I’m always as eager to know how the sausage is made as I am to eat it. If an art or craft interests me, I not only want to experience a wide range of the best examples, I want to learn everything I can about what went into making them what they are, the techniques and skills and thinking used by the best practitioners. I’ve steeped myself in that sort of knowledge for the arts I’ve tried my hand at—singing, songwriting, playing an instrument, essay-ing, calligraphy, and others. And even in those I’ll never practice—writing fiction, making a movie—I’ve studied up on how it’s done, partly out of admiration for the folks who can do such things, but largely because it seems to enhance my enjoyment of the things those artists create. Having worked at singing gives me a deeper appreciation for what a great singer does when they sing, even while losing myself in their singing—sometimes it even opens up possibilities for approaching and embracing a singer I’d not naturally be drawn toward (Hazel Dickens, Billie Holiday, Roscoe Holcomb, even Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash). Having tried to write my own essays allows me to marvel at what good essayists (Tim Kreider, Heather Havrilesky, Ursula K. LeGuin, William Zinnser) can do, even while immersed in their work.
This is especially true for me with great movies, and, more recently, great TV shows. When I watch Citizen Kane or The Seven Samurai or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or The Godfather (both I and II) or Apocalypse Now or It’s a Wonderful Life or Vertigo or No Country for Old Men or … well, you get the point … when I watch a great movie I am engaged on so many levels at once, each adding to the overall experience rather than detracting, sometimes joining together to create something special. Same with recent TV, with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul and Mr Robot and The Leftovers and Fargo and a few others—I’ll be watching a great scene thinking: how beautifully photographed, how subtly acted, how carefully written, how intricately choreographed, how cleverly edited, how perfectly timed—all while totally engrossed in the story, all those things just adding to the “wow” factor. And I think I can only do that because I’ve steeped myself in the mechanics of filmmaking, the acting and the production and the writing and the directing. I know a lot about those things, but not as a scholar, simply as a fan.
One recent example came while watching Cuarón’s Roma, which I finished today. The photography in that film is quite unusual (Cuarón acted as Director of Photography as well as Director), long scenes with no edits filmed by a camera which is either stationary, panning slowly, or tracking in parallel. The style is so unusual that it calls attention to itself—but not in an irritating way, it just makes you sit up and pay close attention: what is going on here? Some of the tracking shots are quite intricately staged, with Cleo walking or running down a busy sidewalk while the camera moves simultaneously to keep her at the center of the frame—so much else in the shot is moving at different speeds or in different directions that you strain to take in all the action. Another one, quite beautiful, follows a group of vacationing families as they hike through a long field on a hillside, with a spectacular landscape behind them, adults making steady progress while small kids dart around them, hiking and hiking and hiking while the camera tracks in parallel from a ridge above them—and then two heads appear at the bottom of the ridge, and two characters rise into the center of the frame, having walked up a hillside trail to get a better view of it all. All very naturally staged, and yet I’m also thinking: what kind of mind chooses to put these things together in this way?
I’ve gone on about the tracking shots because I think the attention-grabbing use of them was quite deliberate on Cuarón’s part, because at the very end of the film there is yet one more, in a critical scene, and the use of that technique, in a scene where the action would by convention be filmed very differently, creates a dramatic tension way beyond what the usual convention could create. (Sorry I can’t give more details, but doing so would ruin it for you.)
Roma is a film I could easily have enjoyed without thinking about any of these things. But I think that thinking about them—and being equipped to think about them—made the experience much, much richer for me.