07 January 2008
Nerd Group Leftovers #1: Stupid Tracking Shots
Since there does appear to be some interest, here's the first in what may or may not (depending on feedback and my schedule) prove to be a regular series of cut-and-paste jobs from the Movie Nerd Discussion Group. This debate, which took place almost exactly a year ago, involves the two celebrated tracking shots from Children of Men—both of which, to my annoyance, wound up placing highly in the Best Scene category of my annual nerd poll, the Skandies. But if that seems like old news to you, just mentally substitute the Big Dumb Pointless Make-It-Stop tracking shot from Atonement, which I also hate.
Many of my remarks make no sense divorced from context, so I'm reproducing the posts as they were made, including all quoted text (here italicized). Since I'm doing so without permission, all names have been changed, though folks who recognize their own words are more than welcome to take credit in the comments. Also, bear in mind that by not reproducing others' entire posts, I may be misrepresenting their arguments to some degree, albeit not intentionally.
Antwone Fisher: As for the long takes, I've always been a sucker for them and still am (Cuaron's certainly staying true to his overall style - Mama and Potter 3 both had some doozies). Even just discovering, as Theo was, that these falling-down and getting-bombed buildings were all actually full of people the whole time would be enough justification for the style for me.
MD'A: Help me understand this. So if one shot depicts what appears to be deserted, crumbling buildings, and then there's a cut, and in a subsequent shot we discover that there are actually people in these buildings...somehow that's less powerful? Because you're thinking, "Aw, man, those buildings probably were empty in the other shot, and they just snuck the extras in between setups"?
Because if that's what you're saying, you're just reinforcing my own feeling that these endless takes are the equivalent of little magic tricks, in which it's crucial that there be no cut between the turn and the prestige. And little magic tricks are not great filmmaking imo.
Antwone: If the idea to get across is "going deeper into an unending, ever-worsening nightmare," then yes, I think a series of shots could have been less powerful.
MD'A: Why? I'm genuinely trying to understand this. How does the act of cutting from one shot to another—let's stipulate that it's a match cut, so no time whatsoever has elapsed; we're just now seeing the action from a different angle—make the situation Theo is in any less of an unending, ever-worsening nightmare? It's still ongoing. He's still getting no respite. There's no difference whatsoever for the character. There's only a difference for the crew. They have to work a lot harder if it's all one shot. Are you telling me you feel like the sequence derives more tension from your knowledge that the crew is busting its ass to make it work?
I see them as one choice among many that make up the movie - is it crucial for Theo to leave the safe house with no shoes? [Etc.]
That's a legitimate question, and I'm sure someone who likes the movie more than I do can provide a good answer. I'm asking a different question, and not (so far) getting a very satisfying answer.
If someone is going to go through the trouble of creating a giant, highly detailed battleground set full of people with guns and tanks, following the main character through it in a long unbroken take seems like an effective enough idea.
I don't get it. Why does the fact that the set is giant, highly detailed, and full of people with guns and tanks call for a really long shot that follows the protagonist through it? Or, more specifically, why would a sequence of say three or four shots that cut together in real time make (as you imply) the set seem less giant, less highly detailed, and/or less full of people with guns and tanks? Again, all I can work out is that the bigger and more stuff-filled the set is, the harder such an extended shot is for the crew to pull off, because there are so many more things that could go wrong. (Indeed, you see this mentioned explicitly in many admiring reviews: "If someone misses their cue four minutes in, they have to start the whole thing over again.") It's like you're being emotionally overwhelmed by the degree of difficulty. To me this is just the tech equivalent of giving the award to the actor who gains or loses 50 pounds or switches genders.
Anyway, the crux seems to be if one feels the "trick" is interesting/cool/compelling or not.
Thank you for including the word "cool," which is what I ultimately think this is all about. And I have no issue with "cool"—in other contexts. Here, nuh-uh.
