I’ve noticed a simple technique a lot of movies employ to show change or to underline a particular difference: paired, contrasting scenes. The first scene introduces an idea in a memorable way, and the second scene echoes the scene but also contrasts with it to show a specific change, either in a character or circumstances, or to underscore a difference.

The technique seems to be a good one to use to clearly and visually convey an important change or thematic idea.

The five examples below, coming from very different movies, show this technique in action.

Bridge of Spies

This movie, which is set in the late 1950s, has a scene in the middle of the movie where Tom Hanks’s character is traveling by train from East Germany to West Germany and witnesses several men trying to climb over the wall from East Germany to freedom in West Germany. Before one of the men can make it over the wall, though, the East Germans shoot and kill him.

The horror of this moment is paired and contrasted with a scene after Hanks has returned home to America. Once again, he is riding a train, this time as he commutes from the suburbs to New York. On the train, he looks out the window and sees some neighborhood boys running and jumping a fence between two yards. Of course, the boys are not shot or harmed in any way. They are just boys playing. This scene, in echoing the earlier scene, clearly shows the differences between America and Germany at that time. Together, the two scenes seem to represent a commentary celebrating American freedoms.

La La Land

There is a scene early in the movie where Emma Stone’s character, a struggling, aspiring actress, is working as a coffee shop barista on a movie studio lot. A famous actress enters the shop, with all eyes turning to the actress, and the manager gives her coffee for free, but the actress insists on paying.

This scene is echoed by a later scene in which Stone is now a famous actress and enters the same coffee shop, where she is the woman upon whom all eyes turn. The new manager doesn’t want her to pay, but she insists, just like the other actress. Together, these paired, contrasting scenes quickly and clearly show how much Emma Stone’s circumstances have changed.


Crazy, Stupid, Love.

There are several early scenes establishing Steve Carell as an ill-dressed, out-of-place, middle-aged male in a sleek, young, and hip lounge bar.

A later scene echoes these moments when, after Carell’s character has been transformed by Ryan Gosling into a smooth, well-dressed ladies’ man, Carell enters the bar in slow motion in a sleek outfit, passing a sad sack guy that is just like Carell used to be.

Together, the beginning scenes and the latter scene show just how much Carell’s character has changed from where he started.


How to Train Your Dragon

The film opens with a voiceover narration in which Hiccup says, “This is Berk . . .” and then proceeds to describe his home village, including its pest problem: dragons. The voiceover includes a number of visuals establishing Berk, including scenes showing the dragons stealing sheep.

This sequence is paired and contrasted with a similar voiceover at the end of the movie that begins, “This is Berk . . .” We again get visuals of the town as Hiccup narrates, and the main difference is that Hiccup now refers not to pests, but to the Vikings’ new pets: dragons.

Together, these two scenes show just how much things have changed for Hiccup and all of Berk.

If I’m not mistaken, all three films in the series open and close with “This is Berk” narration that establishes changes in the community.


The Shawshank Redemption

A sequence toward the end of the movie shows Brooks outside of prison, working at a grocery store, living in an apartment, and ultimately killing himself just after he writes, “Brooks was here” on a beam in his apartment.

This sequence is paired and contrasted with Red outside of prison. He too works at the same grocery stone and lives in the same apartment. He too writes on the beam to show that he lived in the apartment. But, unlike Brooks, Red doesn’t kill himself.

The two sequences serve to illustrate the different choice Red makes and how he lives the theme of the story by choosing to get busy living.

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