A Teenager’s Guide to Serious Film
by Ronald Chase, Founding Director of San Francisco Art & Film for Teenagers
Film has become such a universal part of people’s lives it hardly needs to be introduced to you. At the same time, most any child being raised today has also been strongly influenced in the way they think and see by its offspring: television, the internet and social media.
The invention of television was hailed as monumental. Ideas, news of the world, art, entertainment would flow with never-ending variety into the homes of every citizen making all our lives richer and better. It was going to be the learning tool that changed our world. Sadly—and probably inevitably—it quickly became the marketing tool that ruled our lives. In doing so, TV producers and marketers develop clever tricks and techniques designed to influence their audience. Unfortunately those techniques also encourage passive viewing and deter critical thinking.
Even if you don’t watch it, TV has an influence on you because it shapes popular culture. Before you can start to develop ideas about film you need to unlearn the habits of seeing that you have picked up unconsciously and never thought about much.
So what are these so called bad habits and why should you care if you have them?
We live in a materialistic, consumer society which too often places money at the pinnacle of many people’s existence. No one likes to admit this, so there’s lots of ways that help them deny it. For example, most of the thrust of advertising is to make people think they want or need things which they seldom want or need. This way, they encourage them to buy, and that keeps the consumer society happy. This was pretty much developed to perfection during the early television years.
A “marketing” technique is just that. It’s a tool to make you want to buy things. The entire structure of the television empire is dedicated to this end, otherwise it would not exist. You say you don’t pay attention to the commercials? Well, you did when you were little (without even realizing it) and the structure of TV—“and now a word from our sponsors…”—was etched in your mind.
It works like this: on television a drama, a comedy, a story develops in a certain way to grab your attention quickly and hold it so you won’t reach for the remote and change the channel. Episodes are constructed around commercial breaks: they bring you to an emotional or humorous high point, and then, bam! try to sell you something.
This pattern has trained you to expect to be kept titillated and interested without having to do a thing except sit there, and you’re likely to become impatient if you’re not kept constantly stimulated. This means lots of information in small, highly amusing or absorbing, digestible short segments. Your ability to pay attention for long stretches of time, your capacity to concentrate, your patience—all of these virtues you’re going to need to get you through your life—have been strongly distorted and in many cases, practically wiped out.
Television, Facebook, YouTube, texting, tweeting, etc. has filled your sensibilities with endless hours of mindless trivia – sometimes exciting on the surface but nothing much to think about. It wants you to keep you busy, without thinking, and convince you you are watching material of substance. It reconfirms this illusion by selling the most popular, profitable ideas of what’s important and what’s not. Social media is a central force channeling the most destructive values of popular culture—conformity (so you can be more easily manipulated and buy more), materialism (you’re not valuable unless you’re buying things) and celebrity,
A few years of a steady diet of first-rate serious film can sober up the most avid television addict. Not that you’ve never tried anything more thoughtful and serious than TV, but you likely haven’t had any help making the transition between industry driven “products” and films whose purpose is to express a more honest interpretation of life.
FILM 1 2 3 is a primer to give you the tools for thinking about film seriously.
Every person has a right to his or her opinion, but this doesn’t mean all opinions are equal. There are informed opinions, uninformed opinions, and ignorant opinions. Opinions are subject to change, usually through learning, arguing, reasoning, and experience. Our aim is to help you form your own educated opinions about film and, in the process develop a vocabulary of terms, concepts and ideas that help you think about yourself and how you relate to film. Out of this will grow your own taste as it relates to your personality, which will help you as you begin to discover the person you are and the person you want to become.
1. Know what you like about a film and be able to explain why. You’ll be able to say, “I liked that film a lot, but I don’t think it was very well made” and explain why. Or say, “The film was really first rate, but I didn’t like it very much” and explain why. You’ll be able to mention the strong points about the film that you liked, and observe its weaknesses using references to its concept, style, editing, acting, lighting, use of camera and its imagery. You will have a subjective idea of your personal taste, and an objective idea of a film’s quality. To do all this will probably take you many more years, but at least we’ll give you a start.
