Crescendo Analysis: Film

The purpose of this page is to show how filmmakers create narrative and tension by crescendoing from the small to the large.  Like "plot" Crescendo Analysis often creates a causal logic between the specific and the broad.

Brubaker (1980)

Brubaker provides a classic example of Crescendo Analysis in the closing sequence of the film.  We have all seen this sequence in any number of films—the long zoom out.  But we rarely question the meaning of it.  Brubaker is about a man (Robert Redford) who attempts to transform a corrupt prison.  When we look at the closing sequence, we can ask ourselves how the film might be different if the last shot was of Brubaker’s face in the car.  The ending would have a vastly different feel to it.  Therefore, the zoom out to a master shot of the landscape in which this prison sits makes us question whether or not this film is about a man or about place, about him, or about us.  It provokes the viewer so that his or her attention moves outward to the real world, rather than inward to the artifice of the narrative that is now ending.




Inception (2010)

The below sequence is from the trailer not the film, but if provides us with an interesting example of how the small world of the narrative presented in the story can compare to the big world in which that narrative takes place.  Here we move from the character's face (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the bathtub, to his back, to the city, to a zoom out with the title of the film arranged in the buildings.  Why?  The effect is similar to that in Brubaker, where we are left with a different "scope" at the end of the trailer.  It's as though the trailer is telling us: "This is happening in your city."  We may not be able to identify with the character in the bathtub--it's a nice image; what does it mean?--but we can identify with that urban landscape.  The end of the trailer is transporting us out of the film, taking us away from the details, questions, and mysteries in order to draw us back.  We want to go "back down" or "back into" the narrative.  Here, the editors of the trailer are using Crescendo Analysis to convince you to cough up ten bucks for a movie ticket.



American Beauty (1999)

I've chosen both the opening and the closing sequence to show how this film demonstrates both a "decrescendo" and a "crescendo."  In the opening sequence, we start with a very detailed scene, shot on home video by one of the characters.  However, we then zoom out to the town after the title in order to zoom back into the main character, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey).  In the end sequence that zoom is reversed as we crescendo out from the montage of images to that same master shot of the town.  This is a classic example of using crescendo analysis to identify with the viewer, a viewer who may be very likely to like in a similar suburban, American setting, a viewer with an "ordinary" life, who, like Lester Burnham, fails to see and appreciate the beauty in his life until after he's dead, revealing that the "American Beauty" of the title is not Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), but this ordinary, American life.


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