Archive for January, 2008

(This is the first post of an ongoing series entitled: Cinema Studies. It will consist of in-depth investigations into the minutiae of film, the gears of cinema; middle-level research, if you will)

This first study will look at transitional sequences in two renowned American films: Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974).

The two transitions here are selected for certain similarities:

1. Each begins with a character deep in thought on the precipice of a major decision.
2. Both transitions propel us a significant period of time either forward or backwards.
3. The primary tool used in both sequences is the dissolve: “a gradual [overlapping] transition from one image to another.
4. Each sequence—arguably for this analysis—uses four shots to achieve its transition.

First Days of Heaven.

A brief summary leading up to the transition: Two harvesters, Bill and Abby, are a couple pretending to be brother and sister to the world. In an earlier scene Bill overhears a doctor’s diagnosis that The Farmer, the rich proprietor of the farm they’re working on, has about a year or so to live. That information combined with The Farmer’s infatuation with Abby leads Bill to concoct a scheme of faux love-and-marriage in order to come into his large inheritance.

The sequence we’ll look at is when Abby apprehensively agrees to the swindle transitioning into her wedding.

In the sleeping quarters of the harvesters Bill convinces Abby to execute the scam with a deviously convincing argument, he hates seeing her “stooped over out there”:

Days 1

“I hate it,” he concludes, blowing smoke into the frame—an old silent film trope implying evil (or here avarice).


Ennio Morricone’s meditative score begins as Abby contemplates Bill’s words. Abby gets up and walks out of the room. She literally and metaphorically walks from the dark shabby boarding room (Bill’s influence) into the light (the farmer’s charm), from enclosure (poverty) into openness (prosperity), heading directly towards the farmer’s massive home framed above her.

Note the reflection of the farmer’s estate in the small pond. We see both the literal home that Abby will inhabit and the illusion, Abby’s true inheritance. We begin to hear the sound of birds…



The score quickly diminishes as Malick cuts to a shot of migrating birds flying from left to right. Their squawking overwhelms the soundtrack. The birds reside in the lower two-thirds of the frame but in relation to the previous shot of Abby our immediate perception is that we’re now looking up.

Days Birds

This brief shot of migrating birds then dissolves into a shot of treetops.

Days Birds Dissolve

The squawking diminishes and the sound of rustling trees (which seems exaggerated) takes over. Now we are certainly looking up. We learn this because the camera begins to tilt down.

During this tilt we hear portentous words uttered from a person unseen, ominously foreshadowing the film’s apocalyptic finale.

Days Judgement

As soon as these words are spoken Morricone’s score trickles back (as if on cue).

As tilt finishes we find ourselves at Abby’s wedding. The words have been spoken by the priest.

Days Wedding

Within seconds we’ve transitioned from an unspoken decision to a definitive answer. We’ve also seamlessly moved from late fall into spring; the migrating birds serving as a symbolic bridge between seasons.

Beyond the dissolves what’s vital here is the movement within the frame, our eyeline is in constant movement. Abby walks out into the open; the birds give the impression of looking up moving to the right; we dissolve into the trees and lastly our eyes move down into the wedding. From the ground, up, right, and down back to the ground. Like a patient’s eyes following the doctor’s light Malick moves us fluidly from shot to shot.

A small part of Malick’s brilliance comes from his seemingly effortless and elliptical editing. But on closer examination one finds it a calculated and intricately involved series of images telling a deeper story than may appear on the surface (not to mention the equally exquisite sound work). In many cases the editing is so fluid words like “dreamy” or “intoxicating” become adjectives in which to describe it. But we must not underestimate the arduous efforts required in achieving these masterful qualities.

Next The Godfather Part II.

Brief Summary: Michael Corlene’s life, and that of his family, have been put into harm’s way. A failed assassination attempt has just occurred. Michael has decided to go see Hyman Roth in Miami who he suspects is behind the hit. Before leaving he enters his son’s room to inform him that he’ll be gone for a while. His son asks his he can come but Michael say he cannot.

The sequence of note here is when Michael sits up and the scene dissolves back several decades to his father’s early immigrant experiences in New York.

As Michael leans backs his head takes fills the left of the frame.

Godfather I

Slowly the shot dissolves 41 years into the past:

Godfather 2

Michael’s father, Vito Corleone, is positioned on the right side of the frame. It is important to note the light that shines directly within Michael’s temple. It is as if his past is being illuminated, his familial past, extracted directly from his mind.

Godfather 3

Vito looks to something off screen, down and to the right.

The shot dissolves into a wider shot of Vito’s apartment. We now see Vito’s wife and learn he is looking at his little son Santino (aka Sunny).

Godfather 4

vito and sunny (use me)

This third wider shot connects us thematically to the first. At these two overlapping moments of time each head of the Corleone family looks down upon their firstborn sons. Throughout this sequence a physical light shines in the upper left hand portion of the frame. The final dissolve begins…

Godfather Dissolve

…as it completes we find we are at a theater. The light in the right side of the frame has now transformed into one of the most iconic America symbols, The Statue of Liberty. (This shot can be considered the end of this transitional sequence because the following shot arrives via-a cut)

Godfather Statue of Liberty

At its core The Godfather saga is a story of immigration. The Statue of Liberty serves an important symbol throughout the drama. In terms of chronology the most significent moment of young Vito’s life (besides the murder of his brother and mother) is the sight of the Statue of Liberty as he arrives in America. She’s an expression of hope. He is one of the “huddling masses yearning to breathe free.”

Young Vito

Statue of Liberty

As the years pass the statue takes on a different connotation, one of liberty betrayed. As seen below she hovers above a scene of murder (from Godfather Part I), now small and almost obscure. Again note the statue is positioned in the upper left of the frame.

Statue of Liberty Wheat Field

So as we fall backwards in the history of the Correlones we see fathers looking upon sons, but we are also reminded that this is a story of assimilation. The light in the upper left becomes a symbol of the seminial dreams which will end tragically. The light in Michael’s temple is Lady Liberty.

Both directors, Malick and Coppola, are working with similar tools to achieve different outcomes. Malick glides us forward using movement within the frame while Coppola dissolves backwards in time utilizing static compositions which specificaly placed elements to deepen his overall theme.

These are two examples of the million of ways cinematic transitions can function.

*The transitions studied here can be found here:

Days of Heaven (Criterion Collection) 38:15 – 38:58

The Godfather Part II (Paramount Pictures) 43:16 – 44:09


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