Archive for the 'FILM ART (the book)' Category
From the xkcd webcomic
August is here, and many film teachers are back from summer research trips and starting to prepare syllabi for the fall. Those who are using the new tenth edition of Film Art will have noticed that tucked away in its margins are references to blog entries relevant to the topics of each chapter. But since the new edition went to press, we’ve kept blogging. As has become our tradition, we offer an update on blogs from the past year that teachers might want to consult as they work on their lectures or assign their classes to read. Even if you’re not a teacher, perhaps you’d be interested in seeing some threads that tie together some recent entries.
First, some general entries about the blog itself and the new edition of Film Art. On our blog’s fifth anniversary last year, we posted a brief historical overview of it. That entry contains some links to some of our most popular items. If you’re new to the blog and want some orientation, it could prove useful. Maybe students would be interested as well. At least the photos reveal our penchant for Polynesian adventure and shameless pursuit of celebrities.
In case you haven’t heard about the changes we made for the new Film Art, including our groundbreaking new partnership with the Criterion Collection to provide online examples with clips from classic movies, there’s a summary post available.
And here’s another entry on the new edition, discussing a new emphasis on filmmakers’ decisions and choices.
Now for chapter-by-chapter links.
Understanding the movie business often means being skeptical of broad claims about supposed trends. We explained why the widespread “slump” of the movies in 2011 was no such thing in “One summer does not a slump make.”
Trying to keep one step ahead of students (or just keep up with them, period) on the conversion to digital projection and its many implications? Our series “Pandora’s Digital Box” explores many aspects:
In multiplexes: “Pandora’s digital box: In the multiplex”
In small-town theaters: “Pandora’s digital box: The last 35 picture show”
At film festivals: “Pandora’s digital box: At the festival”
In art-houses: “Pandora’s digital box: Art house, smart house”
Challenges to film archives: “Pandora’s digital box: Pix and pixels”
How projection is controlled from afar: “Pandora’s digital box: Notes on NOCs”
Problems introduced by digital: “Pandora’s digital box: From films to files”
Another case study of a small-town theater: “Pandora’s digital box: Harmony”
Or you can pay $3.99 and get the whole series, updated and with more information and illustrations, as a pdf file.
3D is a technological aspect of cinematography, but it’s also a business strategy. We explore how powerful forces within the industry used it as a stalking horse for digital projection in “It’s good to be the King of the World” and “The Gearheads.”
Independent films can be the basis for blockbuster franchises. “Indie” doesn’t always equal “small,” as we show in “Indie blockbuster franchise is not an oxymoron.”
One of the top American producers and screenwriters of independent films is James Schamus, head of Focus Features. We profile him in “A man and his focus.”
3D is probably here to stay, but it may have already passed its peak of popularity, as we suggest in “As the summer winds down, is 3D doing the same?”
The late Andrew Sarris played a crucial role in shaping the “auteur” theory of cinema. We talk about his work in “Octave’s hop.”
Chapter 2 The Significance of Film Form
“You are my density” is an analysis of motifs in Hollywood cinema, including a detailed look at a scene from Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die.
Chapter 3 Narrative Form
We offer a narrative analysis of a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film many viewers found difficult to follow on first viewing, “TINKER TAILOR: A guide for the perplexed.” A follow-up, “TINKER TAILOR once more: Tradecraft,” concentrates on the adaptation of Le Carré’s novel.
A tricky narrative structure in Johnnie To’s Life without Principle called forth our entry, “Principle, with interest.”
In “John Ford and the Citizen Kane assumption,” we consider the possibility that Kane, analyzed in this chapter, might not be the greatest movie ever made.
Chapter 4 The Shot: Mise-en-scene
For some reason teachers (and apparently students) always want more, more, more on acting, the most difficult technique of mise-en-scene to pin down. “Hand jive” talks about hand gestures, which in the past were used a lot more than they are now. “Bette Davis eyelids” takes a close look at the subtleties of Bette Davis’ use of her eyes.
“You are my density,” already mentioned, offers several examples of dynamic staging in depth.
Chapter 8 Summary: Style as a Formal System
We have posted two entries dealing with form and style, specifically experimental artifice in 1940s Hollywood. These could be of interest to advanced students. “Puppetry and ventriloquism” deals in general with the topic, while “Play it again, Joan” looks at scenes that replay the same action or situation. The latter contains an analysis of a lengthy scene of Joan Crawford performing that could be useful in discussing staging and acting for Chapter 4.
Chapter 9 Film Genres
If you teach a unit on genre and choose to focus on mysteries, “I love a mystery: Extra-credit reading” gives some historical background information on the genre in popular literature and cinema.
Chapter 10 Documentary, Experimental, and Animated Films
“Solomonic judgments” centers on the gorgeous experimental films of Phil Solomon.
Chapter 11 Film Criticism: Sample Analyses
Our discussion of Tokyo Story in Film Art could be supplemented by this brief birthday tribute: “A modest extravagance: Four looks at Ozu.”
Chapter 12 Historical Change in Film Art: Conventions and Choices, Traditions and Trends
Last September I found an extraordinary little piece of formal and stylistic analysis using video, Variation: The Sunbeam, David W. Griffith, 1912. A Spanish film student, Aitor Gametxo, had displayed the staging and cutting patterns of Griffith’s Biograph short, The Sunbeam, by laying out the shots in a grid reflecting the actual spatial relations among the sets and running the action in real time. If you teach a history unit or just want an elegant, clear example of how editing of contiguous spaces works, this is a wonderful teaching tool. Classes may be particularly intrigued that a student was able to put together something this insightful. Plus The Sunbeam is a charming film that would probably appeal to students more than a lot of early cinema would. See “Variations on a Sunbeam: Exploring a Griffith Biograph film.” Gametxo’s film also provides an elegant example of how editing of adjacent spaces works and could be a useful teaching tool for Chapter 6.
