Parallel Action is a narrative technique that entails editing two or more different scenes together in such a way that the viewer assumes each action is taking place at the same time. The technique of editing these two or more scenes together is called Cross Cutting. “Parallel action is a powerful technique because it invites the viewer to draw thematic connections or make other kinds of comparisons between the areas of actions.” Hurbis-Cherrier, 2007, pg. 75)
An early example of this technique is shown in D.W. Griffith’s 1909 films A Corner In Wheat.
The sequence shows the wealthy upper classes dining without a care at a party, then contrasts with the poorer commoners queuing up to buy increasingly expensive bread. The intellectual point being made here is clear. The gluttony and absent mindedness of the rich is criminal when compared to people who can barely afford the price of bread. A similar point is made in Mama, There’s a Man in Your Bed, By Coline Serreau (1989) By using content/activity matches and dramatic structure matches Serreau is rapidly able to reveal a start contrast between the morning routines of a wealthy white family, and an African immigrant family. This entanglement of scenes foreshadows the inevitable involvement they will both play in each other’s lives.
“Because the morning rituals of each family are essentially the same, their juxtaposition encourages us to see the telling differences in their details.” (Mick Hubris – Cherrier, 2007, pg. 79)
The role of the opening of Alfred Hitchcocks’ Strangers on a Train (1951) is simply create a feeling of anticipation. Two people (whose appearance is not shown above the knee) simply arrive at a train station an begin to walk. But the engaging music, and simple lack of information combine to create this feeling. Who are these people? Where are they going? Will they meet? When the first character emerges from his taxi he walks from the right of the screen to the left, and continues to do so each time he is shown. The opposing character of course walks from left to right for all his shots, thus resulting in the justified feeling that these two characters will imminently collide.
The celebrated baptism scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) masterfully interweaves six different lines of action simultaneously. The murder of the five heads of crime families by Michael Corleone juxtaposes with the fact that Michael is renouncing Satan whilst the these brutal murders are taking place, making a very clear intellectual point that Michael is in no way worthy of renouncing Satan. The montage also features several sublime match cuts. One character wipes his face wipes his face in a medium close-up, then cuts to someone else completing the gesture in a long shot. There is another graphic match, but it not a continuity matched action edit. The priest brings holy water to the babies face, whilst the barber brings shaving cream to one of the assassin’s faces. The whole sequence is paired with sombre organ music from the church, adding to the ironic effect.
Katz, Steven D, 1991 – Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen, Michael Wiese Productions
Hurbis-Cherrier, Mick, 2007 – A Creative Approach to Narrative Film and DV Production
A Corner in Wheat, 1909. [Film] Directed by D.W. Griffith, USA: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
Mama, There’s a Man in Your Bed, 1989. [Film] Directed by Coline Serreau, France: Union Generale
Strangers on a Train, 1951. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, USA: Warner Bros
The Godfather, 1972. [Film] Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, USA: Paramound Pictures