Thursday, September 17, 2009


by Steven Boone
2009 is the year I quit film criticism for the fourth or fifth time. It was sort of like the local crazy homeless guy quitting his post as honorary mayor of the corner. Big whoop. I keep coming back to the block, hoping somebody heard my cry of doom and responded accordingly. The cry goes something like this: Cinema as a popular art form has lost the fundamentals that make its expensive products worth our time. Critics, content that a stubborn minority of classically trained filmmakers still endure at the arthouse and on the festival circuit, happily chalk up the disaster at the multiplex as Other People’s Problem. In other words, caviar for us, scraps for the rabble. It's the blithe attitude of Whole Foods shoppers toward the Food Stamp set, and it's disgusting.

And yet, until recently, virtually every film that made it to the multiplex, sublime or atrocious, was constructed of the same sturdy material: the shot.

I quit film criticism because somebody has banished the shot from mainstream commercial cinema.

The shot, man.

That unit of film composition which lends film its cumulative power and structural integrity.

In place of the shot, like a leaky sandbag in place of a brick, somebody put... Well, what to call it, this fragment of film that has more in common with a spontaneous cutaway during Monday Night Football than with the ruminative, kinetic moving image discovered by Kuleshov, Porter, Griffith, et al? I once jokingly called it a gotcha-fragment, but that doesn't quite get it. The word for “shot” in the new century shall be…


No further explanation necessary, but it might be helpful to provide some examples. Here are some blurbs from your favorite cultural authority, revised:

"No matter how cynical you feel about Hollywood, it is hard not to fall for a film that makes room for a snatch of the Joker leaning out the window of a stolen police car and laughing into the wind, the city’s colored lights gleaming behind him like jewels."-- Manohla Dargis, The Dark Knight review

"A busy opening flurry of mock-news snatches and talking-head documentary chin scratching fills in a grim, disturbingly plausible scenario."-- A.O. Scott, District 9 review

"Snatch" is perfect because it describes the image, the manner in which the image was acquired and what the image does to you. Snatches are snatched and they snatch you. By the waistband of your drawers. So, until equality returned to cinema and the average Joe viewer could enjoy shots again, I was determined to stay on strike.

With Inglourious Basterds, the strike has ended peacefully. Quentin Tarantino’s divine slice of movie love is gloriously snatch-free. Every shot, even the ones that whizz by in a blur of violence, is set in stone, not graphite. Tarantino brought the might and resources of big budget commercial filmmaking to bear on the snatch malaise. No critic could attack the problem any better.

This isn't the first time Tarantino came to the rescue. In fact, each new QT feature rebukes snatch culture. Pulp Fiction arrived in 1994, the same pivotal year that Natural Born Killers, one of the first ever snatch features (ironically from a QT script) gave us a glimpse of the future in big screen storytelling.

Pulp Fiction's success over Natural Born Killer's mediocre run should have told the studios that people go to the darkened theater not to be snatched up but to be lured into a delicious trap. Trouble was that Ho'wood attributed Pulp Fiction's popularity only to the jokes and grisly killings, so it commissioned more smirky, bloody potboilers. As editors began to abandon rules developed over a century of filmmaker-audience call and response in favor of lazy shortcuts their AVID editing consoles enabled, shots morphed into snatches. Directors adopted multiple camera coverage, not for any inspired artistic reasons like Akira Kurosawa on High and Low or Spike Lee on Bamboozled, but merely to burn through script pages more efficiently, a la Richard Donner on the Lethal Weapon series.

Another pop power player, Robert Zemeckis, caught hold of audience attention spans that same year with Forrest Gump and later with Cast Away. (Dave Kehr on Zemeckis: "Like the classical Hollywood filmmakers he studied in the 70's as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California's pioneering Department of Cinema, Mr. Zemeckis is well attuned to the nuances of framing and camera movement. He stands as one of the very few filmmakers in contemporary Hollywood who are fluent and innovative in the visual language of the movies.") Also in '94, Frank Darabont's sleeper Stephen King hit The Shawshank Redemption told a grim prison tale in the manner of Frank Capra, full of Capra hokum but also Capra's patient, cajoling camera.

