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🎬 #47 Great Scenes In Good Films.
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There are some scenes [sequences] in films that dominate the film. They stand out as ‘better’ than the film they’re in. And I think the marker of one of these kinds of scenes is that they maintain their impact without having to see them in context. You can skip to the scene just watch it and you get it, you feel everything as it was intended, no need for the set-up from the scene previous or the landing strip of the scene proceeding it. Like all scenes, they’re a microcosm and reflection of the act structure of the entire film and in both these cases, more powerful than the rest of the film.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: FLIGHT
2012 Dir Robert Zemekis
Robert Zemekis is an expert at crashing planes, as a qualified pilot, he has a knack for putting you right into the action - as if you were looking over the shoulders of the aviators. This is his second plane crash - the first one being the accident that led to Tom Hanks’ character becoming stranded on a desert island in Castaway.
In Flight he ups the stakes, it’s not just a few passengers and cargo at the mercy of the sky but a fully loaded passenger plane with 106 souls are on board. It’s a sweaty palm inducing orchestra of a nightmare come true. The plane you're on suddenly plunges out of the sky, out of control.
Zemekis is a virtuoso choreographer of action, and this is one of his finest scenes. What makes it so strong is that he firmly places us in the pilot’s seat. We witness the unfolding horror from their position in the cockpit, looking back into the galley only to get an image of just what it must feel like to be a condemned passenger, utterly powerless to do anything but scream.
He sets the scene perfectly, a rain storm soaked flight is battered by weather and crosswinds as it tries to take off into lightning-filled skies. As a passenger to the film sitting comfortably in our living room aisle seat, we’re anticipating just when things are going to go wrong. Zemekis teases us with this section of the scene, establishing not just ‘Whip’s’ [Denzel Washington] skill as a pilot but also his strong maverick streak. He pushes the plane to the limits of its speed and lies, or rather, gets his co-pilot to lie, about their flight level. But this is all in the aim of getting to some smoother air. Ordinarily, you might imagine here is where the accident would come, while being buffeted by turbulent air in the middle of a storm but they make it through and we, like our fellow on screen passengers, are relieved. We’ve climbed up the first arc of the scene, and we’re now back down in the trough - pulses have returned to normal. It’s in the calm clear skies of the ‘trough’ section that the real show begins. Co-Pilot Evans, a strict, by the book kind of man, exemplified by his neatly trimmed moustache and his disdain at being offered a ‘hit’ of oxygen from the pilot’s mask during a routine check, adjusts the altitude level on the autopilot - a clang and rattle of the fuselage gets our pulses going yet again and we’re ascending into the second arc of the scene.
Whip remains calm throughout this hell ride, Evan’s, the straight-edged guy is rattled, panicked, his uptightness snapping under the pressure. Meanwhile, Whip is loose, lucid and tackling the problem methodically, clearly. He’s in the zone. I want to be in the hands of this kind of pilot. Meanwhile Zemekis keeps us realistically tied to the action with mid shots of the player and tight close-ups of instrument panels. There are no CGI impossible camera moves, yet. We’re firmly in the airframe, the vibration of the frame giving us a visceral sensation of the forces within the cabin and the cockpit. The crane mounted shots bringing to mind that all too familiar feeling of the plane slipping out from under, all be it in a much, much worse manner here.
To really amp up the tension, the only score is the high pitched whining of air rushing over metal, as the plane speeds towards solid ground. The sound design keeps us within the moment, there’s no orchestral reassurance telling us that things are going to be ‘alright.’ No anticipatory notes that tell us which part of the scene we’re about to be in. Instead there are only screams, rattles, and the repetitive voice of the autopilot warning system, ‘too low terrain.’ It’s calmness making us wish we were a pre-recorded system message comfortable in the zero knowledge of life or what it’s like to lose it.
Zemekis doesn’t cut outside the plane to give us a wide shot of the action, instead he keeps us largely inside the plane. He only cuts outside twice to show the engines first flaming up and then accelerating. Keeping us fairly tight to the airframe and the mechanics of flight. It’s only when the plane is close to the ground where people see it that we get a wider view. It’s this realistic approach that makes the scene so effective.
