A Dreamer Walking

It’s A Wonderful Scene

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy, Scene Analysis by Jacob on December 25, 2014

I don’t think there is any better time then the day of Christmas to introduce to you one of my favorite scenes of all time. The scene comes from the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But first I need to do a little set up.

This is considered one of the key scenes from the movie. In it you see the main character George Bailey at his happiest. He is filled with enthusiasm for the future and is going to “see the world”. You can also feel the sexual tension between two characters. Though George may be a little too high on his horse to understand it they both are deeply in love with each other. After this scene George finds out his father died and it goes down hill from there. Instead of going to see the world he gets stuck working at his father’s old business, The Building and Loan. His plan was to work there until his brother came back from collage. However, he finds out his brother got married and was offered a job with his wife’s father after school. Again, George is stuck in Bedford Falls working for his old run-down business. Now I have set it up, check out the scene displaying Frank Capra and actor Jimmy Stewart at the pinnacle of their game.

Never have I seen a scene so elegantly walk the line between humor and anguish. The tension is so potent from the beginning and only intensifies the futher along we go. Capra once said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” Capra’s greatest weapon against dullness in his movies was conflict. Conflict is one of the storyteller’s greatest weapons. Where the resolutions in a movie can only entertain for minutes or just seconds, curtain conflicts can keep an audience on the edge of their seats through entire movies. In fact the greater the conflict the more satisfying the resolution.

The main conflict finally concluded in this scene had been building since the beginning of the movie. As you saw in the first scene I showed, the tension between Mary and George was strong. In this scene it’s intoxicating. The audience desperately wants to see these two together and Capra knows this. So naturally he does everything in his power to stop them from being together. I mean it starts from the very beginning. George tries to come into the yard and he can’t open the gate. When it come to setting up conflict the audience will buy into pretty much anything you do to get us deeper into the hole. What are the odds that the gate wouldn’t open? Yet, we don’t think twice about it because it’s stopping George from getting to Mary. On the other hand, you need to earn your way out of the hole. The audience won’t buy into any quick fix solutions.

George and Mary’s demeanor at the beginning could not be further apart. One is upbeat and happy to be back home in Bedford Falls. The other is slumped in depression and finds the town of Bedford to be a prison. If you ever find yourself struggling with making a scene feel interesting, it’s probably because you have not created enough of a clash between characters. The two characters are at different ends of the spectrum on every topic they go into. Mary went to collage and chose to come back home because she missed Bedford Falls, George would like nothing more then to go to collage so he could leave Bedford Falls. Mary couldn’t be happier George is there to visit. George keeps on explaining how he wasn’t really planning on showing up. Mary puts out an illustration of the man lassoing the moon and puts on Buffalo Gals. George hardly gives these things any consideration. All this makes the audience cry out in frustration. We so desperately want them to come together and the tension is just killing us.

One of the beautiful things Capra does is add in sprinkles of humor through out the piece. Capra basks in the awkwardness of the conversation. This whole scene has less to do with what is said but rather focuses on what is communicated between the lines. George makes the comment when he sits down, “Well, I see it still smells like pine needles around here”.  Mary, “….thank you.”. Neither we nor she think the comment was exactly a compliment but what else is there to say? Mary makes an effort to echo the sentiments the characters had years ago when walking home from the dance. She begins to sing the line, “And dance by the light of the..” and of course George doesn’t remember, another example of George missing the opportunity to connect with Mary. At this point of the scene the barrier between the two couldn’t be more obvious. However, Capra doesn’t yet want to let the audience off the hook. He knows he can go further but to do so he needs to throw in another factor.

In comes the mother. Mary’s mom forces the conversation to go to another stage. “George Bailey?! What’s he want!”. Finally Mary is able to get more direct. “What do you want”, she asks. This confrontation sends us into the final act of the scene. Mary starts to grow tired of George’s indifference. Her comment, “He’s making violent love to me, mother”, is probably the best laugh out loud moment of the whole scene. And before you know, it the two are separated. To add insult to injury Sam calls Mary, just another reminder to George of what he doesn’t have. The tension is shattered literally through Mary breaking the record. We think everything has been for not, and the audience is devastated.

