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 an android's rain soaked last words, a flashy, dizzying introduction to a very unconventional family, a powerful, emotional confession by a wounded soul, an "errand boy" who finally collects his bill, and a tense journey through a warzone that sees the very future of mankind on the line. If you missed them, be sure to check out the August bookmark list, the July bookmark list, and the June bookmark list.
This month I'll be covering 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 "star child." For those who haven't seen the titles featured, be warned that there are of course major spoilers ahead.
'Gattaca' (Ch.16, 01:40:04 - 01:42:49) - A celebratory hymn to the human spirit, Andrew Niccol's 'Gattaca' is everything science fiction should be. By presenting a world where our DNA defines success, the director paints a disturbingly prophetic warning of possible things to come. Despite his biological predisposition to fail, the character of Vincent (Ethan Hawke) proves that the will of man has no quantifiable limit, and that the spark that rests in all our hearts defies mere scientific understanding. After conquering seemingly insurmountable odds, the film ends with Vincent finally attaining his goal, and in a beautifully shot and edited sequence, we watch as the so called "invalid" makes one last reach for the stars.
The scene begins with Vincent slowly walking through a clinically white, cylindrical corridor that leads to the rocket that will carry him toward his dream. His face is almost blank, but we can see the faint hints of passion that lurk behind his habitually restrained demeanor of forced stoicism. It is at this point, that the scene features the first of what will become a series of significant parallel cuts, that perfectly juxtapose Vincent's voyage into the unknown with Jerome's (Jude Law) tragic suicide. As Vincent takes his last steps through the sterile hall, we cut to Jerome as he carefully lifts himself into an incinerator, linking their final actions on Earth through editing. All the while, Michael Nyman's gorgeous music steadily builds, flowing slowly with the contrasting images on screen. Vincent enters the rocket and the hatch is closed, signaling a firm, metallic thud, which leads to an expertly timed cut of Jerome shutting the door to the incinerator, securing himself in the soon to be fiery tomb. The sound and images of both closing doors echo each other, creating a thematic and contextual connection between the two events. Jerome places his silver medal around his neck, finally able to accept and perhaps even embrace his status as "second best." The music starts to swell and the rockets ignite, propelling the craft toward the cosmos. In another meaningful parallel cut, the flaming thrusters give way to a shot of the incinerator commencing, as both men mark an end and a beginning through fire. A slow moving shot pans across Vincent's anonymous crewmates, while miles away flickering flames continue to engulf Jerome.
We finally rest on Vincent, an ethereal light swaying across his face, as he opens one last gift from his departing friend, a lock of hair, no longer a mere contractual DNA sample, but an actual gesture of love. Nyman's music reaches the last crescendo of its longing melody, propelling Vincent into the vast unknown. The last image we see is a slow tracking shot of the porthole of the spacecraft, revealing a sea of stars. Voice over from Vincent ponders the origins of the universe, as the character begins his journey toward the celestial tapestry from which we all, so very long ago, began. A bittersweet but ultimately uplifting fusion of images and sounds, the scene is an emotional and fitting finale to a thought provoking and increasingly relevant science fiction marvel.
'8 1/2' (Ch.24, 01:56:47 - 02:03:15) - Federico Fellini's dizzying circus act of artistic creation, '8 ½,' is home to many memorable and indelible images and sequences. With exaggerated and fantastical situations that involve everything from a harem of lovers to a festive carnival of friends and family, the scene in question here is comparatively restrained, simply featuring a quiet conversation between a director and his actress. While many sequences might be more lively, surreal, or cinematically inventive, for me, this relatively soft spoken exchange is actually the most revealing and telling scene in the entire film, essentially cutting right down to the core of Guido's (Marcello Mastroianni) complicated character.
After being repeatedly mentioned and glimpsed at in dreamy visions, the mythical Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) finally arrives in the flesh. First revealed in shadow, with the light of a movie's projector shooting overhead, the beautiful actress, dressed in black, greets her anxious director, and the two soon decide to go for a drive. While in the car, Fellini uses light and shadow to enhance the thematic and emotional subtext of the scene. Guido is masked in darkness, with only his eyes visible in harsh light, bolstering the internal doubt and stress that plagues him. In contrast, Claudia and her almost otherworldly beauty are awash in radiance, practically glowing next to the struggling filmmaker. After gushing about her magnificence, Guido starts to emotionally unload on the actress, opening up about his troubled state of mind by posing hypothetical quandaries dealing with his insatiable desires. It seems he somehow expects the angelic woman to have all the answers, to somehow know exactly what to say to alleviate his heavy burdens, but her ultimate response may not bring the desired outcome.
