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More on Inception: Shot Economy and 1 + 1 = 1

Some good questions came up in the comments section of my lengthy Inception critique (“Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception), and I thought it made the most sense to respond to them with a new post. So let’s wade back into Limbo, shall we…

Shot Economy

One thing I criticized Nolan for was the number of cuts he made, or the number of shots he used: “Herr Wunderkind Nolan can accomplish in thirteen shots what it takes most directors six to do!” I then proceeded to read the number of shots (13) in Inception‘s opening scene:

1. slow motion pan of waves crashing against a rock
2. slow motion shot of waves
3. close-up of Cobb’s face as he lies on the shore
4. point-of-view shot of a boy on the beach making a sandcastle
5. reverse shot of Cobb’s face
6. pov shot of the boy and a girl making a sandcastle
7. reverse shot of Cobb’s face
8. pov shot of the kids running out of frame
9. shot of a gun being pointed at Cobb’s back
10. reverse shot of a guard standing over him, holding the gun
11. reverse shot of the gun pulling Cobb’s shirt up, revealing his own gun
12. reverse shot of the guard calling to another guard
13. long shot of that other guard

My criticism here is one of economy. Thirteen shots is a lot of busyness in a scene that doesn’t really need it. All Nolan needs to establish at the start of the film is that:

  1. Cobb has washed up on a beach.
  2. He thinks he sees his kids.
  3. An armed guard discovers him.
  4. The guard is going to take Cobb to a Japanese mansion also on the beach.

If I’d been directing this film (amuse me), and had wanted to keep the same basic idea that Nolan used (fairly doubtful), then here’s how I would have tried it (i.e., this would have been my storyboard):

  1. Establishing shot of the beach.
  2. Closer shot of Cobb washed up on the beach.
  3. Close-up of Cobb. (Click here for an explanation of close-ups, etc.—see the section “Shot Scale”.)
  4. Reverse shot of his kids (to establish they exist in his POV).
  5. Reverse close-up of Cobb.
  6. Close-up of his back. A gun enters the frame to poke him.
  7. Reverse shot of a guard holding the gun. He looks up and calls to another guard as the shot pans to a mansion on a nearby cliff.

…So, I would have used nearly half the number of shots that Nolan used. I would also have made each shot longer.

But, that all said, I wouldn’t have done it that way.

For one thing, I would have begun with a very tight close-up of Cobb, both for its unsettling effect (audiences don’t expect films to begin with close-ups), and to establish the possible reading that the entire film is going to take place in Cobb’s mind. (This seems to me so obvious that I’m surprised Nolan didn’t do it.) (No, actually I’m not surprised.)

Such an opening would be effective, I think, because it’s uncommon, but note that it isn’t anything particularly innovative. I’m cribbing here from two of my favorite Hollywood films of the past 25 years:

The Portrait of a Lady (1996), directed by Jane Campion:

(See in particular the very end of that clip, around 2:20.) (An aside: I really love how Campion begins this film with portraits of modern-day women. Jane Campion—always thinking.)

Blue Velvet (1986), directed by David Lynch:

Blue Velvet‘s main plot begins with Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) discovering a severed human ear (see around 6 minutes in). Much later, toward the end of the film (at the beginning of its coda), Lynch tracks out from an extreme close-up of Jeffrey’s ear, which I read as the suggestion that the entire film takes place inside Jeffrey’s mind (or at least his ear). (Lynch suggests something similar in Eraserhead (1976).)

Talent borrows, genius steals:

  1. Extreme slow-motion close-up of Cobb’s face. Begin tracking slowly backwards, enough to include spray from the water; maybe have a wave crash around Cobb’s head. Use the soundtrack to establish that he has washed up on a beach.
  2. Reverse shot of kids (to establish they exist in his POV).
  3. Reverse extreme close-up of Cobb, continuing that backwards tracking shot (enough so we see some of his body).
  4. Close-up shot of his back. A gun enters the frame to poke him.

From there, I would probably just cut to the shot of Cobb being dragged into the Japanese mansion; I think the audience can be trusted to understand from the shot including the gun that he was discovered and taken to a nearby building. (I also like the matching of cutting from a shot of his back to another shot of his back.) Not to mention, this more fragmented approach keeps things a bit more disorienting, which I think appropriate for a film like this.

