3x3: favorite framing devices

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,

The example that set off the topic was Derek Jacobi as Chorus in Henry V. That’s from a play, though, so it doesn’t really count, but that moment in the prologue when he throws on the switch for the lights, blows out the match, and looks at the camera–a moment I’ve always loved–set me to thinking of how framing devices are used in movies, where basically one story is framed within another, creating a story within a story using a specific device. Sometimes this can go a few layers deep.

But, pardon gentles all, as we discuss our favorite framing devices in movies at the 59-minute mark of the Qt3 Movie Podcast of Oculus.

Kelly Wand
3. Citizen Kane
2. The Usual Suspects

  1. Frailty

Tom Chick
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. The Usual Suspects

  1. The Blair Witch Project

3. Stand By Me
2. The Royal Tenenbaums

  1. The Princess Bride

Now for you. What are your favorite framing devices in movies? Please listen to the show to hear us elaborate on ours, and to hear a bunch of listener submissions. Send your choices for the next topic to [email protected].

Your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our topic.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

Since I screwed up and got my picks in too late, I’ll share 'em here.

  1. A quote: “You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.”

Fictional movies that have the sheen of being a sort of biopic are a Hollywood standard these days, so it’s hard to remember that the great Citizen Kane was the first really great one. Using the death of Kane and the Rosebud search as a framing device was obviously ingenious.

  1. A quote: “The trick, William Potter, is not MINDING that it hurts.”

Obviously, that’s Lawrence Of Arabia, which uses the titular character’s death and funeral as a framing device. It makes it clear that Lawrence will be a flamboyant, larger-than-life character put on the earth to play his part in a particular time and place, then likely too bored to stick around.

  1. A quote: “There is an endless supply of white men, but there always has been a limited number of human beings.”

One of my all time favorite movies is Little Big Man, which uses the framing device of having 121 year old Jack Crabb tell his story. Although it can be a goofy thing at times due to a young Dustin Hoffman trying to sound very old, the final scene when the writer leaves and Jack just sits there weeping with his head in his hands is incredibly moving and gives the device all the gravitas it needs.

Spoiler alert: you did not get your picks in too late. I’m glad you shared them here as well, though, so please leave them up.

And thanks for loving the podcast. Right back atcha.


“Thy mother mated with a scorpion.”

I haven’t listened to the podcast yeah, but I find it hard to believe that Grand Budapest Hotel wasn’t the inspiration for this. I considered making a joke list out of terrible things like Creepshow, Merlin’s Shop of Mysteries, or Heavy Metal. But those are all terrible. My picks below all tend towards storytelling and fairy tales, so I guess that probably says something about me.

  1. The Fall - I kind of see this as the anti-Princess Bride. This is gradually revealed to be an entirely pointless story that exists purely to manipulate a little girl. But the contrast between the hospital and the fantasy world is quite effective, and I enjoy the nonsense story while it lasts. Which is all sort of irrelevant, because the result is just so pretty, and that’s mostly the point of it.

  2. Big Fish - I assume that it’s desperately uncool to admit to liking this movie, probably dismissed as sentimentalist nonsense from a (mercifully pre-Depp) Tim Burton. But I do like it: Ewan MacGregor has fun, it has light-touch modern fairy tale elements that mythologize the American experience. Given how much the world has changed within my parents and my own lifetimes, there’s also something that seems particularly relevant today about how the past is both real and not-real in equal measure.

  3. Princess Bride - Kind of boring, but this probably has to be #1, since it’s the classic-est version of this.

Is found footage the film equivalent of an epistolary novel?

This was my entry…

"I wonder is it too soon to speak of my number 3, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL? Well, whatever. I enjoyed the film and I was tickled by the framing of a girl visiting the site of her favourite author and begining to read his seminal work. Then we are taken back in time to “The Author” doing an interview to tell the story behind the book. Then we go back in time again to the events of the book. In the end, it “kicks” INCEPTION style back to the fan girl in the modern age.

My second pick is recent and; I know for Dingus; a controversial pick but THE LEGO MOVIE. It is not until over halfway though your suspicions are confirmed and this tale is actually framed by huge daddy issues, which is a trope which tends to resonate with me.

Finally I go back to my childhood with my number one with CREEPSHOW 2. I enjoy the framing of animated sequences that bookend both films but I enjoy the second more as it ends with bullies getting murdered which I am more down with than the patricide of the first CREEPSHOW. Not to mention this is one of my earliest horror films and I always have a place in my heart for it.

My runner up is the Disney’s ALADDIN trilogy. Though the latter two are straight-to-DVD affairs I actually really enjoy all of them and the first begins with a stereotype peddler hawking a lamp and telling the tale of Aladdin to the audience in song. At the end of the third film we are taken back to the peddler and he closes the film with a reprise of that song."

I love BIG FISH unabashedly!

Come on people, no Rashomon? And for the bathos, no Big Trouble In Little China?

  1. Saving Private Ryan - The beginning and ending are an obvious but effective framing device.

  2. Lawrence of Arabia - What triggercut said.

  3. Goodfellas - Ray Liotta’s narration frames the story as the past tense good old days of being a gangster and now he gets egg noodles with ketchup.

Usually I hate framing devices in movies. They pad the narrative, they waste my time. The DVD release of Anna and the King contained framing scenes of an older man riding in a quick carriage to meet a much older Anna. When they meet (he turned out to be one of the kids she babysat, all grown up) the movie’s over. The frame added nothing and was wisely deleted. One of the several steps that would be needed to make John Carter (of Mars) into a good movie would be cutting out the long, confusing frame of the real (!) Edgar Rice Burroughs learning of John Carter and aliens secretly on Earth and other weird stuff. In A League Of Their Own, we learn that a bunch of present-day elderly ladies still like playing baseball, and they’re finally getting recognition, and a few of them had died, and there’s a reminder that Jon Lovitz played a great scene-stealing character, briefly…but I think the framing story was unnecessary. The story about the women playing baseball during World War II had more than enough meat on its bones. A framing story had better add something special to justify its added running time. Otherwise you’ll just get a surplus of older people reminiscing about how it was in the old days before flashing back to those old days, and a little of that goes a long way, since most movie characters grow to be elderly.