BUT WAIT! GEORGE FORGOT HIS HAT!!!

Capra goes to an over the shoulder shot of Mary talking to Sam while George listens in. Look how flawless the staging is here. George seems to leave again and we watch as Mary’s mother comes into frame left. “He doesn’t want to speak to George”, she says. There is the small sight gag of George suddenly being right in front of Mary as she calls to him. Now Capra has set up a visual metaphor of the conflict at hand, Mary is in the middle of the frame with her mom to her right and George to her left. Who is going to win out?

The cut to Sam might not be needed but it does drive home the point even further. If we needed more of a reason to root for George this would be it. Sam has a girl right behind him while he talks, and he is dressed up in a high quality suit all the indications of a successful business man. George is everything Sam is not.

What is wonderful at this point is Capra finds a humorous and organic way to keep Mary and George together. Sam suggests George go on the other extension and Mary replies, “Mother is on the other extension”. This is yet another humorous moment. It also does a far more important thing; it forces Mary and George to stay together. At this point, when the tension is at its highest Capra cuts to the key shot in the whole scene. It’s a tight two shot with Mary and George talking on the phone. Capra refuses to cut from this shot. What really elevates this moment is the silence between dialogue. The gaze the two have toward each other are agonizing. We can hardly bear it anymore. We are crying out for them to finally connect, to express their love for each other. And finally at the time the tension is at it’s peak with George declaring his refusal to give in, the phone drops and George admits his love for Mary.

When writing or shooting a scene the big question needs to be about who your characters are and what they want. Then you need to find ways to stop those objectives from coming true. Make them work for their goal so in the end your moment is earned. The amazing thing about this scene is how simple it is. It doesn’t take place on an expensive set and there are no complex camera moves. Anyone can do a scene like this. It consists of two characters who are unable to communicate. You don’t need anything more then this to create wonderful drama. In this scene Capra allows the audience to realize just how powerfully George loves Mary by refusing to give in right away. The end result is so potent because Capra earned it. Every shot in the scene is thought out and draws us further into the moment. This scene continues to remind me what is most important about cinema. At its core cinema is an exploration of humanity.

Martin Scorsese – An Observation – Character Studies

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 23, 2014

Scorsese #2One of the reasons movies like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and his latest The Wolf of Wall Street rub audiences the wrong way is because of director Martin Scorsese’s determination to not show the big picture. What Scorsese is interested in is the individual perspective. Almost all his films revolve around an individuals point of view and Scorsese is unwilling to leave that point of view for sentimentality or political-correctness. He has faith his audience will bring a broader perspective to the films they are watching, but Scorsese is focused on showing a world seen through the lens of his flawed characters. This is what makes Scorsese’s movies so interesting.

The first Scorsese film I chose to watch when I started studying him was Taxi Driver (1976). After seeing the movie I couldn’t believe how frustrated it made me feel. “Gosh”, I thought, “they said this guy was a good director!” What I saw was a completely unlikable character, in Travis Bickle, with little arc. I first thought I just picked the wrong movie. However, after watching Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and Shutter Island (2010) I found the same problems arose: the characters were all hard to warm up to and there was little to no character growth. In fact, one of my first papers on Scorsese revolved around the problem I had with the lack of arc in his films (check out the paper here).

After listening to many of Scorsese’s interviews and commentaries I began to realize he was never interested in movies about characters who ended up overcoming their flaws and winning the day. I don’t believe Scorsese felt capable of telling many of those kinds of stories in an authentic way. Most of Scorsese’s movies don’t revolve around huge life altering events that send his characters on specific adventures. He is actually known for his lack of interest in narrative driven films. And, though I still hold to my point I made years ago about Scorsese not having much of an arc for his characters, I have come to realize that has never really been his intent. What he wants us to see is the effect a changing environment has on his unwavering characters. Again and again in Scorsese films we observe characters who are unable to change and adapt to the shifting world around them.

