Having spent the better part of four years now immersing myself in documentary film, I am starting to find a kind of comfort with the medium, a familiarity with its tendencies and its habits, with its movements and its processes. I am discovering by contrast, however, how little familiarity I still have with the feature film, and I am realizing also that the process of making myself familiar with feature films will need to be much different than the process I used to familiarize myself with documentaries. The difference is primarily this: I had almost no experience with documentary prior to approaching the medium seriously, so I had few preconceptions that needed to be overturned, while I have had a fairly extensive experience of the feature film, just by existing in my culture, but most of this experience has been with the lowest common denominator of Hollywood film. So, while my approach to documentary film was to watch everything I could find, regardless of its quality, my approach to feature film, begun only a few weeks ago, has been to watch what are generally considered to be the best films. So, I have been going into the public library, which is just down the street, and I have been browsing the shelves until I come to a Criterion Collection film, any Criterion Collection film, and I have been letting it be my film for the week.
For those who are unfamiliar with The Criterion Collection, it is, according to its own mission statement, “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films” that is “dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements.” It is, in other words, the creator and defender of a certain filmic canonicity that I hope will be the counterbalance to the popular film that has largely formed my experience to date. Thus far, I have seen Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Solaris (1972); Monte Hellman‘s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s The Wages of Fear (1952). During this time I have also seen Paul Thomas Anderson‘s There Will be Blood (2007), which will likely be a Criterion Collection film itself at some point or another.
Though these films are all very different from each other, they are similar in possessing what I will call a patient camera, one of the characteristics that I am coming to see as a distinction between strong films from weak ones. A patient camera takes its time with its subjects. It is not afraid of being still, of holding a shot, of showing silence and inaction, of including repetition. It is interested in images of slowness and silence and stillness and duration as much as it is interested in images of speed and loudness and movement and transition. Let me give several examples.
The opening section of Solaris is a series of very long shots, either entirely still or moving slowly, of nature and of the protagonist, who remains mostly still and entirely speechless. There is only a very small amount of ambient sound, and the images are mostly of still objects, though some of them do move organically, slowly, almost hypnotically. These images serve to parallel the movement of the great alien sea that the protagonist will later encounter, but they also create a tone of silence and stillness and aloneness and reflection that will be paralleled by the protagonists’ journey into space.
There Will Be Blood opens with another such speechless scene, though one that contains much more activity, and this forms a pattern for many of the film’s dialogue scenes, which are static or broken or inclusive of long silences but interrupted or ended by bursts of anger and action and violence and even murder. Each of these scenes seems to underwrite how difficult it is for the protagonist to interact with the rest of humanity that he finds so repulsive.
Two-Lane Backtop has so little dialogue in it that the voices seem like intrusions when the characters finally do speak, and the film is full of long steady shots of the occupants of the vehicles as they drive through the landscape. The dialogue is most often represented with a medium-range shot that does not require cutting from face to face to get the reactions of the characters, so the conversations are largely uncut, even when the lapse into silence, as the film itself finally does also, as the last scene eschews any audio at all.
In The Wages of Fear, the scenes of the nitroglycerin-loaded truck are shot in this patient way also. There are stationary shots of the truck moving slowly across the screen. There are fixed shots that track with the truck along its slow journey. There are seemingly endless shots of the truck’s wheels moving inch by inch through potholes and ruts in the road. These shots are intercut with one another, and no single shot is terribly long, but the sense is of slowness and tension and apprehension.
In all of these ways, and in many others also, the cameras of these films are patient. They do not cut or shoot for speed simply because speed is possible. They take their time in order to create a filmic time and space in which the images and the characters and the dialogue can find a pace and a movement that is proper and that is visually effective. They are not tempted into the illusion that only speed and activity are able to create interest. They recognize that interest can also be found in stillness and silence, and that even greater interest can be created in the contrast between the two. I am discovering, I think, that this kind of patience is the mark of a film worth seeing.