As a child, nary a Saturday went by in which my siblings and I missed PBS's block of building shows (This Old House, New Yankee Workshop, Hometime). Other kids had their cartoons, we had carpentry. We grew to love and appreciate all the individual quirks and distinct charms of these varied shows: the no-nonsense home building standard bearer of Bob Villa's This Old House, the thick New England accented Norm Abram's focus on individual carpentry projects in the New Yankee Workshop, and, our favorite, Hometime, whose host Dean Johnson was joined by a revolving door of female co-hosts. Our love for this particular show, though, stemmed mostly from the elaborate backstories we would contrive to explain why big pimpin' Dean was able to corral such a large assortment of carpentry shorties.
Given my fascination with these shows it was wrongly assumed that I also had an interest in actually building things, or, at the very least, in physical activities. Such was not the case. I was a lazy child. My dad could never understand why, although I couldn't go a week without watching these shows, when asked to help him work on his truck or an actual carpentry project, I would react as though I had been sentenced to end my life in the Bataan Death March.
As I soon grew to realize, I liked these shows because I just liked to watch stuff get done. It wasn't until some time later that I got into baseball. For the time being, this was my sport of choice. I was a regular armchair construction quarterback. What? Are they crazy? Clearly, you need to use a miter saw for that. That joint isn't going to hold. You can't paint Oak. Varnish that shit. You wanna be able to see the wood. Amateurs.
My love for these shows stemmed not so much from a love of carpentry, but rather a desire to watch, in detail, tasks being completed from start to finish. I loved to watch the process through which people went from Point A to Point B. Why I love seeing this, I can not explain. It's like trying to explain why unspoiled nature or beautiful songs can bring some people to tears. To quote Louis Armstrong (referring to his music), "Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know."
Not surprisingly, my love of procedures carried over into and commingled with my movie love. I have come to realize that most of my favorite movie scenes involve the detailed depictions of tasks being completed. An early favorite of mine, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, involves (surprise, surprise) carpentry. Later remade as The Money Pit, this film depicts put-upon husband Cary Grant's attempt to build a house in Connecticut. Because it would be a pointless movie otherwise, everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
[Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House]
My love of procedures, is not confined to carpentry and construction, however. Another favorite is the depiction of criminal activities, specifically heists. In the early years of the production code, one of the biggest movie no-nos (after fucking) was the instructional depiction of any criminal enterprise. The powers that be were concerned that depicting the hows of criminal activities would serve as blueprints for prospective criminals. As rules grew more lax over the years, filmmakers had freer reign to teach audiences in the ways of crime.
An early gem, taking the comedic route, is the Edward G. Robinson vehicle Larceny, Inc (latter remade by Woody Allen as Small Time Crooks). In this film, Robinson and company set up a luggage shop as a front so that they can tunnel to the bank vault next door. When their luggage shop begins to be profitable, they realize that it might make more sense to go straight. Shenanigans ensue.
Yet to be topped, the perfectly detailed set-piece of Jules Dassin's Rififi stands as the standard bearer for heist sequences. His flawless, silent thirty minute sequence depicts the process by which a group of criminals tunnels through a floor, and then cracks the safe below.
What with movies teaching the how-tos of crime, it sure would be nice if they could also prepare the criminals for life in jail. Luckily, prison escape films have also proven a treasure trove of procedure set-pieces. An early favorite of mine is The Great Escape. Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz is also an important example. My favorite, however, will always be Jacques Becker's Le Trou. With an almost fetishistic attention to details, Becker produced a movie whose entirety is the depiction of men tunneling out of prison. As is evident in the clip below, he could make a seven minute scene consisting only of men chiseling through concrete that managed to be every bit as riveting as any elaborate, big budget Hollywood spectacle. [Of course, I can't guarantee that other people would find such a scene as entertaining as I do.]
Factory lines also hold a special place in the procedure canon. Most of my early favorites were actually the educational films contained in Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. "So that's how a pencil is made. Awesome!" [Side note: Have I mentioned that I was a boring child?]
Although on the nauseating side, the opening credits to Michael Ritchie's Prime Cut is a prime factory line scene. Possibly designed as a means to turn viewers into vegetarians (I couldn't eat meat for quite some time after I saw this for the first time), this scene depicts the process by which a cow becomes dinner.
I leave you with my all time favorite procedure scene, To Live and Die in L.A.'s counterfeiting sequence. It is a favorite for many reasons, foremost being the slight illegality of it. Director William Friedkin employed an actual counterfeiter for the closeups in this scene. Because it depicted actual counterfeiting, most of the cast and crew feared that they would be arrested while filming. So as to keep their activities closer to the right side of the law, when actually counterfeiting the money, they would only print one side of the bills. Nevertheless, it's a very good how-to for any enterprising individual whose got a hankerin' for some counterfeitin'. Had such a scene been filmed, gotten past the MPPDA, and included in a film in the early thirties, Friedkin would have ended up serving time.
[To Live and Die in L.A.]