Teachers showing a Georges Méliès film might have their students read “HUGO: Scorsese’s birthday present to George Méliès,” which has some background information on the career of this cinematic conjurer.
German silent film was the focus of “Not-quite-lost shadows.”
Not strictly on the blog, but alongside it, is a survey of how developments in film history generated changes in film theory. The essay is “The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film.”
Further general suggestions
Looking for some new and interesting films to add to your syllabus? We cover quite a few in our dispatches from the Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: “Reasons for cinephile optimism,” “Son of seduced by structure,” “Ponds and performers: Two experimental documentaries,” “Middle-Eastern crowd-pleasers in Vancouver,” and “More VIFF vitality, plain and fancy.”
Or if you seek information on historical films newly available on DVD, we occasionally post wrap-ups of recent releases, including a cornucopia of international silent films. See “Silents nights: DVD stocking-stuffers for those long winter evenings.”
We have also carried on our tradition of a year-end ten-best list—but of films from 90 years ago. Not all the films on our list for 1921 are on DVD, but most are: “The ten best films of … 1921.”
Every now and then we post an entry pointing to informative DVD supplements that might be useful teaching tools. It’s surprising how few of them go beyond a superficial level where the actors and filmmakers sit around praising each other: “Beyond praise 5: Still more supplements that really tell you something.”
The tenth edition of our textbook, Film Art: An Introduction will be available in early July. It has so many new features that it’s our most extensive revision in at least a decade.
Kristin has already written about one of our major additions: supplemental film extracts from the Criterion Collection, with voice-over commentary and other sorts of analysis. (Go here for a sample.) These will be accessible to professors for incorporation into their syllabi. More of them may also become generally available on the Criterion website.
The text has been extensively rewritten, aiming at maximal clarity and freshness. There are many local changes too, with updated examples from a variety of films both old and new. Regular readers will notice that we have made two replacements: Koyaanisqatsi is now our example of associational form, and Švankmajer’s Dimensions of Dialogue is our example of experimental animation. Regretfully, we had to drop our earlier examples, Bruce Conner’s A Movie and Robert Breer’s Fuji, because they are available only in 16mm, and most teachers and readers don’t have access to them. On the other hand, we enjoyed analyzing the new items and think that they serve their purpose very well.
Today I’m going to point out some of the broader changes, while also considering the book’s overall approach.
Parts and wholes
When Film Art appeared in 1979, it was the first textbook in English written by people who had received Ph.D.s in film studies. Specifically, FA emerged from my teaching a lecture-and-discussion course called “Introduction to Film” to several hundred students each semester for many years.
In the mid-seventies, there were almost no film studies textbooks, and none of them seemed to us to reflect the directions of current research. As a result, the first edition of FA included topics that were emerging in the field, such as narrative theory and conceptions of ideology. It also suggested a coherent, comprehensive view of cinematic art, from avant-garde and documentary cinema to mainstream film and “art cinema.”
The book has changed since then, but its approach has remained consistent in two primary respects. For one thing, it tries to survey the basic techniques of the medium in a systematic fashion. Here the key word is “systematic.” It seemed to us that we might go beyond simple mentioning this or that technique—editing, or acting, or sound—and instead treat each technique in a more logical and thorough way. But film aesthetics wasn’t yet conceived in this way, so to a considerable extent the textbook had to offer some original ideas.
For example, most people thought of editing primarily as a means of advancing the film’s story. That’s certainly accurate up to a point, but we tried to go up a level of abstraction. We suggested that the change from shot to shot had implications for what was represented (the space shown in the shots, the time of the action presented), as well as for the sheer graphic and rhythmic qualities onscreen, independent of what was shown. That created four dimensions that the filmmaker could control, and we illustrated how Hitchcock shaped all of them in a sequence from The Birds.
Nobody before had surveyed editing’s possibilities in this multidimensional way. The result was that we were able to trace out several expressive options. We analyzed the 180-degree system for presenting story space, and Film Art became the first film appreciation textbook to explain this. We also laid out ways in which shots could manipulate the order, duration, and frequency of story action. We also considered sheerly graphic and rhythmic possibilities of editing, not all of which are tied to narrative purposes. Similarly, we tried to show that sound, another familiar technique, could be understood as a bundle of systematic options relating to sound quality, locations in space, relation to time, and other factors.
In sum, very often the array technical options had an inner logic. This urge to cover all bases helped us notice options that usually escaped critics. So by concentrating on the graphic dimension of editing, we noticed that some filmmakers tried to create pictorial carryovers from shot to shot, a device we called the “graphic match.”
A second core principle of the book was the idea that we ought to think about films as wholes. There’s a strong tendency in film criticism, in both print and the net, to fasten on memorable single sequences for study. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but we think it needs to be balanced by considering how all the sequences in a film fit together. That led us to consider various types of large-scale form, both narrative and non-narrative.
Again, this was new to the field. We showed students how to divide films into parts and then trace patterns of progression and coherence across them. This is a valuable skill for both intelligent viewers and people who might want to work in filmmaking. We showed how the distinction between story and plot could help explain large-scale narrative construction. We suggested that issues of point-of-view and range of character knowledge exemplified broader principles of narration, the ways films pass information along on a moment-by-moment basis. And although most film courses show narrative films (mine did too), we wanted students to think about other large-scale organizational principles too, such as rhetorical argument and associational form. Again, thinking about these more general possibilities led us to consider creative options that hadn’t been the province of introductory texts, such as rhetorical documentary and poetic experimental cinema.
