SHOT MISSING: ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ and the New History of Found Footage

Orson Welles invented a genre, and died before anyone found out.

Had it been released, as intended, in the 1970s, Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind would have completely redefined the found footage genre. Well, “redefined” isn’t the right word. After all, found footage cinema didn’t exist during the film’s production. Welles was inventing it. So had it been released back then, it’s more accurate to say that The Other Side of the Wind would have defined the found footage genre in a way entirely different to our current understanding of it.

The concept of fiction which takes the form of a “real life” collection of documents is much older than film itself. Epistolary novels told their stories as a collection of letters between characters. Welles himself translated this idea to radio with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, which was written and acted as though it were a real news broadcast. Found footage has been with us for a very long time, but Welles would have been the first to bring the concept to the cinema.

As history stands, though, the most widely cited originator of found footage is the 1980 horror film Cannibal Holocaust. It set down the genre’s rules and structure, a format that would popularly codified with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Though there were examples in between (Man Bites Dog being perhaps the best-known entry in the genre during this time) it’s safe to call these two film the mothers of found footage film. The guidelines they created were rarely deviated from by their imitators. For one thing, most found footage films that followed in their wake were also horror films. Blair Witch proved the possibility for terror which a locked perspective could inspire, and the success of Paranormal Activity nearly a decade later proved to studios the utility of the genre’s cheap-and-easy production model. Found footage became irrevocably associated with horror, such that painfully few filmmakers ever experimented with the form outside of that genre.

Another important aspect of found footage is that, obviously, the footage must be found. The use of the form implies a terrible fate for the people at the film’s center, usually spelled out in a Shakespearean prologue before we even see them. The finder of the footage is rarely relevant. They are typically unseen and unheard from, acting as invisible editors. Sometimes, as in Blair Witch Project, the implication is that the credited crew themselves are behind the assemblage of the footage. Most of the time, however, it’s simply a question left unanswered. We aren’t supposed to care about the person who found the footage and presented it to us. The motives behind their choice to present the film the way they have is, we’re told, irrelevant.

But what if the genre’s forefather had not been Cannibal Holocaust, but The Other Side of the Wind instead? It’s not a horror film, for one thing. Had it been released in the 70s, the entire concept of found footage would have been borne out of a drama with comedic elements. Would this have convinced filmmakers that the form was more elastic than it is commonly considered today? I think it would have. I also think found footage would be respected as the bold cinema experiment it is, rather than the cheap throwaway production style it’s so often perceived as today. Coming from Welles, it would have been appreciated as a brash step forward for the medium, if not in its time, then at least down the road.

But this isn’t the history we’re living. The Other Side of the Wind was released in 2018, following decades of other found footage releases. So let’s look at it in that context, in how it breaks some rules and follows others, and how it still manages to redefine the form.

The film opens, like so many found footage films do, with the reveal that the main character dies at the end. Voiceover from Peter Bogdanovich, in his character as a much older Brooks Otterlake, explains that the film is assembled from footage shot by many different people at the 70th birthday party of director JJ Hannaford, who drove off a bridge to his death at the end of the night. “The choice of this material,” he says, “is an attempt to sketch a film likeness of the man himself as he looked through all those different viewfinders.”

The genre significance here isn’t clear until the film is over. Here we have a found footage film whose perspective is driven not by the footage’s shooter, but by its editor. There is no one point of view through which we see Hannaford, but dozens of them, and they are only made somewhat coherent by Otterlake decades later. The film’s perspective is created in editing, and it’s still disparate and schizophrenic due to the sheer number of people filming. Everyone at the party sees Hannaford differently, and it takes Otterlake decades in the film’s narrative to put aside his own feelings about how he comes off in the footage and put together a representation of Hannaford. It’s impossible not to see the film as both tribute and repudiation of Hannaford by Otterlake, whose conflicted feelings toward his mentor are clear even at the time the footage was shot.

It’s easy to see the allure of this concept for Welles. He was a filmmaker who was more fascinated by the power of editing than of the camera itself. Early in the film, a film student interviewer asks Hannaford, “Is the camera a reflection of reality, or is reality a reflection of the camera eye? Or is the camera merely a phallus?” Hannaford answers: “I need a drink.” It’s clear that Welles found this approach to cinema, at best, a silly waste of time, and at worst a grating misunderstanding of the medium he so loved. His final real feature, F for Fake, is consumed with the mysterious power of film editing, and he would have iterated on that in The Other Side of the Wind. Welles seemed to want to experiment with this massive jumble of perspectives, to see if he could find something singular through their combination, or else to disorient and befuddle by the same token. For him, found footage was less about a collection of images which imitated reality and more about what could be found through the coherence or incoherence of those images. What if he could find a throughline in them, and what would it mean if he couldn’t?

