movies in my head

When I was a little kid I became enamoured with the camera tracking shot – that particular kind that moves along over the landscape or cityscape, as when the lens is pointed through a car or train window.  My earliest recollection of noticing a shot like that was seeing what was probably a National Film Board flick in some grade school classroom.  I don’t remember anything else about the movie, just that continuous image of a roadside unfolding out the side of a moving car.  And many times over my lifetime I’ve looked out a car or train window and imagined my eyes were a camera like that, recording a ribbon of land, every now and then settling on some random image before it moves off out of range. 

Maybe it’s what that kind shot was meant to achieve that captured my imagination – along with whatever road trip, running away or rambling was going on in the movie, there was also the implication of thinking; some kind of mental moving forward, moving away or moving on.  And it was like a character could suspend him or herself outside everything and pause to contemplate there, while the world rolled on beyond the window.  There is a restfulness in such a shot – but also the suggestion that a character is wrestling with something internally – that there is change happening beneath the surface.

That amateur theory would make sense applied to one of my favourite movies from the 1970s, The Last Waltz, which was filmed during a time when these kinds of shots were in vogue, and by a director who made a number of really famous tracking shots, Martin Scorsese.  The movie opens with the camera following the sidewalk around the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, along which stands a long line people quietly waiting to see the final performance of The Band.  With the rambly moving image of a beat up part of town, Scorsese creates a melancholy setup for the film.  Sounds from the final moments of the concert and The Band coming on for a final encore build up as the camera meanders along.  

The movie would go on to show members of The Band telling stories of ‘life on the road’ and their reasons for wanting to end it.  And thus the opening shot conveys the contemplation of an “ending” – but also an “unfolding” of new directions.  The shot gets the viewer thinking about where this band has been and what’s next, and asks the same questions about popular music in general. 

Of course I didn’t think about anything like that when I was a kid and sat there watching that scene in the NFB film.  It just appealed to a thoughtful, sometimes dreamy kid who even then took a lot of pleasure in observing the world around her. 

This morning I looked out the window during an above-ground leg of my train journey and once again imagined my eyes were recording that rambling tracking shot of the city outside.  And it occurred to me that maybe this long moving scene of a world is something my subconscious has been connecting to all along – finding the images and events that provoke thought and understanding.  And it’s always been the random ones that seemingly come out of nowhere that I’ve loved best.


  1. Reply
    Mike November 16, 2010

    reminds me of a favorite ear movie… and the magic of passing cars, passing planes, passing time…

  2. Reply
    Jennifer November 16, 2010

    Beautiful. Thanks Mike.

  3. Reply
    Susannah November 17, 2010

    I was thinking as I read this, how your writing is like a verbal example of the camera tracking shot.
    You tell rather than show, but through your telling we see the images, the landscape of your stories pass in front of our eyes.
    I often say ‘thanks for letting me come along’ when I read you, and in that way your writing has a cinematic quality to it.
    I often become so emersed in the scenery of your words, that I forget I am ‘reading’ because in my head I am watching the movie unfold. 🙂

  4. Reply
    Jennifer November 17, 2010

    Thank you Susannah – to say that my words unfold like a movie is a wonderful compliment. I was thinking of taking the idea of the tracking shot along whenever I write and seeing how it can enhance the feel of it. xo

  5. Reply
    Cathy November 17, 2010

    I remember getting my first ‘walkman’ when I was in college.. I would be riding the bus to wherever, and would pick songs that would *go with* that moving landscape.. sort of creating a music video in my head during my journey. I still do that.. and often, when I hear a new song will note, in my own head of course, if it would be a good travelling song..

  6. Reply
    willow November 17, 2010

    Oh, me, too. I love to take a road trip for this very reason. Wonderful post, Jennifer.

  7. Reply
    Jennifer November 17, 2010

    Way cool sis. Isn’t it amazing how much the imagination enriches our lives?

  8. Reply
    Jennifer November 17, 2010

    LOVE the roadtrip too Willow. Thank you.

  9. Reply
    Selma November 17, 2010

    I agree that you have a very visual style. I can often SEE what you are writing about. But OMG are you sure we are not the same person because that tracking shot – I am obsessed with that. I have actually made a short film based entirely around that shot. It is a bit avant garde but it references what you mention about random images and events provoking understanding. The roadtrip rules!

  10. Reply
    Donald Kinney November 17, 2010

    I like movies with inside scenes from moving trains — I love watching the scenery go by.

  11. Reply
    Jeff Griffiths November 17, 2010

    For the past 2 or 3 weeks I have been thinking of when I sat in the back seat of our station wagon as my father drove. I would watch the shadow of the car on the roadside and pretend I was riding my bike exactly where the shadow landed. Over culverts, up embankments, I’d do monster wheelies, jumps, flips. I loved it.
    A tracking shot. My imagination had a ball…and I wasn’t fighting with my sisters.
    Jennifer, your writing always pulls me down a road to somewhere I need to be.

  12. Reply
    Jennifer November 18, 2010

    I would LOVE to see that film! I shot some video of a drive my father took my sis and daughter and me on the Slash Road on Manitoulin Island last summer. But now I have no idea what to do with all those mgs!

  13. Reply
    Jennifer November 18, 2010

    There sure is something about a train, eh Donald?

  14. Reply
    Jennifer November 18, 2010

    Oh wow the station wagon. There is a small segment of the population that could talk about the view from the back of one of those things.
    The view from the back of your dad’s station wagon is rich Jeff. It brought back all sorts of stories in me.
    Thanks. And really, I’m honoured.

  15. Reply
    Poetikat November 19, 2010

    I used to take a bus from Erindale College to the U of T campus downtown, every day for a year and I would play Baroque music on my walkman. I still associate the landscape and cityscape passing by with Corelli and Albinoni and a few others. (There was also that bump on the Gardiner Expressway coming into downtown.)
    Very perceptive post. I still have yet to see, “The Last Waltz”, but I’ve heard great things about it.

  16. Reply
    Jennifer November 19, 2010

    Love that little story Kat! I could so apply a soundtrack to some old, worn routes of my past.
    I saw The Last Waltz when it was released in theatres when I was a teen. It was the first and only time I ever hitchiked, with my pal Lynn and a bunch of her friends. I was enchanted with the movie then, and revisited it in my twenties. Since then, I’ve watched it probably twice a year. It never gets tired!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *