Thanks for joining me again for part two of our discussion on Introduction to Cinephilia. Today I’d like to talk about some of the things you can expect to find when starting to dig deeper into the more artistic or foreign side of filmmaking.
To figure out what sorts of things are valuable to the average film goer, you need only to look at youtube. There you’ll find countless videos analyzing plot points, characters, and franchises. The types of films that are currently popular, and really that have almost always been popular, tend to revolve around these parts of the film language. Why are people watching Batman? Because they want to see what happens to Batman. Why do people care so much about the ending of ‘Inception’? Because they want to understand the plot as fully as they can. Why do people go crazy over the latest Star Wars or Marvel film? Because they are invested in the characters of these franchises, and invest in them over a long period of time.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with watching movies for these specific reasons, and actually plenty of the films in the artistic and foreign realm can concern themselves with the same types of points. But what happens when these aren’t the things that bring you into a film? How do you begin to process a film that isn’t concerning itself with the things that up until this point was all you thought film looked to do? There are a whole host of things that you can focus on in film that have nothing to do with franchises or plots or characters that can make watching films an incredibly rewarding experience. There are slice of films that concern themselves with showing us just small piece of a person’s life (fictional or non-fictional) in an effort to show us how others live. There are films that have incredible and dynamic editing. There are films that make use of astounding images in an effort to tell their stories. Other films might be watched simply because their costuming and make-up are able to transport us into another world.
Still from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Maborosi
Let’s break down some of the terms and parts of a film. In order to better understand film and be able to relate to it better, it’s important that we have a solid understanding of the different parts of the film. All of these parts of the film have volumes and volumes written about their usage in film, good examples, bad examples, and countless vocabulary terms – but for the purposes of starting to watch film in greater depth, you really only need to be familiar with the general concepts of each. If you find yourself being drawn to one of these specific things, definitely dive deeper into some of the great artists in each category and the films that show these strengths off. In future articles we will do deep dives into each of these areas in order to explore and understand them better.
Photography and Cinematography –
Photography and cinematography are two terms that define nearly the same thing. Photography is controlled by the Director of Photography, and any individual shot is referred to as the frame. Cinematography then is effect of multiple frames together in sequence over time. There isn’t a single movie in history that doesn’t feature cinematography in some way, and it is through the eyes of the cinematographer that we are brought into the worlds and stories of these films. Directors of Photography like Emmanuel Lubeski and Sven Nykvist have incredibly distinct visual styles that aid the main director in the telling of their film.
Still from Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light
Sound design –
The sound design of the film relates to anything that you’re able to hear. Be that the soundtrack, the actual mixing of the sound – ever hear bullets that seem to ‘whiz’ by your head in the theater? That’s sound mixing – the spoken dialogue – all of it comes down the sound design of each film. Sound can be incredibly important in the telling of stories, for example, in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express we are introduced to one of the major characters in the story through her love for The Mamas & The Papa’s California Dreamin’. Her character is fleshed out through the use of the song whenever she’s interacting with her opposite romantic lead, and this motif is repeated so often that in the many times that we hear the song through the film we’re immediately taken back to their interactions. It is the power of dynamic usage of sound that pulls us into their world.
The editing of a film is a very complicated thing. Editing defines everything you’ve ever watched, and yet it’s almost always the most invisible part of the film process. Editing is simply the way in watch each successive shot is brought together with the one before it. Editing can be quick and snappy in the case of action films, or slow and drawn out for more somber films or dramas. It’s very difficult to convey just how much small changes to the editing of a film can change the entire nature of a film, as the simple act of holding a shot for only a few seconds longer can cause the entire ‘feel’ of a scene to completely change. The best video I’ve ever seen that perfectly captures how editing can change a scene is How Does an Editor Think and Feel by the youtube channel ‘Every Frame a Painting’. I’d highly recommend watching this as an introduction to editing – the video is linked below.
Still from Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession
Tone is another very ambiguous term, but once you’re in the weeds of film you’ll start to be able to differentiate between ‘how’ a movie feels. Tone ends up being the result of all of the other factors of a film and everything contributes to it. When thinking about tone, I always end up thinking about the films of Roman Polanski. He has such a mastery over how he wants his movies to be perceived by his audiences — Chinatown feels hazy and filled with smoke like the detective story that it tells, Rosemary’s Baby feels as claustrophobic and closed in as the world around our protagonist, and Repulsion feels as unhinged and raw as a torn up apartment. Tone is what really allows all of the other elements to sink into us and it is often the last lingering impressions of a film that we’re left with.
The screenplay is in reference to the actual script that guides the story along. Screenplays define the entirety of actions in a given film as it contains the written dialogue, any narration that will be happening, as well as any directing notes for what the characters on screen are to be doing as well as how they are to act. It can be difficult to see exactly how important a screenplay is until you’ve seen a film with a bad screenplay where it is clear that the dialogue is stilted or the actions of the characters seems to make little continuity sense. Someone who does incredible work with their screenplays is Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman’s screenplays are completely off the wall as he uses all of the elements of a screenplay in tandem to engross the viewer as he pieces out the worlds he is creating. To watch through a screenwriter’s filmography is to see exactly what sets that person’s work apart from the next person’s, as the works of Kaufman ‘feel’ very different from those of Sorkin, Mamet, Tarantino, etc.
Still from Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – written for the screen by Charlie Kaufman
Acting is likely the thing that the regular view is most familiar with as even those who don’t watch a lot of film have a favorite actor whose work they prefer to see. Acting is an incredibly deep medium with a huge range of different acting styles that all shine in different ways. From the incredibly immersed and method acting of someone like Daniel Day Lewis, to the expressionistic and over the top acting of Toshiro Mifune, actors have the power to take all of the other elements of a film and turn them into their chance to shine. The truly great acting performances have the ability to leave one breathless. Laura Dern in the David Lynch film Inland Empire puts on a tour de force performance of a lifetime as she twists and contorts herself into the madness of the world that Lynch has created. Shrieks of confusion, tears, numbness, heartbreak, paranoia, joy – it takes the work of a true artist to use every emotional tool they have to flesh out the characters they want us to see.
Mise en Scene –
Mise en scene is a fancy way to encapsulate all of the ‘things’ that are on screen at any given time and how they look. Costuming and makeup, lighting, setting, props, actors – basically anything that is on screen is included in it’s mise en scene. I can think of quite a few films that I’ve enjoyed for no other reason than it was invigorating to watch the things happening on the screen regardless of what was happening with the story. Take a film like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Even if you don’t really connect with what is going on with the film’s characters or with Coppola’s overarching themes of loneliness and connection in a foreign place, you can still enjoy the film simply on it’s visual merits. Delicate floral arrangements, neon lights, the sheer uniqueness of a city like Tokyo can make for it’s own wildly satisfying experience. And if you are clicking with what Sofia is looking to say? Then the film’s mise en scene is just the icing on top of an already brilliant statement on life.
Theme and Semiotic Meaning –
This one can be tricky, especially if you’ve never looked for it before. Semiotic meaning is the study of the ‘signs’ of the film. To really boil it down, the semiotic meaning is the overarching ‘what’ that the film is about. Semiotic meaning does not concern itself with the plot or story of a film, but instead what central idea is that story looking to convey? Many of Yasujiro Ozu’s films are incredibly light when it comes to plot. Characters exist in their normal lives, maybe they want to watch television, maybe the central conflict is some small gossip between characters, or any of a number of ‘mundane’ things we deal with in our every day lives. What ends up being the case with these films though, is that they are ‘about’ much more than what is actually happening to the characters. That character who wants his parents to buy him a television? This is actually a representation of the differences between difference generations and the things that they value. These differences form the basis of the film’s sub-textual meaning. For many hardcore film viewers, it is these sorts of interpretations that are most exciting to discover and explore. For people not as familiar with film and artistic interpretation, this can be intimidating and frustrate as people don’t want to feel as if they’ve ‘missed’ something. Far not though, as these discussions are more about the journey of the conversation rather than the destination. The are no right or wrong answers here, merely those that are well thought out and those that are not. If you’re capable of being thoughtful and reflecting on what you see, then you’re capable of analyzing the meaning of a film and arriving at it’s most satisfying conclusions.
Still from Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds
It is definitely possible to latch onto any of the above as the focal point in your watching of a film. I’m not going to tell you that it’s necessarily easy, as watching a film solely to focus on it’s editing technique requires a lot of practice and patience, but it’s definitely possible. What will more realistically happen is that as you begin to see the above concepts played out on the screen, films will begin to feel more alive in ways that they never had before. Where once you saw a film where ‘nothing happens’, maybe now you’ll start to see that the things that are happening are within the characters. Maybe the big explosions and car chases stop being exciting, and instead you want to start seeing how a cinematographer framed a complicated scene or how a sound designer used music to really heighten a scene’s emotional impact.
This is only a very rough introduction to many of the above terms, and some people can spend their entire lives studying only one of these arts. With enough practice and some patience in viewership, it’s likely you’ll start to find which parts of the film are the most appealing to you. Hopefully an awareness and appreciation of some of these terms will illuminate film into something that you never thought possible.
What parts of film draw you in? What do you wish you knew more about when it comes to a specific film term?
Featured image comes from Jacques Tati’s ‘Playtime’
Youtube link: How Does an Editor Think and Feel? – https://youtu.be/3Q3eITC01Fg