Film Scene Analysis
I chose a 2min 30 second clip from the 1998 film A Civil Action. This is a film that I have used in class to teach about civil law and inspire classroom discussion about the legal responsibilities of corporations. This is the second scene in the film, we have just scene our main character (Jan Schlichtmann a personal injury lawyer, played by John Travolta) push his client towards a court room while explaining how the legal system places monetary value on lost or disabled human lives due to civil torts.
Introduction the injured plaintiff: We start the scene with a close-up shot of a member of the plaintiff's legal team, the lawyer is sitting with his elbow on the table and chin on his fingers in a somber, contemplating stance, we can make out the background but it is a bit blurry, forcing the audience to focus on the lawyer. We are quickly interrupted from this scene as the blurry courtroom door in the background opens, the lawyer and all background people turn to look at the sound of the opening door. The camera uses a zoom shot back from the lawyer mixing him into with the blurry background and focuses on the man in a wheel chair. He is obviously paralyzed to an extreme level; there is a seatbelt around his chest keeping him in the chair. His face has an unnatural set as if he has lack of control in some face muscles and his hands are positioned awkwardly in his lap, he is a white middle aged male. It is obvious that the audience is suppose to feel bad for this man. Background music is not used in this part of the scene; the natural murmurings and feet scraping sounds of the courtroom are all the background noise we need to feel the intensity and concern in the trial.
Wheeling in the plaintiff: Next we see a quick medium shot of the defense lawyers looking back toward the door and the plaintiff. The three lawyers portray concern and a hint of anxiety. We then jump to a long shot of the courtroom. The plaintiff is being pushed down the isle by Jan. Two members Jan's legal team stand up and move to the gate that separate trail members from the audience, they open the gate as the client's chair approaches. This scenario is included by the director (and by the plaintiff's lawyers) to show how the client has lost his independence and will always need assistance in the mundane tasks of everyday life.
We then jump again to a close-up shot of a jury member; we know she is a juror because she has a name tag on her chest that reads JUROR. This is not a realistic nametag and I believe it is in this film to establish the characters roles without spending too much film time. The woman has a down casted appearance and a sad overall demeanor. The blurry wheel chair and lawyer passes between the camera and the close up of the juror and we hear the gate squeak and as he reaches the plaintiff table (happening off scene, but know to the audience due to the gate's sound) the Juror glances down. We jump to a close-up shot of the plaintiff's feet propped on the foot braces of the wheelchair, one of his shoes is tied while the other lace hangs untied over the edge of the foot brace. Another reminder of the victims lost ability to perform everyday tasks. We hear the creak of the wheelchair as it is positioned in the courtroom. We are left to assume the woman saw the untied shoe and deepened her pity for the man. This part of the scene shows that not only should the viewing audience feel sympathetic towards the victim, but the jury that will be hearing the case (and is suppose to be un-basis) may feel pity as well.
Making sure the plaintiff is comfortable: We then see another medium shot of the three defense lawyers, the two assistant lawyers are discussing something we cannot hear in hushed tones, as the lead lawyer turns to join the discussion he glances at the jury, and does a double take and makes an alarmed face at what he sees. We jump to a long shot of nine jury members, most making concerned faces, a few with passive faces as they look at the injured man. We then see a close-up shot of the plaintiff and Jan, Jan asks if the plaintiff is comfortable, the plaintiff says up, referring to his headrest. Jan slides the headrest up, we hear the harsh clicking sounds as it snaps into place and see the client's head bounce at each level the head rest skips. We are once again reminded of the lost of independence this man has suffered.
This scene is unique in the way it is not only trying evoke emotion in the viewing audience, the lawyers are also putting on a show for the jury audience, their focus is to try to get the jury to feel sympathetic towards the plaintiff. And as the next shot shows it is working...we see close-up shot of a different woman in the jury with an expression of pity. We jump back to the client, and use a pan shot starting at his mid-section, showing crippled hands and panning up to his face. Jan is leaning over him in a care-taker manner and asks if he is comfortable. The plaintiff in struggling manner says button, Jan asks "open?" and the plaintiff replies "open" in the same slurred speech. Using this elementary style of communication, emphasizes the changes this man must have experienced. We are to assume he was a normal functioning walking and communicating man prior to what-ever accident put him in the chair. We then see Jan unbutton the clients shirt while the client looks up at him in a very innocent and helpless way.
