Satisfy the Senses

I selected the last scene from the Gangs of New York for my look, listen and analyze assignment. This is a movie that I remember watching when it first came out….although I couldn’t believe that it had been filmed 12 years ago! How time flies! In watching the scene, I noticed different things when I isolated my senses.

The movie is set in 1863, Amsterdam Vallon returns to the Five Points area of New York City seeking revenge against Bill the Butcher, his father’s killer. The section of the film that I analyzes was the closing sequence.

Visual: The scene opens with dead bodies lining the street with candles glowing on their chests. It starts closer up and then gradually pans backward and you see the glowing light as far as the eye can see. It is then you understand the magnitude and death toll the gang fights took. Besides the dead gang members, somber solders are predominately seen in the first few screens and help to give the imagery of a grave situation. Without sound, you aren’t sure exactly what is going on. The clip then moves to see hands holding a trinket and then burying. The shot pans up to show what one assumes to be a Potter’s Field cemetary in Brooklyn. The 1863 New York City skyline is in the background with large clouds of dark smoke indicating several large fires/bombs must have recently happened. Vallon limps over to a female figure and the two turn and start walking towards the down left part of the screen. Their images fade from the screen and show new images of the NYC skyline free from smoke and with new buildings. The cemetary becomes in more and more disrepair. Even without sound, you can visually see that history is forgotten by the present.  Overall, the film has a brown-tint to give it the look and feel of an old movie.

Audio: When just listening to the audio, you realize that it is only Amsterdam Vallon speaking. His voice is slow, tired and with an Irish accent. He starts by recalling the gang fights. He then ties the recent trials and tribulations to something his father had told him. “My father told me we was all born of blood and tribulation, and so then too was our great city.” Vallon, knowing that this is a pivotal point in the history of the city, then takes on a reflective tone in says, ” But for those of us what lived and died in them furious days, it was like everything we knew was mightily swept away. And no matter what they did to build this city up again… for the rest of time… it would be like no one ever knew we was even here.” He makes these comments as haunting/powerful music plays in the background.

Tying it Together: When you tie the visual with the audio, it becomes a powerful ending to an epic movie. As Vallon says the final spoken word of the film, “For the rest of time will be like no one would even know we were ever here…” his image fades from the screen to give way to progress and the new cityscape.

My biggest take away from the film is that a good scene combines great imagery with audio for a captivating moment of the film.

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Lights! Camera! Action!

There is a saying that behind every good man is a good woman. This week, I learned that behind every good director is a good film editor. Truth be told, I had never really thought much of moving angles. This might be because my favorite films are rom coms. So, reading Roger Ebert’s How to Read a Movie was really eye-opening (no pun intended). In the article, Ebert explains about positive/negative sides and strong/weak axis. For example, a person located somewhat to the right of center appears ideally placed on the “strong axis”. To try it out, I did a search of famous movie scenes. It was a harder search than I thought to find movie titles/pictures. I did come across the epic film Casablanca. In analyzing the pictures included, I noticed the following:

Rick Blaine in his Cafe Americain nightclub playing chess by himself – Center placement, “postive side” facing the future…but…he’s looking down so it suggests that it might not be all rainbows and sunshine

Final farewell scene between trench-coated Rick and Ilsa on the rainy, foggy airstrip with “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid” – Ilsa is on the positive side but facing to the left which symbolizes the past. Rick is on the negative side. He’s looking at the future…even though he’s letting her go.

Now, let’s think about how film editing can play a part in these iconic scenes. As Hitchcock explains, simple editing can change the feeling and sentiment of a character/scene. In the scene where Rick says, “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”, imagine how the mood would change if editing flipped to Rick and he was wearing KISS make-up. Obviously this is a ridiculous example. BUT, I thought Hitchcock’s explanation of how just a simple change in a picture…like swapping out a baby for a girl in a bikini changes the whole sentiment towards a character. We do that in real life also when we meet someone. We have an initial perception and then as we learn more, that perception changes. I find it interesting that directors/editors capitalize on that during movie making.

I found the history of film editing really interesting. I particularly appreciated the comments from Spielberg and his relationship with his film editor. Because he had spent so much time trying to film the shark, he wanted to include as much frames of it as possible. However, her vision of the film included a “less is scarier/more tense” approach. The end result was an award-winning film. But it reminded me that many times in my team’s presentation, because they fall in love with a particular slide, they fight to keep it in…even though it doesn’t add (or may subtract) from the overall presentation.

I also found it interesting when one of the film editors explained that their job is to take on the POV of the viewer. To make sure they do that effectively, they stay offset so they do not bring prior knowledge into the editing room. Since I develop training materials, I think that’s a good rule of thumb to bring to my development process. It was also amazing to me to see how far film taping/editing has evolved as I watched videos on special effects. But, even watching the basics on the 180 made me realize how much thought and attention to detail is put into film making that the audience just takes for granted.

Finally, I appreciated Ken Burns’s perspective that his job has an element of manipulation. He uses filming and editing to tell his version of the “truth” to make the audience react a certain way. This feeling was also supported during the film editing movie when one of the editors stated that everyone likes editing because they want to edit their own life. I think that’s true…there are definitely times I wish I could edit parts out, slow things down or fast forward. All in all…I have a whole new appreciation for films!