Its been a while and the only thing I have worth writing about has to be kept quiet at the moment so I thought I would take the chance to do something I've wanted to do for some time which is talk about my admiration for Steven Spielberg and especially the way in which he uses blocking and camera placement.
I suspect this will only be of interest to people who are as nerdy about films as me but anyone else can give it a try for a few paragraphs and make up their minds. I will say now that I do not think myself a great authority on film but I write this in the hope someone who is not me will find it useful.
While I do not think its entirely true to say there is absolutely no objectivity with regards to art (some films, scripts, photographs, paintings, essays etc. are just bad/good by any measurement) I do believe that no person or thing can be declared OBJECTIVELY to be the best or worst in any artistic endeavor. Someone/thing can be the most or least popular but that's a big difference.
Having said that there does seem to be a consensus among most people that there is a difference between what we perceive as being our 'favourite' and what we think is the 'best'. For instance the famous American critic Roger Ebert has said that 'Casablanca' is his favourite movie but he thinks 'Citizen Kane' is a better movie.
I decided to clear that up as I am about to say that I think Steven Spielberg, as near as objectively as possible, is the greatest director of image and physical movement in motion pictures in the history of the medium. Yes, I think he is a better visualist than Stanley Kubrick, Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Orson Welles, Ozu, Bresson, Kurasawa and (though I would hope this would go without saying) Michael Bay.
The best way I can articulate why I hold this to be true is to explain that in my opinion if you put a fairly competent film director in the same physical environments as the aforementioned directors and gave him/her unlimited time and resources he/she (with the help of a similarly gifted Director of Photography) would eventually return to you as near as exactly the same shots as these directors.
A good analogy? Not really, as anyone with experience/interest in these matters can tell you WHERE a director decides to shoot a scene is just as important visually as HOW. The location where Kubrick would shoot a two handed dialogue scene would differ greatly from where Michael Bay would film the exact same scene etc. so taking this out of the equation is a cheat.
This analogy also does not account for the direction of the actors emotional beats and cues within the scene which is to some people more important than good visuals (I would take issue with this point as I believe the best of both worlds is the ideal). Actors subtle facial/body cues are no less visual than a complicated steadicam or crane shot, so again a bit of a cheat.
I would ask however that you make these two large concessions and any others I may have overlooked as this is the best way in which I can currently give voice to my theory. You would simply never THINK to shoot a scene the way Spielberg does.
Why exactly he stands so apart (at least in my eyes) is somewhat mysterious. His camera placements are not unfathomable, he has a similar visual style in all his films (yes even Schindlers List, more on that later) which means he works from a theory which presumably other directors could work from (indeed apart from my own vain struggles John McTiernan of Die Hard and Bong Joon-Ho of Memories of Murder have come close). He even practices the basics of film-making, setting up the geography of a scene, uses close-ups, editing etc.
Perhaps the key lies in a comment apparently made by Alfred Hitchcock upon seeing Jaws, "Young Spielberg is the first one of us who doesn't see the proscenium arch". Meaning (as wikipedia helpfully puts it) "he was the first mainstream director to visually think outside the spatial dynamics of the theater." If this still doesn't click with you, watch practically any Spielberg scene after reading it and I guarantee it will make instinctive if not literal sense.
Now I have rambled on for many paragraphs (and I still haven't satisfied myself that I've covered all my bases) but I will now provide a quick case study of what I think is Spielberg's finest moment in his finest film in my opinion (I'm getting sick of having to make these disclaimers but I feel I must in the name of intellectual honesty).
Before I start it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that I was inspired to do this by the very fine and sadly seemingly defunct portion of the website http://www.cineobscure.com/?cat=174 which is well worth the read for anyone serious about film.
The scene I speak of is from Schindlers List. The scene serves as part of the introduction of one of the main characters and villain of the piece Amon Goeth played in a career best turn by Ralph Fiennes.
To properly dissect the scene I must address the previous scene. For this scene I will just use a wide shot to help anyone who's seen the film orient themselves as to where it appears, and the final shot of the scene as it directly links to the one I wish to discuss.
Goeth is asked to choose a housekeeper from a group of Jewish women.
Clearly taken by Helen Hirsch (played by Embeth Davidtz) he chooses her despite her lack of domestic experience. The scene climaxes in a simple yet effective example of Spielbergs visual style.
