The latest blog post by David Bordwell (‘They’re looking for us‘, 19 September 2008) treats the important issue of the reaction shot, a film technique which provides ‘one of the most enjoyable and arousing dimensions of cinematic storytelling’.
Bordwell’s post is, as usual, a remarkable, and beautifully illustrated, piece of digital scholarship which takes us, very entertainingly, from a contemporary example of a reaction shot (drawn from the 2007 film Music and Lyrics, directed by Marc Lawrence), and working thus in the context of what Bordwell considers intensified continuity editing; through Steven Spielberg‘s Jaws (1975), John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986), Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), and Carol Reed‘s The Third Man, ending up with Road Warrior (1981, aka Mad Max II, directed by George Miller).
Bordwell’s impressive tour of this technique explores the many ways in which the reaction shot instructs us ‘in how to respond to the fictional world as a whole’, as well as cognitive, or neuroscientific, theories of how ‘Reaction shots may gain their strength from not merely our ability to understand facial expressions but the power of facial expressions to trigger in us an echo of the emotion displayed.’
Bordwell concludes his highly informative and enlightening post with characteristic modesty: ‘There’s much more to say about the reaction shot’. He’s right, of course: we might ‘want as well to talk about films that withhold information about characters’ reactions—by using enigmatic or ambiguous reaction shots, or by eliminating reaction shots altogether’. ‘ But it is really difficult to imagine saying anything more, or saying anything in a more illuminating way, in under 2,750 words. With their blog Observations on film art and Film Art, Bordwell, and Kristin Thompson, his partner and frequent co-writer, have very much perfected the art of concise and scholarly digital communication.
We must be very thankful, thus, that both of them came to be inspired by the possibilities for the creation and dissemination of new film scholarship which are offered by the internet, in general, and by weblogging, in particular. There’s a great podcast in which Bordwell talks about this very topic (recorded in January 2007), which is very much worth checking out. It’s accessible HERE at Zoom in Online (be warned that you have to endure a short advert, and not-the-best audio quality, though).
[Note added on September 8, 2008: Check out a fascinating, subsequent post on reaction shots – ‘Non-Reaction Shots’ on the great blog IScreen Studies, by Ben Goldsmith, who reacts very productively indeed to Bordwell’s thoughts]