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 triumphant lift-off toward the stars, a filmmaker's personal struggles, the origin of a superhero, two lovers growing old together, and the birth of a "starchild." If you missed them, be sure to check out the September, August, July, and June bookmark lists.
This month I'll be covering 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. For those who haven't seen the titles featured, be warned that there are of course major spoilers ahead.
'Once Upon a Time in the West' (Ch.5, 00:24:39 - 00:29:50) - An operatic ballet of drawn out standoffs and widescreen shootouts, Sergio Leone's masterpiece, 'Once Upon a Time in the West,' is full of numerous, memorable iconic sequences. From the film's famous, rhythmic opening to its revenge fueled climax, Leone demonstrates a mastery of pacing, composition, and tone. This control of cinematic technique extends far beyond the big set pieces, however, and makes even the film's quieter moments great examples of meaningful direction. This includes the scene in question here, our first introduction to the movie's female star, Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale).
The sequence begins with an out of focus shot and a loud, permeating screech. As the frame comes into focus, the image reveals itself to be a train pulling into a station. The locomotive comes to a stop and out exits Jill, face smiling, hopeful and excited to greet her new husband and family, who she expects to be waiting for her. Leone uses a slow push in toward the optimistic woman, emphasizing her mood and emotions which will soon gradually change. As passengers disembark and meet up with their loved ones and friends, Jill listlessly wanders around the station, a sense of uncertainty slowly creeping in. Utilizing a long take, Leone captures the beautiful woman's movements through the station uninterrupted, using the character's blocking within the environment and the camera's movement to reframe the shot from wide to close-up as necessary, giving us a sense of place and atmosphere while sustaining the character's increasing apprehension. Suddenly we cut to a clock, and all sound fades. The commotion and bustle of the station is stripped away, instead slowly replaced with a gentle, wistful melody. From the clock we cut to a close-up of Cardinale. All that needs to be said is expressed solely through her distraught expression and Morricone's building score. When we cut back to a wide shot of the station, it's now almost deserted, the happy air of travelers returning home replaced by the desolation of being abandoned.
This leads to the sequence's most impressive shot, as we follow Jill from the train platform into the station's main office. When the character enters the building, the camera stays outside, filming her through the window. We can see Jill move toward the exit, and as she leaves, the camera shifts upward, slowly rising right over the building itself. Morricone's gorgeous music builds with the rising camera, pairing the melody's own movement with the image's. The escalation continues until a perfectly timed crescendo as the shot at last reaches its destination, revealing a wide shot of a lively, Old West town. The score swells with melancholic bravado, perfectly juxtaposing the somber music with the harsh environment, just as Jill herself is now shuttled around the town, her delicate beauty itself a stark contrast as she becomes a clear fish out of water. With no dialogue, the director is able to perfectly introduce the audience to an important character through images and sound alone. The scene may not hold the same iconic status as some of the film's other well known sequences, but it remains a perfect example of Leone's powerful direction and the integral role of Morricone's elegiac score.
'Dark City: Director's Cut' (Ch.12, 01:13:23 - 01:15:38) - Like many of the best films that the science fiction genre has to offer, 'Dark City' deals with several heady questions pertaining to the human condition itself, focusing on what makes us unique, what makes us individuals, and what makes us who we truly are. Are we more than mere impulses and learned behavior? Are we more than the sum of our experiences and memories? Is there something else past the outer surface of our identities, within our hearts and souls that goes beyond the clinical mechanisms of the mind alone? All of these questions come to an emotional head in a very brief, simple, and beautifully understated sequence that remains one of the film's most powerful moments.
After being arrested and interrogated under the suspicion of murder, kind-hearted amnesiac John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) is visited by his supposedly estranged wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly). The two are separated by a glass partition, forced to communicate through telephone receivers. As the pair converses, they start to put the pieces together, realizing that there is some sort of greater manipulation at play. Indeed, they may not be who they think they are, and in reality they may not have actually met before the previous night. Emma has a hard time accepting the unbelievable conjecture, confessing that she vividly remembers meeting and falling in love with John. The officers attempt to cut the visit short and start to pull John away, but Emma pleads with them, and they ultimately relent (after all, who could say no to Jennifer Connelly?). She struggles to make sense of the situation but finally comes to a simple, matter of fact realization. "I love you," she says, and then continues, "You can't fake something like that." They stare into each other's eyes, and though he's aware that she's not really his wife, and that they in fact barely know each other, he agrees.