2. Know enough about the techniques of film making, and what makes films first-rate, to be able to appreciate films on that level, regardless of whether the subject mater interests you or doesn’t. This requires having a technical vocabulary, and being able to relate this vocabulary to individual scenes in a film.
3. Know enough about the history of film to make connections, associations, spot influences and read the symbolism. You’ll have learned this through a lot of practice.
4. Be able to spot themes and subject matter and relate these elements to the individual scenes in the film, to help you form an educated opinion of the film’s meaning.
Ambitious? Yes. It’s tough, you need patience and determination to stick with it, but astute and brilliant observations from students over the years have convinced me this is a realistic goal.
Cine Club exposes you to new kinds of films all year long. Many of these will be classic films, foreign films, silent films, films studied in college classes, films shown at local art-house theaters. We will also see new films. These new films are chosen because (1) they have many first rate qualities, (2) the subject matter will expand your knowledge of the world or of film in general and (3) they are not films you would choose on your own.
We choose these films to stretch your mind, to make you take in ideas bigger than you have now. That stretch is the most important aspect of this program. If your head isn’t sore afterwards, you haven’t stretched far enough. You’re the judge. It’s your head.
THE TOUGHEST HURDLES FOR THE BEGINNER:
Making a transition to new types of film can sometimes be off-putting. If you’re prepared, it isn’t so strenuous. Here are the difficulties students complain about first:
Having to read and follow the film at the same time can be frustrating. Your reading skills count. The way you read can matter, too. If you’re used to reading one word at a time you’re in trouble. One trick is to keep your attention on the images and only consult the subtitles when you need to. In many films the dialogue and relationships can be understood without much help from subtitles. When we remember movies, we never remember the subtitles, we remember the images.
Why subtitles? Why not watch films that have the dialogue dubbed into English? Hearing a film with its original actors speaking their own language makes the film feel more real to us. With dubbed films, the speech doesn’t match the lip movements, and the voice acting is less than authentic, creating an artificial quality that diminishes the power of the film. The one exception in this case is the Italian film: during its heyday (‘50s-‘60s) Italian film used actors of all nationalities speaking their own languages, and they were all dubbed into Italian.
2. Getting lost and/or being bored:
“I didn’t like it. It was boring.” That’s O.K. but why was it boring? At what moment did you get bored? Most of the time when students are questioned closely, the boredom is directly connected to losing track of what the film is about.
Boredom is important. Sometimes boredom will help you understand something about yourself; sometimes it will help you understand where you got lost in the film, and of course sometimes it’s completely justified. When you lose interest note when—and if you are completely confused, be patient and note when your interest is piqued again.
It’s only natural you might get puzzled and lost when:
a. Films contain new elements that might be unfamiliar to you.
b. It’s filled with symbolism that’s difficult for you to understand or interpret.
c. You get tired of reading the subtitles and get lost.
Believe me, this has happened to everyone at one time or another.
3. Talking about film: Our discussions are made livelier by your input. If things puzzled you, ask, and we’ll try to straighten them out. We want to hear what your favorite moments were, and when you were impressed, and vice-verso. What you hated. And you might not know why. We’ll try to figure it out together.
The words “film” and “movies” have subjective meanings. Many associate the word “film” with art film, in contrast to “movies” which they connect to “Hollywood” or commercial films.
This battle of contexts began in the late 1950s with the invasion of art films from Europe, and the concept of “auteur,” a French term which sees the director as the total creator of his own work—with consistent style and vision. This idea is misleading because very few directors have ever had absolute control over their work. Most films, even “independent” films cost massive amounts of money that they need to make back, and as for “art films,” very fine films have been made in Hollywood as well as around the world.
It’s easier to understand the lack of first-rate films if we’re aware of recent production trends that force directors to alter their films to make them profitable. Reasons include poor test-audience response and “packaging” techniques of agents that bundle actors, writers, directors and musicians around story vehicles regardless of their appropriateness in order to raise profits. These films are products. Under these circumstances it is difficult to consider these films “seriously.”
