You don’t know what you like was the bold claim at the center of my post a few weeks ago, “Why Movie Critics Matter.” I’m sure you think you know, but you don’t (or at least, chances are you don’t).
This is a truth that is betrayed in most conversations I have with people about movies. Go ahead and ask someone why they like a particular film. You’ll be lucky to get more than, “It was really well made.” But, if by some sorcery, you get a more thought-out answer, expect something along the lines of “The soundtrack for that movie was amazing” (Remember the Titans), or “I liked how it dealt with mature ethical issues, and the acting was amazing” (The Dark Knight). The problem with those answers, though, are that there are dozens of examples of movies that do the same thing that the person probably doesn’t like (The Twilight Saga: New Moon; The Fountain). Most of the time, we are completely misguided in our judgement of our own judgement.
Consider most of J. J. Abrams’s efforts. I love Abrams, but he is a prime example of the Buffalo Wild Wings Effect—making something that feels good in the moment, but when you’re home, sitting on the toilet, you’ve long forgotten any joy you had. In Star Trek Into Darkness, for instance, we watch Carol Marcus react to her father’s death—a heart wrenching scene—then never mention it ever again. And because of this, her character and her choices and her wants and desires don’t mean much to us, and that movie will never go down in history as one of the greats. The same thing is handled a little better in the first Star Trek reboot, but is duplicated in Star Wars 7.
Contrast this with a director like David Fincher, not the apex of cinematic art, but someone who knows how this sort of stuff works. Fincher doesn’t start with affectation, but instead with the question what needs to be communicated in this scene.
And it is that kind of directing that I want to examine in this three-part series on great movies. I want to look at those elements that make a movie great—that help it get remembered—specifically dissecting the fundamental features of camera, plot, and character.
To start, let’s look at cinematography—how movies use their camera. The movement and aesthetics of a scene are simultaneously the elements most often unrecognized and those most likely to dazzle, and some may argue it is the subconscious effects of cinematography that wield a movie’s greatest strength.
Hitchcock, famously one of the greatest directors of all time, held good cinematography as indispensable to good cinema:
In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between.
The pinnacle work on this subject is Joseph Mascelli’s The Five C’s of Cinematography. In it Mascelli describes the technical features of filming a scene, the elements that are necessary for competence and can, if mastered, elevate a flick to a masterpiece.
His first “C” is composition. In borrowing predefined rules from two-dimensional art, from taking advantage of the rule of thirds, the golden mean, or simple symmetry—movies can achieve great beauty in an individual shot or give importance to a figure or even an idea. Composition asks what should be included and what might be left out; how should things enter the frame and how might they leave.
Next is the close-up, the most powerful tool in a cameraman’s arsenal according to Mascelli. The purpose of the close-up is generally simple: emphasize something. A movie can zoom-in on a gun because it’s important, or it can push closer to a face so we can see the whole range of an actor or actress’s emotion.
Cutting, the third “C,” is great for building associations on the screen. Hitchcock, in North by Northwest, famously cut from a couple hugging to a train entering a tunnel to insinuate sex. The speed of cuts and edits is also crucial for setting the tempo of a scene.
Probably the least flashy of all is continuity. By maintaining continuity in a sequence, the viewer is absorbed, and in this way, continuity can be seen as a feature of merely competent filming. Because of this, discontinuity becomes that much more effective at disorienting the viewer.
And lastly, there is camera angle. The angle at which we watch a subject deeply (though subtly) affects how we perceive them. If the angle is low, we may feel like we’re spying or maybe feel inferior. If it’s from above, we feel superior as if the subject is weak and small.
And there is so much more beyond that. Cinematography deals with which side of the screen something should be on (because of course there is a “good” and “evil” side of the screen); it deals with all aspects of art theory, including color palettes and negative space. One of the biggest decisions for a director—one that will shape the entire film—is if the camera should be noticed or not. Beyond that, once you’ve gotten to know camerawork enough, the style of it provides a meta commentary on what it’s presenting. For instance, the TV show The Wire doesn’t pan down for important details because it is even storytelling without omniscient camera. By giving us talking head interviews and behind-the-blinds filming, The Office achieves a sense of documentary realism (and thus heightened humor) and simultaneously a sense of intimacy.