And I'm honestly not trying to play gotcha, but take something like Gerry - some pretty long (and to me just as effective) takes going on there, but certainly just as noticeable to the viewer, I would expect.
See, to me there's a very clear difference. Take for example the shot of the two Gerrys walking in closeup, the one Van Sant swiped from Werckmeister Harmonies*. What's important here is the duration of the scene, not the duration of the shot. I don't think that walk would be any less effective had Van Sant also shot it from the opposite angle and occasionally cut between the two. More to the point, there's never a moment during that shot in which you think "Wow, how did they do that?" It's a very simple dolly shot that doesn't call attention to its own virtuosity in any way. It's only remarkable because it's so rare for a movie to follow people walking in silence for such an extended period of time. In other words, it's conceptually daring, not logistically complex.
* The Werckmeister shot is on YouTube [JAN 2008: apparently not anymore], and I just watched it for the first time since 2000. Van Sant improved it.
MD'A: Actually, I just thought of a better example from Gerry: The opening drive to the desert. It runs just shy of six minutes, and it consists of nothing but Gerry and Gerry driving. But it's actually four shots.
0:32 - 2:59 camera following car
3:00 - 3:48 camera "pulling" car
3:49 - 5:00 shot of the road from car's POV
5:01 - 6:18 back to camera "pulling" car
I don't believe for one second that shooting the entire thing from the "pulling" angle for six unbroken minutes would materially affect the mood this sequence creates. Unless of course to do so would be monumentally difficult for some reason, in which case I guess it would accrue additional force from the fact that it was done anyway. But I still say that's bogus, and that a cut per se does not somehow resolve tension that's been building for the length of that particular shot. It depends, as I said before, on how the shots cut together. And if it's gonna just about kill you to do it all in one shot, and you do it that way anyway, you're. just. showing. off.
John Leguizamo: Just for curiosity, did you find anything admirable about the reductio ad absurdum example of this practice: Russian Ark? or Rope[?]
MD'A: I admire elements of both of those films, but I do think the idea of shooting an entire feature as a single take is inherently dopey. The fact that Russian Ark is spanning so much history makes the concept a little more defensible; it really makes no sense for Rope to be told in that way, except as a means for Hitchcock to (yes) show off.
So these hypothetical cuts could hypothetically give the viewer a split second respite or break, which could hypothetically release some of the scene's tension.
I guess this is the agree-to-disagree statement, because I just don't think that a cut automatically works this way. A cut that represents a shift in time or location, sure. But not a cut that merely represents a shift in angle. I do not ever recall feeling "relieved" by such a cut. When Van Sant cuts from following the car to pulling the car in the opening of Gerry, it does not change my emotional relationship with this apparently uneventful journey; I am still just watching these two dudes drive.
Cuarón has another agree-to-disagree statement:
: Another thing is not to use editing or montage, trying to
: seek for an effect. It is to try to create a moment of
: truthfulness, in which the camera just happens to be
: there to just register that moment.
See, I strongly disagree with his implication that cutting is somehow dishonest, less truthful. I see where he's coming from, because in his mind there are no cuts in real life—we see everything continuously. But he's wrong.
Look to your extreme left, then immediately look to your extreme right. (Really do this.) Did you register everything in between? I don't. To me that's much closer to a cut from one shot to another than it is to a whip-pan. If you happen to blink along the way, as we all do about every six seconds on average, then it's literally a visual disjunction—a cut. The whole idea that the human visual field operates like a Steadicam is nonsense. Are you familiar with the saccade experiments, in which text on a page is constantly shifting but the subject is completely unaware of it because it only happens in the instants when their eyes shift focus? The illusion works because when you shift focus you're effectively blind for a split second, though your brain disguises the fact from you.
Between blinks and saccades, human vision is much closer to montage than it is to mise-en-scène.
Also, Bazin was on crack.
There's something about the idea that everything just keeps going that makes narrative sense in this situation. When Theo goes around a corner, he doesn't run into the craft services table, he's still in the prison.