These two efforts—comprehensive study of techniques and a holistic emphasis on total form—weren’t FA’s only salient points. We tried to incorporate more familiar elements from genre studies and historical research. But they did set the book apart, and do still. I believe that we made contributions to our understanding of film aesthetics. One measure of these contributions is the extent to which FA has been regarded as not only a textbook but an original contribution to film aesthetics. Another sign is the fact that other textbooks have relied, sometimes to a startling degree, upon FA for concepts, organization, and examples.
Associational form: Koyaanisqatsi.
Still, we did encounter objections.
Some readers worried that FA’s layout of logical categories took away some of the magic and mystery: Art dies under dissection. Some also protested that filmmakers didn’t use the categories and terms we invoked. These concerns have, I think, waned a bit over the years, but I’ll address them anyhow.
First, as to the need for categories. As a genre, the textbook in art theory has a very old ancestry. Aristotle’s Poetics, a survey of what we’d now call literary art, bristles with categories—drama vs. epic, comedy vs. tragedy, types of plots, etc. In the visual and musical arts, from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, writers tried to systematically understand the principles of artists’ practice. Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise on painting tried to show that as an activity, painting had many “parts,” such as drawing, color, and light.
This classificatory urge continued through the centuries, and it continues today. Pick up a book on the visual arts today and you’ll see chapters on composition, color, texture, and the like. The same goes for music; an introductory book will survey rhythm, harmony, melody, musical forms, and so on. There’s no escaping some sort of categorizing if we want to understand any subject, and this goes as well for art traditions.
The categories governing centuries-old arts are largely taken for granted. But film is a newish medium, and film studies a still-young academic discipline, so there remains a lot of exploratory thinking to be done. In the late 1970s, Film Art undertook some of that exploration.
A lot of thinking about film employs categories that are very abstract and general (say, “realism” versus “non-realism”). Our frame of reference tries to be more concrete, more fitted to the particularity of what films actually look and sound like. Whenever we could, we incorporated filmmakers’ explicit concepts into our analyses. FA, for instance, was the first appreciation textbook to introduce the principles of continuity editing that were craft routines among directors and cinematographers.
At other times, we tried to synthesize ideas that were circulating in the filmmaking community. For example, for several decades filmmakers and critics have been saying that editing is getting faster, close-ups are getting more prominent, and camera movements are becoming more salient, even aggressive. From studying hundreds of films, we came to the conclusion that these trends are part of a new approach to film style, and we dubbed that “intensified continuity.” That term aims to capture the idea that for the most part these techniques are in accord with traditional continuity editing, but they sharpen and heighten its effect.
Occasionally we tried to clarify concepts. Most notoriously, we borrowed from French film theory the distinction between “diegetic” and “nondiegetic” sound because all the other terms (“source music,” “narrative music,” etc.) seemed to us ambiguous or inexact. As with most categories, individual films can play with or override this distinction, but it’s a plausible point of departure because traditionally the distinction is respected.
Contrary to some objections, then, we often worked with ideas used by practicing filmmakers. Where traditional terminology seemed inadequate to those ideas, we created our own. And some effects we may notice in movies may have no currently accepted names. In some cases, as in the graphic match, the phenomenon may not even have been identified. We haven’t tried to conjure up fancy labels; we’ve just tried to point to the ways some films work. Anyhow, the term doesn’t matter much, but the concept does.
So one way to think about the categories of form and style in FA is to see them as bringing out principles underlying filmmakers’ practical decisions. A director may choose to do something on the basis of intuition, but we can backtrack and reconstruct the choice situation she faced. If we want to survey the possibilities of the medium, one way to do it is to build categories that show the expressive options available, even if filmmakers don’t sit down and brood on each one.
Thinking like a filmmaker
Walt Disney’s Taxi Driver (Bryan Boyce).
Categories are inevitable, and they allow us to consider creative choices systematically. Making this second point explicit is the most important overall revision in the new version of Film Art.
Previous editions took the perspective of the film viewer. This is reasonable: Teachers want to enhance their students’ skills in noticing and appreciating things in the movies. But from the start FA also indicated that the things we discussed also mattered to filmmakers. As the years went by, we incorporated more comments and ideas from screenwriters, cinematographers, sound designers, directors, and other artisans—often as marginal quotes that, we hoped, would reinforce or counter something in the main text.
Now, though, we’ve shifted the perspective more strongly toward the filmmaker—or rather, toward getting the viewer to think like a filmmaker.
Until recently, most of our readers hadn’t tried their hand at making movies. But with the rise of digital media, a great many young people have begun making their own films. Some of these are variants of home movies, records of concerts or parties or a night out. But many of these DIY films are more thoroughly worked over. They’re planned, shot, and cut with considerable care. Posted on YouTube or Vimeo, they exist as creative efforts in cinema no less than the films that get released to theatres or TV. If you doubt it, look at lipdubs, or meticulous mashups like Bryan Boyce’s.
So, we thought, many students are now able to consider film art as practicing filmmakers. For one thing, that means they’re more aware of the techniques we explain. (Probably nothing in Film Art is as tough as mastering Final Cut Pro.) Moreover, the very act of making films has made students sensitive to alternative ways of doing anything. Accordingly, this edition emphasizes that the resources of the film medium that we survey constitute potential creative choices which yield different effects.
Take an example. We can explain the idea of restricted versus unrestricted narration abstractly. Restricted narration ties you to a limited range of knowledge about the story action; unrestricted narration expands that range, often presenting action that no single character could know about. Filmmakers intuitively make choices along this spectrum even if they don’t use the terminology. Then again, sometimes they do. A while back we quoted the director of Cloverfield:
The point of view was so restricted, it felt really fresh. It was one of the things that attracted me [to this project]. You are with this group of people and then this event happens and they do their best to understand it and survive it, and that’s all they know.
In Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, the hero and three other captives are chosen to fight in the arena. They sit sealed in the holding pen while we hear Crassus and his elite colleagues chatting pleasantly about their trivial affairs.
When the combat starts, we’re still confined to the shed. Crixus and Galeno are summoned out, and the door slides shut, leaving Spartacus and Draba alone.
The director has already made several important choices, notably contrasting the carefree chatter of the rulers with the grim prospects of the gladiators (the latter underscored by relentless music). But now there’s a big fork in the road: To show the first combat, or not?
Kubrick chooses not to. We hear the call, “Those who are about to die salute you!” We hear swords clashing, and Spartacus peers outside through the slats. We see only what he sees.
Draba studies Spartacus, who closes his eyes to shut out the spectacle outside.
The two men share a look, but Spartacus turns his gaze away, as if unwilling to confront the cost of killing this man who has done him no harm.
This stretch of the scene is too detailed and varied for me to replay in full, but it’s all confined to the two men in the shed—their reactions to what they hear and what Spartacus sees, and the development of a mix of wary appraisal and desperation. No words are spoken.
The fight outside concludes, and at the climactic moment Kubrick cuts to a new angle that puts Draba and Spartacus in the same frame, realizing that their time has come. The door slides open again, and the men step out.
The exchange of glances has been just ambiguous enough to make us wonder whether the two will really try to kill one another. Restricting us to the holding pen gives us a moment to watch them pondering their fates and enhances the suspense about the outcome of their fight.
Every instant presents the director with a choice that can shape the viewer’s experience. When the men go out, Kubrick must decide on what to show us next. Most daringly, he could keep us in the shed and let us glimpse the fight from there. But that would be a very unusual option in American commercial cinema. Instead, the next shots expand our range of knowledge by shifting us to a different character’s reaction. Before showing us the arena, we get a shot of Virinia, the slave just bought by Crassus. As a result, she is marked as important before we get a general shot of the arena.
Eventally, a master shot ties together all the characters before we move to the next phase of the scene.
As Darba and Spartacus start their fight, you can argue that the effect of it is even stronger because we haven’t seen the earlier match. Restricted presentation of the first combat, seen only through Spartacus’s eyes, throws the emphasis on this one.
By shifting our attention to filmmakers’ areas of choice, we haven’t really abandoned thinking from the standpoint of the spectator. The two views complement each other. In effect, we’re reverse-engineering: thinking like a filmmaker sharpens our sense of how the spectator’s experience can be shaped. From either perspective, we need concepts, categories, and terminology.
To futz or not to futz?
Undercover Man (1949).
Once we notice the concrete results of creative choices by director, cinematographer, editor, and others, we’re inclined to compare how filmmakers have pursued different options, and how these decisions yield different effects. So you might contrast Kubrick’s treatment of the combat with the free-for-all in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. There the period of waiting is short, and all the emphasis is put on the bloody combat.
Film Art uses the comparative method often, again to illustrate the range of choice available to the filmmaker. Let’s take some instances that have implications for both narration and sound. Telephone conversations are a staple of filmic storytelling. In such a scene, you as a director face a decision tree. Whatever you choose leads to other choices.
Should you show both characters in the conversation, or only one? A passage from The Big Clock presents both options, one after the other.
This illustration suggests that if the character on the other line plays a significant role in the story, you may want to show him or her. Max isn’t as important as Stroud’s wife and son. Once you’ve decided to cut back and forth, you’ll still have to decide when to cut—at what points to show us characters’ reactions. You might want to replay this clip to see how the cutting pattern highlights certain responses.
Alternatively, you can stick with one character and conceal the other party, even if that character is important. Here’s an example from Joseph H. Lewis’s Undercover Man.
Unlike Max in the Big Clock scene, this caller is an important character, a prospective snitch. By not showing him on the other end of the line, Lewis concentrates our attention on the federal agents and builds a little suspense. He goes even further: By not cutting in to Warren as he talks, the direction emphasizes the reactions of Judy, Warren’s wife. Her response is highlighted when she turns slightly into profile, registering her realization that her husband has to leave her on a dangerous mission sooner than she expected.
Sticking with one character triggers another choice about telephone talk: Do you let us hear the other party or not? So far, all our examples have suppressed the voice of the person on the other end of the line. But of course you could let the viewer hear that.
There’s a new problem coming up, though. You need to make it clear that the voice is coming through the receiver, not from someone outside the frame. So a convention has arisen: Words coming through the phone line are distorted, in a process called “futzing.” Here’s an example of subdued futzing from I Walk Alone.
And here’s a case from The Blue Dahlia illustrating the difference between the two sorts of sound even more sharply. Here it’s especially important to let the audience know that what’s being heard is a recording.
This isn’t to say that every choice is absolutely fixed. You can experiment. This is what King Vidor did in H. M. Pulham, Esq. Pulham gets a call, and though we stay with him, the voice isn’t futzed; the effect is a bit unnerving.
We were breaking with tradition. When the sound men took over, it became the cliché to put all telephone voices through some sort of filtering device. This made it sound distorted and weird. It occurred to me, why should the audience strain to listen? The person with the receiver up there on the screen doesn’t strain to hear the voice. There isn’t any kind of mechanical distortion. I thought we should just direct it to sound the way it sounded to the person.
