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VIDEO ESSAY: Spike Lee's free-floating, dolly shots collected, stitched together and deconstructed

Video
by Matt Zoller Seitz & Richard Cruz
April 21, 2012 7:07 AM
28 Comments
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This video essay by Richard Cruz collects Spike Lee's loopy, free-floating dolly shots into a music video. In the process, it makes them less jarring than they were when they first appeared in Lee's films. You know what I'm talking about: a shot where a major character is still, or perhaps moving subtly, while the background moves at an unrealistically fast speed or whirls wildly, creating the sense that the character is sort of hovering through the air, or perhaps moving on a conveyor belt or turning on a merry-go-round.

Every time I've seen a Lee film in a theater, audiences have begun tittering and pointing at the screen whenever Lee busted out this type of shot. It's as disruptive as it is flamboyant -- deliberately so, I'm guessing. The Spike Lee dolly seems to be trying to find a way to signify "subjectivity", or otherwise put a conceptual frame around a certain moment in a story. This is typical of Lee. His features are never, strictly speaking, "realistic." They're more expressionist, like the films of Martin Scorsese, one of Lee's biggest influences. As such, they give themselves the freedom to bend the visuals and suggest what characters are feeling, or maybe what the filmmaker is feeling about the characters at that point in the story.

Sometimes the device works brilliantly, or at the very least, in such a way that you can see what the director was going for, even if he didn't pull it off; my favorite examples are Larry Fishburne seeming to glide through campus at the end of School Daze -- a musical polemic of a movie -- hollering "Waaaake uuuup!"; Anna Paquin's private school student, drunk and high, floating through a nightclub in The 25th Hour ; Theresa Randle in Girl 6, gliding through her apartment while jazzed on her own sensuality or fearing an attack by a creep who's phone-stalking her. But other times the Spike Lee dolly just feels weird. The shot of Lee's gambling addict gliding through the park in Mo' Better Blues made the character seem as though he'd been replaced by a Muppet (maybe because Lee's gestures were so stylized and herky-jerky). In the finale of Malcolm X, when Malcolm heads toward the church where he's about to be assassinated, I think we're supposed to feel as if he's being pulled along by destiny or history or somesuch; but because the more conventional parts of the sequence convey this so effectively already, it just feels like a bad idea that somehow made it into the final cut. (When I saw the movie on opening night in 1992, the crowd burst into ironic applause and laughter when that Malcolm X  people-mover shot appeared onscreen, and somebody behind me said, "And here I was, thinking he might get all the way through a movie without doing that!")

Most of Lee's floating dollies owe a debt to shots in Scorsese's Mean Streets. Scorsese filched the idea from Vincente Minnelli's 1949 film of Madame Bovary, which conveyed romantic delirium at a grand ball by putting the actors on a fast-whirling dolly platform so that they seemed to be whooshing around the ballroom like astronauts in centrifuge training. Over the last quarter-century, though, Lee has pretty much owned this kind of shot, and he's explored it in increasingly surprising, sometimes bizarre ways. I used to call this type of shot "the Spike Lee people-mover shot," because it was usually framed so that we were looking at the characters head-on while the background receded behind them; the effect reminded me of riding a conveyor belt in an airport terminal. But Lee has gone way beyond that since the early 90s, to the point where we go into a new Spike Lee movie wondering what sort of variation he'll wring on it this time.

What I love most about this video is how it neutralizes whatever observations one might have about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a shot in a given Spike Lee film by placing them all together in a single short video. The shots' inventiveness, showiness and beauty take center stage. You're no longer watching characters in a story, but living sculptural objects driving through a series of spectacular and sometimes haunting settings.

Matt Zoller Seitz is publisher of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine. Richard Cruz lives in New York City and you can visit his web page here.

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28 Comments

  • meh | May 7, 2012 9:05 PMReply

    Spike's a joke.

  • You suck | May 26, 2014 9:23 AM

    Disliking Spike makes one a klan member?

    Or did you just infer that because you align yourself with Spike's racist ideals, so therefore assuming anybody who doesn't like him must be on the opposite end of the spectrum?

  • your mom's a joke | June 11, 2013 1:06 PM

    go sucks wes anderson's nuts or something. and don't miss the next Klan rally

  • MADDOX DP | April 25, 2012 2:20 AMReply

    I like the essay man, but you need to peep Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast (1946) French Film. Its use of special effects, special effects make up and platform dolly shots for the Belle character as she walks around the palace is probably a better place to start when dealing with this device. Even Intolerance by DW Griffith has camera devices that smell of Spike's motif! Spike would probably hate for me to say that...

