Indiana Jones and the Misunderstood Character Arc

Indiana Jones and the Misunderstood Character Arc

nullBack in October 2013, an episode of The Big Bang Theory ruined Raiders
of the Lost Ark
for many of its fans. In the episode, the geeky Sheldon
shows the movie (one of his “all-time favorites”) to his new girlfriend, Amy.
The moment the credits start to roll, he turns excitedly to ask her what she
thought of the film (as well as his taste). Her reaction is not what he had hoped
for. “It was good,” she shrugs, clearly underwhelmed. “It was very
entertaining. Except for the glaring story problem.” Incredulous, Sheldon insists
that Amy explain; she replies: “Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of
the story. If he weren’t in the film, it would turn out exactly the same. […] The
Nazis would have still found the ark, taken it to the island, opened it up, and
all died. Just like they did.” Sheldon’s mouth drops, followed by the mouths of
geeks worldwide. Amy’s criticism was picked up and passed around the Web, as writers
at various fan sites chimed in to voice their opinions on how the episode had gutted
Indiana Jones. At What Culture, Simon Gallagher explained “How
the Big Bang Theory Ruined Indiana Jones For Everyone
,” while at Cinemablend, Kristy Puchko asked, “Has
Big Bang Theory Ruined Indiana Jones Forever?
” (Such hyperbole is
typical of geek culture.) Suddenly, a previously undetected story problem was
eating away at the fabric of geekdom itself. But the problem, despite all the
hullaballoo, is that there is no problem, and there never was.


Amy’s argument, essentially, is that Indy isn’t a good protagonist
because he doesn’t advance the film’s plot. At the climax of the movie, he ends
up tied to a post, and doesn’t do anything to beat the Nazis. According to this
argument, he’s not a true hero because he fails to save the day by, say, punching
someone, or rigging an explosion. Instead, God steps in and wipes out Indy’s
foes, a modern-day version of deus ex

But this argument fundamentally misunderstands the central
conflict in Raiders of the Lost Ark,
and what the film is ultimately about. To be sure, the Nazis are Indy’s
antagonists, and he struggles with them throughout the film. His motives stand
in clear contrast to theirs, and one of his goals is to stop them from
unearthing the lost Ark of the Covenant for their own nefarious ends. (Hitler’s
army, with the Ark at its forefront, would be unstoppable.) But Indiana Jones’s
true struggle isn’t ultimately with the Nazis, but with something else.

Let’s consider who Indiana Jones is. He’s a man of science,
an archaeologist who travels the world digging up priceless artifacts, then
putting them in museums—which is where, he repeatedly and gruffly insists, those
artifacts belong. In other words, Indy is devoted to uncovering the past,
bringing its remains to light, and adding them to the stockpile of human
knowledge. This is why he’s incensed by mercenary archaeologists like his rival
René Belloq, who work for private collectors; it’s also why he opposes the
Nazis, who would use the Ark as a weapon, and a tool of oppression. Belloq and
the Nazis might do archaeology, but their goal isn’t the enrichment of all humankind.
For Indy, securing an artifact for a museum is to secure it for everybody, to
put it on display where anyone can see it, and learn from it. (Of course, this ignores
the colonialist, imperialist aspects of archaeology, especially archaeology of
the 1930s, but let’s save that critique for another day.)

It’s with this goal in mind—the enrichment of public
knowledge via science—that Indy enters into a race against the Nazis. Can he
find the Ark before they do? But his primary struggle remains a conflict with himself. His arc, if you will (pun
intended), comes to a crisis when his devotion to science is tested, and he’s
confronted with the limits of secular, experiential knowledge.

Early in the film, Indy makes it clear that he doesn’t
believe in the legends surrounding the Ark. When explaining what the artifact is
to some visiting FBI agents, he calls it “the chest the Hebrews used to carry
around the Ten Commandments …  the actual
Ten Commandments, the original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of
Mount Horeb and smashed—if you believe in that sort of thing.” A little later, while
studying a picture of the Ark, the agents ask, “What’s that supposed to be
coming out of there?” Indy replies, “Lightning … fire … the power of God, or
something.” He agrees to locate the Ark before the Nazis do, but his
motivation is, as usual, to secure a great new piece for Marshall College’s museum.
As soon as the FBI agents leave, he confirms with his colleague Marcus Brody that the school’s museum
will get the Ark.

Brody chastises his friend, however, for taking the matter
too lightly: “For nearly three thousand years man has been searching for the
lost ark. It’s not something to be taken lightly. No one knows its secrets.
It’s like nothing you’ve ever gone after before.” Indy’s reaction couldn’t be
more flippant. Laughing, he says, “Oh, Marcus! What are you trying to do, scare
me? You sound like my mother. We’ve known each other for a long time. I don’t
believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus. I’m going after a find of
incredible historical significance; you’re talking about the boogie man.
Besides, you know what a cautious fellow I am.” On that note, Indy tosses his
revolver into his suitcase. It’s a brilliant character moment in more ways than
one. Obviously Indy is a tough guy who can take care of himself in a scrap. But
he also believes that any threat he meets will be mortal—not divine.

The Ark, to Indy, is an artifact like any other. It’s rarer,
perhaps, and more celebrated, but it’s something made by man, and mystified by
human stories. His nonchalant manner regarding the artifact’s divine power
stands in exact contrast to his friend Sallah, who truly respects the Ark’s supernatural
power. Sallah echoes Marcus Brody’s warning to Indy, claiming, “It is not
something man was meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not
of this earth.”

Lest any of this reading seem like embellishment, the
question of Indiana’s faith was central for Harrison Ford, who scribbled notes
in the margins of his script, wondering whether Indy was “a believer.” Recall
also Belloq’s line to Indy, when our hero is standing above him with a grenade
launcher, threatening to blow up the Ark. Belloq calls his rival’s bluff,
saying, “All your life has been spent in pursuit of archaeological relics.
Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations. You want to see
it opened as well as I.”

Indy’s lack of faith is directly challenged at the climax of
the film, when the Nazis secure the Ark. He and Marion Ravencroft watch as the
villains prepare to open the chest—going so far as to document the moment on
film—and their hubris proves instructive. Whereas the Nazis believe
themselves to be God, or even superior to God, Indy realizes that he must
choose a different course of action. Famously, when the Ark is finally opened,
he shouts to Marion that she should close her eyes. In other words, at the very
moment when they are finally able to look upon the artifact they’ve been
chasing, Indy chooses to look away—to refuse to observe. He has come to agree
with Sallah that the Ark is a thing divine, and embodies knowledge that humans
are not supposed to have.

To misunderstand this is to misunderstand Indiana’s
character, and the whole point of the story. Ultimately, Raiders of the Lost Ark is a film about the limits of science, about its hero reaching a boundary where one kind
of knowledge (empiricism) breaks down, only to be replaced by a different kind
of knowledge (religion, faith). Unlike the Nazis, unlike Belloq, Indy humbles
himself, and makes what the film considers the right decision: to close his
eyes before God.

If there is a “glaring story problem” with the Indiana Jones
films, it’s that this basic conflict gets repeated in all of the movies. Temple of Doom, Last Crusade, and Kingdom of
the Crystal Skull
all effectively reset Indiana to square one, despite the
lessons he’s learned elsewhere. In each film, Indy starts out a man of science,
incredulous in the face of some greater power, only to relearn humility. Indeed,
the ending of Last Crusade depicts
him once again learning this lesson. Even worse, Temple of Doom takes place chronologically before Raiders, which means that Indy already
had some experience with the divine before setting out after the Ark—albeit the
divine of a different faith. (A separate article could be written on the
challenges that Temple poses to the monotheism
of Judaism.) To gripe about any of that would be a complaint worthy of a true geek,
rather than the weak tea with which the pretend nerds on Big Bang Theory flummox one another.

But of course, Raiders
got made first, and told the story best. Its crystal-skull-clear dramatization of
Indy’s crisis of faith—and his triumph via humility—is an essential part of why
it’s the greatest Indiana Jones film.

A.D Jameson is the author
of three books:
  Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), and 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium Inc., 2013). Other
writing of his has appeared
and HTMLGIANT, as well as in dozens of literary journals. Since August 2011 he’s been a PhD student at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. He is currently writing a book on geek cinema. Follow him on Twitter at

The Value of Incoherency: Taking Michael Bay’s Transformers Films Seriously

The Value of Incoherency: Taking Michael Bay’s Transformers Films Seriously

nullMichael Bay’s Transformers
movies are incoherent. That is not a controversial claim; I doubt many would
argue otherwise. Yet two questions remain: How do they achieve their
incoherency? And is that incoherency of any value? In this article, I will try
to answer both questions.

Before I
begin, though, I should address one objection. No doubt some readers will think
this analysis unnecessary, even ill-founded. I can already hear the following
comments being typed below: “Bay’s Transformers
movies are stupid and not really even films”; “You’re just over-thinking things”;
“You’re putting more thought into his movies than he himself does.” These
potential objections—which are commonly applied to “dumb summer blockbusters”—are
at heart arguments meant to forestall critical consideration, and imply that
popular filmmaking is devoid of craft. This article is a refutation of those assumptions.

I. Why Are Michael Bay’s
Transformers Films Incoherent?

Perhaps the most common complaint about Michael Bay’s Transformers films is that they are
rapidly cut, a complaint commonly applied to other contemporary Hollywood
movies, as well. It’s certainly true that today’s movies are more rapidly cut
than the films made a generation ago—see Barry Salt’s Film Style and Technology for more on this topic, as well as this graph:

See also this video essay, where Matthias Stork documents the rise of what he calls "chaos cinema."

But since everyone is cutting more rapidly these days, can
rapid cutting explaing Bay’s Beyhem? After all, the films of Edgar
are, if anything, more rapidly cut than Bay’s, but are nowhere near as
disorienting as the Transformers quadrilogy.

Another problem
with looking solely at editing speed is that it doesn’t distinguish between
different types of cuts—the different
uses to which cutting can be applied. For instance, it doesn’t distinguish
between cuts that occur within scenes
(intra-scene cuts) and cuts between
scenes. Nor does it distinguish between crosscutting (when the film cuts
between two simultaneous scenes), elision (when a cut is used to omit an action
or the passage of time), jump cuts (when a shot cuts to a similar version of
itself), cuts between different angles or perspectives, cuts to close-ups or
long shots, or cuts to insert shots.

In order to
understand why Michael Bay’s Transformers
films give people headaches, we need to look more closely at what’s actually
happening in the shots themselves, as well as how he’s cutting between them.

Take, for
instance, the first six minutes or so of the second film, Revenge of the Fallen (2009). I analyzed the first 380 seconds, in
which a military strike team and some Autobots assault a Decepticon. We get 133
shots, yielding an Average Shot Length (ASL) of just under three seconds (2.9).
This is very rapid cutting. And in reality, the cutting is even faster, since one
shot is twenty-nine seconds long. (Taking that out yields a revised ASL of 2.7.)

What the
ASL doesn’t tell us, however, is that this opening sequence also features no
fewer than twenty-six scenes. In
other words, the scenes last, on average, just under fifteen seconds each.

We begin in
the Stone Age, in 17,000 B.C., as some early human hunters come across alien robots.
(Already this summary sounds like self-parody, but we really do begin there: a
title tells us so.) After eighty-five seconds of watching Transformers assault cavemen
, we cut (via the main title) to Shanghai, China, “22:14 HRS – TODAY,” where
some kind of industrial accident seems to be underway. We mostly see people
being evacuated by the police. That lasts nineteen seconds. We then cut to an
interior—“PENTAGON – NEST COMMAND”—where for twenty seconds we watch military
personnel watching the situation in Shanghai (on screens, just like us). We
then cut to thirteen seconds of an ice-cream truck ambling about somewhere in
China (it passes under a bright neon sign in Chinese) and making threatening announcements.
And so on.

Yes, these
scenes are rapidly cut (the ASL of the first 143 seconds is 3.8). But consider
what else is happening besides mere cutting. In these opening minutes, we’ve been
treated to scenes set on three different continents, occurring across two
millennia. In the present day alone, there have so far been four separate
locations (the factory, a nearby city, the NEST base, and wherever the
ice-cream truck is—it’s presumably near the factory, but it doesn’t look the
same). There have also been dozens of actors. And in the next few minutes,
rather than focusing on any of those locations or actors, the film will
introduce yet more characters—the NEST strike team, Sideswipe, other
Transformers, Decepticons—and stage action across yet more locations. (As it
turns out, the toxic spill is a cover so a secret US military strike team can
attack a hiding Decepticon. How the U.S. military has gotten permission to carry
out raids on Chinese soil is left unexplained.)

