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

Share
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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Workers clean the area in front of the new Turkish Presidential Palace prior to an official reception for Republic day in Ankara  

Up Ankara, for a tour of great crapital cities

Dom Joly
Rebekah Brooks after her acquittal at the Old Bailey in June  

Rebekah Brooks to return? We all get those new-job jitters

John Mullin
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future