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Every film that wants to be successful has to be compelling. There are a number of ways that can be achieved – good writing and acting, a great storyline. But there are also some other tricks that can be used to make a movie stand out and tell the story more effectively. These tricks are sometimes referred to as the “Filmmaker’s Toolbox” and I will identify five of them in John Hughes’classic Planes, Trains & Automobiles. The first technique is called Contrast Between Scenes and is used very often in a lot of movies.
It happens when back to back scenes are very different in feel, i.e. night abruptly switches to day, a dialogue heavy scene is replaced by an action heavy one, etc. Without this, movies would have the same feel throughout and seem dull. In Planes, Trains & Automobiles, this contrast shows when Neal and Del are sleeping in a hotel. At night, they get robbed and the whole scene is dark and tense.
Then, the robber sneaks out and it suddenly cuts to a bright morning, a humorous situation and upbeat music playing. This very stark contrast keeps the audience engaged and entertained. The second trick is the catalyst to the whole plot of the film – the Ticking Clock.
The goal of the story is to get Neal home to Chicago and his family for Thanksgiving dinner. With all kinds of shenanigans ensuing and stopping him from accomplishing this goal, this ticking clock creates tension throughout the movie and “adds a sense of urgency to the story” The third technique is used in a bit different way than usual but that makes it even funnier.
It’s called Comic Discrepancy and is “the way a character presents himself/herself versus the way they actually are”. In Planes, Trains & Automobiles, this happens when Neal finally loses his temper. The audience knows him as a pretty uptight guy, proper, maybe even a bit snobby. That’s why everyone was so surprised to see him furiously cuss out a completely innocent employee, even dropping several F-bombs in the process. This was completely out of character for him, therefore, hilarious and it’s still regarded as one of the funniest scenes of the 80s.
The fourth trick that is used in this movie is Montage, which is a “series of images that are composited together to create a scene” and is mainly used to show passage of time and further the story in an efficient way. That is not the case Planes, Trains & Automobiles, where a montage is used to show all the good times that Neal and Del experienced, along with what Neal imagines will happen in the future, when he’s celebrating Thanksgiving with his family. It’s used to show what happened in the past and help Neal understand how Del really felt. The final technique is what ties any film together and that is used to manipulate the audiences into feeling what the director wants them to feel. This is, of course, the music. This movie has a Soundtrack, a collection of songs that are playing that “we hear but the character does not”. The soundtrack for Planes, Trains & Automobiles is really over the top (as is fitting for a comedy) and doesn’t quite work in some scenes, for example, when Neal has to walk all the way back to the car rental company. Very goofy music is playing and it kind of demeans the anger he must be feeling at that moment. So the soundtrack is not one of this film’s stronger sides.
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