This style
is consistent across Michael Bay’s work. Bay is rarely content to allow one
storyline to play out with interruptions. Instead, his preferred method is to keep
scenes short, and to cut between simultaneous actions, which are usually taking
place in wildly different locales. His most recent Transformers film, Age of
, recalls Revenge of the
in that it presents, in short succession, an opening prehistoric
sequence (this time featuring dinosaurs), then contemporary action set in the
Arctic, Texas, a derelict cruise ship, and a secret CIA headquarters. We are thus
rapidly introduced to numerous characters (whose precise relationships with each
other are sketchy at best). Their scenes rarely play out to completion.
Instead, Bay starts the scenes only to interrupt them, cutting elsewhere, then
cutting elsewhere. The helpful titles that appear onscreen, informing us about new
locations (“THE ARCTIC”), are so cursory they might as well not exist. (One
doesn’t need a title to distinguish “THE ARCTIC” from “TEXAS”—but these titles
do announce that a new scene is starting, a fact that might otherwise be

this interruptive storytelling further is Bay’s tendency to include multiple scenarios
in the same scene. In Age of Extinction,
we get an early scene where Mark Wahlberg’s conflict with his teenage daughter
is repeatedly interrupted by his assistant’s jokey attempts to get a robot
butler to deliver him a beer. A more sincere moment is thus juxtaposed with
more absurd humor. Similarly, the fight scene at the opening of Revenge of the Fallen is occasionally interrupted
by the comical antics of the two Autobots comprising the ice-cream truck, Mudflap
and Skids.

It would be
easy to describe Bay here as a frantic, hyperkinetic man-child with ADHD, and leave
it at that. But if we take these films seriously, and consider Bay’s direction
intentional—or “up to something”—then we have our first insight into his
aesthetic. He prizes juxtaposition, and his goal is to disorient the audience,
unable to tell where the action will jump to next, or whether it will be
dramatic or comical. The narrative, then, remains lurching, unpredictable. All
we can say with confidence is that whatever comes next, it will most likely be dramatically
different than what we’ve already seen. Bay’s cinema is one of constant


"Transformers 2"Even when we do settle on an action, it isn’t always a given
that we’ll understand it. As with narrative, Bay uses compositions
inconsistently. At times, his Transformers
films feature striking and indelible imagery. Age of Extinction is filled with shots that linger in the mind long
after the film has concluded: Mark Wahlberg and his daughter backlit by the
setting sun, the silhouette of an abandoned gas station, Wahlberg standing
beside a rusted train, vertiginous shots of a cramped apartment complex in Hong
Kong (actually Detroit—an impressive bit of production design). And there are
many others. Bay’s films are sometimes beautifully, even poetically shot.

But the
operative term is “sometimes.” Elsewhere, Bay seems entirely unconcerned with
clarity of image, and it can be difficult to discern what is happening
onscreen. For every crisp slow-motion shot of a helicopter whirling below us,
or a motorcycle leaning precariously to take a corner, or a bevy of sinister-looking
government agents exiting sinister-looking cars, there are just as many shots
in which the viewer doesn’t know where to look, or what they are even seeing.
This tends especially to be the case when the Transformers are transforming,
and fighting one another in their robot forms. (Critics have likened them to junkyards
either having sex or exploding.)
The Transformers robots, good and bad, tend to be uniform in color, made up of countless
moving parts, and not always that distinct from the backgrounds of their shots.
Compounding this further is the continuously moving camera, which constantly
alters the composition. See, for instance, the lengthy shot in Revenge of the Fallen where Ironhide initially
transforms. It’s  twenty-nine seconds
long, but the lack of cutting does not make the action any more coherent.

As always,
though, Bay proves inconsistent. In Age
of Extinction
, there is a long slow-motion shot wherein Bumblebee
transforms into his robot form while flying over a bridge. His three human
passengers fly out and tumble through the air, only to be caught by Optimus
Prime, who then crashes through a tractor trailer. All of the action in the
shot is completely discernible. The viewer is also given plenty of time to
study the image. Elsewhere, one can barely get a sense of the action, which
registers simply as—action. Throughout, the viewer can never predict when such
clarity will appear. Nor can they predict how Bay will shoot a scene: he
alternates freely between deep and shallow focus, and constantly varies his uses
of lighting, lenses, angles, and more—all without any apparent rhyme or reason.

difficulty posed by Bay’s films is that one often gets the feeling that a scene
or shot is missing. Part of this is due to his tendency to delay exposition
(which is itself unusual in Hollywood filmmaking). As we’ve already seen in Revenge of the Fallen, we only gradually
learn what’s happening in terms of the overall action. We receive information
elliptically, and in fragments, and we often receive misinformation. Only gradually can we piece together the whole
picture, and then we might have to revise as we go: “OK, so there’s been a
toxic spill of some kind in Shanghai. Oh, no, that’s just a cover story—the
U.S. military is up to something. Oh, it’s actually a secret strike force. Oh,
and some Transformers are there—Ironhide, for instance. Oh, and Sideswipe is
also there. Have we met them yet? I can’t remember. Oh, there’s Optimus Prime!
As well as some other Autobots I don’t think have been properly introduced. I’m
not sure who the Decepticons are, though. Wait—didn’t this movie open in the
Stone Age?”

in Age of Extinction, there is a
scene involving a Transformer that disguises itself as an Oreos vending machine—at
least, I think that’s the case. I can’t claim to have noticed it when it was a
vending machine. But after it transformed, Oreo ads were still clearly visible
on its body. Mind you, I was watching the film pretty carefully, but I cannot
tell you who this Transformer is, why it transformed, or what subsequently happened
to it. I remember only that the film cut to it at some point, and then the
creature disappeared.

strategy that makes actions difficult to follow is Bay’s tendency to portray complex
actions as montage sequences, which make heavy use of elision. This is hardly
uncommon in Hollywood cinema, but in the Transformers
films, one can rarely predict which sequences will receive this treatment.
Thus, Mark Wahlberg’s character’s effort to infiltrate Stanley Tucci’s research
facility is something of a blur. First, Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) uses a stolen
drone to scan a man’s ID badge. Then he has Bumblebee somehow create a replica.
All of this happens very quickly, in a flurry of shots presented with little
explanation. Then, Cade and his daughter’s boyfriend, Shane, drive Bumblebee to
the lab. (They bicker on the way, once again juxtaposing broad comedy with tense
action.) Spatially, it isn’t clear where they are, or why they are trying to
break in. Before, Tucci’s facility seemed to be in downtown Chicago; now it
seems to be in a more rural location. The discrepancy is never resolved.

Cade and
Shane manage to get inside the base. Some slapstick ensues as Bumblebee takes
offense at a sinister replica modeled on him. Then Cade and Shane get separated
somehow, Cade gets captured, and the other Autobots break in to rescue him. And
Kelsey Grammer’s evil CIA operative is there, for some reason. All of this transpires
with the logic of a dream, not unlike the scene in Inception where Dom Cobb explains to Ariadne that although one
might remember being somewhere while dreaming, one never remembers how they got
from point A to point B.

Even when the
viewer can discern the underlying plot logic—the character’s motivations, their
objectives, and their plans to achieve those objectives—it doesn’t always make sense.
Here Bay differs from most Hollywood cinema, which is typically founded on
carefully and repeatedly communicating such information to the viewer. (In Inception, for instance, it’s perfectly
clear that Dom Cobb is performing one last heist in order to be able to see his
children.) To this end, Hollywood films traditionally provide each character
with a clear role: they either aid the protagonist, or oppose them. For his
part, Bay often includes characters whose function is entirely unclear. While I
wasn’t unhappy to see Sophia Myles and Li Bingbing in Age of Extinction (they even get a scene that, while fleeting,
allows the film to pass the Bechdel Test), their presence is extraneous at best.
Their scenes could be cut, and the end result would hardly be any different.
But the same is true of many of the characters, including most of the
Transformers. Even Shane, once he rescues Cade and Tessa, does little more than
act as a thorn in Wahlberg’s side.

what Wahlberg’s Cade is trying to accomplish is itself unclear. Also unclear is
whether he’s making progress toward his desired outcome. As viewers, we might
broadly understand that Cade wanted to infiltrate Stanley Tucci’s character’s company—but
why? He obtained information, but we could have been given that information by
Tucci and his assistants, who had already provided us with lots of information
regarding their enterprise. Finally, the Autobots come crashing through the
facility’s front wall, rendering Cade’s infiltration moot. All that really
happened was that we changed locations.


nullOverall, the Transformers
films give us the sense they’re being made up as they go along. (I’d say they
were like The Lego Movie in that
regard, but the plot of The Lego Movie
is actually more straightforward and coherent.) I frequently suspected that the
screenwriter of Age of Extinction, Ehren
Kruger, while writing the earlier scenes, had no idea what would later happen
in the film. When the later scenes arrive, it feels as though the screenwriter had
forgotten what occurred earlier on. The scripts come across as first drafts, hastily
scrawled out and never revised. What’s
lacking is a sense of the whole
. Time and again, priority is given to whatever
is happening at the current moment. While the scenes may be bound loosely by a narrative,
the films are collections of scenes, unpredictable and arbitrary. And I doubt
Bay wants it any other way. Kruger has claimed that “When
you’re talking about aliens, robotic machines which disguise themselves as
vehicles and animals, you start to make your peace with the idea that logical
sense doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all. It needs to be amazing fun for
the audience. They need to be swept up, and be promised that they’re going to
see things that make it worth spending money on a ticket.” The film is pure spectacle,
constantly striving to outdo itself. That is to say, because making a movie
takes time, the Michael Bay on day 90 of the shoot is trying to outdo the
Michael Bay of day 20. Given this approach, it’s hardly surprising that Bay’s films
turn out to be constantly evolving animals.

It’s also
why character intentions tend not toward the subtle and complex, but toward the
broad and vague: so-and-so wants to stop something, or kill someone, or make
money. The characters also sometimes suddenly shift motivation without warning:
the Optimus Prime of Age of Extinction,
who earlier wanted to defend humans, now wants to kill them and flee planet
Earth. More than anything, the characters often give the impression that they
are children, acting entirely impulsively. They feel very strongly whatever
they are feeling at the moment. Even the Autobots tend to squabble with one

On the rare
occasions that we do see long-term planning, it tends not to make sense. For
instance, Stanley Tucci’s scientist is a Steve Jobs parody. (The IMDb tells me
his name is Joshua Joyce, but I’ve blanked on whether the film ever conveys
that fact. Surely it must have? But I don’t remember it. It’s possible I was
too captivated by Tucci’s performance: he was a total delight to watch the
entire film, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the Jobs- and Apple-like imagery,
even if I didn’t understand what Bay was trying to communicate with it.)
Anyway, Joyce wants to design his own Transformers for the military (which he
and Grammer will be able to control). He attempts to replicate Optimus Prime
(for some reason), but his robot keeps shifting to look like Megatron. Joyce complains
loudly to his employees about this, wondering why it keeps happening. Later in
the film, it’s revealed that Joyce stole the technology at least partly from
Megatron’s head; after that, it’s revealed that the resulting robot, Galvatron,
is indeed Megatron in disguise. Well, Megatron hardly need be a “Decepticon” in
order to reactivate himself, given what a dunce Joyce is. The characters, to put
it simply, are buffoons.

But they are deliberately made buffoons.
I never get the impression that Michael Bay thinks his characters clever,
either. They are clowns, just clowning around. Even they seem to feel the need
to remind themselves of what it is they are doing—hence their tendency to
announce their intentions or goals very clearly. Their declamations, like
everything else, tend not to matter. At one point late in Age of Extinction, Optimus Prime commands some of the humans to
take a bomb over a bridge and out of the city (Hong Kong). Much action ensues,
but the characters never actually cross a bridge, or leave the city. Nor do
they seem to be trying to even do that—they’re just driving and running about. Elsewhere,
the villainous Lockdown, having learned that Optimus Prime has escaped his
capture, orders his robotic servants to return his spaceship to Earth. That
much they do. Lockdown then activates some kind of humongous magnet, which he hovers
over Hong Kong, sucking up all manner of metal objects, then dropping them. Why
does he do this? In Man of Steel,
when General Zod does something similar, we may be vague on the specifics, but
we understand that he’s trying to turn Earth into a New Krypton. Here, however,
Lockdown’s scheme is unclear. The viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Lockdown
is searching for the seed bomb, especially since a blue light on the bomb is
flashing, and Joshua Joyce has declared (somehow) that a homing mechanism has
been activated. Lockdown soon catches our heroes, and starts drawing the bomb
toward him. But Lockdown wasn’t concerned with the bomb—he was instead hunting
Optimus Prime. But the Autobot leader, all this time, is well outside the city,
subduing the Dinobots.

Well, the
characters are buffoons, not unlike the villains on children’s cartoon shows. People
can complain that Bay has not respected the original Transformers source material, but watching his films, I am often
reminded of screeching, didactic characters like Megatron and Starscream. (I’m
also reminded of Cobra Commander, Destro, and Serpentor. I loved these shows as
a child because I loved the way their villains bickered and sneered.)

At times, the
characters’ declamations stop being logical, and become farcical. For instance,
Hound tells his human friends (this is a paraphrase), “I’m going to cover you.
And if I stop covering you, that’s because I’m dead. But don’t worry, because
that won’t happen.” The dialogue is absurd in its unnaturalness, and in its commitment
to articulating exactly what Hound intends to do at the present moment. (Oddly,
Hound later gives up, having run out of ammo, and needs to be urged by Cade to
continue fighting. I guess he didn’t consider that contingency!)