We see a close-up shot of a man on the jury that makes an uncomfortable face, as if he feels bad and does not want to stare. We then jump to a close-up shot of the lead defense lawyer to see his growing concern at the jury's reaction to the plaintiff. We move to a close-up shot of his hands that are holding a yellow post-it note pad and a pen, he starts writing, we move back to a close-up shot of Jan as he is finishing fixing his client's shirt, he looks towards the defense. A close-up shot of the yellow note pad reads "1.2 M FINAL" the lawyer underlines "final" for emphasis. In a medium shot, Jan shakes his head "no" and turns to the judge and starts to take his seat. We see a medium shot of the three defense lawyers with disappointed and discussed faces.
The audience is starting to see that this is a game between the two lawyers and that we are suppose to be on the side of the plaintiff and we want lots of money, the audience is left with the question "What is the right price?"
Enter the Judge: We hear the bailiff ask the room to rise and in a long shot we see the plaintiff's lawyer team rise as well as the audience in the background, the low angle shot shows the plaintiff still sitting in his chair. The director is really emphasizing the plaintiff's crippled status.
In a long shot we see the backs of two jury members and as they sit the rest of the room sits revealing Jan still standing and we hear him offer a glass of water to his client. The client nods, and we see a close-up shot of Jan smiling at the client as if he was a child. Jan pours the glass of water and we switch to a close-up shot of the defense lawyer. He looks miserable, we are suppose to feel the impossibility of the defense winning the case. At this point we start to have a little anxiety as we wonder how the lawyers will make their arguments and how the jury could possibly rule against this man that is struggling so much.
We see another juror member with a pity expression and hear the judge direct the lawyers to identify themselves. In a medium shot the defense lawyer distractedly says his name and who he represents while he scribbles on his note pad and puts it up revealing he has increased his offer to 1.5M and again stating it is FINAL, Jan again shakes his head. This play between the lawyers is done from the exact same camera angles both times emphasizing the system of the competition. In a medium shot Jan takes out a hanky and wipes off his clients mouth after he gave him a drink of water and sits down.
Reaching a settlement: We hear the judge ask Jan for his opening statement. We expect Jan to stand and start his speech but he just sits stares forward. In the background we hear a small whimpering sound. In a close-up shot we see the defense lawyer lean forward to see the first member of the jury the audience was introduced to crying in sympathy for the injured man. Jan confidently looks over at the defense lawyer who looks terrified and begins to write on his note pad again. In the same camera angle as before he reveals 2M and this time it says PLEASE. Jan gives a slight nod and for the first time we start to hear background music. It is in an aggressive up-beat tone that starts slow and builds for the rest of the scene.
In a medium shot the defense lawyer stands and announces that the lawyers have agreed to a settlement. We see a long shot of the courtroom, and as the music builds a medium shot the plaintiff, Jan and an assistant lawyer. Jan looks at the assistant lawyers and they smile in a sly way that tells the audience they were planning play on the sympathies of the jury the whole time. The audience is left with a strong feeling of victory and success and they immediately are intrigued by the hard-ball lawyer tactics. It also brings into question the lawyers motive in the case. If they were really init for the client wouldn't they look to him first instead of each other.
At no point does the viewing audience find out what happened to the man that put him in the chair. We are left to assume the person or company that caused the damages is guilty and if the case would have gone to trial they may have had to pay steeper damages. The frequent use of close-up shots helps the audience connect with the emotions of the characters. The lighting technique used is a mix of low-key and high-key that paints the courtroom as a dull place but helps force the audience to accept the scenario is real. I think the best part of this scene is the sound techniques used. Save the last 10 seconds, the only sound is the actual sounds of the actions of the people in the room and dialogue; it sets the scene to be serious and somber. If they would have included any background music it likely would have seemed to disrespect the plaintiff and it allowed for a very powerful statement to be made at the end of the scene as the victory was won.
