“What do we see?” writes Keith Uhlich, in his analysis of a single closeup from the much-debated sex scene in Steven Spielberg’s Munich. “A man in medium close-up, sweat-drenched, crying out in what might be pain. His exposed chest suggests a state of undress and, coupled with the copious beads of moisture dripping down from and flying off of his body, it doesn’t take too much of a leap before we assume the conjugal worst….but what’s most discomfiting is the subject’s isolation, which leads us to the question of who is doing what to whom and why? Put much more crudely: Who, exactly, is doing the penetrating, and to what ends (pun most certainly intended)?”
If you’re bored with print criticism’s general disinterest in filmmaking itself, check out the latest installment of the online movie quarterly Reverse Shot, a stunning issue titled Take One. Its singularity of vision—pun intended, as Keith would say—makes most other movie writing seem trivial and lame. In their introduction, the magazine’s co-editors, Jeff Reichert and Michael Koresky, describe the project as “...a means to an end: getting back to the intrinsic power of the image.”
In that spirit, an array of critics pick a single image from one movie, effectively isolating it from its context, then systematically reconnect it to all the other, more literary aspects of cinema that critics are usually more comfortable discussing because it’s so much easier: plot, characterization and the like. Besides Uhlich’s Munich piece, Take One offers Tom J. Carlisle on one of the most appalling images from Chinatown, Brad Westcott unpacking Martin Scorsese’s omniscent expressionism by studying a seemingly mundane insert shot from Taxi Driver, and Michael Joshua Rowin’s essay on a particular shot from Mulholland Drive in which he argues—subversively, in this context, but appropriately, considering the topic—that the power of David Lynch’s work has less to do with the content of his compositions than with the length of time he lets them linger onscreen, and his ability to tease us into subconsciously connecting particular shots with other ones in order to understand, intuitively, what he might be up to. “Sure, Lynch is a consummate pro and clearly knows how to compose shots and link them with dazzling visual expression,” Rowin writes, “but the man thinks in and constructs Moments. Magical ones. Emotional ones unabashedly out of range from the rigid cause-and-effect logic employed by academics when studying, say, a tracking shot from Weekend or the final montage sequence from L’Eclisse.”
Outside of a few well-known specialty mags—Film Comment, Sight and Sound—and certain dedicated critics who refuse to treat motion pictures as slideshow versions of screenplays (Jonathan Rosenbaum, for instance), you rarely see this level of attention paid to the essence of movies. That’s because neither print editors nor the publishers who sign their paychecks think readers care, or that they could be persuaded to care. But in recent years—particularly in the last six months, for some reason—there’s been an exponential growth in Internet-based writing that dares to talk about what movies are actually made of: shots and cuts. Two examples worth a belated shout-out: the Internet-only “Opening Shot” project coordinated by Chicago Sun-Times blogger Jim Emerson, and the recently-concluded Avant-Garde Blog-a-thon coordinated by film and music critic Girish Shambu. It’s worth noting that all three of these projects have an open-door policy; their coordinators solicited writing from both professional journalists and knowledgeable people whose only “qualifications” are that they watch a lot of movies, know a bit about filmmaking and can communicate specific, often highly theoretical concepts without undue fuss. Pie-in-the-sky rhetorical question: if writing like this becomes more commonplace, and if more and more movie lovers discover it and develop an appetite for it, might the result be better movies?