What We Write About When We Write About Filmmaking, by David Bax
About a year ago, the critic Matt Zoller Seitz posted an article on rogerebert.com encouraging those who write about film and television to write more about the actual filmmaking. Well, to be precise, he did less “encouraging” and more “strenuous scolding” but, regardless of his tone, his point was a vital one. Tyler and I found it to be so significant, in fact, that we devoted an entire episode to it. True to our usual style, we failed to come to a consensus but I felt at the time – and continue to feel – that more attention being paid to form and structure can only be a good thing.
But what kind of attention? Another thing that happened about a year ago was HBO’s airing of “Who Goes There,” the fourth episode of True Detective. By that point in its run, the show had already caught fire among the TV-watching cognoscenti. The flame turned to an explosion, though, at the end of “Who Goes There” with a virtuosic and enthralling six-minute, unbroken take that followed a character from a home invasion gone disastrously wrong through a neighborhood engulfed in chaos and finally into a getaway car. The take involved stunts and gunfire, dozens of extras, multiple vehicles (including a helicopter) and, at one point, the camera going from running along to the ground to floating over a fence back down into the next yard and continuing with the cameraman once again on foot. The amount of choreography, both in front of and behind the camera, required to execute this shot is staggering. And even if you didn’t notice while watching that the take was unbroken (I didn’t), the effect is palpable. Director Cary Fukunaga uses the lack of cuts to sustain tension. The shot’s subject is deeply entrenched in a very dangerous situation. Getting out of it will be a harrowing feat and Fukunaga doesn’t give us the luxury of skipping over any second of it.
So, as a proponent of giving attention to actual filmmaking choices and techniques, I hypothetically should have been over the moon when this bravura shot was the only thing people could talk about the next day. Alas, there was something sticking too firmly in my craw to allow me to enjoy it. Far too large a portion of those praising Fukunaga’s long take were – incorrectly in my opinion – referring to it as a “tracking shot.”
And now, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s Rope-inspired cinematography in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman racking up awards, this clumsy misnomer has surged back into the conversation. So, to clarify my position, the term “tracking shot” has one main definition and one alternate one that’s a little trickier. In the strictest sense, in order to be a tracking shot, the camera must be on tracks. That means the apparatus is a fixed distance from the ground and cannot, as a whole unit, move from right to left. It can pan and tilt but, as a point in space, the camera is locked into the path of the tracks. Think of Godard’s camera rolling alongside the traffic jam in Weekend. The less strict definition, necessitated by the advent of the Steadicam, sees the camera loosed from its track but following the subject in the same general manner it would were an invisible track present. Think of Kubrick following Danny around the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Large chunks of the shot in True Detective can be chalked up to the latter reading but not the whole thing. And Birdman has even less content that qualifies, as a percentage of the whole.
Why is this important? Well, like the Brian Williams debacle, it’s about credibility. The scope of what constitutes criticism in the internet age has expanded beyond measure. In most ways, that democratization is a boon for all of us. But it also means that, those who want to be heard above the din have to yearn to be taken more seriously. Loose conversation about movies has its place on Twitter, Reddit and the like. But if we sound ignorant or amateurish when we strive to be something more, we live down to stereotypes.
I don’t mean to insist that everyone who writes about movies needs to be fully versed in the shoptalk of film production. You don’t have to be able to thoroughly explain differences in shutter speed to describe how the sharp and jittery look of Saving Private Ryan’s opening sequence effects the emotional impact. You don’t have to be able to describe what “bleach bypass” means to comment on the silvery, contrast-heavy look that was so popular in the first decade of this century (Alexander, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind).
The point is that you don’t have to be esoteric in order to write about movies. The people so widely misusing “tracking shot” clearly love cinema. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be so tickled by technique. But using words you don’t understand to make yourself sound smarter actually makes you sound less smart. Seitz implored film and television critics to bring more respect to filmmaking. Being cavalier about terms of art has the exact opposite effect.