Understanding the Language of Cinema (Film Production How-To)
Only by close analysis can repeated devices and motifs used by a director become apparent in a work. I will use a handful of cinematic classics as examples. To begin with, there is a problem of the organization of visual and aural elements in a film with its connecting themes. Specifically, how are images presented in a film? The root of this answer lies in a close analysis of the grammar of the filmic language and the way each specific director breaks these grammatic rules to create his or her unique statement.
Types of cinematic devices that the director may use are the way in which objects and characters are photographed in a film. This includes lens choice, lighting techniques, camera movement and framing devices. Also, the camera angle and the length of the shot are crucial. How can a scene maximize it s potential using the language of cinema? Understanding such basic elements as the utilization of diagnoal lines in the composition of a shot, the use of excessive shadows and low lighting, right to left screen direction, and off-screen sounds and space can help to create a shot or scene that is overflowing with tension, thus filling the audience with visceral horrific overtones. Form truly creates effect.
But the shot is only one aspect in a film. By utilizing modern technology, one can punch in different minutes or frames of the film, thus being able to compare repeated motifs and editing strategies or even the use of sound (digetic, non-digetic, dialogue, etc.) Questions to be answered by this technique range from the temperal effects of a shot, the way sound is cut in, associative editing strategies, the effects of montage, cross-cutting, and cutting to continuity.
An honest and thorough examination of sound/image relationships cannot be done through a linear analysis or viewing of a film. One must be able to access any portion of the film instantaneously. For example, say we wish to study the main character as he or she goes from a weak, unimportant person to the admired hero or heroine at the end of his or her rite-of-passage in a film. The director could set up oppositions in sound such as the undercutting of a character’s dialogue: what the character thus says becomes secondary to how he or she is visually represented. Later in the film, as the character grows in confidence, the sounds and dialogue could be utilized in such a way as to glorify the speaker.
Although each element of a film is unique in its own right, the film can only be fully appreciated in its whole. The overall literal level must furthermore be combined with the subtext of the film, and this subtext can only be ascertained by an in-depth close analysis. Unfortunately, some films only offer surface analyses. However, in many of the films that we consider classics, if not masterpieces, there appeared to be repeated elements worth mentioning.
In-depth viewing of these types of classics, one beings to notice that all the films seem to offer to some extent visual representations of character relationships and states of mind. In Citizen Kane, it was the representation of the public vs. the private, deception and uncertain experience, and the forms that representation takes such as those in media, art, and film.
In There’s Always Tomorrow, the director approached this issue especially through entrapment and separation of characters by dominating objects. Objects, in their own right taken on special meaning in each of the works studied. Foreground motifs, as I prefer to call them, and object/character linkages were apparent in Maltese Falcon, There’s Always Tomorrow, and Winchester ’73. Objects are but one way that these directors chose to demonstrate the effect or forms of divided space. Manhattan and Raw Deal, to five two examples, relish in dominance of lighting to create a feeling of character isolation. Both psychological landscape and decor appeared in this films as in Sunset Boulevard, The Conversation, Winchester ’73 and Atlantic City.
Interestingly enough, a chief concern in all these films appeared to be a lack of communication, false and created images, and barriers to truth and understanding. And even more excitedly, these themes were to a large part stressed through some form of character doubling. In Winchester ’73, there are the two brothers, in Psycho, there is Norman Bates with his mother, in Sunset Boulevard, it is the real Norma Desmond with her projected screen image and preferred persona. The list goes on in a rather obvious and often extremely complex manner.
Processes of discovery and change seems to be the last main issue in these works. The false fronts appear to come off as it were for better or worse. Narrative disruption, visual irony, and the use of witty dialogue to undercut scenes and characters’ self-importance sets the viewer up for the inevitable conclusion. But only through close analysis can the viewer go back and completely study and appreciate the intricacy and pacing and building of these outcomes through all these many (and often precise) elements. The Conversation and Come Back to the Five an Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean are but two examples worth mentioning.
In conclusion, the importance of the study and creation of filmic art is also a study and commentary on our environment, our times, the past, the potential of the future, and on ourselves. With the close analysis approach to film, the concerned viewer can study a film with as much concern as the conscientious director who created the work.
– Des Manttari, Editor-in-Chief, Phoenix Genesis
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