Instantly and effortlessly one of the film's central thematic concepts is summed up. The "Strangers" might be able to manipulate thoughts and memories, but can any being really force one to love or hate? They tried to make John a murderer but his very core rejected the possibility. A sentiment can be implanted intellectually, compelled upon our minds, but true emotion is much more than just an idea. It is the intangible, and the unknowable. As John looks upon Emma, he realizes that what he feels is not just a lingering impulse from some failed implant. It's real, and powerful. He slowly reaches out his hand, and fueled by love, reshapes the very world around him, shattering the glass between the two as the music soars. John leans over and they passionately kiss, forming a palpably romantic image made all the more potent thanks to the subtle magic of science fiction. The scene is short and quick, but perfectly sums up what the film is really about, utilizing a brief fantastical element to heighten universal themes of romance and humanity.
'Road to Perdition' (Ch.23, 01:46:12 - 01:50:34) - Sam Mendes' 'Road to Perdition' is a powerful examination of fathers and sons as filtered through the tragic and violent world of crime. The film's bittersweet climax presents some of its most potent and innovative visuals, with the director and cinematographer using sound design and composition to bolster and enhance the mood, drama, and subtext of the scene. After surviving a perilous journey across the country, Michael (Tom Hanks) and Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) finally reach the fabled shores of Perdition.
As his son happily explores the serene beach, Michael enters the nearby house. The sound of the waves peacefully going in and out is all that we hear in the background, underscoring the mood of the scene in a way that no traditional music ever could. Michael walks into a clinically white room, empty and silent, with the blooming light of the outside world pouring in through a wide, open window. The hitman slowly approaches the edge of the room and peers out, finally able to relax, simply breath, and watch the water gently break across the shore. We now cut to a masterfully composed shot, which will become our sole vantage point for the scene's most important action. From outside, we focus on Hanks's character as he gazes through the window. We can see him standing inside through the glass, and also the reflection of the beach itself overlaid across the window. Through this reflection Mendes and famed cinematographer Conrad Hall are essentially able to create multiple shots within the same frame, naturally layering images on top of one another. This lets the scene play out with two distinct vantage points within one unbroken shot, while simultaneously connecting the separate images in an intimate and meaningful way.
The peaceful waters cascading over Michael's tired face, coupled with the constant rhythm of the flowing waves, lulls us into a false sense of calm. We can see Michael Jr. on the shore, waving to his father in the reflection on the window. Before he can wave back, a gunshot disrupts the peaceful atmosphere, splattering blood across the window, corrupting both layers of the once peaceful canvas with crimson hued dread. In the background, the waves continue to ease in and out, perfectly undercutting the violence. We see Michael Jr. run out of the shot in the corner of the reflection, a minor detail that will soon hold important ramifications. Hanks falls to his knees, revealing his attacker, Maguire (Jude Law), sitting behind him nonchalantly in the corner of the room. Through this all, we stay fixed on the same, single, stationary shot, as a new layer is added to the composition. There is Maguire sitting in the far background, Hanks fallen in the middleground, and the blood soaked window in the foreground -- which itself gives way to an entirely separate reflection of the beach. The meticulously, brilliantly staged framing allows the audience to see all that it needs to see in a significant and visually inventive manner.
We finally cut from the suspended shot and enter the room itself. Maguire sets up his camera and prepares to finish off Hanks's character. All the while, the audience knows something that he doesn't -- Michael Jr. is still unaccounted for. Suddenly, the missing boy appears in the doorway, pointing a gun at his father's would-be killer. He readies the weapon, but hesitates. Before Maguire can capitalize on the boy's fears, a shot fills the room. Using his last ounce of strength, Hanks has given his son one final gift, sparing his need to kill, saving him from the same fate of violence that ruined his own life. Michael Jr. rushes to his dying father's side, as gentle music fills the scene. "I couldn’t do it," he says. "I know," his father replies in a slow but joyful whisper. The last shot of the scene is a slow track out of the once clinically white room, now stained red with blood, capping off a masterfully executed display of careful composition and staging that ranks among the film's most memorable and striking sequences.
