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Water droplet Part 1 - Book-ends   Part 2 - Pull-focus   Part 3 - Reflections   Part 4 - Left to Right is Right   Part 6 - Washington D.C.

PURE CINEMA -  a look at moments of cinematic technique that epitomise the unique, artistic and poetic quality of film-making.

In this series freelance film-lecturer Derek Wilson writes about magic moments from cinema old, and new.

Part 5 - Of Time and the Movies: Pan left to the past

How to get back to the past is a question which has exercised the inventiveness not just of sci-fi enthusiasts but of film-makers. Mysteries are the very stuff of movies. Who? What? Where? When? and Why? are asked in our heads countless times as we watch a narrative unfold; solving the problems of the present often requires us to go back to the causes – to find out whodunit for example. Directors have over the years used many ways to shift time from ‘present’ to ‘past’. Many are familiar: fade to black; flashbacks; optical effects like shimmering or rippling screens; graphic matching on faces with a dissolve creating the transition backwards and forwards, etc.

John Sayles, the American producer/ writer/ director/editor, always has an imaginative way with a camera. Lone Star (1996). Set in Texas, on the border with Mexico, one of the themes of the film is the changing borders between peoples: black, white, Mexican. That’s the political/social setting for the film; the main narrative concerns a mysterious death in the past, one which needs ‘journeys’ to the past -through the memories of characters - for us and the main protaganist, the local sheriff and son of a legendary sheriff, to understand the mystery.

The often-used term ‘flashback’ is really inappropriate for the way Sayles handles scenes between different time periods. ‘Driftback’ might better describe them. The camera pans slowly to the left to the past, perhaps to a younger version of a character just seen. Several times the setting for present and past is the same – the river, a bar, a restaurant - so what is required is to focus on a close-up on an object in the ‘present’ before someone from the past comes into the shot, always with a proper motivation. At the end of the memory Sayles takes us back to the present by a simple camera movement, often a brief pan to the right, revealing a character from the present.

Later he uses a simple dissolve as a character recalls for the investigating sheriff, a scene from the past happening in a local bar. At the end of the scene we are in the bar, in the past and then, by a small shift to the right, back in the present with the sheriff carrying on his investigation. The time-shifts seem seamless and of course relate perfectly to the theme of borders; personal, national and racial barriers appear to be disintegrating as quickly as the border between past and present. The past is always with us in some form and, the film seems to suggest, the truth of the past is more important than the legend. And if it reminds us of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), I’m sure it’s no accident.

Internet Movie Database entry for Lone Star   |   Wikipedia entry for Lone Star   |   Richard Armstrong writes about John Sayles   |   Internet Movie Database entry for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance   |  

Pure cinema: Part 1 - Book-ends   Part 2 - Pull-focus   Part 3 - Reflections   Part 4 - Left to Right is Right  Part 6 - Washington D.C.

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