EDITOR’S NOTE: Press Play is proud to present Part II of Jim Emerson’s In The Cut series. In this piece he deconstructs an action sequence from Phillip Noyce’s 2010 hit Salt to highlight compositions, camera movements, editing and spatial awareness. We have included the full, uninterrupted scene so the viewer can compare Jim’s analysis with the finished product.
By Jim Emerson
Press Play Contributor
Realism, as usual, is simply a fig leaf for doing what you want. Virtually any technique can be justified as realistic according to some conception of what’s important in the scene. If you shoot the action cogently, with all the moves evident, that’s realistic because it shows you what’s ‘really’ happening. If you shoot it awkwardly, that presentation is ‘realistically’ reflecting what a participant perceives or feels. If you shoot it as ‘chaos’ (another description that Nobles applies to the Expendables action scenes)—well, action feels chaotic when you’re in it, right? Forget the realist alibi. What do you want your sequence to do to the viewer? — David Bordwell, Observations on film art (September 15, 2010)
In Part I of In the Cut we looked at part of an action sequence from The Dark Knight and examined many questions, ambiguities and incongruities raised by the ways shots were composed and cut together. In Part II, we delve into a chase sequence from Phillip Noyce‘s Salt (2010) that uses a lot of today’s trendy “snatch-and-grab” techniques (quick cutting, shaky-cam, but very few abstract-action cutaways — I spotted one doozy, but I didn’t mention it; see if you notice it). And yet, there’s very little that isn’t perfectly understandable in the moment.
There are certain directors I think of as “one-thing-at-a-time” filmmakers. That is, they seem to be incapable of composing shots that have more than one piece of information in them at a time. This makes for a very flat, rather plodding style. You see what the camera is pointed at in each shot, but you get very little sense of perspective when it comes to relating it to other elements in the scene. Noyce’s technique is much more fluid, organic and sophisticated. He keeps things from one shot visible in the next, even when shifting perspective — whether it’s only a few feet or clear across several lanes of traffic.
In Part I: A Shot in the Dark (Knight) I asked (rhetorically) whether the techniques used made the action more exciting or just more confusing. I left the question unanswered because it’s something viewers are going to have to decide for themselves. And, as usual in criticism, the goal is not to find the “right” answers but to raise the relevant questions. Noyce himself raised a good one when he said he thinks viewers are not looking for coherence but for visceral experiences. And yet, his filmmaking is quite coherent (grammatically, if not “realistically”). “Visceral,” like “realism,” is in the eye of the beholder.
That is why I also wanted to mention the quotation from David Bordwell at the top of this intro (and near the beginning of the video essay). Arguments made in the name of “realism” are susceptible to subjective interpretations. Whether a film is classical or impressionistic, employing long shots or close ups, extended takes or quick cuts, each of these choices has effects on the viewer (including the critic) and that’s what we try to notice, describe, understand and assess.
Finally, let me quote critic , who said: “One can summarize a plot in one sentence, whereas it’s fairly difficult to summarize one frame.” That’s not only a fascinating statement about the nature of film, it hints at a kind of “close reading” approach to criticism that was previously available only to scholars with access to film libraries and Movieolas. Now we can pause, rewind, slow down and otherwise examine films — shot by shot, even frame by frame — in video essays shared over the Internet. Amazing.
You can watch Jim Emerson’s deconstruction of The Dark Knight here. Coming soon: In the Cut Part III: I Left My Heart in My Throat in San Francisco, which looks at Don Siegel‘s 1958 filmThe Lineup. Emerson is a Seattle-based writer, critic, editor, blogger, video essayist, gardener and pedant. He is the founding editor of RogerEbert.com, where he also maintains his blog, Scanners.