For those of you who know me (which I assume is all six of you since you’re reading from the inception of this weblogging endeavor), the obvious pick for me to begin writing about my favorite movies would be Star Wars. But it’s so obvious that I’m going to have to hold off on it for a few posts to get warmed up.
So instead, let’s go to 1994 – which, astounding to me, is now seventeen years ago.
- Pulp Fiction
- Forrest Gump
- Ed Wood
- Hoop Dreams (started its run in 1993 I believe)
- The Lion King
- Quiz Show
- Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway
- Interview with the Vampire
- Leon (also known as The Professional, featuring a pubescent Natalie Portman)
- Natural Born Killers
- Wong Kar-Wai’s kinetic Chungking Express
And lesser greats including-
- The Madness of King George
- The Hudsucker Proxy
- Legends of the Fall
- Clear and Present Danger
- True Lies
- Four Weddings and a Funeral
- Ang Lee’s awesomely entitled Eat Drink Man Woman
- 1994 was all Jim Carrey, all the time: Dumb & Dumber AND Ace Ventura: Pet Detective AND The Mask
- The Crow (where Brandon Lee plays, posthumously, a character who is posthumous)
The above lists can only be followed by this: !!! That’s right – three exclamation points. (Several of the above movies will be written about in the future…)
It was also the year of the legendary Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s White followed by Red, ending his renowned “Three Colors” Triology. I assume this is a great trilogy, since I was required to watch all of them before starting at the American Film Institute. I am ashamed (proud?) to say I have seen zero of them and made it through 2-plus years of film snobbery. (Kieslowski’s work remains on my ever growing to-see list, especially The Dekalog.)
But the one film I didn’t include in the above 1994 list (!!!) is the one I’m going to talk about – The Shawshank Redemption (written and directed by Frank Darabont based on the Stephen King novella).
In 1994, I began my senior year of high school and started to spread my movie-viewing wings. My parents had a long-standing and quite firm policy of not allowing me to watch R-rated films until I was 17. Which meant I only saw R-rated movies at my friends’ homes – and usually consisted of the high brow cinematic antics of Booger Presley in Revenge of the Nerds or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early pre-governor one-word-title art house fare including Commando and Predator.
So in 1994, with drivers license in hand, the occasional use of my parents’ car, and no movie-viewing-age restrictions tying me down, the film floodgates opened – so much so that I saw Pulp Fiction at the dollar theater seven times. And so began my long ascent (descent?) into the a life as a filmmaker. It was a good year to start, as you can see.
The Shawshank Redemption may seem like a trite mainstream choice to begin with for a film school elitist snob. After all, it’s on TNT like every other Saturday or something. I just caught it for a few minutes the other day. Holy s***[*edited for TV*], was it hard to watch with commercial interruptions.
But take yourself back to the first time you saw the film, before you knew what happened, before you knew of a place called “Zihuatanejo” or the name Andy Dufresne. Before Morgan Freeman was lampooned for narrating one too many movies.
It’s hard for me to actually remember when I saw it the first time because of TNT and all, but it was definitely during the film’s opening run in the theater in 1994. I remember seeing it in 2004 in Los Angeles at the great Arclight Theater in Hollywood for its ten-year anniversary re-release. I was at the Arclight for a screening of AFI thesis films, and afterwards snuck out of the reception to see The Shawshank Redemption. I hurried down and asked, “are there seats left for Shawshank or is it sold out?”
The guy at the ticket counter seemed confused at the question, and only when I got into the theater did I realize why – the theater was almost empty. Man, f***[*edited for TV*] TNT network!
But don’t blame its cultural pervasiveness against the movie itself. It is truly a masterful piece of cinema that brings together taught storytelling, elegiac cinematography, and a classic score that ties everything together. The film is textbook filmmaking. (And – because these things matter somehow – it is No. 1 all time on the IMDb user ratings list.)
The narrative device, first of all, has always reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Red (Morgan Freeman) is the narrator but is not really the main protagonist – that’s Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins). In Gatsby, Nick Carraway tells the story of Jay Gatz. As far as my college English-major recollections go, this was a novel (pun intended) narrative device for a work of fiction at the time. It’s not totally unusual for a narrative film to have this structure, but it is less common than the first-person standard way films are told. At AFI, my graduate school, they beat it (literally?) into us – “whose story is it? Whose story is it?!” (And then the beatings. The beatings…)
In Shawshank, it’s Andy’s story, but it’s also Red’s – just as it is Nick’s and The Great Gatsby’s. And in the beginning, the movie seems like it’s going to be a more conventional style. The opening credit sequence intercuts the courtroom with Andy on the stand, the night of his wife’s murder, and the verdict. It’s incredibly efficient – it covers the crime, the conviction, the possibly wronged defendant (Andy) and ends with the judge’s gavel and a cut to black.
But then! It goes to a different character who starts narrating! After a long dolly shot in from medium close up to Red’s face ending with a “Rejected” stamp after his parole hearing, he begins his voiceover: “There must be a con like me in every prison in America.” Everything from here on continues with Red and everything is from his point of view. We never learn anything that Andy is doing to steadily, quietly escape until the very end – because it’s Red who tells us and he knows barely more than we do. When Andy escapes and there’s that incredible shot looking up at the Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), and the camera recedes down the shaft revealing the tunnel and the warden’s face getting smaller – we learn about Andy’s escape the same time Red does.
Back to that opening scene in the prison, though – it’s is one of the many scenes that give me goosebumps when I see it. After Red says, “So when Andy Dufresne came to me in 1949 and asked me to smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I told him no problem” the camera flies over Shawshank in a super wide aerial shot that swings over the prison as the inmates flood out into the yard while the prison bus arrives into the gate.
The shot accomplishes a few major things. First, and most basic, it gives us a layout of the place. This is a massive fortress, the world we’re going to live in for the next two hours. And second, as an extension to that, the shot gives a contrast to Red’s boast that he’s going to bring Rita Hayworth into this place – how will that even be possible? It’s as if the film visuals are throwing down the challenge to a stated goal by our main character.
And third, the music played over the shot creates the feeling of an elegant, graceful film. This isn’t the gritty Cool Hand Luke or Orson Wells’s version of The Trial – this will be visual poetry. And it is.
EVERY LAST MAN FELT FREE
There is one moment early on where this second person narrator slips to a first person, and that’s when Andy enters the prison for the first time. There’s this textbook point-of-view shot that illustrates what our character is up against. Andy is entering, shackled, and he looks up. We then cut to his point of view, what he’s seeing, as he looks up and the overbearing, imposing, impenetrable stone walls of Shawshank Prison loom over him. It’s a tilting up and dollying forward shot, so the feeling is of the building rising up and over us, enveloping us completely.
It’s something you may not have noticed explicitly, yet it’s a filmmaker’s dream to have a shot that good in a film. It says so much, may never be remembered as being anything spectacular, but in the language of cinema, a shot like that speaks volumes on a subtle level. The viewer can feel its effect without really knowing it.
There are a handful of these incredible shots in Shawshank, so I’ll only mention a couple otherwise this will go on forever. The scene where Andy locks himself into the office and broadcasts a Mozart aria over the entire prison yard is another one that the emotion of the scene perfectly matches the shot selection and execution. The music soars (as Red’s voiceover says), and so does the camera – a very wide shot that rises up from the ground as the people stand in place, listening and looking somewhere. The camera continues to move until it reveals, in the foreground, a speaker playing the music, cut together then with close-ups of people’s faces just listening, not moving at all. The grounds, lined with prisoners standing to listen, is a shot that’s part otherworldly, part magical, and incredibly beautiful. It feels as if it’s lifted above the timeline and reality of the film. Here’s the line, in the best screenplay format WordPress can do:
I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away…and for the briefest of moments – every last man at Shawshank felt free.
(Please excuse the Korean subtitles if you are, like me, unable to read them.) Which is one theme that’s explored throughout the film – how do you feel human in a place meant to strip you of humanity? (Red: “They send you away for life, and that’s exactly what they take.”)
Early in the film, Andy and Red are tarring the license plate factory roof. Andy overhears guard Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) complain about some inheritance tax problems. Andy walks over and the guards draw their guns, and Andy asks – “Mr. Hadley, do you trust your wife?” Now, knowing that Andy was put in jail for the murder of his wife makes this even more tense and unusual – but what launches it into dangerous territory is that he’s nearly thrown over the roof because of it. There’s a high angle shot overhead looking down at the ground below that then moves down, changes to a profile shot of the two of them, and then swings around them as Andy explains a tax loophole that will allow Hadley to keep his money.
Andy asks for payment: beers for him and his “co-workers.” Andy: I think a man working outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds. That’s only my opinion. Sir.”
And that’s how it came to pass, that on the second-to-last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate factory roof in the spring of ’49 wound up sitting in a row at ten o’clock in the morning, drinking icy cold Bohemia style beer courtesy of the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State Prison. We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders, and felt like free men. We could’a been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the Lords of all Creation.
By recognizing Hadley’s humanity, Andy was able to get Hadley to recognize the prisoners’. The scenes are almost too perfect to bear – first the camerawork and editing while they’re tarring the roof. Then the sun-bathed drinking their beers in near silhouette on the roof. Heartachingly beautiful stuff.
Okay, I’ve done it – I didn’t quickly list the shots and sequences I love. I went into extreme detail. I’ll try to wrap this up, but one more thing I want to talk about…
One thing that makes the film really click as a work of art is it’s symmetry. Symmetry, when used poorly, can feel too controlled, too stifling or paint-by-numbers. When used well, when used to emphasize the repetitiveness of prison and to establish a pattern – only to change it ever so slightly at the end – is incredibly satisfying.
Take, for example, the three scenes of Red before the parole board. Each time, it’s a long slow dolly into to his face, starting from a medium-wide shot to a close-up of his face at the end of his speech. Then, a cut to a close-up insert of “Rejected” with a picture of Red as a young man on his prison file. And repeat. That is, until the end when he finally is granted parole. The shot stays longer in a close-up on Red’s face – he’s changed over the years, not going to give the answer the parole board wants to hear but what he actually has learned in Shawshank. It’s wise and earnest and shows true “rehabilitation.”
Parole granted. And what makes it snap and even more satisfying is the symmetry of those scenes. The “approved” stamp is that much more rewarding on a deeper level because we know the repetition, the same negative result before. We know what he has gone through – and to have a new result and not the same is a big relief for the character and the audience.
Then, when Red goes out into the world, his life is almost identical to that of Brooks (James Whitmore) when earlier in the film Brooks, an old man, made parole. Both Brooks and now Red have become “institutionalized” – can’t live on the outside of Shawshank. Red living on the outside has dialogue that’s almost identical to Brooks’s. Red even stays in the same half-way house that Brooks stayed in, including the ceiling cross beam with the inscription “Brooks was here” he wrote moments before hanging himself. We have this fear that Red’s fate will be the same.
Red looks up at the cross beam where Brooks hung himself, and Red says, “Get busy living – or get busy dying” – and we’re not totally sure what’s going to happen. Or at least since we’re watching a movie we’re hoping he’s not going to do the same thing.
But then, he says, “That’s goddamn right.” And we see him walking out and the camera tilts up as he passes to see the “Brooks was here” only to have the addition: “So was Red.”
This symmetry of scenes and shots and moods sets up a familiarity for us, an expectation subconsciously that the outcome will be the same as before. So when it is not, it’s a huge relief. This attention to detail, the similarity and affinity of one scene to another, enhances our feeling of satisfaction and relief when the result differs.
The relief continues on and the film rolls downhill, a gushing torrent of beauty and graceful filmmaking – textbook dénouement or “falling action” – as Red then buys at ticket to Fort Hancock, Texas, says he’s guilty of parole violation (the dialogue mimics Brooks’s from earlier, too), until we see the Pacific. The voice over and imagery still give me chills (emphasis mine):
I find I am so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain… I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. (beat)
Now this is the way to end a film – on the white sands of Zihuatanejo along the blue waves of the Pacific, contrasting the grey prison of Shawshank, with Andy working on a boat and the wind blowing – two friends free men under endless sky.
To end a movie that way – well, you might as well retire from filmmaking after that. It’s just too excellent and no matter how many times I see it, I well up with tears and fall in love with movies all over again.
I think one of the reasons I love this film so much is that it reminded me of the Chicago stage production of The Count of Monte Cristo I saw as a teenager a few years before. This was an early connection I made as someone who thought about literature and art and the parallels we try to find in archetypal storytelling across genres. My eventual English-major self was proud of my high school self (especially since the film makes an actual mention of the Alexandre Dumas novel in the movie).
In The Count of Monte Cristo, the wronged party exacts revenge in precise and equal amounts of those who wronged him. And rewards those who were good to him in his pre-prison life. It’s incredibly satisfying, this Karmic retribution. Shawshank has that same feeling for me. Perhaps it reaffirms my personal spiritual belief – not always confirmed in reality – that what goes around comes around. So this spoke to me, directly, and said, Yes, the Golden Rule has not yet been repealed.
Throw in the incredible visuals captured by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (robbed of the Oscar in 1995 and other years) and Thomas Newman’s score – let’s just say if it’s on TNT next weekend, I’ll probably sit down and watch it until the end as always.
Deep sigh of satisfaction. Roll credits.