A close up on Helen's face before she is led away:
which turns into a close up of Goeth as he hears some off-screen noise which leads us to the scene at hand. Most directors would have used an isolated close up of Goeth for this moment, indeed a face on close up of Goeth is previously used in this scene, I have just chosen to omit it.
Why did Spielberg or possibly his editor Michael Kahn choose to use this shot for the transition to the next scene? I suspect its because the eyeline to the next shot is more pleasing and logical this way.
This neatly brings us to the scene I wish to discuss, which I think in a strong field is Spielberg's finest moment. We have already heard a commotion happening offscreen which catches Goeths attention. We cut to:
Apologies for the shitty screengrab but I can't go frame by frame on the program I have.
When we cut to this shot it is already dollying backwards. Lets dwell on what we can see for a moment, look at all the extras in the shot all of whom must be paid, fed and clothed. Look at the sets. This is not a typical well balanced symmetrical establishing shot. Spielberg has a knack of choosing a somewhat unusual yet pleasing shot in order to best show off the geography of his locations.
In this shot our attention specifically is drawn to the woman in the dead centre of the screen who is shouting at someone and to the army officer on the bottom left of the screen. We follow him more however as the camera is moving with him.
This frame shows one of my favourite aspects of Spielberg's style wherein one shot will turn from one KIND of shot into another, in this case a wide shot into a (nicely framed no less) mid-shot. Notice too how he keeps our interest by introducing the tea from the thermos idea which will pay off to devastating effect later.
We finally settle to this shot which I would be reluctant to call a wide shot but its clearly not a mid-shot either. The only appropriate label would be a master shot which is generally the shot you use to orient the viewer to the placement of characters before cutting in for close-ups. The officer explains to Goethe that the screaming woman is saying they must tear down the building and rebuild it.
I include the above screen as he screams as loud as he can at her "You fucking bitch!!!". While this is not a visual moment it adds interest to the scene as we learn just how angry the man is. Notice too how the soldier on the right has entered. He helps to frame the action and his presence means that when the Jewish woman enters the scene she is dwarfed and surrounded by men we know are hostile to her, it is important to note that this is not an accident, the man would have to be told exactly where to stand and he would have been told specifically when to move into position. Spielberg has lots going on in the scene but still must concentrate on details like this.
The Jewish woman enters and explains passionately but clearly why the building must be torn down and rebuilt. Notice we now have a perfectly balanced composition.
The woman explains she is a University educated architect. I include this frame as you will notice she has moved closer to the camera as she says this, showing that she is growing confident reason will prevail and she will be listened to. This is interesting as you will note she moves closer to the CAMERA not to Goeth which in a strictly realistic sense is what she should do. This is a rather good example of Spielberg's camera and blocking sense. The girl has moved to a new emotional beat so Spielberg (it may possibly have been the actresses suggestion) has had her move to signify this visually instead of cutting to a new angle which is what a lot of directors do in an instance like this. Why no cut? We'll find out in a few more frames.
Goeth moves away and surveys the site. We've just met this man and about all we know is that he's a bit of a dick but no worse than any other Nazi's we've seen so far in the film. Notice how all attention is now on him. Spielberg has said he likes the audience to be their own editor sometimes, this is a good example of this as we have created our own Goeth close up without having to physically cut to one, emphasised by everyone else in the scene now looking at him.
He calls over the guard from the start of the scene:
We watch the man walk over, again keeping the scene visually alive . This is where I think the true reason to shoot the scene in this manner reveals itself.
Goeth simply says to the man "shoot her". There is no underlining of the point, we are looking at basically the same shot, we have not cut and there has been no impression so far that this man could be this callous. Because we are still looking at a simple shot, with no emphasis on the moment we feel the shock and the sense of surrealism that something so horrific as ordering a person to be killed can be so banal and delivered with such nonchalance in the middle of what seemed like a normal conversation.
An important moment, we have now mentally edited a close up of the girl. All eyes in the audience are on her now and we share her shock and disbelief. Surely this man is not serious?
Indeed even the guard on the right, previously mute chimes in "but sir, she's foreman of construction". A clever move giving a character on the opposite side of the screen the dialogue as it keeps our eyes darting across the screen adding visual interest. Goeth is implacable however and simply says "we are not going to have arguments with these people".
This leads the most daring moment of the scene. The entire scene has been shot on a rather wide lens. If I had to guess I'd say it was a 20mm or under but I am not familiar enough with 35mm spherical lenses. Traditionally wide angle lenses are 'zany' as they accentuate movement to an almost cartoonish effect at times, especially when dollying quickly towards something. In this instance Spielberg uses this technique phenomenally successfully for the exact opposite reason.
