Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How to Use Routine Tasks to Make a Deeper Point

In my post yesterday, we talked about scenes and scene starts which rely on trivial action in the wrong way. Today I thought it might be useful to look at an example of a scene that uses the same kind of action to make a larger point. I suspect most of you are familiar with the Lawrence Kasdan film, The Big Chill. The first minute and a half of that film portrays routine actions: a dad bathing his toddler son, a mom taking a phone call, a man dressing. I found a youtube clip of the opening -- it's got subtitles, but it was the only video I could find of the first scene. Take a look at the first minute and a half.

Now, the film's dominant themes have to do with the loss of innocence and the tension between idealism and everyday concerns. This opening sequence sets the thematic tone by using everyday, routine tasks as a counterpoint to the phone call that changes everything. One of my favorite moments in this sequence comes when, after the phone rings several times and is finally answered by the mom, the dad asks, "What's that?" We're all wondering the same thing because we know phone calls in movies usually have a big impact on the action. But, even though the dad has one eye on the phone call, the question, "What's that?" is actually posed to the kid, who answers, "Super-Nothing." The call is not about a superhero. It's about a Super-Nothing, a man who never found his way in life but now has found his way to death. The tragic news is delivered against the backdrop of a child in a bubble-filled tub singing Joy to the World.This image is filled with innocence and imagination, two key ingredients in the idealism examined by the film.

And then the opening credits are played over an image of a man getting dressed -- or being dressed, rather, for burial. Getting dressed is a routine act that we do every day, but we only are dressed for burial one time. The ordinary act is made extraordinary by its unique context.

Do you notice anything else here about the way the ordinary actions are used to make bigger points?


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