An odd aspect of the film is how cameras are both universal and absent, visible and invisible. Oftentimes Welles employs a shot-reverse setup which does not show the camera that ostensibly is shooting one or both angles. At other times, though, cameras are everywhere, crowding the image, intrusive and domineering. Welles doesn’t insist upon the found footage angle in the former moments. Rather, he suggests that even if we can’t literally see every camera, these people are constantly being surveilled in ways even they cannot see. The camera is ever-present in The Other Side of the Wind, even when we don’t see it.

In the latter moments, though, cameras are unavoidable. If the camera really is a phallus, you could call Hannaford’s birthday a sausage party. His house is filled with an amorphous panopticon, oozing through every hall like The Blob, intent on absorbing Hannaford. It’s interesting that, in the end, it doesn’t. The planned ending of the film would have had Hannaford kill himself by crashing his car through the screen of the drive-in where his film was playing. It’s a playfully provocative image, and it would have implied a final surrender to the onslaught of cameras, a last desperate act captured for eternity. The finished film doesn’t contain this shot, however. It was never filmed by Welles before his death. Presumably Bogdanovich and his collaborators either were reluctant to shoot new footage or found it too difficult to create the shot without the also-late John Huston.

Whatever the case may be, the absence of footage of Hannaford’s death in the final film could be seen as the man escaping from the oppressive pressure of all those viewfinders, rather than succumbing to their power in a public display. This is so antithetical to how we think of found footage that it’s kind of astonishing. An important aspect of the “bad ending” so many found footage films have is that we have to see it on camera. At the very least, as in The Blair Witch Project, we have to see the moment just before it happens. We get no such satisfaction in The Other Side of the Wind.

This positions The Other Side of the Wind as an anti-found footage film of sorts, but also as the most honest expression of what the form really means. Found footage purports to capture the truth of its subjects, with realism and a constantly open eye. But so often in these films we see people performing for the camera, putting on a persona that exists only because they know they are being filmed. The camera, which is supposed to capture truth, creates lies by its very nature. Welles saw in the medium what few other found footage films have ever comprehended. He understood how the presence of the camera generates falsehood in its subjects, and that if such a thing exists as actual truth, it cannot exist on film. The panopticon tried its best to capture Hannaford, but it could only see him as he performed, not as he was. The only truth we know about him is that he chose to die, and no camera sees that moment of choice. Even in Welles’ planned ending, we would only have seen the aftermath of that decision.

It’s hard to imagine where found footage would be if The Other Side of the Wind had come out on schedule. It’s possible that it wouldn’t have altered the genre’s history at all, or that it wouldn’t have been considered part of the same lineage as Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch Project. Maybe found footage wouldn’t be considered a genre at all, as its genesis would be untethered from horror. Maybe the found footage landscape would be completely different. But it does little good to speculate. The Other Side of the Wind is a 2018 film. It is here, it is now. It exists in the context of decades of found footage work, despite having been shot before all of them. It makes me wonder what Welles would think of all those films. Would he see the value in their use of the medium he surreptitiously invented? I can say only this with confidence: I bet he’d be glad that people know he got there first.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘Intolerance’

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Intolerance is a hard film to talk about, not merely because its complexities make it a difficult work to grapple with. In praising its innovation and influence, one can’t let go of the impetus of its creation. This was a passion project for director D.W. Griffith, though that descriptor doesn’t quite do justice to the fervor with which he pursued its completion. He nearly spent himself into bankruptcy funding the film, and its failure cast him into financial ruin. It was a story he needed to tell. It’s the reason he needed to tell it that distresses me.

Griffith’s best-known and most successful film is, of course, The Birth of a Nation, an monstrously racist work which the KKK credits with its own rebirth. Criticism of the film’s racism isn’t the result of historical analysis, though. In its own time, The Birth of a Nation was lambasted along the same lines. Griffith’s Intolerance is often misread as an apology for The Birth of a Nation, in its exploration of bigotry and persecution throughout human history. In reality, Griffith felt that his critics had completely misconstrued his work. He felt no need to apologize at all. Instead, Intolerance was intended as a response to people whom Griffith felt had been intolerant to him in calling The Birth of a Nation racist.