So I was right: The reason this works for you is because if there's a cut before he turns the corner, you're somehow thinking, consciously or unconsciously, "I bet that's where craft services had been in the previous shot."
That's just weird to me. I don't think that way at all. The fact that the shot keeps going on and on and on makes me much more aware that everything is completely fake. I start to see the crew ducking and weaving in my mind's eye. A cut before he turns the corner, on the other hand, doesn't seem like "cheating"; it's utterly uneventful, and hence more likely to keep me enveloped in the action.
(Have I mentioned that I'm a sucker for long takes?)
Whatever floats your boat. Again, I'm not against long takes per se; you don't see me badgering, say, Tsai Ming-Liang to cut more frequently. It's got nothing to do with duration; it's the "impossible" aspect that bugs me.
All right, so how many cuts per scene should be included to indicate non-virtuosity?
Obviously there's no formula. I'm just arguing against shots that call attention to themselves by virtue of weaving in and out and all over the place without a cut. And really just against their use in, say, a sober, grim movie about the end of the world. If you're De Palma making fucking Snake Eyes, go to town. But don't use the same technique (he didn't, did he?) for Casualties of War.
Gort: I never thought I'd see you ape Jacques Rivette's famous essay about the abjection of Pontecorvo's Kapo.
MD'A: I'm not arguing that it's immoral. I just don't think a grim dystopian nightmare that means to say something about the state of the world right now is well served by looka-me cinematography. It's distracting, not evil.
Jim Carroll: The tone may be different, but the cinematic grammar of Casualties of War is really not too different from, say, The Untouchables, just one year earlier.
Still, [someone else, unquoted here] is right. I'm not saying that any film about a Serious Subject needs to be super-austere. I cited Snake Eyes because that film kicks off with the exact kind of shot I'm talking about: a long, insanely complex single take that functions primarily as a means of constantly reminding us that Whoa damn they still haven't cut yet have they? And in the context of a movie as trashy as Snake Eyes, that kind of stunt doesn't bother me. But I'd be surprised if De Palma does anything that blatantly stunt-y in Casualties of War. The stuff you're describing doesn't seem to qualify, though without actually seeing the shots I can't be certain.
Antwone: So (gulp) are you cool with short impossible shots in nightmarish end-of-the-world stories?
MD'A: Basically, the more you want me to believe that your movie is happening in the real world, the less you want to create shots that make me wonder how they could possibly have been accomplished. It's not really anything to do with dystopia; I'd be equally annoyed by this kind of shot if it turned up in the middle of, say, L'Enfant—a film that does have a fair number of lengthy shots, but none in which the camera does anything that seems remotely close to impossible.
And truthfully, the shots in CoM would likely have annoyed me less had people not been foaming at the mouth about them before I even saw the movie. (This is exactly why I spend a ton of dough to go to Cannes and see many of the year's most important films before there's any buzz whatsoever.) For Lubezki to win the indieWire cinematography category in that kind of landslide—I just feel like people are being overly impressed by what is essentially hotdogging, and overlooking less flashy but more rigorous work (like Alain Marcoen's in L'Enfant) in the process.
[...] if long complicated shots distract you, then this movie is full of problems. Replace "distract" with "astonish" and it's a different story.
That's the bottom line. This is not the kind of movie in which I want to be astonished by a shot.
That's basically the end of it. As a bonus, however, here's an unrelated post I made later that month, recently cited by Robert Kennedy (this name, believe it or not, has not been changed) as one of the three funniest Movie Nerd Discussion Group posts of 2007.
George Jefferson: What I find mystifying is how the entire critical community seemed to have missed the boat (ferry?) on Déjà Vu, treating it just like a routine Denzel/Scott thriller when, for my money, it's the best studio film of the year.
MD'A: [Puts on coat, heads for theater.]
After Domino, I had an inkling that Tony Scott might find his way into being some kind of artist.
[Turns around, goes home.]
Posted by md'a at 4:41 AM