Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Hudsucker Proxy, The Third Man, and Dumbo

What do all of these films have in common?

Why, I'm going to use them all to talk about montages! Whoopee!!!

It's a good time to talk about montages since we're already talking about "Hudsucker". It has an amazing montage, probably the most complicated one I've ever seen. More on that later. But first, some explanation...

A montage is a film device where, usually, some section of the story that would take a lot of time to tell in a linear way is compressed into a few scenes.

The usual example is like one that's in the first "Rocky" movie where Rocky spent several weeks getting into shape and it was all compressed into several shots of him working out, running up and down stairs exercising, and doing things like eating raw eggs, all during the course of one song (many times montages are covered by a song). So montages usually show a progression, like someone who is going from out-of-shape to being totally in-shape, which would normally take weeks (and be really boring to watch happen on-screen), and condenses it to a short sequence that's interesting to watch. If you think of the old cliché where someone might say "I'm going to get in shape", and then you see words onscreen that say "six months later", and then you cut to the person and now they're in shape....well, the montage is very much like that but hopefully making the character's progress seem somewhat more believable and not completely taking you out of the film (like a card that says "six months later" might). And again, a montage minimizes the amount of boring uninteresting stuff that isn't essential to a story and that an audience doesn't want to see (always a good rule of thumb).

Somebody smart once said that movies are like life with the boring parts cut out.

Okay, so this is a far from exhaustive discussion of montages, everyone has their favorites and I know there are a lot of great ones out there. I'm just going to reference three here for a general discussion.

One of my favorites is actually from an animated film: the "Roustabouts" sequence from "Dumbo". It's compressing the hard and time-consuming job of raising the circus big-top to a short and succinct sequence.

Several great things are happening in this montage and are worth noting: even though it's about putting up a circus tent, it's always clearly from Dumbo's point of view and always relates to his relationship with his Mother, so instead of just being about putting up a tent it stays on point within the story. Also, the staging and weather build as the scene goes along to give it a building progression; when the scene starts it is only raining a bit but by the end there's a full-on thunderstorm. Also the first scenes are staged relatively flatly but by the end the scenes are more dramatic with the characters throwing things in and out of camera and lightning flashes. The source of the music is organic to the scene: the characters are singing a song as they work (as opposed to "Rocky", where an unrelated song plays on top of the sequence).

If you're having trouble viewing this clip as it's embedded, please visit and search for "Dumbo roustabouts".

A couple of other great animation montages that come to mind are both from "Toy Story 2": the montage of the old man fixing up Woody so he's new again, and also "Jessie's Song" where Jessie describes how she was loved and then forgotten and abandoned by her owner. These are two different types of montage: the first is all linear events, compressed into a series of highlights to show Woody's progression from old and worn to new and fixed, in the second one, our character sings a song which covers the montage showing linear moments that are separated by time, with years passing between some moments. Each has a totally different type of emotional feel and both are extremely effective and well-done.

Another good montage I like is from "The Third Man". It's a good example of an informational montage; it covers a bunch of stuff that isn't really interesting to the audience, per se, but it's important to the character so it's important within the story.

Possible spoilers (the film is fifty years old, so I don't know if it's possible to give spoilers for it, but anyway....)

Okay, here's the setup: Joseph Cotton's character has come to past WWII Vienna to find his friend Harry Lime. Lime has been killed in an accident, but the circumstances surrounding the accident are suspicious, and the police keep digging into his death. Cotton's character can't figure out why the cops are so relentlessly investigating the accident, and it turns out that it's because they suspect Lime of selling black market fake penicillin that has caused a number of deaths. Cotton steadfastly refuses to believe his friend could be guilty for a long time, but eventually asks the police to show him their case against Lime.

Those of us in the audience aren't really interested in a highly technical dissertation on fake penicillin and how it's been traced to Harry Lime. All we care about is if the hero, Joseph Cotton, can be convinced that he was wrong about Lime being guilty. He defended Lime through the first half of the movie; if he can be convinced that Harry Lime is guilty, then it must be true, and that's all we really need to take away here to get on with the story: is Lime guilty or not?

So in a brief montage, with a short bit of music covering it, Cotton goes from certain his friend is innocent to convinced that his friend is guilty.

Unfortunately, this clip isn't on youtube and I don't have the capacity to put it there myself (my computer is still kaput) so I did some screengrabs and I'll describe what's going on as best I can:

Okay, so Cotton has finally come to the point in the story where he asks to see the evidence against his old friend. So here the detective is putting up a slide show screen and says "we're going to have a magic lantern show" (an old way of referring to a slide show). Hopefully you all know what slides are, because they're a pretty archaic technology...

Okay, so the other policeman (actually they're soldiers but that's irrelevant) starts the slide show and as the lead guy launches into the presentation he turns and....there's a slide of a rhinoceros there. He turns and chides his assistant, who apologizes, saying he's got them muddled (that's comedy, by the way) and then the lead guy starts out indicating one of the guys involved in the plot to sell black-market penicillin, saying that they want to question him but he's "disappeared".

Joseph Cotton says something like what is this, a police station or a morgue, and then the detective says "we've got better witnesses". At this point, he turns back toward the screen, and the music takes over the dialogue, and now the short montage has begun, as we cross dissolve to... eye looking through a magnifying glass, which cross-dissolves to...