The guard coming towards her starts the dolly move in which is enhanced dramactically by moving towards characters that are in turn coming towards it.
We see the girls reaction. Can these really be the final moments of her life?
We finish up on what is for my money the most devastating moment in the film. The girls reaction (incidentally the actress is Elina Lowensohn) hits us like a ton of bricks. The immediacy of being so close to her and the power of her reaction sums up for me what Spielberg wanted to say with the film. What can one say to an evil force that will not be reasoned with? What is there to say? Why won't they listen?
I'm going to assume the scene was shot with a jib arm on a dolly as its too steady to have been a steadicam and I have seen Spielberg use them in behind the scenes on other films. I assume this as the camera now moves with the characters as they turn left and walk away.
Another devastating moment. This woman who we've gotten to know and sympathise with is going to be killed and this guard isn't even distracted from cooling his tea. Notice too the guard now serves to frame the shot. Another perfectly framed shot without any cuts.
This is the final beat of the shot. A frame which any director would be proud of if he had framed it on a tripod and yet it is the FIFTH frame which Spielberg has had in one shot.
This shot runs for 1min and 17secs. I contend that even the most ardent film nerd would not notice that it is done in one take on the first viewing, such is its dramatic power and its brilliant framing re-inventions. The shot is perhaps one of the most brilliant technical shots in all of cinema yet at no time does the technique call attention to itself.
I have said however that Spielberg uses the basics of film-making and he does so even in this scene. He eventually cuts to this shot:
Interestingly it is now a long lens shot of Helen who has not been in the preceding scene at all, as she watches whats to come. I suspect this shot might not have worked as well with a wide lens and as we will see the next shot could not have been shot without a long lens so perhaps one was used in this shot so the cut to the next shot would not be as jarring.
I feel the long lens gives this shot a documentary like immediacy. I'm not quite sure why but I suspect that any filmed violence similar to this I might have seen that actually WAS a documentary was filmed with a long lens as obviously a cameraman can't get too close to this kind of violence. Spielberg has said his style on the film was inspired by old WW2 newsreels so I suspect this was a conscious decision on his part and the audiences gut reaction to it is a subconscious one.
The actresses reaction to the gunshot is frighteningly realistic, so much so that I was unable to capture it in a single frame so I'll use this moment of the girl dead on the ground.
Note how she is semi-obscured by the logs adding to the realism. The camera then tilts up with the guard as he walks away.
His face registers a look of mild agitation like someone asked to do slightly more work than they have to.
There is another shot in the scene I will include for closure, again we will see Spielberg's use of multiple frames in one shot.
The shot dollies along with Goeth. We are back on a wide lens now and we see again a large amount of expensive extras and props in the back ground and we can see where Helen was standing in relation to the scene.
Adding to the madness Goeth is instructing the guards "Take it down, repour it, rebuild it. Like she said".
He is ushered off by his adjutant as Helen stands terrified.
Ending the scene on a somewhat unusual shot. I suspect it was shot in this manner to accentuate Helen's uncertainty and fear as we see her shivering and terrified all alone surrounded by madness.
I have gone on for far too long but I will wrap up by addressing why I think shooting the scene this way is BETTER than shooting it in coverage with say a wide shot with various close ups for each characters.
All I can say is that to me this way is more elegant, and for me, in art, elegance counts. In this film Spielberg uses all his gifts as a film-maker in service of telling a story that I think we can all agree is universally of great importance. The benefit of his doing this is that people who would normally be put off by the subject matter can sit through the movie and be entertained. Yes ENTERTAINED. The film is gruelling, horrifying, shocking and worse of all seemingly to a modern audience, historical. Yet it is not difficult to sit through the film and that I think is the films greatest strength.
Films such as Shoah and Night and Fog may have more intellectual and historical integrity but how many people reading this have ever even heard of them? Thought so.
In summary of my feelings about his skill it is my opinion that in 400+ years Spielberg will be remembered as we remember people like Shakespeare, Beethoven and DaVinci. He will be seen as a man outside of and ahead of his time who understood the medium better than anyone.
I suspect I would have to write a novel to fully justify my conjecture that he is OBJECTIVELY the best but I hope this will suffice for now. I hope anyone who has made it this far will have found it useful and even if you just feel like going out and watching Schindlers List again I won't consider my time wasted.