How John Cassavetes Uses Space & Expert Camera Work to Make You Feel Seduced

What can space, or the lack thereof, communicate to your audience?

If you're a master of camerawork like John Cassavetes it can say a whole hell of a lot. In this video essay, Fandor's Kevin B. Lee examines spacial relationships in the director's first feature film Shadows (1959), revealing how the indie icon uses space to establish the emotional states of two characters. Check it out below:

Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/139866140

One of the great takeaways from the video is this idea of what I'll call "behavioral shots", and the one used as an example from Shadows is, according to Lee, a seduction.

It's easy to recognize a character acting seductively, but how do you recognize or construct a shot that is doing the same? Well, look at what Cassavetes and his DP Erich Kollmar do in the example. There are a lot of expertly crafted cinematic techniques used in the sequence, but let's take a look at the movement in the first shot. 

The two subjects are in the shot together for a moment, then the woman walks away and stands alone within the frame for a time until the man enters. They then move across the screen, leading us further into the room, together, again and again, more swiftly as their romance and passion begins to increase.

Essentially, Cassavetes treats the camera as a body, or more precisely, an extension of the man's body. This is especially tangible as the two move quickly across the screen at the 1 minute mark -- you can almost feel the push, the force of his face, the pressure of his body. (Have you ever lost your stomach watching a Front Row POV roller coaster video? Same general idea.) The space is not only used to communicate that these two characters are engaged in an awkwardly sexy game of cat and mouse, but it's also used to pull us into the space, forcing us to participate -- chasing us.

Perhaps the lesson here, if you choose to try to apply these advanced techniques in your own films, is that you can use space, blocking, kinetic energy, and lighting to do more than just help your audience ascertain relationships between subjects within the diegesis. You can get your audience involved, get them to participate -- and not just because of the drama unfolding on the screen, but because the movements of your camera are almost palpable.     

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2 Comments

Thank you soooo much for this. I re-watched this film a few months ago and it just insanely thrilled me all over again. And yet I'm so mystified as to why? It's a clunky, grainy, amateurish film right? But there's a lot going on underneath as this commentary/analysis shows. So helpful. This is a total testament to how film if subtly done is akin to deep hypnosis and wizardry.

September 27, 2015 at 11:33AM

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This is mesmerizing. Thanks for the insight.

September 27, 2015 at 1:49PM

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Sean Voysey
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