The film’s plot concerns Pulham’s regrets about the missed opportunities of his youth. When he gets calls from old friends, their voices seem unusually immediate, more vital and “present” for him than the people in the life he’s leading now.
These creative options show how even small stylistic decisions affect narration and the viewer’s response. Presenting both characters on the phone creates more unrestricted narration, and this allows us to gauge reactions to the action. By showing only one character, you concentrate on that person and the people around them.
If you suppress the words spoken on the other end of the line, you maintain some uncertainty about what’s happening, and you don’t share with us what the listener knows. In contrast, if you let us hear what the listener hears, you tie us to their range of knowledge and perhaps create a bond with them. And as Vidor suggests, you can try to create a deeper subjectivity by letting us hear the speaker as the listener does.
Although Vidor’s experiment wasn’t taken up, directors have continued to try different ways of rendering phone conversations. It would be fun to compare Larry Cohen’s two “phone” scripts, Cellular and Phone Booth, in these terms—not least because of the eerie sound design applied to the mysterious caller harassing the hero of Phone Booth.
Choice and change in history
Un Chien andalou (1928); Blue Velvet (1986).
In such ways, the categories we survey can be thought of as a range of possible options facing filmmakers. But all of them aren’t available to every filmmaker. As every filmmaker knows, you choose within constraints, and some of those constraints are the result of history.
As in earlier editions, Film Art concludes with a chapter surveying artistic trends across film history. But now we’ve tried to integrate the idea of thinking like a filmmaker into that section, emphasizing the interplay of choice and constraint. Most obviously, budgets limit choices. Other constraints might be technological; not all filmmakers have been able to film in color, or to use advanced special effects. Some constraints involve matters of fashion: some acting styles and staging methods aren’t widely acceptable today. In our final chapter we show how certain traditions and schools of filmmaking confronted the constraints of their period and place. Sometimes filmmakers worked within those constraints, and sometimes they overcame them by trying something different.
At the same time, we break with our previous editions by weaving recent films into the history chapter. We try to show that the expressive choices made by filmmakers long ago have returned in our time. The earliest short films, based on novelty and surprise events, have successors in YouTube videos. Contemporary filmmakers draw on techniques favored by German Expressionism and French Impressionism. (Recent examples on the blog are here and here.) Current Iranian films owe a good deal to Italian Neorealism, while the Dogme filmmakers tried to revive some of the insolent force of the French New Wave. It isn’t just a matter of influence, either. Contemporary filmmakers face problems of storytelling and style that others have faced before. The choices our filmmakers make often recall those made in the past.
We’re very proud of this edition of Film Art. We hope that the changes will whet the interests of teachers, students, film lovers, and that generic “curious general reader”—who, we persist in believing, isn’t mythical.
Just to be clear: Our Spartacus example doesn’t appear in the book. Our layout of choices about handling phone conversations does, but with different examples. Thanks to Kevin Lee and Jim Emerson for advice on video embedding.
King Vidor’s remarks about H. M. Pulham, Esq. are taken from Nancy Dowd and David Shepard, King Vidor: A Directors Guild of America Oral History (Scarecrow, 1988), 188. A library of futzed sound clips is here. For a more detailed study of how phone conversations may be presented through both sound and image, see Michel Chion’s Film, A Sound Art, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 365-371. (An outline of his typology is here, in French.) Chion’s research is a good example of showing how a systematic set of principles can underlie the practical decisions facing filmmakers.
Alert reader Chris Freitag has steered me to a recent and fine lipdub here. It exemplifies how competition within a genre can spur innovation. More specifically, how to create a new sort of lipdub? Well, how about proposing marriage?
Instructors interested in obtaining a desk copy of Film Art: An Introduction can visit this website.
Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).
P.S. 27 June: Some correspondence I’ve just gotten reminds me of two things I neglected to mention in the entry. First, this edition of Film Art contains a great deal more material on digital cinema, from production and postproduction through to distribution and exhibition. We’ve woven digital technology into sections on various techniques, particularly cinematography, and we’ve added material on 3D cinema.
Second, our decision to replace our sections on A Movie and Fuji doesn’t mean that those discussions will vanish forever. For some years we’ve been putting up older Film Art material as pdf files on this wing of the site. Later this summer we’ll be doing the same with the Movie and Fuji sections of the book. Instructors who want their students to read that material are welcome to send them there, where the essays can be downloaded.
Somehow round numbers seem significant. This summer, Film Art: An Introduction is due to be published in its tenth edition.
We first set out to write the book in 1977, and it appeared in 1979. We’ve been gratified that it has retained an audience of teachers, students, and general readers over the ensuing decades. During that period, we’ve revised it to keep up with changes in filmmaking, in film studies, and in our own sense of what makes cinema a distinct artistic medium. At the outset we wanted to represent many eras of film history, a wide range of international films, and such important categories as documentary, experimental, and animated films. Our revisions over the years have tried to keep these goals in mind. At the same time, we realize that one way to engage students with ideas about film is to pay some attention to films they know, to enable them to look and listen to familiar movies in new ways.
We think we’ve stayed loyal to these purposes across nine editions. But with the fateful number ten we think we’ve stepped up to a new level. We’ve made many changes to the book that we find exciting; more about these below. The most dramatic development, however, comes through our new online partnership with The Criterion Collection.
Most teachers are familiar with Criterion and its high-end series of DVD and Blu-ray releases of classic and important contemporary films. In 1984, Criterion pioneered the genre of supplements, working at the time with laserdiscs. The team are 100% cinephiles, and they continue to set the standard for a rich array of bonus materials, all the making-of films, interviews, and documents that are of such interest to fans, scholars, students, and aspiring filmmakers. Now, with Criterion’s kind cooperation, we have produced a series of online examples tied to Film Art that will use scenes from several of their classics.
