Monday, November 30, 2009

The Car Long Shot in Children of Men

I was listening to the /Filmcast on my way home from work and in the latest After Dark episode they discuss a controversial article by Mike D'Angelo over at The AV Club (for link see the update at the end of this post). In the article D'Angelo discuses and devalues the famous shot inside the car in Children of Men. If you haven't seen the film then stop reading right now and go watch the movie because it is a fantastic piece of cinema and you should go into it with as few preconceptions as possible (a fact D'Angelo's argument proves). If you have seen the film then after the break is an embed of the scene in question and a discussion of D'Angelo's critique.

Essentially D'Angelo's argument is that the complex technical nature of the scene hampers its ability to convey the emotional content. Instead of feeling anxiety towards the situation and concern for the characters, D'Angelo says he was frustrated by the knowledge that the camera was moving in ways that were not physically possible.

The continuous nature of the shot is purportedly to give the scene a more realistic quality, making the viewer feel as though they are actually in the car with the characters as opposed to watching a film. For D'Angelo, however, the knowledge that the camera was periodically taking up the same spaces as characters within the car brought him out of the cinematic fantasy. It frustrated him to be made aware of the tricks being played by the film makers, and be thus reminded that he was in fact watching a movie. D'Angelo sees this as superfluous, flashy film making, calling attention to itself for its technical wizardry more than working to achieve the emotional impact necessitated by the narrative.

All of that is a valid opinion. I strongly disagree, but that's my prerogative. Or so I thought.

D'Angelo, however, chose to put his argument into these evaluative terms (I've underlined the text I want to draw attention to):

"When I’ve argued this subject with friends over the years—and I should note that they all love this scene, and voted it the best of 2006 in an annual movie-nerd poll I conduct—they invariably argue that the absence of discernible cuts creates more of a “documentary” feel, heightening the sense that what we’re seeing is actually happening rather than being carefully manufactured. Obviously, I disagree, since the camera constantly moving into a position where one of the characters ought to be doesn’t scream “untampered” to my eye. More than that, though, I think these folks suffer from a basic misunderstanding about just how cinema—and the human visual system, for that matter—works. They perceive every cut as a little lie, and have the notion that not cutting somehow more closely represents the way we actually see the world. But our visual field does not operate like a Steadicam. If a cut represents a shift in time or location, e.g. flying prehistoric bone to monolithic future space station, that’s one thing. (Yes, I know 2001 is no longer the future.) But if it merely represents a shift in angle, as most cuts within a given scene do, we tend to perceive it as continuity, so long as it isn’t deliberately jarring in some way. Traditional montage works precisely because it’s what we’re accustomed to in real life."

This qualification of general opinions puts the argument into terms that I necessarily and vehemently oppose. Furthermore I would posit that D'Angelo is guilty of exactly the "misunderstanding" which he attributes to basically anyone who liked the shot.

I disagree with D'Angelo's attempt to prove that our vision does, in fact, accommodate for shot editing like in film. The human eye does blink, and we do lose some visual information when we turn our heads quickly, but generally speaking our perception is a continuous stream from a single perspective. I am not alone in thinking this.

Most basic film courses teach that switching between shots is a visual phenomenon unique to film. As D'Angelo correctly points out, it is one of the fundamental aspects of film that both defines it as a medium and gives it the potential for artistic representation. In this way it necessarily signals its form. To put that in more elucidatory terms, switching between camera shots itself calls attention to the fact that one is watching a film because it is so unique to cinema and so counter to natural visual sensory perception. D'Angelo would disagree with this statement but he is wholly and fundamentally wrong.

I could pontificate about long shots in narrative cinema and Children of Men but I doubt that anyone's particularly interested in me promoting my own opinion like that. Briefly, I will say that in Children of Men the incredible and unique camera work not only impresses from a technical perspective but also enhances the narrative by giving the film a more realistic quality. Rather than showing us a series of cuts that depict a scene from a number of visual angles, the long shots achieve a greater degree of narrative immersion. We the audience experience the story in the same way that the characters do, and the only "cuts" come when/if we remember to blink; stopping just shy of allowing us to direct where the camera points, the cinematography makes it seem as though we are actually in the narrative.

I can only imagine what film makers with this kind of talent will be able to do with 3D technologies...

As a final point, I said before that I found out about the article by listening to the /Filmcast; David Chen and co. brought Mike D'Angelo onto the show to essentially tear his argument apart, but evenhandedly allow him to respond in turn. At a certain point during the podcast D'Angelo admits that he saw the film late in its release, and was already aware of the long shots before he went into the theatre. I would strongly suggest that his opinion of the film was influenced by his prior knowledge, and more than that I would argue the nature of his experience of the film completely undermines his entire argument (not that it had much of a leg to stand on in the first place).

