Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Top 5 List: The Long Tracking Shot

With all apologies to films as diverse as "Children of Men", "Touch of Evil", "The Player", most dynamic Scorsese films and "Atonement", these five films below feature a pretty stunning tracking shot that rank as my five favorites.

5. The Longest Day- Clip unavailable. Zanuck's ambitious war drama, which features a dual director's credit and a laundry list of stars, does fit the mold nicely for early 1960's rah-rah war dramas, but its also uniquely well made. While it may reside as the shortest tracking shot on this list, it's nonetheless a technically stunning example of just how massive in scope and breathtakingly encompassing the cinematic technique can be. Starting as an aerial shot in close-up on a group of American soldiers as they invade a French town, the shot carries on overhead as waves of soldiers flock in from all sides, overtaking a bridge and meeting resistance from German soldiers. The sheer scope of this particular tracking shot, progressively higher and higher, is one of the best moments in the film.

4. Weekend- The best work of Godard post 1966, "Weekend" is an outright masterpiece in an era where his films were becoming more and more programmatic and cryptic. As a visual repose on a collapsing society, it's almost humorous... as his now legendary traffic jam scene reveals. And as a person who has to fight his own downtown Dallas traffic every day, I empathize:

3. Hard Eight-= One of the great joys of the last 15 years was stumbling over a VHS copy of a little movie called "Hard Eight" after watching Siskel and Ebert talk about it. Full of great moments, the one that's stayed with me the longest is its ominous "motel room" scene. Gambling protege John C. Reilly calls mentor Sidney (Philip Baker Hall) to a motel room for help. In a mysterious long take, director P.T. Anderson keeps the camera trained on Hall's entrance to the room, building tension around his befuddled questions and denying us (initially) an explanation as to exactly what has happened in that cheap, darkened room. The problem is "dealt" with, followed by a tense exodus from the scene of the crime. With one sweeping tracking shot, we follow the three characters out of the room, down a flight of steps and into their respective vehicles where the camera ends up in the middle of the street as the cars disappear. A bit superfluous, yes, but not an unnecessary shot as it emphasizes the mounting tension experienced by all in the scene. Of course, an entire list could probably be made of P.T. Anderson's dynamic scenes.

2. Breaking News- I hope by now everyone's aware of this blog's unabashed love for all things Johnny To, and the opening scene from his 2004 film "Breaking News" is just mind blowing:

1. I Am Cuba-

Filmed in 1964 but not released until the mid 90's through a joint effort by filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, "I Am Cuba" is a director's paradise. Much celebrated for its dazzling cinematography, its a film about the various denizens of Cuba before and during the rise of Fidel Castro, made by a Russian director (Mikhail Kalatozov), dubbed in Russian and subtitled in English. Whatever its mixed politics evoke, Kalatozov's visual schematic cannot be denied. Each moment seems to be upped by another moment. It's opening tracking shot, beginning on top of a building with the camera somehow floating down the length of the building's side, wandering around a pool, then following a bikini-clad woman into the pool and underwater has been imitated, but it's the funeral tracking shot that really impresses. How did they do this?? A must see film. Note- the shot begins at about the 1:50 mark.

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