Film Art was the first introductory film textbook to use frame enlargements rather than publicity photographs as illustrations. Other textbooks have since imitated this approach, since it’s a vital tool when teaching students to analyze films. Nevertheless, even whole pages full of frames can’t fully convey the effects of techniques such as camera movement, graphic matches, staging in depth, and sound. The next logical step would be to use examples with scenes from movies, adding graphics and voiceover commentaries to clarify the points being made.
Problems of clearing rights and questions concerning the limits of fair use have made it difficult for textbook authors to supply adequate, high-quality moving-image examples on DVDs or online. The Criterion Collection has allowed us to make this big next step. We’re extremely proud of this new partnership, and we’re grateful to Peter Becker, Kim Hendrikson, Tyson Kubota, Giles Sherwood, and the rest of the Criterion Collection team for their generosity and help. Peter has written a blog about the new arrangement.
Online examples using clips from Criterion Collection films
The result is an hour-long set of twenty examples called Connect Film. Seventeen of these center around excerpts from film classics from the 1930s to the 1980s. David and I wrote the scripts and recorded the commentary tracks. The production, direction, editing, and special graphics were done professionally by Erik Gunneson, a filmmaker and Faculty Associate here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.The Criterion scenes are presented as moving images rather than still frames; it’s as if the sort of examples we use in Film Art have sprung to life. Erik has also produced three original demonstration videos laying out basics of lighting, camera lens length and movement, and continuity editing.
So why not check out one of our examples? Criterion has posted “”Elliptical Editing in Vagabond (1985),” in its entirety, on its YouTube page. Go here or watch it at the bottom of this post.
Chapter 4 Mise-en-scene
Film Lighting Demonstration This video clearly contrasts the results of side-, back-, and other types of light, as well as the principles of the three-point lighting system.
Light sources in Ashes and Diamonds (1958) The three sources of the light in the opening of the famous church scene are described and also indicated by colored arrows.
Available Lighting in Breathless (1960) This example starts with an extract from an interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, produced by the Criterion Collection. Coutard describes shooting without supplemental light in the lengthy bedroom scene, followed by an illustrative clip.
Staging in Depth in M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953; above) A scene of M. Hulot nervously watching a descending lump of saltwater taffy. The clip is run, then repeated with commentary discussing the comic possibilities of deep-space staging.
Color Motifs in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) Yellow is associated with the bees in this film, but also with the malaise of Spain in the wake of its Civil War. The scene in which the color comes to be associated with the bees is shown, with still frames and commentary discussing other shots where yellow is prominent.
Chapter 5 Cinematography
Lens Length and Camera Movement Demonstration video contrasting the effects of long, medium, and short lenses. Erik also illustrates different types of camera movement.
Tracking Shots Structure a Scene in Ugetsu (1953; above) A wife and son bid farewell to a departing boat. Using a split-screen technique, we lay out the shots and show how camera movements are used to add to the ominous, poignant effect of the scene.
Tracking Shot to Reveal in The 400 Blows (1959) While the tracking shots in the Ugetsu example follow the characters’ movements, a scene from The 400 Blows shows how the camera can create other effects by moving on its own.
Style Creates Parallelism in Day of Wrath (1943) Similar camera movements prompt us to compare two scenes.
Staging and Camera Movement in a Long Take from The Rules of the Game (1939) In a scene that is rarely examined in this much-analyzed film, we trace out how a busy scene in a hallway, as guests head for their bedrooms, lays out the setting and highlights minor characters.
Chapter 6 Editing
Editing with Graphic Matches in Seven Samurai (1954) We use this example in discussing graphic matches in Film Art, but it’s hard to get a sense of the patterning from stills, So this clip shows the scene in its context and then replays the series of matches, freezing and laying them out across the screen.
Shifting the Axis of Action in Shaun of the Dead (2004; above) Erik uses stills and overhead diagrams to show how the axis of action can be shifted when characters turn their heads and when new characters join the conversation.
Crossing the Axis of Action in Early Summer (1951) A friendly argument between Noriko and two of her friends employs cuts that consistently move back and forth across the axis of action. An overhead diagram marks the camera positions shot by shot.
Crosscutting in M (1930) Through a first run-through and then a replay with freeze-frames, we study how editing compares gangsters meeting and police meeting.
Elliptical Editing in Vagabond (1985) The enigmatic heroine lives her nomadic life, moving from place to place and meeting a variety of people, rich and poor. In a scene depicting her hitchhiking from near a convent to arrive in a barn, we show how the editing propels our interest but leaves out items of narrative information that increases the mystery of her character.
Jump Cuts in Breathless (1960) Some of the most familiar jump cuts from Breathless are illustrated in Film Art. This example uses a later scene in a cab which uses an unusually large number of such cuts. How many? Let’s count and see.
Chapter 7 Sound
Sound Mixing in Seven Samurai (1954) Our text describes the rich sound mix of the final battle of Seven Samurai, with rain, horses’ hoof-beats, men’s shouts, and other sound effects–all without music. Description, though, goes only so far. Now we can let readers listen for themselves.
Contrasting Rhythms of Sound and Image in M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) Jacques Tati manages to create a double joke when musical tempo clashes with figure movement.
Offscreen Sound in M (1931; above) Even at the dawn of sound, Fritz Lang found inventive ways to avoid static dialogue scenes. Police raid a basement tavern, and even when there’s little movement onscreen we hear bustling activity outside the frame. Some shots, like this one, recall camera angles from earlier scenes.
