In Bohemian Rhapsody, we see Freddie Mercury walk from the dressing trailer to the Live-Aid stage twice. The first time is at the end of the opening sequence. He preens, stretches, nods to people, and generally goes from Freddie Mercury, civilian, to Freddie Mercury, rock god. The performance is about to begin. The movie closes with that performance, Queen’s triumphant mini-concert to the adoring masses. The critical moment in terms of telling its hero’s story, though, is not the music itself but that same stage walk-up we watched earlier. Except that it’s not. Everything he did the first time, he does the second. Same actions, same people and objects crossing his path, the works. But there’s an addition.
This time, we see his bandmates close behind him, between “us” and the him. So we didn’t get the whole story the first time.
That tracking shot conveys two pieces of information. First, they were with him the whole time, ready to support him, to share in the glory, to be stars in their own right. And second, on the first trip the camera was interposed between Freddie and the other three. The early shot says, this is Freddie’s movie. The second, that he didn’t get here by himself.
So here’s the thing about those two shots: they select which information we see, and that selection is the essence of narration. The camera lens does not merely present; it includes, excludes, chooses. Does that make movies the same as novels? No, but it does mean that they control the flow of information in a way that resembles written fiction more than it does drama, despite the presence of actors and directors and such. This isn’t my original observation; Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg made it back in 1966 in The Nature of Narrative, a work I probably first read a decade later. But it is something that all serious moviegoers need to learn at some point. The language of film is visual, not verbal (else there could not be silent movies), but the mode is narrative. Kind of makes your head hurt, doesn’t it?