Eventually, the pair reaches a potential filming location for the director's movie, and they park the car so Guido can describe the possible scene in question. With little fanfare and no warning, Fellini then eases into a dreamy enactment of the proposed movie within a movie, featuring Claudia, now dressed in white, almost floating through the setting. The ethereal, silent images are captivating and mysterious and all too fleeting, eventually giving way back to reality. Once again in black, Claudia starts to criticize the planned film and its main character, who she finds to be unsympathetic. As a faint wind blows in the background, Guido defends his creation, who we all really know is just a thinly veiled projection of himself. It's at this point, that Claudia, with a faint, bittersweet smile across her face, speaks the film's most insightful and enlightening lines. As Guido continues to defend his fictional alter ego's behavior and choices, claiming he's a man who's tired of lies, Claudia effortlessly rebuts each of his assertions with one simple sentence, "Because he doesn't know how to love." The words flow like a self evident mantra, again and again, "Because he doesn't know how to love." No matter what he argues, its instantly negated, "Because he doesn't know how to love." Indeed, this seemingly uncomplicated observation is the key to Guido's character and all of his problems, but is it really true? Is Guido really incapable of love? After all, as we've seen throughout the film, Guido is not only capable of love, he is actually in danger of having an overabundance of it. A womanizing egomaniac, he literally can't be satisfied, and while he cares for and even "loves" all of his mistresses, they are never enough. In reality, Guido actually loves in excess, but it's not the right kind of love. Claudia's deceptively harmless observation sums up the character perfectly, and distills the source of all his conflicts.
Before the scene concludes, the actress reveals that she doesn't care for the location, claiming that it doesn't feel real, reinforcing many of the film's themes of illusion and reality. Guido, of course, loves it. The telling sequence then comes to an abrupt end, when the director's producers literally invade upon the scene, unraveling Guido's momentary respite from the storm that is his life. With the audience now fitted with important new insights, the character is forced back into his spiraling existence, and the madness once again continues, paving the way for the film's chaotic and joyous conclusion.
'Watchmen: Director's Cut' (Ch.18, 01:11:22 - 01:21:47) - In a slight break from my usual approach to scenes in these articles, I'm actually going to take a more critical stance on this particular sequence. While on the surface an extremely faithful adaptation of the comic book masterpiece and certainly a solid film, Zach Snyder's 'Watchmen' is in many ways a missed opportunity, with the filmmaker technically hitting all the right notes, but with unfortunately little meaning, or cinematic ingenuity behind them. This relatively superficial and uninspired approach to the material is perhaps no better evident than in Dr. Manhattan's origin scene. Though it is my favorite sequence in the film, and is a pretty remarkable scene in its own right, in many ways it exemplifies all the weaknesses of the director's approach to the material.
For the most part, the scene becomes a literal translation of its comic book counterpart, playing out in a series of dreamy flashbacks to Dr. Manhattan's life, tracing the varied succession of events that lead to his fateful transformation. Through a series of rhythmically building slow motion shots set to soft spoken narration by Billy Crudup, and a fitting piece of music written by minimalist composer Philip Glass, Snyder effectively creates a powerful and escalating montage of moments. Unfortunately though, the director fails to capitalize on one key facet of the comic book scene, and in effect, the character of Dr. Manhattan in general. One of the most interesting aspects of the godlike entity is the way in which he experiences time. Instead of living out moments in a linear progression, Dr. Manhattan experiences the whole of his existence simultaneously, living all the events of his life concurrently. Though this is certainly touched upon and discussed by the character in the film, this scene would have been a perfect opportunity to visually demonstrate this unique concept. Alas, for the most part, that is simply not the case.
The issue in the comic makes it clear that Dr. Manhattan is not just remembering these various moments in his life, he's literally living them, and the film seems to skirt around this. Instead, the scene mostly plays out like a series of traditional flashbacks, and I'm sort of baffled by this decision. Film is perhaps the perfect medium to experiment with our perception of time (see the final inclusion on this list for a good example) and there are countless cinematic techniques and tools that Snyder could have used to visually convey Manhattan's unique temporal existence, in ways that even the source material couldn't. Split screen could have been employed, piling the various events of his life together in the same frame, making it clear that he experiences them all in tandem. Various dissolves or superimpositions could have also merged moments together, and dialogue and effects from different time periods could have been spliced on top of one another at key intervals to reinforce Manhattan's perception. To be honest, the possibilities are endless, but instead Snyder seems to abandon the concept altogether and goes for the most straightforward approach.
