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Screen capture from promotional material, If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018.

Barry Jenkins’s Cinematic Technique

A formal analysis of If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk, by PASTEL Productions, Annapurna Pictures, & Plan B Entertainment, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the novel by James Baldwin, with music by Nicholas Britell (2018).

For any serious filmmaker, the techniques one inherits are not – as, perhaps, commonly understood – tools one wields to create a film. Techniques – such as close-ups, wide shots, tracking shots, blocking, color design, editing1It may be of help to briefly describe these techniques, for they will appear consistently throughout this essay. By close-up I mean the tight framing of a subject or object such that other details of the surrounding scene are cut off or obscured. A wide shot is just the opposite, presenting a great deal of space around the subjects such that the subjects in the frame are comparatively smaller and less emphasized. Tracking shots are when the camera follows (traditionally by being pushed on a set of tracks) a subject that is moving. Blocking is the placement of subjects in the frame and the speed and direction in which they move around in the frame. Color design is, like in painting, how one distributes color and color fields in the frame. Finally, editing refers to the way a film cuts from one shot to another. – are themselves sources of exploration, as much a mystery one plunges into as a new character that grows from a writer’s vision. It is appropriate perhaps to use the word technique only because its etymological origins do still speak to its true nature – as techne, the very term used in Ancient Greece for art itself.

It’s too easy, when we look at techniques as mere tools, for them simply to reduce to tools and thereby deaden the possibilities of cinema. It is also easy for us to miss the deep beauty of cinema when these techniques are truly explored, because we have become far too accustomed to paying attention only to the obvious messages communicated on screen. Nowadays, almost every film or TV show boasts a long, fast-moving tracking shot; but how many films have managed to find the depth in a tracking shot that, say, the filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi finds in his films? Mizoguchi was so connected to this technique that a camera movement in his film could express profound compassion. One could see that his technical grasp of the tracking shot was rigorous and deep – he knew its relationship to every aspect of the frame and he could sense exactly how he needed to use it. Moreover, he had found in it the potential to express his deepest feelings.

I write about this not from any great interest in theories of art but as a young filmmaker, one who cares deeply about the future of the form and who feels like these great opportunities for exploration are largely cast aside for construction work – tools piled on top of other tools to come up with a finished movie product. What is the excitement, what is the need, what is the pure unadulterated joy, in framing another close-up, just to show an actor’s expression? And what is the excitement, the need, for the audience, beyond the comfort of the familiar?

But there are examples. There are some younger filmmakers out there that are not interested in tools but in techne, and we shouldn’t ignore these achievements. One recent film that I return to in my head is If Beale Street Could Talk. It was largely passed over in critical circles, perhaps precisely because what made it stand out was the technical side of cinema that we as a community are beginning to overlook. The film is based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, and Barry Jenkins filmed it shortly after receiving enormous critical praise for his film Moonlight. Perhaps this occasioned him the opportunity to explore new ideas, but I was struck by the way he controlled movement in the frame to uncover the dark recesses of a nation and its racism. The film follows a young Black couple – Fonny and Tish – whose romance is overwhelmed by the racial violence in New York in the 1970s. The couple struggles to find an apartment because no one will rent out to a Black couple. When they finally secure an apartment, Fonny has a run-in with a white policeman for trying to protect Tish from being assaulted by a white man. Later, the same policeman unjustly accuses Fonny of rape. The film follows Tish discovering she is pregnant with Fonny’s baby while Fonny is awaiting trial in jail. It cuts back and forth between Tish’s and Fonny’s families trying to prove Fonny’s innocence and the couple’s love story leading up to Fonny’s arrest.

Fonny’s gaze. Screen capture from promotional material, If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018.

