5 Excellent Self-Contained Sequences in Films

Occasionally movies will deviate from their narrative with sequences not entirely related to the main plot or events of the film. That isn’t to say these sequences are arbitrary, they are woven into the overall story, and often serve to promote the film’s underlying themes. They sometimes present a perspective of a secondary character, provide flashbacks, or create a world independent from that of the rest of the film. The following are some of my favorite scenes that are completely self-contained, and could easily stand alone as short films.

5) A Serious Man (2009), dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen: Opening Scene

The opening of A Serious Man sets the tone for the entire film’s experience. It’s a short film that doesn’t involve any characters from the rest of the movie, and is instead a parable-like telling of the dybbuk spirit of Jewish folklore and myth. It’s never clear just why it’s included,, aside from the frequent rabbi visits and bar mitzvah planning within the film, but some argue that the “curse” set on the family in the opening, who welcome a dybbuk into their home, is the basis for the so-called “curse” on Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). However, the Coen brothers themselves, have stated that the opening has little meaning, and was just a means to set the stage for the rest of the film.

A Serious Man: opening scene from Anton Nossik on Vimeo.

4) The Shawshank Redemption (1994), dir. by Frank Darabont: “Brooks was Here” Scene

In perhaps one of the saddest scenes of modern cinema, Brooks (James Whitmore), who had otherwise been a secondary character within the film, is released from prison. As he navigates his new life on the outside, his letter to his previous inmates narrates. He gets an apartment, gets a job, and realizes that his life doesn’t have much meaning anymore. He even refers to prison as his “home.” Instead of going “back home,” he decides instead to end his own life after carving “Brooks was Here” into part of the ceiling.

3) Pulp Fiction (1994), dir. by Quentin Tarantino: The Gold Watch Scene

Butch (Bruce Willis) dreams about the time Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) tells him the story about his father’s watch. It’s clearly related to the narrative in the sense that it involves Butch and a family heirloom watch that incites aspects of the plot, but really it doesn’t serve much of a purpose other than character backstory, and is a strikingly unconnected sequence within an already disjointed, non-linear narrative of the film. Thanks to Walken’s undeniable charisma, the story sucks you in and feels anything but arbitrary.

2) The Rules of Attraction (2002), dir. by Roger Avery: “Victor Takes a Trip” Scene

The narrative of Rules follows a slew of different college students as their lives intertwine, and their love goes unrequited. Throughout most of the film, Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) pines over her boyfriend Victor (Kip Pardue) who is traveling abroad. As Lauren cries over him, we pan to a heart-framed portrait of the perfect Victor. Then the film changes its pace entirely by switching to a manic sequence of Victor’s actual experience abroad—which includes a lot of drinking, drugs, and sleeping with various women. While it’s a real bummer that Victor isn’t the guy Lauren made him out to be, it’s without question one of the best sequences of the film, and certainly stands alone in an altogether hectic, self-contained manor.

1) Magnolia (1999), dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson: Opening Scene

The purpose of Magnolia’s intro is really to highlight the film’s focus on coincidence, fate, and chance. It shows a few different examples (starting as early as the 1900s)—none of which include any characters from the rest of the film. It’s similar to A Serious Man in that way, though here the opening has a much larger role in the rest of the film. The underlying themes in the opening play an integral role throughout the narrative. It’s woven into the story in a more abstract way, but it still stands strong as a separate piece, and could easily be a short film of its own.

Author: Catherine Haas

Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.

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