So, four shots, rather than thirteen. And, again, that’s assuming I would have even kept this opening scene. Suffice to say, had this film been mine, I would have changed a lot! But I think it’s pretty easy to demonstrate that, if one does want this opening scene here, there are much more economical ways to execute it.

Let’s look at another scene:

[Note: the original clip I used got taken down, so the times below are wrong, but the shot order is still correct. The section in question begins around 1:10.]

  1. 0:01 Ariadne medium close-up
  2. 0:05 Cobb medium close-up
  3. 0:08 Ariadne medium close-up (somewhat closer)
  4. 0:13 Cobb medium close-up (somewhat closer)
  5. 0:20 Ariadne medium close-up; begin slowly tracking toward
  6. 0:25 Cobb medium close-up (closer) (note the bad match on his leaning backward in the previous shot)
  7. 0:27 Ariadne close-up; continue to push in
  8. 0:31 Cobb close-up
  9. 0:33 Ariadne close-up
  10. 0:36 Cobb close-up
  11. 0:39 Ariadne close-up
  12. 0:41 master (cafe); backward tracking
  13. 0:43 Ariadne close-up
  14. 0:47 Cobb close-up
  15. 0:49 Ariadne close-up
  16. 0:53 insert shot (coffee cup) (This is such a cliché! Really, a rattling coffee cup, couldn’t Nolan have thought of anything better? I guess he’s seen L.A. Story (1991) (which is a nice little film)—or maybe he hasn’t, since L.A. Story mocks this cliché.)
  17. 0:55 Ariadne close-up
  18. 0:56 explosion 1
  19. 0:58 explosion 2
  20. 1:00 Ariadne close-up
  21. 1:02 explosion 3
  22. 1:05 explosion 4
  23. 1:07 Ariadne close-up
  24. 1:08 explosion 5
  25. 1:13 Ariadne close-up
  26. 1:14 explosion 6
  27. 1:16 Ariadne close-up
  28. 1:17 explosion 7
  29. 1:19 explosion 8
  30. 1:22 Ariadne close-up

Does Nolan really need thirty shots here? Sure, the last thirty seconds or so feature some whiz-bang explosions (which is what I imagine most people remember from this scene)—and when most people defend Inception, I imagine they’re defending stuff like these explosions. And, to be fair, the explosions are pretty cool! All thirty seconds of them! I, for one, would have liked to have seen even more of them! (Why is this effect never again used in the film?)

I’ve mentioned this before, but anyone who likes these explosions, do do do check out Michelangelo Antonioni’s tragically underrated Zabriskie Point (1970); he gives you over five minutes of explosions! And they’re much better because they’re real! (Plus: Pink Floyd!)

(See 3:40–8:55 for the good stuff.) …Not to mention, the rest of ZP gives you an orgy, spectacular landscape photography, plenty of action, bizarre dialogue by Sam Shepard, drugs, much more Pink Floyd, and tons of great late-60s fashion. The reason why so many people like 1960s European art cinema is not because it’s foreign or snooty, but because it’s extremely fun and awesome!

Back to Nolan: a nifty half-minute of explosions, I’ll grant him that. But the minute preceding them is nothing but boring, boring shot-reverse-shot, during which Cobb spouts yet more exposition at Ariadne.

And this is essentially my criticism of Inception: that the vast majority of the film consists of inelegant crap like this (well, this, and incoherent shots of people firing automatic weapons at one another). Perhaps we can agree that a film is ultimately about whatever most of its running time depicts? If a scene features thirty seconds of explosions, and sixty seconds of dialogue, then the scene was more about the dialogue than the explosions, right? Well, when you watch Inception, you spend a great deal of time watching close-ups of a constipated-looking Leonardo DiCaprio expositing—not my idea of fun on a Friday night.

How to do this scene differently? For one thing, I would have recorded most or all of Cobb and Ariadne’s conversation in a single medium-long shot that features both actors. (They’re sitting at a café, making it easy to seat them at 45 degrees to one another, facing slightly outward, toward the street.) The longer shot (in both distance and duration) would have allowed Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio the opportunity to really react to one another, as well as to act with their bodies. (In other words, I’d have shot their conversation in a single master shot, with perhaps a couple of insert close-ups to punctuate certain lines or reactions—but then returning to the master.) I’d also have cut as much exposition as possible (or at least revised the dialogue to make it less painful. I’d have given Cobb some personality, for one thing—maybe he speaks more enigmatically? poetically? And I’d have cast someone better to play him—imagine, say, George Clooney in the role, instead—someone genuinely charismatic, whom you trust at first, but gradually realize is deranged. Or Tadanobu Asano! Or Tilda Swinton!).

