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Secretariat

Submitted by admin on October 16, 2010 – 10:37 pmNo Comment
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In Secretariat there’s a shot about two reels in where we see the titular character, a horse, galloping in slow motion. It’s one of the best realized uses of slo-mo in a motion picture history mainly because it has a two-fold purpose. It’s meant to evoke empathy for the horse, Secretariat, the last horse to ever win the Triple Crown. And it echoes what would be one of the first uses of photography to illustrate motion in action.

The shot of Secretariat running across the screen is immaculately framed and it works as a transitional scene in the movie but it also pays tribute to 19th century British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who was known among other things for a continuing series of loco-motion photography. Muybridge would have a bunch of cameras lined up in a row and they would be activated by triggers to take a sequence of shots that if viewed rapidly would indicate motion. Perhaps the reason he’s even remembered is because of a series of horse photos taken at a race track (around the 1860s). It was during one of his experimental sessions using multiple cameras that the entire array proved that the trot of a horse includes all four legs off the ground. Even today a similar type of photography is used for motion picture special effects (compare The Matrix).

Hats off to cinematographer Dean Semler who captured this moment in a stunning rectangular view that takes in the racetrack as well as the heat, and director Randall Wallace who never milks any moment more than once. Yes, there are some other slo-mo shots but they are 36 fps and 48 fps, as opposed to the extreme high frame rate used in the money shot. The editing of John Wright takes the right shot at the right moment and gives it momentum. Secretariat is a film that demonstrates the power of the parts over the whole.

Technically Secretariat’s a masterpiece, with every element falling into place. There’s one scene where we see Secretariat’s owner Diane Lane talking shop and the establishing shots take the viewer to a country setting where white fences criss-cross a horse farm, in shot after shot, with effortless beauty, Secretariat is one of the only horses in history to have won the Triple Crown and each of his victories are presented in a different cinematic style.

The three races are the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, which are different tracks with different lengths. For instance, the initial race has a definitely different feel than the second. When we finally get to the Belmont the editing and cinematography once again take over to make the contest different than the two previous races.

On the down side the cast while exemplary are given two-dimensional dialogue. No one character ever has a bit with another that lasts more than a couple lines. This especially hurts the dynamic between Lane and her husband, who are at odds, at least until Secretariat commences to kick ass. For the record two of the main actors have the surname Dylan.

- Michael Bergeron

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