  • R. Camcho | April 23, 2012 12:05 PMReply

    Good article, but Giant the gambling addict was in the film Mo' Better Blues not Jungle Fever.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | April 23, 2012 4:53 PM

    Ah, right! Corrected. Thank you.

  • J-Diezel | April 23, 2012 11:00 AMReply

    Im gonna go out on a limb and say Spike got this technique from......Bob Fosse! All That Jazz! Final shot when Bob (Roy schnider) goes to heaven/hell meeting angel of death.

  • tmack | April 27, 2012 12:56 PM

    You're right! I remember that shot. But wasn't Lee filming before All That Jazz? This style of shot appears in all his movies. I remember it from Crooklyn, when the little girl goes out to fight the glue sniffers.

  • Ian Grey | April 23, 2012 3:08 AMReply

    It can pretty much never work because it screams at you the use of a mechanism in the filmmaking process. Whatever illusion of drama is gone: now you're thinking about process and people and cameras and dollies and for minutes on end you forget what the person was even talking about. Even the casual filmgoer becomes aware of some mechanical effects being inelegantly attempted. If you want to ruin a moment, this is the perfect device.

  • Dax | April 30, 2012 1:17 PM

    but Ian, the fact that I'm watching a screen with a video that was shot with a camera should make me go int my head and think about mechanical stuff with that logic. I think you assume we as film goers are all the same and think the same, me personally I like the behind the scenes process but the shot doesn't take me there in my head. I will say this I only really care for the shot when he did it in one circular motion like he did with Denzel in Mo Better Blues. The scene when he is practicing and the scene when he is making love to Clark.

  • tmack | April 27, 2012 1:08 PM

    Hmmm. I don't think the camera has to be the silent object in a film. Cameras are used in all kinds of clever ways & can often become almost like a character in a film. Take the bullet-cam in the opening of Lord of War...or the Shovel-Cam in the 4th season of Breaking Bad. Even in Scorsese's Goodfellas, the Copacabana Tracking shot is one of the best scenes in the film, which ends with the character addressing the camera.

    I think it depends on the film and its overall intention. If you forget what the person was talking about and it's a good film, heck, see it again!

  • Craig Simpson | April 22, 2012 10:38 AMReply

    I'd like to see a "12 Greatest Scenes with the Shakycam" video be anywhere near as fun as this. Yes, occasionally Lee picks the wrong time and place for this kind of shot, but complaints about its use in its entirety remind me of the gripes about the frogs in "Magnolia": If we can't enjoy the panache it takes to try this stuff, why bother going to movies?

  • Edward Copeland | April 22, 2012 5:35 PM

    The one who really didn't know what he was doing when he tried the Shakycam out was when Woody experimented with it in Husbands and Wives. It looked like either they were having an earthquake in the middle of the shoot or the camera operator had a really bad case of the dry heaves and Woody forced him to keep filming anyway.

  • Edward Copeland | April 22, 2012 2:37 AMReply

    The kids in Crooklyn is the one that always makes me laugh, but any shot that doesn't serve the film at the same time it is being used is a mistake. It's why Scorsese's Copacabana shot in Goodfellas or Altman's opening to The Player serve as much more than mere gimmicks. Inside the moves come setups, crucial information or plot developments that keep you in the film instead of taking you out of it such as so many of Spike's moving sidewalk scenes do or when DePalma tries to outdo Scorsese just because he thinks it's about the shot and not about the movie and wastes it on stinkbombs such as Snake Eyes. That's why DePalma comes off as a lesser director than most a lot of the time. He makes moments instead of movies. He'll come up with two or three good sequences for a film and then blow off the rest of it. As for Spike, sometimes I think directors can get too addicted to some shots. I haven't noticed it of late (mainly because until Midnight in Paris, there wasn't much worth noticing in any Woody Allen film for more than a decade) but he had a phase where he was addicted to filming scenes where two characters had a conversation while one was onscreen and the other was in a different room or a closet, etc.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | April 22, 2012 12:58 AMReply

    Bruce: Ask your friends, "Honestly, when I'm with you, do you secretly wish I would leave as soon as possible?" The answer will be yes.