The explosions at the end can stay mostly the same, I guess—although I would have remembered them later on in the film, and used that effect again! But I would have made one major change: I wouldn’t have cut away for the first explosion. Rather, I’d have the rumbling start during the medium-long master shot of Ariadne and Cobb conversing, then have the explosion happen during the middle of that shot—it would have been so much better! Then, I would have cut away for all the other explosions, before returning to the master shot, where the first slow-motion explosion would still be happening. (I would, of course, dispense with all of Ellen Page’s reaction shots at the end; I think they really gum things down.)

In both film and writing, it’s usually best to say things succinctly. This was standard practice in the classical Hollywood cinema (1930s–1960s), which tended to use editing much more sparingly—but also (and as a direct result) more effectively. (There are of course lots of great reasons why a director might want to cut a lot; this is a rule of thumb.)

For an example, let’s look at the opening of Billy Wilder’s classic Ace in the Hole (1951):

Billy Wilder never did anything wrong. There’s plenty of cutting here (23 shots), including some uses of shot-reverse-shot, and other close-ups. But nothing in the scene is formulaic or static; quite the opposite. (It’s conventional, loosely obeying the dominant style of the time, but it isn’t predictable.) There are lots of tracking shots and pans, accompanied by very strong editing, with plenty of matches on action. Overall, this clip distinguishes itself from Inception by its variety of shots: in addition to the close-up work, there are several wider shots that allow Kirk Douglas to really act (not only with his voice and his face, but his body—and he really takes advantage of it!) The variety of shots—which also run different amounts of time—helps provide tension, as we don’t always know what the next shot is going to be, or when it’s going to come. This matches Douglas’s character’s restlessness very well. It also forces the audience to pay more attention, rather than settling into a slack-mouthed passivity as the film follows some basic formula (close-up, close-up, close-up…, cutting every three seconds). (We also get a very good look at the the newspaper office as a location—and note the ironic interaction between Douglas and the embroidered sign on the wall.)

23 shots in 6 minutes makes for an average shot length of just under 16 seconds. These longer takes allow for a lot of different kinds of shots and effects. But since the 1980s, Hollywood films have been “speeding up,” and ASLs have been getting shorter and shorter. There’s a lot of debate as to why this is so, but one commonly voiced explanation is that since TV tends to be faster-paced than film, filmmakers are trying to make movies look more like TV (always a noble goal). Another common explanation is that people have shorter attention spans these days.

Regardless of the motivating reasons (I’m sure there are more than one), it’s a real phenomenon. Film critics David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have written a lot about it; for example:

The Departed has calmed Scorsese’s urge to track a bit, but that’s balanced by its over 3200 cuts. The result is an average shot length (ASL) of about 2.7 seconds. Not unusual for an action picture nowadays, but consider where Scorsese started by conning these ASLs:

  • Mean Streets 7.7 seconds
  • Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore 8.0 seconds
  • Taxi Driver 7.3 seconds
  • King of Comedy 7.7 seconds
  • Gangs of New York 6.7 seconds
  • The Aviator 3.6 seconds

Like his contemporaries, Scorsese has succumbed to the fast-cut, hyper-close style that has made our movies so pictorially routine, however well-suited they may be for display on TV monitors and computer screens and iPods. In 1990 he seems to have realized that he needed to pick up the pace. Of GoodFellas (ASL 6.7 seconds) he remarked: “I guess the main thing that’s happened in the past ten years is that the scenes [shots] have to be quicker and shorter. [GoodFellas] is sort of my version of MTV. . . but even that’s old-fashioned” (The Way Hollywood Tells It, p. 152).

I’ve been very disappointed in Scorsese’s 2000s films for many reasons, but one of them is because he’s succumbed to a fashion in Hollywood movies, and not for the better. (I remember a scene early on in Shutter Island where Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker use like nineteen close-ups to convey the very simple action of Leo’s character unwillingly handing over his gun to a guard. I would have done it as a single, wider shot.) (Actually, I wouldn’t have even put that scene in the film.)

