Shot/reverse shot is about as basic as film language gets: one character speaks; a second responds, back and forth in perfectly matched medium close-ups until the conflict is resolved—the cinematic equivalent of ping-pong. Plenty of video essayists on YouTube have lambasted the technique as the epitome of laziness in visual storytelling, but it does have its defenders—most notably Every Frame a Painting’s Tony Zhou, who argued that it is “still powerful when done precisely,” using the Coen Brothers’ body of work as a prime example:
One of the first things you notice about the Coens is that they like to film dialogue from inside the space of the conversation. And that means the camera is usually in between the two characters, so that they each get separate shots.
From there, Zhou focuses on dissecting how the Coens’ stylistic approach creates a sense of intimacy, isolation, and entrapment, but I believe that it also has another potent psychological effect—one that I only consciously recognized after watching Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry for the first time.
Like the Coens, Kiarostami foregoes traditional “over-the-shoulder” coverage in favor of giving each character his own individual shot (partially by necessity; much of the action occurs within the cramped confines of an automobile)—and because the camera is therefore situated in between them, so too is the viewer. We, the members of the audience, inhabit the space where the conflict unfolds, soaking up all of the unspoken, sub-textual tension. Thus, we remain at the edge of our seats—even when nothing particularly exciting is happening.
Indeed, the vast majority of Kiarostami’s dialogue is utterly banal: the protagonist is vague and evasive, talking in circles around his emotions; nuggets of philosophical wisdom are granted just as much thematic significance as driving directions. Yet every single word, no matter how seemingly unimportant, absolutely crackles with suspense and urgency—all because of where the director chose to place the camera.