yourself entertained with the latest movies streaming on your favourite platform. With this in mind, I thought it might be good to consider the nature of the movies we watch. Of course, some movies are written and filmed to be little more than entertaining humour and escape from the realities of this world, but then there are the movies designed to tell a story and deliver a message to the audience. Some movies do make us think. These movies can be symbolic or may have subtle messages embedded within. The writer/director of movies of this type, is not attempting to make something real any more than a great painting by a great artist is trying to make something real. When we look at a painting by van Gogh (such as Café Terrace at Night) or Monet (Woman with a Parasol), we do not expect to see something that looks like a photograph, we know that the artist was trying to tell us something or perhaps evoke an emotion. Similarly, when we watch a movie, we can watch for moments of obvious symbolism and consider what the author is trying to say.

Ingmar Bergman, who made movies such as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Cries and Whispers, and The Magician, and is considered to be one of the greatest moviemakers of the 20th Century, had this to say about films: “I’m not trying to make it real; I’m trying to make it alive.”[1] In more recent times, Woody Allen, who was highly influenced by Bergman, liked to use Bergman’s technique of extreme close-ups of the human face to show anguish, joy, fear, or peace. You can see this influence particularly in movies like Stardust Memories by Woody Allen. Such techniques offer us clues as to what it is that a movie-maker is trying to say to us.

Where I want to take us today is that I would like to encourage us all to think about what we see in our movies and to intentionally choose movies that are both entertaining and that cause us to consider our own or someone else’s perspective of the world. I think we might agree that we could all use a dose of considering the other person’s situation a little bit more. The way to do this with movies is to watch for clues that show us something important is coming up. For example, when we see that the director has lined up the entire cast on both sides of a road and marched the villain down between them all (as in a recent television series I watched) we can see that the director is saying something like, “see, the bad guy doesn’t win, the community is standing up to him and wins because of their solidarity.” Think of the “Chorus” in a play by Sophocles or the narrator of Shakespeare, whose external voices speak the words that explain the scene to the audience. In the scene I watched, it was rather unlikely to think that all of the people of the town could happen to be there or even planned to be there on either side of the road to run the antagonist out of town. No matter, it is just a theatrical technique used by creative directors to alert us to the message we are about to receive.

The movie Witness (1985, director Peter Weir) has a number of scenes in which we are challenged to compare the way of life of an Amish community with that of Philadelphia mobs and corrupt police. One being a community of pacifism and collaboration, the other a people of violence and greed. Director Peter Weir uses a series of images to communicate the power of pacifism and solidarity. After the movie has explored the quiet peaceful life of the Amish people the director shows us a golden scene of the farmers working together with scythes and rakes to bring in the harvest. They are happy as they work together. Unknown to the farmers, a group of unhappy, murderous thugs have arrived at the homes and barns in their collective community. One of the members of the community manages to reach the emergency bell to call the men back from the field. The farmers look up from their work with sharpened tools in hand – ones that might serve well as weapons against an unknown enemy, and they drop the sharp tools in the field before running back to their homes. When they arrive and are confronted by men with automatic weapons, they are vulnerable and committed to non-violent intervention. The murderous thugs realize they must either kill all of the men, women, and children, and likely get thrown in jail for it, or yield to the unity of the people. And so, the mob loses. The whole message of how to beat gangs and thugs is told with a few scenes skillfully shot by an experienced movie team.

We have just been speaking of one or two scenes in a story, but how does one get the message of an entire movie or television series? In that case, we may need to look at a movie as a whole and ask what the overall message of the film might be. Look for repeated themes. Pay attention to the lyrics of songs, especially those that are repeated in the backdrop of the story. Cohen movies, like The Legend of Buster Scruggs or A Serious Man are often about the randomness of life and how the best thing we can hope for is to enjoy a few existential moments of joy. They signal this with random events cropping up at the most unexpected times or with the lyrics of a song played over and over in the movie (think Serious Man here). Woody Allen often creates movies about this same theme and communicates a message that the universe is meaningless except for the few moments of joy we experience on occasion. None of these three director/writers start from a perspective that allows for a creator God who guides and teaches humanity. They start from a perspective of bleak randomness and a conviction that the universe has no meaning. If we are to be intelligent movie-goers, we would do well to understand the underlying premises of those who provide our entertainment.

Once we understand the message of the movie, we are in a better place to decide how we will react to the movie. Do we agree with its philosophical starting points? Do we agree with the conclusions drawn from the plot of the story? Do we agree with its message? The starting point is watching for the key elements that signal that a message is being given. So, as we make our movie and television choices, I hope that we will not limit ourselves to only those that give a message with which we agree; and I hope that we might better prepare ourselves for detecting the messages that are given in the movies we watch. Then, we will be better able to discern how we will live.

[1] Interview with Melvyn Bragg, 1978; Ingmar Bergman interview on “The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries & more,” 

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