Friday Night Seitz

How to make the perfect movie montage

Video slide show: From "Rushmore" to "Rocky III," watch the 10 best rapid-fire sequences in film history

  • title=''
    DailyMotion/ bluesky4944

    10. “Eye of the Tiger,” “Rocky III” (1982)

    Edited by Mark Warner and Don Zimmerman; directed by Sylvester Stallone

    DailyMotion/ bluesky4944

    The “Rocky” series had no interest in advancing the art of cinema; it delivered mostly meat-and-potatoes filmmaking fused with increasingly redundant and shameless plots. But damned if they don’t pull me in anyway. A great deal of their power comes from their clever deployment of crowd-pleasing, time-compressing montages. These are an integral part of any film that shows an individual mastering a new skill, but they’re especially useful in sports flicks. I love how directors John G. Avildsen (Parts 1 and 5) and Sylvester Stallone (Parts 2-4 and 6) vary them by contrasting the training techniques of Rocky and his opponents, and by establishing some new physical goal for Rocky to master, such as catching a chicken with his bare hands or training with yokes and logs in the Russian snow.

    The passage-of-time montages aren’t bad, either. The finest is surely the “Eye of the Tiger” montage from “Rocky III.” This sequence isn’t a guilty pleasure, it’s just a pleasure — exciting, funny, ominous, packed with character details, and smashingly edited (by Mark Warner and Don Zimmerman) to the tune of Survivor’s combative rock ‘n’ roll anthem. There’s so much information in this short sequence that it feels like highlights from a hypothetical, unreleased seventh feature: “Rocky 2 1/2,” the installment that shows how Rocky lost touch with his working-class roots and became pampered and complacent. We see Rocky knocking out a series of challengers (later revealed to be chumps “hand-picked” by his trainer, Mickey), moving his family into a mansion, and raking in the bucks from endorsement deals. (There’s an aspect of celebrity self-critique here, too. A few of the stills and video snippets — notably the photo of Rocky meeting President Reagan and the “Muppet Show” clip — are actually of Stallone, the New York mook turned superstar.)

    Meanwhile, aspiring champ Clubber Lang (Mr. T) glowers from the sidelines while studying his future adversary. Although Clubber is the film’s villain — as well as a racial stereotype, and a harbinger of the ghetto warrior antihero that would dominate American sports in the ’90s — this montage grants him a wary respect. At times it even seems to edge away from Rocky’s perspective and view the world through Clubber’s eyes. When you see Clubber doing push-ups on the floor of a modest apartment and jogging through city streets at dawn, it’s impossible not to respect his Spartan purity. When he walks away from one of Rocky’s lame, worthless “victories,” his contempt practically burns a hole in the screen.

  • title=''
    YouTube/ padraic2001eire

    9. “I Am Waiting,” “Rushmore” (1998)

    Edited by David Moritz; directed by Wes Anderson

    YouTube/ padraic2001eire

    Among other fine qualities, writer-director Wes Anderson’s second feature, “Rushmore,” is a lean, propulsive film. There isn’t a single unnecessary scene, line or shot, and the whole thing clocks in at a trim 93 minutes — practically a haiku by modern Hollywood standards. Pacing-wise, the film’s secret weapon is Anderson’s knack for creating funny, informative, imaginative montages. There are four or five keepers in “Rushmore,” including the yearbook montage and the duel of the suitors. But my favorite is the least overtly clever — the montage set to the Rolling Stones’ “I Am Waiting.”

    It’s basically the back half of a typical Hollywood comedy’s draggy second act — the part that shows the demoralized hero licking his wounds before his inevitable comeback. But instead of making you sit through the usual 15 minutes of moping, Anderson and his co-writer, Owen Wilson, distill it to the length of a bouncy song. It’s as if the filmmakers watched a rough cut and thought, “Whenever we’re watching this part of a comedy, we always wish the film would just skip ahead to the fun part, so why don’t we just go ahead and do that?” Each shot is functional, lovely and poignant. It’s perfect.

