This screenwriting technique is seen a lot in "realist" films of the seventies and eighties, with a kind of rebirth in the nineties. It involves cutting to a still object. It might be a stalk of grass, a branch with dew, or a child's toy. Sometimes the trope involves fading in and out of focus, as was done a lot in the 70s, or holding steady, sharp focus. It might be a close up of a Christmas ornament while the drunken parents are arguing, perhaps showing how the child finds it too painful to look at directly, and instead fixates on something steady and reliable. The whole scene of a dinner might focus on a bowl of soup rather than the person eating it.
In some cases, the technique is also used in action films or scenes; while a car or other vehicle carrying members of the film's cast goes by, the camera might focus on an object lying next to or in the road, like a discarded candy wrapper or a dandelion growing on the verge.
This trope more often than not has a melancholy or painful tone to it. It often feels emotionally detached or wistful. Effects are often achieved through shifting Depth of Field.
The technical term for this in cinema is Associational Montage, or Intellectual Montage. The Grammar of Film & Television writes:
- William Carlos Williams, "Red Wheelbarrow" illustrates this trope with a poem.
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
- In Death Note, there is a panning shot of a rack of bikes on campus while Light and L are conversing.
- The Lion King (1994): as Simba climbs Pride Rock to take his rightful place as king, there is a brief shot of a wildebeest skull being washed away in the rain, as if to indicate that the land is being cleansed of the excesses of Scar's regime.
- Used several times in Walkabout to show the bugs and lizards of the Australian outback that the main characters are wandering through.
- Many of the shots during musical sequences of Easy Rider.
- A classic, almost definitive example can be found here.
- Visible in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in a fade in/out of a tree branch with dew, set to "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head".
- Terrence Malick is fond of this trope.
- Badlands: As Kit and Holly hide out in the woods after he murdered her father, living an idyllic existence in a crude hut, there are several closeups of bugs and flowers and other flora and fauna.
- The Thin Red Line. Body blows up — cut to blade of grass. Man slowly dying — cut to birds preening in the trees. Narrator asks "why is nature at war with itself?" — cut to a crocodile swimming.
- This may include the film La Jetée, which is made up of all still shots with one motion shot.
- Seen in most Dogme 95 films, such as The Idiots.
- Used to particularly creepy effect in Eraserhead by David Lynch.
- Many examples are silent or musical, many have dialogue, often painful dialogue, going over. High Hopes by Mike Leigh has quite a few "overlong" shots of doors, an elderly lady's dentures, a series of shots of gravestones, often used to reflect a malaise of the characters.
- Many shots in Dancer in the Dark are examples of this.
- Rosebud does not apply in Citizen Kane, but the snowglobe possibly does. In fact, snowglobes in general.
- Karina Hill writes about Eisenstein: "His associational montages use dialectic elements to activate audience emotions. Generally, his associational montages are used to sadden or disgust the audience. Intellectual montage is the colliding of two unrelated shots in order to arrive at an understanding of an abstract concept or message. The Soviet system within which he worked emphasized the social utility of film and he believed that film could be used to reeducate the public. Therefore, Eisenstein used montages to incite physiological, emotional, and intellectual responses in spectators, with the ultimate goal of motivating them to take action."
- To illustrate, here are some examples from Battleship Potemkin: A shot of an officer tapping the hilt of his sword is followed by a shot of a priest tapping his crucifix, to imply the connection between the Church and the oppressive tsarist government; an officer is dumped overboard and a shot of the water churning after he falls is compared to an earlier close-up of the maggot-ridden meat that let to the revolt; and the famous three successive shots of lion statues in progressive stages of standing up, symbolizing the people standing up against oppression.
- During David's first transformation in An American Werewolf in London, the film cuts briefly to a smiling Mickey Mouse figurine, then back to David completing the transformation.
- In Taxi Driver, there is a scene where Travis is at a table with some cabbie colleagues, and while the conversation is going on around him, the camera cuts to a slow push into his glass of water with alka-seltzer in it. It's a great way to illustrate his increasing social and emotional isolation.
- As Barton Fink slowly loses it in his Hell Hotel, we get a lot of these showing details of his room. One long, slow zoom right before a particularly nasty scene takes us into the bathroom, up to the sink, and down the drain.
- In the Alfonso Cuarón version of A Little Princess, Sara and the camera briefly focus on a balloon when Miss Minchin tells her what happened to her father.
- Soviet propaganda film Earth (1930) is about a farming village that's converting from individual farms to a collective. It includes many close-ups of the products of the earth�fruit on the vine, sunflowers, melons, wheat. These are juxtaposed with close-ups of the peasants, suggesting that they also are part of the land.
- A clever variant in Kong: Skull Island that foreshadows the juxtaposition of size throughout the film. As the crew's helicopters arrive at Skull Island, we follow a shot of them as they pass the forest canopy. As the shot moves from wide focus to close, we see that one of the helicopters is in fact a dragonfly, landing on a foreground leaf.
- Daughters of the Dust includes several close ups of the reeds and the wildlife of St. Helena.
- In the second The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book, Tibby is taking a college film course for the summer and makes her project a bitter portrait of her mother, tricking her by only asking to interview her when she's busy, so that all the shots she gets are of her mother looking harried and telling her she can't talk right now. The Jerkass-but-talented kid she's trying to befriend at the college suggests that she add in shots like a patch of dead grass in the yard so that it doesn't "get predictable."
- The Biggest Loser often does scenery cutaways as transitions, but in Season 9, episode 17, there was a bizarre close-up of a single wild rose, wet with dew, sandwiched between two of the scenery shots. The rose had nothing to do with anything.
- The Office (UK) often divides scenes with a still shot of a random office object, such as the water cooler. The same handful of shots are used repeatedly throughout the show.