When you look at a feature film, and attempt to recognise any scenes/sequences which, on their own, stand up as a short film, you are analysing what it takes to make a film. And, in so doing, you come to understand what film is.
This week, I’m going to give an example. In future weeks I will come back to this topic again with more examples. I hope to make this a recurring topic here.
The first example I have chosen, is from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In fact, it’s the very first Scene of the film following the opening titles...
So, what is it about this scene, which means that it can stand up, in its own right, as a film?
It has an establishing shot which shows the car travelling through a mountainous forested terrain, thereby giving us a sense of place.
We are introduced to three characters, and are immediately made aware of their relationships to each other, Father, Mother and Son. And, we are also given an explanation for why they are on the mountain road; they are going to a Hotel. Perhaps they are going on holiday together.
The discussion they have about The Donner Party provides us with a set-up and a pay-off. When Danny, the boy, hears his Mother mention The Donner Party, he asks his Dad what that means. His Father explains what The Donner Party was, and crucially, he informs his Son that they resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. This is a set-up for what comes next.
When Danny’s Mother indicates to his Father, that the topic of cannibalism may be an inappropriate topic to discuss with such a young boy, Danny interrupts her to say that he already knows all about cannibalism because he saw it on television. This is clearly quite a disturbing revelation. And, the pay-off is Danny’s Father, clearly uncomfortable and disturbed by this revelation, making a darkly humorous sarcastic quip “See? It’s okay… He saw it on the television!”.
The closing shot shows the family continuing on their journey along the forested mountain road.
I think this sequence definitely holds up as a film within a film. I believe the reason is that, the elements described above, come together to inform us of a message. That message is a disapproving warning about the pervasive nature of television, and the risk that it could be doing some kind of damage to young minds who watch it unsupervised. Danny has obviously been watching some quite disturbing television, without his Parents knowledge. Thus the sequence, (which, incidentally, consists of only three shots!) provides us with a message on the risks of television as a wildcard in the moral teaching of children.
This is not to suggest every film needs to communicate a moral message. The message needn’t be moral at all. The message could be something quite abstract. Some films centre around a certain mood. For example the mood of “dread”. Everything in the film is geared towards inculcating a sense of dread in the viewer. So, you could say that the message of such a film was, quite simply “dread”.
Back to today’s example of a film within a film…
In my view, these three shots from The Shining, have the absolute bare minimum of what is needed, when considering what makes a sequence of shots into a film, rather than just a sequence.
In analysing it, we have uncovered several important characteristics which are vital in any film…
An establishing shot. Some minimal exposition to establish relationships and purpose. A set-up. A pay-off. A message. A closing shot.
It’s quite amazing that so much can be achieved with so little. Whenever I am working on my own films, I always come back to the car scene at the start of The Shining. To remind me of what is achievable, and what is required to make a good film.
I hope that it’s helpful, or at the very least entertaining, to you also.
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