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Film Essay – ‘Great films and key scenes’

This is a piece of writing by Duncan O'Neill for a New Zealand year-12 student studying English. It was written as an example for the student, and responds to the following question;
‘Great films often hinge on the successful presentation of one or two key scenes.’ 
To what extent do you agree with this view? 
Discuss this idea with reference to one or more films.

‘Great films and key scenes.’

I agree to some extent that great films hinge on the successful presentation of key scenes.

For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to assume that the two films I make reference to, A Beautiful Mind, and Fight Club, are widely accepted as ‘great’ films. The first is listed at number 149 at imdb.com in viewers’ top-ranked movies ever, and the second is listed at number 11. 

In A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe as the central figure John Nash is a mathematical genius whose original ideas result in him consulting for the US military as a code-breaker. But Nash is obsessive, driven, and the movie traces his life from professional success, to mental illness, to eventual peace and recognition as a winner of a Nobel Prize.

Early in the movie, director Ron Howard uses the presentation of flashing lights over several key scenes to establish Nash’s “flashes” of inspiration. 

The technique is introduced early in the movie, when Nash is meeting his academic peers. The similar play of light on crystal glasses, and on one colleague’s tie, leads to Nash’s insight, and following quip that “there could be a mathematical explanation for how bad your tie is”.

Howard again uses the technique  when Nash has his major inspiration. A group of girls are at the same bar as Nash and colleagues, and Nash realises that by competing with each other, the men will     lose out as a group, and that co-operation is a better strategy. Unbeknown to Nash , the insight will later be used in Game Theory during the Cold War.

During the scene Howard again uses the play of light on the face of one of the girls to tip the audience off that we’re watching another of Nash’s inspired moments.

The technique is again used when Nash visits military headquarters, and connects seemingly unrelated information to pinpoint GPS co-ordinates as sites for upcoming Russian attacks. The viewer first sees a series of numbers light up – a tip-off for a Nash inspired moment - as the camera circles quickly around Nash.

The presentation of all these scenes reinforces the idea that Nash is capable of imaginative leaps to connect unrelated ideas.

A similar presentation technique is used in another of the key scenes in A Beautiful Mind. This is the scene where Nash, in the midst of his delusions, puts his son’s life in danger by over-running the bath-tub.

In the aftermath, Nash is confronted first with Parcher, and then with his room-mate Charles, and Charles’ niece Marcee. The three of them are presented in a rapid sequence of flashbacks, but rather than flashes of light as before, they are shown in a grayscale and sepia. 

It tips the audience off to the fact that Nash is again cycling quickly through flashes of ideas and impressions as he was at the military headquarters. But they are darker, more sinister.

As a further clue, the camera again swirles around Nash in the same technique Howard uses for the scene at the military headquarters. It has the effect of putting the viewer in the “driver’s seat” to witness Nash’s mental process.

The scene culminates in Nash’s realisation that “Marcee can’t be real. She never gets old”.

And there, the film’s secret is revealed to the viewer – Nash is not the victim of a conspiracy in which only he sees reality, but someone who has been suffering real mental illness. Along with that first realisation, he has to accept that Parcher and Charles are also figments of his imagination.

With that realisation, he accepts that he is ill, and begins to learn to live with his illness.

In a key scene in Fight Club, Edward Norton as The Narrator also confronts his demon, his imaginary alter ego , Tyler Durden. Realising that Durden is a figment of his imagination, the Narrator ends the double act by putting a pistol in his mouth, and pulling the trigger.

The scene is accompanied by tense and dramatic background music, with a heavy bassline and drum-beat, adding to its drama, and clueing the audience in to its significance for the movie.

So in conclusion, although key scenes do play a role, it is also the repetition of techniques that add to the dramatic impact of a film, and make it great.

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