The Underappreciated Scene Transition

One of my personal favorite touches in filmmaking is when a film’s editing ties two separate scenes together such that the way in which a transition takes place conveys meaning beyond that of a normal cut. Film (more accurately speaking, media of the moving image) is unique in that transitions from one scene to another can be instantaneous. In the vast majority of cases, this means that the production of two different scenes is a self-contained exercise, wherein each is shot separately, and then placed in its order in the film’s narrative, with the only interaction between the two scenes being said narrative link. The transition itself is given little or no thought.

However, there are sequences throughout the annals of film history that aim to creatively weave scenes together, and make an artistic statement via a dissolve, cut, wipe, fade, etc. Such sequences and transitions can make a film much more cohesive, and can elevate the artistic meaning of a film beyond the reaches of a “conventional” cut.

To show what I mean, here are my three favorite examples:

1. Citizen Kane’s (1941) “eye dissolve” 

I mean, come on. This eye matching is just nutty.

KaneEye

To not only have the foresight to plan such a transition, but be able to formulate a way in which you can stage and shoot these scenes and get that eye match is the sign that Orson Welles was in an elevated stratosphere of filmmaking while making Citizen Kane. Also, the rest of the stained glass gives some more symbolic meaning to Susan’s character (the scales being the clearest). But I’ll leave that for you to read into.

Sometimes the greatest scene transitions are much more subtle in practice, but can make a grand statement. Sadly, these moments of greatness often go unnoticed, as is the case with my second example:

2. Opening credits zoom out from O Něčem Jiném (1963)

This one doesn’t appear to fit within the theme of scene transitions. Moreover, it doesn’t even seem all that interesting at first. I consider it a scene transition because without the zoom it would be incredibly difficult for a first-time viewer to discern that they are watching a TV being filmed. As such, the audience moves from watching an isolated performance by a gymnast, to a family’s home. But still, why is this transition worthy of praise? Sure, it’s mildly impressive that director Věra Chytilová is able to convincingly shoot the scene such that we can’t tell we’re watching a TV, but the two zooms (first being a zoom away from the gymnast, then a zoom out to the living room) aren’t all that great in isolation.

The reason why I love this particular transition has to do with O Něčem Jiném’s structure as a film, and how this subtle introduction interacts with it. O Něčem Jiném (English title: Something Different) has two seemingly separate stories that are intercut with one another. Edgar Cochran sums it up nicely:

“Two stories are simultaneously told. One dutiful mother progressively becomes a frustrated woman who is the only one assuming the family responsibilities of working at home and looking after her only son, whereas her husband works all day, does not appreciate his wife’s efforts and the only thing he does by the time he gets home is to read the newspaper and watch soccer matches. On the other hand, a female gymnast prepares for her last competition before her career retirement, but faces pressure from her trainer and a lack of motivation to keep going. The film depicts frustration on both sides, and parallels two worlds dominated by men, where women do not receive any recognition, and in case they do, it is momentary.”


What Cochran does not mention is that the gymnast is Eva Bosáková, an actual Czech gymnast whose scenes were shot while she was training for the 1962 World Championships in Prague. Her segment of the film is a documentary, with Chytilová observing what was going on behind the scenes in her training sessions. Conversely, the story of housewife Věra (played by Vera Uzelacová) was written for the film, and is “fictional”. This opening sequence is the only interaction that the two stories have in Something Different, and yet it proves to be one of the keys to the film’s meaning. Chytilová is expressing that the struggles of the housewife are just as real as those of the gymnast, by connecting their worlds through this framing device. If the gymnast’s story is real, and contained in the diegesis of the housewife’s world, it makes the housewife’s world just as real. An extremely potent and subversive statement, especially for 1963.

And finally, my absolute favorite transition

3. A statement on race and power, from Imitation of Life (1959)

Imitation of Life tells the story of aspiring actress Lora (Lana Turner) who befriends and takes in African-American Annie (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). When Lora’s career takes off, Annie becomes the family housekeeper. However, Sarah Jane is extremely fair-skinned, and passes as white for the majority of the film, much to her mother’s dismay. She begins dating a white boy, but her race and his racism come to a head in the following scene:

CONTENT WARNING: RELATIONSHIP VIOLENCE, RACIAL VIOLENCE

 



The loud, seemingly-ill-fitting jazz in the background punctuates the beating scene such that it forces the audience to pay attention—you can’t ignore it as “normal conventional movie drama” anymore. Then, it abruptly cuts to Annie giving Lora a foot massage, as Lora says “Ahh that felt so good.” Such a line following a savage beating like that is not merely coincidence. The visual symbolism of a black woman giving a white woman a foot massage underscores this.

This has been read numerous ways, including as a confirmation that director Douglas Sirk secretly harbors racist sentiments himself. However, my reading is one of a commentary on society and the prevailing attitudes of the time. Sirk is arguing that white people of the day, no matter how seemingly allied with black people (as Lora is through the film) are willing to make black people subservient in order to fulfill their desires. When a black person gets out of “their place” (as Sarah Jane did), it “feels good” to put them back (violently, if need be). Sirk later acknowledged that the two African-American characters were the main characters of the film, claiming that he “subversively undercut Turner to draw focus toward the problems of the two black characters.” I mean, just look at this screenshot:
IMITATION MONOCHROME

Lana Turner’s skin and costuming practically blend into the monochrome set, something that repeatedly happens to all of the white characters in the second half of the film. Sirk reduces her to furniture; he’s visually confirming that her story is NOT the one that matters. Such a visual strategy makes it hard for me to believe that he used the preceding cut as some sort of sick joke.

Instead, I think it was Sirk’s way of undercutting his apparently progressive and “colorblind” leading white family. This transition shows that even though Lora claims she views Annie as an equal, she truly views her as a subordinate. Even though she appears to love Annie and Sarah Jane, she is aghast earlier in the film when she discovers that Sarah Jane is dating a white boy and not “one of her own”.

I cannot understate how important it is to consider this transition in the context of the film as a whole, and recommend wholeheartedly that you go watch it now. But the fact that even in isolation it can be so pregnant with meaning is a testament to the power of editing in film, and reinforces what a shame it is that this opportunity for artistic expression is so criminally underutilized.

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