We see the characters in Scorsese’s films show their inability to adapt to a changing world in many different ways. In Gangs of New York there is Bill The Butcher. From most accounts audiences considered him the most interesting and colorful character in this Scorsese epic. Bill deals with a the world around him by demanding it stay the same. The story takes place in the city of New York during the Civil War. This represents a huge evolution in the United States, yet Bill refuses to acknowledged it. He tries his hardest to keep New York the same way it has always been. He ruthlessly undermines newly elected officials and continues to hold onto his hatred towards immigrants and African Americans. Bill represents the old New York. I believe this character most resonated with Scorsese because he also fell in love with a New York (the place he grew up) which has since gone away.

In the movie Goodfellas change is dealt with in a completely different way. The main character of the movie is gangster, Henry Hill, and unlike Bill The Butcher he is not in a position where he could force his environment to stay the same. The first half of the movie shows us exactly why Henry is the kind of guy he is. We see how enticing life as a gangster can be. Scorsese brilliantly displays the glamor, excitement, and power that comes with gangster life and then he pulls the rug out from under Henry. Soon the struggle for power puts friends against friends. Henry’s luxurious lifestyle and excessive amounts of money get him into drugs and allow him to support mistresses which in turn brings more chaos to his life. He soon finds he can’t support the glamorous life he and his wife have grown accustomed to and things begin to crumble around him. Though you can’t say Henry’s lifestyle ends up benefiting him in the end, there is no attempt to show Henry having regret for the life he lived. He doesn’t seem to feel remorse for cheating on his wife and helping to cover up the murders of several people. At the end of the story we see his situation change dramatically but he is no different.

If you enter a Scorsese movie wanting to see characters come to their senses or pay for their crimes I am afraid you will be disappointed. The latest Scorsese film, The Wolf Of Wall Street, is proof of just how little Scorsese cares about appeasing his audience byshowing any kind of justice or redemption. The protagonist of the film is one of the most despicable men you will ever see, Jordan Belfort. The film revolves around a team of stockbrokers, lead by Belfort, who cheat, lie, and double cross their way to the top of the Wall Street food chain. The film is based on a true story yet not even a second of the film is focused on any of the many thousands of people Belfort ruined because of his scams. Instead we are are exposed to an excessive amount of drug use, prostitution, and partying. Many asked what the point of the movie was. I don’t think Scorsese had a particular message he wanted to send. However, I think he made the movie because he wanted to get into the head of someone who could do such damage without thinking twice about it. Scorsese didn’t show any of the victims of Belfort’s schemes because Belfort didn’t care about his victims. As I said at the top of this post, Scorsese is relying on his audience to bring a bigger picture to his movies.  His job is to show us an unflinching example of what goes into the mindset of a character like Jordan Belfort. Scorsese isn’t interested in having us like Belfort, but rather he wants us to understand him. Like the movie or not Wolf Of Wall Street produced a huge amount of dialogue about the corruption of Wall Street. This dialogue was generated because of Scorsese’s unwillingness to create false sympathy for the character of Belfort and because of Scorsese’s ability to let us see through the eyes of such a corrupt character. The movie forced us inside the head of a man few of us would ever care to know in the real world.

Scorsese is completely focused on transporting his audience inside his characters head. In fact, what almost all Scorsese films have in common is they are deep character studies. Scorsese wants his audiences to be consumed by his characters. And once we are in his characters heads, he refuses to let us out. We end up seeing the world of Scorsese’s protagonists rather then the world we know. In the commentary for Taxi Driver the film professor Robert Kolker talked about how we don’t know what is real or not in the movie because Travis Bickle isn’t seeing the world in a realistic way. The same could be said to an even greater degree for the movie Shutter Island. (SPOILER) At the end of Shutter Island we learn the whole story we just watched isn’t real at all but was simply imagined by the protagonist, Teddy Daniels (END OF SPOILER).