The Look Back

From the very beginning, one can sense Jenkins’ sensitivity to certain basic technical approaches to filmic storytelling. He manages, in the first scene, to present the fundamental tension of the film, between the couple’s intense romantic longing and their fated separation. The scene simply follows Fonny and Tish as they walk down stone steps by a park in the fall. Their romance is immediately palpable, and it establishes two people in love. Tish looks out at the city, then turns around to face Fonny, as they contemplate their future. The first shot, with Tish and Fonny walking down the stone steps, is a slow tracking shot from above. It cuts to a similarly slow track that reveals their faces for the first time. From the music, the speed of the camera and the characters’ proximity to each other, we can immediately tell these two people are in love. Yet in the second shot, tracking slowly in front of the characters, Jenkins refuses to emphasize their romantic connection through the most obvious means – the way they look at each other. Many films, in depicting romance, rely on actors’ expressions – but by using other elements of the film to introduce their feelings, Jenkins can do something more interesting for the characters. He has them facing forward, not towards each other, and without any single clear emotion on their faces. Learning later that Tish is pregnant, we might retrospectively read into their expressions as being anxious, uncertain about the future. And certainly that layer is there. But the ambiguity of their facial expressions (and the way they both face forward), suggests more. It foreshadows the separate futures they hold – one at home and the other behind bars. And it suggests, in spite of this lush romantic feeling in the air, that on some other level they cannot be connected.

Even this simplifies the situation because of course the separation is fated by something far more unjust than an ambivalent god – it is the result of the vast, intractable, horrifying system of American racism. As Tish lets go of Fonny’s hand, the camera pulls away from the two of them to isolate Tish in the frame – the first time a character is isolated in the film (which will be important throughout), and which is given an emphasis in the deliberate, slow track away from Fonny. Their separation, then, is enacted immediately in the lush romantic opening of the film, a simple act of one character moving away from another and being isolated in the frame; an act, which, in most films, would carry no further weight, but which, through our attenuation to their positioning in the first few shots, makes this moment far more charged. Once Tish lets go of Fonny, she turns away from him – another important gesture – and faces the city. Again, most films would take the opportunity to present the two lovers looking out at the city together, but Jenkins intentionally blocks the scene so that Tish, alone, looks out over the city.

What happens next, however, is the most critical moment in the sequence. Tish turns back around. Again, another seemingly unimportant gesture (wouldn’t one lover turn around to face the other after looking out at the city?), but far more is going on here. We sense one layer of Tish’s character – we sense her youth, her unpreparedness to completely face this city. But we also become aware that her facing this city comes with leaving Fonny behind. She has to look back at Fonny – an evocatively Orphic gesture, one with a rich history in cinema – and in doing so, we get the first shot counter-shot2Another cinematic technique that is used in virtually all films these days. To establish that two people are looking at each other, one would think you would have to show both people in the same frame looking at each other. At some point, filmmakers began depicting this by using one shot to show a person looking in a direction, and then a counter-shot (often of another person looking back) to show what the person was looking at. In this way, through editing, films can suggest spatial connectivity without actually showing it. Many films rely on this technique for entire scenes, cutting back and forth between actors for their dialogue. Used in this way, it becomes a useful tool, but often without much aesthetic fecundity. That Jenkins chooses to use this technique here for the first time may not be radical, but it is a sensitive decision, one that took reflection and thoughtfulness to make. of the film. But rather than reinforcing a sense of spatial connection between Tish and Fonny – as a shot and its counter-shot often does – their earlier separation in the frame actually ends up reinforcing the spatial separation between Tish and Fonny. Thus, the shot counter-shot does precisely the opposite of what it often does, and yet precisely what it in some sense always ought to – remind us that the two are in separate frames.

One can begin to see how the blocking (spacing and movement of actors in the frame) and the use of shot counter-shot are themselves sources of meaning in the film. Both techniques are fundamental to almost any narrative film; yet their use in this first scene can be understood with subtle nuances that don’t exist simply by virtue of their application. Unassuming though the scene may be, one cannot simply equate it to the application of such techniques in every other film.

