In film school (I was thrown out of New York University quite rapidly when I was a film major there in the 1950s) the emphasis was always on movement. These are moving pictures, students were taught, and the camera should move. And the teachers were right.Back when I worked for a film company (1993-1995) and was writing screenplays for movies I planned to direct--none of which ever got made, of course--I hewed to the same principle, although I had arrived at it through my own devices. To that principle--"the camera should move"--I appended a corollary: no shot--no camera angle or composition--should be repeated, unless the repetition itself has some formal significance--to indicate stasis, say, or to recollect an earlier scene.
Few film directors have much allegiance to either of these dicta. They prefer to concentrate on things like story, character, psychology, emotion, whatever. Nevertheless, movie history is studded with the names of directors reputed to be great movers of the camera. The opening shot of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil is justly celebrated; less well known is another one-shot scene later in the movie--the one where Welles's Quinlan plants evidence on an incidental character. Less flashy if no less virtuosic, the second shot is just as well motivated narratively as the first: its continuity allows you to see that sticks of dynamite have magically appeared in a box that was previously empty.
But neither of these shots is the tour de force that was the ballroom scene at the heart of Welles's earlier film The Magnificent Ambersons--before it was butchered by the studio. Welles made Ambersons when he was still riding high on the success of his radio show and commanded the biggest budgets in Hollywood history; the single shot that was to constitute the ballroom scene originally lasted 10 minutes. Much of the scenery was devised to be lifted away as soon as it disappeared from the camera frame, to make room for the track that was being laid down as the camera moved, and for the camera itself. For the most part, the camera followed the movie's two main characters, but there were occasional divagations. One involved a conversation among a random assortment of upper-crust party guests about a recent, fascinating, but also kind of frightening import from Europe, which no one could quite summon the courage to sample: the olive. It's exactly the kind of period detail that novelists relish, and it even had thematic significance, indicating both the opulence of the world in which the Ambersons moved--they were the first to be able to afford an imported delicacy--and its quaint antiquity. The studio complained that the conversation did "nothing to advance the story" and cut it, along with a couple other segments of the shot. It is one of my fondest hopes that I will live to see digital technologies progress to the point that the scene can be reconstructed, from the surviving stills and script and from samples of the movie's other scenes.
The early Renoir was a great mover of the camera, and even devised his own technology for tracking shots, a set of reconfigurable, interlocking, polished wood platforms over which a camera mounted on felt feet could slide, but he claimed he had to stop using it because it violated union guidelines. Tarkovsky, Mizoguchi, Minnelli, Demy, Ophuls -- all were masters of the tracking shot. But to me, the most virtuosic mover of the camera is Luis Bunuel.
Lots of cinephiles are shocked when I say this. Bunuel is thought to have a rather dry style, and indeed, he seems to deal mostly in medium shots, which have neither the drama of the closeup nor the pathos of the long shot. But his camera is always moving. I pointed this out once to a guy who was teaching a class on film appreciation at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and he said, "That's not moving, that's framing." By which he meant, Bunuel's camera movements are generally motivated by his characters' movements. Fair enough. But who decides the characters need to move? In a lot of movies, they don't. They stand or sit, and the camera cuts back and forth between them, in what, in my film days, I would disparagingly refer to as "composition tennis". Bunuel finds reasons to make his characters move precisely to have a reason to make the camera move.
A good example is the opening of Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, about three minutes into the Criterion disc. The scene in the Senechals' house takes exactly two shots, and the characters are constantly moving about, dragging the camera with them. Indeed, sometimes, when you start paying too much attention to Bunuel's direction, his shots begin to seem incredibly contrived, with characters moving into the background and positioning themselves so that they exactly fill in the visual gaps between characters in the foreground. But of course, if you're watching as you normally would in the cineplex, you hardly notice what the camera is doing. You just find that you have a very clear sense of the three-dimensional space of the scene, and a general impression of elegance.
All of this is apposite because Criterion -- God bless Criterion -- has just released a DVD of Bunuel's Milky Way, my favorite of his films. In it, he makes my corollary to the NYU aesthetic principle -- don't reuse a shot once you've left it -- a structural conceit, disdaining to reuse settings and even, with the notable exceptions of the two protagonists, characters once he's left them. He actually takes this structural principle even further in The Phantom of Liberty. Perhaps he takes it too far -- or perhaps, without the ready-made imagery of the history of the Catholic Church, he's just unable to repeat the combination of comedy and pathos that he manages so brilliantly in Milky Way. Either way, I've always found Phantom the lone disappointment among his late, European films. But The Milky Way is a masterpiece.