  • title=''
    YouTube/ 33zulu

    8. Paris flashback, “Casablanca” (1942)

    Edited by Owen Marks; directed by Michael Curtiz

    YouTube/ 33zulu

    “The Germans wore gray. You wore blue.” That’s how tough nightclub owner Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) describes his brief affair with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) in “Casablanca.” Like so many of Rick’s lines, it’s a diversionary understatement, meant to camouflage the fact that Rick is a romantic at heart. We see that side of him in the Paris flashback of “Casablanca,” and it’s revelatory. Look at how happy he is. Who knew that he could smile?

    Why is this sequence so powerful? On paper, it shouldn’t be. If you made a checklist of moments that people would expect to see in a romantic flashback, you’d find most of them in here. The sequence serves up one clich

  • title=''
    YouTube/ frittenings

    7. The Axe Gang consolidates its power, “Kung Fu Hustle” (2004)

    Edited by Angie Lam; directed by Stephen Chow

    YouTube/ frittenings

    First things first: If you haven’t seen Stephen Chow’s action comedy “Kung Fu Hustle,” do so immediately. It’s the greatest action film of the last decade, and one of the funniest comedies. And if, while you’re watching its opening scenes, you find yourself resisting Chow’s admittedly peculiar style — which fuses spaghetti westerns, period martial arts epics, Bollywood musicals, and Tex Avery cartoons — just hang tight until the sequence that shows the Axe Gang consolidating its power.

    The Axe Gang members don’t just drift into a neighborhood and start hacking and chopping until the community gives up and becomes their serfs; they go back to their headquarters and celebrate by doing line dances. As the bodies pile up, the number of dancers increases — a sly way of suggesting that the gang is growing in size and power. The black-and-white crime scene photos are composed like tableaus in a stage production, and shot with wide-angle lenses that make small rooms look immense. The soundtrack plays a joyously sinister brass-and-conga number that sounds a little bit like the Henry Mancini music that opened the original, studio-approved cut of “Touch of Evil.” The sequence is sheer craziness executed with an artist’s eye, a dancer’s timing, and a cartoonist’s sense of whimsy.

  • title=''
    YouTube/ emitus

    6. Dirk Diggler’s rise to fame, “Boogie Nights” (1997)

    Edited by Dylan Tichenor; directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

    YouTube/ emitus

    Dirk Diggler’s rise to fame in “Boogie Nights” is a great example of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson in master showman mode. Scored to the Commodores’ “Machine Gun,” it’s a loopy, funny take on the poor-boy-makes-good montage, with dynamic camerawork, deadpan humor (“Do you want me to use the Spanish accent?”), splashy graphics (why split the screen into two panels when you can split it into four?), meta-commentary on the director’s love of excess (“Grow… and grow … and grow … and grow …”), and a disco dance floor climax that’s surprising, funny and utterly right. (When Dirk was a nobody, he had a “Saturday Night Fever” poster on his wall; now he’s somebody, and he’s ruling the dance floor like John Travolta.) The sequence could not be more ’70s if the screen suddenly sprouted a Fu Manchu mustache and sideburns.

  • title=''
    YouTube/ mp285

    5. Letters from Africa, “The Color Purple” (1985)

    Edited by Michael Kahn; directed by Steven Spielberg

    YouTube/ mp285

    Wherein Steven Spielberg takes one of the moldiest montage templates in cinema — the reading of a letter that segues into an extended flashback with voice-over — and makes it feel new. The anchor in this sequence is the sun — a celestial body that shines on two sisters separated by 20 years and an ocean. The montage begins with a shot of Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) settling onto her front porch, the setting sun hanging low in the sky behind her. Then she begins reading letters from her long lost sister — letters withheld by her abusive and controlling husband, Mister (Danny Glover) — and suddenly the years fall away, and Celie can picture her sister’s life.