Of course,
the Transformers’ voices are recorded by celebrities in sound booths somewhere—Hound
was voiced by John Goodman—and it’s all looped in later on, in editing. In this
regard, the Transformers films are no
different than any other CGI-laden blockbuster. But little effort seems to have
been taken to integrate the looped dialogue with the action. Instead, it frequently
sounds disconnected, even arbitrary. As Hound whirls around, firing his guns, John
Goodman declares, “I’m a fat ballerina who takes names and slits throats!” Elsewhere
he intones, “I’m a wicked warrior robot!” Why does he say either? Who knows?
The lines—many of the lines—are entirely arbitrary;
Hound could say anything, or nothing. Inconsistency and abstraction rule the

Lest this
sound like I’m knocking Michael Bay’s sensibilities, I actually find myself in
awe of them. I’ve read enough about Bay to know he prizes improvisation and
impulsiveness and energy and action. Empire
’s Age of Extinction set
visit report, for instance, stressed repeatedly that his working method is to
rip up whatever he’s planned and invent something new on any given day. The end
results certainly seem evidence of that.

All of the
elements that I’ve described contribute to the sense that these films exist only
in the present moment. Each scene lives and dies independently of every other
scene. (It should go without saying that there is little continuity between the
films themselves.) At times, it seems as though the characters themselves cannot remember anything that has
happened to them previously, as though they are living without memory. They
(and the viewer) are caught in an eternal present, in which they can neither remember
nor anticipate anything.

Any one of
these elements, taken on its own, would be disorienting. Taken collectively,
they represent nothing less than a furious attempt on Bay’s part to disorient
the audience, and to lay waste to the confines of reason, logic, coherency, and
continuity. He assails it on several fronts at once. Despite all the elements I
have described, I haven’t come close to exhausting Bay’s varied strategies. Age of Extinction, for instance,
includes a flashback at one point (narrated by a character who appears
precisely for that purpose, then disappears). Why? Why not? At other points,
actions are depicted first going one way, then another way, then another way
(e.g., left, right, left). The whiplash effects are not accidental: they are edited
together in flurries presumably designed to discombobulate viewers. I should
emphasize that this is not a failure to abide by the principles of standard
continuity editing: this is a direct refutation
of those principles.

going on?” Cade Yeager shouts at one point, giving voice to what the audience
is undoubtedly thinking. We must conclude that the only person who really knows
is Michael Bay, who is essentially amusing himself. His aesthetic could be
described as “chaos reigns.” The most surprising moments in the film aren’t the
parts where things fail to make sense, but when the movie suddenly settles down,
and becomes like any other film—for instance, the odd scene where a White House
delegate visits Kelsey Grammer and his boss. For once, a whole, uninterrupted
scene plays out in steady, stable, clear shots. Bay even mostly keeps to one
side of the 180-degree line. Perhaps he threw the scene in for the sake of


II. Is There Any
Value to Bay’s Incoherency?

It is often said that Bay’s films are an assault on the
viewer, and I agree. But they are also assaults on classical unity and formal
coherence. Bay proves entirely consistent in his inconsistencies, which can
hardly be accidental. It is to this end that he includes extraneous characters,
actions, settings, and scenes. It is to this end that he jumps rapidly across
time and space, and elides actions and explanations. It is to this end that he varies
his means of shooting shots and scenes. His desired goal is to produce
mishmash. His films are, in a word, anarchistic.

In this
regard, Bay seems unlike most Hollywood directors. But he reminds me of other
artists. Indeed, he reminds me of a pertinent debate in art, one that has
existed for nearly one hundred years, if not longer. That debate is: what role
should form play in art-making? Is it an aid? Or a hindrance?

Over the
past hundred years, many artists have come to distrust not only form, but the usefulness
of thinking and analysis in making art. Indeed, many have come to distrust
consciousness itself. According to this argument, art should be produced wildly,
impulsively, spontaneously, embracing immediacy and impact, and rejecting the
censoring effects of conscious deliberation. Art should be done, not thought about, and certainly not planned out. This
anti-rational impulse has become fundamental to much of what we call
avant-garde art, having been explored by traditions as varied as Dada, Futurism,
Surrealism, Viennese Aktionism, chance operations, happenings, conceptual art,
performance art, and more. Michael Bay is akin to those artists who believe the
function of art to overwhelm the audience, battering away at inhibition and the
tendency toward conscious rationality. Batter away, and then batter some more,
until the audience, exhausted, is left with nothing but his or her unguarded
emotional response. (This is why the films must be so interminably long.)

Here many
readers are no doubt scoffing and rolling their eyes at my daring to mention
Bay’s name amidst such august company, but I will stand by my argument: Bay’s
films make more sense when you consider his aims in this light, and his
strategies as attempts to struggle out of the grip of rational coherence. Mind
you, I’m hardly claiming that Bay is the equal
of, say, André Breton, John Cage, or Sol LeWitt; such a claim would, at any
rate, be impossible to prove or deny. Instead, I am arguing that, like many 20th
Century avant-gardists, Bay is antagonistic toward classical tradition, formal
unity, and rational sense-making, all of which he envisions as fetters on his creative
abilities. To restate this position very bluntly: thinking too much about art
harms the art. And like those artists, Bay prefers the ad-hoc, the incidental, the
capricious, the impulsive—the arbitrary. His artistic temperament is Protean,
and changes from moment to moment. If he remade any one of his films tomorrow,
it would turn out totally differently, depending on how he felt that day.

Because of
this, while it is possible to analyze Bay’s films objectively—we can examine
them, and state what he has done (as I’ve tried to do so here)—any attempt to objectively
evaluate them is, quite frankly, a waste of time. In the end, the films are
arbitrary, and any decision made is as good as any other. There is no whole
that the parts are looking to for guidance. Instead, they are fleeing from the whole.
Each part, each moment is an expression of how Michael Bay felt at a given point
in time. As such, it’s impossible to say how the films could be “improved.”
(Those who wish they were more coherent are entirely missing the point.) In the
end, all that matters is that they have a disconcerting effect on their audiences.
Was the viewer appalled? Excited? Battered beyond good sense and reasonable
manners? That is all that matters to Michael Bay. His opponents’ complaints—“I didn’t
understand it,” “I was exhausted.” “How the hell does this guy keep getting to
make movies?”—are, rather than valid criticisms, evidence of his success.

The question now becomes: What is the value of such an art? Which
is also to ask: What is art’s relationship with formal unity, rational thought,
and conventional notions of good or bad? As already stated, this question is at
least a century old. It will have to suffice for me to claim that, for good or
for ill, Michael Bay has aligned himself with the camp that argues against
form, against reason, against conscious control.

In this
regard, however, we should note that Michael Bay is a wholly remarkable
filmmaker, one who has succeeded in doing something that few other artists have
achieved: he has made blockbusters out of challenging films that arguably bear
more resemblance (and more kinship) to avant-garde art than they do to
traditional Hollywood fare. As the cliché goes, Hollywood movies are made by
committee, and are bland and predictable and safe, wholly familiar. They want
nothing more to be liked, and will never risk offending their audiences. But somehow,
and despite the modern studio system, Bay’s films are loud, obnoxious, violent,
crude, unpredictable, unbearable. They are experimental and impulsive. Whether
they are great works of cinema is not for me to say. But they are without doubt
the works of a true auteur.

Do people
like his movies? That is, do people like Michael Bay’s incoherencies? Certainly
they like them well enough that each film earns hundreds of millions, even billions,
at the box office—which suggests a final point.

It’s common
to hear educated filmgoers and critics complain about Bay’s Transformers films. Here is one
, and here
is another
. But I believe that those very viewers who complain the loudest are
enjoying Bay’s films the most. Indeed, I’m reminded of nothing so much as the
way certain filmgoers often revel in “bad” movies, works of z-grade cinema that
are, as the saying goes, “so bad they’re good.” The joy in watching those films
often amounts to seeing the normal, predictable, stale conventions of
filmmaking get turned on their heads. Why did Tommy Wiseau make The Room the way he did? Who can really say?
But obviously the man didn’t know how to make a film “the right way.” So does
that make The Room a great movie?
Hardly—but it is an immensely enjoyable film to watch, and to laugh about with
friends. Anyone who has seen The Room
knows that the pleasure lies wholly in sharing it with friends, all the while
commenting on how bizarre Wiseau’s filmmaking choices are.

Bay doesn’t
inspire laughter in quite the same way as Wiseau, but he does inspire incredulity. Like a lot of z-grade
filmmakers, Bay is making the movie up as he goes along. One can hardly believe
what results: “Is that a robot with giant testicles?”
So if you won’t buy my claim that Michael Bay is a kindred soul to the
avant-garde, perhaps you’ll find more tolerable my claim that Michael Bay is, effectively,
the highest profile z-grade filmmaker currently working. Indeed, he’s raised
z-grade cinema to the level of the commercial blockbuster.

presumably knows “the right way” to make a film, and his movies are hardly
incompetent. (Age of Extinction features
many marvelous moments, shots, and scenes.) Instead of making incoherent messes
because he knows no other way to make a film, Bay makes incoherent messes
because he can, and because he wants
. His incoherence, his unpredictability, is the very value of his films.
And I think that’s precisely what audiences are lining up to see, whether they
admit it or not.

A.D Jameson is the author
of three books:
  Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), and 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium Inc., 2013). Other
writing of his has appeared
and HTMLGIANT, as well as in dozens of literary journals. Since August 2011 he’s been a PhD student at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. He is currently writing a book on geek cinema. Follow him on Twitter at

What Mise-en-scène Is and Why It Matters

What Mise-en-scène Is and Why It Matters

null1. What Is Mise-en-scène?


Any student of the cinema quickly encounters the term mise-en-scène, and often comes away the worse
for the wear. The word—or is it words?—is long and funny-looking (to those who
don’t speak French). Making matters worse, the term isn’t always spelled the
same way: sometimes there’s an accent, sometimes there aren’t any hyphens, and sometimes
it’s written in roman type, not italics.

The term’s meaning is similarly complex, having shifted many
times over the years since its creation; it has also gotten bound up in several
different arguments, many of which we no longer inhabit directly. In this
article, I aim to survey that evolution, paying special attention to how it has
become associated with only particular types of filmmaking—the cinema of the
long take. Finally, I’ll argue against that tendency, and attempt to
demonstrate the relevance of mise-en-scène
to the short take.

First things first. Mise-en-scène
was applied to film in the 1950s by the French critics writing at Cahiers du Cinéma (Notebooks on Cinema). They borrowed it from French theater, where
it essentially referred to everything that appears on the stage (it literally
means “putting in the scene”). The thinking was that a film’s mise-en-scène consisted of everything
that the camera sees: the setting, the lighting, the actors, their performances
(including blocking), costumes, makeup, props. It also referred to how those
elements were arranged within the frame—in other words, it was synonymous with
the shot’s composition.

A few problems sprang up immediately. The first was that the
Cahiers critics never defined their
term all that precisely. Alexandre Astruc famously called mise-en-scène “a song, a rhythm, a dance” (267); in a 1998 interview,
Astruc’s Cahiers colleague Jacques
Rivette claimed, “Here’s a good definition of mise en scène—it’s what’s lacking in the films of Joseph L.
Mankiewicz” (Bonnaud). I thought at the time that Rivette was simply being
cheeky, but there’s a way in which he’s also deadly serious: he means that All About Eve, despite literally having
lighting and staging and props and settings, etc., nonetheless somehow lacks a
certain special quality, which is mise-en-scène.
Delving into the Cahiers writing of
the 1950s makes it apparent that there was, right from the start, a tendency to
define the concept loosely, poetically—which is what led critic Brian Henderson
to later call the term “undefined” (315).

The second problem occurs when you consider how people who
make films see different things than those who view films. When you watch a
play, the stage is in front of you, and it’s clear what’s on it and what isn’t.
But films differ from theater in two key aspects. One, the camera frames the
image. Two, cinema includes cuts (edits).

Let’s say you’re making a film, shooting a scene on a busy
street. The camera sees only so much of that street, but you, being there, can
see the whole thing (and the actors can see the whole thing, which presumably
influences their performances). Where does the mise-en-scène begin and where does it end? What’s more, a lot of
what you shoot won’t end up in the film—parts of takes, and perhaps even whole
takes (what we today call “deleted scenes”), will end up on the cutting room
floor, or in some separate portion of a hard drive. What happens to the mise-en-scène of those images?

This is why mise-en-scène
isn’t really a production term— as Astruc had already noted by 1959, it’s not
something that filmmakers talk about when they’re shooting (267). Instead, it’s
a critic’s term, referring to the content of shots that appear in the finished
film. And since it refers to the content of the shot, then it also must refer
to camera movements, since panning and tracking changes the shot’s content.
(The famous long take in Goodfellas
that follows Henry Hill and his date as they enter the Copacabana via the
kitchen features more than one setting, as well as numerous actors, props,
costumes, and so on.)