Using Film In My Classroom
After reading chapter 3 about film techniques, I was blown away by the intricacies that exist in film. I have been watching movies wrong my whole life, I am going to start seeing the intent of a directors use of camera, light and sound. As I read I was a bit disappointed because I do not have the technology at my disposal for my students to make and edit film as discussed in the chapter. I also kept thinking, "this does not apply to my curriculum," but as I continued to read I kept stumbling on Dr. Beach's use of "meaning" in film and I realized the interpretation of film and all of its elements can be incorporated into the social studies curriculum. I plan to not create a unit of media studies but teach it as a companion skill in multiple units, just like map reading and primary document analysis.
As I was being trained in my discipline of Social Studies education, we were regularly told to stay away from film, as it was a waste of time and only for lazy teachers. Despite this training, I use the PBS website frontline in class often to show recent documentaries about issues from all over the world. These documentaries are anywhere from 5 to 30 mins and generally show a side of society that we did not know a lot about. After reading Dr. Beach's thoughts about the importance of shot sequencing, I started to think about the biases that I generally discuss with my class after viewing these documentaries. I also was trying to come up with a way for my students to create film.
With these three elements combined I came up with a plan to have students first watch a shorter documentary (under 10 mins) and then discuss what it was about, next we will discuss what was missing and what biases were involved in the film. After the figure out what viewpoints were missing I will have them add scenes that express those viewpoints. I could next have them from groups and create a storyboard that lays out the new equal point of view documentary.
I think this would be a valuable tool to do near the beginning of the course, that way we could rely back on the activity when we watched future film and the students would have experience analysis, viewpoint and critiquing biases.
Shot-By- Shot Commercial
Volkswagen Commercial: Routan Around the Block
Shot I: Pan shot through the van.
This shot is used to introduce the van and show the three boys and their father getting ready to go somewhere. Some interesting features of the van are subtly highlighted such as the in-ceiling monitors and the push button sliding door. Each of the characters are also putting on their seatbelts, symbolically showing the companies commitment to safety.
Shot II: Tracking shot of van leaving driveway.
We see the van from the outside for the first time; it is shiny and new looking. We see them pass a unique mail-box shaped like a fish. High-key lighting and an upbeat tune starts to impress upon the audience that this is a happy trip, although we still do not know where they are going. The tune continues the rest of the commercial.
Shot III: Point-of-view shot of neighborhood.
The audience is next put into the van as if we were one of the boys riding in the van, we see the mail-man punch a man watering his yard and says "blue-one." The youngest boy smiles and gets excited and looks back at his family. This is used to establish the new game VW has introduced, they not only want people to "slug-a-bug" but now every VW that is on the road gives you rights to punch your companions while stating the color of the car.
Shot IV: Wide-Angel Lens shot from inside a house we see the van driving by the house and a pregnant woman punching her female realtor and says "blue-one.".
This is used to that the game (and VW) can be played with everyone not just two men but also women and even women that are pregnant (remember the commercial is for a van and vans are for people that have families)
Shot V: Tracking shot of van driving through neighborhood.
Again showing us the van and its exterior, this is VW first van so they want the audience to see the style. We are also still curious where this trip is taking us.
Shot VI: Long shot of girls running a lemonade stand and punch an old man that is presumably their customer because he is drinking lemonade as he gets punched, the girl says "blue-one." The van is seen driving on the street in the background.
They uses this shot to again show that everyone young and old can enjoy the new Volkswagen.
Shot VII: Medium shot of boys in van smiling.
The audience is suppose to see how fun it is to ride in a VW and see people playing the "punching game"
Shot VIII: Tracking shot of van driving past a blow up bouncy with 5 kids inside punching each other and saying "blue-one."
This scene is again used to show the fun of the game and the family friendly approach to the new VW van.
Shot IX: Tracking shot of van pulling into a driveway with the same fish mail-box.
We found out that the family was only driving around the block and their destination was not an important factor in the trip.
Shot X: Medium shot of three boys with big smiles that ask "Can we do it again?"
We are suppose to see the family connection that the VW brings and the fun you can have with your kids in the new VW van.
Shot XI: Medium shot of father smiling lovingly at his boys and saying sure to driving around the bock again.
The shot includes the in-dash GPS system and solidifies the idea that this van is for people that are committed to family fun and need a bigger car to hold the kids.
Shot XII: Animation Frame showing and narrating the price of the new van and showing the logo of VW. It ends with the narrator saying "It's a whole new Volkswagen and a whole new game." Encouraging people to play the new game and buy a new VW van.