Increasingly popular in both Hollywood and global art cinema within the last twenty years, a “follow shot” is a camera movement technique that follows a human figure on foot from behind. Such shots can be found across a range of individual films and filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick, to the Dardenne brothers and Bela Tarr, to Darren Aronofsky and Barry Jenkins. My video essay considers two films in particular that conspicuously explore the aesthetic possibilities of the follow shot: Alan Clarke’s TV film Elephant (1989) and Gus Van Sant’s 2003 feature film of the same title, clearly an homage to its predecessor. Unlike the host of recent films that feature the technique, these two films make the follow shot a core structuring principle, creating what might be called a follow-shot aesthetic. Though neither film is composed entirely of these shots, and even the follow shots themselves are subject to variation (such as moments in which the camera abandons its rear position), both films exhibit a uniquely sustained interest in the follow shot. At the heart of my project is a question about how the follow-shot aesthetic informs each film’s politically charged reenactment of real-life instances of violence. Viewed as companion pieces, these two films together present a mystery at the intersection of content and form: what does the follow shot have to do with each film’s reflection on problems of violence and representation?
The aim of my video essay is not so much to solve this mystery but to dwell within it. Before making the piece, I had written an article-length essay that tried to provide a step-by-step account of what “solving” that mystery might look like. There, I examined how the formal properties of the follow shot—the camera’s forward movement, its denial of the subject’s face, and its sense of being tethered to its subject—are crucial to each film’s meditation on violence and human agency. I argued that by visually emphasizing the forward movement of its subjects while denying access to their interiorities (via the face), the follow shot attunes its viewers to the subject’s agency as a sense of pure towardness devoid of psychological insight, an effect I called “trajectivity” (borrowing the neologism from Paul Virilio). As distinct from “trajectory”—the path taken by an object in space—trajectivity is precisely the sense of being oriented toward a direction. It is a being-toward rather than a subject in pursuit of an object. Motivated by nothing else but the forward movement of the subject that pulls us along, the follow shot has the unique capacity to heighten our attunement to the purely trajective aspect of human agency that is prior to psychological motivation. Thus, what countless critics recognized as each film’s stance on the human atrocities they reenact—that the cause or motivation of such atrocities cannot be pinpointed, explained, or rationalized—was in fact directly manifested in the follow shot’s trajective aesthetic: the way the camera follows behind violent agents grants us a depiction of violent actions without articulating etiological insights, revealing psychological motivations, or producing narrative pleasures.
While the video essay partly reproduces the key questions and terms of these arguments, my aim was to use the possibilities of videographic criticism to create an experience that would capture the mood and feeling of trajectivity without merely rehearsing the philosophical concepts that undergird it. Much of this mood was created not only through the steady, plodding arpeggios of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”—a piece of music featured prominently in Van Sant’s film—but also through the use of multiple screens depicting different iterations of the follow shot. When a surfeit of such shots overloads the screen, what emerges is a heightened awareness of the shared structures underlying the technique on display. (Such a reflexive effect is similar to but distinct from the trancelike effect of stitching together a montage of follow shots, as is perhaps best demonstrated by Brian Carroll’s hypnotic supercut “Keep on Walking.”) Instead of particular characters within particular narrative situations, what we become attuned to as our attention scatters across multiple screens are the phenomenological properties of the follow shot as a visual form: a general forwardness, towardness, and tetheredness.
My use of the arrow (e.g. “A-->B”) as a typographic motif further encapsulates the generality of forwardness and towardness. In each film, we are made to suspend the expectation—so ingrained through classical Hollywood narration—that if the protagonist must get from location A to B as part of the narrative action, it would be unthinkable to show the character making the entire journey. What matters in classical narration are events and actions, the endpoints of the journeys rather than the integrity of the space and time between those points. The trajective aesthetic of the follow shot reverses this expectation. A and B drop out in favor of the arrow—that is, the propulsive force, the sense of towardness—that bridges them.
In striving to make palpable these fundamental aspects of Clarke and Van Sant’s follow-shot aesthetic, my interest is not to perform a “close reading” of the shots that I examine—that is, to identify meanings corresponding to the formal details of mise-en-scene, camera placement, and performance in each of the shots —but rather to visually convey the general phenomenological structures shared across the distinct iterations of the technique. As such, one consequence of this mode of inquiry is a lack of attention to the formal and contextual particularities that distinguish each film’s use of the follow shot as well as each instance of the follow shot. What I’m attempting, then, is to distill the most basic elements of the follow shot: what it feels like to move through the world of a film while anchored to a subject’s forward movement and yet be restricted to a view behind them. Only by first feeling these properties of the follow shot can we begin to attend to the difficult questions about the technique’s relation to violence, human agency, and cinematic form that are investigated across these companion films.
- Jordan Schonig
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Barker, Jennifer M. and Adam Cottrel. 2015. “Eyes at the Back of His Head: Precarious Masculinity and the Modern Tracking Shot.” Paragraph 38, no. 1: 86-100.
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Johnson, Kenneth. 1993. “The Point of View of the Wandering Camera.” Cinema Journal 32 (2): 49–56.
Seitz, Matt Zoller. 2009. “On the Creepy Alluring Art of the Follow Shot.” The L Magazine. http://www.thelmagazine.com/2009/06/following/ Last accessed March 3 2017.
Sobchack, Vivian. 1982. “Toward Inhabited Space: The Semiotic Structure of Camera Movement in the Cinema.” Semiotica 41: 317–335.
Thomson, David. 1993. “Walkers in the world: Alan Clarke.” Film Comment, 29:3, 78–83.
Virilio, Paul. 1997. Open Sky. Translated by Julie Rose. New York: Verso.