DVD arrived the following year, and such storytelling was suddenly marked for death. When the DVD market exploded, snatchery went into overdrive. The random access of DVD's primed audiences to accept and expect a steady deluge of gotcha-fragments in virtually any genre. (David Lynch waged a small protest in his Mulholland Dr. DVD by refusing chapter stops. If you wanted to skip ahead to any "good parts" you had to fast forward VCR-style at best.)

Portable media devices and web 2.0 further accelerated the spread of snatch, as editing became a matter of assembling shots intended for screening on a 320 x 240 px screen rather than the 20-footer at your local Loews.

None of these technologies are evil. They have freed consumers and media makers in countless ways. But it’s a post-colonial Africa kind of liberation: How to manage an inherited government and infrastructure without proper instruction, or with corrupt tutors?

Among the snatch criminal elite: D.J. Caruso (Disturbia), Paul Greengrass (the Bourne sequels), Peter Berg (The Kingdom), J.J. Abrams (Star Trek). (Michael Bay, often misidentified as a felony-level purveyor of snatch, is actually as classical in his mise en scene as Spielberg. As with juvenile classicist Robert Rodriguez, he just likes to cut fast.)

Along the way, some filmmakers held fast to the tried and true. Many aging ‘70s auteurs (Spielberg, Coppola, DePalma, Malick, Scorsese, Lumet), of course, kept their cinematographic wits. Bankable directors like Joel Coen (Fargo), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Craig Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock), The Wachowskis (The Matrix), Sam Raimi (Spiderman), Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Steven Soderbergh (the Oceans films), Spike Lee (The Inside Man), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) could be counted on to retain the power of the frame and the well-considered cut. On the lower frequencies, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Alexander Payne (Sideways), David O. Russell (Three Kings) and Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) also kept to the old rules, even as they bent them ever so gracefully to their singular visions.

Even masters of epic bombast like James Cameron (Titanic) and Mel Gibson (Apocalypto) knew that loony borderline kitsch didn't preclude lucid framing, while craftsmen like Ridley Scott suddenly took up the snatch trade in earnest (see the drive-by war flicks Black Hawk Down and Body of Lies). In a universe of his own, Michael Mann spent the aughts getting looser and jazzier on digital video (from Ali to Public Enemies), but never losing an intimate understanding of the rhythms he was subverting.

But it has taken Tarantino, with his infectious love of violent scenarios and grindhouse grand guignol to sell classical film technique not as a quaint alternative to snatch cinema but as the most vital, elastic and essential use of the form. Without shots, cinema disappears, and the movie house becomes just another noisy rec room.

In the 1980's, cineastes lamented the loss of the grand old movie palaces, whose architecture communicated a sense of cinema as a hallowed sanctuary. But the rise of the multiplex couldn't demolish the screen architecture that makes cinema a form of spiritual transportation, dream play and communal understanding-- the shot. Only the death of the shot has burned down the cinema. This hasn't stopped folks from attending movies in record numbers only because, let's face it, multimillion dollar marketing can sell you anything.

In a summer still reacting to last year's snatch apotheosis, The Dark Knight, Inglourious Basterds stepped in to assume the role of proper tutor. Whatever Tarantino's intentions, I happily project onto his film profound outrage at TDK’s senseless, anti-human use of screen time and space, along with an apostle's commitment to sharing his enlightenment with the deprived.

Children, if you want to know how movies, real movies, the kind you heard your great great grandparents wax nostalgic about.... If you want to know how those films deliver visual and narrative pleasure, then pop a Ritalin and watch Inglourious Basterds. Me, I'm going back to work.


Phantom of Pulp said...

Thank you for an excellent post, Stephen. You've succinctly articulated and renamed a type of cancer that is killing cinema.

Coming away from 'Basterds', my first thought was: It was so good to see a real movie again.

