A beginning series of ideas about cinema, arguments taking place in dark rooms and open fields with myself
Perspective is key to cinema. It’s not only a question of what the story is about and who these characters are. Another important question is, from where does this story come, from whose eyes.
I suppose there are stories where there is no real persective, where the camera is everywhere and nowhere, a sort of god or unconscious force that sees all. Certainly some great films have come from this “style”. But I believe that most movies look and feel this way because the filmmakers ignored the question of perspective. They were lazy. Or perhaps they have never thought on these terms, too wrapped in their own dilemnas, adrift in a sea of capturing something “cinematic” amidst waves of shot lists and storyboards.
But I cannot separate myself from perspective. I cannot place the camera without asking myself why it’s there and the reason for this director is tied to the point of view. Does this mean that every shot has to be a literal POV? No. But the shots should reflect the world the character sees and the level from which he/she sees it.
So take any regular movie or novel. The director or author moves the story around. Sometimes we leave the main character to interact with others. This decision can be purposeful, a glimpse into other perspectives, but it’s most often lazy storytelling. The director or author lets us see this information because we need to know it to understand the story. But the main character doesn’t know it. Why should we?
When a character makes a phone call in a movie, why do we often see the other side of the phone conversation? He or she doesn’t. We are provided outsider information and the perspective is broken. But if the filmmaker stays true to the perspective, we are locked in a world from the beginning of the story to the end. And this is effective cinema.
Perhaps one day I will experiment with multiple perspectives, but right now I am only interested in stories told from one. When the movie begins, we are with this person and we stay with them until the last frame. Everything they see and don’t see is all we are allowed and the rest a mystery.
I am disappointed to see smart filmmakers who don’t consider this in their work. We have become brainwashed in our methods of scene shooting. Take the action thriller Drive for example. A good film by a good director named Nicolas Winding Refn. Now Refn’s early work, three crime films called the Pusher trilogy, was all based on following his chosen characters at the ground level. For Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive, I was excited to see shots from within the car, especially during the chase scenes which did not always retreat to the typical methods of shooting such actions. After all, we are with this very simple man and he is our guy from beginning to end. But Refn throws in countless aerial shots of the city. These helicopter tracking shots of downtown cityscapes at night are so tired and old, images traded from one film to the next and no one seems to ask the question, “Why are we filming from up here?” Especially in the case of Refn’s movie, why does he show us this total foreign perspective when the story is really based around a smaller view of the world, out the window of a car.
If I shot a cityscape (and I have already for our next Noir film The Detective’s Lover), I would shoot it from the ground with characters looking up at the night-lit buildings. Because this is what we see when we inhabit these environments.
Of course, not all decisions on films must be deliberate. But I feel we’re in an age of mindless movie-making and directors are not making movies from the mind, heart or gut, but from a zombie-like sense of repetition.
I’d like to share a section from an interview with Jean Luc Godard that raises questions about perspective.
Often when I see camera movement in films today, I think of a line by Cocteau: “Why dolly along a moving horse, since it makes it look like it’s standing still?” I have a feeling most directors today move the camera because they have seen it moving in other films. Now, this is something that, in a way, I have done myself to a certain extent. But I did it in a totally conscious and deliberate way: I copied a Douglas Sirk dolly move the same way a younger painter copies the work of a master as practice. But today it looks like a lot of the young directors move the camera to make their films look “cinematic”. They look like they’re not quite certain why they frame this way or why they move this way–and it doesn’t seem to particularly bother them.