Monday, June 9, 2014

Close is Long

The technical aspects of film are more important than anything else.

Sergei Eisenstein, the guy who was famous for doing this:

wrote in 1945 about three ways to view and criticism a film, and because the guy apparently had no sense of restraint, named these three views in the language of film, with "Close-up", "Medium-shot" and "Long-shot". "Long-shot" is looking at the film through the lens (ha!) of society. It's the political and social level of the film. "Medium-shot" is the one that focuses on the characters. You might even say that this is the "psychological" level of film criticism. The final view of criticism is "Close-up", which focuses on the elements of the film itself -- how the scene is shot, the sound, the colors and things like that.

When I write here, on this blog, I tend to focus more on Long and Medium than Close, that is mainly because I don't have enough technical knowledge of film to feel like I can write something and share it with the public and even pretend to know what I'm talking about. (I'm getting better! I'm just not there yet.) That doesn't mean, however, that when I talk with my friends I don't bring things like this up, and even occasionally when writing in Korean, I'll note a certain atmosphere or visual style that a film has created.

When I first read Eisenstein's assessment about these "three views", I felt that he had correctly identified two modes of criticizing movies (the Long and Medium) and then incorrectly categorized the technical aspects of film along with them. After all, the message that a movie sends, and the way the characters interact with each other and themselves is totally removed from simple questions of how the movie is technically made. Right?

Well, let's talk about Signs.

Yes I'm for real. Despite having a poorly-written, preachy script with a nonsensical twist at the end, there are a lot of good technical aspects, and to this day, I still admire how well some scenes are shot. Like this one:

Now, again, I don't know as much about movies as I pretend to and I know even less about psychology, but the way this scene travels from the long-distance, wide view of him standing in the open to the more claustrophobic view of him actually standing in the cornfield is a technical aspect (a "Close-up" element) but it shows the psychological effect of Mel Gibson's fear (a "Medium-shot" element). This is how Close becomes Medium, and is just one example of how "Close-Up" views are the most important in filmmaking.

Let's take another example from The Winter Soldier. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a clip for this one, so just use your imagination/memory. Fairly close to the start of the movie, Cap and Nick Fury are talking face-to-face in front of the huge-ass gunship at the core of the movie. The way they are situated has Cap on one side (on the left, incidentally), Fury on the other and the gunship looming in the background between them. As it happens, they're talking about the ethical issues in using something like the ship in preemptive strikes. The way the scene is shot shows their opposing viewpoints and the looming threat of the ships, while giving us insight into how they think problems should be dealt with. This, of course, is also a proxy conversation for current US military and intelligence strategies involving preemptive strikes. Again, the three views here are on the full display, but the technical aspects to this scene add so much more than if Cap and Fury were just walking down the hall or talking into the camera.
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