So when I watch Inception, I don’t see Christopher Nolan doing anything innovative or original. Rather, I see him uncritically obeying the dominant directing/editing fashions of our times. And his doing so flies directly in the face of what I tend to consider art: great directors challenge conventions, and try to find new ways, or remarkable ways, of making things.

This view of art is deeply rooted in the writings of critic Viktor Shklovsky—in particular his 1925 collection Theory of Prose, which I am forever quoting from, and which I’ve written about here, here, here, and here. Shklovsky’s basic argument is that everyday life inures us to experiencing life:

If we examine the general laws of perception, we see that as it becomes habitual, it also becomes automatic. So eventually all of our skills and experiences function unconsciously—automatically. If someone were to compare the sensation of holding a pen in his hand or speaking a foreign tongue for the very first time with the sensation of performing this same operation for the ten thousandth time, then he would no doubt agree with us. […]

And so, held accountable for nothing, life fades into nothingness. Automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, at our fear of war.

If the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been. (4–5)

He proceeds to argue that the role of art is to refresh us, to teach us how to see the world again:

And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man had been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By “enstranging” objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and “laborious.” The perceptual process in art has a purpose all its own and ought to be extended to the fullest. Art is a means of experiencing the process of creativity. (6)

But art can’t do that if it’s as habitual and automatic as everything else that surrounds us.

1 + 1

Someone who really understands Shklovsky (although I don’t know whether he’s actually read him) is the French filmmaker and theorist Jean-Luc Godard.

A central principle behind many of Godard’s films is the idea that a film’s image track needn’t match its soundtrack in a one-to-one fashion. Thus, if a film features a character’s voice on the soundtrack, you don’t necessarily need to show her speaking (or show what she’s speaking about). Godard, acting in a rather playful French manner, has called this idea “1 + 1 = 1,” meaning roughly that 1 image + 1 (different) sound = 1  (total) cinema. (This dialectical idea is directly comparable to the Situationist International technique of détournement, and other radical collage-based techniques.)

Godard has explored this 1 + 1 idea extensively throughout his career; for a clear starting point, check out his 1968 film One Plus One, better-known as Sympathy for the Devil:

Here we see the idea in a still-nascent form: Godard films long takes of the Stones recording their (then new) song, intercutting more didactic, fictionalized skits featuring Black Power militants, celebrities, street activism, and Maoists. The scenes are obviously intended to comment upon one another in a dialectic fashion. (You watch the British Stones appropriate African-American blues music and sing about revolution, and then you watch Black Power militants read passages about revolution.)

In later films, starting in the 1970s (when he began working more on video), Godard would begin pushing his sound and image tracks further and further apart, eventually creating more immediately dialectical effects:

Admittedly, this is a pretty far-out use of cinema, but Godard has always been out there, and his work is at all times rather innovative and instructive. (Watching it really opened me up to considering more of what cinema was capable of doing; I also find it pretty beautiful in its own right.)

So, returning to Nolan’s use of sound + image: I consider him pretty over-simplistic. I’m not arguing that he has to do anything as extreme as Godard, mind you, but there’s plenty of room in between. When Cobb mentions his kids, Nolan doesn’t have to cut to a shot of them—he could just show Cobb talking. Maybe Leo could act so we’d see his yearning on his face, and the absence of the children would be poignant? (And what if we never once saw the kids, but only heard Cobb describe them? It might make him less reliable as a character; after a while, we might wonder if he even has kids….) As always, there are a million things that an artist can do—but not when he’s wedded to following rote formulas.

Incidentally—and I can write more about this later if people are interested—I’d lay much of the blame for contemporary Hollywood’s inelegance and lack of artistry at the feet of Peter Jackson. His Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–3) is by far my least favorite contemporary Hollywood production, and might even be my least favorite set of movies of all time—because it, more than anything, promoted this formulaic method for making movies. Consider any random clip from the LotR films; they consist primarily of four things:

  1. Close-ups of characters looking very concerned while expositing to one another;
  2. Insert close-up shots of whatever it is they’re talking about (Gollum, in the clip linked to above) (usually these are push-ins on that object);
  3. Swooping shots through computer-generated landscapes;
  4. Bombastic music laid over all of it.

Inception is Jackson’s heir. (It swaps in gun play for CGI fly-throughs, but otherwise it draws from the same small toolbox.)

Why did Jackson make his films this way? Why did Nolan follow Jackson’s lead? I’m sure each director has his own reasons (in Jackson’s case, it was probably the most efficient way to shoot so much footage with so little money), but part of the reason is that they are following gladly in the modern Hollywood tradition, which openly thinks that the audience is stupid. The supreme influence here is George Lucas, who said it best:

“Popcorn pictures have always ruled. Why do people go see them? Why is the public so stupid? That’s not my fault.”


[Lawrence] Kasdan’s main criticism was that Lucas glossed over the emotional content of a scene in his hurry to get to the next one. Gary Kurtz agreed and left the story conferences feeling troubled about Empire. He thought the ending failed to resolve the characters’ conflicts and that Lucas was relying too much on the revelations contained in part three of Star Wars. Lucas’s response to these criticisms was typical: “Well, if we have enough action, nobody will notice.” If Lucas has a weakness as a filmmaker, it comes in sacrificing thematic and character development for action. Kurtz says, “He’s afraid of going too slow.” (211–2)

Directors like Lucas and Jackson and Nolan, like so many of today’s Hollywood directors, believe that if they don’t cut every three seconds, the audience will lose interest. Their view of cinema, unlike Godard’s or Wilder’s, is one of distraction (or, as the Situationists called it, spectacle). And once you make the decision to cut every three seconds, you sacrifice a great deal of cinematic storytelling technique.

Not that there still isn’t a lot that can’t be done, to be sure. Edgar Wright’s films, as I described in this post contrasting Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, feature very fast-paced cutting, but not at the expense of the direction. That is to say, Wright still actively shapes and directs his movies, creating surprising and unpredictable effects, rather than just applying a standard “fast-paced” formula (master shot, dialogue sequence done in shot-reverse shot, some nifty CGI) to every scene.

And it’s formula—habit—that has always been the enemy.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

22 thoughts on “More on Inception: Shot Economy and 1 + 1 = 1

  1. Boy, Lucas is more full of himself than I could ever imagine.

    Again I haven’t seen Inception (why do so many movies sound like car names these days, or is it the other way around), but these films seem to be about getting plot points across, whereas with some filmmakers, auteurs shall we say, they try to get across a feeling. See the Eight is Enough article – http://bigother.com/2010/09/27/eight-is-enough/

    I actually think films that cut too much are the boring ones because they are hiding the fact that they have little or nothing to say except to have the hero go from A to B, have the villain laugh.

    1. I think that Lucas is a great artist, and a great filmmaker—one of the greatest pop artists of our time, in fact—but he’s also a total monster. A beautiful monster, maybe. And I’d say he’s more insecure than full of himself, really. He seems to despise his own work. That Dale Pollock bio that I linked to, Skywalking, is very illuminating (which is why Lucas now hates Pollock: Pollock really lays Lucas bare).

      I’m afraid I can’t agree that better films and filmmakers are more concerned with feeling than with plot. And I don’t think that being an auteur has anything to do with that, really. (Also, none of the filmmakers on your 8 list are really auteurs: that 1950s French term referred to directors in the classic Hollywood system (1930s–1964) who, despite said system, managed to make individualized work—folks like Hawks, Hitchcock, Wilder… Auteur theory is a rather outdated concept today, and has been for over 50 years.). Instead, I think both plot and feeling are equally important—or rather, equally unimportant…

      Nor do I think that films that cut to much are necessarily boring. Cutting is just a tool, a strategy, just like not cutting. It’s what a filmmaker does with it that’s important. Nolan cuts badly. But Vertov, or Eisenstein, or Griffith—they cut very, very well, and with great artistic effect.

      Meanwhile, there are plenty of shitty filmmakers who never cut. For instance, I have no fondness for the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who provides plenty of long takes. But his failure to cut doesn’t make him interesting. He uses long takes poorly.

      1. Don’t mince with dicer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auteur_theory

        You know I mean a director who has a personal stamp and I grudgingly put Queenton there. You can call it by another name but it’s still the same thing.

        Directors who have a personal stamp, who create their own world: Ozu, Bresson, Kubrick

        Directors who don’t: Robert Zemeckis, Sydney Pollack, Barbara Streisand

        Kubrick: I don’t think that writers or painters or film makers function because they have something they particularly want to say. They have something that they feel. And they like the art form: they like words, or the smell of paint, or celluloid and photographic images and working with actors. I dont think that any genuine artist has ever been orientated by some didactic point of view, even if he thought he was.