'Fallen Angels' (Ch.14, 00:55:09 - 00:57:38) - Like most Wong Kar Wai films, 'Fallen Angels' is full of striking cinematic ingenuity. The director loves to experiment with angles, shutter speed, frame rate, and exposure to create unique filmic images that signal a stark departure from our own usual perception of reality. Though the film has many instances of such experimentation, one scene in particular stands out for its unique visuals. A direct reflection of one character's internal emotions, the manipulation of time evident in the sequence actually gives cinematic form to once intangible concepts.
After the film's quirky mute protagonist, He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) meets Charlie (Charlie Yeung), he instantly becomes smitten. Filmed as one black and white shot, Zhiwu sits down with his dream girl as rain drips across the window that rests between them and the camera. A brief voice over plays out revealing the mute's newfound feelings, but quickly fades away, as the image itself is more than enough to convey all that the director has to express. In the foreground the mute slowly admires Charlie as she remains comically oblivious. Water flows across the screen, subtly distorting the picture, and a crowd of moving strangers stutters on behind the two potential lovers. Through some innovative in-camera trickery, cinematographer Christopher Doyle creates a rather amazing effect that makes it look as if Zhiwu and Charlie are moving in slow motion, while the world behind them appears to almost fast-forward on. The filmmakers have managed to create a separate sense of time and motion throughout the different planes of the frame, placing due emphasis on Zhiwu's own distorted and stretched out perception as he falls in love. This manipulation of screen time creates a moment almost, but not quite frozen, a brief instance that is elongated and presented not as it occurred in reality but as the character actually felt it. The importance and emotion of the scene is heightened and revealed by its actual stylistic presentation. While some of Wong Kar Wai's images can come across as mere superficial exercises in visual experimentation, here, the techniques on display perfectly complement the content, presenting emotions in a visually potent and meaningful way.
'The Red Shoes' (Ch.15, 01:06:49 - 01:22:13) - A dazzling display of color and artistic obsession, Powell and Pressburger's 'The Red Shoes' is a breathtaking display of Technicolor wizardry. This is perhaps no better evident than in the film's extended detour into the fictional story within the story. As the characters finally put on their diligently prepared production of 'The Red Shoes,' the filmmakers take us on a cinematically mesmerizing journey into the unknown.
The scene begins, appropriately enough, with curtains rising, giving way to a stage. At first the sequence plays out as nothing more than a straight representation of what the audience in the theater would have seen. The ballet begins and Victoria (Moira Shearer) starts to dance about. Gradually, though, we cut closer in on the action, capturing angles that the spectators could never hope to see with lively camera movements. On top of these techniques, little bits of magic are tossed into the production, signaling a clear break from the mere reality of a simple stage show, while foreshadowing the fantasy that will soon commence. We see the ballerina superimposed in a store window, and when she puts the infamous red shoes on, it's as if they strap themselves up. As the show continues, the atmosphere grows increasingly abstract and the sets become more elaborate and all encompassing, taking on a dimension that would otherwise be impossible. Before long, we are thrust into an almost surreal, otherworldly tapestry of dance, color, and spectacle. Slow motion shots create a dreamy air, and characters within the ballet suddenly become characters from the actual film, drawing direct thematic parallels between both dueling stories, while we descend further and further into Victoria's own mind, revealing her complicated desires, fears, and hopes. When the internal and external production comes to an end, the curtains close and the audience erupts in applause.
The sequence is not a literal translation of the performance, but a kind of halfway point between reality and illusion. The astonishing imagery, as shot by the legendary Jack Cardiff, is full of flashing lights, swirling kaleidoscopes of popping colors, and bits of dreamlike flourishes. The grandeur of the stage is mixed with the magic of film, fusing the strengths of both art forms into one. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, the scene could have simply been a straight rendition of the performance, but under "The Archers," the sequence takes on a cinematic life of its own, solidifying an important and memorable place in motion picture history.
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?