This is all beyond the text of the film, which means some people will happily discard it from their reading of Intolerance. I don’t begrudge anyone their personal perspectives, but I have some difficulty separating the history of the film with its content. This is especially considering the film’s insistence on centrist waffling despite what should be a distinct point-of-view. Griffith has little sense of how power dynamics color the conflicts he depicts. His intolerance is a mutual affair, with no oppressor or oppressed, only two feuding actors on equal footing.

We see this most clearly in the modern segment, which concerns the battle between capitalist bosses and their workers. In Griffith’s view, each side is as guilty of amorality and violence as the other. The protagonist of this segment, named only “The Boy,” is on no one’s side but his and his wife’s. He ceases to be a worker after a strike, moving to another city and turning to crime. Griffith shows him and his family being caught up in the conflict between bosses and workers. Neither side is fully right or fully wrong.

Griffith betrays his lack of understanding of the ideologies motivating the conflict. He sees it only through the individuals involved and their individual desires. And yet at the same time, everyone in this story is meant to represent a universal type. The Boy is just The Boy, no name of his own. His wife is The Dear One. Her father is The Dear One’s Father. Meanwhile, the villainous boss is given a name, suggesting his autonomy and unique position in the narrative. The Boy is every man, his boss is just Arthur Jenkins. Griffith fails to frame the boss as a part of larger structural violence and intolerance. He is an individual bad actor, nothing more.

The shame of the film’s ideological failings is that its cinematic innovations are so spectacular. The intercutting of various storylines set throughout history, all strung together by a common image (Lillian Gish as The Eternal Motherhood) is undeniably brilliant. Griffith was one of the first filmmakers to use editing to tell his story. With the simple juxtaposition of two disparate narratives, he draws connections and paints a much broader picture. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and few filmmakers since can be said to have experimented so daringly on such a massive scale. Intolerance became the basis for Soviet editing theory. I find this ironic considering the roots of that theoretical framework in Marxist dialectics and the film’s own lack of coherent ideology, but I digress. Whatever his moral failings, Griffith was a filmmaker of titanic importance and Intolerance completely altered the course of cinematic history. It’s too bad, then, that its reputation is tainted by both its director’s unapologetic racism and its own milquetoast perspective. It’s a perfect example of the ways in which film history is forever stained by wretched bigotry and, yes, intolerance.

Ko-Fi Request: ‘The New World’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

For all its retrospective acclaim, The New World is still seen as sort of a forgotten middle child in Terrence Malick’s career. It doesn’t have the hefty cultural cache of his first three films, nor the divisive experimental fervor of his last couple. In some ways, it’s the quintessential Malick work, even moreso than The Tree of Life. It represents the complete maturation of his early style, before he broke off into more avant garde filmmaking. It may be often highly ranked on lists of Malick’s filmography, but it’s tragically underdiscussed.

I was asked to watch the extended cut of the film by the patron who made the request. I’d never seen it before, and I think the film works much better at this length. This is a film to lose yourself in. You need to let it completely absorb you. A three-hour runtime allows for a dreamier drifting pace. It takes the pressure off of certain scenes and lets them run for as long as they need. I’m not sure of all the additions as I haven’t seen the original cut in a long time, but it certainly felt like the movie had more room to breathe in key sequences. There are long stretches with almost no spoken dialogue, only the typical mumbled narration.

I do want to talk briefly about the narration, which is perhaps Malick’s most consistent element. What I like about it here is how it seems to recede into the back of the sound mix. It’s not overpowering like narration is traditionally supposed to be. It fades into the background and becomes hard to make out. It’s like the characters are in the room with you rather than on screen, whispering in your ear. It almost becomes part of the score rather than part of the script, a hushed melody of words which you’re not meant to make out at all. When characters started to speak on-screen again I was always a little surprised. It made me long for a return to those moments of peace and simplicity, but of course taking us out of those moments is exactly the point. Malick draws a deliberate contrast and engineers that desire for return.