So mise-en-scène
refers to the entirety of any given shot: the stuff that was filmed, as well as
how it is framed (and how that changes). And in many places, the term has more
or less survived into the present day in this form. For instance, here’s how Ed
Sikov’s Film Studies: An Introduction
(2010) defines it:

“Everything—literally everything—in the
filmed image is described by the term mise-en-scene:
it’s the expressive totality of what you see in a single film image.
Mise-en-scene consists of all the
elements placed in front of the camera to be photographed: settings, props,
lighting, costumes, makeup, and figure behavior (meaning actors, their
gestures, and their facial expressions)
. In addition, mise-en-scene includes the camera’s actions and angles and the
, which simply means photography for motion pictures. Since everything in the filmed image comes
under the heading of mise-en-scene, the term’s definition is a mouthful, so a
shorter definition is this: Mise-en-scene
is the totality of expressive content within the image
.” (5–6, italics in
the original)

But when one stops to think about this concept, one sees how
even this is problematic. For one thing, how is mise-en-scène any different from the term “shot”? Or “composition”?
Obviously, we’re not dealing with the actual things in the shot—the actual
setting, the actual props—but a two-dimensional record of them, frozen in a
particular arrangements. What’s more, if every shot is essentially its mise-en-scène, and a film is made up entirely
of shots, then isn’t mise-en-scène in
fact synonymous with the entire film? Which is to say, isn’t mise-en-scène synonymous with cinema


2. Mise-en-scène and the Long Take

Some critics noted straight away that the one thing that mise-en-scène didn’t refer to was editing. As such, they started using mise-en-scène and editing as antonyms.
Here it will help to know that, for the Cahiers
critics, editing was a hotly contested topic. Simply put, certain film theorists
who had gone before them—namely Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein—had
emphasized the importance of editing, or montage. To them, the artistry of
cinema lay very much in how a film was assembled from disparate shots. This was
due to their noticing early on how editing could be used to create wholly
artificial relationships between shots. For instance, you could shoot a person
looking up at something on one side of town, then go to the other side of town
and shoot an image of a sign. When you edited them together, the resulting film
gave the impression that the person was looking at the sign, even though that look
was impossible in real life. Similarly, you could film a person walking into a
building in one locale, then film a different interior. And so on.

There proved to be no end to the artificial relationships
that you could create between shots. We partly understand this phenomenon today
as the Kuleshov Effect. If you take a picture of a man’s face, and follow it
with a shot of a bowl of soup, it creates the impression that he’s hungry. But
if you follow it with a shot of a woman reclining on a divan, it makes it look
like he’s ogling her. (See this entire
for a humorous description by Alfred Hitchcock of how editing changes
the way viewers interpret shots.)

To put things very crudely, the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma began questioning the
importance of montage. They were led here by André Bazin, whose background was
in documentaries and Italian Neorealism. As such, he was less interested in how
cinema could artificially warp reality, and more interested in how it could be
used realistically. Accordingly, he devised an argument of cinematic realism in
which he proposed that the history of cinema was one of an increasing capacity
for realism. The way he saw it, improvements in film technology allowed
filmmakers to more faithfully capture reality. Improved film stocks (including
the development of color) allowed for higher resolution images. Sound cinema replaced
silent cinema. Widescreen formats allowed for larger compositions. Cameras got
smaller, enabling filmmakers to leave studios and shoot on real locations. Lenses
improved, allowing for deeper focus shots. And takes could also get longer and
longer, being less limited by the capacities of earlier reels.

Given this, Bazin and his protégés deemphasized the artistic
importance of the cut. They argued it had less to do with the “expressive
content” of cinema than the content or composition of the shot itself. So it’s
no wonder that they invented and emphasized the concept of mise-en-scène. And it’s because of this period in film criticism that
the term came to mean something opposed to editing. People began speaking of
two different approaches to filmmaking: editing (or montage) vs. mise-en-scène (which got tied up with other
devices that Bazin favored—long takes and deep focus). According to this line of
thinking, a director necessarily favored one approach over the other. The art
of cinema was either one of cutting or of long takes.

Critics, too, often fell into one camp or the other. Those
who supported montage noted how editing allowed for the manipulation of reality,
and the creation of effects that were impossible in real life. Such arguments,
of course, became the very grounds for dismissal from the long takes / mise-en-scène camp. To them, filmic
artistry depended not on artifice, but on the faithful imitation of reality. According
to this line of thinking, since we experience time and space continuously, a
superior cinema—a primarily realist cinema—should by definition avoid cutting. Returning
to our earlier example from Goodfellas: when we follow Henry Hill
from his car through the kitchen and to a table in front of the stage at the
Copacabana, we see how all those spaces are connected; we aren’t just cutting
from an exterior shot to an interior shot on a back lot or on a soundstage.

If these arguments sound quaint, then I hasten to stress
that I am indeed oversimplifying them here in order to highlight a very
particular historical debate. It’s also worth mentioning that Bazin died quite
young, at the age of 40 in 1958, and as such had no control over the ways in
which his arguments were later transformed by some into clichés. There are of
course complexities and subtleties to this long history of criticism that a general
survey necessarily omits. It’s is also indisputable that modern film studies is
largely based on the work of Bazin and the Cahiers
critics. Without their contributions, we critics of today would be
significantly impoverished. (We might not even be here!)

That having been said, there is a historical tendency to
oppose mise-en-scène to montage—an
entrenchment that lives on today in various forms. It’s hardly unusual to hear film
buffs claim that long takes are somehow inherently superior to shorter ones.
For instance, cinephiles often celebrate movies like Goodfellas and Russian Ark
and Children of Men and Gravity simply because they feature
long, complicated shots; meanwhile, people dismiss Michael Bay’s Transformers films, or movies like Quantum of Solace, because they feature way
too much cutting. These arguments are heir to the debate between Bazinian mise-en-scène and Eisensteinian montage.
Meanwhile, plenty of critics continue to equate mise-en-scène with long takes—see, for example, the opening line of
Ben Sachs’s recent Chicago Reader review
of Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla
, as
well as this
AV Club article
by Mike D’Angelo, which directly engages the debate between
editing and long takes (and does so by opposing mise-en-scène to montage). And the Wikipedia article
on mise-en-scène
, while garbled
as a whole (and of course always prone to sudden revision), contains some
language equating mise-en-scène with
long takes.

(Actually, the Wikipedia article is even more restrictive in
its usage, equating mise-en-scène only
with something called “oners,” or scenes that are filmed in single takes, and
that also feature mobile camerawork. This is so selective an association that
it renders the term practically useless. It’s also fairly nonsensical. This
particular line was added
by a now defunct Wikipedia contributor, “StephanDuVal,” who popped into the
conversation for twenty minutes two years ago, then disappeared. Since then,
various users have randomly appended sources that themselves don’t employ the
term, resulting in the kind of hodgepodge so typical of the Wikipedia. Instead
of defining the term objectively, the article stakes out a peculiarly small
tradition. A term that was once seemingly synonymous with all of cinema is
there reduced to the point where it refers only to a miniscule number of shots
in a miniscule number of films! Not even the most fervent devotees of Bazin
ever restricted the usage of mise-en-scène
to scenes that were executed in single, mobile takes.)

3. Mise-en-scène and Its DiscontentsnullKeeping this convoluted history in mind, I want to examine
now at what is overlooked by the historical tendency to associate mise-en-scène with the long take, and to
oppose it to editing. Because I believe that these traditional oppositions and associations
limit our understanding of the richness and artistry of the cinema.

For starters, let’s look more closely at Bazin’s argument
that the long take is better than the short one for representing reality. A
commonly heard argument here (one still hears it today) is that whenever a filmmaker
cuts, he or she is guiding the viewer’s attention, and forcing them to look at
particular things in particular ways. By way of contrast, Bazin argued that
long takes allowed viewers more freedom—they could look where they wanted. This
contributed to the idea that long takes are somehow more respectful of film viewers,
and as such require more sophisticated viewers. Over time, this created the
kneejerk association that long takes are somehow smarter than shorter ones (an
idea that lives on in the attacks on Michael Bay).

But is this argument necessarily true? There are many
reasons to doubt it. For one thing, all shots, long and short, are equally
artificial. It simply isn’t the case that as a shot gets longer, it somehow gets
truer. To think that way overlooks the artifice of the long take.

For instance, Bazin’s arguments about how long takes were more
respectful or less manipulative than shorter ones don’t always hold up to
scrutiny. As it turns out, there is nothing stopping long takes from being just
as composed and manipulative as shorter ones. Directors have many tools at
their disposal to direct the viewer’s attention through the long take, just
like they do in shorter ones. Composition can be, and often is, a means for directing
attention. So, too, are performances and camera movements. In other words, there’s
no reason to assume that mise-en-scène
is any less “manipulative” than editing.

This point is well made by David Bordwell in his article “Widescreen
Aesthetics and Mise-en-Scène Criticism” (1985, available
here as a PDF
). In particular, Bordwell observes how Otto Preminger’s use
of widescreen was celebrated by certain critics operating in the Bazinian
tradition. He relates how two critics writing in the Bazinian tradition, V.F.
Perkins and Charles Barr, praised a scene in River of No
(1954) in which Marilyn Monroe’s character, Kay, drops her
valise while boarding a raft. As the scene continues, we see the valise drifting
away in the background of other shots. The argument here is that Preminger has
left it up to the viewer to see this detail, even as the action continues in
the foreground. Both Perkins and Barr celebrated Preminger’s employment of long
takes and deep focus, arguing that they gave his films a kind of naturalism,
transparency, and subtlety.

But Bordwell argues that this isn’t the case at all. In his
analysis, he notes how the film actually employs several devices that function
to draw attention to the disappearing valise:

“When Kay drops the valise she glances
frantically toward it and cries out, ‘My things!’ Harry shouts, ‘Let it go!’ At
the same moment, the camera pans sharply to the right to reframe the valise,
and a chord sounds on the musical track. Our attention to the drifting bundle
is just as motivated. For one thing, the bundle is initially centered when Matt
and Henry pass. Furthermore, Preminger has anticipated this camera position a
few shots earlier, when matt ran to the edge of the bank. It is common for a
classical film to establish a locale in a neutral way and then return to this
already-seen camera setup when we are to notice a fresh element in the space.
We thus identify the new information as significant against a background of
familiarity. As a fresh element in a locale we have already seen from a
comparable vantage point, the bundle becomes noteworthy. In sum, Preminger’s
staging of the scene stands out because it avoids editing, but it uses other
means to draw our attention to the bundle—centering, the return to a familiar
setup, and the repetition of cues for the bundle’s loss.” (22–3).

So much, then for Preminger’s supposed naturalism and transparency.
His long takes and use of deep focus—hallmarks of Bazinian realism, and supposedly
free of manipulation—turn out to be saturated with artifice, and highly
manipulative. (Preminger is hardly the only example one can find of this—Citizen Kane, for instance, also uses
composition and sound cues to focus its viewers’ attention, in addition to its celebrated
usage of long takes and deep focus.)

Another problem with the critical tendency to oppose long
takes and editing is that it ignores the many ways that those two techniques commonly
work together. This point is well made by Brian Henderson in his 1976 essay “The
Long Take,” which seeks to deconstruct the false binary between Bazin’s long
take and Eisenstein’s montage. For one thing, Henderson points out that long
takes still have duration, beginnings and endings, and as such still employ
editing—they’re edited together. What’s more, even a director like Max Ophuls—truly
a master of the long take if there ever was one—rarely assembled his films out
of nothing but long takes. Thus, a film with many long takes may also feature
shorter ones, and those shorter takes may in fact come between long takes:

“The present article takes its chief
emphasis from the fact that the long take rarely appears in its pure state (as
a sequence filmed in one shot), but almost always in combination with some form
of editing. […] Most analyses of long take directors and styles concentrate on
the long take itself and ignore the mode of cutting unique to it—what we call
below the intra-sequence cut. But such cuts or cutting patterns (one could even
speak of cutting styles) are as essential to the long take sequence as the long
take itself.” (316)

Throughout the essay, Henderson patiently draws attention to
these problems in order to ultimately argue that a film criticism that simply opposes
long takes and editing is bound to overlook the crucial role that editing plays
in defining the long take, and sequences of long takes. His goal is to point
out an area of filmmaking that has largely gone unstudied. Sadly, the tendency
to diametrically oppose mise-en-scène
with cutting prevails nearly forty years later, leaving a fascinating realm of
cinema still largely unstudied. At the present moment in popular film
criticism, the championing of long takes has once again risen to something of a
fetish. It receives a disparate amount of attention despite the fact that the long
take is but one element of filmmaking, no better or worse than any other.

A related problem is the tendency to measure the length of a
film’s takes by calculating the Average Shot Length, or ASL. This value is
calculated by dividing a film’s running time by the number of shots it
contains. And ASL is a very useful value in many respects. For one thing, when
one surveys many different films, ASL can give a general sense of how rapidly
films are cut in a given place or time. Thus, one can say that the average rate
of cutting in Hollywood cinema has increased throughout the sound era. Or, one
can attempt to catalog which contemporary Hollywood films feature the longest
I did here
, in an earlier article for PressPlay.

