8. Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977)
If you’ve never seen any Cassavetes and you’re interested in cinema then you might want to do something about that. At the same time, if you’ve never seen any Cassavetes and you want to see some you should do a little reading up beforehand to avoid the trap of thinking that you’re watching an actors’ improv session. What makes Cassavetes so important to independent filmmakers is not so much what he chooses to point the camera at, as what he allows in the frame that other people might exclude.
Cassavetes’ films are chaotic: visual, audio, and information overload. What makes this particularly difficult for some viewers is that nothing seems to be happening most of the time. Of course there’s a great deal going on, but it’s all in the nuance of the performances. Life is messy, and Cassavetes’ films reflect this difficulty we have when going through an experience to cleanly see what the point is.
Actors go through a jarring range of emotions in their scenes: anger to sadness to laughter to melancholy at a rate of knots. But this film also gives you the time and space to carefully study their faces, hands, movement, and motivation. What makes Opening Night unique in Cassavetes’ oeuvre is the fact that the film is actually about performance. It’s about a woman in a play that she doesn’t want to be in, a woman in a life that she doesn’t want to be in. Scenes play out where the audience is genuinely confused as to whether they’re watching a performance or ‘reality’.
And, the camerawork here, while often close up and handheld, gives the audience much more space to dissect the frame than in a standard Cassavetes film; this is suitable given that the subject matter is theatre, and theatre is an environment without editing. When the final sequence of the film passes you will have no clear way of telling whether the characters were following the script or improvising, no matter how carefully you look, and this holds true to both the performance you’re watching, and to the performances they’re giving within the film. Ambiguity has never been this exhilarating.
9. Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Bringing together those hypnotic landscapes of Heart of Glass and the scopohilia of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests is Godfrey Reggio’s cine-poem, Koyaanisqatsi. We’re back to the freedom of the Lumiere brothers: there is no plot, there are no characters, we’re liberated to watch any area of the frame we choose at any point in the film. And, again, this offers audiences a film that is a different experience for everyone. Different people will find different heroes, particularly amongst the multitude of faces that wander past.
Everyone has their favourite, or someone they’ve picked out of the crowd that isn’t the centre of attention. For example, look at the scene with the firemen: huge crowds everywhere, chaos, a lone fireman asking people to perhaps move on, where do your eyes fall? We naturally look at whatever is moving in a frame, but when everything is moving, and no one person is any more important than any other, all bets are off.
There’s a real joy to being able to create your own narrative from the film, and to re-discover favourite moments and ‘characters’, as well as losing yourself in the countless explorations of landscapes, machinery, and lights. Koyaanisqatsi is a completely different experience every time you watch it precisely because of this freedom we have to look wherever we want.
10. Drowning by Numbers (Peter Greenaway, 1988)
You can choose absolutely any Greenaway film in this topic, all of them feature his painterly eye, busy frames, and obsession with composition. What makes Drowning by Numbers particularly suitable though is that the film also offers a game to be played: the numbers 1 to 100 can be found, in order, throughout the film. Sometimes these numbers are seen, and sometimes they’re spoken. And the very existence of this game underlines the fact that Greenaway wants your eyes to be moving all over his carefully constructed frames.
As you might expect, there’s little editing, and a lot of the film is delivered in long shot, with extraordinarily detailed mise-en-scene and dialogue. So much so that it’s extremely difficult to win the 1 to 100 game. If you’ve never seen a Greenaway film (and let’s face it, no one really talks about him anymore, even though he’s still going and is just as interesting as he ever was) then this might be the perfect place to start. And if you don’t like the film, you can always play the game.
11. Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000)
Not since Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol, 1966) has there been a film that maintained split screen for its entire duration, and Timecode ups the ante by splitting its frame into four. Like Chelsea Girls, the audio is usually only one screen at a time, and although you’re likely to keep your eyes on the area that you’re hearing, there’s no way to ensure you do this. You’re free to let your eyes flick from one screen to another, to watch one silent story while listening to another.
The film was even marketed with the line ‘who do you want to watch?’ highlighting this freedom to the spectator. Timecode received a lot of criticism when it was released for being self-indulgent or lacking drama, but that would be to miss the point. Experimentation with the form of cinema is how we got to where we are today; so ‘self-indulgent’ is a complete non-sequitur.
Say those words and you should be ashamed of yourself. Instead, Timecode is a film that should be celebrated for answering the question ‘what happens if we present one narrative in four frames, in continuous takes?’ It might not be to everyone’s taste, but its existence is a blessing.
12. Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)
Speaking of continuous takes, Russian Ark is the Citizen Kane of long takes. It’s a metaphorical meandering through the hallways of the history of Russia, with eras represented by rooms in the Hermitage Museum. What’s more, the camera is playing your POV, and you, the viewer, are also a character in the narrative: someone who is addressed and guided throughout.
Now, there are moments where your eye is pointed towards what to look at (just like in Rope), but not throughout, and the film makes much of that full frame, inviting you to look everywhere, and also making use of that Z Axis mentioned earlier. For example, as you’re warned by your guide about the growing power of spies and secret police you’ll notice characters in the near and far background whispering to each other and looking at you.
And after the shadowy, dusty first half of the film, the splendour and riches of the second half is presented as pure broad spectacle, something for an audience member to both lose themselves in and to be dazzled by. Yes, Russian Ark is not the easiest film to watch, and a little classical knowledge combined with some awareness of the country’s history will stand you in good stead. But as an exercise in cinema that offers a freedom of looking it’s absolutely fascinating.
13. Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
A great deal of Elephant is wrapped up in all the different worlds that exist in a school. You have geeks, jocks, arty kids, stoners, etc and they’re all trapped like insects in amber in this temporary exhibition space that is a school. Stereotypically, young people place a great deal of importance on looking and being looked at, and have a heightened awareness of this, always needing to make sure that everything is ‘just so’.
What Elephant does is stand back and show how all these worlds navigate through the same spaces, occasionally passing each other, but having little to no impact. Consider the scene where the photographer takes a photo of another student as a girl runs past, late for her shift in the library. We see this moment happen three times, and each time we see it from a different perspective.
Who’s the main character here? There isn’t one, of course, just as how there isn’t a main character in any school. Your experience of school was entirely from your perspective. But go through all those years again and put yourself into the eyes of a kid you never spoke to at all: they were the hero of their school days, not you. And this is the overwhelming power that exists at the heart of Elephant.
It lets us read the ‘story’ of what unfolds in different ways. Shots will include a multitude of characters that we’ve come to know much about, and while each section follows someone different, everyone is given freedom to enter the frame and become the central character at any point, making the finality of that last act all the more tragic.
14. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Caché is a cold, clinical study of looking, and of hiding things in plain sight. The subtext of the film is buried crimes of the past (both personal crimes, and the crimes of a nation), and Haneke’s camera encourages you to look at scenes for extended periods of time and to find what you think might be the important element. What’s more, the lead character is asked to do precisely the same thing, and he and the audience sit in silence watching video recordings of his home. There’s a creeping uneasiness about the entire thing, and the film builds an expectation of dread into those sustained shots.
As if that wasn’t enough, there are certain sequences that you see more than once, only they’re not the same, introducing the element of an untrustworthy narrator: everything in Caché is about what we see, but we can’t always trust what we see, and at times we’re even unsure whether we’re watching the film or a recording that is part of the narrative.
The pinnacle of this is probably the very final shot of the film, a school at the end of the day: students milling this way and that, parents picking people up, and so on. Something happens within this frame that not everyone sees (for a similar ending check out The Cure [Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1997]), and there’s no answer to what happens next, giving us not only a frame that we explore for ourselves, but also a conclusion that we piece together ourselves.
15. Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007)
We started with the Lumieres, so let’s end in the multiplex. In the current climate of ever-shortening ASLs, it’s somewhat consoling to know that millions and millions of teenagers put down their cellphones long enough to watch what is for all intents and purposes an Andy Warhol horror film. Not just huge, but vast stretches of Paranormal Activity amble by with absolutely nothing happening: static shots show people in their home running through mundane household activities and chores, and all the time our eyes are on the alert for where the horror lies.
Perhaps it’s the fact that the camera is an active participant in the proceedings that allows this spell to be successfully cast on so many. Maybe this brings that creeping dread a little closer. There’s an interesting comparison to be made between this and The Innkeepers (Ti West, 2011) for sure, with the latter also using extremely long takes in long shot, but experiencing nothing like the success of Paranormal Activity. Maybe that found footage element claws down the fourth wall more than we think?
Regardless, Paranormal Activity is another film that invites audiences to move their eyes around the frame as and when they choose. In fact, the more you look around, the more you may enjoy the film. There is a game at work here where you’re looking for something unusual: moving fabric, flickering lights, etc. At points you’ll be unsure as to whether or not you did see something supernatural, or merely natural, and that’s a rare quality in today’s horror cinema.
Author Bio: Ben Woodiwiss holds a Master’s Degree in Contemporary Cinema Culture Studies and is a Writer/Director at Look/Think Films. If he’s not talking about films he’s seen, then he’s talking about films he’s made, or writing new ones, and is very likely to be either smoking or drinking coffee right now. Follow him on Twitter at @benwoodiwiss.