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.

What Makes a Great Film?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on January 14, 2011

What makes a great film?

Is it cutting? The music? Many people say that it is the actor. Or maybe, maybe it is the idea that makes for a great film. Of course the idea can’t be expressed very well if you don’t have a good director. So is it the director?

Actually, you sort of need all of them.

I am trying to tackle a pretty untouchable subject here. There have been people who have devoted their entire lives to discovering what makes a great film. How possibly can a twenty one year old explain it?

Actually the question arises after researching a broad range of directors. Through out the last few months I have devoted my studies to understanding filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, David Fincher, Frank Capra, and Marin Scorsese. All these guys are considered good. In fact, by many they are considered masters at the craft of filmmaking. However, the more research I put into these guys, the more I realize that they have completely different styles of filmmaking. So I guess the question is; if all these guys are great filmmakers but have completely different ways of going about making films, then what is the magic formula? What makes for great films?

I will tell you one thing, I certainly like certain directors movies more then others. Frank Capra’s movies speak volumes more to me then Hitchcock’s. David Fincher, has curtain movies that speak to me more then others. Scorsese’ style is completely unique and stimulating, but the heart can sometimes hardly be seen. I can see the true talent in all these directors, but why do they not impact me in the same way or to the same extent.

Of course every movie you see should not impact you in the same way. The beauty of movies is that they all give you at least some kind of different way of thinking of things. However, realizing that all movies are different and make you think in different ways, makes the question, “what makes a great film?”, all the more complex and hard to answer.

All I can give you in this personal blog is my opinion on what makes a great film. A great film is not necessarily created through epic actions scenes, a happy ending, or a complex story line. A great film is a film that has stayed true to the heart of the director. With all the directors I have researched, one thing is consistent; They all have a visions that they will not allow to be altered.

A great director makes a film that is personal to him or her. The reason why the films are unique is because each one of the directors are unique. All of the great directors I have studied have a rich education. They learned to perfect the way they deal with camera, acting, music, and editing. But that is not what makes them great. They have learned how to separate themselves from other filmmakers and movies. They takes risks and create stories that the producers and even themselves are not completely sure about.

Some of the greatest movies ever made are the ones were said to never be able to make it. Whether it is Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the directors pushed through and made their movie no matter how many doubters they faced.

What I look for more then anything when I am studying directors is the origin of their passion. I want to see the vision behind the movie’s they made. What made them push the envelope? What made them convinced something completely unfamiliar was going to work? If you want to know what makes for a great film, you need to figure out what makes for a great artist.

A great artist consists of individuality more then anything else. As a Christian I believe God gave us all a unique vision. The great filmmakers fallow that vision whether they know the author or not. We as filmmakers need to be able to figure out the technique. We need to know how to deal with the camera, acting, music, and editing. But all this is worth very little if you do not have a vision. The vision dictates all the other things. And, following the vision is indeed what makes for a great film.

Suspense Vs. Heart

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on September 21, 2010

I have been studying two directors who seemed to be the best of the best at two very different specialties in film. One is known for being the master of suspense and the other is considered to be the master at creating the heart felt emotion. The two I am talking about are the two that you see on your left, Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra. These are two of the greatest film directors in history and both seemed to have completely different ideas on what film making was all about.

Alfred Hitchcock knew exactly how to use the camera in order to create that curtain feeling that completely held us back in suspense. We were both dreading and longing to see what was going to happen next. Hitchcock thought it was his job to be the audience’s entertainment. That is why he thought the audience went to movies, so they could be “entertained”. He created entertainment through drawing our attention completely to what was happening on screen. Hitchcock demanded the audiences complete attention and made us get involved with the film. We needed to put two and two together. He made it so we thought we knew what was going to happen next, creating an extreme suspense because we did not want our theory to be correct. Hitchcock’ mastery was in the ups and downs and twists and turns he was able to put us through. As soon as we thought we knew what was going to happen next, Hitchcock would change it on us. Hitchcock would intentionally lead us  to believe one thing in order to surprise us with the reality of a completely different thing. In the best of Hitchcock movies we were entertained throughout the picture, always interested in what was going to happen next, and completely surprised throughout the unfolding of the story.

Frank Capra was not a man full of twists and turns. His movies were not built on suspense or on a fear that a murderer would pop out of nowhere and kill the main character. Frank Capra’s movies were full of ups and downs. They had some deep and often meaningful but sad commentaries on real life. His movies were full of villains that were not about physically kill the body but instead they were about destroying the soul of the protagonist. Frank’s movies seemed to be more about overcoming the corruption of society through the belief in the best of human nature. Through Frank’s great direction in comedy and depth in character development, he created very entertaining movies. However, it seems that film making was more then just entertainment to Capra, it was a way to make his voice heard in the world, film was his appeal to make the most out of our lives and use the examples from his films as inspiration to make this world a better place.

I no doubt think that Frank Capra’s style of film making is more interesting and meaningful then Alfred Hitchcock’. I think that film needs to be first and foremost about appealing to the good in human nature and a beckoning to make this world a better place. However, I think that Alfred Hitchcock’ suspense is loved by so many people for a reason. Suspense is entertaining and I have been learning a great deal through the way Hitchcock went about creating his films.

So this finally comes to the blog title, Suspense Vs. Heart. The title accurately expresses the difference between Capra films and Hitchcock films. However, I think good filmmakers will learn from both styles of film making, for good films have both suspense and heart. We as filmmakers are essentially entertainers, our job is to keep the audience interested in the story we are trying to tell . It does not matter how powerful of a message we have if we can not attain and keep the audience’s attention. Suspense can often be a powerful tool for holding attention. We need to give enough information for the audience to stay on the edge of their seats and we need a good pay off at the end. Having our worst fears come to realization often creates a strong immediate emotion, however I feel that it often wears off after a short while. I think the greatest pay off is the kind that sticks with you. We want to build suspense and then give the audience something they will talk about later that night and remember for years to come. We as filmmakers should have ambitions to create emotions that go much farther then immediate shock.We need to create emotions that appeal to the heart, where we can start to break molds and create change.

I think entertainment is the best way to get a message across to a group of people. In all my movies I want to create stories and characters that people have not seen before. Both Capra and Hitchcock created the type of movies that were never seen before and have not quite been seen sense. You as a filmmaker want to create an experience that the audience has never had before. However, we must always remember why we are doing what we are doing. I consider film making to be about expressing images and ideas that go farther then plain entertainment. The filmmakers viewpoint must not just be dropped after the audience leaves the movie theater, our films need to appeal to the very reasons to why we live our lives. The greatest type of films are the ones that stay with us and change us. In order to get those kind of films we need both suspense and heart.