Capturing history

I just finished the John Adams HBO series. Narratively, I loved it. The storytelling focused on the relationships of the people involved, which was the right tone to take. I feel, and I think it’s a common thing, that the biggest curiosity about the birth of the United States is to imagine what these people must have been thinking. Did they understand what they were doing? Did they realize the importance, the historical significance of it? How did they behave in their daily interactions, moving forward as they were into a new and ambiguous world that had previously only been conjured in books. (At least, for the most part.)

The series captured this by focusing on conversations — between John and Abigail, John and Thomas Jefferson… Franklin, Hamilton, et al. Of course, presenting this is a huge leap in conjecture and speculation. We can’t know. (And it was interesting that this was alluded to in the script, through Adams’ ruminations about his eventual place in history.) But whatever the mixture of fiction and fact, it did make for an interesting post-imagining.

Having said that… The cinematography pissed me off. I don’t know who’s decision it was — director Tom Hooper or famed DP Tak Fujimoto — but the choice to violate every aesthetic principle of photography was a bad idea. First was the constant canting of the camera. Why skew the landscape when there’s no tension? It’s a frigging landscape shot. But they also did it indoors, as if they were trying to compensate for bad blocking by tilting the camera. Then there were the voyeuristic POV shots, with the camera hidden behind lattice-work or a chair or a fence, as if someone’s about to be assassinated at any second. Finally, we got just badly framed shots, where someone’s hanging off screen right with a blank wall on screen left. Here I am trying to follow the story — follow the actors moving through the story — and I’m constantly distracted by cutesy camera work.

This is all entirely purposeful. So you have to ask why. Is it that they didn’t believe in the strength of the story or in their actors? There are reasons for these kinds of tricks of the camera. They’re to be preserved for moments of tension or narrative ambiguity. Using them for a simple conversation is overkill. It’s equivalent to using Hitchcock’s zoom-in-dolly-out Vertigo effect for a shot of a man reading the newspaper, or booming reverb on the voices during a conversation about one’s weekend. It’s silly. It’s overproduction and overthinking.

Anyway, great job actors and writers. Crew? Chill out, please.


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