' ' Cinema Romantico: 5 Movie Moments Of Significant Technical Personal Influence

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

5 Movie Moments Of Significant Technical Personal Influence

Recently on his site - And So It Begins - Alex Withrow broke down the infamous Spike Lee double dolly shot, the shot wherein, as Alex writes, “(Lee) sets up a dolly per usual, then puts the actor on another dolly, and moves the camera and the actor at the same time.” This gives the impression that the actor and/or the character is floating through the air.

As I communicated to him in the comments, I vividly recall the first time I saw this shot. This is because “Malcolm X” was the first Spike Lee film I had ever seen and being released in the fall of 1993 it arrived but a few short months after I had first seen “Last of the Mohicans” (on home video) and therefore just begun my free fall into cinematic obsession. I was still in the infant stages of grasping the inner-workings of a film and very late in “Malcolm X”, in a titanic performance that should have won him the Oscar (though Pacino should have won an Oscar years earlier so the Academy had to square with him first), as the title character makes his way to the Audubon Ballroom where his assassination awaits, Sam Cooke’s astonishing “A Change Is Gonna Come” augmenting the mood, he appears to float just above the sidewalk courtesy of the double dolly, illuminating Malcolm’s own sense of looming fate. It’s a moment to take away your breath. It took away mine, that’s for sure, partly because of the moment’s emotion and partly because I remember thinking, “What is the camera DOING?”

It was one of the earliest moments I consciously became aware of how a movie was being made. Those are big moments when you’re young. These were the biggest.

5 Movie Moments Of Significant Technical Personal Influence

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark. The moment in the Nepalese bar when Indy enters to greet Marion but we don’t see him – rather, we see his shadow looming over her. Although I was at an age where I still would have thought “ALF” made for good TV, I’m still pretty sure I saw this and thought, “Great shot. GREAT.SHOT.” (And almost as good was the moment later in the same scene when you don’t see the Nazi thug get shot – you see the Nazi thug’s shadow get shot.)

1 (A). Adventures of Robin Hood. Almost a copycat of the “Raiders” moment (which is to say, the “Raiders” moment is almost a copycat of this one), in the midst of the climactic fencing tete-a-tete between heroic Robin of Locksley and nefarious Sir Guy of Gisbourne (the greatest cinematic swordfight of all time, and this is NOT debatable) the two men carry their duel just off screen and we continue to watch as their interlocked shadows are brilliantly cast against a colossal castle pillar. It is breathtaking (regardless of how many times it has been parodied). At this point in my life I honestly cannot remember if I saw this shadow (as I've written many times before I was practically raised on Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland pictures) or the “Raiders” shadow first so they both should be mentioned.

2. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. John Hughes' 1986 day-in-the-life classic was, as I have written many times before, a seminal film in my movie-obsessed existence. But it was not merely seminal from an emotional standpoint, it was also seminal from a filmmaking standpoint. This is to say that all of a sudden Ferris (Matthew Broderick) looked right into the camera - looked right at me! - and started talking. He had broken the fourth wall, though I had no idea what the fourth wall was or, consequently, how one could break it. All I knew was I felt an unexplainable rush - he was inviting me along for his ride and I was more than ready to go.

3. The Untouchables. Sometimes I feel guilty admitting my first real comprehension of camera tricks came via Brian DePalma rather than, say, Martin Scorsese – it’s like admitting “Out of the Blue” had more of an effect on me than “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (which it did) – but when you’re barely a teen “The Untouchables” is easier to digest and process than Scorsese’s much tougher work. Late in the film that charismatic thug Al Capone (Robert DeNiro) sends a couple weapon-toting flunkies to the Racine-set flat of Malone (Sean Connery) to, as they say, take him out. One of the flunkies sneaks in through an open first floor window and tracks Malone through the elongated apartment, down hallways, through rooms, suspense heightening, and it is all seen via the flunky’s swiftly moving Point-of-View. “Wait,” I kinda remember thinking, “this isn’t the camera following Malone. This is the GUY.”

4. Pulp Fiction. I have made it more than well known that Uma Thurman’s performance as Mia Wallace is one of the greatest influences on my existence as a movie loving nut job but, of course, this landmark 1994 film was as much about its auteur, Quentin Tarantino, as Uma. And there comes the moment Mia and Vincent (John Travolta) pull up to Jack Rabbit Slims and Vincent decrees he wants to go somewhere else and get a steak and Mia says “You can get a steak here, daddy-o” (which is a line reading of a thousand compliments) and then adds “don’t be a…” which leads to her forming a square in the air which Tarantino actually outlines on the screen as she does it. Bewildered, I thought, “That’s allowed?” Why, yes, “Pulp Fiction” explained, it is.

5. Saturday Night Fever. In high school I was constantly attempting to craft short movies on this massively old-school VHS camcorder (ah, the old days) and I will never forget trying and failing to make this movie about a private detective investigating a rash of drive-by coconutings (do not, under any circumstances, ask) and trying in utter vain to rip off the still-transcendent opening of this disco-era classic. (Perhaps I failed to rip it off because you could tell by the way I walk that I am most decidedly not a woman’s man.) The editing, the camera work, the music, the breezy, Travolta-esque cocksureness, the paint can, it all blends together into an opening set with the snazziest polyester table cloth. It’s straight filmmaking, baby, and somehow, even though I didn’t know that’s what it was, I knew that’s what it was.



Wretched Genius said...

No guilt should be felt about learning from DePalma rather than Scorcese. You at least learned from pre-90's DePalma, when he was a legitimate, important auteur who had not yet descended into self-parody (see also: Francis Ford Coppola).

Alex Withrow said...

Excellent post. I just love personal posts like these.

2. My sentiments exactly. I had never seen a movie in which an actor looks directly into the camera like that. I was so stunned and puzzled. There was a rush there.

3. De Palma = genius. For your listed reason and many many others. Great moment there.

4. ANYTHING is allowed in the world of QT. That was the first time I realized that as well.

Thanks so much for the shout out and link, my friend. So happy I could be of inspiration to this post.