Thursday, 13 February 2014

Moving Camera; on that Anna Karenina tracking shot

Even though I’m more in sync with movie twitter than TV twitter, it seems that almost everyone is talking about tracking shots owing to the most recent episode of True Detective. Far be it from me to ignore a trend when it pops up, I decided I’d talk about a favourite tracking shot of mine.

When most people of Joe Wright and tracking shots, the Dunkirk scene in Atonement is almost always the one which comes to mind and even though Atonement is my favourite Joe Wright film, I’m not certain that that melancholic Dunkirk scene is my favourite tracking shot in Joe Wright movie.Or, at least it's not the one I'm moved to talk of immediately when I think of tracking shots.This particular one in Anna Karenina does not reach two minutes, but I love it both for its beauty and its import.

Beautiful Anna Karenina, was hit with the most common criticism lobbied at ornately designed films – all style but with no substance. I’m predisposed to liking Joe Wright films in any regard, but the more I watch the film and the way Wright and Stoppard choose to address the themes of imperial Russia the more clearly the effectiveness and utility of the immaculate production design reveals itself to me.
The scene opens at Stiva’s office. Konstantin Levin has showed up, unexpectedly, for tips to woo Stiva’s sister-in-law. They decide to meet later at l'Angleterre. Stiva is careful to remind Levin, “Uh, so, new boots, coat, and a proper hat” as overhead we head into the opening bars of the “She is of the Heavens” number from the score. Stiva heads off camera without a care given to his subordinates.

The script itself says that two things should follow: a shot of the streets of Moscow and then a shot of Levin appearing his new garb with a final resting place on the two at dinner. But, instead the camera remains at Stiva's office as the tracking shot begins. The taskmaster blows a whistle and they begin to pack.
It’s a small touch, but it’s a nice callback to a few moments earlier when we meet the clerks at Stiva’s office monotonously, and in unison, too, dealing with their paperwork. The taskmaster with his eyes on the clock, presumably ensuring that no one leaves a second earlier blows the whistle and in the same token unison form they begin to pack, moving as a single entity with little individual flourishes of their own.

....more below on what the lack of individuality in the non-speaking role suggests, and how Wright gets the most out that tracking shot...
The camera begins to move, but what to make of the musicians appearing in the office waltzing as if the office drones are invisible, as if the work space becomes an entirely new area when the office is done. There’s that sense of the boundary lines being so thin that for, the plebians, everything spills over with so little space for it all to function in. But, all the while the camera is rotating as the men leave the office and the theatre does become something of an adhoc street as Stoppard asks for. The thing with tracking shots is very often there's a point of focus, someone's perspective we're watching from or some point of origin from which it all emanates. So as it travels, there is an expectation that something will enter the frame to demand our focus.
It seems, at first, as it that something would be the the reveal of Levin behind the door, now decked out in his immaculate new clothes. Clearly time has passed as we watch him – ill at ease – trying to acclimate to Moscow city life. But as the camera continues turning it becomes clear Levin is not the focus of the tracking shot. And as it continues to rotate, we return to where we started and the men from Stiva’s office have been transformed into a line of wives bidding their husbands farewell.
And as they say goodbye the men my favourite part of this shot happens. These men, formerly office drones in Stiva’s office, shed their outer apparel revealing beneath the uniform becoming of a waiter.
 And just like their time as office drones, even as waiters they move as a single unit as if devoid of individuality.

And still the camera continues to move.

And we espy things that were not there on our first trip around the area. Ornate walls have been erected.
And as we pass Levin once again we realise that the stage has been transformed to l'Angleterre and as the office drone turned waiter emerges with the ashtray our suspicions are confirmed. The stage has moved from showing us the streets of Moscow to the restaurant inside.
And the camera continues to circle until it stops as the office drone/waiter presents Stiva with the ashtray and he flicks his cigar at it, not even looking up to observe the man.
The entire tracking shot lasts little over a minute, but the way it addresses so many of the secondary themes of the original text impresses me every time.

I mentioned it in my review, but more than just the moveable sets of Wright’s vision of Anna Karenina, what to make of the way the nonspeaking characters playing the lower-class people are made almost interchangeable by the theatre conceit. In the extended opening scene the stage is literally being set and a group of men lug Karenin’s austere table and books. We can see them, but it seems almost as if they’re invisible to our main characters. The way the aristocrats are unaware of the lowly class below them. This 90 second tracking shot takes the idea even further, though. That man bringing the ashtray for Stiva at l'Angleterre is actor playing the office drone at his workplace where he just left.

Wright has already robbed the film of being steeped in realism by the Brechtian tool of having the acors rearrange the sets in full view of the audience. His insistence on ensuring that we see the the scenery mounted only points to the artificiality of the constructed world that's in constant change but more than having the scenery changing in full view what to make of him insisting that we watch as the office workers literally shed their clothes to become the waiters. There’s the sense in that moment, more than anywhere else, how interchangeable every plebeian is in the grander scheme of things in Imperial Russia. This is a two hour condensation of a gargantuan novel. The primary tale of Anna’s place is, of course, given paramount but it’s in the most seemingly benign of moments like these where the jarringly insidious underbelly of this world are revealed.

It is not essential for every piece of artwork, but there’s something especially satisfying when form and content meet as they do hear. This tracking shot is smaller in scope but just as profound thematically. That Dunkirk scene, like much of Anna Karenina, was accused of Wright’s predisposition for ornateness and showing off but consider what the circling camera suggests on a literal level. The camera circles the very spot not once, but twice each time revealing changes in the setting as the people – but constantly moving all the same. Yes, showing the way the society is changing but then also hitting home the way that everything seems to be going in circles. Whether at the office, or dining at l'Angleterre the bourgeoise class carry on their affairs with scant consideration of the lower class beneath as they – literally in Wright’s set-up – carry on their backs the walls, the chairs, the entire make-up of the world they live in. And so insignificant that an office drone individuality is so non-existent to the point that they are one and the same with the waiters in the restaurant and the pedestrians on the street.

All that in a 90 second tracking shot. Wright's conceits are more than just showing off, this is legitimate profundity packed into the slightest of moments.


Anonymous said...

Excellent write up! I love Joe Wright and his movies and what he does with that camera (his tracking shots are just exceptional) and this one is superb. It's nice to see others praising his work as well.

Andrew K. said...

fisti thanks, glad you enjoyed reading. wight really does direct his movies well, i wish he'd get the enthusiastic praise some other directors get.

Anonymous said...

His Oscar snub in 07 still rubs me raw (he would be my personal winner, in a heartbeat). Other than the horrendous Soloist, his filmography is rather impeccable. I actually wrote a piece on him a little while back, if you'd care to take a gander. It's not everyday you run into a fellow Wright enthusiast!