What’s interesting is that for as languid as the film’s pace can be, its editing is anything but. Cuts are fragmented and unstable, giving the film an alienating and disturbed feeling. A single close-up will be stitched together from several different takes, turning a consistent image into something much more disorienting. It’s an aspect of Malick’s style that’s sometimes forgotten. For as floaty and dreamlike as his films can be, he can just as easily invert this and become disaffected and discomposed.

This concerned me early on in this revisit as it concerns the Native American characters. Malick’s style as applied to them makes them seem alien and exotic in a disappointing but all too familiar way. It’s how Hollywood has treated them since the invention of the medium. Ultimately, however, I think Malick treats them with as much humanity and dignity as any of the white characters, who also are filmed and edited with that trademark slightly surreal style. After all, the title of the film ends up referring not to the pre-colonial America, but to England as experienced by Pocahontas. It’s their world that is depicted as strange and unfamiliar, with America depicted as a sort of hazy middle ground, at once a comfortable home for the Native Americans and a harsh and unforgiving territory for the colonists. Ultimately, though, I’m not qualified to say whether or not The New World depicts Native Americans respectfully.

All in all, I think The New World is one of Malick’s best films. It’s much improved by this longer cut. It makes me curious to see the longer rework of The Tree of Life he recently did for that film’s Criterion Collection release. I think it might also benefit from some more breathing room. It also made me wonder if maybe Malick should start taking longer breaks between movies again. If the result is something as sweeping as The New World, it’ll be worth the wait.

Ko-Fi Request: The Ups and Downs of ‘Hotel Monterey’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

Hotel Monterey, one of the earliest films by the great Chantal Akerman, is a work of establishing shots that establish nothing. It is an exhaustive catalog of small spaces within a whole that never becomes coherent. It is obsessed with symmetry, geometry, and the transformative power of the elevator. I absolutely loved it.

It’s also only an hour long, and that never hurts.

Let’s start by talking about those elevators. There are long stretches of Hotel Monterey which take place inside elevators as they move up and down the floors of the eponymous building. We see the hallway outside the elevator, then the door shuts, and moments later it opens again onto an entirely new location. Akerman seems fascinated with the visual trickery on display here. It’s almost like a magic trick, concealing one hallway and then (admittedly, without a magician’s flourish) revealing that a different one has taken its place. She also takes the reverse approach, showing people disappearing into elevators from an exterior position. These people are swallowed up by the spaces they inhabit, or else the spaces swallow themselves up in a strange ouroboros effect. The elevators are the subject of an image that can change it from within, barely motivated by human interaction. Akerman seems infatuated with the idea that an automated machine can have such radical influence on the visuals that ostensibly contain them.

But it isn’t all these ups and downs. With few other exceptions, the rest of the film is concerned with unchanging spaces within the hotel. Akerman’s images are solid, sturdy, completely motionless until the film’s final third. They seem to be held up by the hotel walls themselves, as though the slightest camera move would have them collapse. Even the tracking shots later in the film slide evenly up and down hallways, never turning or shifting away from a composition with two walls squarely on either side of the frame. There are frames within frames as well; subjects are set securely in small spaces between doorframes or corners, or inside a small wall mirror as in the film’s opening shot. They seem almost crushed by the images they inhabit. The few times we see people outside this constriction, they are still stuck in their seats by the will of the camera — and the filmmaker.

Despite the ambitions one might ascribe to it, the film makes no bones about the fact that the camera’s presence alters whatever it films. In one memorable moment, the elevator door opens and a woman begins to walk inside, only to see the camera (and, presumably, Akerman herself) and step back. These seemingly empty spaces are never truly empty. The camera’s presence makes it hard to appreciate them as such.

We must also contend with the fact that the pleasures of observing these spaces, with their attractive geometries and mostly unpopulated territories, comes only because of the way the camera constructs them. These rooms and hallways do not exist solely in the precise symmetrical angles Akerman shoots them in. The camera creates these perspectives. It takes a portion of each space and leaves the rest unseen. We see this most clearly in my favorite moment of the film. Akerman shoots a perfectly even hotel room, the bed exactly centered and the light nicely even. Then she cuts to the same room, but rearranged. The bed is shoved to the side, the lighting is more focused, a chair has been added, and a woman is sitting in it. The space has been totally disrupted in an instant. If not for the sequencing of the two shots, you probably wouldn’t even know it was the same room.

