In “There Will Be Blood,” a mysterious young man, Paul Sunday, bends over a map to show oilman Daniel Plainview a spot ripe for drilling. The scene lasts nearly two minutes, and it’s played in a single shot.
That alone is worth our notice. Today’s movies are cut fast, as everybody knows. How fast? For my book “The Way Hollywood Tells It,” I counted shots in hundreds of films, drawn from 90 years of American film history. In the 1920s, features averaged about five seconds per shot, but the coming of sound made shots longer. The typical A-picture from the 1930s to the 1950s averaged eight to 11 seconds per shot.
Things changed after 1960. Cutting rates accelerated to the point that today, virtually no films are paced like classic studio pictures. Naturally we expect fast cutting in an action film, where the shots can average less than two seconds. But fast cutting also rules serious dramas like “Michael Clayton,” indie experiments like “I’m Not There” and romantic comedies like “The Devil Wears Prada,” all of which average six seconds or less. The musical used to be the home of very long takes, but “Sweeney Todd” and “Hairspray” run three to four seconds per shot.
Fast cutting had knock-on effects. It encouraged directors to build dialogue scenes out of isolated shots of actors, usually closeups. To dress up these shots, the director was likely to arc the camera or use skittish handheld framing. This past year’s supreme example was “The Bourne Ultimatum,” but the trend has been going on a long time.
What led to this style? Not just MTV; the drift toward quick cutting was under way before musicvideos arrived. In the 1960s, as recently released films were being run on network television, some filmmakers seem to have believed that lengthy, spacious shots looked dead on the puny home screen. In the 1970s, as big theaters were twinned or plexed, theater screens got smaller, too, and faces and fast cuts played better on them.
Fast cutting became easier with new tools, such as Scotch tape in the 1960s and computers in later years. In addition, young filmmakers were taught to think that rapid editing gave a scene energy. The sequences they studied in film school — “Battleship Potemkin’s” Odessa Steps, “Psycho’s” shower stabbing — emphasized building scenes out of fast-cut closeups. Still other factors, such as TV commercials and the new reliance on video assists, probably had an impact, too.
No wonder that director Paul Thomas Anderson’s scene looks resolutely unflashy. His measured approach is consistent with his pacing throughout “There Will Be Blood.” He uses closeups, but he holds them an unusually long time. “Blood” averages 12 seconds per shot, a tempo matched only by the films of Woody Allen and M. Night Shyamalan.
Somebody might point out that fast cutting and big closeups aren’t everything nowadays. Nearly every movie boasts an extended take or two. True, but those are almost always virtuoso following shots, as in the dazzling Dunkirk sequence of “Atonement.” Such shots, which can also be found in the silent and early sound era, became more common with the development of the Steadicam. Film schools fetishized the bravura opening of Welles’ “Touch of Evil.”
As a result, the endless traveling shot has become almost a cliche, as we follow characters striding through a maze of corridors (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) or spectacular sets (“Atonement” again). But in the “Blood” scene, the actors are huddled around a tabletop and the camera barely moves, simply tracking a bit forward. Anderson’s movie does contain some brief following shots, but nothing as self-congratulatory as the showy walk-and-talk.
So the scene from “Blood” rivets our attention without any bells and whistles. How? It draws on a tradition that was once part of every professional filmmaker’s skill set.
In the old studio system, usually the director didn’t write the script, and a producer oversaw editing. The director could, however, control what happened in the shot. So directors became adept at mapping the drama into movements of the actors around the set. Actors acted with their whole bodies, not just the zone between their hairlines and chins. They might walk only a step or two toward the camera, or turn to face another player or set down a glass. Each moment carried a dramatic charge of its own.
The director’s task was to choreograph all this gracefully and expressively. Each of the great filmmakers found his own style within the demands of ensemble staging: pictorialism (Ford, von Sternberg), dynamically charged framings (Wyler, Anthony Mann) or a tense sobriety (Lang, Wilder, Preminger). Even Hitchcock, probably the most montage-oriented director of the period, saved his cut for the moment when it could raise the drama’s pitch. And all these masters knew that within a fixed frame a single gesture could take on great power — without a closeup.
The “Blood” scene harks back to this tradition. Daniel Day-Lewis stands in profile and sometimes turns his back on us. Paul Dano’s performance is just as unassertive. Yet as the group huddles around the map, slight changes in position highlight one actor, then another. The scene’s climax comes when Day-Lewis’ Plainview warns that he will come looking for the boy if he has misled them. The threat is expressed visually, when Day-Lewis turns to face the boy and stretches his long, strong fingers toward him. It’s at once a gesture of generosity and the start of a handshake, but the hand stays up just long enough to become as ominous as a pistol.
I’m not indulging in nostalgia. Some of the year’s best films — “Zodiac,” “Eastern Promises,” “Across the Universe,” “No Country for Old Men” — show that the editing-driven approach can yield a range of powerful effects. But the director’s palette contains plenty of other colors. Scenes such as Anderson’s, and its counterparts in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James,” remind us that filmmakers can trust their actors and images to work on us more gradually. A quietly unfolding drama, without cuts and florid camera moves, can harbor its own fierce energy.
David Bordwell is a professor emeritus at the U. of Wisconsin – Madison. His website is davidbordwell.com.