And it’s in the closing seconds of the scene that Zemekis pulls out one of his trademark CGI aided shots, an impossibly framed moment that makes perfect sense exactly where it is. Because it puts us in the mindset we’ve so often heard about. In the moments of catastrophe time slows down, we experience the world differently because our brains our working overtime to keep us alive. Here in one subtle camera move we see the wing tip shear through a church spire, before we slowly come around to reveal Evan’s looking over at Whip, who blinks in this new altered frame rate, everything calm and silent, dislocated from reality. He casually turns to face the ground coming up to meet them - he’s ready. And now we can catch our breath.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hrs 18 mins of my precious life watching this? Strap in for Zemekis’ thrill ride that see’s Denzel’s pilot become a hero then a villain.
*Available for Netflix, Sky and Sky Cinema and for a small rental fee on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play and Apple TV.
Fact: To shoot the passengers in the interiors of the cabin, they employed a fully rotatable fuselage set they nicknamed ‘the rotisserie’ but they could only keep the extra’s upside down for 1 minute at a time because of health and safety protocols.
FILM TWO: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
2012 Dir Christopher Nolan
Nolan’s third and closing chapter to The Dark Knight saga is a war movie. It's a really good film but this particular scene for me outshines the rest, because everything about it harks back to the beginnings of Batman.
Deep inside a prison, which grants freedom to those brave enough to attempt and complete the seemingly impossible climb out of it, Bruce Wayne has to face all his fears - the very thing that set off his transformation into Batman in the first place.
Nolan credits his brother Jonathan for the master stroke of creating a prison set deep at the bottom of a well-like pit with no guards - freedom hangs over them, teasing them for as long as they’re alive down there. Hope is the real punishment here. After being condemned to the pit by Bane, Bruce Wayne/Batman must recover and try to escape before Gotham is destroyed once and for all.
So on to his journey upward and the action of the scene in question. He’s angry, and he uses this to spur his first attempt, his fury to get out and get back. The score and the rhythmic chanting of ‘rise’ by the inmates is at what almost feels like double speed, he can't wait to get out. He takes the rope and hurries to tie it around before he scrambles up the walls of the pit and inevitably fails. Even Nolan’s editing seem to shortcut to his shortcomings - almost as if the film itself is impatient with its fallen hero’s impatience. It wants to get on with it.
It’s at this crucial moment that we see a dream Bruce is having, it harks back to the very first film in the trilogy, Batman Begins, to the very moment Bruce developed his fear of bats - a fall down a pit [well]. The two locations are framed almost identically, this prison just a scaled up version of the well from his childhood, even the lighting and textures of the wall are designed to reflect one and other. It’s from this well that his fear was born and it’s in this pit he must rediscover his fear yet again. Fear was the inspiration behind the creation of his symbolic Batman and here in this moment he must rediscover fear but in a different form - as a motivator to survive. How can you survive if you don’t fear dying?
After the vital lesson from a fellow inmate to climb without the rope to allow ‘fear to find you’ Wayne is more centred and methodical - he’s prepared, his demeanour is calm and focused. The score builds slowly, purposefully, the faceless chants of other inmates are revealed now as they gather, their steps up the stairs rhythmic and careful. Everything now is considered - the opposite of the hurried first attempt. Nolan’s pacing is considered, taking it’s time as Wayne takes the time to pause and wonder what the inmates are chanting - he’s thinking, he’s listening, he’s more soulful, he’s ready for his journey upward - carried by perhaps Zimmer’s greatest flurry of notes in the entire score. Just as he did as a child, he rose out of the well to become Batman, now he rises out to resume the role once again.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hrs 44 mins of my precious life watching this? Climb into Nolan’s Dark Knight war film as Bruce faces his fears all over again.
*Available on Sky and Sky Cinema and for a small rental fee on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Sky Store and Apple TV.
Fact: A big inspiration for the film was the novel - A Tales of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
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