The Rush Blog said...

Do you have any idea how many times critics or some filmakers cry doom over the quality of films? This is something that has gone on for nearly a century. Do you have any idea how many times the so-called quality of films have declined, only to bounce back? A lot.

After reading this article, I have decided to ignore the doom and gloom soothsayers who keep crying that Hollywood art is dying. They have been crying this for decades . . . and I'm getting sick of it.

You know what I have discovered a long time ago? If you take your average year in films, the majority of them are either awful or mediocre, with only a handful that are really good. And film critics fail to take something else into account . . . most people go to the movies to be ENTERTAINED. They don't give a shit whether it's art or not. One day, I have this dream that film critics will finally realize this.

Doniphon said...

Actually, between 1930 and 1962 (the golden age of hollywood) at least ten times as many good movies were made every year because there was the studio system, which offered some form of quality control. Great directors like Ford and Hawks weren't trying to make art, but good entertaining movies (Hawks said cinema wasn't art). Boone isn't just arguing that film is in decline. Let's be honest, American cinema has been in decline since the seventies.

What Boone is saying, and is right about, is that movies are in danger of being annihilated formally. If television and video games and everything else continue to corrupt the essential purity of cinema, movies will lose what makes them movies, and that would be a shame.

A wonderful article.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Rush Blog on this one. Doom sayers were around for the death of silent films, black and white films, films shot on film, films projected as film, and the birth of MTV. Most people don't live long enough to see the complete death of what they love about film. Now, the rise of 3-D, there's something to be worried about...

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for vindicating The Bourne Identity; while everyone was in awe over Greengras' shaky cam in TBS & TBU, it is Lyman who created that universe on film with great care.

The Other Van Gundy said...


Anonymous said...

This is about as empty, meaningless, and self important as it gets.

How very sad and pathetic.


love love love this post. I second what the other van gundy said.

that said... nobody ever bitches about my biggest pet peeve and it's a problem that comes from directors who maybe understand basic film grammar and virtually nothing else about stories and character and are too infatuated with the closeup.

it's that damn shot/reaction shot shot / reaction shot as if ALL conversations should be shown in the exact same way with no one ever being out of frame or having to share a frame when it's their turn to deliver a line... even if they're a total minor character. Even Clint Eastwood (who everyone but me seems to revere) loves to do this and it's SO BORING and often tells you nothing about the characters.

sometimes i want to see what an actor is thinking when someone else is talking because sometimes that's the story.

and they're not showing it to me.

that's all.


Steven Boone said...

Belated thanks for all the thoughtful comments, pro, con and conflicted.

I've got more elaborate responses on hold, as I'm busy working right now, but I'm trying to break the habit of neglecting comments sections, which is where the real substance happens.

Film Production said...

I really enjoyed this post. I am sad to see how far American cinema has fallen, both in quality and taste. Thank you for pointing out that most modern filmmakers don't compose as much as "capture" or "snatch" pieces of their movies. What we used to say when I was in film school was, "The shot is a lot." Now, most have abandoned shot composition. For shame!

Ian Waldron Mantgani said...

Sometimes critics have a rant (or even a positive appraisal) that they want to unleash on a movie based on their assumptions. They apply it thus in their reviews after letting the actual movie-watching experience be a formality that simply washes over them. God forbid that the actual watching permeate their beautiful pre-formulated argument.

So it is with reviewers who decry the meaningless cuts and roaming camera of "The Dark Knight", when it was "Batman Begins" that was guilty of such snatchery, and not TDK at all. Smugly defeatist end-of-the-world-ism noted, however.

Will Oliver said...

It might not be the end of the world, or even the end of cinema, but it IS a simple fact that the average length of shots has greatly decreased in recent years. I think that's unfortunate.

Brian said...

Posting way late here, but the fact that Tarantino cited Abrams' STAR TREK as his favorite movie of the year seems to indicate that he's not as averse to "snatch"-style filmmaking as you (and I) would like to believe. Doesn't make BASTERDS any less wunnerful, of course. Just saying.

