For as long as I can remember, I have been a fan of film. It is only in recent years, however, that I have begun to regard and study it as an art form as well as a source of entertainment.
With this in mind – and as is the case with all of its forms – a piece of art derives its value from the perception of the individual, as exacerbated by the greater cultural mind. In essence, we each have our own opinions on art, while there is also usually a greater social perception of it in conjunction with our own personal view.
Just so with film. I do not claim that any one film is perfect (the definition of perfect relies on the abstract), but over the years there have been certain moments or scenes in films that have had a profound impact on me both emotionally and intellectually. In these scenes, all of the individual aspects of the medium (visuals, score, theme etc.) came together to form a greater whole. I will briefly explore three of these now.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – Promentory
To my shame, I only saw this classic for the first time last year. While I thought it was a well-made film, I was not as blown away as I had expected to me, after hearing its praises sung over the years. However, my experience watching it was completely turned on its head as the conclusion played before my eyes. After rewatching and reflecting on this scene countless times since I first saw it, I think that it could be my favourite scene (in context – not standalone) in any film. Music plays such a huge part in filmmaking, and I think it is most easily apparent here. The score dominates the scene, and not intrusively.
The music directly reflects what is happening on screen. It is introduced upon the death of Heyward, and signifies the beginning of the film’s denouement. From then on, it cycles onwards, reflecting the seemingly endless chase up the promentory. Apart from some cries of anguish and a brief “Uncas!” from Hawkeye, the scene is entirely without dialogue, yet it is still the most attention-seizing part of the film. Upon noticing this, I concluded that this is exactly what film should be, and what individualises it as a medium. The manner in which the visuals, score, tension, and premise all acquiesce happens in such a way that is exclusive to the visual medium.
Star Wars Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) – Luke vs. Vader
While I prefer the duel in The Empire Strikes Back as a piece of storytelling and visual spectacle, I think this duel barely beats it simply because it so perfectly ties up the arcs of both Luke and Vader.
There is incredible visual storytelling going on here in Jedi through the characters’ actions that is sadly lacking in the overly-choreographed and instantly-gratifying duels of the prequels. Technically, this particular duel is an evolution of the one between the same characters in Empire.
Back then, Vader was merely toying with Luke and could have killed him at any moment. The fight began with Luke being hugely overconfident, and Vader brushing him aside while wielding his saber one-handed. After displaying the sheer power of the dark side and besting Luke both physically and spiritually, Vader offers him a place at his side. Luke, overconfident once more, attacks Vader again. He manages to get a lucky strike in, whereupon Vader immediately disarms and maims him. All of this is seen through the actions of both characters – there is no one explaining this to us in words.
In Jedi, Luke falls into the Emperor’s trap, just as he did into Vader’s in Empire. Both Vader and the Emperor constantly mock the stronger Luke in an attempt to force him to lash out and give in to his aggressiveness, thus shunting him towards the dark side. Luke resists everything, up until Vader threatens to turn Leia instead. Giving the Emperor exactly what he wants, Luke lashes out at Vader, overcommitting every one of his swings like a wild animal. He forces his father back as John William’s score haunts the scene, eventually battering Vader into submission and maiming him in a poetic mirroring of the conclusion of the Empire duel. It is only now that Luke realises he has ultimately lost, and it is only due to Vader’s last minute sacrifice that the good side eventually prevails. He may have lost his war against the Emperor, but he won his batlle against Vader, and that was enough to tip the scales. Again, all of this is told to us not through a character popping in to explain it, but through what we can pick up from how the scene plays out in front of us.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – Ride of the Rohirrim
I originally had this choice as Aragorn’s speech and his subsequent “For Frodo” moment, but due to a strong gut reaction, I changed it. While Aragorn’s speech may be more eloquent, heroic, and worthy of the ultimate end of this stunning quest, Théoden’s speech and the Ride of the Rohirrim stands out to me more for a very simple reason.
Théoden sees the hopelessness and death that awaits him and his people. He sees it and fully accepts that he is about to meet his end. However, after a brief hesitant moment, he becomes more kingly than he ever was, and embraces the fate before him. In perhaps the most spine-chilling scene in a film full of spine-chilling scenes, Théoden inspires his loyal subjects to go out screaming and fighting. They know that their deaths will not be remembered; there will be no one left to record and sing of their sacrifice. Even so, they charge.
Bernard Hill nails this scene, and I believe it is one of the most finely acted pieces in the trilogy. In part, it is this resolution of his incredible character arc that makes him my favourite secondary character in the series. The framing, lighting, acting, tone, and scoring all come together so well in this scene that it still has the same effect on me every time I see it. There’s something so humanly raw and moving about seeing these 6,000 riders repeatedly screaming “DEATH!” before charging headlong into hell.
It’s quite interesting to note that all three of my selections are the conclusions of the respective arcs of their central characters. I have a particular soft spot for music and scoring in film, and a technically average scene with above-average scoring will usually elevate the whole thing for me. While the three above examples all have incredible scoring, the more technical aspects are also of a high quality.
Finally, to directly address the title: no, I do not think there is such a thing as cinematic perfection. If there was, where could film possibly go from there? The very fact that I appreciate all three of these very different scenes for very different reasons suggests that there is not a single uniform “perfection”. However, even if cinematic perfection doesn’t exist, the catharsis evoked by these three brings them damn close.