Chapter 10 Animation
What Comes Out Must Go in: 2D Computer Animation Most of us are curious about computer animation, not least because it offers tools that amateurs and would-be filmmakers can learn to use. We show how independent filmmakers can get high-quality results in My Dog Tulip (Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, 2010) and Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008; above).
Instructors can stream any of these items in their classes, or students can watch them on their own.
Chungking Express: To hear the voice on the line, or not?
Central as the Criterion extracts are, we’ve made other changes. We’ve done a top-to-bottom rewrite of the text, trying to make it more conversational, more like our blogging. We’ve updated our account of digital filmmaking and we’ve incorporated new information on digital distribution and exhibition–the sort of matters you can find in more detail in David’s Pandora series (which started here).
We’ve tried to make film art tangible for students by asking them to imagine alternative approaches to storytelling and technique. In keeping with this angle of approach, we’ve highlighted decision-making processes: the concrete choices faced by directors, cinematographers, editors, and other creative workers. One of the salient features of Film Art since the beginning has been its effort to blend the point of view of the critic or analyst with the point of view of the filmmaker. Here’s a passage from the first chapter.
Films are designed to create experiences for viewers. To gain an understanding of film as an art, we should ask why a film is designed the way it is. When a scene frightens or excites us, when an ending makes us laugh or cry, we can ask how the filmmakers have achieved those effects.
It helps to imagine that we’re filmmakers too. Throughout this book, we’ll be asking you to put yourself in the filmmaker’s shoes. This shouldn’t be a great stretch. You’ve taken still photos with a camera or a mobile phone. Very likely you’ve made some videos, perhaps just to record a moment in your life—a party, a wedding, your cat creeping into a paper bag. And central to filmmaking is the act of choice. You may not have realized it at the moment, but every time you framed a shot, shifted your position, told people not to blink, or tried to keep up with a dog chasing a Frisbee, you were making choices.
If you take the next step and make a more ambitious, more controlled film, you’re doing the same thing. You might compile clips into a YouTube video, or document your friend’s musical performance. Again, at every stage you make design decisions, based on how you think this image or that sound will affect your viewers’ experience. What if you start your music video with a black screen that gradually brightens as the music fades in? That will have a different effect than starting it with a sudden cut to a bright screen and a blast of music.
At each instant, the filmmaker can’t avoid making creative decisions about how viewers will respond. Every moviemaker is also a movie viewer, and the choices are considered from the standpoint of the end user. Filmmakers constantly ask themselves: If I do this, as opposed to that, how will viewers react?
Even if the reader never makes a movie, we think that getting comfortable with this framework can sensitize us to the power of cinema as an art form.
Of course, we also want to understand the finished film. We need to look at how the choices coalesce into patterns of meaning and effect. This is the holistic bent that the book has always had: we try to understand the choices in the context of the whole film and its purposes. To a large extent film form and film style are the terms we as analysts apply to the patterns of choices that shape our experience.
That emphasis on pattern is something that carries through all of our Film Art editions. It’s valuable to notice techniques or story twists in isolation, but we gain as well from seeing them as parts of larger patterns of organization. Such patterns and processes are highlighted in the case-study analyses in each chapter, as well as in the collection of analyses in Chapter 11. Likewise, Chapter 12 tries to trace some major strategies of form and style across history. The variety of films we consider allows us to spotlight some traditions that are less widely known than the Hollywood one–from France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, and other territories. Cinema is a global art, and we try to recognize that.
Over forty years we’ve learned a great deal about cinema from films and the people who make them. For this reason it’s been stirring to meet many filmmakers from North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East who tell us that they have learned something from Film Art. We offer the new edition in that spirit of common learning: to better understand a medium that we all love.
The 2011/12 school year is staring us in the face, and that means it’s time for another summary of which recent blog entries might be useful for teachers who assign Film Art: An Introduction in their classes. We’ve amassed 443 posts since we launched Observations on Film Art in late September, 2006, so browsing through them might seem a daunting prospect. You can also consult previous entries in this annual series for 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.
Chapter by chapter
Chapter 3 Narrative as a Formal System
Launching from an anecdote about a three-year-old watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we speculate about the conventions of narrative closure and how we learn them in “Molly wanted more.”
In discussing narration, we describe one of its characteristics as the “range of knowledge” the spectator is given. Often we’re limited largely to finding out what one character knows, as with Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. We examine this idea in more detail in “Alignment, allegiance, and murder.”
Chapter 3 has a “Closer Look” box that talks about the recent vogue for narratives that play games with time and causality, including the forking-path story. We examine another example in “Forking tracks: Source Code.”
We also discuss parallel plots, which in some cases involve protagonists who never meet. “Julie, Julia, & the house that talked” offers two examples, Julie & Julia and Enchantment.
Our main example in this chapter is Citizen Kane, which helped popularize flashback-based narratives in the 1940s. Some less familiar but equally baroque examples feature in “Chinese boxes, Russian dolls, and Hollywood movies.”
And for more on flashbacks in movies new and old, see “Puppetry and ventriloquism.”
Chapter 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene
Louis Feuillade’s silent French serials of the mid-1910s are masterpieces of subtle staging in depth. David analyses the wonderful serial Fantômas in “How to watch Fantômas and why.”
Students are especially keen to talk about acting, but it’s one of the hardest aspects of film to pin down and discuss. The chapter deals with it alongside the three other aspects of mise-en-scene, make-up/costumes, lighting, and setting. For those who want to teach it in more detail, we provide a discussion of the acting in The Social Network, concentrating (as filmmakers tend to) on the eyes and eyebrows of the two main actors. See “The Social Network: Faces behind Facebook.”
