It is interesting to envision Art History in terms of inventions. Of course, one could argue that a work of art is not simply about inventing new techniques but also to be able to use those techniques to the content of this work, however we could approach the problem in a Spinozist way which does not differentiate the soul and the body, and therefore here, between the means and the essence. Studying Art History by focusing on inventions is therefore interesting in what new emotions it allows to communicate.
After this general introduction, I am interested in observing more specifically the invention that Spike Lee invented for Cinema. The principle is pretty simple, filming an actor standing on the dolly on which the camera is set and effectuating a back traveling shot that makes the actor immobile but the setting around moving (see the short video in Clockers) . The main effect produced is the feeling that the actor is floating and moved by an external force.
With this process, Spike Lee manages to communicate different emotions that take over the character whose body has no choice but to obey to an irresistible force that push him (her) forward.
In Malcolm X, the character of Denzel Washington is pushed by the fatal history when he goes to give the speech during which he will be assassinated. In Clockers, a young drug dealer is moved by its loss of control of a situation that drives the kid that helps him to shoot a man in front of him. In the 25th Hour, both Anna Paquin and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s characters are subjected to a state of drunkenness that bring her to seduce him and him to kiss her despite the fact that she is his 17 years old student. Eventually, in Inside Man, Denzel Washington again, as an hostage negotiator and calm for the whole first part of the movie, is moved by a virulent anger when one of the hostage he is responsible of has been shot by Bank robbers.
There are more Spike Lee’s movies using this process (Mo’ Better Blues, School Daze and Crooklyn) but I would like to focus on the four previous films I evoked. The speed is interesting as it differentiate the fast intensity of a profound emotion such as Denzel Washington’s anger in Inside Man from the slow and inexorable fate that brings Malcolm X to his death. This notion of fate is important here, as I believe that it should not be considered in the usual terms. Fate, here, is not to be understood as a trick used by Spike Lee to introduce a Deus Ex Machina in his films that would allow him to trigger an event in an absolute transcendental way. No, the Dolly Shot, in my understanding occurs because the whole narrative before it constructed the circumstances that make this scene inexorable. In other words, the force that I evoking earlier, is therefore not a divine force that would influence the plot but rather the implacable logical conclusion of the sum of events that built up the story so far.
Spike Lee’s Dolly Shots are therefore a good illustration of Paul Klee’s famous phrase: Art does not represent the visible; rather, it makes visible. (1920). In fact, those shots are not reproducing any real situation, but rather envision the inexorability of our behaviors based on the sum of circumstances that bring them in situation. Spike Lee’s movies are also important for other aspects and some of them even reach an intensity level that will stay in memories for long but I believe that his Dolly Shots will be his contribution to the History of Cinema.