Since I was 5 years old, film seemed like it could be anything: from making a western by dressing my sister up as a cowboy and flinging tomahawks at her, to shooting a horror film by running around the woods with my brother, a sixer of MGD, and a dream. But, film could also be something more subtle. Like a study of the wind as it blows through the grass in the mountains of Galicia, Spain, or a silent pained expression on an actor’s face when a moment unexpectedly resonates as the camera rolls. There are particular human experiences that can only be explored through the power of the camera. Theater has the spoken word, photography has the image, but film creates life. I still experience chills when I see something that transcends the moment and teaches me something about what it is to be alive.
That said, I wanted to put together a list of the top 5 non-dialogue driven scenes that I’ve seen recently. Each film I have only seen once. I did not re-watch anything in order to build this list or to comment upon the selections. Sometimes, when I re-watch films that have had profound effects on my life, I am surprised to discover that what I saw and experienced that first time is something totally different from the experience of watching it again.
As a director I had to learn to trust my impulses to guide me towards truth. So here are my incredibly subjective, knee-jerk, top-of-my head, keeps-me-up-at-night-with-it’s-sheer-brilliance list of scenes:
1. Piano scene in Frequency
In the film there is a young boy who is labelled as “low-frequency”. Not much is expected from his kind. They are simple, trusting creatures that lack any sort of promising future. It is heartbreaking to see the way that this child resigns himself to his fate. Then there is a scene in which he meets his best friend’s father, a music composer. The father invites the boy to sit down at the piano and to try and play something. The kid doesn’t think he can. After all, he’s only a low frequency person. Not artistically inclined at all. The father pushes him to just hit any three random notes. The kid does so and the resulting sound, of course, seems atonal. Lacking any musicality. The father then responds with a series of rather complicated chords that somehow manage to incorporate those three simple, seemingly unrelated and unmusical, notes into a gorgeous little melody.
This clumsy call and response continues to build until suddenly they are off and running with the father playing full rhythmic chords and the kid wailing out on single notes that seem to fit perfectly together. When they are finally interrupted (or something, I can’t remember, doesn’t matter) the kid is almost in shock. He just learned something about himself. About harmony. About connecting to another human being outside of language or touch. No one expects anything of him, and now he’s just done something extraordinarily unexpected.
2. Opening scene in Once Upon a Time in the West
I should probably start by saying that I am a SUPER impatient person and the opening scene of this film challenged me in a big way. As it began, I immediately began rolling my eyes. OK, I’ve seen this scene in other films. Hundreds of other films. But wait! This is THE scene that all of those OTHER films are ripping off! Duh. As the minutes ticked by, something happened: I acclimated. That opening scene is all about time. Waiting. Anticipating. The sense of place: Hot. Dry. Bright. Dusty. By the time Charles Bronson shows up and delivers his famous “you brought two too many” line, I was hooked.
3. Singing scene in Shame
This is another interesting scene for its manipulation of time. The characters are in a somewhat crowded bar lounge. Michael Fassbender sits at a table with his boss, or co-worker, or something. Doesn’t matter, the guy’s a douche. Anyway, Fassbender watches his sister sing a cabaret song. But she sings it so slow that it hurts. And then it becomes clear that this particular hurt isn’t just a performance for this group of people at this bar. She is singing this song to her brother.
What is it about? And why is there so much sexual tension? Hold up: they’re brother and sister. Maybe that wasn’t sexual tension and I’m just a pervert. No! I’m right, he looks fucking disgusted with himself! And it is definitely a secret because he clearly doesn’t want to betray himself to the guy with whom he’s sitting. I still get chills when I think about how much pain, longing, disgust, love, beauty, and horror exists within this scene. And most incredibly: this scene works without the audience ever really knowing what the hell it is about.
4. Wrestling tournament win scene in Foxcatcher
I’ll admit it: I thought this film was clumsy at first. The dialogue seemed improvised and unpolished, the characterizations seemed campy, the story seemed simple. Which is why I was smacked in my stupid face by a scene that occurs sometime during the 2nd act. Channing Tatum is wrestling a difficult match. His brother yells encouragement from the mat’s edge. The scene is witnessed from a distance through the eyes of Steve Carell’s character as he sits in the stands, looking helpless.
It was in this moment that every nuanced layer of characterization came together in a devastating way. Steve Carell sits in a crowd and feels more lonely than ever. He longs for the connection that these two men, as brothers, share. He will never have that. Their relationship seems profound, and yet, effortless. No matter what he does, he will never experience that intimacy. Not with all of the money in the world.
5. Last scene in Whiplash
This film was brilliant in its ability to make me feel like an expert in drumming. Much like Black Swan did for ballet. I understand ballet differently after having watched that film. It gave me an “in” that allows me to better appreciate what those freaking maniacs do. Whiplash is careful to present drumming in ways that are entirely organic to the story. The detail and beauty in which each strike of the drum was filmed gave me an insight into the process of an art form, drumming, with which I feel like an outsider. The character’s relationship with the drum was as intimate as with a human being. By the time the end of the film comes around, I am able to understand the climactic scene in a way that wouldn’t have made any sense to the old me. The film literally changed who I am and that’s what every great filmmaker hopes to achieve.
When I finish making a film, I always feel like I am now an expert on every detail of the project. As editor, I can recite the film’s dialogue verbatim, I can anticipate every cut, the length of every fade. Oh, and also that guy in the back of the crowd scene looking right into the camera… the whole time… seriously, I tried cropping him out, but no… Then we have a public screening and I am always amazed at what the audience takes away. Not necessarily those details I obsessed over, because film is a conversation. It is subjective. Everyone is going to have a different experience and a different emotional reaction. The film, in it’s entirety, becomes an impression on people. Not a series of unconnected images. But movement at the speed of life.
The Good, The Bad, & The Poor: On Saturday, April 25, 2015 at 8:00PM, Soft Cage Films is having a party to celebrate the production of their new film Pilgrim, a neo-Western by David A. Holcombe. For more information, check out the Facebook event page.
David A. Holcombe is a proud Trap Door Theatre company member where he has acted in several Chicago productions in addition to three European tours. He works as videographer for Trap Door and several other local theater companies and produces experimental video installations. Soft Cage Films NFP produced his first feature film, Yellow (retitled City of Lust), whic David wrote, directed, and edited. Yellow was recently picked up by international distributor Maxim Media. Graffito, David’s recently completed second feature will be at festivals soon. This past summer he worked as cinematographer and editor for a feature length Spanish documentary, House of Gods, about a man who has dedicated his life to living without money and serving others. More info: daholcombe.com