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Milking the Opera Scene

December 8, 2008

Today my girlfriend and I went to see the movie Milk. It’s about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in America. It’s a fascinating movie, well plotted, written, and acted, and as is always the case, I was moved to tears by all scenes involving crowds of people showing their support. You know those scenes in movies that start with some guy slow-clapping and soon everyone joins in? Yeah. I tear up during those phony scenes.

My one grievance (warming you up for the first 10 grievances tomorrow from Festivus) about the movie was that it employed a scene that directors occasionally use to Oscar-ize their films. The scene in question is the Opera Scene, during which a main character or characters watches an opera for a few minutes. Here’s a simple primer on how to direct an opera scene:

Camera One: Close-up on main character’s face. He’s watching something, and there is foreign singing in the background.
Camera Two: Close-up of large, abundantly breasted woman or man singing.
Camera One: Back to the main character, who is listening with rapt attention.
Camera Two: Framed shot of the large person singing. They’re on a stage.
Camera One: Back to the main character.
Camera Two: Shot of the entire stage. The large person is now entering a part of the song where he/she just screams for a while.
Camera One: Extreme close-up of main character, who is now crying.

The other alternative take on this scene is interspersing the shots from Cameras One and Two with shots of a wholly unrelated scene, like a murder or a cat dancing.

What is the purpose of the Opera Scene? Does it add anything to the movie? If I were a film editor, this would be the first scene cut. Even if it adds some brilliant parallel meaning to the movie, there’s only a tiny sector of the populace who understands or cares about opera, so you’re catering to a very specific crowd.

Gus van Sant, well done appearing on Entourage. But thumbs down for including an Opera Scene in Milk, an otherwise fine movie.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam Flowers Tenor permalink
    December 16, 2008 2:02 am

    Not to be a jerk, but Milk's attendance of the Opera was a well-documented occurance and had a big impact on everyone I know that performed in that particular performance of "Tosca" becuase they knew he was in the audience and then, just days later, he was dead.

    I normally would agree with you about the Opera/Oscar Scene, but in "Milk" it has a strong basis in fact.

    Here are two accounts of that performance.


  2. Jamey Stegmaier permalink
    December 16, 2008 7:12 am

    Adam–You’re not being a jerk at all. Thanks for your post. I’m not questioning that Harvey Milk’s last opera performance attended had an impact on those in the show. I’m moreso question the impact that scene has on the audience of the movie “Milk,” the vast majority of whom, I’d argue, know nothing about that scene. That scene aside, I really enjoyed the movie.

  3. Adam Flowers Tenor permalink
    January 1, 2009 11:17 am

    I hear you. Now, what about the tired old “Beating-a-child-preacher-to-death-with-a-bowling-pin Oscar cliche that went on in “There Will Be Blood”? How many times have we seen THAT in a movie? Ha! Happy New Year!

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