Steven Boone said...

Oh yeah, Brian, QT champions Star Trek and District 9, appears on American Idol and makes a lot of other frivolous pop culture gestures that the rhythms of his films run in direct opposition to. As much as he enjoys all that junk, I wager he'll never make a film as formally weightless as those.

bipple said...

this is a great essay.

just because QT makes great films doesn't necessarily mean his taste is the be all and end all. after all, he put the God-awful ANYTHING ELSE on his list of top movies since '92. SPEED is on there as well.

STAR TREK is an entertaining movie but it isn't cinematic and it is dripping with a truckload borrowed story and narrative ideas, it shouldn't ever be considered a great film. how can you consider STAR TREK a film in the same sense as say THE WILD BUNCH when it's based on a franchise and basically rips off the plot of STAR TREK: NEMESIS and merges it with STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT and STAR WARS.

Brian said...

Ha yeah, you know, it's funny...I loved Basterds so much that I sort of blocked out all the annoying shit that QT does and says in his public life. I guess we just have to allow that the man contains multitudes, and hope that his questionable taste and practices don't bleed into his beautifully rigorous cinema.

VĂ­ctor Escribano said...

This post should be recommended in any decent film school. I'm astonished by the revealing portrait of present cinema it makes, saying things that I've long supported in such a bright and clear way.

How come the means and the meanings of your prose stand out in film criticisism so gracefully and yet I never heard of you before, Steven Boone? Who are you, man?

Stephen said...

I'm a late-comer to this post, but was enthralled with every point you made. I, too, enjoyed Inglourious Basterds a lot more than I thought I would, and a lot of that had to do with the construction of the scenes. That said, I do feel the film fell into a rut of extended set pieces, which robbed it of some of it's impact for me--but that doesn't mean I wasn't rooting for it the whole time and thrilled by most of it.

As for your comments about the fate of the shot, I hear you loud and clear, brother. An abundance of cutting trivializes the work of the actors, the writer, and, Hell, even the editor. And it insults the audience, generally speaking.

C'mon, filmmakers, let's have a little faith in the audience's ability to keep with things.

As for what Nathaniel said about the lack of reaction shots--aw, Man, I do want to write a post about that. (I did, kinda, when I talked about Dede Allen's use of reaction shots in The Breakfast Club.) Robert Mulligan and Alan Pakula talk about that in their commentary for To Kill a Mockingbird, how much of the story is told through reaction shots. It's an illuminating way to tell the story.

Also reminds me of Al Pacino's face in The Godfather, Part 2, when Diane Keaton's telling him she had an abortion and there's an extended shot of his face while she's dropping the bomb. It holds for an abnormal length of time, just building the tension, waiting for the story/the character/the emotion to burst into an edit (which is a paraphrase of something Eisenstein wrote).

Anyway, this is a great article and I look forward to the rest of your blog.

Unknown said...

It's too bad that Tarantino is all form and no content. Frankly, I'd rather have content.

Steven Boone said...

Waay belated thanks to Stephen for the kind words and thoughtful comments.

J, one should never have to make a Sophie's choice between form and content. And in cinema, sometimes form IS content, or at least dovetails with the material so elegantly that the harmony is shatteringly beautiful.

Inglourious Basterds is rich in content. See it!

My point (which tends to lose folks) is that the crisis in cinema is not in the content department but in the fact that its visual language has broken down into the screen equivalent of jailhouse slang, unfit to convey all but the crudest of sensations/emotions/ideas.

That hasn't stopped some of our more ambitious filmmakers are from attempting to compose symphonies by banging mallet against corrugated sheet metal, their backs turned to the 90 piece orchestra sitting in mothballs behind them. (Try and untangle THOSE mixed metaphors, haha.)

All the brilliant content in the world is for naught when it takes on an unsightly, indigestible shape.

Brian said...

I still love this post, but I just noticed your "summer drek" collage image up top includes In The Loop! That's not fair!