What We Talk About When We Talk About Film

A single shot from 'Fantasia': part of Reverse Shot's 'Take One' projectWe rarely take a Faulkner sentence and examine it in isolation. We generally don’t inspect a song’s introduction, or chorus, or bridge, without even dealing with the context of the whole. We don’t study the corner of a painting, pretending that there’s nothing beyond it.

Maybe we should.

Matt Zoller Seitz beat me to the punch in citing what appears to be a trend in online movie writing:

“[I]n recent years — particularly in the last six months, for some reason — there’s been an exponential growth in Internet-based writing that dares to talk about what movies are actually made of: shots and cuts.”

First it was Jim Emerson championing the opening shots of movies.

Now the late-summer issue of Reverse Shot offers “Take One.” The mission: analyze a single shot from any film.

Both projects ascribe great weight to a small component of any given movie. Yet despite the similarities, their scopes make them very different.

Emerson rightly noted that, like the first sentence of a novel, the first shot of a film has the potential to establish a movie’s tone, themes, and style.

He is, essentially, praising a thoughtful style of filmmaking that translates for the cinema the famous admonition by Strunk and White: “Omit needless words.” Put another way: Make every element count.

“Take One,” on the other hand, isn’t necessarily interested in the movie’s whole. As the project’s editors note: “‘Take One’ is ... a means to an end: getting back to the intrinsic power of the image.” How better to do that than by rescuing pictures from the movies they’re in?

Unlike Emerson’s effort — which emphasizes the shot’s importance to the entire film — “Take One” allows for (and perhaps even encourages) analysis of functional images that appear to add little to the overall experience of the movie: the establishing shot, the insert, the cutaway.

Beyond what these essays add to the critical discourse on specific movies, this method of analysis has wide appeal. It fosters a higher intensity of watching. It’s manageable, for both writers and readers. It’s concrete and specific. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Seitz hopefully asks:

“If writing like this becomes more commonplace, and if more and more movie lovers discover it and develop an appetite for it, might the result be better movies?”

I doubt we’ll get better movies, but already these projects have encouraged me to consider what I’m seeing more carefully. I’m an attentive audience, but I’m seeing new things.

Take, for example, The Exoricism of Emily Rose. The movie begins dully and without obvious purpose. Yet just a few minutes in, there’s a simple shot that conveys a great deal of information. A medical examiner walks down a hallway in a home, to a bedroom door. From that room, a priest and a cop emerge.

With a few minor adjustments, this would have made a great opening shot; it has an air of mystery, yet it sets the stage for all that follows. Even with the most basic of descriptions I’ve provided, you would know that the movie involves the confluence of the church, law enforcement, and death in a domestic setting. Best of all, these things are established through costumes, props, and the set; no words are necessary.

Isn’t it wonderful that the “Opening Shots” and “Take One” projects could make me care about this clumsy, earnest, and largely unremarkable faith-based horror courtroom drama?

Nothing says ‘love Thy Visual’ like the Silent Film, especially the Russians and the Germans. Directors like Eisenstein (basically the inventor of The Montage), and Murnau, these make me long for a return of films that need be constantly about the visual. As for the example you used, an amazing exorcism story meshed with the worst courtroom drama ever, it served as a double edged sword: if a movie does start off with a nice jolt of high-art or imbued with context, and we only speak of that, many might shun ‘The Shining’ in favour of ‘Night At The Roxbury’, or some equally heinous SNL garbage...

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