In the short history of movies, there have been countless individuals who have taken advantage of these tools to better their films. Some of the most famous scene-composers include: Ford, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Spielberg, the Coens, Iñárritu, and Cuarón. On top of that, there are the talented (albeit lesser-known) cinematographers they work with to capture each scene, like Burks, Krasker, Alcott, Chapman, Deakins, Kamiński, and Lubezki.
John Ford, one of the early greats, directed Stagecoach, the breakout hit for John Wayne. In the movie, he sets the Western genre precedent of manifesting the sheer beauty of Monument Valley, according to him the “most complete, beautiful, and peaceful place on earth.” Throughout the film, he uses high-angle shots, foreshadowing events like the Cavalry’s departure or the Apaches appearing up on a ridge—all of which, functionally flaunting the grandeur of the valley.
Camera manipulation doesn’t have to purely be for beauty, though. Think of Scorsese’s 1983 satire The King of Comedy—Rupert Pupkin (played by Martin’s favorite, Robert De Niro) is a man obsessed with fame and one famous comedian in particular: Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis). Over the course of the movie, Pupkin’s obsession goes beyond a mere interest in fame; it takes over his life to the point that he can no longer distinguish reality from the fantasies he has concocted. To convey this, Scorsese ensures that the audience can no longer distinguish the difference as well. In one shot, he uses an extreme close-up of a piano player’s hands, a panning-up shot, and a dissolve—all giving the illusion of watching a television show. For the final shot, we begin with a high angle that cranes downward toward Rupert standing in a spotlight on a stage, listening to a crowd cheer him on and an announcer recite his praises. The scene, as has been pointed out by David Bordwell, could suggest that we are now in Rupert’s mind, but it also has the potential to be an actual shot from Langford’s show. In all, Scorsese manipulates the style of the movie for thematic purposes, drawing us in to the fantastic world of Rupert Pupkin.
And that brings us back to Fincher. As a director, Fincher does a masterful job of using cinematography for both beauty and storytelling. In the final scene of the popular thriller Se7en, a clearly stylized film, John Doe is filmed deliberately to give him power. Though he is handcuffed, the low-angled steady shot, with Doe centered, gives him the clear upper hand. At one point in the sequence, the sun even provides Doe with a sort of martyr’s halo. As the scene progresses to its climax, Fincher even takes advantage of cutting and the proximity of characters to show Doe’s mastery over the entire situation.
Spoilers and language and all sorts of things.
This sort of stylized film-making is what Fincher does all the time. But he doesn’t overdo it like a, say, Zack Snyder. He uses very few close-ups—the thing we already said is the cameraman’s most powerful weapon. He also tends to avoid hand-held recording in order to give his audience a feeling of omniscience. He’ll give us intimate scenes with a character (like seeing the inside of their fridge), but he will also use long shots so the viewer can step back and discern for themselves.
I think his greatest display of these filming strategies was in his most recent effort, Gone Girl, a film about [MILD SPOILERS from a 2014 movie] the hostile marriage between Nick (Affleck) and Amy (Pike). Throughout the movie, Fincher eats away at our trust in the main couple by showing us their sparsely and generically decorated house, in addition to shooting each with different color tones and even different lenses. A murder we witness later in the movie is shot with warm, comforting lighting in order to make the attack that much more surprising and nauseating. Still, my favorite scene is in the final act when Amy returns to Nick, having failed in her attempts to orchestrate Nick’s destruction. She returns, covered in blood, to a bewildered Nick who begrudgingly embraces her in front of the expectant media. The scene is shot in bright light with vivacious colors, creating a visual dissonance in what we are seeing and how we feel. Amy forces Nick into a Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind-esque pose to boot.
Gone Girl provides us with a perfect example of using the camera and the visuals to give a movie a distinctive, beautiful, aesthetically-important style. It is a movie that works, and if you’ve seen it, you’ll remember it. Because that’s what good cinematography does. I know the logistics of camera movement is not usually what we talk about when we remember back on a movie, but it is what makes a scene so memorable. That scene you love shot any other way wouldn’t be that scene you love.