Akerman makes no judgement on the room’s reorganization. Is the second shot an attack on the desirable order of the first, or has it been made more approachable and alive by human intervention? It’s easy to assume, given the rest of the film, where Akerman’s preferences lie. But I’m not so certain. I get the feeling that there’s something disturbing to her about these balanced, empty spaces. There’s no score or narration in Hotel Monterey, which far from giving the film a neutral tone, induced a feeling of dread. These spaces are not natural. They squeeze the life out of their subjects. Even when we finally get some exterior shots near the end of the film, Akerman pulls back to show that she’s still inside the hotel. It’s like she’s trapped inside, desperate after an hour’s runtime to be let out.

Ko-Fi Request: The Unique Editing of ‘Speed Racer’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

For a film that was derided upon its release ten years ago for being childishly hyperactive and frantic, the Wachowski Sisters’ Speed Racer mostly lacks the element those words tend to describe. Whereas you’d normally expect a film like that to be edited to death—choppy and sloppy and too quick to see anything—the film rarely cuts at all. In place of the traditional cut, the Wachowskis use a technique I’ve never seen outside of Speed Racer.

In a manner suggesting a montage, foreground elements in a shot will slide across the frame, changing the background and slipping out of sight, leaving behind a new image. This is mostly used in dialogue scenes; one person will wipe across the screen and leave as they finish their line, in time for their scene partner to take command of the frame and begin to talk. It gives these scenes a sense of constant momentum. No one stands still in Speed Racer, they’re always flying across the screen. This, it goes without saying, is appropriate given the film’s subject matter. Speed Racer is always on the move.

But there’s something else I find interesting about Speed Racer’s editing. The visual symbiosis achieved by merging shots rather than sequencing them is (in Hollywood, at least) unique. Jean-Luc Godard would experiment with a similar style in Goodbye to Language, but this came years after the Wachowskis’ did it.

We’re all familiar with the language of editing, how meaning is communicated through the sequencing of disparate images. It’s easy to comprehend, because although our visual experience of the world is mostly unbroken, we can close our eyes and open them again to see something that wasn’t there before, and we understand that it’s impossible to both be looking at someone and see whatever they’re looking at simultaneously. The art of editing is an attempt to translate the act of seeing into something that can comprehensibly communicate a narrative. Editing works because it’s based on how we actually experience the world.

But not in Speed Racer. This film takes the craft and advances it beyond human capability. We see everything, all at once. The past, present, and future all fold on top of one another, different spaces collapse and merge. It’s like filmmaking from another dimension, or Cubism on screen. One single image, numerous perspectives, all commingling to give us a far fuller picture than traditional sequence editing ever could.

I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the entire critical establishment of 2008, but it’s clear to me that the majority of writers who dismissed the film out of hand back then only saw what they wanted to see. They refused to see the art in a film made for children, blinded themselves to the revolutionary experimentation in something so bright and candy-colored. Ten years on, I think that people are more willing (perhaps too willing, sometimes) to look for value in commercial art. Speed Racer was ahead of its time in more ways than one. Then again, I can’t help but wonder if this film was always destined to be resurrected and not received with open arms. Maybe it’s the kind of film that can only be looked back on, never appreciated in its time. Speed Racer is always looking to the future. Maybe one day we’ll catch up with it.

Ko-Fi Request: Tim Burton’s ‘Planet of the Apes’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

I have a personal announcement to make: I think I hate Tim Burton. I’ve never really thought much of his films, but I’ve never really felt much animosity towards them. Say what you will about the guy, but he executes on a specific vision that isn’t shared by his contemporaries. Succeed or fail, I thought, he’s no workaday hack. I thought. I thought.

Now, listen, I’m not typically interested in writing venomous, polemical film criticism. It’s just not my style. I don’t even tend to bother with films anymore unless I expect to get something out of them (or unless a family member drags me to them). So when you read this, don’t think of me as the kind of critic who takes pleasure in wailing and the gnashing of teeth. I’m just not that person.

That being said. Deep breath now. That being said…

Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes is atrocious. It’s emblematic of the problem with so many of his films — a series of vague visual ideas connected by absolutely nothing. There’s hardly any continuity in this film. Characters appear in different places between scenes with no clear idea of how they got there or how locations fit together. The world of Planet of the Apes is just a collection of sets, floating in an editing void. The film has no setting. It’s just sort of the idea of a setting, loose pieces of concept art stapled together out of order. This film is called Planet of the Apes. But it doesn’t feel like a planet at all.

