' Cinema Romantico: A Defense Of The Tracking Shot

Friday, February 22, 2008

A Defense Of The Tracking Shot

(NOTE: If you have not seen "Atonement" and know nothing about it and want to see it without knowing anything about it do not read any of the following.)

When I first saw "Atonement" the night it opened in Chicago I had no idea it contained a tracking shot that seemed to last about twenty minutes longer than its actual five. Set at Dunkirk during WWII one of our main characters, Robbie (James McAvoy), and two of his fellow soldiers parade along the beach, witnessing horror after horror, as the camera moves with them and keeps going and going and going....

In my original (and admittedly - after now re-reading it - still-rosy-glow-on-my-cheeks) review I made mention of a tracking shot but did not give away where and when. Of course, every review I read after seeing the film (as you may know, I do not read reviews of the movies I most desperately want to see prior to seeing them) not only makes mention of the tracking shot but tells you where and when it happens. Is this why I find the tracking shot so mesmerizing? Is it because I knew not a thing of it beforehand and so I didn't have a "you-better-show-me-how-good-you-are" attitude going in? Is it because I had no pre-conceived notions and therefore was not instantly ready to harp on it once it happened, as we Americans are prone to do regarding anything that gets talked-up?

The greatest tracking shots have earned a special place in cinematic lore. You know the three, the opening in "Touch of Evil", the nightclub in "Goodfellas", and the opening/nightclub in "Boogie Nights". Those three are Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson on the Mount Rushmore of Tracking Shots.

Orson Welles' shot in "Touch of Evil" is the godfather and the man did it without a steadicam - all crane. But in my mind it doesn't resonate as much as the other two because it is not as thematic. In "Goodfellas" Scorsese's camera follows Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco as he escorts her through the back entrance of the club and through the hallways and the kitchen and out onto the floor and so on and so forth. It's impressive camerawork, yes, but what the scene really shows us is the world of Ray Liotta's character unfurling extravagantly before Lorraine Bracco. How could she not get caught up in the gangster lifestyle after such an introduction. Likewise the virtuoso tracking shot to open Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights" starts outside the club and then moves inside but rather than existing solely to make your jaw drop it lays out an entire family, albeit a slightly dysfunctional one, for us.

The other famed tracking shots, such as Altman's in "The Player" (in which they reference "Touch of Evil's" shot) or maybe even Tarantino's in "Kill Bill", are impressive technically but don't go above and beyond.

Joe Wright's tracking shot at Dunkirk in "Atonement" is quite a technical achievement, no question, but it also comments on the film's theme and I cannot for the life of me figure out how anyone cannot see the same thing.

The theme of "Atonement" is imagination vs. reality and the tracking shot shows the reality of WWII coming not just at Robbie (James McAvoy) but at the audience in one, single unstoppable torrent. This is the movie's ultimate argument for how reality drowns out the imagination (which one winds in the end I won't give away).

As I watched the tracking shot unfold I, honest to God, didn't even realize it was happening in a single take until it was very nearly done. But, again, I wasn't sitting there the whole movie waiting for it because I didn't know it was coming. I wasn't conditioned to be ready for it, much like Robbie was in no way ready for everything that comes at him in the tracking shot.

Do I have a little anger in me? A little bias? I most certainly do. "Atonement" seems to be sort of an ugly step-sister in this whole Oscar Best Picture horse race. A lot of critics have crapped on the tracking shot in "Atonement" as being a "LOOK AT ME!" statement and then turn around and lavish canyons of praise on the theatrical conclusion of "There Will Be Blood". To my eyes (which, truth be told, are adorned with coke-bottle glasses), the end of "There Will Be Blood" screams "LOOK AT ME!" a whole hell of a lot more than the tracking shot in "Atonement".

I'm certain I've opened myself up to a multitude of counter-arguments with my diatribe and that's fine. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Mine is that "Atonement's" tracking shot is Theodore Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore.

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