Death and the Maiden (1994)
Roman Polanski

(Spoilers, sort of)

This scene here is the climax of one of Polanski’s very best films, Death and the Maiden (1994). Let me not elaborate on the plot details and just say that Dr. Miranda (Ben Kingsley) is making a certain confession to Paulina (Sigourney Weaver) about his dark past as her husband, Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), watches on. If the whole of Polanski’s filmography is to be summed up in one line, is must be that key quote from Chinatown (1974) – that man is capable of doing anything given the right circumstances. This monologue where Miranda, himself a variant of John Huston’s character from Chinatown, confesses is, arguably, the most important shot in all of Polanski. Death and the Maiden is not a film dealing with the Holocaust per se, but, as it is with most Polanski films, the parallels are striking (it’s kind of like how The Pianist (2002) wasn’t about the Holocaust at all, even when it dealt with it). The film, and particularly this sequence here, is exactly what Holocaust cinema should all be about. There are no painstakingly recreated details of the war here, no tacked up statements about the triumph of the human spirit and, thankfully, no beautification of the horror (a trap that films as latest as Polytechnique and The City of Life and Death (both 2009) fall into) for the sake of creating art. It’s a film that deals with the impact and significance of a holocaust rather than the mishap itself. And, most importantly, it’s a rare film that truly knows, in Peter Rainer’s words, that “it is the artist’s job to show us that the monster is, in fact, a human being”.

This scene here is filmed as a close up and records Miranda, looking slightly towards the left, recollecting the past in fine detail. The composition is noteworthy here. Polanski could have filmed Kingsley head-on, with him staring into the camera, whereby cinema would intimately and truthfully perform its humble, ethical and mandatory function of acknowledging that “the monster is indeed a human”. But, despite its advantages, if it were done so, the image of Ben Kingsley would overwhelm that of Miranda and break the credibility of the diegetic events, thereby going exactly against the purpose of the shot. The casting of Ben Kingsley here as Miranda is remarkable. He is, I believe, one of those stock stars who wouldn’t be as comfortable when cast in roles much different from one another (Brad Pitt, Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson are few others I can think of now). Kingsley excels in indifference. There is something both pitifully innocent and terrifyingly sinister about his introversive image. His voice is flat, nevertheless brimming with pathos. It is simultaneously befitting of the scene’s intent and appalling to realize that this “Gandhi” turns out to be such a “Hitler” and, more importantly, that this Hitler belongs to the same species as Mohandas Gandhi and Itzhak Stern. (It’s the exact kind of casting decision that von Trier made recently when he bestowed Willem Dafoe with the twin distinction of having played both the Christ and the Antichrist). The result is one of Polanski’s finest and a new direction for Holocaust cinema.

Ratatouille (2007)
Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Pixar is the king of the animation industry in Hollywood. Right from its first full length feature Toy Story (1995), Pixar has almost single-handedly charted out the roadmap for the industry and has inspired hundreds to take up a profession in the field of animation. Its movies have been universally identified as witty, funny, amazingly detailed and ultimate fun. But it is the final sequence of Ratatouille that takes them onto a whole new level.

The scene I’m talking about begins just after the hilarious moment where the notorious food critic Anton Ego is reminded of his mother’s cooking right after he tastes the little chef’s masterpiece – Ratatouille. He walks off from the restaurant and delivers a monologue (narrated by the formidable voice of Peter O’Toole) that may just be Pixar’s best piece of writing ever. Here is the transcript followed by the scene itself.

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

What Anton says about food criticism is so applicable to film criticism and art criticism, in general.  Anton beautifully expresses how critics assume attitudes and turn down lifelong dreams with the scribble of a pen. He learns to acknowledge the effort behind every piece of work – both the inspiring and the insipid – and learns, in his own words, not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. He learns to enjoy first and judge later, be open to novelty and ultimately accept every piece of work as it is. And finally when Linguni asks what Anton would like for dinner, the latter glances at Remy and says “Surprise me”. And that is exactly what critics like Roger Ebert seem to be doing – basking in the sheer joy of cinema.