And isn’t that reminiscent of almost every Burton film? He seems to come up with striking (to be generous) images in his mind and then fail to do the work of placing them in any context.

The only way to make sense of Planet of the Apes is if you’re at least aware of the story of the original. Burton abuses audience familiarity with the 60s version. It’s not just the copious references to that film, it’s the sophomoric way in which Burton presents them. Mark Wahlberg’s protagonist grabs the ankle of an ape only to be told, “Keep your filthy hands off me, you damn dirty human!” Charlton Heston pops up as an ape named Zaius (???) and gets to repeat his iconic “Damn them all to hell!” line. And then there’s the ending, which we’ll get to in a bit. Burton inverts all these callbacks as a way of excusing how lazy his remake is, as if to say, “See, it’s different from the original! See, we’re doing something new with this material!” It’s meant to activate the audience’s memories of the original and make them feel good for recognizing the reference. It’s the standard on which most modern mainstream cinema operates. In this way, I suppose, Planet of the Apes was ahead of its time.

The main way Burton’s remake leans on its predecessor is in the deployment of the twist. The original ended with the reveal that the titular planet was actually Earth all along, and that the hero had travelled not somewhere in space but far forward in time. In the remake, the planet is just a random uninhabited planet, where the hero’s space station crashed after he disappeared into a wormhole. The ape and human inhabitants of the station populated the planet, the apes became more advanced, and eventually they took over. The remake’s twist is deployed about halfway through, which feels like an acknowledgement that everyone goes into this film already knowing the truth. I do appreciate that they didn’t try to play it as an actual surprise.

But this film has a final twist of its own. Wahlberg escapes the planet in his space pod and flies back through the wormhole, only to arrive on a modern-day Earth ruled by, you guessed it, apes. When I saw this ending, I spit out my gum in shock that they actually tried to have it both ways. It’s only there as a visual callback to the original ending. It’s only there to remind you that the original exists, and that you like it. The cast of the film has publicly admitted that they can’t make sense of this ending, and neither can I. Burton has said that he intended to just figure out what it meant in the sequel, which was never made. Again we see him predict the model of contemporary blockbusters. If released today, this ending would probably have been a post-credits scene. There would’ve been an Apes Cinematic Universe, and Paul Giamatti’s nebbish and vaguely Jewish slaver character would’ve gotten his own solo film. We were at least spared this tragic fate. Planet of the Apes is a film out of time, but I’m glad it’s in the past where it belongs.

How God of War’s Long Take Experiment Fails, and How Editing In Games Can Succeed

There’s a running thread in the new game God of War, a reboot of a series that once exemplified the loud and frenetic action of mid-2000s entertainment, where main character Kratos finds himself unable to pat his son on the back. In classic rule-of-threes style, he twice reaches out his hand and then pulls back, and finally finds the strength to show his son some affection on the third try. But the game finds itself unable to treat this payoff with the weight that it’s due. There’s no close-up on Kratos’ hand, no insert shots of either of their faces reacting to this gesture, nothing that would suggest that this is a payoff at all. The camera just floats behind them, unfocused and untethered, prisoner to God of War’s self-imposed cinematography rule.

See, God of War doesn’t have any cuts. Applying terms of cinema to a medium that uses an entirely different set of tools is difficult, but in this context a lack of cuts indicates an image unbroken by loading screens or fades in and out of pre-rendered scenes. From the moment you start the game to the final credits, the virtual camera never turns off, flowing seamlessly from gameplay to cutscene and back again. That is, assuming you play the forty-plus-hour game all in one sitting without ever dying or pressing pause.

I’ve long been irritated by the single take as a cinematic trick. While it can be an effective dramatic emphasizer, the visual equivalent of underlining a scene, it’s too often used in film as a show-offy example of a director’s technical skill. “Look what we pulled off,” it seems to scream, while failing to actually say or show anything interesting. The interminable film Birdman is the worst example in recent memory, its “the whole film is one shot! gimmick” belied by its drab imagery and haughty story. It’s often a technical accomplishment, but rarely an artistic one.

