We all know a good movie from a bad one, but can you recognize a bad directing job? Well, David Bordwell can. No one has a keener eye for technique. He shows how a director can botch even the simplest expository scene. In Shanghai (2010) Mikael Håfström labors through 23 shots in 97 seconds just getting John Cusack’s character through a door and into a chair. Many of the shots are reverse, over-the-shoulder shots (also known as shot/countershot sequences) that depict a conversation. Steven Soderbergh, for one, has grown tired of the technique. “If I see another over-the-shoulder shot,” he says, “I’m going to blow my brains out.”
Bordwell contrasts Håfström’s inept direction with the way Itami Juzo handles the same situation in Tampopo (1985). Itami works much more deftly and inventively, positioning his camera so that we get more than one piece of information per shot. Håfström, by contrast, is only interested in positioning his camera to capture his actors acting. Note also how Itami constructs a much smaller space to stage his action so we can focus more easily on what’s important in the scene without a director tripping over himself as he lurches through a big-budget set.