Goodfellas (1990)
Martin Scorsese

Goodfellas (1990) is one Scorsese film that made it big with both the audience and the critics. Its worm’s eye view of the underworld places it apart from all the films in the genre that still cling to the top level of the hierarchy.

Check this sequence in the film that takes place at a party club called Copacabana. The scene just shows Henry reaching his table with his girlfriend starting from the entrance. Though it’s a scene that is quite light on the minds and introduces us to the vital characters of the plot, the execution of the scene is so solemn and so thought over. The whole scene is captured in a single uninterrupted shot. The camera snakes in and out of thin paths, narrowly avoids collisions and tries to squeeze out into the destination. The way to the table is also too serpentine and access to it seems like a Herculean task, very much like the underworld that the film depicts.

Take a look:

Michael Ballhaus employs the camera like his eyes. Instead of using it as a tool for documentation, he gives it life and makes it an invisible character in the film. He makes it look at events, he makes it empathize and he transfers it onto the viewers. This effect is more pronounced in his earlier collaborations with German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose setups not only imposed physical restrictions on the movement of the camera, but also evoked a sense of claustrophobia that often reflected the characters’ own. The same period gave rise to his characteristic Ballhaus shot (or the 360 degree shot), again, testifying his opinion on the medium.

Though a lot of films off late have used the long snaky shot to gain unwarranted appreciation, none of them gels with the film as effectively as the Copacabana shot.

P.S: Sorry for another Scorsese scene. But what to do, he is one of the best scene composers alive!

The Aviator (2004)
Martin Scorsese

Much has been spoken about Jamie Foxx‘s portrayal of the blind musician Ray Charles in Ray (2004) for which he won the Academy Award that year. But another underrated nominee for the same award was Leonardo DiCaprio‘s performance as the rich and ambitious Howard Hughes whose romance with flight never stopped. The performance, however, won the Golden Globe in the same year.

The film follows a section of the life of Howard Hughes whose ambitions were larger than life and personal life, a mess.. His slow mental disintegration (as a result of his OCD) is made worse owing to his financial losses and accidents. The scene given here is where Hughes’ assistant Odie informs him that it is near impossible to complete his project within the given time and there are a lot of hindrances to it. Just then Hughes notices a floor cleaner staring at him while cleaning the floor with a dry mop. His OCD aggravates and Hughes shifts into a state of mental block. He asks Odie to provide the details of the plan and repeats the same line over and over: “Show me all the blue prints“. Here is the transcript of the conversation:

Howard: Odie. That man sweeping up over there…does he work for me? I mean, have you seen him before?
Odie: Name’s Nick, something like that.
Howard: Why’s he looking at me?
Odie: I don’t know.
Howard: Fire him. And make sure they use damp brooms from now on. Respiratory diseases are expensive, and I don’t want lawsuits.
Odie: But can we at least proceed with the instrument panel? The tool shop’s ready.
Howard: I wanna see the blueprints.
Odie: Look, Howard, the deadline is now completely unrealistic. The war is gonna be over by the time she’s done. I need you to help consult on vital decisions, and you’re off dealing with movies. You got 1000 workers waiting for you to make a decision…
Howard: Hey, Odie! Take it easy, all right. You’re under pressure, but it’s gonna do me no good if you crack up on me. All right? Look…take a couple of hours off, all right. You just relax a little.
Odie: Okay.
Howard: See your wife.
Odie: Okay. All right.
Howard: Be sure to show me all the blueprints.
Odie: All right.
Howard: Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. I’m serious, now. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints.
Odie: Howard.
Howard: Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. I wanna get this done right. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints.
Odie: Howard.
Howard: Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints. Show me all the blueprints…
Howard: Quarantine. Q…U…A…R…A…N…T…I…N…E…Quarantine

The video of the scene is given below. Not much is to be said about the scene which by itself speaks volumes about the capability of DiCaprio as an actor. Announces to Hollywood that Leonardo DiCaprio is here to stay and is going to be an asset to the industry.

Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese

Raging Bull (1980) is my favorite Scorsese for many reasons apart from the extraordinary performance Robert De Niro as the troubled boxer Jake La Motta who was deservedly honoured by the Academy next year. The mutually reinforcing Cinematography (thanks to Michael Chapman) and the spectacular editing by Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker match the intensity of the lead’s performance.

In the final scene of the movie, a slightly overweight Jake La Motta is sitting in his dressing room staring at his mirror (a la Taxi Driver) just before his stand up show (a la The King Of Comedy!). He is smoking a cigar and moves into a monologue:

Jake: Some people aren’t that lucky… like the one Brando played in “On the Waterfront“, a down-and-outer. Remember the scene in the car with his brother Charlie? It went like this. It wasn’t him, Charlie. It was you. Remember that night you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. “We’re going for the price on Wilson”. “This ain’t your night.” My night. I could’ve taken Wilson apart. So what happens? He gets a title shot. I get a one-way ticket to Palookaville. I was no good after that, Charlie. You reach a peak, then it’s downhill. It was you, Charlie. You was my brother. You should’ve looked out for me just a little bit. You should’ve taken care of me… instead of making me take dives for short-end money. You don’t understand. I could’ve had class. I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody instead of a bum. Let’s face it. It was you, Charlie. It was you.
(Enter the event manager)
Manager: How you doin’, champ? Everything OK?
Jake: Yeah.
Manager: Ready?
Jake: Five minutes.
Manager: OK. Need anything?
Jake: No.
Manager: You sure?
Jake: I’m sure. Lot of people out there?
Manager: It’s crowded.
(Exit manager)
Jake: Go get ’em, champ. I’m the boss. I’m the boss. I’m the boss. I’m the boss.

Jake warms up and starts shadow-boxing as he leaves for the stage. THe screen fades to black. The following text from the Bible appears before the credits roll on:

So, for the second time, the Pharisees
summoned the man who had been blind and said:
“Speak the truth before God.
We know this fellow is a sinner.”
“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,”
The man replied.
“All I know is this:
Once I was blind and now I can see.”

– John IX, 24-26
the New English Bible

The video is given here:

Scorsese, being a cinema enthusiast himself, uses a classic scene from the Brando vehicle On The Waterfront (1954) where Terry (Brando) regrets his spoilt career and what he has become to his brother. Jake La Motta, contrite of all his mistakes that have brought sorrow to himself and many around him, quotes those lines verbatim. The scene does not involve verbalization or melodrama as many directors would be tempted to employ. Rather Scorsese simply asks his character to repeat the already famous lines and leaves the rest to the viewer to interpret. La Motta, as suggested by the biblical passage, has “woke up” and goes towards his new life with the same vigour and passion as entering his boxing matches as The Raging Bull.

Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) is hailed as the one of the best American movies ever made. The tale of the single male, his alienation from the ultra urban society and his voluntary involvement in the mires of the underworld definitely has its own share of lovers and haters. This post is about the classic scene from the movie where the protagonist, Travis Bickle talks to himself!

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is fed up by everything that is going on around. He decides to end it all and purchases a few guns. He prepares a setup on his robe so that holstering of the weapon is easier. He stands in front of a mirror and tests the setup. When he is about to finish, he enters a monologue similar to that in Raging Bull (1980).

Travis: You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Then who the hell else are you talking… you talking to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? Oh yeah? OK.

Here is the video:

Scorsese uses the power of the mirror once again to carve out his character. Travis Bickle has always been a loner with his only attempt at love also failing. In this situation, Travis sees his only companion in the mirror – his image. His arrogance is also visible that establishes his hatred and inability to accept a stranger’s company and the “society” in general. The social isolation coupled with the rot of the society eventually leads to his mental disintegration and hence his choice of violence. Interestingly, the whole monologue is rumoured to be an improvisation by De Niro himself.

The Pianist (2002)
Roman Polanski

Hollywood has always had a constant flow of World War movies coming from it. But not more than a dozen stay in memories of the average film goer. Writing off the Clint Eastwood double bill and a few forgettable ones, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) may be considered the last successful World War movie. Adrian Brody’s chilling portrayal of the Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman won him the Oscar in 2002, making him the youngest to do so.