    The segue from the American South to the African veldt is signaled by a shot of an orange sun. We think it’s the same one hanging over Celie’s house; then the camera tilts down and a giraffe ambles into the frame. The rest of the sequence cuts between Celie reading the letters and her sister Nettie (played as an adult by Akosua Busia) living a missionary’s life in Africa, chronicling the immense changes that occur in the countryside and within herself. What really makes this montage sing is its stop-and-start rhythm, which subtly establishes the passage of time in Celie’s life as she works her way through the letters (always in secret), and the even greater passage of time in Nettie’s life. In just a few minutes, this montage conveys the sense of an alternate film, or an alternate life, that unfolded on the other side of the world while we were watching Celie’s life in Georgia.

  • title=''

    4. Home movies, “Raging Bull” (1980)

    Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; directed by Martin Scorsese

    Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” is acclaimed for its brute force and technical mastery, but it’s a cold movie, intentionally so — a psychological autopsy of a limited man who responds to every challenge or setback by battering other people or himself. But for one surprising and dazzling moment, the movie becomes warm, inviting, even touching: the home movie sequence.

    Part of what makes it striking is the fact that it’s the only sequence in an otherwise black-and-white film that features lots and lots of color. The home movie footage of boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), his wife, Vicki (Cathy Moriarty), and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) has a credibly amateurish feel, as if it really is an unearthed documentary artifact rather than a meticulously designed piece in a larger dramatic puzzle. It is also the most celluloid-intoxicated sequence in a movie that’s as much a film about filmmaking as it is a biography or a boxing picture. The 16mm footage of the LaMottas at home is weathered but still luminous. The snippets flow together with easy grace, like river water gliding over a rock.

    But it’s not all cinematic spectacle. The montage advances the story, moving Jake through various fights and through the early years of his marriage to Vicki. It’s an intimate, interior answer to the fake newsreel sequence in “Citizen Kane” — Jake LaMotta’s march of time, in lower case.

  • title=''

    3. Pre-credits sequence, “Raising Arizona” (1987)

    Edited by Michael R. Miller; directed by Joel Coen

    YouTube/MsDeeMonic

    “My name is H.I. McDunnough.” [CLANG!!!.]

    So begins the prologue to Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Raising Arizona.” Clocking in at just shy of 11 minutes, it’s one of the leanest, densest, most kinetic bits of exposition in American movies, chock-full of bizarre bit parts (“Sometimes I get the menstrual cramps real hard …), running gags (the growling inmate with the mop; the comic stylings of M. Emmet Walsh), Southern-fried Shakespearean locutions (“Her womb was a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase”), and genuinely romantic moments between depressed policewoman Ed (Holly Hunter) and her future hubby, Hi (Nicolas Cage). Alas, theirs is a star-crossed romance. She’s a sworn officer of the law, and they have a word for people like him. “And the word is …recidivism.” “Repeat offender!” There are four brilliant montages in “Raising Arizona” — the lone biker’s entrance, H.I.’s “goodbye” letter to Ed, and the his poignant final summation. But for sheer chutzpah, the prologue wins in a walk.

  • title=''

    2. The kiss montage, “Cinema Paradiso” (1990)

    Edited by Mario Morra; directed by Giuseppe Tornatore

    YouTube/fbelard

    In the climax of Guiseppe Tornatore’s tear-jerking melodrama, a film producer named Salvatore (played as an adult by Jacques Perrin) sits in a screening room and beholds a wondrous and unexpected gift: a montage of kisses excised from films that played in the movie house that he frequented as a boy. The film’s running gag is that the local priest thought screen kisses were sinful and ordered the projectionist to remove them from any film that played in town; at the end of the film, this gag is transformed into a lyrical and cathartic set piece. “Cinema Paradiso” is about movie love and personal memory, and how the two are intertwined; it’s also about discovering the secret, true history of one’s own life — the details that were hidden from you as a youth, or that escaped your attention as an adolescent. All these aspects come together as Salvatore watches the montage of kisses, a clip reel that sums up a life.

  • title=''

    1. The opening flashback, “Up” (2010)

    Edited by Kevin Nolting; directed by Pete Docter

    YouTube/ptvtpc

    The most perfect four minutes in the entire history of Pixar. The only thing I can say against it is that it’s so sweet, moving and brilliantly constructed that when it’s over, “Up” has nowhere to go but down.