Despite all that criticism, I actually really do like the scene, and as a huge fan of the comic book, I find myself revisiting it often. Though I wish more was done with it, there is no denying the beauty of Snyder's images, and the character's doomed origin makes for an incredible audio/video experience. As a whole, the director definitely does enough right to make the sequence (and the film in general) a success. I just can't help but wonder what a less rigidly faithful and more visually inventive approach might have added to the proceedings.
'Up' (Ch.3, 00:07:14 - 00:11:37) - An exciting and emotionally charged adventure, Pixar's 'Up' is a modern animation classic. Though it's filled with many wonderful scenes, perhaps none are as memorable or heartbreakingly powerful as the dialogue free montage that sets up the story. A simple but potent visual summation of one couples' entire relationship, featuring all the highs and lows of life, the scene is so well executed and realized, that it could very easily stand alone as a short film unto itself.
The sequence begins with Carl and Ellie's wedding, and from there cuts to various stages in the happy pairs' life. Tied together by Michael Giacchino's beautiful music, the wordless montage features charming bits of physical comedy and various, repeated visual motifs that hark back to the early, uncomplicated days of classic animation. Not everything is so cheery, however, and Pixar doesn't shy away from sadness, showing a great respect for its younger audience. Though many cartoon filmmakers tend to dumb down the subject matter of their stories, Pixar understands that children are capable of understanding and embracing a full gamut of emotion. When tragedy does strike, the couple makes the best of their situation, and through love, they endure. The montage continues, showing Carl and Ellie growing old together as they try to save up money for a great adventure to Paradise Falls. Unfortunately, the ups and downs of life constantly get in the way and delay their plans. After a particularly heartbreaking shot involving a hill, which may stand among the most devastating images I've ever seen, the sequence ends on a very somber note, as we watch Ellie succumb to old age, leaving Carl... alone. It's an absolutely tear-jerking conclusion, and its power is a testament to the amazing storytelling skills of the filmmakers.
In a little over four minutes, with no words, Pixar is able to convey more emotion and insight than most feature films can in their entire running time. All the joy and pain of a lifetime of experiences is essentially captured in a series of simple images and interactions. Marriage can be many things, but above all it is a partnership, and by stringing the important beats of their life together, that is exactly what the filmmakers show us. Before even starting the main plot, Pixar has already taken us on a complete emotional journey, and this scene remains one of the most effective and powerful of any of their films.
'2001: A Space Odyssey' (Ch.32, 02:11:33 - 02:20:33) - An esoteric and infinitely mystifying masterpiece, Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' is one of the greatest films of all time. Cryptic and inherently unknowable, the movie's mesmerizing climax is a singular cinematic experience, that chronicles the end of humanity and the birth of something else.
After traveling beyond the infinite, astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) inexplicably finds himself inside an opulently decorated room, which becomes the unlikely setting for mankind's final days. After exiting his space pod, the astronaut slowly explores his surroundings, the white floors of the room literally glowing with light. Strange, ambient effects and discordant sounds and voices come in and out, bolstering the ethereal mood and images. Bowman's heavy, labored breathing remains a constant auditory motif, creating a rhythm for the movements and cuts to follow. As he explores the odd environment, the astronaut suddenly catches a glimpse of himself, now older, eating a meal across the room. With a POV shot of his younger self's vantage point, and a simple cut, Kubrick effectively passes the temporal baton from one phase to the next, and we are now suddenly with the older Bowman. By seeing his future self, he becomes his future self. Looking back to where he once stood, the younger man is now gone, and the aging astronaut continues with his meal. At one point he accidentally drops his glass, and when he leans over to deal with the mess, he again catches a glimpse of himself, now literally on his deathbed. Like before, a POV shot and a simple cut effortlessly thrust us through the years, placing us firmly with the now dying man. Through a slow, deliberate pace, key sound effects, and deceptively straightforward editing techniques, Kubrick is able to literally bend time through the very syntax of his filmmaking.
The dying Bowman takes his last breaths as the infamous black monolith suddenly appears before him. An evolutionary herald of sorts, the imposing structure ushers in humanity's gentle passing, and when Bowman dies, he is literally reborn again as a floating, cosmic fetus. The film ends with a grandiose image of the "star child" hovering over the Earth, marking the next step in mankind's cosmic voyage through the infinite. Full of rich imagery and deep, ambiguous meaning, the scene carries new significance upon each repeated viewing. Densely layered and expertly constructed, it is among the most perfectly orchestrated and calculatingly vague sequences ever put to film.