The counter-shot and close-up of Fonny seems on the surface simply to convey his love for Tish. He gazes at her in a way we will see many times throughout the film. Yet, starting with this shot, Jenkins establishes something about Fonny that will never go away. He shows Fonny separated from Tish and yet longing for her, a framed image of a lover without the beloved in the frame. It is either a tribute to the actor, Stephan James, or to Jenkins, that the face feels unchanged each time we get such a close-up. We get similar shots throughout the film, from a restaurant date to a dinner date to conversations through glass when he’s in prison. Yet with the exception of the scenes from prison, each one is in the past. What we get, I would argue, is not the character in the moment, but something already gone, something that Tish sees but that she has to look back to see; something frozen in time because it no longer exists in time.

It is worth pointing out that the film is by and large from Tish’s perspective – we hear her voice-over and, more importantly, we see Tish’s experience during the period of her childbirth. Fonny’s experience in prison, by contrast, is elided. And while I think it was smart to leave the intensity of his experience as the dark absence from a film that is already so intensely involved with what’s happening on the outside of the prison, I think that it is more appropriate to say that Fonny’s experience cannot be given; he has gone beyond, in some sense – beyond what the filmmaker is willing to attempt to depict3Willing, I say, not because Jenkins is afraid to look at the pain of this suffering, but because it cannot exist within the same film as this romantic longing. For the same reason that Fonny cannot remain in this romantic vision of his life with Tish, we cannot experience their romantic longing at the same time as we experience Fonny’s time in prison. Jenkins chose to make a romantic film, but it is one lost in the past, inevitably, and he knows it and films it as such., and beyond what Tish can imagine. At the end, he appears with Tish and his child, finally, but he is still in prison and there are no similar close-ups of him. What Fonny has been forced to become cannot fit into the story that most films want to tell of their love. In a sense, he has gone beyond, and in another sense, he has been left behind. Such, it seems to me, is Jenkins’ vision of Fonny’s character.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t take long to realize that Jenkins continually uses his refined technical grasp of spacing and movement in the frame in order to communicate his intentions. In the following scenes we will realize, first of all, that the slow tempo of the camera is not a nice, ”poetic” way to begin a romantic story, but is in fact the deliberate rhythmic pulse of the entire film. We realize that the characters and the camera are choreographed so that we feel the power of movement.

The Green Curtains

Here, it becomes impossible to not point out its confluence with the carefully constructed color palette. As a filmmaker, I can attest to the challenges in developing a strong rhythmic pulse to a film, and one reason is that one simply can’t do so without a sensitive understanding of related filmic techniques. One must clearly see, for example, that a rhythm cannot be separated from other things like the chromatic relationships (or monochromatic relationships) in the frame. A clear example of how this works is in the scene when Tish tells her father that she is pregnant. 

The scene begins with Tish, her mother, her sister, and her father seated around the dinner table. Her mother already knows she is pregnant, but her father doesn’t. As the family talks, Tish mentally prepares herself to tell her father. Finally, she stands up anxiously, sits down on a nearby couch, and announces to her family that she is pregnant. Initially, Jenkins has her in profile looking away from her father. The blocking in the scene up to this point is already strong – mother and sister walking back and forth in the frame, while the father remains still, drawing all the attention to him and what his reaction will be. Tish, in profile, is given her own interior world by isolating her in the frame. It is important that she is the only person isolated in the scene (the other three family members keep moving around each other), but moreover, as a result of this, the colors surrounding Tish are completely different from the dominant colors in the wide shots of her family. The shots on Tish therefore produce a separate spatial world for her.

It might not be readily apparent to an outside observer, the challenging technical relationship between color dynamics and character spacing. But films are largely concerned with consistency, and would try to make Tish look more clearly in the same color realm as her family. Sets are most often designed with a conventional sense of realism in mind, and therefore it can be difficult to prioritize color relationships that might not look natural in, say, a living room. Some filmmakers, who are interested in color, design sets with very obvious color spaces; but they aren’t necessarily compelling as a result, because the colors assert themselves too obviously. It therefore necessitates, like music, a careful harmonic interplay to produce something compelling.

