originally published November 9, 2013
A long weekend shackled with sub-zero temperatures means a full-arm scoop of old movies to pass the hours. This is where problems arise – my years of scholastic film study have nurtured my snobbish instincts, thus distancing my criteria for an enjoyable feature from those of my family. Stupid and fun and Will Ferrell’ed will still get me to tune in. But I also savor the unlikely crane shot, and the precise and unrelenting lighting of what I have been trained to call a well-made picture.
Yes, I would watch Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 film Act of Violence again before a second viewing of The Avengers. Not that the latter didn’t kick the unsuspecting ass of that part of me that still longs to be a superhero (it’s not too late). But Act of Violence features lighting that cuts across the frame like a wicked antagonist, a twisted plot of convolution and darkness, and a permeating air of anxiety and unease in every frame. It moves me, which at times is more satisfying than fun CGI.
In an effort to justify my love of classic cinema to my family, who will hopefully allow me to indulge my inner drooling cinephile this weekend, here are some of the cinematographic ways a movie can slap me back into my seat.
The first use of a zoom lens showed up in the latter days of the silent era. And while early-era cameras were difficult to move around given that they were about as cumbersome and heavy as a small aircraft, early filmmakers found a way to slap some wheels under them and make them move. But it wasn’t until a second-unit director of photography named Irmin Roberts came along that someone put the two ideas together.
Keep in mind, the second unit guys are the oft-uncredited (at least back then) schmoes who capture all the atmosphere shots and set-ups without any actors, dialogue or glory. Roberts developed the ‘dolly zoom’ for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958, and it has since been used in movies from Jaws to Goodfellas. It’s simple: the camera zooms in while being rolled away from the subject, or else it zooms out while moving toward it. The result is either the background or foreground growing massive and foreboding.
What truly tickles my brain is that the first of these – from Vertigo – was done in a monastery stairwell, so the camera wasn’t dollying forward or backward but moving up and down. Here’s a fantastic example of the technique.
One of the most fun tricks of cinematography – though maybe not for the poor schmucks on the film crew who have to pull this off – is the follow shot. Like the name implies, this is where a single subject is pursued by the probing lens of the camera throughout a location. These are usually lengthy shots, involving elaborate setup and staging, where one moronic extra could look at the camera or sneeze in his hand and blow the entire thing.
These shots can establish a character’s job and surroundings, like in this opening pursuit of Ryan Gosling in The Place Beyond The Pines; they can build claustrophobia and a sense of emptiness like this one from The Shining; or they can provide a lavish exhibition of a character’s lifestyle, like the most astoundingly applause-worthy Copacabana shot of Goodfellas, which actually came about at the last minute when Scorcese’s crew was not allowed to film the front entrance, or so I’ve been told.
Apparently Quinton Tarantino has denied that the trunk shot is an intentional trademark of his. But it pops up in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, From Dusk Till Dawn (I know, not technically his movie), Kill Bill and Death Proof, though in that last one, it appears as though the camera is looking up from under the hood instead. These shots serve a dual purpose: they provide a point-of-view perspective of whomever or whatever is in the trunk in question, and they also give us a low-angle look at the person opening the trunk, which makes them appear large and powerful, even if they’re Harvey Keitel.
Okay, three purposes: it also adds a swift smack of style to a scene, which is why it has been used in movies from Uncle Buck to (yes, again) Goodfellas, and on well-shot TV shows like Supernatural and Breaking Bad. Its first use goes way back to Anthony Mann’s He Walked By Night in 1948. Of course they can’t use a real trunk for these shots – most cameras and cameramen are a little too bulky to fit inside a trunk.
I am a hopeless sucker for chiaroscuro. This is the form of low-key lighting seen here in Citizen Kane, and in almost every movie that aims to craft an air of noir suspense or unease. Regular lighting focuses on three aspects: a key light on the main subject, a fill light to illuminate everything else and a back light behind the subject to keep everything vibrant. But with low-key lighting there’s often only one light source, allowing for the careful placement of shadows and intentional darkness.
The term ‘chiaroscuro’, which is literally Italian for light-dark, dates back to drawings and paintings that highlighted light and shadow. This was a gift from the rapid artistic evolution known as the Renaissance. Now it shows up everywhere, from two-bit horrors to Batman movies – notably in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which was filmed entirely without the use of electric lights. You can’t help but have a lot of shadows when your set is lit by candles.
Cross-cutting was one of the earliest devices filmmakers discovered that could allow their infant medium to tell a story in a way no play or novel ever could. This allows us to see two strands of action occurring simultaneously in two different locations. In 1903 Edwin Porter unfolded the events of The Great Train Robbery like this, adding depth to an otherwise linear storyline. D.W. Griffith used cross-cutting to make a point in 1909, when he cut between six rich businessmen and a group of people waiting in line for bread in A Corner In Wheat.
But I defy anyone to provide a more exquisite example of cross-cutting than the climactic scene of The Godfather, as Michael Corleone renounces Satan at a baptism while his enemies are murdered one by one. Sorry, there’s a spoiler there – but if you haven’t seen The Godfather yet, what the hell is wrong with you?
I think the universe is telling me to watch Goodfellas this weekend, since it employs every one of the techniques I’ve been gushing about. Or maybe Act Of Violence. Then again, maybe I’ll forgo all pretense and just spend some time watching a Guy on a Buffalo.