Property of Santa Monica Studios

God of War isn’t even the first game in recent years to attempt this gimmick. The interconnected world of Dark Souls made it possible to play for hours on end without hitting a single loading screen or cutscene. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain pulled a similar trick to God of War, shooting most of its cutscenes in single takes and having them flow directly into gameplay. But Phantom Pain didn’t flow the opposite direction, from gameplay into cutscene, making it a half-measure compared to God of War. Phantom Pain’s cutscenes also ran in contrast to God of War’s staid and dull photography, with simple shot-reverse scenes composed with a madman’s abandon, running back and forth across the digital set and abusing the zoom function. Phantom Pain director Hideo Kojima’s next game, Death Stranding, has been advertised with one-shot trailers, indicating a return to or evolution of this style. A recent trailer for The Last of Us Part II is also in a single take. All of this foreshadows a trend in prestige game design which we probably won’t be able to shake for years to come. God of War’s sterling critical reception may be a sign that this is to become expected of games on this scale for the time being.

In a way, this is the promise of any open world game, and furthermore the promise of the past decade of AAA game trends; the ability to play freely uninterrupted by level segmentation or story cutscenes for as long as you want stands right alongside the single take. God of War stands alone for its commitment to the bit. Its promise to never ever cut away turns a cinematic gimmick into a back-of-the-box promo, right alongside “brutal action” and “a massive open world.” The game’s developer, Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, have taken their flagship franchise as the basis of a game design experiment.

And it doesn’t work.

Property of Santa Monica Studios

Part of this is down to the game’s story. It follows perpetually mad demigod Kratos and his son Atreus, on a journey to the top of the realm’s highest mountain to scatter the ashes of their wife and mother, respectively. It’s a deliberate 180 from the tone of previous entries in the series, which reveled in their protagonist’s barbaric violence. The Kratos of 2018’s God of War is melancholy and emotionally restrained. He still partakes in ferocious combat, but only in defense of himself and his son. The game seeks to overturn the series’ previously uncritical penchant for bloody murder and instead tell an intimate story about a grieving father and son.

The word “intimate” is key here, and it’s the main reason why the single take doesn’t really work in God of War. The cut is a powerful tool in creating empathy. In connecting two disparate images, an emotional bond is created between them in the viewer’s mind. God of War is a game entirely about an emotional bond between two people. Why would you willingly give up the cut in attempting to tell that story? There are so many moments in just the first hour of the game when an inserted reaction shot or reverse angle or wider view could’ve enhanced the drama and emotional impact of a scene, but the game is shackled by a camera that can do nothing but hover listlessly around the central figures. It flattens the the emotion of every scene, turning what might have been genuinely touching moments into dull and banal ones.

The above sequence from early in the game gives a good overview of what the technique looks like, as well as showing off a sneaky problem caused by the refusal to cut. Near the end here, we see Atreus being attacked in the background of a shot, and Kratos in the foreground. Atreus calls out for Kratos, and it takes a couple beats before Kratos responds in any way. With editing, the scene could have gotten closer to Atreus in what ends up being an important moment for him, while letting enough time pass during that shot for Kratos to finish his struggle with the bandit and immediately respond. As it stands, we’re too far removed from Atreus, and Kratos’ delayed reaction feels awkward.

There are also simple logistical issues that cutting could have solved. In one scene, Kratos fixes the strap of Atreus’ quiver. But since Kratos is quite a bit bigger than Atreus, he physically blocks his son from the camera’s view. We can’t see what he’s doing at all, nor can we see Atreus’ reaction to his father’s little teachable moment. There are a shocking number of moments like this, where the camera struggles to capture all of a scene’s relevant information without cutting to show specifics in isolation. This leads to bizarre instances where the camera will shift in and out of Kratos’ point-of-view to make sure the audience gets a good look at whatever the game wants them to see. If this is to be the future of AAA game design, someone should at least teach these people about blocking. The scene linked below shows this off well, though it’s from late in the game so beware of SPOILERS.

Furthermore, making the entirety of God of War a single take removes the capability of distinguishing certain bits from one another. Action beats can’t stand on their own because they’re blended together with slower and quieter interludes that would normally keep them separate to help them stand out. The ostensible intention is to put the player fully in Kratos’ perspective, but the inherent limitations of the form prevent the full one-to-one connection that this seeks. There’s a reason why tools like editing exist, and it’s to shepard the audience’s perspective towards the intention of a work. Abandoning these tools is a step backwards, not forwards.

