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One of the best people writing about film is David Bordwell, co-author of the textbook Film Art, a staple of university film courses. It’s great to be able to read his writing for free, on a regular basis, and I’ve plugged one of his articles here before.
Slightly belatedly, I thought it was also worth pointing out his article on shaky camera / fast cut filmmaking, which focuses on Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum. The Bourne flick is long gone from cinemas, but the discussion of this style of direction should be with us for years: how many reviews of modern action films have you seen that complain about this way of shooting? (Certainly all mine do).
What’s notable about Bordwell’s article is that he pushes the discussion well beyond the usual grizzling about this style of shooting and analyses in detail what is going on. As he points out, it’s more than just the length of shots and the shakiness of the camera at work: it’s also about how shots are framed, the proximity of the camera to its subject, the way the camera focusses (and pulls focus), and the placement of cuts (as opposed to simply the length of the shots between the cuts). All this is done in some detail with very clear frame captures from the Bourne film as examples.
The Matrix Revolutions (Larry and Andy Wachowksi, 2003)
I didn’t enjoy The Matrix Reloaded as much as the original, but I think one of the principal pleasures was mulling over the questions it raised but did not answer. The months between the two films have led to in-depth debate about the implications of Reloaded.
The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski), 1999
The Matrix was the third in a cycle of movies to arrive in the late nineties with a strikingly similar theme. Like its predecessors from the previous year, Dark City and The Truman Show, it tells the story of a seemingly ordinary man who suddenly finds that his whole life is faked: he is trapped in an artificially created environment designed to keep him in submission. Like the heroes of those earlier movies, Keanu Reeves’ Neo starts to realise that he is somehow special, and tries to escape the confines of his prison. Yet while I liked both Dark City and The Truman Show (particularly the latter), I think The Matrix found the most perfect framework in which to play out such a story. The artificial city of Dark City was essentially a fantasy construct, kept running by creatures with mysterious magical powers; while The Truman Show was a more reality-based media satire that showed its fake world constructed painstakingly out of bricks and mortar. The inspiration of The Matrix is to graft this plot into a cyberpunk premise in which the world is a computer simulation, created to keep humans enslaved so that machines can live off the energy produced by their bodies.
The Matrix Reloaded (Larry and Andy Wachowski), 2003
The Matrix Reloaded labours under mighty expectations. It isn’t that this is the most expensive and hyped movie of the mid-year round of blockbusters: we don’t have high expectations of heavily hyped movies any more. It’s that its predecessor, 1999’s The Matrix, is so well regarded. With that film, Larry and Andy Wachowski blended elements such as cyberpunk, comic books, Jet Li-style kung fu, and John Woo-style gunplay into a satisfying and exciting narrative. The elements that were mixed weren’t unfamiliar: indeed, many were already well on the way to hackneyed. But the film fused its checklist of geek favourites into such perfect harmony that it was a deserved critical and financial hit. Only four years later it has already staked a convincing claim as a modern sci-fi classic.