Notice, then, what happens next – Jenkins has Kiki Layne (Tish) stand up and walk over to the couch. It seems like a perfectly ordinary movement, but in fact it is quite an arbitrary act, one that Jenkins actively decided to include. In other words, there’s no narrative reason to have Tish actually move at this point in the scene, nor to then have the mother sit down. What it actually does is reposition Tish in front of startling green curtains. The transition in color palette is so dramatic that, through this single character movement, the entire sense of the scene reinvents itself. Tish is now further from her family, and the world bursts with a bright green similar to her dress. At the same time, the movement through color emphasizes the rhythm of her movement because the shift in the color field is arresting. Had Tish walked over to a couch with no remarkable shift in color, the scene would have not only lost dramatic power, but the pacing of the movement would not have been felt so rhythmically. The unexpected chromatic assertiveness is used for powerful dramatic effect, because it coincides with the point of highest dramatic tension in the scene. This sort of attention to the technical effects of color, movement and rhythm is nontrivial. One must develop a sense for how movement in the frame is affected by the changes in color, how these things in turn emphasize different rhythms of color or lines in the frame, and how these in turn affect the emotional development of the scene. In this sense, a filmmaker must be able to relate to the dramatic material with their own unique sense of technique, much the same way a musician must use their own deep technical grasp of harmonics and rhythm if they are to express their intentions in a compelling way.

At the same time, we should affirm – as Jenkins’ film does – the way in which filmmaking that does not seem to stray far from the language and grammar of most narrative cinema can still do a great deal through its sensitivity to the techniques it uses. Despite twisting the stories told by many of Hollywood’s golden-age filmmakers, Jenkins nevertheless has a mastery of their techniques.

Daniel sitting with Fonny, discussing his time in prison. Screen capture from promotional material, If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018.
Fonny sitting across from Daniel and talking. Screen capture from promotional material, If Beale Street Could Talk, 2018.

Sculpture

The most interesting scene comes later, when Fonny and his friend Daniel return to his apartment to catch up. Here, the attention to gesture, movement, color and light is active on a whole new level. Just before this, Fonny has run into Daniel on the street. Daniel, who has recently gotten out of prison, is excited to see Fonny and Fonny invites him to hang out. They chat in Fonny’s apartment, but their conversation transitions from catching up lightheartedly to Daniel’s confession of his horrible experience in prison. The scene acts as the dark anchor of the film, both alluding to what Fonny might experience behind bars and revealing in the clearest terms the terror of being black in this country.

The scene ought to have been a simple dialogue scene, and yet it functions more like a sculpture. It announces itself when Daniel sits down next to Fonny at the table, whereupon the camera cuts to a low close-up on Fonny. At this point in the film, through shots like the shot counter-shot in the first scene and others, Jenkins has primed the viewer to be sensitive to the moments when he cuts in for a close-up. His close-ups often transform the scene, and here is no different; as it cuts in, the background is suddenly filled with the blue light flooding in through the windows behind Fonny. Once again it is like a change of world through color, similar to the way Jenkins isolated Tish in her own color world earlier.

The close-ups, however, take on a new dimension after Fonny vocalizes his own agonizing frustration: ”This country really do not like n—s, man. They don’t like n—s so bad man, they’ll rent to a leper before they rent to a n—.” This time, the following close-up on Fonny serves to introduce a new dramatic element by adjusting the angle of the frame and his blocking: now, a warm ceiling light hits his face. While it seems to be a minor detail, it actually draws attention to where Fonny is looking in the frame. When he’s looking down in contemplation, the light just hits his profile. But when he moves his face, ever so slightly, to glance at Daniel, the light fills in more of his face and contrasts strongly with the blue light behind him. The change may seem subtle, but transforms the purpose of the close-up. Now, Jenkins can use color and light to dramatize the subtlest movements of the actor’s faces.

Jenkins uses this to develop the film in an entirely new way. Fonny tells a story about how a white landlord was only willing to give an apartment to Tish because he thought she was propositioning him. While telling the story, Fonny goes from looking to the right of Daniel, to Daniel, and then to the left of Daniel, where we can see him more from the front. Fonny’s face turning towards the camera renders visually his sudden raw honesty.

As if building on itself, the movement of the actors’ faces instigates movement in the camera. Once Fonny’s story ends, the camera changes position and begins to move, in what will become a very long shot composed almost entirely of slowly tracking back and forth from Fonny to Daniel. The slow, rhythmic tempo of the camera recalls the slow camera movement throughout the rest of the film; but now, it is paired with the subtle changes in facial positioning (and the resultant changes in lighting) that has already driven most of the visual action. Fonny says he’d like to get out of the country, but that Tish can’t swim. The camera tracks left from Fonny laughing to Daniel, passing from one isolated figure to the next. Daniel is laughing too. Suddenly, Fonny’s green-sleeved arm comes into frame, slapping Daniels shoulder; the camera, as if in response, tracks back over to Fonny, isolating him. Fonny says he’d be too scared to go on his own. The camera, which ever so slightly revolved around Fonny, switches then to tracking over to Daniel. Yet it is so slow we are on the blank wall for a moment, and Jenkins carefully orchestrates it so that Daniel’s response also takes its time. When the camera reaches Daniel again, the lighting has unexpectedly changed on his face. He’s stopped laughing as well, which surprises us because it happens off screen. Now, his face is genuine, more serious, and it’s bathed in a reddish light. The sudden drop in laughter highlights this moment. The laughter has peeled off a layer of vulnerability. Now, finally, the camera cuts.

I find this to be one of the most effective shots in the film. The slow rhythm of the camera movement enforces the growing weight of their thoughts, so that the camera becomes part of their journeys into darker realms of reflection. Conventional filmmaking would avoid the changes in light that the actors’ faces generate in their subtle movements because it calls attention to something other than the narrative. Yet precisely by doing this, Jenkins brings the lighting to life with the characters. In this shot specifically, Jenkins takes advantage of the changing light to enter more deeply into Daniel’s psychology. For example, the conventional filmmaker would want to show Daniel’s expression change from laughter to seriousness so that the viewer can follow clearly what is happening. But Jenkins instead uses the slow track across the blank wall to build up to Daniel’s suddenly serious face in red light. It not only heightens the change in mood, but forces the audience to imagine what has changed in Daniel. What is he thinking about? What happened between them that we didn’t realize? The filmic decisions – the slow rhythm, the appearance and disappearance of the actor’s faces in frame, the subtly developing colors, the gestures and facial movements that change the visual tone of the shot – become, like music, the incantatory steps of emotion, rather than the tools for showing emotion. As a result, we are not simply watching psychological developments between two characters; we are experiencing the form of emotional development itself. To put it more concretely (or narratively), we might say that the filmmaking embodies the very way in which we, as humans, begin to open up to each other. Yes, the script shows us how humor peels layers of vulnerability away, how a lighter conversation can be the pretext for a much more serious one. But the filmmaking doesn’t simply witness this happening – it becomes that process.

Through this slow tracking shot, and especially through the slow track on the blank wall back to Daniel’s face, Jenkins has transferred the emotional weight of the film over to Daniel – although we as viewers don’t necessarily know it yet. During this sequence, it is Fonny, not Daniel, who is opening up. But what the audience doesn’t consciously realize is that while Fonny is opening up more and more, the real vulnerability is being opened up in Daniel. When we next cut back to Daniel – in close-up – we are again surprised. This time, the reddish light is incredibly prominent on his profile, and the background is restricted to what now feels like a reddish wall behind him.

