Sunday, February 18, 2007

Best five minutes

The WSJ recently ran an article (pasted below) on the best five minutes of a movie, and how those five minutes really define the film. Alternatively, there are several books out there which describe the Power Law or Zipf's law which implies much of the average impact may come a small minority of drivers, i.e. average income is driven up by a small number of enormously rich people - when those outliers are removed, average income is much lower. One might apply the Power law qualitatively toward a movie - while most of a film is meant to build tension or provide context, you really only maximize your enjoyment in an extended scene, within which only a few moments are truly memorable. Any story, movie, song...they're really just great moments surrounded by context - a noodle dish with a single piece of duck, or a salad with one giant croutons. You could try to have more, but really, the scarcity and focus of those few items define the experience.

So originally I thought this post as a way to share my favorite short scenes in my favorite movies, which I might do eventually, but probably better would be describing real moments which have happened in the past month.

1. After a few hours of flirting, joking, story telling, light touching, more flirting, and alcohol consumption - getting the phone number/kiss/makeout session. The equivalent of notching the win, the pride and self-satisfaction, recognizing I am rewarded with amplification to the pleasure areas in my mind by a rush of various chemicals whose process were also enjoyed previouly by thousands of generations of my ancestors...isn't evolution grand?
(Certainly there are additional activities which I could also consider "my favorite" in this venue, but honestly, they usually take a bit longer than 5 minutes. ;-) (was this too much innuendo? Have I offended you?))

2. The first glass of wine/alcohol when having my usual weekly dinners with my buddy Ray. This is usually on a Wed or Thurs, we're both tired from the week but happy to be trying usually an exotic restaurant within the gustatory capital of the world. The first glass and gulp allow us the moment to exhale, remove the pressures of the office, and dive into the topic of the evening.

3. Making a turn around jumper during a pick up game - one of a few shots I can make with decent consistency. I may have turned the ball over umpteen times, waved my arms in providing ineffective defense, and missed a few layups, but if I can pivot my feet, get some distance, and sink that shot...there are few better feelings than watching that orange orb softly fall into the basket. Like it was meant to go no where else.

4. Recognizing and then building upon the business potential of a syndication project (still skunk works) at work.

How One Scene Can Say Everything

Deconstructing the best five minutes of 'Little Miss Sunshine'
February 17, 2007; Page P11

We all have favorite scenes from classic films; the quirkiness and diversity of our choices can be astonishing. Lately, though, I've been struck by how many movie lovers share a fondness for the same part of the same recent picture. As soon as I bring up the subject of my favorite moment in "Little Miss Sunshine," someone is sure to finish the sentence I've barely begun with, "The one where the son runs away from the van."

What makes that moment -- actually a five-minute-long sequence -- so memorable, or, in my view, enthralling? The question starts to answer itself when you take the time, as I've been doing, to study the sequence's substance on DVD. All of the ingredients that give the movie its special distinction can be found in the emotional and dramatic concentrate of what the DVD menu refers to as scene 16, "End of a Dream." Watch it on your own as a model of modern filmmaking, but read what I've written about it only if you've seen the film. There's no way to discuss such exceptional work without giving away crucial plot points, and my own point is to celebrate specifics, not to spoil pleasure.

[Morgentstern's Picks]
In a perfect world, every great scene ever shot would be instantly retrievable. Even though some can only be found on video cassettes, many treasures are readily available.

The dream that ends has been dreamed by the touchingly tormented adolescent son, Dwayne, who wants to be a test pilot. He wants it so passionately that he has taken a vow of silence, inspired by his goofy reading of Nietzsche, until he gets into the Air Force Academy. We know he'll blurt out something sooner or later, so his silence is a blithely funny set-up in a film that's full of funny set-ups (the entire road trip is a set-up for Olive's performance at the climactic Little Miss Sunshine pageant) and unexpected payoffs.

Scene 16 begins as a welcome respite from the shock of the grandfather's death, followed by the hilarity of the encounter with a motorcycle cop who never notices the dead body in the back of the VW van. Inside the van, whose broken horn keeps bleating disconsolately, Olive whiles away the miles by giving her brother an eye test with a chart she found at the hospital. Then she gives him a color-blindness test, and suddenly the comedy turns dark. Dwayne can't see the green A inside the circle of red dots; he really is color-blind. That means, as his intermittently suicidal uncle Frank explains, he can never be a test pilot. At first Dwayne processes this slowly, but then the darkness explodes into full-blown horror as the boy goes berserk, beating on the seats and windows and, when the van stops, running from it down an embankment into a suburban field, where he finally breaks his silence with a heartbreaking cry of "F-! F-! F-!"

[Big Moment: Abigail Breslin and  Paul Dano in 'Little Miss Sunshine.']
Big Moment: Abigail Breslin and Paul Dano in 'Little Miss Sunshine.'

Within the space of a couple of minutes we've been whipsawed, though never manipulated, from a state of benign enjoyment through several intermediate zones, including anxiety, to a sense of authentic tragedy. That's remarkable enough, but the scene's central drama is yet to come. On the embankment's edge, Dwayne's father, mother, uncle and little sister stare down helplessly at the solitary boy, who has fallen to his hands and knees in an agonized crouch. His mother ventures toward him, tries to console him, but he'll have none of it -- he lashes out furiously, reminding her of the family's flagrant failures. Following her retreat, Olive's father turns to his little girl and says, fairly hopelessly, "You want to try talking to him?" As she tiptoes down the slope, we wonder what this unworldly child can possibly say.

The answer is nothing, not a word. Olive puts one arm around Dwayne, rests her head against his shoulder and sits with him in healing silence.

It's a gorgeous resolution of a desperate situation. Until the color-blind test, Dwayne has been almost purely a comic character, no more dysfunctional in his monkish silence and punkish truculence than the rest of his screwed-up family -- excluding Olive, of course, who's the film's radiant life force. His parents haven't taken the full measure of his chronic anger; to do so they'd have to hold themselves as well as their problem child to account. But the film takes Dwayne seriously from the start, even though we don't know, until scene 16, what the writer, Michael Arndt, and the directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, have in store for him.

The secret of the film's appeal is that it's neither a comedy with drama nor a drama with comedy, but a story that's open to its characters' behavior -- where their feelings lead them is where the action goes. The secret of scene 16's power is that once the comedy takes a hairpin turn into tragedy, the only character who intuits the depth of that tragedy finally gets to act on it. Olive doesn't draw on some mysterious wisdom. When her dad suggests that she try talking to Dwayne, she knows there's nothing to say. She's just a little kid who sees that her brother is suffering. But when she applies her comforting touch in that eloquent silence, the whole family, along with Dwayne, starts to heal.

Scene 16 is only one of 23, at least as the DVD divides the film -- scenes that mix density with clarity, simplicity with complexity, in a modestly-budgeted enterprise that may well win an Oscar for Best Picture. If that should come to pass, it will be partly because this picture projects a bright ray of hope for the future of original films at a bleak, conformist time in the medium's history. While monster attractions with overhyped stars peddle primitive premises, belaboring one primal feeling at a time, "Little Miss Sunshine" ebbs and flows, dodges and feints, derives generous emotional dividends from fugitive feelings, and captures, without confining, the lovely firefly nature of life.

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