        These remarks were echoed by Bresson, Kiarostami and Tarkovsky in the essay. I would bet my hard drive Antonioni said it too.

        I don’t think Motion pictures are about plot, they are about moving pictures touching the unconscious, as painting does using line and color, motion pictures use image and sound to produce sensation. Plot is the easiest way to have people relate to the film, but you go up and down that eight is enough list, there isn’t one of their films that is ruined for me by me knowing the ending. There has to be something else, that one holds onto. “A Serious Man” by the Coens does not have anything to hold onto, “Duplicity” by Tony Gilroy does not have anything to hold onto, to go back and reexamine, it’s too concerned with plot points.

        So, yes I do think better films are about feeling and not story.

        Of course cutting too much isn’t always boring – shower scene. I’m talking more about your 3.whatever seconds per shot nowadays. It’s like film trailer, cut cut cut cut, it’s ludicrous. Sometimes it works, but often not and it’s tells me that there isn’t much interesting to look at in these pictures, and the filmmaker is a foe, because she is assaultive rather than melodious. Of course there are exceptions, but I’m talking about mainstream Hollywood movies.

        Some of your list of eight favors long shots – Rivette, Tarr, Anto. and I think others.

        1. From the Wikipedia, first paragraph:

          In film criticism, the 1950s-era auteur theory holds that a director’s films reflect that director’s personal creative vision, as if he were the primary “auteur” (the French word for “author”). In spite of—and sometimes even because of—the films in question being made as part of an industrial process, the author’s creative voice is distinctive enough to shine through all kinds of studio interference. In some cases, film producers are considered to have a similar “auteur” role for films that they have produced.

          (my emphasis)

          I think those are important distinctions. Auteur theory was devised in response to the Hollywood studio system, which largely discouraged personalization. But the studio system broke down in the mid-1960s, and was replaced by the New Wave-influenced “New Hollywood,” which encouraged personalization: Altman, Ashby, Boorman, Bogdanovich, Cimino, Coppola, De Palma, Friedkin, Lucas, Penn, Scorsese, Spielberg… And even after the excesses of the New Hollywood came to an end (circa the 1980 failure of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate), Hollywood still allowed its directors to become celebrities, and exhibit a great deal of personalized style. Hence folks like Michael Bay and Zack Snyder today. I don’t think the term really applies any longer.

          Furthermore, a lot of the directors on your list of eight achieved their distinctive style only by collaborating with key individuals. There’s no Bergman without Sven Nykvist, Liv Ullmann, and Bibi Andersson. Abbas Kiarostami has worked extensively with Jafar Panahi. Altman worked from “blueprints” and encouraged his actors to improvise their dialogue. …This is a long way away from someone like Hitchcock (whom Truffaut was primarily referring to), who personally oversaw every single aspect of the production. Or Hawks, who always did an uncredited last rewrite of every script he was given.

          …Never mind the fact that none of the directors you mention, with the exception of Kubrick, worked in the Hollywood system (and Kubrick worked in it only at the end). Many of them had large control over their projects from day one. Hawks in the 1930s and 1940s had to pretend he was not doing anything “distinctive,” but still find a way to get his own ideas in there. (The Hollywood directors didn’t have final cut!)

          And in any case, what’s wrong with not having a personal style? I really admire someone like Steven Soderberg, who can work in a rather large variety of styles. I often wonder if the obsession with an artist’s distinct style isn’t derived from Madison Avenue’s obsessive desire to brand (and therefore be able to commodify) everything. The myth of the author as an individual genius is a rather recent myth. What about art as collaboration? What about art that’s refined over generations, as different interpreters revise it and refine it (see “Homer”)?

          As for plot, it’s simply a tool of filmmaking, and all art-making. It’s not opposed to emotion or feeling in the slightest; plot can be emotional and full of feeling (uh, Shakespeare?); it can also be rote and emotionless. Like anything else in filmmaking, it can be used well or poorly. In some films, it’s good for there to be a strong plot (see anything by Billy Wilder). Others don’t need it. I don’t think one can say one’s better than the other—there are just different types of cinema. (You, personally, may prefer less plot-driven pictures—but so what? I personally prefer the color blue to orange. But that doesn’t mean blue paintings are better than orange ones. It just means I’m more likely to buy blue paintings for my living room.)