But ASL also leaves out a lot of information, especially
when one is analyzing specific films. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity,
for instance, has an ASL of roughly 35, since it features 156 shots in 90
minutes. (I’m speaking approximately here; I’m going off reported numbers, and
haven’t performed this analysis myself. Also, I don’t know the actual runtime
of the film, sans credits. The exact ASL, however, is beside the point.) Having
in hand an ASL of 35 doesn’t mean that every shot in Gravity is 35 seconds long—or indeed that any shot in Gravity is 35 seconds long. The opening
shot, for instance, is at least twelve minutes long—meaning that, on average,
the remaining 155 shots have an ASL of 30 seconds. And for every shot longer
than that, there means there are also shots shorter than that. What of them?
Are they any good? What is their relationship to the longer shots in the film?
Or is Gravity only good during its
long shots? (And if that’s the case, then why?)

The fetishizing of long takes is part of a larger,
long-running problem in film criticism, which as a whole is arguably less
critical than it pretends to be. As David Bordwell has expressed it:

“Instead of asking how films work or
how spectators understand films, many scholars prefer to offer interpretive
commentary on films. Even what’s called film theory is largely a mixture of
received doctrines, highly selective evidence, and more or less free
association. Which is to say that many humanists treat doing film theory as a
sort of abstract version of doing film criticism. They don’t embrace the
practices of rational inquiry, which includes assessing a wide body of
evidence, seeking out counterexamples, and showing how a line of argument is
more adequate than its rivals.” (“Articles“)

Put another way, the fascination with the long take risks
becoming entirely symptomatic, and uncritical. What makes a movie good? Long
takes! How do you know which movies are the best? Why, just check which ones
feature the longest takes! This is a totally dumbed-down type of film
criticism, where all we need do is calculate ASL’s in order to rank all the
movies ever made.

I don’t want to imply that long takes aren’t important, or
don’t feature a special relationship with mise-en-scène.
Certainly we should be sensitive to the unique challenges and properties posed
by the long take, and how it presents its content to the viewer. No film better
illustrates this than Aleksandr Sokurov’s feature Russian Ark
(2002), whose 96 minutes of footage consist of a single take. I myself watched
the film twice in a row in the theater, something I’ve rarely done—but Russian Ark is truly an atypical film.

However, is Russian
somehow more realistic than films that feature editing? Hardly. It’s worth
remembering, a la Henderson, that the 96-minute-long shot, and the film itself,
still has a beginning and an end. When compared with a person’s life—or even a
single day—it is still but a miniscule slice of time, unable to compete with actual
lived experience.

What’s more, we would do well to remember Bordwell’s
analysis of Preminger. The film as a whole, rather than being some transparent
documentation of reality, is entirely contrived. The single take carries us
from room to room, and from scene to scene. We go where Sokurov takes us. And
the man isn’t just wandering the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage
Museum with a camcorder, capturing whatever reality he finds there. Instead,
he’s organized everything that we see. His camera movements and framing glide
along very differently than we people do, being balanced by a Steadicam. And
they continuously direct our attention, focusing it to particular aspects of
the spectacle. Meanwhile, everything that appears on screen is the product of meticulous
design and rehearsal. And we aren’t even seeing the first take, but the fourth!
(Goodfellas’s Steadicam passage
through the Copacabana is similarly no more real or less artificial than any
other shot in any other film ever.)

Along these lines, associating mise-en-scène exclusively with long takes perpetuates the bias
toward long takes, since they then seem to have a special quality (mise-en-scène!) that’s lacking in
shorter ones. Because, I mean, if cutting eliminates mise-en-scène, then aren’t they inherently worse? But short takes
do have mise-en-scène, and
understanding the connection between the mise-en-scène
and the montage is extremely important. To put it another way, if montage is
the study of the interrelation of shots, and all shots possess a mise-en-scène, then montage is also the
study of the interrelation of mise-en-scènes.
This is a topic just as worthy of serious critical attention as the study of
individual long takes. What is needed, overall, is a critical approach to cinema
that seeks to relate the various parts to the whole (as we find in the works of
critics like Bordwell and Henderson).


4. Mise-en-scène and the Short Take

In order to demonstrate the importance of mise-en-scène in short-take cinema, I’d
like to devote the remainder of this article to analyzing a scene from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
(2010), looking at how mise-en-scène and
editing work in concert to produce several complicated larger effects. A few
notes first. I chose this scene because the editing in it is very fast. (The
editing in Wright’s films tends to be very fast in general.) Here, we have 24
shots in 57 seconds, yielding an ASL of only 2.1. That of course doesn’t tell
us how long each shot is, but it’s worth noting that this ASL is lower than in
most contemporary Hollywood films, which tend to hover in the 3–6 second range.
And yet, despite the brisk pace, a great amount of information is communicated in
this minute of film. Let’s see how that is done.

The scene in question occurs roughly 26 minutes into the
film. Scott Pilgrim has just had his first date with Ramona Flowers. Later that
day, his band (Sex Bob-omb) is due to play in a battle of the bands at a club
called the Rockit:

Ramona arrives, surprising Scott; she then meets some of
Scott’s family and friends. She also meets Scott’s current girlfriend, Knives
Chao, who kisses Scott, causing the young man to stammer and flee. Along the
way, we also get the beginnings of a subplot in which Wallace will seduce Jimmy
away from Stacey. In order to understand how Edgar Wright accomplished all of
this (and more!), we need to examine his sophisticated deployment of mise-en-scène.

For one thing, even though the Rockit isn’t the primary
focus of the scene, the setting is still important. The first two shots (of the
club’s sign and the interior, including the stage) function as establishing
shots, after which we catch glimpses of people milling about, and crew members
preparing for the upcoming battle of the bands. The next ten minutes of the
film will take place at the Rockit, and these establishing and background
elements help set the stage (literally) for the coming action. The setting also
figures into the film’s larger plot: its dive-bar atmosphere (“this place is a
toilet”) helps establish the upward progress that Scott and his band mates are
striving to make, which will be entwined with Scott’s struggle to win Ramona’s
heart. As both Sex Bob-omb and Scott advance, the clubs grow progressively
nicer until they wind up at the final battle, at Gideon Graves’s
state-of-the-art Chaos Theater.

Other background elements are also doing important work.
Edgar Wright sets up a quick joke by using the first few shots not only to
reveal information, but to conceal some as well. Ramona arrives and greets
Scott, and we get some conversation between them done as shot-reverse-shot.
Wright then cuts to reveal that Wallace, Stacey, and Jimmy are also present,
and have been standing there the whole time. The reveal is humorous, and helps
further Scott’s obliviousness (he has eyes only for Ramona). (The maneuver
recalls the joke in the opening scene of Shaun
of the Dead
, where Wright gradually adds in characters.)

Another important function of the mise-en-scène of each shot is how it helps focus our
attention—which is in fact vitally important, given how short these shots are.
Lighting and costuming are used to offset the characters from the background,
drawing our attention to their faces. And it’s worth noting here that, even in
short takes, there’s still room for mobile camerawork. (In other words, changes
in composition and changes in shots through editing are hardly opposed to one
another, but can work in concert.) As Stacey introduces Wallace and Jimmy, the
camera whip-pans to show us each character. Wright then builds another joke out
of this, hand-in-hand with the cutting, as Wallace sets his sights on Jimmy.

As the scene progresses, our attention is gradually shifted
away from the background elements of the setting, and more toward the
characters themselves. Again, numerous elements are working together here to
accomplish this (including tighter framing and a shallower depth of field). The
focus grows increasingly shallow throughout the scene, as our perspective
shrinks to that of Scott Pilgrim and his discomfort. The payoff comes in the
final shot of the scene, where Wright opens the space up once again, returning us
to a larger sense of the club. The pounding of Scott’s heart turns out to be a
drum being used in the sound check. Meanwhile, Scott, unable to handle the
conflict at hand (his basic problem as a protagonist), takes advantage of the deeper
focus of the shot to run off into the distance, and out of sight. (We have here
an illustration of how cinematography often anticipates how the actors are
going to move in the course of a shot.)

Yet other elements of the mise-en-scène work to develop the ongoing conflicts and jokes. When
Knives Chau shows up, her performance calls attention to her new hairstyle,
which is part of her character’s arc: her adoration for Scott is causing her to
become an indie rock fan. In a later scene, she’ll dye her hair blue, in
imitation of Ramona—and already the film is drawing comparisons between their
respective looks, and setting that love triangle in motion.

It’s also worth noting that the scene, despite being rapidly
edited, is hardly incoherent, either temporally, spatially, or narratively.
Indeed, a great deal is being communicated here in all three of those aspects
of the film. Several of the jokes depend on a consistent sense of space. And,
narratively, the scene introduces many characters to one another, delivering
some exposition to them and to the audience, as well as establishing two
separate love triangles (Scott / Ramona / Knives and Stacey / Wallace / Jimmy).

And this analysis only scratches the surface—we haven’t
considered much how sound functions in the scene, or color, or any of the CGI
elements. But I think we can see how the scene functions due to its complex
interaction of lighting, costuming, setting, character positioning (blocking),
camera movement—and editing (and camerawork). Rather than opposing one another,
all of the elements of the film—including the mise-en-scène and the editing—are working in concert to progress a
wealth of character and plot detail. Indeed, it’s only because those elements
are so carefully arranged in consideration of one another that Wright can
accomplish so much so economically. That complex interplay is the very heart of
the film’s sophistication, and artistry.

A.D Jameson is the author
of three books:
  Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), and 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium Inc., 2013). Other writing has appeared
and HTMLGIANT, as well as in dozens of literary journals. Since August 2011 he’s been a PhD student at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at

Some Thoughts on the STAR WARS: EPISODE VII Casting Announcement and the Reaction To It

Some Thoughts on the STAR WARS: EPISODE VII Casting Announcement and the Reaction To It


After a year spent sucking the marrow from every stray casting
rumor and meager scrap of information, we finally know who the principal
players will be in Star Wars: Episode VII
– A New Menace
(which is what I personally believe the film’s going to be
called). LucasDisneyFilm has announced that, as suspected, the original cast
will be returning, and that they will be joined by “John Boyega, Daisy Ridley,
Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson and Max von Sydow.” To
which I say: I’m severely disappointed by the lack of an Oxford comma there. And
to which I also say: there had better be a scene where Max von Sydow’s character
plays holographic chess (Dejarik!)
with Darth Death.

Two observations seem in order—indeed, seem repeating and
emphasizing, since many others have already made them. One. Billy Dee Williams has gotten the shaft. Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, and those adorable droids 3PO
and R2 will be in the picture, but they won’t be joined by Lando? (And if he
does turn up, then he’s still not part of the core cast?) Well, I guess he
wasn’t really part of the gang, after all. What, did Lucas stick the fellow in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi purely because people
wondered at the time where all the black people in that galaxy were? I guess he
did. Consider another childhood illusion irrevocably shattered.
Two. The internet quickly whipped itself into a frenzy over
the relative dearth (get it?) of women
actors in the new cast. Annalee Newitz penned a sharply-worded critique
of the omission over at io9, and Empire Magazine’s Helen O’Hara wasted no
time decrying similarly on Twitter.
And: it does boggle the mind that each Star
trilogy now features so few central female characters—two of whom have
been princesses, no less!—surrounded by what are, for the most part, hordes of
white dudes.
Of course, newcomer Daisy Ridley might turn out to be the
main character in this new trilogy—the Luke Skywalker or the Han Solo—and she
might prove to be the most butt-kicking Jedi Princess of all time. Obviously,
we can’t say anything substantive about the artistry of the films, since they
don’t exist yet. If we’d seen the casting news for Alien and Aliens, would
we have been able to predict what a feminist icon Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley
would become? The Bechdel
is important, in that it articulates very well a prevailing sexist
deficiency in Hollywood, but it can’t be the only measure of a film’s quality,
or even a film’s politics. And I want to be clear that I like all these
actors—at least, the ones I recognize (most of them). May the Force be with them.
But here’s the thing. Disney, J. J. Abrams, and Kathleen
Kennedy aren’t buying themselves much good will here, or rather aren’t
buying as much good will as they could. And you think they would be approaching
this—the most anticipated film of the decade—more cannily. Abrams, it should be
mentioned, is coming off something of a debacle. His Star Trek films have been criticized for having too many male
characters, and for sexually objectifying their female characters. And even he
has admitted that he bungled the lead-up to Star
Trek Into Darkness
, and the way he toyed with fan expectations.
Meanwhile, the Star
Prequel Trilogy remains without doubt the most traumatic thing,
creatively speaking, to have happened to the geek community since—well, since ever. Fans were disappointed in those
films for many reasons—an overreliance on CGI that looked nothing like the
beloved aesthetic of the original trilogy, relentless scenes of expository
dialogue about trade regulations, the jarring shift in tone that saw characters
stepping in Bantha poodoo. But a large part of the problem was that the Prequel
Trilogy was… how shall we say it? A
racist and sexist horror show
. Jar-Jar, Watto, the Neimoidians, Natalie
Portman’s endless parade of false eyelashes and pretty dresses—it was all so
baldly offensive that fans could hardly believe what they were seeing. “It has
to be ironic?” we all asked, and to this day we are still asking that, because
we can’t bring ourselves to accept the obvious conclusion.
People will point out that the prequels still made a ton of
money, and they certainly did, but they probably didn’t rake it in like they
could have. Only Phantom Menace
cleared a billion dollars at the box office (and did so just barely), and Attack of the Clones dropped off sharply
after that. Simply put, Lucas left money on the table, and a bad taste in the
mouths of a lot of fans. Disney should be doing everything they can to change
Instead, they’re creating more bad taste. No Lando. Only one
central woman. No fan-favorite Mara Jade—in
fact, the Expanded Universe no longer exists. And—why? If I were the person
making these movies (something I only occasionally pretend), I’d be asking
myself, “How can I bend over backward to give the people what they want?” Sure,
sure, I’d try to be Very Artistic in my bending. But given that these new
movies are such blank slates, the opportunity to reposition Star Wars front and center as the most
beloved movie franchise of all time, I’d be doing my damndest to figure out how
to do something Very Artistic with Mara Jade, and Lando, and a few other
characters of color to boot.
Here’s another way of looking at it. Star Wars: Episodes VII–IX aren’t “necessary” the way the previous
trilogies were. Sure, they’re financially
necessary (for Disney), and, sure, fans feel the need to line up for more films.
(I’m a fan; I’ll be there.) But these movies aren’t needed to continue or
resolve the story that’s told across the first six films, which are complete
within themselves. Return of the Jedi
wraps it all up pretty nicely, no? We’ve seen how Darth Vader grew up and got
seduced by Senator Palpatine, and then was redeemed by his son, and tossed the
Emperor down a hole. The second Death Star exploded, the Galactic Empire was
overthrown, and balance returned to the Force. The End.
What comes after that? Anything and nothing. The limitless
potential of narrative means there’s no shortage of stories that can be told, but there aren’t any Star Wars stories that have to be told. Abrams et al. are
effectively rebooting the franchise, and paving the way for an endless stream
of movies set in that galaxy far, far away. Given that, why not seize the
chance to restore some other imbalances, and undo the mistakes of the past?