Then there’s the issue of the blend between cutscene and gameplay. The action in God of War is relentlessly vicious, with Kratos and Atreus taking on everything from ten-foot trolls to colossal dragons to skyscraping giants. Normally, a game like this would allow the player some breathing room between these fights. But God of War is incapable of truly separating its uptime from its downtime. Its loudest and quietest moments just sort of blend together into an indistinct mush. The game can’t draw any real contrast between them because they’re all forced to be part of the same single image.

All of this is in addition to the fact that, as alluded to at the beginning of this article, a single take game is never going to function as such in practice. God of War has a pause button where you can do things like read up on the world’s various enemies and change Kratos’ gear. Checking these menus cuts away from the otherwise “unbroken” image to show something entirely different. And it’s not like you’re not going to be pausing regularly. The game constantly pops up little text boxes imploring you to check some new detail that’s been added to your journal—a new quest, a new monster, a new bit of lore.

Not to mention the fact that God of War is a loot game, meaning that you’re constantly changing the gear that Kratos has equipped as you pick up new items. It’s also possible for Kratos to die in combat, which causes a cut to black and another cut back to the most recent checkpoint. Even playing on the easiest difficulty, I died several times over the course of my run through the game. There’s also the game’s length to consider. God of War took me around 30 hours to complete, over the course of several days. It is interminably long, even for a release of this magnitude. It’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to finish this game in a single sitting without pausing or dying, but that’s the only way to experience it as a single take. It really only exists in single take form in theory. The most the average player will get out of this experiment is a lack of loading screens during their multiple sessions with the game.

Oh, and by the way, the game cheats.

I’m not going to make any grand pronouncements about whether or not the single take can ever work in games. God of War doesn’t bode well for the technique’s future, but I can’t say that there’ll never be a game that figures out how to do it well. What I can say, however, is that editing is an art that games should really engage with more frequently. When they do, the results are often fantastic.

Older games used to make more frequent use of editing, due primarily to technical limitations. One of my favorite examples is the original Resident Evil. The game has you exploring a spooky mansion that’s been beset upon by zombies. As you move through the 3D space, the game cuts to different fixed angles to better show you the surrounding area. This is used for more than just practical effect. You’ll be running down a hallway when you hear an ominous groan, only for the game to cut to an angle that shows a zombie bearing down on you. These camera placements, full of melodramatically canted angles, were terrifically gothic, taking inspiration from silent horror cinema as much as classic zombie fare. But they could only be so effective because the camera didn’t have a full range of motion. A single-take Resident Evil would’ve forfeited these images.

For a more recent example of editing in games, we can look at Firewatch,. Unlike God of War, Firewatch has no cutscenes and is experienced from a first-person perspective. You are always in control of main character Henry as he explores the state forest where he’s taken up a job as a fire lookout. The beginning of the game cuts between short bits of Henry travelling to his outpost for the first time and text-based flashbacks of the events that led him there. When you first play the game, you’re unaware of where Henry is headed or who he even is. As the text segments flesh out his backstory and lead him to the moment when he accepted the job, the player walks Henry further and further into the woods, committing to the work more with each step. It’s not until the sequence ends that you realize the terrible choice Henry made by coming out here, but by that point it’s too late. You’ve already propelled him to his new fate. The intercutting here is genius. You think you’re moving Henry towards something right up until the moment you realize he’s really running away. It’s a revelation that only exists because of editing.

Property of Campo Santo

NieR: Automata’s editing is probably the boldest I’ve seen in any game. It splits the player’s time between different playable characters. You play through the first half of the game with one of them, then again with another. This separation can be thought of as a sort of cut, a distinguishing line drawn between two distinct images, with new meaning born from their contrast. This almost recalls the dialectical origins of film editing itself. Where things get really interesting is in the second half, when the time spent with each character before switching off gets shorter and shorter, until finally the cuts back and forth come at such a rapid pace that the two characters seem to blend into one. This contributes so much to the fabulous tension of the game’s final act.

I’m not optimistic for the future of the single-take game. Most players and critics have fallen so hard for it that it’ll surely pop up again in major releases for years to come. Maybe there’ll be a game to crack the code, a game that’ll find a place between Phantom Pain’s frantic nonsense and God of War’s styleless dullery. But I’d much rather see games learn to make use of editing techniques than try to master a challenge with so little reward. I just don’t see any good reason to make your game in a single shot. And if there is one, God of War didn’t find it.