The most devastating scene in “12 Years a Slave” – a movie filled to the brim with devastating scenes, and one that rightly won the Best Picture Oscar at Sunday night’s Academy Awards – comes near the end. It speaks of director Steve McQueen’s background as a gifted video artist. (He won the Tate Museum’s Turner Prize in 1999, chiefly for his video installation, “Drumroll”).
The scene shows only Solomon Northup, the free black man who has been abducted into slavery’s unspeakable world of physical, emotional and spiritual atrocities, all chronicled in excruciating, sometimes unexpected detail over the previous two hours. Northup is framed close-up and off-center at the left side of an otherwise blank screen. The scene is filmed as a proscenium shot, where the camera does not move and the rectangle of the movie screen mimics the fixed frame of a theater’s proscenium arch.
Nothing much happens – save for a very slow, very long sequence in which Northup casts his eyes around the space in which he exists. We watch as he silently scans the visual field, and gradually becomes aware that, like a mirror, we are doing just what he is doing. A creeping recognition dawns of commonality between us.
So does an awareness of exactly where Northup’s eyes will inevitably land. You see it coming a mile away, like a freight train bearing down: The lengthy visual sojourn leads straight into the camera’s lens, his vision squarely fixed.
Through the camera, the slave makes direct, deliberate and unhurried cinematic eye contact with the viewer, passively watching in the dark. The depth and breadth of shared humanity, which is one of art’s great gifts, italicizes the story’s manifold brutalities.
The proscenium shot has been a video art convention since the late 1960s, when newly portable television technology gave individual artists access to a formerly cumbersome, costly medium once reserved for corporate culture. Video art’s use of it became prominent less for dramatic than simply practical reasons: An artist in the studio typically works alone, without a crew, unlike the collaborative process of a Hollywood movie or television show.
A stationary camera on a tripod was a standard set-up. McQueen used a version of it throughout “12 Years a Slave,” as he also did – sensuously and suggestively – in “Shame,” his 2011 movie about obsessive sexual compulsion.
Ironically, the proscenium shot is also one of the oldest techniques in the film-making arsenal, dating to the birth of the movie camera more than a century ago. As directors were groping their way through the narrative and visual capacities of the new moving-picture technology, setting up a camera to film a proscenium play was one obvious place to start.
Alfonso Cuarón, who won the directing Oscar Sunday night, marshalled the most technically advanced techniques to make the airless environment of outer space a virtual character in “Gravity,” his otherwise conventional “woman in peril” film. McQueen has likewise experimented with camera vision in his video art, albeit in a rather more ad hoc and improvisatory way: The three-screen “Drumroll,” his Turner Prize knockout, was made with three video cameras mounted on the two ends and one side of an ordinary metal oil drum that he rolled through Manhattan streets.
But McQueen’s extraordinary “12 Years a Slave” went back to film’s Square One. The result is a formidable Hollywood movie that exploits a basic tradition in independent video art.