Milking the Opera Scene

Today my girlfriend and I went to see the movie Milk. It’s about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in America. It’s a fascinating movie, well plotted, written, and acted, and as is always the case, I was moved to tears by all scenes involving crowds of people showing their support. You know those scenes in movies that start with some guy slow-clapping and soon everyone joins in? Yeah. I tear up during those phony scenes.

My one grievance (warming you up for the first 10 grievances tomorrow from Festivus) about the movie was that it employed a scene that directors occasionally use to Oscar-ize their films. The scene in question is the Opera Scene, during which a main character or characters watches an opera for a few minutes. Here’s a simple primer on how to direct an opera scene:

Camera One: Close-up on main character’s face. He’s watching something, and there is foreign singing in the background.
Camera Two: Close-up of large, abundantly breasted woman or man singing.
Camera One: Back to the main character, who is listening with rapt attention.
Camera Two: Framed shot of the large person singing. They’re on a stage.
Camera One: Back to the main character.
Camera Two: Shot of the entire stage. The large person is now entering a part of the song where he/she just screams for a while.
Camera One: Extreme close-up of main character, who is now crying.

The other alternative take on this scene is interspersing the shots from Cameras One and Two with shots of a wholly unrelated scene, like a murder or a cat dancing.

What is the purpose of the Opera Scene? Does it add anything to the movie? If I were a film editor, this would be the first scene cut. Even if it adds some brilliant parallel meaning to the movie, there’s only a tiny sector of the populace who understands or cares about opera, so you’re catering to a very specific crowd.

Gus van Sant, well done appearing on Entourage. But thumbs down for including an Opera Scene in Milk, an otherwise fine movie.