In one of the best scenes in the movie, Wlady meets an old friend who promises to provide him a refuge from the Nazi army. As he leaves for the hideout he watches his friend Dorota play the Cello. Upon reaching the house, his friend’s spouse informs him that no one knows he is here and it is a locality frequented by the Nazis. After the person asks Wlady not to make any kind of noise and leaves, Wlady notices a piano and sits in front of it. He takes his hand towards the keys on the piano and we cut to his face. A music piece is being played. It is only after some seconds we notice that the music is actually playing in his mind and his fingers are just hovering over the keys. He is happy for the few minutes he “plays”.

I have uploaded the video in Youtube for your convenience:

Polanski, who has been in the industry big time, is at home directing the film. Though the scene has not a word spoken, it conveys so much about an artist and the influence of political situation on his work. In contrast to Dorota, who is free from any trouble from the Nazis and is playing her music peacefully, Wlady is under a pressure from the ruling government and is unable to produce his music. This is true of any artist who works within the boundaries of political restrictions. Not all of the artist’s true intent is put forth to the world. Right from the medieval (even before that, in fact) painters (featured in the Tarkovsky classic “Andrei Rublev“) to film makers such as Kieslowski, artists have not been given freedom of expression owing to the clash of ideologies of the creator and the ruler. This scene sums it all up with effortless ease.

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra

The grandmother of all feel-good flicks, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) , may seem very mellow and even stereotype when viewed today, but Frank Capra‘s financial bomb gives the viewer full satisfaction at the end of the movie, every time. George Bailey’s (James Stewart) “Oh, Shucks” and “Gee, Whiz” make him a very lovable character that is a rarity in this generation.

The scene I am writing here is the final one in the film. George Bailey has committed suicide after he has gone bankrupt. His guardian angel resurrects him and shows him how the world would have been if he weren’t there. George is convinced that his life was better and wishes to live again. After he comes back to life carrying all the positives, he returns home to find that all his friends and relatives have put in small amounts of money to save him from his present situation. Yes, it is good wishes everywhere. George is saved.

Though this scene is sugarcoated to the maximum possible extent and perhaps too good to be true, it portrayed something that Hollywood would be repeating for decades to come – The indomitable nature of the human spirit. Aped in every forms possible, this scene reminds you that it’s a wonderful life indeed!

Bowling For Columbine (2002)
Michael Moore

Perhaps Moore’s best work till date, Bowling For Columbine (2002) examines the ever-increasing gun crimes especially among the youth of the United States of America. Though the truth value of the facts stated in the movie are constantly debated there are some scenes that you can’t resist appreciating.

One of them is the part where the movie tries to provide a brief history of America to trace back the gun culture. Playing just over three minutes, the scene is a completely animated sequence with South Park like caricatures being used to describe the progress of events. The narration is rapid and comic with lots of slang and voice modulations. The fast narration is interwoven with these caricatures that, from time to time, utter some weird but funny lines. You can view the scene here:

For those who do not have speakers (such as me), here is the transcript of the scene (Bear with me, its long!)