Scorese’s focus on the psyche of his characters is obsessive. Scorsese wants us to question what we thought we knew about people in this world. Repeatedly he refuses to give us characters we can completely root for or against. Instead he shows his audience a much more colorful world, filtered through the eyes of his protagonist. We can see ourselves being entranced by the same demons that send people like Travis Bickle, Howard Hughes, and Jordan Belfort into madness. And, we are never given any easy answers as to how to fix their problems. Instead we are made to come up with the answers for ourselves. In many ways it would be easier for Scorsese to create an out for himself by giving into the audiences desired outcomes for the characters in his films. But it is by forging his own path and taking an unflinching look at the people he concentrates on that Scorsese has become one of the most admired filmmakers in the world.

Breaking Bad- Beginnings

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on October 5, 2013

TitleSo there is this phenomenon known as Breaking Bad. You just might have heard about it. Those of you who are fans of the TV series might be confused to why I am bringing it up now just after the premier of the last episode. To tell you the truth at the time the last episode was premiering I had yet to watch a single episode of the series. However, I made a promise to myself I would start watching it after the series was done. I have heard a tone about it and honestly nobody I know who watches the TV show has anything but praise for the series. Critics are through the roof with their admiration of creator Vince Gilligan and his television sensation. Breaking Bad is considered by many to be the king pin of this golden age of television. The character the series stars, Walter White, is hailed as the greatest character to ever come to the small screen.

I have just began to watch this series and already feel the need to write about it. I agree with the critics who call the show revolutionary. It does things I have never seen done before on network television. The series doesn’t seem to care if we agree with it’s characters actions. For goodness sakes, the show stars a character who makes meth. The series brings up issues many film executives would call toxic to the entertainment industry. The show gives blunt commentaries on the way we live, our school systems, poverty,  government, just to name a few. It is a show where more things go wrong then right and where we can’t rely on the idea that everything will turn out fine. In fact (spoiler alert), the main character Walter White has been described as one of the greatest monsters on television. This revelation is both frustrating and exciting to me. I only know the Walter White of the first season and I can not even imagine him as a monster (end of spoiler).

Not only do I like the story of Breaking Bad, I like the way it is told. The structure of every episode works in terms of building immediate tension along with giving us greater insight of the whole. The cinematography and editing keep each scene interesting while driving the story forward. Most of the directors know when to hold on a moment and when to move on. The show doesn’t dwell on the action rather the effects of the action; the emotional impact the actions have on the characters. The writers do not give any characters an easy way out. There are no clear good guys and no clear villains. The filmmakers push to the drama to it’s breaking point and take us out of our comfort zone because they know that is where we will get the most entertainment… and insight.

I am going to start writing about some of the strengths I see in this series, and maybe some of the weaknesses. I do not agree with all the morals expressed in the show. I don’t think the creators want us to agree with everything they show and the characters do. It is quite difficult to be responsible when dealing with a subject matter like meth. At times I think the show is probably doing more bad then good for the majority who watch it. I know some who think because the show has language, drug use, and sexual themes it shouldn’t be watched. Honestly just a few years ago I probably would has said it was too dark and “sinful” to be watched. However, I am glad so far I have chosen to go on this journey. And I look forward to telling you some of the things I have learned.

In regards to future posts on the series the farther you go the more spoilers for the show you are most likely to see.

Personality Filmmaking

Posted in Personal Philosophy by Jacob on December 9, 2012

There was once a time when film was seen as no more then a medium for interesting magic tricks and simple sight gags. In fact some of the founding fathers of film, such as Thomas Edison, saw little future in the medium. They thought it was going to be a passing fad, an attraction that could not hold but a few minutes of an audience’s attention. This makes me question how many great inventions failed due to lack of vision? In the last century film has progressed from a passing attraction to a fully developed entertainment, an entertainment that has both thrilled and inspired billions. Film’s success has not just been achieved through the revolutionary technical developments- developments such as sound, color, and computer generated visual effects- but also an ability to dive deep into human nature and give us thorough and diverse looks at what makes us who we are.

