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.