by Steven Cohen
Welcome back to another edition of High-Def Digest's favorite bookmarks, where we spotlight some great scenes from various Blu-ray titles that we've found ourselves revisiting again and again.
With bookmarking capabilities allowing viewers to save their favorite scenes becoming such a common extra among many Blu-ray releases, we here at High-Def Digest thought it might be fun to take inspiration from this popular feature by spotlighting some of the scenes that we've personally bookmarked.
We're talking about the kind of scenes that literally reach out and grab you, that make you forget you're just watching lifeless pixels ignite and fade, that make your house rumble and eyes open wide with wonder. The type of scenes that simply make you smile from the sheer, infectious passion for filmmaking in their images and sounds.
Last month I covered an eclectic mix of scenes that included a beautiful woman's arrival in the old west, a stirring moment of romance in a shadowy, sci-fi world, a hitman's final gift to his son, a time suspended realization of love, and a ballerina's mesmerizing dance. If you missed them, be sure to check out the October, the September, the August, the July, and the June bookmark lists.
This month I'll be covering one mad man's refusal to take it anymore, an infamous outlaw's assassination, a gangster's nostalgic remembrance, a lawyer's stand against corruption, and a moonlit courtship between two lovers. For those who haven't seen the titles featured, be warned that there are of course major spoilers ahead.
'Network' (Ch.15, 00:53:26 - 00:57:39) – Sidney Lumet's satirical masterpiece, 'Network,' is an intelligent and thought provoking examination of greed, mass media culture, and the dangers of worshiping at the altar of television. Through the character of Howard Beale, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky and actor Peter Finch created an iconic and indelible onscreen persona, and in the film's most memorable sequence they give timeless voice to a generation of discontent.
The famous scene begins when previously suicidal news reporter, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), walks into the UBS television studio soaking wet. He nonchalantly greets the stagehands and casually walks over to his desk. The cameras start to role, the broadcast goes live and almost immediately Howard's eyes light up with a kind of crazed awareness. The man starts to rant, giving voice to concerns that every citizen watching holds, detailing the sad state of affairs in the country, lamenting on the financial and cultural depression that plagues the world. As his diatribe continues, Beale becomes a kind of ran-soaked prophet, a madman in a trench coat and pajamas preaching the truth, a rage filled alternative to the gospel of consumerism and greed. The vitriol continues to spew against injustice and isolation and suddenly Beale's speech reaches a kind of crescendo. He stands up and appeals to his viewers, urging them to get mad. It's at this point that he raises his hands in the air and speaks one of the most famous and memorable lines in all of film history, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" He continues to chant it like a mantra, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Like a rallying cry to arms, he pleads with his viewers to join him as he roams around the studio.
Lumet then cuts backstage as Diana (Faye Dunaway) scrambles, unsure whether to start damage control or break out into celebration. We see various reactions as viewers watch the broadcast transfixed, including Howard's friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) who looks on apprehensively. As news of the positive reactions spread, Diana and the producers smile with glee, jumping at the chance to take advantage of Howard like vultures, using his ratings to further everything that the poor man is preaching against. All the while, the chorus of discontent spreads like wildfire. Eventually, Lumet takes us outside as numerous citizens stick their heads out of their windows and chant Howard's words, creating a choir of unrest, a symphony of angry voices bolstered by billowing thunder and flashing lightning, giving visual form to their boiling emotions. The scene ends with Schumacher sadly shaking his head, unsure where this will all lead.
A powerful and oft-referenced sequence, the scene is just as pertinent today as it was in 1976. As violence, greed and corruption still run rampant and protesters line the streets, Howard Beale's anthem is perhaps more relevant now than ever. As long as there is injustice in the world, there will always be a voice ready to shout, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!," and likewise there will always be seedy individuals ready to manipulate and skew such sincere sentiments into empty platitudes and easily consumable catchphrases for the masses to eat up in droves.
'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' (Ch.30, 02:09:18 - 02:12:59) – An underrated, lyrical meditation on the perplexities of fame and betrayal, 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,' is home to several beautifully somber and visually poetic sequences. The climax of the film, which features the infamous assassination referenced in the movie's title, is perhaps its most effective and powerful scene, displaying a beautiful fusion of composition, score, performance and pacing. As the "coward" Robert Ford readies his pistol, tragedy and destiny join together, forever locked in tandem through the simple pull of a trigger.