When film went farther then simple magic tricks and sight gags the audience started to really get interested. Filmmakers like Edwin S. Porter and later D.W. Griffith brought to the medium thrilling stories which began to entrance a much broader audience. Slowly in the mid to later years of the silent era of film we began to see characters who had individual personalities. The personalities we saw in some of these characters were so impacting audiences kept coming back to see them in action. The most revered of these personalities in the silent days was Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. The Tramp was a hopeless romantic with a heart of gold. Chaplin was able to capture his audience’s hearts by being vulnerable with them and making his gags and stories speak to the essence of his character. He was one of the first to perfect personality storytelling; where the audience goes to the film just as much for the characters as the story.

Walt Disney was another one of the visionaries to take a hold of personality filmmaking. While all the other cartoons were making shorts revolving around characters with little personality doing funny and abstract gags through the freedom of animation, Walt was hard at work defining his characters and revolving the humor around their individuality. One of the  prime examples of this was the 1933 short The Three Little Pigs. In the short Walt and his artists were able to show district personalities between the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. While the pigs represented the innocents of America, and through the third pig, our nations determination to work its way out of the great depression, the wolf represented the evils of the depression and its determination to sink the American spirit. Immediately audience members were able to connect with both the good pigs and the bad wolf. The characters personalities allowed the audience to get more involved with the story and made the short one of the most acclaimed of all time.

In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Walt took personality animation several steps forward. He created in each one of the dwarfs an individual makup which not only progressed the story but also gave the audience a deeper connection to the whole. Through just the names of the dwarfs a tremendous amount of personality is suggested. All the characters’ actions and gags were processed through their personality. A character like Dopey had an innocent type of humor which came from his oblivious view on the world while a character like Grumpy made the audience laugh through his negative and stubborn opinions. Walt took the basic outline of the Brother Grimm’s Snow White story and got rid of all the excess material in order to concentrate more on his characters’ personalities. A lot of Disney’s Snow White story revolves around simple things we see in every day life; an average day at work, cleaning the house, washing up for supper, and a festive dance.  These events are made entertaining through Disney’s wonderful ability to entrance us with his characters, individuality. Characters like Dopey and Grumpy are engraved in our imaginations because of how they conducted themselves in these seemingly ordinary situations.

One of the most influential series in this last decade has been the Bourne Trilogy. Literally hundreds of action films began to adapt the Bourne film’s hand-held, tightly cut, film style because of the movie’s success. However, the film’s success did not come from the specific way it was shot. The power of the series came from the filmmaker’s devotion towards the title character, Jason Bourne. Although the movies had tons of high quality action, it was the character behind the action that drew us in. In the first film Jason Bourne learns to see himself as more then just a military project. In the second film Bourne is forced to come face to face with the sins of his past. In the third film Bourne sets out on a journey to understand what made him choose to become who he was. All these stories revolve around Bourne’s search for humanity. The action in the films gets its strength through the audience’s invested interest in Bourne’s personal story. We know the struggle Bourne goes through when he is forced to kill, when he loses those who are close to him, and when his past won’t leave him alone.

The moments I remember in film are when William Wallace yells “Freedom!” at the end of Braveheart, when Jefferson Smith says “I guess this is just another ‘lost cause’ Mr. Paine” in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and when Raymond Babbitt touches his forehead to his brother Charlie in Rain Man. These moments touch my heart because of what they say about their characters. The filmmakers spend the whole movie connecting us to their characters so these moments at the end of the film are able to truly impact us. Stories must be about the character. Don’t make your stories so big you lose their humanity. During it’s production Walt Disney’s first feature film, Snow White, was called by many “Disney’s Folly”. People thought it wasn’t possible to entertain an audience for more then an hour with a cartoon. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs succeeded because Walt did not consider Snow White a “cartoon”. To Walt the characters in his movie were real. They had interests and feelings Walt and his artists spent countless hours trying to understand and defend. Because these characters were real to Walt they became real to us.

Create stories that go beyond the imaginary and become real. The characters in your stories can not be in place just to move the plot along.  They must go beyond cliche’s and speak to the individual. The protagonist, villain, and secondary character, who only is seen for a few minutes in the film, can become unforgettable if you spend enough time figuring out who they are. Give us a reason to come back. No matter if they are made by drawings, in the computer, or through an actor’s performance, you need to create characters with personalities and passions so real they can live in the imaginations of millions.