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🎬 #17 Michael Bay, Master Of The Insert.
There is something great about an insert. It’s an opportunity to get patina and texture into a shot that can rarely be replicated in a wider frame - especially on a low budget. That’s actually one of the reasons Nolan’s Following begins with a series of close-up insert shots. He said it was an opportunity to add production value and a feel of something more polished at the very start of the film to ease the viewer in. Not only do inserts point the viewer to pieces of crucial information but they can embody the mood of the film. They can tell us a lot about the filmmaker and this week we take a look at two films and filmmakers that really use the power of the insert to full effect. The helmers this week are Michael Bay and Ingmar Bergman, never thought you’d see those two filmmakers in the same sentence, did you?
FILM ONE: PERSONA
1966 Dir Ingmar Bergman
One of the most enigmatic and stirring opening sequences of a film that I can think of. And a huge portion of it is told through emotive, mysterious close-ups and inserts. Makes sense - they set the scene for a mysterious, enigmatic story.
In Ari Aster and Robert Eggers’ chat on the A24 podcast they talk about how no one shoots a close-up like Bergman and his handling of inserts in this opening sequence is a testament to that.
The low angle, abstractly framed inserts put us off centre. They unsettle us, literally, as our eyes have come to be trained by the more conventional centre framed close-up. Instead Bergman gives us a close-up insert of the two protagonists like this.
The tactility of his framing and the texture he gets into each frame is amazing. The heat of a movie projector, glowing red hot, the underside of a spider. All images that seem chaotically unlinked but still stir us in our seats. They set us up to watch them form some kind of meaning later.
The spindly legs of the spider and the limp shadowed fingers of the woman above join in our mind. These frames almost flash by our conscious mind and tap right into the subconscious. The stark black and whites remind me of the graphic-ness of a Jingo Ito graphic novel, lingering in our brains in the same way - just less horrific.
Bergman doesn’t necessarily use the insert to point us to plot information, but he uses its power to bring more emotional information to the picture. With these inserts you’re liberated from having to frame a wider shot in a more conventional way - you can focus on the minutiae a bit more, how the blacklight coats the wrinkles on a hand. There is almost more beauty in these types of shots than a wide vista. For some reason they are more relatable to the viewer - we can wrap our mind around these little masterpieces more easily than a John Ford master shot. We wonder at those kinds of vistas but the inserts make things personal - they make things human because they’re at our scale. They make us feel things that few other shots can achieve. Put on Persona and gaze at the wonder of a close-up and appreciate the humble insert in a way you never have before.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hrs 23 mins of my precious life watching this? Get freaked out by Bergman’s enigmatic psychological thriller of two people becoming one while a spider walks across a photocopier in an opening that makes you wonder if there is actually some kind of mistake with the film - astounding stuff.
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon Prime and BFI Player.
Fact: Bergman conceived of the film as he recovered from a severe bout of pneumonia - makes a lot of sense after you see the film.
FILM TWO: THE ROCK
1996 Dir Michael Bay
Exactly 30 years after Persona we have The Rock. Michael Bay’s second film after the wildly successful Bad Boys. Bay came from a music video / advertising background and his handling of the humble insert tells us this quite clearly. He may not be hailed in the same critical way as someone like Bergman but I feel like he doesn’t really get his due as a very skilled filmmaker. There is no frame in a Bay film that isn’t packed with visual interest and dynamism. His inserts are in a league of their own.
A graduate of the prestigious Art Centre College of Design - there is an artistry to his frames that few filmmakers can match - you get the feeling that no shot is left untouched - can we get more into this frame? More punch, more vigour, more action?
This one in particular - one of my favourites, has a Bay majesty to it. It’s a great choice to reveal Connery’s character. The shafts of light, the pores, the sweat - all crafted like any other Bay set-piece to breathe grandeur and mystery into Connery’s master escape artist.
Things normally reserved for the centre of the frame - are pushed far to the left or right, light is allowed to pour in, blur and obstruct the principle piece of information [a gun held to a head] all in service of keeping our eyes engaged - our mind grasping at the information that’s speedily going by. His inserts keep up the pace with the rest of his action, amping it up more than a wide could.
It’s not enough to just show us the countdown timer front and centre - again the insert’s information is off to the right and flipped. Our eyes kept racing across the frame, no time to calmly take in the information - Bay directs our eyes like we’re watching a tennis match on steroids, our visual cortex constantly stimulated every chance he gets. Then there’s the texture - the liquid, the gel the metal the red of the countdown - all designed by Bay to load us up.
This film is a superb action film and that means the action doesn’t stop just because it’s an insert. He wants us to take in as much as possible - and so even in the tiniest close-up we’re overstimulated, just like the characters he’s hurling through explosions. And this is why we can always feel the difference when we watch a Bay film even if we can’t explain it.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hrs 17 mins of my precious life watching this? Watch this masterpiece of action cinema as Cage and Connery team up to take on Alcatraz and find the artistry in a Bay film that maybe you didn’t appreciate before.
*Available for free on Disney Plus and Virgin Go and for a small rental fee on YouTube, Google Play and Sky Store.
Fact: According to Bay, when the studio visited the set to see what was happening [there had been delays], Connery suggested he come with Bay to the meeting to help. Connery burst into the meeting and said ‘this kid is doing a great job - and we need more money!’ Needless to say they got more money.