  • Bruce | April 22, 2012 12:26 AMReply

    So the point of this article is, "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't." Wow, brilliant insight.

    This is just a dumb camera trick used by film school nerds. It has very little context within any film it's used in except as an attention-getting device.

  • R. Cruz | April 21, 2012 8:11 PMReply

    Couldn't have explained it better myself. Excellent write-up, Matt! Thank you.

  • wk | April 21, 2012 6:14 PMReply

    Reminds me of the Speilberg rush zoom of Brody on the beach in Jaws or John Ford's first look at John Wayne in Stagecoach. It's ok in certain places, but don't overuse it.

  • Armak | April 21, 2012 5:56 PMReply

    I hate this shot because it forces me to imagine the character on a platform attached to a camera rig. It puts my attention on Spike the filmmaker and throws me out of the story. I suspect it comes from the same place ("pay attention to me!") as Spike's need to act.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | April 21, 2012 5:03 PMReply

    There are, I'm sure, many examples prior to MADAME BOVARY (I feel like SUNRISE might have had one, too). But Scorsese is on record as saying that whenever he stages that sort of free-floating dolly shot, he's got BOVARY in mind, because that was the first film he saw that used it.

  • MATTHIAS | April 22, 2012 2:21 AM

    Matt, your memory is correct. SUNRISE has a floating dolly shot, husband and wife are framed from behind as they, arms tightly wrapped around each other, cross the street in the archetypal urban center of an unidentified street. It is a beautifully composed shot.

    Excellent article and thought-provoking video!

    And yes, it is a device that draws attention to itself, which makes it all the more challenging to see beyond its ostentatious form and discover what lies beneath it.

  • AARON ARADILLAS | April 21, 2012 4:41 PMReply

    If I'm not mistaken, I think there's a similar shot in Cocteau's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Also, this moving-background-locked-foreground dolly shot was a major contributor to the effectiveness of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.

    The key component of Lee's "dollys" is almost alwys the soundtrack. The MALCOLM X shot is particularly moving because it's scored to Sam Cooke's "A-Change Is Gonna Come." The song peaks right at the moment the shot begins. (Michael Mann more or less "copied" the assassination sequence, song and all, in ALI.) The crackhouse sequence in JUNGLE FEVER is scored to Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" in its entirety. The kid-on-his-bike shot from CLOCKERS (a particular favorite) is scored to KRS-ONE's "Outta Heere." Each song sets the speed for their shots. Just like The Chips' "Rubber Biscuit" set the frenzied speed of the shot in MEAN STREETS. Without the songs these are just fancy camera moves.

  • johnofjack | April 22, 2012 10:52 PM

    There is a shot like this in Beauty and the Beast, yes; it's been a few years since I saw it but it was a shot where Beauty has just rushed through a doorway (I think it's when Beauty returns to Beast's home). The shot has a striking dreamy/surreal quality to it. So the sort of subjective dolly shot that Spike Lee favors dates back to at least 1946, a couple of years before Madame Bovary.

  • pdf | April 21, 2012 3:32 PMReply

    The one in Inside Man (shown at the very end of the clip) has always been my favorite of these, because the way Denzel Washington's holding his arms makes it look like he's riding a Segway.

  • Sam | April 21, 2012 9:34 PM

    You comment points to one of the things I really don't like about Lee's use of the dolly shot. It's too smooth, too clean, too unreal that it jares you out of the movie and makes you thing "WTF is he on a Segway? Oh no he's just standing on a platform in from of the camera. Okay back to the film." I think the use of the snorricam in Requiem for a Deam, for example, is much better at creating the feeling I think Lee is going for. It is otherworldly and somewhat out of body while still being connected to the body.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | April 21, 2012 12:57 PMReply

    "Lee's use of the dolly shot suggests an out-of-body experience or transfigured time." Sometimes, yes, but what about when two characters are just walking along and talking? (There are some examples in the clip reel.) I think in those cases there's an idea, too -- two people falling in love for example -- but there are times when the idea of the shot just overwhelms everything else.

  • Matt Zoller Seitz | April 21, 2012 12:54 PMReply

    Thanks, Carrie -- good points, all.

  • Carrie Rickey | April 21, 2012 8:28 AMReply

    Great clip compilation, two observations. For me, Lee's use of the dolly shot suggests an out-of-body experience or transfigured time. And the director of Madame Bovary is Vincente Minnelli, a huge influence on both Scorsese and Lee.

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