Better Call Saul – Expert Camera Work

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One of the better things I’ve heard somebody say recently was that “storytelling is telepathy.” I was listening to this interview with a young screenwriter and he summoned those [likely not too famous] words from author Stephen King. I enjoy the odd logic of the statement, though – somebody writes the words down, and then we absorb them when we read them and create the story in our minds. We don’t just absorb them; we become a part of the story. The inert symbols on the page, black ink on white paper, become images in our imaginations. We assign voices and details, interpretations and emotions, to the tune of elegant simplicity – black ink on white paper.

We’ve been doing it since the birth of civilization.

Cinema, a decidedly modern method of storytelling, is a little different. It’s all more specific. The images, the look of the characters and the sound of their voices – these things have all been chosen for us, by a director. In many ways, we can describe reading as more of a ‘participatory’ form of storytelling – we have to use our imaginations and help co-author the story being told – and watching film & television as more of a ‘passive’ form of storytelling. This is why we associate books with intellect and television with laziness.

This is a false dichotomy.

Good storytelling, either in print or telecast, motivates the reader (or audience member) to make decisions. Good storytelling on the screen is the kind of storytelling that rewards the audience for paying attention – to color palettes, symbolism, narrative structure, foreshadowing, and character development/evolution. Most of us recognize these things, even if we aren’t looking for them or actively thinking about them. Television shows in the last several years, it should also be noted, have achieved a level of quality and substance that rivals most mainstream feature films.

In many ways, the television series allows storytellers to exercise their talents in a way that feature film could never allow. Can a ninety minute film accomplish as much as a sixteen episode season (or an entire series)? Of course not. A television series has more time to introduce an ensemble of characters, establish their unique and individual qualities – their challenges, their strengths, their shortcomings – and bring the circumstance of their lives into clear and cutting focus.

Better Call Saul is a wonderful example of long-form story-telling. It’s one of the reasons that it’s so beloved (and simultaneously so under-appreciated, because of it’s painful rarity) in the television world. It is incredibly ‘literate’ in its approach, each episode a small little piece of a morality play, each episode a small little piece of a bigger puzzle. The most recent episode, to my mind, is one of the greatest examples of cinema-quality film-making applied to a television series, specifically because of how the opening scene is shot, choreographed, and cut.

The entire first sequence follows a refrigerated truck – presumably smuggling narcotics – across the US-Mexico port of entry. Using one camera operator, three different vehicles, and a steady-cam, the establishing shot is achieved in one single, sustained, three-plus minute shot. A ballet of vehicles and extras – law enforcement, truck drivers, perpetrators, and K-9 units – swirl around the scene. The camera glides through and captures this scene without a single cut. The trick of trying to cram non-narrative story into a long, sustained, uncut shot is as old as film itself, but rarely is it accomplished with such extraordinary finesse. The longer the camera can reveal an unfolding narrative, the less the audience is motivated – whether consciously or unconsciously – to question its authenticity. That’s because real life – our true, moment-to-moment lives – aren’t cut from angle-to-angle, perspective-to-perspective, over one shoulder and then <whack> over another shoulder. The longer the scene can go without an edit, the more we are seduced, as audience members, to believe it.

If you haven’t hopped aboard the Better Call Saul bandwagon, I suggest you give it a day in court – pun intended. Following the ‘cartel mule-truck through the port’ scene – an extraordinary achievement in television film-making – I can’t wait to see what other cards the show-runners are hiding up their sleeve.

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Other films with remarkable tracking shots (nope, can’t think of any other television shows):

  1. Boogie Nights – The opening scene starts outside the night club, tracks into the club, snakes through the seating area and onto the dance floor, and winds back out. Every single major character in the film has at least one spoken line of dialogue and the scene lasts roughly ten minutes (a so-called ‘full-film-magazine’). It is insane when you consider how hard it must have been to choreograph this.
  2. Irreversible – This is the film that can’t be un-seen. It’s one of the most grotesque and challenging-to-watch films ever made, with Gaspar Noe at the helm. The film is replete with slight-of-hand cuts (paving the way for Birdman, but taking it’s inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope) that give the illusion of long cuts, including the devastating brawl at the gay sex club in the first scene. But it’s the sexual assault scene in the middle of the film, in a dark roadway underpass, that is truly shocking. The camera sits like a fly on the wall. The graphic content of the scene makes it all-the-more uncomfortable for the audience, that the camera never blinks, never looks away, never cuts to something less awful than the brutal violation right in front of it. It’s easy to forget that this is just a movie, watching this scene. It’s hard to remember that it’s not real, that this isn’t in fact a true-to-life snuff film. This is one of the most amazing films ever made, but it comes with an asterisk – not for the weak of heart.
  3. Children Of Men – I’m not even a fan of this film. The premise is outlandish, with little or no real time spent on trying to explain how or why the characters live in a world where women simply can’t get pregnant. The idea itself is compelling, but the details are glossed-over and we’re expected to just accept that, yeah, this is the world of this film. Women ain’t gettin’ pregnant. World’s gonna end. Bummer, dude.
    Nevertheless, there is a moment in an embattled urban area, tanks creaking into the streets, in which the protagonist walks through mortar fire and military vehicles, through throngs of people, to bear witness among a huddled gathering of resistance fighters, to an infant child. The camera follows him through the streets, around tanks, amid explosions and hordes of civilians battling military personnel. The camera never cuts, and the scene is undeniably, tear-inspiringly beautiful. It’s a shame that it’s embedded in what, to me, is a muddled mess of a film. But it’s one brilliant piece of film-making nonetheless.

Can you think of any long-cuts that should be added to the pantheon? Let me know in the comments.

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