The scene (and film as a whole) features a very slow, rhythmic quality, that, coupled with the thoughtful compositions, blown out contrast and subdued color palette, give the images a melancholy, dreamy tone. As soon as Jesse James (Brad Pitt) enters the room it's immediately apparent that his demeanor is lethargic and in a sense almost defeated, foreshadowing the events that will soon take place. While Jesse wanders through the room, Bob (Casey Affleck) broods in a nearby rocking chair. His face is almost ghost-white and his expression is littered with anxiety as he mulls over his impending actions. All of the conflicted emotions of the complex character are perfectly realized by Affleck in a truly multifaceted performance. Jesse gazes outside a blown out window, as an almost ethereal glow surrounds him, creating an ominous but peaceful air that lulls the viewer into a false sense of calm. Tensions start to rise as Bob looks on, hand against his temple, struggling to summon up the nerve to move to action. An uncomfortable angle frames James from behind, his back to the camera, unable to see whatever potential threats lurk nearby. The slow cuts and deceptively serene atmosphere continue to form a somber rhythm that feels slightly off, as if something terrible is merely seconds away. James takes off his gun and turns toward a hanging picture. Those familiar with the story behind the gunslinger's death know what his glance signals, and director Andrew Dominik plays up this fact, injecting the cuts with a kind of laid back gravitas, making each insignificant action feel almost monumental. James comments that the frame looks a bit dusty and slowly walks toward it. The way the scene is staged almost seems to imply that James knows what's coming, as he moves toward the picture in an almost zombie-like trance, being pulled by unseen forces toward a predestined fate.
A sad piano melody kicks in, signaling the point of no return. The scene is now almost silent, save for the gentle score. Bob gets up as Jesse continues his way toward the picture, his face still a portrait of conflicted emotion. The painterly images and slow rhythm take on a kind of drifting quality, slowly carrying the audience and characters toward inevitable doom. Bob pulls out his pistol and aims it at Jesse, his face now blank. We cut to a POV shot of the gun circling the infamous outlaw and tensions reach their boiling point. We all know what's going to happen and Dominik milks the tension by prolonging the inevitable. Before he pulls the trigger, the director makes it clear that Jesse sees Bob in the reflection of the picture frame, an important and quite revelatory detail. In this version of the story, it would seem that James somehow accepts and perhaps even embraces his fate, resisting the urge to fight back in the face of death. A loud gunshot fills the room and the somber score fades away. Blood spews from James' head as he hits the picture frame and falls to the ground. While the buildup was littered with artistic and dramatic flourishes, the death itself is presented in a purely matter-of-fact, completely unromanticized manner. Just like that, the mythic gunslinger is no more.
A beautifully staged and timed sequence, the scene presents the outlaw's death in a style that is both poetic and mundane. The buildup is full of tension and artistry but the eventual shooting is almost anticlimactic, reinforcing the indignity and simplicity of death, even for so called "legends." While he may have exuded an almost untouchable quality in life, all it took to kill the great Jesse James was a simple bullet to the head, but as the film goes on to demonstrate, his legend will live on in perpetuity, books will be written about the assassination, and movies will be made.
'Once Upon a Time in America' (Ch.10, 00:35:03 - 00:40:06) – A dense and ambiguous work, Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in America' features a sprawling scope with numerous flashback sequences that blend past and present together. These various cuts between time periods allow the filmmakers to form creative visual transitions, easing the viewer from one decade to the next in oftentimes creative and emotionally resonant ways. The scene in question here features such a segue and offers an achingly powerful moment of remembrance onscreen, literally guiding the viewer through time.
After returning home, an elder David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) visits the restaurant where he spent much of his youth. As the aging gangster makes his way around the room, Ennio Morricone's elegiac score fills the room, gently leading Noodles and the camera itself in a slow, meditative rhythm. The camera moves from old photographs on the wall to Noodles' sad, aged face, illuminating the vast distance between what once was and what now is. Aaronson enters the bathroom, carefully stands on the toilet and suddenly removes a small piece of the wall, revealing a peep hole of sorts, allowing him to see into the backroom. A golden hued light cascades over Noodles' eyes. Leone then starts to employ what will become a series of slow push-ins that form a melancholic, visual syntax for the scene. As Noodles peers into the other room, we cut to a shot of his eyes and slowly close in on his sad expression, a nostalgic glint in his pupils, though we still can't see what he sees. Joseph LaCalle's "Amapola" creeps into the scene and with the help of the music to ease the transition, we finally cut to Noodles' perspective revealing a young girl, Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), dressed as a ballerina as she practices a dance. Dust swirls in shafts of sepia soaked light, and its clear that this shot is from a different time period entirely.
Through Noodles' perspective we have literally been transported through time, and Leone once again uses a slowly creeping camera to close in on the image of Deborah through the peep hole. We then cut back to a shot of Noodles' eyes peering in, but now they are those of a child, not an old man, firmly grounding us in the past and severing all ties to the present. Deborah pretends not to notice her clandestine admirer and continues to dance around the room with an angelic quality. Leone manages to maintain a sweet and innocent air while still adding a certain voyeuristic element to the scene, as Noodles continues to watch the young girl transfixed. Eventually Deborah's brother interrupts her practice and she stops the record, ending the music and the sequence.
An emotional fusion of past and present, Leone constructs a scene full of bittersweet nostalgia and innocent love. As an old man's remembrance gently transports the audience through time, the director presents a simple and effortless visual transition that relies on compositions, movements, cuts and the emotions of the characters themselves, rather than overly flashy and imposing techniques.