Then there are “ordinary films”: films that are competently made but don’t have any distinctive qualities. These are the films most people feel comfortable with. They are pleasant and exciting to sit through but they leave no lasting effect. These films are the life blood of the film industry.
All films are subjected to a variety of outside pressures (including commerce) but some survive with their integrity intact. For these films I use the word “serious.” By “serious films” I mean films of high quality that observe the world in a thoughtful or imaginative way, confronting truths about life, philosophy or art. You can discuss them in terms of the truths they reveal. These films stand in contrast to the “industry products” or “ordinary movies” I have described above. This does not mean a “commercial” film can’t be well made or entertaining—many are—only that the film’s aim is not a truthful and thoughtful view of life. You will learn the distinctions in film as you see more of them. So let us get to the plot.
Most of the films you see in movie theaters today are plot driven. “The test of a good movie is that it’s able to tell a good story,” says the Hollywood mogul. This standard has held in Hollywood (and much of the rest of the world) through the last century. In this type of film a “story” hangs on a plot. The plot describes the story line, and dramatic conflicts. But many fine films do not follow this formula and to describe a plot often doesn’t describe what even a story film is about. You can usually tell how naive a person is about film by their description of it— “Well, it’s about this guy, and he goes to —, and then he meets—, and then—” But what is the film about?
The subject matter and the themes of a film describes what it is about—the subject matter in relation to larger concepts.
For example, you could say MACBETH is about the abuse of power and its toll. Many of its major scenes relate clearly to this theme. A film could be about family dynamics, or about a young person’s loss of innocence. When searching for what a film is about, talk first about its subject matter and its themes rather than its plot.
Sometimes elements of the plot need to be mentioned to help explain how it explores its themes. Serious films have a clear grasp of themes and those themes relate to the experiences, aspirations, disappointments people experience in real life. Subject matter is different than plot. The very best plots clearly explore the subject matter and themes of a film. Some films can easily be described in terms of plot—“a chase movie,” for example, explains the subject matter (Do they get caught?) and suggests a plot-driven film. Many narrative films lose grasp of their themes and become vague or generalized.
In many of our discussions after the film, students are asked what the film was about. This often takes many stabs and can be open to a variety of interpretations. Sometimes the subject matter of the film can be hidden under layers of symbolism, or sometime will be very clear in the way the film turns out.
Films take their plots from all sources—history, news reports, novels and theater as well as original stories invented by the screenwriter.
The plot of a film can usually be synthesized into a single sentence. Here are some examples from film and literature:
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (w. Charles Dickens)
A miserly old man is reformed through a series of visitations on Christmas Eve. Its major theme is redemption, its subject is the transformation of character.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (w. Jane Austen)
A young couple destined to be married must first overcome the barriers of pride and prejudice. It’s major theme is the developing of self-awareness, its subject matter is the observation of society.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (w. Dostoyevsky)
A young man commits a crime and is slowly pursued to his inevitable punishment. Its major themes relate to the complex interrelation of the conscience, emotions and intellect to an individual’s actions, its subject matter is the defiance of moral laws and their effect on the individual.
THE SEVEN SAMURAI (d. Akira Kurosawa)
A besieged village hires a band of warriors to defend it from bandits. Its subject matter is the complexity of motives and relationships within a community and one of its themes the complex ironies of heroism.
My comments illustrate that a description of the plot alone may not give a clear idea about a film. Less complicated films are often only about their plots. Great films require you to ask, not only “what’s going to happen next?” but also “what is this about?”
Overly manipulated plots can make them become unbelievable. When that happens it becomes impossible to consider the film as a serious view of life. What British novelist Anthony Burgess (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) says about novels holds true for films:
“In the lowest level of writing a plot need be no more than a string of stock devices for arousing stock responses of concern and excitement in the viewer. The promise of conflict, mysteries or frustrations that will be resolved. We usually want to be entertained so badly, we’ll suspend criticism of even the most trite modes of resolution.
“In the least sophisticated films the knots to be untied (plot setups) are usually stringently physical, and the denouement often comes as a sort of triumphant violence. More sophisticated films prefer plots based on psychological situations—and the climax comes through new states of awareness for the characters and the viewers (often understanding or awareness on the part of the viewer.)”
