For one reason or another (that’s gotta include false consciousness, always evading copyright law through fair use claims that never really get tested), so-called “video essays” have become as ubiquitous as Kickstarter campaigns, just the past few months especially. It might calm down, but cream always floats to the top, and we find occasional gems worth highlighting. This fine work, by Jacob T. Swinney, is less didactic, and more a study in narrative structure than visual composition as you would think. There are numerous fruits from an exercise like this, and I can’t resist rattling off a few:
- By seeing opening frames lined up with closing frames, the rubber hits the road in terms of narrative structure. How you start and end a film has the effect of compressing down gigantic gestures of style and information that fill the running time in-between. Within those few frames, if the bookends communicate irony, everything changes. If the bookends communicate fulfilled foreshadowing, we’ve gone cosmic. If the bookends have nothing to do with each other, because they don’t care, we’ve gone punk rock. And so on. What about the other 95% of the film? Incredibly, it falls away.
- What if the color saturation/grading/look is very different, between the beginning and end? That tells you something about the narrative function of color, which intimately communicates mood and dramatic tenor.
- You may notice: usually the beginning and end match in terms of focal length. No wide shots met with close-ups. What’s up with that?
- Although Swinney blanches the sound environment with a pad of twinkling musical underscore (ahem), to the arguable benefit of consistent meditation across all the visual samples, a film could start loudly and end quietly, or vice-versa. Either of those structural decisions casts a huge shadow on the rest of the film. Absent from these samples, to my mind, Apocalypse Now epitomizes it: at the beginning, remember those helicopters flying past in silence, with massive firebombs going off that you can’t even hear? Is the silence at the end of Coppola’s masterpiece any different, at the heart of darkness?
- If there’s a common thread between these samples, it’s that directors like to begin and end with the same thing. At risk of hedging into cheap spiritualism, we could agree that cinema is ultimately a medium for accessing philosophical insights about the cyclical nature of things. We begin and end the same, even if storytelling fills us up with narrative details.