Finally, then, the scene is prepared to enter Daniel’s interiority. After Fonny confesses that all he has is his sculpting (for Fonny is a sculptor) and Tish, the camera tracks (in a much closer shot than last time), across the wall into the entirely different, red color world of Daniel. Daniel, in profile and looking down, says ”I don’t know if you’re so weird, man.” He looks at Fonny then, and says ”I mean, I know you lucky.” Then, unexpectedly, he turns all the way around to face the camera, a much more dramatic version of what Fonny had done earlier. He says ”I mean I ain’t got nothing like that.” He trails off – his eyes, looking past the camera, his face, nearly pushed out of frame yet facing us completely. Finally, we realize that there is something much more serious in Daniel than we realized. We are forced to confront his interiority, which started with the light changing to red, the close-up, and finally with him facing us. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much be revealed through a face turning. This is not simply a dialogue scene between two friends; it is a methodical deconstruction of two people’s interior worlds, at once separate, connected, and influenced by one another. The gestures, looking at one another, looking away, entering new color worlds, and then looking at the camera, create an astonishing amount of visual communication in the simplest of scenes.

I could go on – the scene only becomes more powerful from here. I could elaborate on how Daniel announces that he just got out of prison, how the light dramatizes every movement in Daniel’s face; how the whites of his eyes, when he looks up, add a completely different color to the scene, and dramatize the fact that he is looking directly at Fonny. I could elaborate on how the camera jumps across the line4This is a very interesting ”violation” of the 180 degree rule – another basic technique in film that draws a line between two characters and says the camera shouldn’t jump over this line. The idea is that jumping across this line will confuse the viewers as to the positioning of the two characters. But here, we have already seen that Jenkins uses character positioning to express mental states, not to make the scene feel realistic. to show the characters from the other side, and how Daniel tells Fonny that in prison they (presumably the guards) do ”whatever they want,” and how Jenkins once again takes advantage of slowly tracking between close-ups on the two men to surprise us with Daniel’s face confronting the horror of his experience in prison – but, if I’m to finish with anything, it’s with how the the camera tracks back over to Fonny, and we suddenly realize that, once again, the scene is actually now about Fonny. We realize that what Daniel is not telling us is precisely what the present-day Fonny must also be going through in prison. The elision here mirrors the elision of Fonny’s experience throughout the film. Yet it is precisely because it is developed so intensely here that we feel the distance of Fonny’s experience so strongly. The scene, beginning with Fonny’s frustrations, reveals itself to be about Daniel’s torment, which reveals itself to be about Fonny’s experience. It is, in a way, the clearest sense we get for what Fonny’s story in this film is. Thus, as Daniel trails off, Jenkins positions the camera almost from behind Daniel’s face, barely capturing his expression at all. We are hidden from Daniel’s experience. Then, a few shots later, the camera mirrors this with Fonny. In the context of the scene, it suggests the dark thoughts Fonny must be having, but in the context of the whole film it becomes Fonny’s own dark future peering out. Once again, Jenkins treats Fonny’s character as outside of time, where his expressions and movements suggest either the past or the future, rather than simply being a person in the present. He exists not merely for the sake of psychological realism, but as a passenger of Black terror and suffering in America.

Fittingly, the scene concludes with another close-up of Fonny gazing at Tish in love. Jenkins does an incredible job of intersecting the romance and the horror on a much deeper and immediate level than the pure narrative trajectory.

No other scene in the film strikes me so much as this one, not only because of its technical grasp of color, rhythm and gesture, nor for its union of these elements, but also because of its perfect application in what could otherwise be a standard dialogue. 

