I often tell my students that I don’t cotton to psychoanalytic criticism because I am too personally shallow; witness my literal-minded approach to film. Recently I wanted to compare Burt Reynolds’ shots of the Atlanta skyline to other skylines, mostly to provide a chance for a “name that skyline” moment of audience-participation. I discovered I have every establishing shot from the Bourne movies – even the entirely-black screen that says “Moscow, Russia” from The Bourne Ultimatum.

Long story short, I love establishing shots. It seems obvious that someone interested in the geography of cinema narratives would like establishing shots, but it’s something I wasn’t aware of consciously until I started breezing through my collection of screen grabs to find a skyline. It’s quite clear why I would have have some establishing shots for teaching and research purposes, but until a little while ago I didn’t realize how extensive my collection of establishing shots is. As an office-seeking politician would say, let me offer some context:

I have plenty of teaching and research reasons: I have dozens of establishing shots from Absolute Power, Dave, Murder at 1600, National Treasure 2, Shadow Conspiracy and Wag the Dog for a piece on White House secret passages. I have more than twenty establishing shots from Dirty Harry because I used it as a contrast for Police, Adjective. There’s a whole ton of German Expressionist imagery in long/establishing shot. City of God, Constant Gardener, and District 9 all helped out in a lecture on the geologic basis for slums. As a brief aside, I live in Sumner and it’s a bit of a curiosity: it’s far more common to find the dis-advantaged not the dirtbaggy upper-middle-class on crumbly hilly land on the edge of the city. Last Resort and Lost in Translation were a matched pair in CINE 102. All the clumsy preacher-and-cross framing can’t outweigh the great establishing shots of Mecca and Venice Beach, CA and the NorCal cemetery in Wild Angels. Finally, Y Tu Mama Tambien’s establishing shots – and long shots – are essential to its engagement with class in Mexico.

Some images are more personal: I have shots from Che (parts I and II) because I wonder about how extensive the Puerto Rico-for-Cuba and elsewhere shooting is. Same for Carlos the Jackal. I have a mess of establishing shots from Fargo and A Serious Man because they’re so Midwestern (I’ll have a future post on how half the Coen Brothers output makes me incredibly homesick). To get even more self-indulgent, something about a car driving through a corn field conjures up a memory of when my U16 soccer team played the Hampshire (then a Podunk town on the edge of rural nowhere) U19 team. It seemed like a long drive from Carpentersville into nothing but corn – I remember their right back was wretched, and I scored six goals in the first half. This likely explains my love for the cornfield shots from the beginning of The Informant!.

The main job of an establishing shot is to establish for the audience the larger context in which the action takes place. To me, the charm of an establishing shot is its reminder that the larger world surrounds the film. I still dream about the version of Die Hard 2 that deals with the people who cleaned up the mess in the car park at Nakatomi Plaza. And for that postmodern desire, I can in part blame my love of establishing shots.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Carlos the Jackal

On a smaller scale, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

Larry Gopnik’s neighbourhood in A Serious Man.

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