A.D Jameson is the author
of the prose collection
Adult Fantasy
(Mutable Sound, 2011), in
which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on ’80s pop culture, and the novel
and Gibson
, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of
Gilgamesh. He’s taught
classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College,
DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and
StoryStudio Chicago. He’s also the
nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal
Requited. He recently
started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. In his spare
time, he contributes to the group blogs
and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.

VIDEO ESSAY: Alfonso Cuarón’s Cinematic Canvas

VIDEO ESSAY: Alfonso Cuarón’s Cinematic Canvas

Alfonso Cuarón and
the Prisoner of Azkaban

The following is an
appreciation of my personal favorite film by Alfonso Cuarón, which I fear has
been somewhat critically neglected. But for more on the man’s impressive career
as a whole, see Nelson Carvajal’s video “Alfonso
Cuarón’s Cinematic Canvas

People sometimes ask me whether I think “the kids today” are
all right. That always seems to me a strange question and perhaps a rhetorical
one where the speaker is really suggesting that there’s something wrong with
anyone younger than us. The logic, inasmuch as I follow it, is that
thirty-somethings had the privilege of growing up with movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and Time Bandits, and those movies fucked us up, and made us the clever
intelligent beautiful sophisticates we are today. Well, I’m not so sure it
works like that, and for every subversive film by Gilliam and Henson, there
were many more popular flicks like The
Karate Kid
, Teen Wolf, and Short Circuit. But, sure, I always
respond, “the kids today” should be totally fine, because they had Pokémon—surely
one of the strangest cartoons I’ve ever witnessed—and what’s more, they had Alfonso
Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the
Prisoner of Azkaban

I disliked the
first two Potter films, though I also wasn’t fond of the first two books. But
with Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K.
Rowling started hitting her stride, complicating Harry’s bright happy world with
more intricate plotting and morally ambiguous characters, the prime example of
which was the titular prisoner himself, Sirius Black. And can you imagine what
Chris Columbus would have done with that character? But Columbus bowed out of
the franchise, allowing Cuarón to inherit it—and totally redesign it.

Gary Oldman as Black was a bit of genius—this is the guy who previously played Sid
Vicious, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, Guildenstern (I mean Rosencrantz), Mason
Verger, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, and that deranged cop determined to kill the
pubescent Natalie Portman and her kindly middle-aged French hit man boyfriend.
(Although come to think about it, had Stansfield succeeded, might we have been
spared the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy?) Oldman’s mere presence—recall those
initial glimpses of the man, howling in rage in those animated wanted
posters—made Black feel genuinely dangerous, and made the Potterverse feel suddenly
dangerous. Adding David Thewlis to the mix, as the reluctant, melancholy
werewolf Remus Lupin (he’s rather Hulk-like), pushed that fictional world even
further into some dark corner of the crooked Diagon Alley. Think about it: Azkaban’s the movie where Harry Potter’s
stable of mentors swelled to include not just Oldman, but Johnny from Naked (and were we meant to sense in
Thewlis’s presence a hint of the Verlaine / Rimbaud relationship in Total Eclipse?).

importantly, with Azkaban, the Potter
films went from something with the look and feel of an after-school special to the
look and feel of cinema. If you’re
shaky on the details, just compare any scene in Columbus’s version with any
from Cuarón’s—for instance, these two classroom bits:

Note, in that Azkaban
scene, the wide variety of techniques on display—long gliding takes and dramatic
insert shots—as well as the inventive staging. (I particularly like the moment
when Harry steps up to the boggart, and the camera affixes itself momentarily to
the bobbing jack-in-the-box.) Azkaban
was also the movie where Hogwarts—until now a stable, horizontal, and above all
else comfortable boarding school—went
all cockeyed, becoming in Cuarón’s hands someplace sprawling and ancient, a
place with enormous swinging clock pendulums that could kill an unwary kid, and
perched precariously amidst crags and ravines. Here’s what Cuaron did: when
Columbus left the project, the producers initially turned to Guillermo del
Toro. But del Toro declined, having found Columbus’s first two installments “so
bright and happy and full of light.” But a few years later, he
expressed interest in helming a later installment

“After seeing the last few films,
however, the director famed for a shadowy imagination and morally ambiguous
characters has begun to reconsider. ‘They seem to be getting eerie and darker
… If they come back to me, I’ll think about it.’”

Thank Cuarón for that eeriness, that darkness (though to be
fair, the books do get more complex with that installment).

He departed
after Azkaban, but he left his mark
on the franchise: successors Mike Newell and David Yates kept the basics of his
approach, even if their direction never matched Cuarón’s. With the exception of
Bruno Delbonnel, who provided the cinematography for Half-Blood
, no one else ever came across as having as much fun with Rowling’s
sprawling world as Cuarón.

my own part, I saw The Prisoner of
three times in the theater. And whenever anyone asked me what I
thought of it, I said, “It’s great. It’s this generation’s Time Bandits.”

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter

A.D Jameson is the author
of the prose collection
Adult Fantasy
(Mutable Sound, 2011), in
which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on ’80s pop culture, and the novel
and Gibson
, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of
Gilgamesh. He’s taught
classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College,
DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and
StoryStudio Chicago. He’s also the
nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal
Requited. He recently
started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. In his spare
time, he contributes to the group blogs
and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.

BLUE JASMINE’s Complex Interior(s)

BLUE JASMINE’s Complex Interior(s)


Warning: This review contains mild spoilers.

Critics have widely noted that the scenario of Woody Allen’s
latest feature, Blue Jasmine (2013),
is indebted to A Streetcar Named Desire
(1947). However, cinematically, the film owes just as much—if not more—to an
earlier Allen film: the obscure Interiors (1978).

Blue Jasmine’s indebtedness to Streetcar is fairly obvious. The movie depicts what happens when the blustery socialite
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), having fallen on hard times, moves in with her
working class sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), initiating a series of class
conflicts. What’s more, Blanchett came to the project after a tenure as Blanche
in a Broadway adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s famed drama.

connections with Interiors, however, should
be just as apparent. What obscures them is the fact that Interiors was little-seen in its time, and is today
little-remembered. To be fair, it’s a fairly bleak drama that presumably startled
and confused audiences more accustomed to Woody Allen’s nebbish comedy—indeed,
the film was how Allen chose to follow Annie Hall (1977),
after that film’s success afforded him carte blanche.

Interiors certainly has its problems
(which I’ll get to below), but it remains fascinating if for no other reason
than it was Allen’s first attempt at serious drama. We’re more familiar with
that side of Woody today; since then, he’s also made September
(1987), Another Woman (1988),
Crimes and Misdemeanors
(1989), Match Point (2005)—and
now Blue Jasmine. And so it’s high
time to revisit Interiors, and note
the ways in which Blue Jasmine is beholden
to it.

Some of the
broad similarities between Interiors
and Blue Jasmine include:

  • Both films
    are straight dramas, and fairly sober. (There’s no comedic plotline, like
    in Crimes and Misdemeanors.)
  • Allen
    doesn’t appear in either film.
  • Both films
    depict the mental deterioration of their respective protagonists.
  • In Interiors, Eve (Geraldine Page)
    suffers a breakdown after her longtime husband announces his desire for a
    trial separation; she clings to the futile hope that they will reconcile.
    In Blue Jasmine, Jasmine’s collapse
    follows the downfall of her deceitful husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), to whom
    she periodically continues speaking, despite his having hung himself in
  • Eve is
    an interior decorator, a job Jasmine aspires to—going so far as to pretend
    to her suitor Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) that she already is one.
  • Both
    films alternate fluidly between past and present action.
  • The overall
    editing styles of both films are similar, as Allen employs many abrupt
    cuts between scenes. Both films, for instance, tend to cut hard on the heels
    of the last line in a scene, often using this as an opportunity to switch
    between the timelines. (Allen first started matching on dialogue like this
    in Annie Hall.)

Additionally, Blue
includes other signs that the ever-introspective Allen is now remembering
his previous work. The amorous dentist for whom Jasmine briefly becomes a receptionist,
Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), bears the same name as the Brooklyn psychologist
in Annie Hall who assures a young
Alvy Singer that there’s no reason to fear an expanding universe. And the
mentally unstable Jasmine is another variation on a familiar Allen archetype
that includes not only Interiors’s
Eve but also Radha Mitchell’s Melinda in Melinda and Melinda
(2004), Christina Ricci’s Amanda in Anything Else
(2003), Mia Farrow’s turns as Hope and Lane in Another Woman and September,
respectively, Dianne Wiest’s Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters
(1986), and, arguably, Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall.

willingness to rework “whatever works” is not new in Allen’s cinema; the man
has long been in the habit of basing his films on preexisting material.
Sometimes the influence is explicit: Stardust Memories (1981)
clearly revises Federico Fellini’s (1963), and neither
Match Point nor Crimes and Misdemeanors disguises its debt to Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment (1866). Similarly, Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
cribs a fair amount from Fellini’s La Strada (1954), Husbands and Wives (1992)
steals from Bergman’s TV miniseries Scenes from a Marriage
(1973), and September would be
unimaginable without Chekhov’s play Uncle
(1897/9). At other times, the inspiration is subtler: Deconstructing Harry
(1997) borrows a portion of its central scenario from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries
(1957), a fact that might be overlooked due to the film’s wealth of material
and concern with metatextuality. (Both films are picaresques in which an older
man travels to receive an award from his former university; furthermore, the
scenes depicting Harry’s fictions are arguably equivalent to Wild Strawberries’s dream sequences.) And
To Rome with Love (2012)
is only loosely inspired by Boccaccio’s 14th-century classic collection
of tales The Decameron. (Its’ working
title was “Bop Decameron.”) Melinda and Melinda
pays homage to My Dinner with Andre
(1981) by including Wallace Shawn among the dinner companions, and takes its
central conceit from Alain Resnais’s 1993 experiment Smoking/No
(1993) (or perhaps Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof
Piesiewicz’s The Double Life of
, 1991).

Given this,
it’s worth remembering a fascinating argument made by Brad Stevens in a feature
article in the April 2011 Sight &
(“In Defence of Woody Allen”). There, Stevens claims that all of
Allen’s recent films (those since 2000) are to some extent variations on one

“When viewed as a group, films
that—taken individually—could hardly seem any clearer or less ambiguous in
their intentions begin to feel mysterious and fragmented, diverse parts of a
whole whose contours can be glimpsed only as the various pieces of the puzzle
fall into place.”

