Long ago, the iris shot was how filmmakers opened or closed scenes. The shot – named after its resemblance to the shape of the iris – was both conceived and retired during the silent film era. Although favoured by Scorsese and the Roadrunner cartoons, the iris shot largely disappeared after the time of Chaplin, Murnau, Weber and Keaton. The reason for this is likely because of its inextricable aesthetic connection to the silent film: and once that disappeared, the iris shot lost its power and purpose.
Has the zoom suffered the same fate? Once so popular with post-WWII European and American directors like Tarkovsky, Varda, Antonioni, Godard and Kubrick, the zoom has slowly receded from 21st century cinema. In its stead is an aesthetic that emphasises sleekness, homogeneity and technical invisibility above rawness, urgency and artistic intransigence.
Nowadays, the zoom is most closely associated with amateur camerawork; maybe something a parent would do when filming children on a holiday. Although, this is somewhat ironic, because when its used to its full potential, the zoom can reveal a filmmaker’s talent and understanding of how to exploit the cinematic form to create meaning and amaze us. Its noted absence is indicative of the state of mainstream cinema around the world: often formulaic, unimaginative and sometimes maddeningly lacklustre.
The effect of altering the focal length of a camera lens is commonly known. Retracting the lens creates a wider image, and smaller objects within the frame. Extending the lens does the opposite. Clearly, the most basic use of the zoom is to focus on objects, characters, sceneries and so forth. A filmmaker who wants to draw our attention to characters speaking could employ a zoom-in. Or if she wants to display the splendour of an environment, a zoom-out might do the trick.
It’s not an uninspired technique, however, one only concerned with merely framing action. The zoom is capable of conveying symbolic meaning and otherwise. The opening shot in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation illustrates this perfectly. Better than dialogue, acting or editing, the zoom-in effectively captures the key ideas of the film: surveillance, voyeurism and paranoia.
The camera hangs well-above San Francisco’s Union Square, and the slow zoom brings us ever closer towards the flawed protagonist, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman). It feels like we’re watching the space of Union Square from a CCTV camera, that we are – unbeknownst to Caul – able to monitor and scrutinise his every move, to encroach entirely upon his life and privacy.
In much the same way, the zoom can modulate a film’s pace and generate moods, textures and sensibilities. In short, the zoom has the ability to shape a film’s overarching style. The fast zoom – often used by Sergio Leone – creates a sense of mania, of high-stakes intensity and authorial self-awareness. The slow zoom usually effects textures of contemplation, slow and controlled pacing, and even feelings of melancholy, disconcertion and anxiety. For the best example of this technique, you can't go past Luchino Visconti’s The Death in Venice.
The film’s great, and frequently disquieting, qualities are provided by this technique. It foregrounds Gustav von Aschenbach’s (Dirk Bogarde) unhealthy obsession with a young Italian boy and reveals his retreat into fantasy. It controls the film’s pacing – keeping it to the rhythms of the film’s Mahler symphonies – which ensures that action is secondary to mood, the characters psychology and our examination. Along with Mahler’s music, the Venetian setting, and the camerawork in general, the slow zoom exalts Visconti’s work to the plane of visual poetry.
In addition, it’s a rather versatile filmmaking tool. The Europeans and Americans often deployed it for different purposes and effects. Needless to say, John Cassavetes’s use of the zoom is strikingly distinct from Visconti’s. In Cassavetes films like Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence, the zoom contributes to the works raw, unfiltered and unromantic qualities: we are watching lifelike characters face crises of identity, family and purpose. The technique completely augments our experience of characters and the familiar middle-class milieus he presents.
The zoom also uncovers what lies at the very essence of the cinema. The process of honing in on objects from a stationary position by making them appear closer, or further away, is something our eyes and bodies cannot do. The best we can do is selectively focus on objects in our visual field. Of course, for objects to become closer to us, we must move closer to them and vice versa. In this respect, the zoom admits that the cinema doesn’t present an unmediated form of reality or pure human experience.
The technique is an open acknowledgement of the primacy of the camera in the filmmaking process. Unlike techniques that obfuscate the fact that film isn’t a direct representation of the world – like panning to hide a zoom, in order to give us the illusion that camera stands in for the eye – the zoom is one of the few techniques that unashamedly accepts the boundaries of the cinema. In an odd way, then, the zoom is a technique of unprecedented truth, one of the purest expressions of cinema’s nature.
Relatedly, the zoom speaks to the core of the creative process, of the import vested in production teams. If cinema constructs worlds and realities, it’s those in charge of creating them who harness the attendant possibilities. The zoom reflects that films aren’t documenting action, but creating it. This is usually done according to the filmmaker’s worldviews, visions and opinions.
The zoom doesn’t just reveal its own deliberative nature, but the entire field of film production: from setting, to acting, to music, to costume and much more. It’s not just the myriad slow zooms in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller that are meaningfully designed, but everything from the snow-drenched Washington setting, to the apparently aimless narrative, to Leonard Cohen’s beautifully sorrowful score. It highlights the inalienable role of creatives – especially the director’s – in the filmic process, hinting at the empowering nature of artistic creation. It reminds us that, in accommodating conditions, a filmmaker is free to impart their own ideas, and part of themselves, through cinematic work.
The loss of the zoom from our cinematic language gives us cause to mourn. Not only is it a loss for film aesthetics, but also for our understanding of the medium itself. If the zoom makes a cinematic comeback, it’ll likely signal a formal shift: from a slick, silky, sterile cinema to one that prides itself on truth-seeking, self-expression and courage. Thankfully, filmmakers like Yorgos Lanthimos, Michael Haneke, Jane Campion and Bela Tarr still see the merit in deploying the zoom. At least they’re giving it the opportunity to rise once again.
– Nick Bugeja