          And plot isn’t about “not knowing how it ends.” I’ve seen Billy Wilder’s The Apartment a dozen times; I still get caught up in the story, every single goddamn time. I’ve read Othello dozens and dozens of times; I still find myself wishing, each and every time, that Othello won’t actually smother Desdemona in the end. Funny how that works…

          Of course I agree with you that the excessive cutting in today’s Hollywood pictures is mostly a bad thing, but I don’t think that’s because of the rapid cutting per se. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is faster than today’s Hollywood films: it has an Average Shot Length of 2.3 seconds, and a Median Shot Length of 1.6 seconds! That’s faster than Michael Bay!

          Transformers (2007): ASL = 3, MSL = 2.1
          Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): ASL = 3.4, MSL = 2.5

          Eisenstein’s October (1928): ASL = 2.3, MSL = 2


          But Eisenstein and Vertov used rapid cutting in very different ways: to create impressionistic, micro-montage effects. They worked artistically and made great films. Just like plot, it’s all in how it’s used. The Odessa Steps sequence would be rubbish—its baby carriage wouldn’t bounce anywhere near as compellingly—if Eisenstein had filmed it in a single take. And today, there are plenty of directors who can cut rapidly and make good work: Edgar Wright, Guy Maddin. Paul Greengrass.

          Some of your list of eight favors long shots – Rivette, Tarr, Anto. and I think others.

          Those were directors I was asking your opinion on, since they favor long takes; I myself don’t have eight favorite directors. And if I did, they would be:

          Howard Hawks
          Ernst Lubitsch
          Orson Welles
          Val Lewton (actually a producer)
          Maya Deren
          Jean-Luc Godard
          Agnès Varda
          Roman Polanski

          …at least, that’s who they would be this week. Next week, it would be:

          Eric Von Stroheim
          Douglas Sirk
          Jack Smith
          Elaine May
          George Lucas
          Ken Russell
          Peter Greenaway
          Derek Jarman

          I could never choose for good.

          1. Hey you deleted my other comment but no one else is following this nerdy thing so….

            Again, the eight is a tribute, not a list. I’ve told yoooouuuuu….

            Sarris expanded the auteur theory and even coined the phrase in the 60’s. People use the term freely these days. I didn’t in my second comment.

            New Hollywood, good term, but we are talking 1969-1977 at best. Jaws and Star Wars changed all. I don’t know who Zack S. is and if you are putting Bay up against Tarkovsky, well, you might need to look out for lightening today.

            “There’s no Bergman without Sven Nykvist, Liv Ullmann, and Bibi Andersson. ” – this is simply false

            Nykvist didn’t start till the Virgin Spring. 7th Seal, Wild Strawberries, Sawdust and Tinsel all came before this, Ullmann not until 1966, I know I’m going literal.

            Of course filmmaking is collaborative, but some directors ‘smear’ themselves on the celluloid. You are in their work. Jane Campion has a world. Reichardt has a world.

            There’s nothing wrong with a director not having a personal style. It’s a matter of taste – and my taste telling my mouth and brain that I want to be with a director that is (metaphorically) making their life story in every film. I get more out of it. Soderbergh is interesting. I think in a way, he does have a personal style, but like the Coens he has stretched himself thin. Some of his films in the last decade really don’t say anything and the Oceans movies are maybe more admirable because he does what Ford did (one for me, one for you) but not as exciting as heist films like Dog Day Afternoon or Before the Devill… both by Lumet, who perhaps should be Soderbergh’s correlative.

            Good point about endings, I mean I agree. I still have those questions, but those works are great. Take ‘Duplicity’ or any run of the mill Hollywood film. Are you really going to care if Clive and Julia get bilked in the end, no, but you care about Desdemona. That’s character, that’s words. In film, directors use mise en scene, Tony Gilroy does not create an interesting mise en scene. I would say The Departed for all of it’s sinous plot is basically uninteresting for a cinematography level. DiCaprio is great, the characters work. But it doesn’t “look’ like a Scorsese film. No whiz-pans or very little, no expression.

            Varda was on both lists.



            1. Hey you deleted my other comment but no one else is following this nerdy thing so….

              I thought it was the same comment twice? It looked that way. If I was wrong, I really apologize!

              Sarris expanded the auteur theory and even coined the phrase in the 60′s.

