Watching the Space Between

The African Queen

John Huston, Horizon-Romulus, USA, 1951

In a tilt shot, the camera makes an upward or downward movement along an imaginary vertical line running through the camera head (upper left). Note that, although the tilt shot, like the pan shot, preserves the integrity of filmed space, it actually violates the spectator’s natural perception of items of interest in space: in reality, if two figures or objects have a claim on our attention, we don’t pay much attention to the intervening space between them. A moving camera, therefore—which captures intervening space—is quite apt to call attention to itself. At the same time, however, it’s a characteristic which can be exploited intentionally.

The illustration in Frames 1-5, for example, comes from John Huston’s 1951 adventure film The African Queen, in which two people have struggled mightily to maneuver a creaky old boat over a treacherous river to the open waters of a vast lake. When it appears finally that their quest has failed and that the death of the hero (Humphrey Bogart) is imminent (1), the heroine (Katherine Hepburn) prays that God will take them both into heaven (2). (1) and (2) are both included in a single pan shot. As she finishes her prayer, there is a direct cut to a crane-mounted overhead shot—a God’s-eye view, obviously (3). The camera then begins to tilt even further upwards (4), over the prow of the stranded boat and above the dense jungle that prevents the protagonists from realizing where they are, until it finds the lake, which, ironically, is only a few hundred yards away (5).

The irony of the shot is possible for two reasons. First, the camera, in revealing the contiguous relationship between two spaces, underscores the proximity of the stranded boat to the lake that is, ultimately, the salvation of the “doomed” characters (in more senses than one). Second, the narrative information contained in the shot is revealed to the viewer while being withheld from the characters.

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