In other words, Allen has spent the past ten years basing
his films . . . on his own previous work. Stevens notes that both Small Time Crooks (2000)
and The Curse of the Jade
(2001) feature jewel thefts, while both Vicky Christina
(2008) and Whatever Works (2009)
feature “women who realize they are gifted photographers as soon as they become
part of a ménage à troi.” Even more
compellingly, Stevens reads Scoop (2006) as a comedic reworking of the material that Match Point presents as tragedy: “both
deal explicitly with the class system and involve males who murder women in
order to preserve privileged positions within that system.” Along these lines, Stevens
notes how the seemingly innocuous Melinda
and Melinda
serves as something of a “guide” to reading Allen’s recent
work, serving up tragic and comedic variations of the same story.

All of this
having been said, I wouldn’t want to overlook the substantial differences
between Blue Jasmine and Interiors. Most importantly, Interiors, despite being a beautiful and
intriguing film (especially in the context of Allen’s filmography and career),
is hardly a successful feature. It is for one thing much too derivative of Ingmar
Bergman, especially Persona (1966) and Cries & Whispers
(1972)—the final shot, for instance, feels especially contrived, a blatant copy
of cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s work.

Blue Jasmine wears
its influences more lightly: while the film begins with a scenario taken from
Tennessee Williams, Allen quickly puts his own stamp on the material, and quickly
sets out in his own direction: there is no Stanley Kowalski, no “Stella!”, and both
sisters soon get caught up in romances with other men. Blue Jasmine is also the more successful film in terms of its characterization
and tone. Jasmine and Ginger, et al., are far more complex creations than the
caricatures inhabiting the chilly corridors of Interiors. (The exception of course is Eve; Geraldine Page’s
performance is nuanced and powerful). Moreover, whereas Interiors is marred by the same clunkiness that sometimes haunts Allen’s
dramas (see also September), Blue Jasmine’s dialogue and plotting
recall the subtler scripting on display in Crimes
and Misdemeanors
and Match Point.

instance, consider the question of Jasmine’s culpability. She gives the impression
that she never had any knowledge of Hal’s criminal endeavors, or even the capacity
to understand them. Indeed, she routinely protests that when she encouraged Ginger
and Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) to invest with Hal, she was simply trying to help
them out. However, after Hal confesses to Jasmine that he has been serially
unfaithful, and what’s more that he intends to marry the French au pair he is
currently seeing, we see Jasmine make a phone call to the FBI, which leads to
his arrest. We might presume that Jasmine offered to testify against her
husband, and therefore knew more than she later lets on. The point is not elaborated
upon, and only Jasmine’s adopted son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich) seems to know
this fact, explaining his desire to have no further contact with the woman.

Allen’s filmmaking is more subtle than critics commonly recognize— perhaps
distracted by the broad strokes?—as well as more introspective. Above all else,
Allen recognizes that psychological insight is not threatened by artifice. He has
always been comfortable allowing his fictions to be fictions—always fake, and always based on other works, his own and
others. Part of Allen’s value as a writer and as a filmmaker (and I personally
consider him among the highest ranks in both categories) has always stemmed
from his simultaneous pursuit of psychological insight by means of inherited material. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is in many
ways a stereotype, a shallow socialite decked out in Chanel belts and Louis
Vuitton bags; her costuming is anything but subtle. But Allen’s broad signaling
in this regard does not diminish the power of the portrayal. By the end of the
film, Allen and Blanchett & company have constructed a complex character whose
psychological suffering is palpable and unsettling.

Take for
instance the final scene, which is as neat and poetic an ending as could be
hoped for. Throughout the film, Jasmine’s been haunted by strains of “Blue Moon,”
the song that was playing when she first met Hal, who became the source of her
highest highs and her lowest lows. Each time we are given only an instrumental
version. At the end, the song returns, and as Jasmine sits and mumbles to
herself, alone on a park bench, she admits that the words have become “a jumble”
(the film’s last line). But Allen trusts us to remember them:

Blue moon

You saw me standing alone

Without a dream in my heart

Without a love of my own

This is the height of Allen’s artistry on display. Watch how
it happens. The song is redemptive, but we see Jasmine solitary and hopeless,
her last chance at redemption blown. Arguably, she deserves her comeuppance.
But who will be the first among us to insist upon that? Allen, meanwhile, hangs
back and quietly observes. Jasmine sits there and he watches her sitting there,
and as the song continues playing we realize the gentle irony of the movie’s title:
“Blue Jasmine.” This is a very sad ending for such a creature, monstrous though
she may be.

But Jasmine
isn’t a monster, which is precisely
Allen’s point: she’s utterly complex, and none the less so for having been
stitched together out of pieces taken from countless prior protagonists. Woody
Allen both inherited her and made her—that’s the real irony. And he keeps on shooting, and dares us to risk caring.

A.D Jameson is the author
of the prose collection
Adult Fantasy
(Mutable Sound, 2011), in
which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on ’80s pop culture, and the novel
and Gibson
, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of
Gilgamesh. He’s taught
classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College,
DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and
StoryStudio Chicago. He’s also the
nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal
Requited. He recently
started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. In his spare
time, he contributes to the group blogs
and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.

The Longest Average Shot Lengths in Modern Hollywood

The Longest Average Shot Lengths in Modern Hollywood


Director Alfonso Cuarón likes long
takes, preferring to cut his films as little as he can. His 2006 movie Children of Men features three
relatively long single takes: the scene where Kee gives birth (3:19); the
roadside ambush (4:07); and the final battle (7:34). (Here’s a video that features all of them,
as well as every other take in the film that runs at least 45 seconds.) Now
he’s preparing to release a new film, Gravity, which supposedly opens with a 17-minute-long
take. (The first trailer was recently released, and can be viewed here.) What’s more, the rest of the film apparently
contains only 155 other shots. Assuming that the movie runs 2 hours long (the
actual run time hasn’t been announced yet), that would mean that each shot is,
on average, slightly longer than 46 seconds apiece.

That’s extremely long for
contemporary Hollywood, where shots typically don’t last longer than a few
seconds each. For instance, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are pretty
rapidly cut, with Average Shot Lengths (ASLs) between 3 and 3.4 seconds.) But
that’s not altogether unusual. For instance, Inception (2010) has an ASL of 3.1. (I
made a video about that, here.) Scholars such as David Bordwell and
Kristin Thompson have documented how, over the past thirty years, cutting in
Hollywood films has gotten faster, resulting in ASLs of under 5 seconds.
Foreign films have remained slower by comparison, and European filmmakers often
bring those habits to Hollywood. Drive, for instance, which was directed
by the Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, features pretty long takes, and
an ASL of 7 seconds/shot). But that’s still much faster than what Cuarón has
just accomplished.

Advance word about Gravity got some friends and me
wondering: what other contemporary Hollywood films have ASLs higher than 46? Or
is Gravity going to set some new record?

To answer that question, I turned to
the Cinemetrics Database, an online database
for ASLs and other measurements for films. It’s important to note that the data
there is submitted by volunteers, and very prone to errors. Furthermore, the
database is also far from complete. Still, it’s a very useful tool. (The site
also provides free software that anyone can download to use and to

Here’s what I did. First, I clicked
“Show all,” so I could sort the films by ASL—simple enough. I saw right away
that Russian Ark was #1, which makes sense.
That 2002 film consists of only a single shot, and thereby yields an ASL of 5496.3). So far, the database appeared

The next step was harder. I imported
the sorted data into Excel, and began distinguishing the Hollywood films from
the rest. This is important because, as already noted, lots of foreign films contain
longer takes than their US counterparts. But we want to know how remarkable Gravity is going to appear in US
cineplexes this summer. I took out a lot of works by familiar European names here:
Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Chantal Akerman, Hou
Hsiao-Hsien, Kim Ki-duk, Pedro Costa, Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet,
the Dardenne Brothers, Jafar Panahi, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang
… (If you’re unfamiliar with their films, you’re missing out on some of the
best movies being made today).

The next step was to weed out
experimental/underground directors like Andy Warhol and George Kuchar, and
older Hollywood directors like G.W. Bitzer and D.W. Griffith. Again, we want to
compare Gravity to recent Hollywood
films. Shot length slowed down a lot when sound was introduced, and has been
speeding up over the past eighty-something years. For instance, Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) has an ASL of
about 15 seconds. (That said, an ASL of 46 would be remarkable even in Classic

And here’s what I found (although
keep in mind I wasn’t able to independently confirm any of this, and I had to
weed out a lot of anomalies—the
database really needs some cleaning up!)

1. Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock),
ASL = 433.9

OK, this isn’t a recent
recent film, but it has to be noted, as it’s most likely the highest ASL in
Hollywood. Hitchcock used only 10 shots in making it (the film’s Wikipedia page
lists them). (As you probably know,
Hitchcock designed those shots, then edited them such that the finished film appeared
to be a single take.)

After that, editing speeds up considerably:

3. Down by Law (1986, Jim Jarmusch),
ASL = 51.1

4. Elephant (2003, Gus Van Sant),
ASL = 49.4

5. Bullets Over Broadway (1994,
Woody Allen), ASL = 48.2

6. Last Days (2005, Gus Van Sant),
ASL = 46.5

nullActually, we’ve already encountered
an omission. The #2 film isn’t in the database (yet)—that being Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (2002), the first part of a
trilogy that also includes Elephant and Last Days. Gerry is one of my favorite of Van Sant’s
films, and since I’ve seen it many times I know that its footage of Matt Damon
and Casey Affleck wandering through different deserts doesn’t feature much
cutting, The IMDb trivia page for the film claims that it consists of exactly 100
shots, which over 103 minutes would yield an ASL of 61.8. (Subtracting the
credits would put it closer to 60 seconds per shot.)

So, given the data so far, Gravity
looks ready to clock in at #7 in the list of Hollywood movies with the highest

However, like I said, the Cinemetrics
Database contains a lot of anomalous data. One entry that stood out was Blizzard, a 2003 children’s film about
a magic reindeer, directed by Star Trek‘s own LeVar Burton (who played
the blind engineer Geordi LaForge). There are two records for this film: 46.5 and
76.9. One entry I could overlook, but two raised my suspicions (even if their
claims wildly differ). So I obtained a copy of the film and gave it a look. And
I didn’t watch the whole thing, but I can report that, unless there’s
some 15-minute-long shot lurking in there somewhere, its ASL is entirely
typical—about 3–4 seconds per shot.

After that, Woody Allen has a lot of
the list locked up:

8. Alice (1990, Woody Allen), ASL =

9. Sweetgrass (2009, Ilisa Barbash
& Lucien Castaing-Taylor), ASL = 39.5

10.  Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody
Allen), ASL = 34.6

11. Redacted (2007, Brian De Palma),
ASL = 34.4

12. Don’t Drink the Water (1994,
Woody Allen), ASL = 33.1

13. Everyone Says I Love You (1996,
Woody Allen), ASL = 32.9 (another entry lists 31.9)

14. Shadows and Fog (1991, Woody
Allen), ASL = 32.7

15. Celebrity (1998, Woody Allen),
ASL = 32.1

16. September (1987, Woody Allen),
ASL = 31.3

17. Slacker (1991, Richard
Linklater), ASL = 31.1

18. Vernon, Florida (1982, Errol
Morris), ASL = 30.5

19. Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves),
ASL = 28.9

20. Husbands & Wives (1992, Woody
Allen), ASL = 27.8

21. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993,
Woody Allen), ASL = 27.7

22. Another Woman (1988, Woody
Allen), ASL = 26.9

23.  My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
(2009, Werner Herzog), ASL = 26.9

24. Gates of Heaven (1980, Errol
Morris), ASL = 26

25. Mystery Train (1989, Jim
Jarmusch), ASL = 25

26. Rules of Attraction (2001, Roger
Avary), ASL = 24.9

27. Hannah and Her Sisters  (1986,
Woody Allen), ASL = 24.5

28. Grizzly Man (2005, Werner Herzog),
ASL = 24.4

nullThis isn’t surprising. Woody Allen
has long been noted for his reluctance to cut, and his preference for shooting
whole scenes in single takes. This makes shooting the film more complicated,
but it does allow actors more flexibility in their performances (since they can
move about the set more freely), and greatly speeds up the editing process.

That said, it is odd that the sorted
data didn’t include any Woody Allen film made after 1996. Their absence would
indicate one of two things: that the man has changed his way of working (which
I don’t think is the case), or that his later films have yet to be analyzed and
included. I find the latter possibility more likely. (Also, note that the most
recent film here is four years old, so it’s possible some recent titles are

I’ve seen every film on this list
except for Sweetwater, Redacted, Cloverfield, and My
Son, My Son
, so I can’t vouch for them, but the rest looks correct. (Mystery
also has two other entries that claim 24.1 and 23.9, respectively;
either way, it probably ranks somewhere around 24.)

That said, Rules of Attraction
has to be a mistake. It is a remarkable film for many reasons, featuring an
extraordinarily wide variety of cinematic techniques: splitscreen, reversed
footage, extensive slow motion, and more. And it does contain many wonderful long
takes—but it also contains a sequence comprised of hundreds, if not thousands, of
rapid cuts. My guess is that whoever was measuring the film chose not to count all
the shots in that section, which is of course incorrect. (To get the ASL, you
have to average the length of every shot in the film.)

