The thing that’s so amazing about film is that it captures the most sacred ways we look at the world. There are moments in our ordinary lives, hopefully many moments, when we see the world through a special kind of lens: we watch children playing outside in a way that could bring tears to our eyes; we look at the sky like it’s the first time we’ve seen clouds, or the last, and we see geese fly overhead like a song playing in the wind; we see mundane aspects of light and shadow as an artist studying moonlight, and it is as if the universe is speaking something silently, nudging us to understand something greater than ourselves; every scene we witness is like an echo at our core, something ancient and yet absolutely present pulsing through our veins. It goes a little something like Hushpuppy explains in Beasts of the Southern Wild … “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me lying around in invisible pieces. When I look too hard, it goes away. And when it all goes quiet, I see they are right here. I see that I'm a little piece in a big, big universe. And that makes things right.”
Riding in a moving vehicle can be a catalyst for these kinds of moments, which explains those archetypal scenes in movies: long empty roads and fast-moving reflections in the side view mirror, or a last look through the back windshield, someone or someplace staring back, alone, the bumps in the road shaking their image a bit. About the movie, Drive, Ryan Gosling pointed out in an interview: “Cars can have a hypnotic effect … When you drive, you can kind of put your identity aside in the passenger’s seat, because you’re not being watched, and you can just be the watcher.” When we drive, it all goes quiet, and the world becomes a story. Though the world is always a story, the experience of observing our surroundings while moving creates a relationship of story and audience; the world moves, and we stay seated, still, watching it literally unfold, changing with every passing second, as we turn each corner, as we stop and then go again. Suddenly, everyone becomes as interesting as a character in our favorite book, layered with unseen depths, icebergs with just a fleeting glimpse as the tip. Every window is a home. Every street not turned on is a mystery novel in the making. Every highway is an emotional saga. Every other car is a player in this day’s act. Motion is what changed film forever. Movies: film that moves, film that plays out like riding in a car, film that gives us a fleeting glimpse at an invisible universe.
Making motion pictures is a special art form, because the film has a director; it has a cinematography team; it has a vision. The story is created with a special kind of lens. The camera follows the holy moments of a singular story, always absolutely present, not only observing the transpersonal moment, but actually creating it. The universe of the filmmaker’s story is manifested behind the scenes, pieced together ever-so-certainly, so that when the camera is rolling, the invisible pieces are made visible, the lights and shadows have meaning, the images themselves seem to sing, and the characters touch our hearts at every turn.
And it’s not always rainbows and tears of joy either. The special kind of lens I’m referring to is simply one of presence, of being here now, of really seeing, or perhaps simply seeing. Often times in life, we have the misfortune of being our most present during troubling or traumatic times. Our consciousness reels in every ounce of the scene at hand; every pixel of the experience is absorbed. This is true in film, as well, and filmmakers work hard to make these moments in onscreen stories feel real. Something that has made film more authentic now than it was when it began is the sheer intensity of it, the behind-the-scenes effort to recreate the horror of life and the presence of being there. Battle scenes are hardest when they focus on the details as well as the overall carnage. Saving Private Ryan is famous for this. And sometimes style plays a part, creating tone and layering the scene with personalities of the characters and the time period. Off the top of my head, Gangs of New York and Slow West are great examples of these kinds of additional lenses, where perhaps the tone is less concerned with absolute realism, but in the way that an experience can be colored by subjective points of view, the style contributes to the story and the viewer’s ability to absorb it.
Cinematography is like bottling a scent, the scent of life at its most potent, the scent that memories are made of, the scent of a fleeting moment, the imperceptible scent of spirit, of the transpersonal experience, a hint of something special and invisible caught on camera in that quiet space between the viewer and the onscreen story.