Django Unchained and the dated shooting devices that no longer hit the target

Plus: small is beautiful for Strindberg and why critics' cliches leave us cold

Related Topics

I found myself thinking again the other day about the
perishability of film-grammar. It was watching Django Unchained
that did it – Quentin Tarantino's bloody, cheerfully vulgar homage
to the spaghetti Western. It's full of allusions to a film-making
style that he clearly loves, the most conspicuous of which are
crash-zooms, or super-fast zoom-ins, a bit of film language that
now looks to us as irretrievably dated as knitted tank tops and
platform boots. And thinking about those self-consciously antique
dabs of style, I remembered seeing Peter Strickland's film
Berberian Sound Studio last year and also wondering then what it
was that divided the durable devices of cinema from the transitory
and merely fashionable ones.

On the one hand, you have something like a tracking shot – which individual directors can easily do without, but which remains, year-in, year-out a familiar part of cinema syntax – and on the other you have the whip-pan and the crash-zoom, inventions of style that now seem irretrievably antiquated. I'm not even sure it's possible to use a crash-zoom un-ironically anymore, without the accompanying sense that a director is trying on a foreign "accent".

One answer to this question might be that it's just too early to say. Fashion doesn't look like fashion when you're in the thick of it, after all, so it's possible that one day the crash-zoom will have lain fallow for long enough to be employed without a self-conscious sense of film history. Is the iris-out wipe -– that edit beloved of silent cinema – gone for ever or might it too one day be employed again, without bringing with it an overtone of the antique? Both are possible I suppose but it doesn't really feel as if it's likely and it still doesn't address the underlying question as to why some camera movements are timeless while others appear so time-soaked that they can only be used in an allusive manner.

Violence must have something to do with it, and not the violence of what's depicted on screen but the violence with which our own perceptions are wrenched about by the technology. A tracking shot is, after all, a motion of the camera that adapts itself to the way we look when we're not in the cinema. The Steadicam of our head supplies one every time we walk down the street or look out of a train window.

The crash-zoom, on the other hand, is an attempt to re-create on screen an effect that has no real visual equivalent in daily life – the sudden mental concentration on a single detail in a large scene. When you watch a slow pan on screen, it isn't actually what you see in real life if you turn your head (Try it. Our version is actually a series of overlapped edits smoothed by cerebral post-production into something less jerky). But it's close enough to pass. A crash-zoom, by contrast, insists that what you're watching has come through a camera.

Did it ever feel natural, I wonder? Or was it always a mannerism that stuck out of the flow of the film in a self-advertising way? And if the latter is true, might that be one component of cinematic gestures with a short shelf life? If you're ignorable you'll endure. If you're not you'll have a short glittering career, fussed over by the fashionable and appearing in all the smartest places, before another novelty comes along and you're just raw material for a nostalgia quiz. That's what the crash-zooms in Django Unchained feel like. "Oh, remember them!" you think, "They used to be everywhere!"

Perhaps it was just a phase that film went through, an answer to the question "Is this all there is?" And only after experimentation could they go back to what had worked all along. I hope so anyway. I never liked tank tops either.

Small is beautiful for Strindberg

Calculating the optimal distance from an actor rather depends on the actor concerned, obviously. Some performers are best experienced from across the English Channel. But a recent visit to Trafalgar Studio Two, to see Strindberg's Dance of Death, reminded me just how enjoyable proximity can be when the actors are good. I don't suppose it's the smallest theatre in London but it must be close and you're rarely much more than 10 feet from the performers. The odd thing is that the economics of the theatre tend to deliver this intimacy as a budget affair, when in some ways it should be priced as a scarce luxury. Go small occasionally this year. It can be fascinating.

Why critics' cliches leave us cold

"Heartwarming and uplifting," runs a quote attributed to Classic FM in the advertising for Dustin Hoffman's film Quartet. On reading which my heart chills and I get a sinking feeling. I'm not so Scrooge-like that the cockles don't occasionally kindle and there are films that leave you feeling a little elevated. But would it be possible to describe them in a way that doesn't make them sound dreadful? Cinema advertising rarely diverts far from clichés of praise, but there's something about these ones - with the faint implication that the audience will have its moral defects repaired  - that is peculiarly offputting. In Quartet's case, I don't think I'll  risk it. Too many critics appear to have emerged  as chilly and low-down as when they went in.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A police officer carries a casualty to safety  

Tunisia attack proves that we cannot stop terrorists carrying out operations against Britons in Muslim countries

Robert Verkaik
Alan Titchmarsh MP?  

Alan Titchmarsh MP? His independent manifesto gets my vote

Jane Merrick
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?