Perfect scene examples #1
The opening of Men in Black
Yeah yeah, “perfect” scenes or perfect moments in movies/shows is obviously a matter of opinion so let me say my piece here. Now a scene might be perfect to you or perfect in that film theory sense because the dialogue is just amazing (Network), or the shots are just expertly crafted (Barry Lyndon), or the dramatic intensity is through the roof (Patton)…or hell, all of the above (Inglourious Basterds). And sure, there are lots of scenes in movies like that that I really like. But they’re not always the ones the ones that stick in my brain. A lot of the time what I appreciate in a good scene is escalation. For instance when things start to pile on top of each other and it gets more relentless for the character/s or, in today’s case, the escalation of information to the audience.
In the opening of “Men in Black” we the audience get pretty much the entirety of the world of the story all in one scene but the info is parceled out to us like a babushka doll. We’re presented with a thing, then a new layer of that thing is revealed, and so on until we learn everything that’s going on. No clunky dialogue to explain the exposition either, which is especially nice.
Now I’ll actually dissect the scene but I’m also tagging on the opening credits sequence even though it would usually count as a separate scene. Just because it’s a small thing that leads us into the main scene.
The credits start and we open on a night sky. We see some bugs flying by before AHHH, an alien face! Oh no, wait…it’s a close up of a dragonfly. Huh. When you really look at it something as normal as that it looks really out of this world. (See what they did there?)
Then the credits wind down as the bug SPLATS against the windscreen of a truck and is just disregarded as nothing. We see that the truck is illegally transporting Mexican migrants across the border. Illegal aliens. (See what else they did there??)
A few INS officers stop the truck and ask the migrants to hop out to be processed before a pitch black oldsmobile looking thing pulls up and out steps Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K character. So here we have a main character and in his intimidating car and intimidating suit we know he’s got sway. He says he and his partner are just higher ranking immigration officers but he’s clearly lying and when he takes control of the situation and the legit INS guy tries to intervene Agent K gives him a quick but stern retort to shut him the hell up. So here we know that whoever K and his partner are working for, they are something beyond whatever a border patrol person has been trained for. We as the audience know now these guys are a big deal.
Agent K greets the migrants in Spanish when he gets to one with a dead stare who can’t speak any Spanish and K mocks him for it. From the way the characters talk about him, this is why K came here. They weren’t after the Mexicans at all, they wanted this one weird yet unassuming man. The weird tone is growing but we still don’t have all the pieces.
K and his elderly partner take the weird faux-Mexican away from the rest of the group and K reveals the man to be an alien in disguise. Now to us this is the big “drop” of the scene. Aliens. Real outer space aliens. That’s what we’re dealing with. But K’s reaction…
Oh. So these guys know him?! Like, on a first name basis? They even speak his alien language. That followed by the political chatter they engage in let’s us now know that these guys deal with aliens on a regular basis and this is their job.We went from normality to weirdness and then a bizarre return to normality. Just…not our idea of normal.
Then comes the bit that always scared me as a little kid. The INS officer sneaks up on the conversation and sees Mikey and Mikey sees him. Mikey goes berzerk and runs down the officer before K pulls out an alien gun and vaporises Mikey into goo. So we know that aliens can be extremely dangerous.
And finally we cap off the weirdness with the last of the important gadgets Men in Black introduces to us when K wipes the memories of the INS guys with the neuralyser device. The director Barry Sonnenfeld introduces one key theme of all the Men in Black movies in the shot of the INS guys staring blankly at K after they’ve had their memories erased. The standard civilian is just dumb cattle chewing their cud, oblivious to what’s really going on in the world.
So to break the scene down in mini beats, not counting the dragonfly prologue…
— A normal and kind of glum look at smuggling illegal immigrants.
— An authority figure is introduced. A douche who goes on a bit of a power trip.
— A couple of men in black are introduced. They’re the REAL figures of the authority here and immediately undermine the ones we were just introduced to previously.
— Agent K delivers his ominous line “You have no idea who you’re dealing with” and it works as a message to the audience. We don’t, but we will.
— What we thought was another migrant trying to enter the States is some weirder individual but we don’t know what yet.
— Alien reveal.
— No strong reaction to alien reveal offsets our reaction. We’re forced to catch up to the protagonist here. It engages and challenges us.
— The monster moment along with the shot of the alien charging to camera sells aliens as scary. Even though he was introduced as quite meek. Because the movie’s showing that we’re going to encounter a bit of both in this story.
— Agent K is unflappable as he kills Mikey but he tried to talk his way out of it first.
— Agent K looks down on humanity as he erases the INS guys’ memories.
So yeah, just my two cents on what I view as a perfectly crafted scene in terms of world building. We have to take it all in but by doing it one bit at a time we’re not overwhelmed in an unsatisfying manner. We’re along for the ride even though we’re not sure what’s going on. And the movie keeps up that feel for most of its run. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it as a fun ride. If you have, I hope I’ve helped to make you appreciate the movie a bit more.