              That’s a bit ambiguous. Sure, Sarris coined the term “auteur theory,” but that’s not the term you’ve been using, which is “auteur.” That term was coined by Truffaut in his 1954 essay “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,” where it had a very particular meaning:



              And you’re right, people often do use the term loosely these days. I don’t see what’s so admirable about that, really. (Indeed, Sarris himself was routinely criticized for how undefined his “auteur theory” was.)

              New Hollywood, good term, but we are talking 1969-1977 at best. Jaws and Star Wars changed all.

              Well… 1967–1982 is the more commonly accepted set of dates. 1967, because I think it’s pretty important to get Bonnie and Clyde and Point Blank in there! And there were still plenty of New Hollywood films being made 1978–1982: The Deer Hunter (1978), Days of Heaven (1978), Being There (1979), Heaven’s Gate (1980), One from the Heart (1982), others.

              Jaws and Star Wars certainly helped being about the NH’s end, but so did the financial failures of some of the later films, like Heaven’s Gate and One from the Heart.

              I don’t know who Zack S. is

              He directed the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004), 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), that new owl movie (2010).

              and if you are putting Bay up against Tarkovsky


              I’m just pointing out there are plenty of mainstream contemporary Hollywood directors whose work is very individually stylized.

              “There’s no Bergman without Sven Nykvist, Liv Ullmann, and Bibi Andersson. ” – this is simply false

              I’ll agree I was overstating, but, c’mon. When most people are discussing Bergman, they’re discussing his work from the early 60s onward. They’re not talking about The Magician or Sawdust and Tinsel (and even those films feature artists Bergman regularly collaborated with). And look at this:

              The Seventh Seal (1957): Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson
              Wild Strawberries (1957): Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin
              The Virgin Spring (1960): Max von Sydow, Sven Nykvist
              Through a Glass Darkly (1961): Max von Sydow, Sven Nykvist
              Winter Light (1962): Max von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin, Sven Nykvist
              The Silence (1963): Ingrid Thulin, Sven Nykvist
              Persona (1966): Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Sven Nykvist
              Cries and Whispers (1973): Erland Josephson, Liv Ullmann, Sven Nykvist
              Scenes from a Marriage (1973): Liv Ullmann, Sven Nykvist
              Fanny and Alexander (1982): Erland Josephson, Sven Nykvist

              …I can keep going through his films, if you like, pointing out the recurring personnel. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Bergman was known for working with the same people time and time again, and that those people were essential to Bergman-ness of his work. I.e., he was a collaborative filmmaker, not some solitary genius.

              Stan Brakhage, now there’s an auteur in the Sarris-like sense you’re using.

              I haven’t seen many of Soderberg’s more recent films, but I want to catch up with him. Bubble (2005), The Good German (2006), Che (2008), The Girlfriend Experience (2009), and The Informant! (2009) all look pretty interesting.

              I’m afraid I haven’t seen Duplicity.

              I didn’t find The Departed all that interesting for a variety of reasons.

              Varda was on both lists.


              Well, she deserves to be! She’s one of the greatest.

  2. If you tried to understand the film, again, you’d see that Nolan had embedded timing for themed sequences, to show that time plays a role in the dream world, and that if the audience really wants to know what’s really a dream even if they suppose it to be the real world, all the audience has to do(which I will never) is time the scenes. Even the Limbo scene at the end has a secret to it that deals with the duration of the shots and time in the scene.

  3. To address your evaluation of the cafe scene. He didn’t cover this in 30 shots. In the opening of the cafe scene, when he’s cutting back and forth between the two characters, that’s covered with only TWO shots: A dolly in from a MS to a CU on Cobb, and a dolly in from a MS to a CU on Ariadne. Come on, you can clearly see that it’s dollying. Really this scene is only 10 shots, though I didn’t bother to exactly count it.

    1. Hi Sean, thanks for the comment! I think we’re using terms differently. You’re referring to what in production is indeed often called a shot, also sometimes called a take (the stretch of film produced between when the director says “action” and “cut”). But once a film goes to editing, “shot” refers instead to a piece of film between two edits.

      Confusion aside, there is I think a certain value in film critics and viewers using the latter definition, not the first. Although Nolan may have assembled the scene here from, say, a single master shot and two singles (three shots total made on the day of production), we viewers can’t definitively say that, given the limited amount of information the film gives us. We also don’t know how many takes of each shot he did; the finished scene may be edited together from multiple takes of the same three shots. We don’t know how many times Nolan had Leo run through his lines in glorious sweaty close-up :)

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