Against the Drift

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but I’ve been noticing a trend in wide shots lately, and it’s not doing anyone any good.

For the past several years, and maybe even before, certain sub-middle directors have got it in their heads to drift the camera when dialogue scenes get too talky. You know what I’m talking about: that slow, often barely perceptible circumferential glide around the speakers that sometimes lasts for an entire scene without a single cut. Not a full 360, mind you; just a gentle, endless side-to-side. I’m thinking of The Blind Side, The Last Station, and The Young Victoria. But there are others.

What’s behind this? Very likely a feeling to do something. Or the erroneous logic that verbal movies need movement to keep from seeming theatrical. But like adding salt to a bland tasting meal, the drifting wide shot only makes the blandness more obvious. Look out for it at al fresco dining scenes, in the midst of highbrow pillow talk, and during a scene of reading or orating.

That’s not to say that the drifting/wide is a lose-lose. When it’s done right, like, say, in the movies of Bertolucci, it can express a vertiginous sensuality as intoxicating as anything in Vertigo. Look at something like The Last Emperor, or even The Dreamers (or even Besieged). Somewhere between a Steadicam and a crane on a dolly, Bertolucci’s camera seems to move as freely and as softly as smoke wisping from a cigarette. Whether it’s gliding forward, up, or – quite majestically – forward and up, at their best, these shots are well suited to Bertolucci’s worlds of excessive, often sordid ecstasy. In The Dreamers, for instance, a slight dutch to the shot gives the action – no matter how inviting – an air of not-quite-right, like a drop of poison in the perfume.

Needless to say, you won’t find anything like that in The Young Victoria. Instead, you’ll get the most innocuous kind of drift: the aimless, meandering, purposeless putter that illuminates not the story, character, or the finer shades of theme, but the lethargic mind behind the viewfinder.


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