Friday, June 22, 2012

Favorite Film Beats

I love movies. There's just something about a good story that draws you in when it's well-told. In every movie, there are always certain moments, certain "beats" that strike a chord. When I am writing, I try to think: "Will this moment be emotional? Surprising? Will it make the reader's jaw drop open?" As I write, I picture the "movie" of the book unfolding in my mind. I believe that if I can see it, and I can write what I see, the reader will, too. And when they do see it, I want them to see those moments that will be memorable.

As I was reading Blake Snyder's book Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies, I was struck momentarily while reading his breakdown of Spider-Man 2. As Snyder described part of the story, he added a parenthetical comment of how much he loved that specific beat, that short moment. It was my favorite moment, too. And I realized that if that part struck him as it did for me, it probably did for a lot of other people.

So I began thinking of some of my favorite film beats, those scenes that I will watch an entire movie for, simply waiting for those few seconds of screen time. And surprisingly, they are not always the most action-packed or funniest moments, but the ones that give me chills when I see them. These are the moments I seek to create in my novels. So here is a short list of some of my favorites and why:

  • Spider-Man 2: Just like Blake Snyder, I love the moment after Peter Parker stops the train as Spider-Man, saving the lives of all on board. After "crucifying" himself (another realization I had after reading Snyder's book), the passengers pull him back in and carry him into the car. At this point, he is without his mask, and everyone can see his identity. One adult says in shock, "He's just a kid..." For some reason, I love that beat. It's honest, it's sincere, and it shows the humanity not only of Peter Parker, but of those around him. When he wakes up and realizes he's been seen, some kids bring his mask to him, saying, "Don't worry... we won't tell anyone."
  • Signs: When I first saw this movie, I expected a creepy sci-fi film. I never expected a message about faith and providence to be part of it. When the alien creature appears in the house, Graham's brother Merrill accidentally hits a glass of water that seems to hurt the alien. The camera shows a shot of the house, which is full of unfinished glasses of water as Graham realizes that maybe his daughter's idiosyncracies have a purpose.
  • Gladiator: I love the action in this film, but the most powerful moment comes when Emperor Commodus demands that the gladiator reveals himself. When Maximus turns and takes off his mask, his line makes our breath stop, not just Commodus's: "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next."
  • Back to the Future: This is one of my all-time favorites. Even seeing it on the big screen for its 25th anniversary, it was like seeing it for the first time. We all knew what would happen, but the crowd still surged with intensity and expectation. When Doc Brown finally hooks up the wire and the lightning bolt strikes the clock tower, everyone cheered. It's a moment of celebration and excitement.
  • Batman Begins: As chaos errupts in The Narrows because Scarecrow's gas is making everyone hallucinate, police officer Gordon realizes that they are in trouble. They have closed off the bridge so that no one can get out, but this also means that the riot police are stuck there too, facing the effects of the gas. As The Narrows tears itself apart, Gordon is asked who else they can send over, and he cries out that there's no one left to send. At that moment, the Tumbler flies across the gap. A perfectly timed moment for our hero to make his entrance.
  • Super 8: A simple moment at the end of the film: when Joe's necklace flies out of his pocket and opens, letting us see what is inside for the first time: a picture of his deceased mother. He lets go of it, watching it fly away.
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Another all-time favorite, we all know that the movie isn't really about the Holy Grail, but about the father's quest to find his son and reconcile. So the moment when Indiana is falling down a hole in the ground, struggling to reach for the grail, his father clings to him, trying to save him. Finally, accepting his son for who he is, Henry Jones says, "Indiana... let it go..." The real treasure has been salvaged: their relationship.
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes: The tense moment when Caesar faces off against his sadistic caretaker grabbed my attention because I knew Caesar was finally accepting who he was and what he was destined to do. But I did not expect what happened next, and I don't think the rest of the theatergoers did either, because you could hear a pin drop the moment he yelled, "No!"
  • Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: While there are many fantastic, awe-inspiring moments in this movie, and even the trilogy as a whole, I still get chills when Frodo can't go on though he's so close to the end of the journey. Sam picks him up, shouting, "I can't carry your burden, but I can carry you!" I always think to myself, "That's how the world should be... if only everyone acted that way."
  • King Kong: Another film with an amazing performance by Andy Serkis, I am always struck by how much emotion a CGI ape can exude. I truly beleieve that Serkis deserves some major recognition for his work, because he truly is acting in these scenes and creating characters that are more believable than some performances of real actors. And while I love the fight scene with the V Rex, my favorite moment comes when they are skating on the iced-over pond in Central Park. It's a moment of peace and innocence, the last one Kong will have. This beat makes what is to come even more tragic.
  • Jurassic Park: Perhaps my all-time favorite movie, I still remember sitting in the theater in awe of the dinosaurs that looked more real than any others I had ever seen on screen. As Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler stare in awe of the brachiosaurus, I stared in awe, too. When John Hammond says, "Welcome to Jurassic Park," I was swept away too.
  • The Avengers: While there are many moments in this movie that I love to watch, such as Dr. Banner returning to the team, one of my favorite beats has to be when Loki subjugates the crowd, demanding that they bow. A lone elderly man stands tall, saying he will not bow to men like Loki. When Loki insists there are no men like him, the man says, "There will always be men like you." Wow.
  • The Muppets: This has to be one of my favorite films of the past year. I grew up with The Muppets, and the movie brought back so many childhood memories. Even with all the jokes and references to the previous films, one beat resonates every time I see it. As Kermit and Miss Piggy perform "Rainbow Connection," the other Muppets backstage take each others' hands, knowing this might be the last performance together. As they walk onstage and join in the song, it reminds me that it doesn't always take a human actor to stir the emotions.
Obviously, this is just a "short" list, but it makes the point that in a story, every moment must be crafted to advance the plot and to interact with the viewer or reader. Those are some of my favorite film beats; what are yours?

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