I have compiled virtually every camera movement in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Camera pans, and the like I did not include (I’m lying, there’s a few there, lol) because the main concern of the Movements series is exactly that – camera movements – which include any kind of physical movement of the camera from point A to point B, such as a tracking shot or a dolly – mostly the dolly. The point is to get as many examples of camera movements in various films to get a better understanding of how a camera can be used and why.
If you missed the first episode – you can check it out here. For the first one, I did not provide any kind of analysis, but I feel – because of my own growth as a filmmaker – I wanted to do one for The 400 Blows. Just…
In this article we’ll be talking a lot about slow motion, so maybe it’s a good idea to briefly describe how slow motion works: The concept behind slow motion (as you can see in the image below) is that images are captured faster than they will be played back. That’s it, that’s the idea.
In this example, movement that would take 1 second in real-time takes 2 seconds when projected through the projector. This creates a sense of slow motion.
Now, capturing 20 frames per second (FPS) and projecting them at 10 FPS is not very typical and probably not a very good idea, since projecting film frames in such low frame rate would result in jerky movement.
Better and more typical is to shoot at 48 FPS or 120 FPS (and project later at 24 FPS). Nevertheless, shooting at higher frame rate and playing the footage back at lower frame rate is completely meaningless and pointless if you don’t know why you are actually doing it, so the question is: What would be the reason to play with various frame rates and distort thus the perception of reality?
POV shot is one of the best reasons and opportunities to distort, manipulate and play with the perception of reality. Thanks to POV shot, we see what the character sees. But not only that, POV shot gets us inside the head of the character, so we can experience what and how he feels. We literally see/hear the world through his eyes/ears.
A lot of the shots in the film had different degrees of slow motion, but notice that all of them were preceded by close-up of Jake La Motta, telling us unmistakably that this is his POV.
Slow motion shots appeared both in boxing ring as well as in his domestic life. Scenes (and slow motion shots) inside the boxing ring were already discussed at length (see the links at the end). Therefore, we’ll focus on the slow motion shots that appear outside the boxing ring.
Watch the video below to experience how is to see the world through the eyes of Jake La Motta – self destructive paranoid violent ambitious possessive suspicious volatile explosive angry and jealous character.
Now, we know why Martin Scorsese used slow motion shots throughout the movie, but what does it actually mean? What does it portray?
Slow motion may be used to indicate a fetishisation of the subject. A way of suggesting that the subject is able to hypnotize the viewer with his or her actions (1). This is what happened when Jake sees Vickie for the first time at the neighborhood swimming-pool. The problem is that he doesn’t see her as a person, but as individual parts (eyes, cheekbones, legs). He sees her as a sexual trophy.
2) Increased awareness
Later in the film, slow motion serves to different purpose – to emphasize the raptness of Jake’s attention and awareness. This happens during the scene at the St Clare’s Church dance, when we are given slow motion POV shots of Vickie and of Vickie and Salvy as Jake looks across the room, and of Vickie and Salvy as Jake follows them from the dance and watches them drive off in Salvy’s car (2).
3) Paranoia and jealousy
Finally, slow motion gives more credence to his escalating paranoid state (3) and jealousy. He sees the world in slow motion and interprets every minute detail. To Jake La Motta’s paranoid mind, people’s actions always require pessimistic interpretation. “Anything is possible,” as he says several times. His eye for detail, as shown via slow motion shots, causes multitudes of possibilities to furiously zigzag and crisscross in his mind, often causing him to suspect people of wronging him and sullying his masculinity (4).
24 FPS sound
It is interesting to note that during the slow motion shots we hear real sound, the actual 24 FPS sound. This gives the slow motion shots slightly disturbing feeling. It builds tension and increases Jake’s paranoia towards the end.
During my preparation for this article I came across many interesting articles and books, but this one stands out: Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Just read it.
David Bordwell wrote a brilliant article where he discusses narrative paintings of the late nineteenth century and their influence on early filmmakers. Here is one example from his article:
Two prosperous young women are sitting in a garden. One is reading from a sheet of paper. What’s going on?
The title, Her First Love Letter, helps us zero in on specific aspects of the action and fill in the situation. The girl on the left, bathed in light, leaning forward eagerly and wearing the pale frilly dress, can be seen as the more inexperienced of the pair, caught up in the anticipation of the young man’s ardor. The more worldly woman sits relaxed, perhaps a little skeptical but also tolerant of the ways of young love.
Narrative paintings like this were evidently one source of early cinema’s approach to staging and composition (among many other things, like acting or lighting).
I’m not arguing that these particular paintings influenced filmmakers, only that the principles that the painters employed were picked up by directors. The more general point is that in understanding film aesthetics, we can usefully compare movies to other movies, and movies to other arts. By doing this, we sharpen our sense of what various media can do. (1)
The painting above is by Marcus Stone and dates from 1889, I love it so much! I did a quick google image search and found another image by Marcus Stone, this one is called “In Love”: