Film is solidified in our culture as an artistic medium that offers narratives displayed through stylised visuals for spectators to engage with on levels that range from aestheticism to cognitive associations. These refer to the mental engagements spectators experience when viewing a film, such as emotional responses or character alignment. This is due to how cognitive film theory concerns itself with the mind responding to the acts presented on the screen, as a vessel for discussions on how what is displayed is argued to impersonate the norms cultures endorse, for example, the forming of judgements on individuals we encounter. Film assures that these psychological correspondents are established by setting these social traditions from everyday life as undertones in virtually all of its aspects, mostly camera placements.
This aspect has proven to be of significance when observing the film technique of ‘Shot/Reverse Shot’ as a feature of film editing and narrative storytelling with an impact on viewership. This procedure is identified as a portrayal of characters being engaged in a conversation, where its elements of one character being shown looking at the other in one shot which is then followed by the second character responding in a countershot. The rule of this device comes from the invisible yet crucial presence of the axis upon action, a line that runs through the characters on a 180-degree rule. The filmmaker can place the camera anywhere on one side of the line and alternate between the positions of filming over one character’s shoulder to display the other on-screen. Cognition comes into the equation when the viewer observes the characters facing opposite directions, and is prompted by the social awareness of what would be the case in a conversation in real life, to assume that they are looking at each other. This assumption made by spectators conveys the psychology behind film experience when this specific camera technique is in question, bridging the aesthetics on the surface of a film with the cognition that resides beneath it.
Critical analysis of this technique is provided by a review of two of David Bordwell’s, a founding figure in Cognitive film approach, essays titled “Who Blinked First?” and “Convention, Construction and Cinematic Vision”. The first essay concerns itself with outlining and expanding on how eyesight in the form of gazing and blinking is significant to Shot/Reverse Shot. Bordwell claims that the essay has the goal of making “some progress toward understanding how films work” [2008, Page 327], using the conversation of what observing characters hold and avert gazes generates for spectators in terms of meaning. In the latter essay, the claim that the technique exists as the ideal cinematic manner of mimicking reality is counteracted, by thoroughly presenting how Shot/Reverse Shot is chosen as a technique by a matter of conventionalised convenience. In this claim, Bordwell argues that as a result of Shot/Reverse Shot being “adopted” by generations of filmmakers as “one of the most commonly used editing techniques” [2008, Page 58], it serves more like an expected visual in a film rather than echoing reality. The fact that it has become a convention in cinema across numerous periods and cultures, meaning an accepted way of constructing meaning, is the vital source of its use, thus, implying that the technique is orientated by aesthetics over naturalism.
One example of Shot/Reverse Shot can be found in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 superhero flick ‘The Dark Knight’, a film that has been assessed by critics as culturally and historically important in cinema. Nolan executes this film technique in several sequences of the film, manoeuvring it for intentions of story exposition and character expression, with a bonus of cinematic style. A significant sequence that displays this is the interrogation scene, involving Batman and Joker engaged in a conversation that proves to be principal to the narrative and character identity, elevated by the use of Shot/Reverse Shot
To begin with, aspects of character association and understanding are fed to spectators through Shot/Reverse Shot. The character of Joker comes into an anticipated consultation with that of Batman in the opening seconds of the sequence, in which his head is slammed down onto the table by a brutal Batman. This prompts the Joker to whimper in discomfort in a shot staged at a high angle [Figure 1], which is rhythmically counteracted with the first reverse shot of Batman, who is granted the position of towering over him at a low angle [Figure 2].
The shot switches to the initial high one displaying Joker, as he sarcastically replies with “never start with the head…the victim gets all…fuzzy…”. A wide shot of Batman standing over the Joker as he lifts his arm interrupts the Shot/Reverse Shot pattern momentarily, but we then return to it as Batman forcefully strikes Joker’s hand and we are able to observe his face while doing so in the low angle shot. Joker gives his response to the act in his high angle-a casual “see?” as if he is somewhat unfazed by the strike. This quick yet effective introduction is a building block in constructing the dynamic between the two figures in the situation of an interrogation. By placing the Joker in a shot framed at a low angle, which is then contrasted with Batman’s high angle reverse shot, Nolan exemplifies the power dynamic between the two. Batman has the authority in this situation while the Joker is beneath him and expected to be powerless. However, the dialogue given by the Joker implies that he is not intimidated by his interrogator despite the persona the high angle is expected to generate. Furthermore, despite following the element of exchanging shots, this example does so in an innovative style by a difference in camera proxemics to elaborate on the meaning. Thus, Nolan implies a contrast between the camera angles in a unique take on Shot/Reverse Shot and dialogue in creating meaning in the form of character associations, challenging the intention of his use of the technique that met spectators at first glance.
Still, this understanding of the hierarchy should be immediately processed by spectators. This not just triggered by the stylistic choice of camera angles in the first block of Shot/Reverse Shot, but by cultural norms, demonstrated by Bordwell in ‘Who Blinked First?’. He states that to “best understand cinematic conventions”, all spectators must do is reflect on how they are “built out of ordinary life behaviours” that are most “favoured…to put people’s social intelligence on display” [Page 334, 2008]. Here, cognition is being exemplified in the film when observing, as prompted by Bordwell, how knowledge of ordinary situations in real life can be echoed in film sequences with mirrored detail. Viewers watch the beginning of this scene with the presumption that during the social situation of an interrogation, those in the role of interrogator-Batman, have power over those who are being interrogated-Joker. This social intelligence is only endorsed and in ways confirmed by the use of camera angles that construct the Shot/Reverse Shot. This alludes to the character understanding as previously mentioned since spectators will assume that Batman will be the dominant one in the sequence. This stands as a cognitive assumption, born from the placement of shot, social intelligence surrounding interrogations and the contextual information as provided by the narrative of Batman being a powerful detective. This can be easily switched when observing Joker’s character using the opposite credentials to Batman. He is positioned at a low angle, is the one being interrogated and viewers already know he is a criminal, therefore he is expected to have little to no power in this situation. Already, Nolan has generated mental engagement, in the form of understanding and expectations of his characters and the dynamic between them, as granted by Shot/Reverse Shot as a visual. The technique derives more from a matter of convention, as issued by Bordwell in stating it is “arbitrary” as its “goal” of presenting a conversation “can be achieved by alternative means” [2008, Page 62]. The goal that Nolan has is the establishing of power through proxemics. This could be visualised to spectators using a wide shot of the characters at the table and displaying Batman towering over Joker which would be effective in implying his power in the situation. Furthermore, this camera shot would echo what a third party would naturally see if they positioned themselves at that angle, an element that is not the case in Shot/Reverse Shot. Thus, it conveys the choice of Shot/Reverse Shot coming mostly from convention rather than naturalism.
Nolan manoeuvres the question of who is in control of the situation based on the character types using visual film techniques and places the consideration of what the answer could be as an objective of mental engagement in his viewers. We see a shot of Batman asking Joker why he wants to kill him. We then cut to Joker as he laughs at Batman’s question in the countershot, before replying that he doesn’t want to kill Batman and asks “What would I do without you?” [Figure 3]. The shot of Joker’s laugh assists in constructing his character and its significance due to how his laugh is a staple in his image in pop culture. Viewers watching in a position of a fan of the Batman comics where the film comes from is not a credential to understand his character. That character being someone that is slightly unhinged and unable to be intimidated as he is laughing in the face of his interrogator who is attempting to menace information from him. The traditional elements of Shot /Reverse Shot return in this exchange since the two figures are levelled rather than placed in differing heights as done before, which we see when the shot is then counteracted as Joker speaks, by Batman’s cold and heavy stare [Figure 4].
This is the significant emotional expression to his characterisation and thus, contrasts with Joker’s. This elevates the understanding of characterisation and dynamics. The viewers use cognition to detect Joker’s personality holding some twisted merriment in a situation where it is misplaced due to his laugh, while Batman’s is fittingly serious considering the type of conversation being held. Essentially, the characters differ as Joker’s characterisation lies in his laugh while Batman’s is in his deep stare, and identifying these expressions and their meaning is vital in understanding characterisation. Joker’s laugh implies that he is not as restricted and powerless in the situation as first impressions from camera angles imply. This is because he feels free to express an emotion that is unfitting in the environment but is to his character, while Batman’s unbroken stare could be an attempt to maintain his seeming position of control. Nolan uses Shot/Reverse Shot to establish this contrast in character and power dynamic taking place during a conversation. The technique in this example supports Bordwell in his claim that “devices of film style rework social acts for clarity and expressive effect” [2008, Page 335]. The device in question being Shot/Reverse Shot which is using the social tradition of eye contact and emotional reactions during a conversation as a vehicle to express cues of cognitive meaning as an effect. The meaning being the aligning of characters to personality types that are in a conflict for appearing to viewers as the one who has power in the conversation.
Batman’s reaction to Joker being reduced to an intense stare throughout the conversation calls to Bordwell’s statement “filmmakers know intuitively that the shared gaze” is a “social signal” for “mutual attentiveness” [2008, Page 335]. This means that filmmakers use images of eye contact in Shot/Reverse Shot has a method of replicating the contingent universals we subconsciously perform in social situations, such as maintaining gaze with who is speaking .Batman’s signature stare not only tailors to and delineates his properties as a character, but also highlights Bordwell’s elaboration on eye contact in sequences as a signal to spectators that a “situation” is “dramatic partly because characters’ eye behaviors indicate deep engagement” [2008, Page 335]. This correlates with what Nolan is constructing in the interrogation scene because the sequence relies on building drama and tension, as tones that are wielded through the contrast in characterisation and the rhythm within Shot/Reverse Shot.
Taking this element of tension as generated by film features that are both micro in visuals and macro in character types, one is able to detect the climax of the sequence as conveying Nolan’s cognitive objectives to the most dramatic of methods. After Joker has begun to frustrate Batman by showing no consideration for the consequences of his extreme crimes, Batman aggressively removes him from his chair before throwing him around the room as a new method of extracting information. When he pushes Joker to the floor, Nolan introduces the final and most powerful display of Shot/Reverse Shot in the sequence. As Batman, again, towers over Joker while he demands Joker provide the whereabouts of two people he has kidnapped, his nemesis lies on the floor, seemingly helpless. The dynamic that has been underlying the entire scene is once again conveyed through camera angles in Shot/Reverse Shot, yet here spectators witness the answer to the prevailing question of who has the control.
Echoing the opening of the sequence, Joker is placed in a high angle which fits with how he is lying in pain on the floor [Figure 5], while Batman stands over him at a low angle as he strikes him in the face [Figure 6]. One would expect this arrangement of camera angles to construct the same meaning as it did prior-Batman being in control of Joker.
However, the Shot/Reverse Shot takes place in a pattern of Batman shouting for the information, punching Joker, who is then seen in the countershot as laughing and mocking Batman, which strays away from this original meaning. Here, it appears that Joker is in fact the one who has power and is exerting it over a growingly desperate Batman. It is a matter of exterior and interior control, as elevated by the film techniques also taking place in the Shot/Reverse Shot. The dialogue aids Joker as he tells Batman “you have nothing…nothing to threaten me with”, which alludes to showing how it is pointless for Batman to attempt to intimidate and win over Joker. The angels attempt to argue for Batman by relying on conventional meaning generated in proxemics, as Nolan manifests his own ideas to the technique once again in changing the elements by adding ideas of power dynamics through angles. Whilst Batman has physical dominance as provided by his low angle, Joker has psychological dominance despite being the one positioned at a high angle being beaten as demonstrated in his manipulative speech. This establishes cognition for spectators as we feel frustration for Batman as an emotional reaction but learn more about Joker’s character as cognitive understanding, conclusions and consequences granted by Shot/Reverse Shot.
The editing that is a significant element of Shot/Reverse Shot assists in creating these tense emotional responses. A pattern is created as assembled of the shot of Batman as he swings his punch, then the counter shot of Joker mocking him and concluded by a shot of Batman’s frustrated expression. These exchange shots as exemplified as a rhythmic pattern in the editing construct tension, as well as solidifying the relationship between these two characters. Viewers align their emotional response with that of Batman as well as understanding Joker, thus, the editing and shots used bridge aesthetics and meaning as the visuals support the transmission of the essence of the scene.
Overall, the sequence endorses Bordwell’s claim that Shot/Reverse Shot is “a stylistic invention” [2008, Page 58], meaning the technique uses film elements as conventions to create a style that fits with the filmmaker’s vision. Nolan’s vision of two characters engaging in a conversation where the contrast in their personas is accentuated to assist viewers in understanding them is achieved using Shot/Reverse Shot, one that finds a balance between following the elements and straying from them.
Bordwell, David-Poetics of Cinema, “Convention, Construction and Cinematic Vision” and “Who Blinked First?” 2008, Taylor & Francis Group, LLC