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Thousands of techniques are used superficially in films without capturing the depth potent within. In many cases, this scene between Fonny and Daniel might have been filmed in close-ups not dissimilar to what Jenkins did. And yet, because it would be easy not to have been attentive to the actor’s facial gestures, the lighting to bring out these gestures, the color that defines the space around each actor, and the framing of the camera, the close-ups would have served merely to highlight the acting, finding no expressive possibilities beyond the standard dialogue scene. Other films might have tried to do something ambitious in line with the scene and had elaborate tracking shots or dramatic cuts in distance. These techniques could be equally effective, but would more likely than not find the most obvious and least subtle way to enhance the emotion of the scene. Jenkins doesn’t simply try to do something dramatic to enhance the dialogue: he uses the camera to deconstruct the character’s states, developing a very rigorous role for the camera through his technical grasp of its possibilities.

Perhaps now my interest in technique may be understood in a more concrete way. What my analyses of various scenes in Jenkins’ film might indicate is his attention to the ramifications of the visual form that extend beyond what the script and actors convey – beyond, you might say, what the story conveys. In this sense, the visual techniques are not tools for the story. They are themselves the emotional boundaries of the film. Often, then, an indication that we are encountering a cinematic object that expands our range of aesthetic experience in film is our distinct awareness of the technical eccentricities in frame. But not always. Sometimes, technical eccentricity is mere showmanship; other times, technical richness fits into a larger range of conventions and we won’t experience its emotional boundaries without paying close attention. Jenkins’ work is largely the latter. If we don’t recognize it, the demand for serious filmmaking weakens, and we lose our ability to distinguish between a competent psychological narrative and the unusual, poetic depth of Jenkins’ art.

I hope some of my appreciation for Jenkins’ cinematic technique, and the refreshing satisfaction it brings a young filmmaker these days, is evident now. More importantly, I hope we can see how crucial the nuanced exploration of technique is for cinema’s progression. The issue resides not in whether techniques are used – for often these techniques are quite common – but in how deeply they are developed. Other narrative filmmakers – Yasujiro Ozu, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ingmar Bergman, Howard Hawks, Andrei Tarkovsky, and others – developed their own profound relationship to various techniques in filmmaking; but it is the depth of their relationship to the techniques, and not their use of the techniques themselves, that makes them so different from other filmmakers. In this film, Barry Jenkins – who is a fan of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s work5Manola Derghis and AO Scott, ”The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far.”New York Times (9 June 2017). and who watched Tarkovsky’s Stalker repeatedly while filming his latest project6David Sims, ”8 Films to Watch Right Now, According to Barry Jenkins.”The Atlantic (8 April 2020). – demonstrates a technical grasp of facial gesture, blocking and color that goes beyond the more bombastic technical achievements of Hollywood’s multi-billion dollar projects.

It is especially important now to appreciate the sort of technical achievement Barry Jenkins demonstrates because the technical side of filmmaking, along with the rest of filmmaking, has exploded along with the consumer-friendly availability of products. The film world expresses perfectly the Age of Amazon7Since I finished writing this piece, Jenkins most ironically put forth his newest work on Amazon as a mini-series adaptation of The Underground Railroad. I have not had the opportunity to watch the entirety of this work, although my experience thus far is a combination of industry convention and Jenkins’ nuanced grasp of filmic grammar. I would have to reserve clearer and more in-depth opinions on this, and his proposed next project, for another essay. , but we should aspire to more with the films themselves – TV series, which populate digital distribution platforms, are rife with techniques that used to be reserved for feature-length cinema. Now, long tracking shots and massive wide shots are easy to find in dramatic television, while films are seeing just how easily they can expand the scale of their story and settings through digital effects. Yet no matter how efficient technique becomes, it does not make it any easier to achieve technical depth, just as a painter with an infinite array of possible colors but without the patience to study them would fail to create a painting as excellent as a painter who deeply knew how to use just one color. Thus, no matter how much money and time is thrown at efficiently translating many stories to the screen, they will all soon slip from our memory and our collective memory, unless we begin to look carefully at what it truly is that a filmmaker must do technically to achieve something special in their field.

Author

  • Jun is an independent filmmaker and writer currently living in New York. He can be reached at kuromiyajun[at]gmail[dot]com

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