After yesterday’s spectacular start to our look at great movie montages we CUT TO part-two now.
THE GRADUATE (1967)
by Fiona Pleasance
When is a Montage Sequence not like a Montage Sequence? When it’s really, really long; not just one song long, but two. When both of these songs are by Simon and Garfunkel. And when it’s been planned and shot with extreme care and attention to detail and fits together just so.
The film is Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. Dustin Hoffmann, playing the eponymous Benjamin Braddock, has finished college and doesn’t know what to do with the rest of his life. His aimlessness means that he is easy pickings for his parents’ friend Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), and the two enter into an ill-advised affair. The ‘Sounds of Silence’ / ‘April Come She Will’ Montage is the only time, really, when we share Ben’s sense of the interminable passage of time, of his days blending together in a hazy mix of sun, swimming and sex.
What makes this sequence special are the transitions from one location to the next. At the beginning, in the pool, Nichols uses slow dissolves to suggest hours – days? – passing. But as soon as Ben exits to get dressed, hard cuts take us from the house to the Taft Hotel, scene of his adulterous liaisons, and back. A similar black fabric background behind his head elides the differences between locales. It’s all the same to Ben.
As such, this particular sequence is a New Hollywood-ish statement of intent. You want a Montage Sequence? Here’s one that’s longer, that’s more carefully planned, that’s better. Come on, all you Post-Classical filmmakers. Give it your best shot.
When I was asked to consider the greatest film montage, I didn’t hesitate to respond because it is clearly the opening montage of Up.
The montage is a well-worn item of the cinematic wardrobe. It is taken out when a period of time needs to be covered quickly but in sight of the audience. It is often used to gloss over the learning of a new skill (Thirteenth Warrior’s learning the language montage is a classic example) periods of travel (Indiana Jones), or the passing of many years – as it does in Up.
What exalts the Up montage over every other (yes I am being so bold as to consider it the greatest montage sequence on screen to date), is threefold: 1) it is the opening sequence of the film. 2) it is a kid-friendly animation. 3) the last time I saw such affecting and brilliantly played pathos in a silent sequence was from Buster Keaton.
In just a few minutes, and without dialogue, Up tells you everything that you need to know about its curmudgeonly old male pensioner protagonist by taking you from his childhood to where he is now (very much in the twilight years). The sequence focuses on his long, beautiful, loving relationship with his childhood friend, sweetheart and finally wife up to the point where she dies and he finds himself, for the first time since young childhood, without her and alone.
This moving sequence conveys more in a few short minutes than many films manage over the course of their full one-and-a-half hour or more running time. I defy anyone over the age of thirty to watch this with dry eyes and, short of Saving Private Ryan, cannot think of another film from the last twenty years that has had such a powerful opening sequence. Up isn’t simply a great montage sequence, it is the bar-setting montage sequence. I struggle to see how it can be bettered, but look forward to the film that will.
FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986)
by Ricky Young
As part of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – the everyday tale of an abhorrent and entitled little prick on a whirlwind spree of kidnapping, theft and mental abuse – Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane and his sub-optimal pal Cameron take some time out of all the rushing around and epic prickdom to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. Set to an instrumental cover of The Smiths ‘Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’, the trio’s high-jinks begin to slow as they square up to Rodin and let a triple-faceful of Picasso fry their tiny minds. Cameron – perhaps of the three of them the least likely to want a shuddering existential punch to the face – then gets transfixed by Seurat’s ‘Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’, staring ever closer at a child’s face only to see the epic nothingness that lies behind it.
The other two take this opportunity to slope off for a quiet moment together – although, to be fair, usually they only have to give the guy a torch and piece of string and they’re good for a few hours – and I don’t care who you are, if you’ve never ached to kiss Sloane Peterson while awash in the cool blue light of some nearby Chagall, then you’re a lying sod. Maybe, even, the epic choice of smooch-spot could indicate something salvageable in Ferris? Something worthwhile? That underneath it all there’s a tender soul, just wanting to be loved?
Nah. Two minutes later you’re back to wanting him to fall off that parade float and break his scrawny neck. You see? Art never solves a god-damn thing.
BUSTIN’ MAKES ME FEEL GOOD
by Laura Morgan
The Ghostbusters (1984) media montage is a perfect example of lazy moving-the-story-along-storytelling. Or it would be, except that montages are traditionally wordless, and this is the wordiest segment of the whole film – especially if you include the list of supernatural phenomena that Janine reads out to Winston Zeddemore at the end, which you should, because it’s both one of the film’s highlights and the climax of the story the montage is shortcutting: Ray, Peter and Egon’s giddy rise from disgraced university lecturers to folk heroes who are so in demand that in the end, they have to hire another ghost buster.
I’ve always held that Winston plays us, the outsider, the layman; in turns befuddled, bemused and ultimately delighted (“I love this town!”) by the film’s action. And so he does, but in this segment we’re also watching along with Dana Barrett, initially turned off by Venkman’s attempts at seduction, but finding that he and his peculiar colleagues start gradually seeping back into her consciousness as they appear on the cover of Time Magazine and on TV with Joe Franklin.
The Ghostbusters media montage isn’t doing the montage’s traditional job of letting us see our heroes emerge into the light; instead we watch New York watching them emerge into the light – at one remove, via mass media. The guys themselves appear in the background, incidental to the real business of the montage, which is to surprise and delight us with the incongruous introduction of real life where we were least expecting it. Hey look, it’s Larry King! Pause long enough to read the newspaper headlines and the jokes are great, but they flit by in seconds. Someone put a whole lot of work into these two minutes of film – it’s not lazy at all; it’s a smart, audacious piece of film-making which totally doesn’t need a thirty-second scene where Dan Ackroyd gets sexually molested by a ghost, but which gives us that anyway. It’s perfect.
TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004)
By Mr. Moth
The meta-montage of Team America: World Police was first seen two years earlier on Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s slightly more famous creation South Park, helping Stan train for a ski-off. I can’t think of a shorthand way to imagine the process of refinement that went towards honing this for the film, I’m afraid, but I expect you can come up with something.
It’s a work of genius, though. While other films have included spoof montages – The Naked Gun, for example, or the Stiller/Wilson Starsky and Hutch (2004) – the laughs there came from amplifying and twisting the conventions. Nothing so simple for Parker and Stone. Team America‘s montage sends up the entire concept of a montage, commenting from the outside on what is happening. The sequence is played reasonably straight (within the style of the film) but look at the lyrics to the accompanying song:
Show a lot of things happening at once,
Remind everyone of what’s going on
And with every shot show a little improvement
To show it all would take too long
That’s a montage so perfectly defined it should signal the end of them in any film. Whether it is a training montage as this is or a relationship montage (as in The Naked Gun and Starsky and Hutch), this is exactly what’s happening. We all know it, and it sounds thunderingly obvious but it took Team America to sit us down and explain how stupid it is, you know, when you think about it.
It also suggests the other problem, and that is with the passage of time. “If you fade out,” the song tells us. “It seems like more time has passed.” Montages are a great way of showing that time has passed, but how much? We have no idea. A day, an hour, a month? Proficiency has been gained in how long? It’s a free pass for the film-maker, a quick way to say “Actually, they can do this now” without sacrificing too much plausibility. In less than two minutes, Team America demolishes this lazy shortcut.
The final brilliance of this sequence is that it is genuinely, breathlessly, funny. Not all of the film is to everyone’s taste, but because we all know what’s going on, because we’re looking at the man behind the curtain, I can’t imagine anyone failing to laugh at this sequence.
Well. Maybe Matt Damon.