To reiterate, he says that his awareness of the impossibility of the camera movements reminded him that he was watching a film, and distracted him from experiencing the emotional impact of the narrative. More than that he argues that anyone who feels differently "suffer[s] from a basic misunderstanding about just how cinema—and the human visual system, for that matter—works." He states his opinion such that it implicitly posits that he watched the movie in a way that is both different from and more correct than the general public. Based on reading his article and hearing him defend himself, I argue that his distraction from the narrative during the long shots was an effect of his subjective prejudices and preoccupations during his viewing of the film. He was only distracted by the long shots because what he had heard in advance predetermined him to specifically analyze them in such a way as to draw his attention away from the narrative. His complaints are not with the film itself but with his own experience of it.

In short, Mike D'Angelo is wrong, and Children of Men is a fantastic movie with some of the most impressive and artful camerawork in recent memory.

(Update 12/1/09): I just wanted to add that D'Angelo's defends his extreme rhetoric by saying that "if I was always equivocating that would make for bad writing." That's true to an extent (equivocation), but does saying something extreme just to get a rise out of people and garner attention for yourself make for better writing? No, but it does make for hits on your website and thus a pay increase. What D'Aneglo has done is whore out his opinion, for reasons one can easily infer by listening to the entirety of the /Filmcast episode linked to above.

I've moved my link to his article to here, check it out if you're interested in reading his whole piece but know that a fundamental reasoning behind his argument is that its extreme terms will increase his readership. You're helping him by viewing his article, and while I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing he's designed the article to attract assistance in a bit of a slimy way. This could easily be said of many/most opinion pieces on the internet, but it's particularly true of this one.


  1. I have never studied cinema, but of course D'Angelo's remarks are insulting to people in general. His piece belongs in the NY Observer and not in the AV Club.

  2. I know *I'm* taken out of the moment when I watch, say, a James Bond movie and I'm all "Oh, like there would really *JUST* happen to be a camera there when this man is parachuting to then ski down a mountain!"

    That's why lately I've been limiting my movie intake entirely to footage of people exiting factories. I think D'Angelo should do the same.

  3. Before stating that someone is "wholly and fundamentally wrong" for their assumptions please quote a source more reliable than "Most basic film courses". Don't forget that you didn't see the gorilla in the attention test. For a few more fun adventures into psychology let me add this classic:

    Arocdnicg to rsceearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale.

    and this link:
    for some good visual illusions.

    My examples point to the fact that our visual system fills in gaps. In fact this isn't unique to vision. When people listen to music and speech they also fill in the gaps, often hearing notes and words that weren't actually there. So I argue with D'Angelo and say that cuts aren't that jarring to normal viewer. It's harder to ignore a big hairy gorilla and very easy to ignore a cut when you're focused on the movie.

  4. I don't actually have anything against the visuals in the movie. I believe that the visuals were the best and only good part of this cinematic disappointment. As a science fiction fan I was hoping that the plot would, oh I don't know, go somewhere. The idea of a barren species is interesting and terrifying enough to warrant more than a simple introduction followed by an impressive action sequence. Maybe I wouldn't have been so bored had there been some interesting dialogue leading to some character development. My review of this movie is very similar to the scene in Clerks 2 where the guy quickly enacts all three Lord of the Rings movies. My version: guy finds woman, runs around, woman is safe, the end.

  5. Mike D'Angelo is an overwhelming ridiculous Art-F whose pretentiousness is exceeded only by his lack of actual talent and skill at, well, pretty much anything. Arent nearly all film critics failed writers?

    I myself, have been called (wrongly, I must add) a hyper-critical snob before, and by many, so my ability to empathize with both sides is great. But I have never written to slander anything for the sake of ego, and never where it wasnt due to a heinous crime by the director/writers. "It takes one, to know one", applies here.

    I'd be the first one lining up to punish foolish decisions made by conformist and talentless directors who must resort to pathetic gimmicks. Not this time though. Mike's point is comical. His suspenders of disbelief are far too precariously balanced. His childish reasons for seeking to diminish the value of that shot are the stuff of comedy. How could someone like that enjoy....ANYTHING? He has no reason to crituque anything, given his compromised ability to observe.

    There comes a point in which critique crosses into ego and pretense. And often times those guilty are not even fully aware of it themselves, which is an entire topic on it's own, involving delusional behavior. But the line has clearly been crossed by Mikey D'Angelo.

    With so many vile crimes being committed by directors/writers, he is barking up the wrong tree. But like many of his "sort", you can and MUST slander for the sake of slander. Integrity is little more then a funny multi-syllable word to those people. Believe me, I know. You only need to befriend, work for/with, or co-exist with a few of them before you start seeing behavior/terms/actions so incredibly predictable that it redefines your notions of what you previously thought extreme and brutal predictability was. You'd find more colorful variations in the personalities of neo-Nazi's living in Alabama then you will with the painfully typical ego-oriented, untalented, hyper-critical, unsuccessful film critics.

    Check out his Twitter, it speaks loudly.

    Chill out, Mikey, you buffoon.