Chapter 5 The Shot: Cinematography
We discuss the most common screen ratios (the height of an image compared to its width) in this chapter. Some films have been released in two different ratios, widescreen and Academy. We demonstrate how important small differences in framing can be in Fritz Lang’s films in “Ratio-cination.” By contrast, “A Matter of ‘Scope” considers how Japanese and Chinese filmmakers use the 2.35 ratio.
The use of 3D has expanded considerably since we revised Film Art for its current edition, the ninth. Whether the technique will continue to expand or will simply be used for blockbusters and inexpensive genre films is still a subject for debate. We have followed the debates and the box-office fortunes of 3D in three entries this year: “Has 3D already failed? The sequel, part 1: RealDlighted,” “Has 3D already failed? The sequel, part 2: RealDsgusted,” and “Do not forget to return your 3D glasses.”
Chapter 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing
After noticing some incorrect definitions of “graphic match” appearing in print and on the internet (including Wikipedia), we decided to clarify the matter. We devised the term “graphic match” back in the mid-1970s, so we try to explain it in “Graphic content ahead.”
Chapter 8 Style as a Formal System
In “Bond vs. Chan: Jackie shows how it’s done,” we talk about how staging, framing, and editing can be used to make a clear, understandable fight scene (Jackie Chan) or a clumsy one where half the action isn’t there on the screen (Tomorrow Never Dies).
For more on clarity in staging, framing, and editing, see our comparison of Shanghai and Tampopo, “Direction: come in and sit down.”
Wouldn’t you know it? Our most popular entry ever was written by a guest blogger! Tim Smith, who researches how our eyes and minds perceive films, contributed “Watching you watching There Will Be Blood.” He was following up on an earlier entry by David, “Hands and faces across the table,” which analyzed a lengthy take in There Will Be Blood, suggesting how the staging and gestures direct our attention from one point on the screen to another. Tim followed up by using eye-tracking devices to show precisely where eleven viewers were looking from instant to instant. The entry included a video clip of the scene with the eye movements shown with moving circles.
This entry was posted in February and has racked up hundreds of thousands of views, on our site and others. About a hundred people still click on our entry every day. It even helped inspire a story in the New York Times by Manohla Dargis.
Tim’s post was less directly a follow-up to one we wrote on how eyes move across paintings: “The eye’s mind.”
The rediscovery of the great early silent French director Albert Capellani doesn’t exactly fit into Film Art, but we think everyone should be aware of this important figure. “Capellani trionfante” outlines the basics of his distinctive style. Greater than Griffith? For the pre-World War I period, at least, we think he may be.
Mainstream movies are more fast-paced than ever these days. We celebrate the merits of films with a slower rhythm in “Good and good for you.” Perhaps adventurous students will be intrigued.
Chapter 10 Documentary, Experimental, and Animated Films
Documentarist Errol Morris is an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and this past year he visited for a few days, bringing his new film Tabloid with him. We profile him in “Errol Morris, boy detective.” This entry could be assigned along with the analysis of The Thin Blue Line in Chapter 11.
We were blogging from New York in February, when Christian Marclay’s The Clock was creating a sensation at a downtown gallery. It’s a 24-hour compilation video made up of shots from a huge variety of existing films, all showing clocks that register the time at which the viewer is seeing those shots. We discuss it in “Time piece.”
Animation sometimes turns up in unexpected places. The makers of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 decided to render the story Hermione Granger reads from The Tales of Beadle the Bard as a short animated film. We discuss this imaginative segment and its director in “Three minutes of ‘Three Brothers.’”
Chapter 12 Film Art and Film History
Film history is a living presence on our blog: We talk about cinema from the silent era onward. So great is our commitment to early film that we don’t post a list of the ten best films of the year. Instead we decided to promote old films by discussing the ten best films of exactly ninety years ago. This time it was “The ten best films of … 1920.” If you teach a unit on film history, this entry and its predecessors might give you some ideas about what to show in class. The most recent one contains links to all the earlier entries. Some titles will be familiar, some less so, and some, alas, are still awaiting release on DVD.
One section of Chapter 12 deals with the development of Hollywood continuity style in the 1910s. We go into more detail concerning editing and staging during this period in “Looking different today?”
Anyone interested in going beyond Chapter 12′s section on Hong Kong film history will find plenty more information in this year’s entries. To celebrate the second edition of David’s Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment, available here, there is a seven-day blogathon about stars, stories, and styles in Hong Kong cinema. That week starts here, with a list of 25 essential movies. There’s also David’s annual report from the Hong Kong International Film Festival, launching, appropriately enough, with an entry called “Bullets from the East.”
The last section of the chapter deals with modern Hollywood cinema. Our review of Sidney Lumet’s career deals with changes in mainstream moviemaking that occurred from the 1950s on, in “Endurance: Survival lessons from Lumet.”
About once a year we post an entry in our series, “Beyond praise: DVD supplements that really tell you something.” These offer suggestions for supplements that offer substantive information on filmmaking. Our fourth “Beyond praise” post, with links to the first three, is here.
We attend a small number of film festivals regularly and blog about the movies we see there. We’re not linking to every one of our festival reports, but they do contain brief commentaries on recent films and restorations of older ones. Teachers who happen to be screening one of these films might find what we say useful. There are links for festivals in general and specific festivals in the Categories list in the right margin, or try typing specific titles into the search box. We also have added a lot of new categories, including individual filmmakers and festivals.
When we started our blog, we didn’t expect that it would provide the contents for a book. Still, when the University of Chicago Press suggested that we propose a collection bringing together some of our popular entries, we thought it worth a try. The result was published this year as Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking. Naturally, in a case of circular synergy, we blogged about it in “A new book, more or less accidental.”
Real products (I think).