'Michael Clayton' (Ch.26, 01:47:55 - 01:56:02) – More than just an intriguing dramatic thriller, 'Michael Clayton' is an interesting and fairly nuanced character study. As played by George Clooney, the title character is a complex man of ambiguous moral integrity. As various twists and turns are revealed and seedy behavior is exposed, the character goes through a transformation of sorts. When he ultimately reaches his boiling point, Clayton explodes in a powerfully understated climax that oozes tension, as the calm and collected "fixer" unleashes his fury.
The scene begins with Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) exiting a meeting. Essentially under the impression that she has gotten away with murder and successfully covered up U-North's transgressions, she is surprised to find Michael (George Clooney) waiting for her in the hall. The two start talking and Clayton begins to taunt Crowder with a mixture of smug bravado and justified vengeance. Karen's face goes pale as the conversation continues and Clayton reveals that he's put all the pieces together and knows about the whole conspiracy. He verbally attacks her, making each accusation sting. Swinton plays the scene brilliantly, unsuccessfully trying to hide her fear. Clooney then reaches the climax of his slow burn performance, culminating in a brilliantly delivered and written line, "I'm not the guy that you kill, I'm the guy that you buy!" In an instant the character is summed up simply and concisely, and indeed much of what we've seen of Clayton might imply that such a tactic could have worked in the past. Crowder realizes the grave error that she's made and simply stands, unsure what to say. "Don't you know who I am?" he asks with a hint of self-loathing behind his words. His anger escalates and he asks for money in exchange for his silence. Crowder acquiesces in squirmy, weaselly desperation. Clayton smiles, informs her that she's screwed and then takes a picture of her defeated, deer in headlights expression with his phone. It's revealed that he was transmitting the conversation to the police the whole time. In response to the murder of his friend, the murders of countless innocents at the hands of U-North, and his own attempted murder, Clayton has finally done the right thing.
Despite his own proclamation that he's "the man you buy," in the end the character chooses a different path, and the slow boil toward his explosive awakening is handled perfectly by director Tony Gilroy and George Clooney. The whole scene is shot with simple, basic coverage with stationary angles, letting the escalating anger of Clooney's performance do all the work. As the police enter and Clayton walks away, Gilroy employs a long take that sustains the momentum of Clooney's fiery speech by following the character as he slowly walks away, his face full of uncertain emotions. The scene, and film itself, finally ends with a single shot of Clayton sitting in the backseat of a taxi in silence as the credits start to role over the image. The unbroken, simple shot becomes a perfect form of decompression for both the character and the audience, capping off a very memorable, powerful conclusion and a truly defining moment for the character.
'Barry Lyndon' (Ch.15, 01:06:49 - 01:22:13) – Though not among his most popular works, Stanley Kubrick's romantic period piece, 'Barry Lyndon,' is perhaps my favorite of the director's very celebrated and varied filmography. A picaresque tale about a roguish adventurer, the film is primarily remembered for its groundbreaking and stunning cinematography which features beautiful compositions, scenery and several noteworthy shots illuminated by candlelight alone. Like many great director's, Kubrick often relies only on images to convey story and emotion, and the scene discussed here is a perfect example of such a tactic. With very little dialogue, the director is able to say all that needs to be said through editing, movement and the subtle facial expressions of his actors.
The sequence starts with Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) behind a card table populated with gamblers and wealthy aristocrats. Softly lit by candles, the scene has a gentle, warm glow. Across from Barry, is the beautiful Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). As the game continues, Kubrick cuts back and forth between simple medium shots and closeups of Lyndon and Barry as the two coyly make eye contact with one another. The two never say anything, and instead their wide, penetrating gazes convey their flirtation in a purely visual and very subtle manner. Passion is expressed not through words or action, but through facial expression alone. Schubert's Piano Trio in E Flat plays throughout the scene as the rogue and Lady continue their wordless courtship. The music brilliantly scores the rising emotions and as Lady Lyndon announces she's stepping outside for a breath of fresh air, the melody carries us on into the second stage of the sequence.
Lady Lyndon walks out into the night air, cast in blue moonlight. The camera slowly tracks with her as she makes her way toward the edge of the terrace, each step perfectly in beat with the music. The camera stays fixed on a medium shot of Lyndon as she waits in the foreground. Behind her in the same shot we can see Barry approach. We then cut to a medium shot of Barry slowly walking toward Lyndon, the camera now tracking with him. He reaches his destination and stands behind the enchanting aristocrat. At first she refuses to turn to look at him, and again Kubrick lingers on his shots, drawing out the scene with a slow, passionate tempo. Finally, she turns, their eyes lock and they gently kiss without speaking a word, concluding Barry and the director's silent seduction.
The scene has an almost poetic beauty to it and Kubrick manages to form a perfect harmony between his lingering shots, purposeful cuts and slow camera movements. The visual form on screen mirrors the tempo of the music and the emotions of the characters, forging a sequence that becomes a visual and auditory waltz of temptation.
We'll be back next month with some more of our favorite bookmarks, but for now, what do you think of these picks? What are some of your own favorite bookmarks?