Since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have been caught between the truth of realism and the emotional impact of expressionism. Even the single shot, the most basic unit of cinema, can either replicate the world or distort it, and twist it into something new.
Video essayist Jack Nugent (aka Now You See It) has traced one of the most fundamental techniques of expressionist filmmaking, the Dutch angle, from its radical beginnings in Soviet cinema through its relative overuse in action movies of the ’80s and ’90s. His video draws our attention to this widely used and accepted technique in cinema and helps us rethink its potential.
The Dutch angle (also known as the canted angle or Dutch tilt) is a cinematographic technique that involves tilting the camera and framing the setting, characters, and action at an imbalanced and off-kilter angle. As Nugent points out in the video, this can be accomplished through the tilting and distortion of the set and landscape itself, not necessarily just the camera. This distortion of cinematic space not only strays from realist representation but punctuates the shot as important and heightens the emotional impact the audience is meant to feel.
The video, titled “The Origins of the Dutch Angle,” ties the shot’s origins to Soviet cinema and German expressionism, where radical technique met emotional aesthetics. The technique came to prominence when used in film noir to convey paranoia or uncertainty, but more broadly it became a visual indicator to the audience. We’re seeing the action from an unsteady angle, so things may not be as they seem.
While initially highly controversial in the silent cinema era, over time, the shot became ingrained in the toolbox of cinematographers as a way to increase the emotional impact of a shot. But these visual associations also did the shot a disservice. Our emotional expectations of the Dutch angle were exploited to spice up bland cinematography by action movies so frequently using the shot that it now can seem cheesy, overdone, and ridiculous if it even goes noticed at all.
Yet this technique has remained in use because it holds so much promise as a way to visually convey emotion and information and to disorient the viewer with just an axis tilt. When done right, it is an expert tool to drive the meaning of a scene home or depict the inner psychological world of a character.
Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing walks the line between realism and expressionistic filmmaking carefully. Even after 30 years, the film is a masterful example of the deliberate power of stylized shots. The film was shot on location in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn but transformed the street with murals, colorfully painted walls, and stylistic lighting and cinematography (by Ernest Dickerson). It repeatedly uses Dutch angles to demonstrate character, heighten emotions, and ultimately convey the themes of the film.
Do the Right Thing embraces the idea that film need not abide by the strict rules of absolute realism, even when shooting on location. The film’s expressionism primarily takes the form of spatial and optical distortion through unconventional tilted camera angles and varied lenses.
Frequently, the film uses extremely high and low skewed angles to depict how characters see themselves and others. Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) stays high above in her brownstone, looking down on the street below. When we see from her perspective, the degree of the Dutch angle reflects this dynamic. The film’s depiction of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who appears large and intimidating, is always filmed at a tilted angle, which forewarns the audience of the destabilization and violence that is to come.
As the narrative progresses and the day gets hotter and hotter, tensions boil up between characters and traditional cinematography breaks down even more. The Dutch angles tilt to a further degree, they’re done in longer takes, and they become more distorted, disorienting, and overwhelming. In the key climactic scene featured in the video below (with new commentary from Spike Lee), we see the emotional impact of the visual technique.
Stylistic shots and camera techniques like the Dutch angle draw attention to the constructed nature of cinema. Spike Lee uses this emotional, expressionistic association with Dutch angles and their history to heighten the impact of real-world emotions and issues in his stylized films. He is strategic in using the technique’s emotional power to drive home his point to the audience, especially in a film as political as Do the Right Thing. The film claims the right to this technique and to the political power of emotion to destabilize audiences on a visual level, and upend oppressive systems on a political level.
Every Dutch angle is a choice, and when it’s the right choice, it’s worth celebrating. Pay attention next time a screen tilts, and ask yourself why it’s happening and how it’s making you feel.