Back Row Banter

From explosions to pathos

Top 5 Pachelbel’s Canon in film part 1 May 27, 2010

   There are very few songs that are used in cinema as frequently as Pachelbel’s Canon and, at the same time, very few pieces of music work as well at invoking such a wide array of emotions. Over the next few weeks I shall be adding the rest of the top five. This week, for the first entry in this mini series, I start with an Oscar winning film.

ORDINARY PEOPLE

   When Robert Redford stepped behind a film camera for the first time he did so with an unprecedented assurance. The opening scene to his debut film as a director, Ordinary People, is an example of someone who really understands the potential of cinema as a medium. Beginning with a shot of a clear sky, Redford’s film establishes an area of serene rural idyll, majestic autumnal trees and a calm ocean, as the gentle arpeggio of an orchestrated Canon whisper in the background. As human voices are added to the mix, via a choir, Redford sets about slowly establishing that the voices belong to a diegetic ensemble of young singers. As the song swells the camera pans across the room several times before finally coming to rest on its target for the very last few seconds of the shot. By now the gentle melody has reach a crescendo as the choir exclaim “Hallelujah!” Alas the face of the male singer the camera is now focused on, played by Timothy Hutton, is not wearing an expression that suggests he agrees with the celebratory tone of the song. Instead his eyes betray an ethereal pain that instantly destroys any notion of the tranquility the opening shots suggested. Externally the setting is calm and peaceful but, in a single few seconds, it is easy to tell the film’s protagonist is anything but at peace internally. Redford, in this opening two and a half minutes, has managed to introduce a mood, a vibe to the film and sets the main themes, grief and quiet dignity, with the simple use of a serene song, dissolves between establishing shots and Timothy Hutton’s morose face. Redford has created something that could never be conveyed in any other medium and has, in the first two and a half minutes of his directorial career, created a perfect example of pure cinema.

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