I stopped analyzing the data at this
point because after this the field starts getting increasingly cluttered,
meaning the inaccuracies in the database render the results less meaningful.

So with Gravity‘s
release, Cuarón looks ready to not only make his most languorous film to
date, but also to take his place alongside long-take masters like Allen, Van
Sant, Jarmusch, Herzog, and Morris.

Seventh place, to be exact.

A.D Jameson is the author
of the prose collection
Adult Fantasy
(Mutable Sound, 2011), in
which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on ’80s pop culture, and the novel
and Gibson
, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of
Gilgamesh. He’s taught
classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College,
DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and
StoryStudio Chicago. He’s also the
nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal
Requited. He recently
started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. In his spare
time, he contributes to the group blogs
and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.

Are Animated Gifs a Type of Cinema?

Are Animated Gifs a Type of Cinema?

Well, are they? I’m
inclined to argue that they are. Indeed, I’ve already done so, in two posts I
wrote a couple years ago elsewhere: “How Many Cinemas Are There?” and “Why Do You Need So Many Cinemas?” There, inspired
by comics scholar Scott McCloud’s ultra-lean definition of comics (“sequential
art”), I proposed that cinema be thought of simply as “moving images.” Making
that mental leap expands the cinema to include not just feature-length films
and shorts, but also television shows, music videos, YouTube videos, video
games, flash animations—and animated gifs. (I even argued that cinema should
include certain “non-electronic” forms, such as flip books, magic lanterns, and
shadow puppetry.) I won’t rehash that whole argument here; instead, I want to
look solely at animated gifs. Are they cinema?

I don’t know anyone who is arguing that they aren’t. But I also don’t
know anyone (with one exception) who’s arguing that they are. Indeed, no
one seems overly concerned with the matter. But I think it makes sense to
examine the relationship between animated gifs and other forms of cinema, as
well as to try describing the format’s unique cinematic aesthetic. Here are a
dozen reasons why.

They’re often taken from cinema, as people extract smaller moments from longer
films. Here’s a famous example:

Picard tommy gun

gif basically consists of two shots, roughly two-and-a-half seconds, taken from
Star Trek: First Contact (1996).

If that’s all animated gifs were, then they would be truly derivative
works—very short video clips (with a reduced color palette). But animated gifs
can be used to create new works, by combining moments from different films. For
instance, you might often see those two shots in the Picard gif followed by a third:




examples edge us closer to the world of video art, or earlier experimental
films that derived their effects from juxtaposing footage from different films.
These Picard gifs remind me of the moment in  Bruce Conner’s classic 1958
film A MOVIE where the submarine captain looks
through the periscope (4:17–4:19):

A MOVIE - periscope

. . to spy a pin-up model reclining on a bed (4:19–4:24):

A MOVIE - bikini

(You can watch A
, which is where I took these screen captures from.)

A MOVIE and these animated gifs employ some common cinematic principles.
The cuts create an eyeline match, which make it appear as though the
characters are looking at one another, and obey the 180-degree
(meaning that if you draw a straight line between their eyes,
our perspective stays to one side of it). (Incidentally, the juxtaposition in A
works better than the above images might suggest, because right
before the cut, the submarine captain is shown twisting the periscope from left
to right.)

seen a different version of the Picard vs. Chunk gif:

Picard vs Chunk facing right

. . and I’d argue that it doesn’t work as well as the first one we considered:


. . which better matches the eyelines, and obeys the 180-degree rule.

suggests that animated gifs possess an aesthetic similar to cinema’s.

Besides combining shots taken from different films, animated gifs can also
juxtapose different types of cinema, such as live-action and animation:


. . or even live action and video games:

picard vs duck hunt

second example suggests that we might also consider video games a type of
cinema—though we need not get into that now.

Gifs can also composite different types of footage within the same image.
Here’s a particularly notorious one that I’ve written about at the lit blog HTMLGIANT:


we have two different pieces of television footage combined in a single image.
And leaving aside the (deliberately offensive) content, we can see another
potential for the form. Composite editing is by no means unique to gifs;
Georges Méliès discovered double exposures soon after filmmaking was
invented—see for instance Un homme de têtes, aka The Four Troublesome
(1898), viewable here. But gifs, being a natively digital format,
might more easily encourage such recombination. (Méliès is their milieu?)

Picard vs. Chunk gif above, in fact, contains composite editing. Here’s a screenshot
taken from the scene in The Goonies (1985) where Chunk originally
performed the Truffle Shuffle:

Truffle Shuffle (screen capture)

made the gif removed Chunk from that setting, and placed him front of another.
I’ve spent more time than I care to admit scrutinizing scenes in The Goonies
and First Contact, and I still can’t tell where that second background
hails from. Here’s a capture of the shot in First Contact that follows
the close-up of Picard firing:

dying Borg (screen capture)

course the footage behind Chunk might not even have come from First Contact,
but some third film.)

more work has been done on this gif. The bullet tracer effects have been added.
And we can now see why Chunk is facing right in that one gif—that’s the way he
was facing in the original shot. This suggests that the right-facing gif came
first, after which someone changed it by turning Chunk to face in the opposite
direction. (Since anyone who can view a gif can, in theory, also edit it, gifs
are arguably a wholly populist form of cinema.)

again at the first Picard gif, at the very top of this article, and compare it
to the others. You’ll see that its first shot is different: it’s been extended
by rolling the footage backward, then forward. (In First Contact, Picard
moves only forward in that shot.) If we wanted to, we could now take that
extended footage of Picard and paste it into the left-facing Chunk gif.

Another way that gifs differ from their sources is that they often reframe
shots—which is part of why it’s difficult to determine where Chunk is standing.
The shot has been whittled down to focus on just him. The shots of Picard
firing have also been narrowed; compare the gif with these screenshots:

Picard firing 1 (screen capture)


Picard firing 2 (screen capture)

animated gifs are lower resolution than film—not to mention often postage-stamp
sized—they benefit from focusing the viewer’s attention on a single central
image. Picard + Tommy gun = all that’s really needed.

might suggest that gifs have a different aesthetic than filmmaking, but I’d
argue it’s more a matter of desired effect. In First Contact, the focus
of the shots is certainly Picard’s attack on his Borg foes, but the scene
occurs within a richer environment. The scene takes place roughly an hour into
a film in which most of the action is set aboard the Enterprise, which is under
siege from the Borg. Picard lures two of those aliens onto the ship’s holodeck,
trapping them in a simulation of a hard-boiled detective novel. The movie needs
to portray a convincing-enough environment in order to keep its audience
immersed in the somewhat outlandish fantasy. Along the same lines, when
watching The Goonies, it’s important that viewers understand that Chunk
does the Truffle Shuffle outside a house in Astoria, Oregon.

the animated gifs we’ve been looking at aren’t concerned with that kind of
world-building, being much more concentrated on a narrower and more immediate
effect. Their makers probably wanted us to recognize the source material (they
took footage from very well-known films), but the focus is relocated to the
comic juxtapositions. Cutting out most of the background helps the viewer to
get the joke. Viewed in this light, I’m surprised the Picard/Chunk gif’s
original author bothered editing Chunk into a matching background. The other
gifs work fine without going to that degree of trouble. (Indeed, you might
argue that the shift in setting heightens the joke.

Here we have a hint of a way in which gifs possess a different aesthetic than
feature-length movies, or at least operate differently given similar concerns.
Someone makes a gif where Picard seems to be shooting Chunk. Then someone makes
one where Picard seems to be shooting Doc Brown. What’s next? Well, someone
could make yet another gif where Picard seems to be shooting another popular
1980s movie character—but aren’t returns already starting to diminish? To keep
the joke alive, we need something unexpected. So someone makes a gif
where Picard seems to be shooting at a Tiny Tunes character. Or at the
ducks in Duck Hunt.

haven’t seen it myself, but I imagine someone’s made a gif where Picard appears
to be firing at some documentary footage—video taken from a real-life shooting.
Or even footage of the Twin Towers collapsing.

of full-length movies definitely have to work to one-up each other. But that
cycle might be accelerated in the world of gifs, where the impact is much more

Along these lines, we can see that animated gifs are often greatly concerned
with emphasis, by:

  • Isolating a particular moment;
  • Focusing on a single element within the shot;
  • Creating a startling juxtaposition (through either
    composite or montage editing).

also tend to emphasize movement. When I told a friend that I was writing this
article, she argued that “animated gif” was redundant, because the only gifs
people care about are animated ones. I nonetheless decided to keep “animated”
because it is possible to make static gifs, and I don’t want to argue that
static gifs are cinema. (Cinema is moving images.)

my friend was right. Who wants to see a static gif? In fact, it seems to me
that the best gifs often involve a flurry of motion, or remain static
until a crucial moment, which usually comes at the end of the loop:




select footage and emphasize it. They focus attention.

That’s not all that animated gifs can do, however. Some are longer, and as such
closely resemble short films. For instance, here’s an animation that traces the development of the NYC
subway system


again, I’m reminded of an existing film: Ray and Charles Eames short movie Atlas
(1976), which presents “A Sketch of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.” (You can watch it

be sure, these are different works. The NYC subway gif lacks sound (music,
voice-over narration). But the presence of sound isn’t essential for cinema.
(The five-minute-long Eames film presents its animation twice, and the second
time it drops the narration.)

gifs arguably benefit from their silence, which becomes another way to focus
attention on visuals themselves.

We’re gradually constructing a case that the value of gifs stems from their
poverty of resources—from the limitations inherent in the format. Along these
lines, gifs possess unique cinematic value due to their brevity.

earliest films, made by the Lumiere Bros. and Thomas Edison, usually ran at
least thirty seconds long. Since then, the movies have mostly gotten longer.
Now animated gifs are exploring another side of cinema—movies that run under
thirty seconds, and often under five. If they are cinema, then they rank among
the shortest movies ever made.

Gifs also explore the opposite end of the spectrum: infinity.

some gifs present what amounts to a scene, others employ the form’s looping
quality to create an endless ongoing video. Here’s a famous example, taken from
mid-90s internet meme


gif version of this video forgoes the original meme’s accompanying music
(“Ooogachaka, ooga, ooga . . . “). But its dancing baby will dance forever

All of this suggests that animated gifs have their own cinematic purpose. Hence
their effectiveness as erotic artworks: gif makers can distill crucial moments
from larger pornographic films, enabling people to watch them on repeat.

her recent Salon article, “Better Than Actual Porn!“, Tracy Clark-Flory
ponders whether pornographic animated gifs are more like short videos or longer
photographs. I’d argue that they exist on a spectrum between those two forms,
capable of moving more toward one side or the other. The above Picard gifs are
more like short videos. But the NYC subway gif and the dancing baby gif are
arguably more like enhanced photos. (The subway gif is like an enhanced

important point, however, is that animated gifs are novel—similar to, but not
exactly the same as movies as we’ve known them. They are, in other words, a new
form of cinema. (Clark-Flory comes to something of the same conclusion when she
writes that gifs are becoming an alternative form of pornography, but aren’t
replacing videos or photographs.)

Cinematic viewing habits are changing: more and more movies are being watched
online. Folks still go to the cinema, of course, and they still rent DVDs. But
they also watch movies on their cell phones and laptops, which is where
animated gifs thrive. In this way they might be modern-day versions of the Kinetoscope
or Mutoscope:
a private form of cinema limited to a particular type of device (although it
probably won’t be long before gifs start popping up on electronic billboards).
This is yet another way in which gifs resemble the movies as we known them, and
yet diverge, providing a new incarnation of the familiar.

summary, animated gifs partake in the broader aesthetic of cinema, even as they
use their formal limitations to craft effects that we experience in
non-traditional film environments. I have no doubt that they will eventually
come to be regarded a unique form of movie-making, just as gallery-bound video
art eventually was, and that certain gifs will be singled out for their
aesthetic and historical import. Already I’d claim that there’s value in
preserving and teaching some of them, such as Picard vs. Chunk and the
Fresh Prince/9-11 one . . .

it probably also won’t be long before feature-length movies start borrowing
effects from gifs, the same way that the recent spate of “found footage” films—Paranormal Activity (2007), [Rec]
(2007), Cloverfield (2008), Chronicle (2012)—have drawn key
aspects of their aesthetic from YouTube. And while writing this I encountered
the only other argument I know of that animated gifs are a type of cinema: Twohundredfiftysixcolors, Eric
Fleischauer and Jason Lazarus’s feature-length compilation of 3000 gifs,
scheduled to screen on 18 April at
Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center
. (I’m planning to attend.)

thoughts on all of this?

A.D Jameson is the author
of the prose collection
Adult Fantasy
(Mutable Sound, 2011), in
which he tries to come to terms with having been raised on ’80s pop culture, and the novel
and Gibson
, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of
Gilgamesh. He’s taught
classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College,
DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and
StoryStudio Chicago. He’s also the
nonfiction / reviews editor of the online journal
Requited. He recently
started the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at
Chicago. In his spare
time, he contributes to the group blogs
and HTMLGIANT. Follow him on Twitter at @adjameson.