Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Concept of the "Perfect" Sequence in Film

[in progress and being revised]

The "Perfect" Sequence

I believe that there is a small subset of the filmmaking oeuvre, a tiny portion of the total amount of finished film that is created, that could be classified "as perfect, or nearly so". By perfect, I mean, that it is inspired, that it rises above whatever limitations the filmmakers may have experienced in their lives or this project and the sequence that results is among their best work, that achieves as it were whatever goals they may have had for that sequence in the context of the larger project.

A "perfect" sequence by this definition is of limited length, it is part of a larger film but it can usually stand on its own. If this is part of a low budget film, then the fact that it is low budget is made to be an asset and not a limitation, at least for the length of the sequence, the filmmakers have transcended the issue and having more money would not have made it any better. It might have even made it worse. A "perfect" sequence may be found in a film that is overall far from perfect, although usually the sequence does make everything better, somehow. A "perfect" sequence must be judged in context, but usually can also stand by itself as a short film.

It is, in essence, a "peak" filmmaking and audience experience, one that is rarely sustained throughout the film, and may be part of a film that is overall successful or not, in other words, both "good" and "bad" films may have these "perfect" sequences. In the genre of the short film, it is generally the entire short film that is "perfect" or nearly so, several music videos by Michel Gondry come to mind. 

When the audience first sees a "perfect" sequence they know it because they are astounded, captivated and it makes them think that it is possible to do good work in this far-from-perfect world.

Generally speaking, ones first impressions of a "perfect" sequence does not change with time. When you see that sequence again you still think that it is an amazing piece of work. But the perception of "perfection" is a subjective one, not an objective one. One persons' "perfect" sequence may be another person's merely enjoyable or well-made scene. There is no absolute perfection that is suggested here, but that it is filtered through the perceptions of the audience, whose response may vary.

Suggested Examples

Consider the following sequences from films as potential "perfect" sequences. At least, they have that affect on me. In a few cases, I am able to point you to a version online.

-- Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), dir by Henry Selick

    The inspired opening number of Nightmare Before Christmas which introduces us to Jack,
    the town of Halloween, its Mayor, the female lead,  and the other characters of the film.

-- Last of the Mohicans (1992), dir by Michael Mann

    The chase through the forest sequence near the end of the film where Hawkeye is running
    to save the life of his friend

-- The Princess Bride (1987), dir by Rob Reiner

    Few movies have even one good sword fight, this movie has two. In the first fight, the
    set is obviously a set, with a painted background, it doesn't matter.

    For a discussion of the aesthetics of sword fights using one of these scenes as an example,

-- Goodfellas (1990), dir by Martin Scorsese

    The continuous steadicam shot where we enter the Copacabana from outside, through the
    kitchen, are seated and see Henny Youngman begin his act.  According to the cinematographer
    in the documentary below, they had 8 takes (which is not that many) and it took less than a
    day to shoot.

-- Apocalypse Now (1979), dir by Francis Coppola

    The 16 minute sequence of the attack of the village, starting with Robert Duvall signalling
    the division bugler to call "charge", through the flight of the Valkyries, the napalm attack,
    and ending with the famous napalm speech.

-- Borat (2006), dir by Larry Charles, National Anthem of Kasakhstan

    This is a very strange movie, with good and bad parts to it, I think. It ends with a fake
    National Anthem of Kazhakstan, which doubles as end credits for the film. Sadly, Fox will
    not permit me to post this piece.  So you will have to see it another way.  Some of the lyrics
    are in note 1, below.

-- Gunga Din (1939), dir by George Stevens

    Considered by many to be one of the great films of a certain era, the sequence where
    Gunga Din climbs to the top of a monument, though wounded, signals "call to arms" at
    the cost of his life is pretty great, as long as you can look beyond the issues of British

They wait to ambush the unsuspecting British... 

The noble and wounded Gunga Din climbs to the top of a monument to issue the bugle call "Alert! To Arms!"

The British are alerted in the nick of time !  They fall back, then the Sikhs charge ! 

-- Orpheus (1950), dir by Jean Cocteau

    One of the great uses of optical printing for non-realistic purposes, the hero, Orpheus, is
    taken to the afterworld by a guide who is part of the afterworld bueaucracy through a
    landscape that looks eerily like post-WW2 europe (the film was made right after the war)

-- The Godfather (1972), dir by Francis Coppola

    The baptism sequence near the end of the film

-- Dr. Strangelove (1964), dir by Stanley Kubrick

    This film has many "perfect" sequences, but one in particular is "the bomb run", from when
    the B52 approaches the alternate target through the opening of the bomb bay doors and the
    dropping of the bombs.   Most of this sequence is at the following URL, unfortunately do
    technical problems, the last 20 seconds or so are missing, but you get the idea.

    For a different discussion on this and related scenes in the movie, see

-- Let Forever Be (1999), The Chemical Bros, dir by Michel Gondry

    Our token short film / music video. The fabulous sendup of video synthesis in a modern
    context, all faked with sets and real dancers. Genius can be so annoying.

A Greater Significance ?

There may be a further significance of such sequences beyond merely being entertaining and a proof of virtuoso skill on the part of the filmmaker. I wonder if such sequences might not serve to encourage us, to help make better the dreadful reality of our pointless lives and degraded civilization.

After all, it is our lot in life to see corruption and fraud masquerading as government, theft and oppression described as employment, obvious privilege for the elites pretending to be a system of justice. Endless lies and self-satisfied ignorance rewarded while poverty and misery is ignored. The undeserving elevated and the good oppressed.

This is the world we live in and it is, I am told, the best of all possible worlds.

Thus, the argument might go, something that rose above the obvious failure of our society, such a thing would be even more valuable because it would serve as an existence proof that something was worth doing and perhaps encourage us to believe that there was hope for making things better, as unrealistic as those hopes may be.

But I may be investing this concept with too much significance here, it may be nothing more than just good filmmaking.


1. The lyrics of Kazakhstan National Anthem are a little hard to make out, so here is my best translation of the lyrics.

Kazakhstan greatest country in the world
All other countries are run by little girls

Kazakhstan number one exporter of potassium!
Other countries have inferior potassium.

Kazakhstan home of Tinshein swimming pool
Its length 30 meter and length 6 meter

Filtration system a marvel to behold
It removes 80 percent of human solid waste

Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan, you very nice place!
From plains of Tarashenk to Northern Fence of Jewtown!

No comments:

Post a Comment