Once upon a time, there were these people in Europe called pilgrims and they were afraid of being persecuted. So they all got in a boat and sailed to the New World where they wouldn’t have to be scared ever again.
– Oh, I’m so relaxed.
– I feel so much safer.
But as soon as they arrived, they were greeted by savages.
– They got scared all over again.
– Injuns!
So they killed them all. Now, you’d think wiping out a race of people would calm them down, but no. Instead, they started getting frightened of each other.
– Witch!
– So they burned witches.
In 1775, they started killing the British, so they could be free. And it worked. But they still didn’t feel safe. So they passed a 2nd amendment, which said every white man
– could keep his gun.
– I loves my gun, loves my gun.
This brings us to the genius idea of slavery. You see, boys and girls, the white people back then were also afraid of doing any work. So they went to Africa, kidnapped thousands of black people, brought them to America, and forced them to work very hard for no money. And I don’t mean no money like:
-I work at Walmart and make no money.
I mean zero dollars. Nothing, nada, zip. Doing it that way made the USA the richest country in the world. So did having all that money and free help calm the white people down? No way. They got even more afraid. That’s because after 200 years of slavery, the black people now outnumbered the white people in many parts of the South. Well, you can pretty much what came next. The slaves started rebelling. There were uprisings and old masters’ heads got chopped off and when white people heard of this, they were freaking out. They going
– I want to live!
– Don’t kill me, big black man.
Well, just in the nick of time came Samuel Colt, who, in 1836, invented the first weapon ever that could be fired over and over without having to reload. And all the settlers were like:
But it was too late. The North soon won the Civil War and the slaves were free to go chop the old masters’ heads off. Then everybody was like:
-Oh, no, we’re gonna die.
But the freed slaves took no revenge. They just wanted to live in peace. But you couldn’t convince the white people of this.
So they formed the Ku Klux Klan and, in 1871, the same year the Klan became an illegal terrorist organization, another group was founded: the National Rifle Association. Soon, politicians passed one of the first gun laws, making it illegal for any black person to own one. It was a great year for America. he KKK and the NRA. Of course, they had nothing to do with each other; it was a coincidence. One group legally promoted responsible gun ownership; the other shot and lynched black people.
That’s the way it was till 1955, when a black woman broke the law by refusing to move to the back of the bus. White people just couldn’t believe it.
– Huh? Why won’t she move?
– What’s going on?
Man, all hell broke loose. Black people everywhere demanded their rights. White people had a major, freaky-feel meltdown
and they were all like:
-Run away! Run away!
And they did. They all ran fleeing to the suburbs, where it was all white and safe and clean. And they went out and bought a
quarter-of-a-billion guns. And put locks on their doors, alarms in their houses, and gates around the neighbourhoods. And finally, they were all safe and secure and snug as a bug. And everyone lived happily ever after.

Though this is a gross simplification of the truth, it still has the potency to grab your attention. In just 3 minutes, it gives us the outline of how the country has become what it is now. Without being a documentation or making a serious issue out of it, the scene gives a blow by pin-pointing the mistakes of the nation and the consequences, all in the typical Michael Moore style!

Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg

Schindler’s List (1993) is undoubtedly Spielberg‘s most serious film and one of Hollywood’s most fresh films. Spielberg’s portrayal of the German industrialist who traded his wealth for the lives of hundreds of Jews provided the industry a benchmark in almost all aspects of film making. Ralph Fiennes plays the chief of the Nazi camp, Amon Goeth, and Liam Neeson plays the title character.

Oskar is troubled by the atrocities he has witnessed during his stay at the camp. He is not able to come to terms with the mindless killing of the workers at the camp. The scene I going to talk about is my favorite in the movie where Amon Goeth and Oskar Schindler are at the former’s birthday party and sitting on the balcony. Goeth is heavily drunk and points out how sober Oskar is even though he has drunk much. The following conversation ensues.

Oskar: Why do you drink that motor oil? I send you good stuff all the time. Your liver’s going to explode like a hand grenade.
Amon: You know, the more I look at you… I watch you! You’re never drunk. Oh, that’s… that’s real control. Control is power. That’s power.
Oskar: Is that why they fear us?
Amon: We have the fucking power to kill, that’s why they fear us.
Oskar: They fear us because we have the power to kill arbitrarily. A man commits a crime, he should know better. We have him killed, and we feel pretty good about it. Or we kill him ourselves and we feel even better. That’s not power, though. That’s justice. It’s different than power. Power is when we have every justification to kill… and we don’t.
Amon: You think that’s power?
Oskar: That’s what the emperors had. A man stole something… he’s brought in before the emperor… he throws himself down on the ground, he begs for mercy. He knows he’s going to die. And the emperor, pardons him. This worthless man. He lets him go.
Amon: I think you are drunk.
Oskar: That’s power, Amon. That, is power!

The video of this conversation is given here:

The following day, Goeth witnesses one of his servants bumbling and he decides to “pardon” him. Surprised, the boy exits the house. Goeth tries to feel the “power” as mentioned by Oskar only to look stupid. He immediately takes a rifle and shoots the boy to death from the balcony as Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) watches on.

Amon Goeth has returned to his former self.