...some papers, covered with mysterious marks, being tossed onto a table. A mirror comes in, presumably showing us that there is a code written backwards within the mysterious markings. This cross-dissolves to...

...the detective, whose lips are moving, even though we can't hear him. He holds up one vial, and then another. This cross-dissolves to...

...some fingerprints under a magnifying glass, which cross-dissolves to...

...a close-up of Cotton, taking all of this in. A great shot! Once again, keeping the montage on point within the story. It's all about convincing this guy so it's great to get a shot of him soaking all of this in. Otherwise it's just a montage of information being marched by, without the emotional component and the story point that a big change is happening here; a man is learning that his good friend was actually a despicable criminal.

Anyway, this cross-dissolves to...

...a downshot of all three of our participants, surrounded by the files and material that they've been covering. The music ends and the montage is over. Short and effective! By the way, love the body language here: the chief detective is sitting back, as if exhausted by his lengthy presentation, or maybe just sitting back because he's said all he has to say and the ball is in Cotton's court now. And Cotton is eagerly sitting forward, flipping through a file...

...and as we cut closer, he closes the file - another great way to say that they've looked at everything, and this is the last shred of evidence, and he's now "closing the file" on his friend. The finality of closing this last file is a great "button" to the montage and gives it a great end beat.

Also I like the progression of this montage, of going from close-ups that are almost abstract to a close-up of Cotton to the wide shot, showing everything they've covered. It gives it a great build in going from close-ups to a wide shot.

So Cotton closes the file and says something like "Wow...I never thought he was capable of something like that." He has clearly been convinced! And all this major turning point in the movie took was about 30 seconds of screen time or less. Nice!

Okay, so lastly, here's a montage from "The Hudsucker Proxy". I'm sure there are montages that cover more story but I sure can't think of any.

Again...spoilers ahead...

Here's the setup: Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) has convinced his company (Hudsucker) to manufacture his idea, the Hula Hoop. The montage covers a lot of story, on an almost global scale, but the important story point is that Norville goes from a nobody (that everybody thinks is an idiot) to a success as his invention takes off with the public., I woulda picked "The Wacky Circumference", but what do I know?

The montage has three distinct parts: the exciting build of the research, development, marketing and manufacturing of the Hula Hoop, the lull in the middle where it seems that the invention will be a failure, and the exciting ending, where the toy catches on and Norville becomes a success. Look at how the music works well to indicate these changes of pace and how it changes to suit the mood of each part. Music, camera moves, staging and cutting help make things that might other be really boring (like, say, cost assessments) entertaining and fun to watch. Music is also such a helpful tool to unify really different ideas that jump around in time and space to make them all feel like one idea. Hearing the same musical themes under different ideas make them all seem like one unified piece.

I love how, even when one funny idea is presented - like the marketing execs brainstorming names for the product - there's another funny idea layered on top, like the secretary reading the different Russian novels in the foreground to denote the passage of time (also love how the bottle of booze is a touch of color in the window of the marketing bullpen). Just deciding to show those guys in silhouette is a master stroke, too, and I can't think of a funnier way to present them.

Anyway I don't even know what else to say about this's just a marvel to watch.

The only other thought I have about montages is that they're due for a rethinking. Animated films seem to make use of montages quite a bit, and I have to say, there's usually a point on all the films I've worked on where someone says "We'll just put a montage here to cover this stuff".

That's fine, but montages have become such a "staple" of our movies that I suspect we take them for granted and they may have become a bit of a cliche unto themselves. I can't really remember when I saw a montage that really blew my mind as far as originality and coming up with a unique take on the concept of the montage (I know, "Up" had a great long bit of montage in the first part of the film, you don't need to leave comments reminding me of that! Of course that one was awesome).

Anywhow, all I'm saying is that I think the whole montage thing is wide open to re-invention, so maybe someone will come up with a unique take on the concept soon.

Even if not, montages are a great tool and one that's well done is a pleasure to watch indeed.


Anonymous said...

Excuse me, but the actor is Joseph Cotten, not Cotton.

martha said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


indavao said...

hi... just dropping by!

dany boom said...

great post !

i love the hudsucker one and have since i first sa the film in the theatre, on the last day of its two week run. sigh.
id mention one montage i saw recently that was pure awesomeness - it was in david finchers ZODIAC - great, great film. it was good because of how they used newspaper type in an interesting way.
montages are now forever tainted in my mind by the south park boys after what they did in team america world police. you must have seen that ? if you didnt, jeeze, i think youll have alaugh ...

Robert said...

I never thought of the Dumbo sequence as "montage" maybe because the time it covers, one evening, is rather brief in film terms. It's not like they are compressing weeks or years. And the shots are all quite related, whereas montage seems to be about trying to connect things that might not normally go together either because of subject, location or time.

But... If you say so. ;-)

Heather Dixon said...

I just love how analytical you are about shots and story. It makes this blog one of my favorite places to visit. :)

martha said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Leo Matsuda said...

Hey Mark! Just got the chance to watch "The Third Man".It's definitely a great montage and a very efficient and sophisticated way to reveal who Harry Lime really was. I also loved the introduction of Orson Welles in the film. Amazing set up with the cat. What a great surprise when you realize what actor is playing Harry Lime.

Jorge Flores-Oliver, aka Blumpi said...

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