It’s the difference between here’s an interesting story and What’s this guy’s deal? Oh, he has a story to tell. Hope it’s interesting.

Tom is stricter than I would be on the rules of what constitutes a framing story. I would totally go for Fight Club, City of God, Forrest Gump, The Prestige, and Out Of The Past as examples of awesome movies where the bulk of the story takes place in the past, but there’s a final act where the story catches up with the storyteller, and then the storyteller has to finish up the movie. (A quick digression into fantasy fiction — will Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles end with the main character ending the telling of his story of his past, or will his past catch up with him? Stay tuned for the last book, The Doors of Stone, coming out sometime in the next decade.) I would still consider these kinds of movies to have a frame that just happens to spill over the border on the right side. At least that’s better than having a right-sided frame that you have to imagine, like, say, The Blair Witch Project. But in deference to his rules, here are my picks where the frame neatly contains the narrative:

  1. Salieri in Amadeus unloads his guilt at not being as awesome as Mozart on his confessor. F. Murray Abraham, as uncomfortable here as he is comfortable in the 2.35:1 frame in Grand Budapest Hotel, winds up spinning the biography of Mozart, and confesses that maybe he was responsible for driving a better man to his death. It’s that kind of old-guy-reminisces framing story that I often hate, as mentioned above, but his acting and old man makeup elevate it to something special. As extraordinary as Salieri is convinced that he is ordinary.

  2. Double Indemnity begins with Fred MacMurray, mortally wounded, as he dictates into a Dictaphone how he got to be mortally wounded. It turns out to be a ripping yarn of jealousy, greed, lust, and murder, like something you might find in a James M. Cain story. He is leaving his confession to his business partner Edward G. Robinson, who winds up coming in at the end of the story and Fred’s life.

  3. Schindler’s List had another Spielberg framing device, though the two sides don’t necessarily match up. It starts with a Jewish family celebrating the Sabbath. I think it could be set in 1993 or 1693 (but I could be wrong about that), but the year doesn’t matter. It’s in a warm, comfortable room where the family is comfortable to live and worship in the way they choose. Then the color is leached out of the movie, and humanity is leeched out of humanity, and we get a black-and-white movie about a setting where the family would not be free to worship or live. Finally, the color returns, and we see actual human beings that were in the real story. They give testimony that they only survived because of Schindler’s efforts. This struck me as a great method of blurring the line between your typical historical epic or biopic and an unsuitable-for-3x3 documentary. Yeah, this movie was just a movie, but this story really happened, both the terrible massacres and the extraordinary efforts to save so many.

Runners Up because I think they’re awesome but didn’t think of them until you all brought them up: The Princess Bride, Lawrence of Arabia, the Usual Suspects.

How about Tron? Never seen it myself, but it seems to fit the bill.

One of my favorite things about the 3x3s is when D.J. South Carolina man posts his picks. :)

Ooh, good call on Big Trouble in Little China, Ginger Yellow. Not necessarily because the framing device is great. When I rewatched it last year, I had totally forgotten about that part. But because it’s a great movie that happens to have a framing device! Is Rashomon a framing device? If so, it definitely needs to be on the list. But I think it’s more an example of a shuffled and unreliable narrative. Is there an objective framework around the narratives? Man, I haven’t seen Rashomon probably since I was too young and dumb to appreciate it.


Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called ‘The Pledge’. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called ‘The Turn’. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige’.

I’ll take just about any excuse to bring up The Prestige in one of these discussions, but I’d submit the scenes with Cutter demonstrating a magic trick to Borden’s daughter. Not only does this framing device outline the structure of the film itself to us when we see it at the beginning, it has (I thought) a wonderful emotional payoff when we return to it at the end of the film.

I facepalmed so hard I just derezzed myself.

I just watched SPR recently and I love the part where they fade from Matt Damon to the old man in the cemetery. Those two kind of resemble one another in real life or maybe that was just CGI. If not, now Matt Damon knows what he’ll look like in 20 years.

. Is there an objective framework around the narratives?

I don’t know about objective, since the whole point is that nobody’s perspective is objective, but there is a narrative, or rather a series of conversation,) that sits outside the four versions of the events in the woods.

Ooh, good call on Big Trouble in Little China, Ginger Yellow. Not necessarily because the framing device is great. When I rewatched it last year, I had totally forgotten about that part. But because it’s a great movie that happens to have a framing device!

Yeah, it’s a pretty flimsy device, but what a film.

What about Memento? Remember Sammy Jankis. The framing parts are going forward in time and the main plot is going backwards in time.

Those seem more like a series of reveals, but maybe it could be considered a frame. Maybe it’s like those animated gifs with the (frame) lines down the middle of the image. I guess those lines are frames. They certainly give the gif a 3d effect.

On the silly front, I love the way The Muppet Movie actually has them playing the movie, which is “sort of approximately how the Muppets got together,” to themselves as an audience.

Or The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh using the book itself (literally, pictorially) to frame the story & narration.

Apart from being funny, these narrative devices allow us to skip past many obligatory plot tropes by literally mentioning them in the context of the story, but without having to go through the usual motions.

And they’re not The Princess Bride, so there. (Not that I don’t like that one, too.)

  1. The Saragossa Manuscript - Best frame story of all time
  2. - Runner-up
  3. Princess Bride - Satisfying third