The plot may have a minor part in a film, or no part at all. Rather than the driving force moving the film forward, the plot may be nothing more than a clothes line on which to hang a series of events or “set pieces” that expand the film’s themes. For example:
LA DOLCE VITA (d. Federico Fellini)
Set in Rome in the 1950s, it follows a newspaper reporter through one big “set piece" after another: the arrival of a film actress and her entourage; a visit to the house of two children who claim to see the Virgin Mary; an evening party with a band of decadent aristocrats in a deserted mansion, and so on. Again and again, the hero—his story with his girlfriend, friends and self doubts—gets lost in the crowd.
Students who viewed this film were mystified and angry—their focus was on the reporter and they expected the story to hinge around him. What was going to happen to him? They missed the way the scenes reflected and developed the themes of the movie. The subject matter of the film is the loss of faith, both on a personal level and throughout all levels of society. Each section of the film is constructed to reflect this theme. In the end, the reporter has lost his faith in life, but what gives the film its greatness and power, is that in following him, the viewer is introduced to a complex social world in which scene after scene reflects the hero’s own dilemma. The effect is of a panorama of society mirroring the film’s theme.
Your reaction to films that frustrate you often takes time to settle in. Students were irritated by LA DOLCE VITA, but months later we saw a simple, straightforward narrative film of Fellini’s, LA STRADA. These same students claimed they liked LA DOLCE VITA so much better! They had found it richer, more mysterious, and they remembered its scenes vividly.
Sometimes the plot is cloaked with images and layers of meaning that are symbolic—what looks simple must be constantly interpreted before the meaning and themes becomes clear.
ANDREI RUBLEV (d. Andrei Tarkovsky)
Tarkovsky’s epic film about a 13th-century icon painter moves its hero through nine episodes in an artist’s life. Here again, the hero often vanishes, and students were left with scenes they could barely identify as having anything to do with art. Vivid imagery carries the themes along as Rublev abandons his faith in himself, gives up art and wanders for years as a self-imposed mute.
Students missed the meaning of many vivid scenes: of artisans being blinded in the snow, of pagan celebrants of Midsummer’s night being hunted down by daylight and murdered by Christians; the systematic slaughter of a village by the Tartars, and the uplifting ending, when a young boy’s faith in himself brings Rublev to his senses. Students expected a clear plot and were thrown by constant layers of symbolic scenes.
It was only after our discussion that some of its meaning began to become clear to students. Symbolic films need your free association with images before clues to their meaning can be found. You often need help in reading their meanings. Sometimes the plot is only an outline for style and imagery which express the themes. These films, like music, need to be absorbed rather than figured out step-by-step.
THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES, ALICE, INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA
These are three films that create their own universe.
THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (d. Sergei Parajanov) is based on a poet’s life. The subject matter—the power of the imagination and its mime, pageantry and symbolism —threw our students off entirely because there was not any recognizable plot line.
ALICE (d. Jan Svenkmajer) was easier because the Wonderland story is familiar to most, and the film uses magnificent stop-motion animation, but students were mostly oblivious to its heavy Freudian symbolism and sexual overtones.
They fared better with INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA (d. The Quay Brothers) because they had been prepared for its unique mixture of heavy symbolism, strange atmosphere and visual poetry. The students who relaxed and let the film patiently take its own course came away with a rich and haunting experience they discussed enthusiastically.
Resistance to a new challenge in viewing can keep the viewer from understanding the value of a film or its revelations. This takes practice and time. Often it takes returning to a difficult film again.
1. AS AN EXPRESSION OF AN INTERPRETATION OF LIFE
The bulk of Anglo-American films from their beginnings to WWII show a world that is reasonable and just—wrong is punished, good rewarded, as is noted by one of the characters in Oscar Wilde—in novels the good characters end up happily, the bad characters unhappily “that is why it is called fiction.”
On the continent (France) where realism took hold, films reflect a life where there is no justice and the evil and stupid prevail. (Equally extreme.)
Since the war, serious films and literature reflect man as imperfect and life possibly absurd. It is interesting to reflect on these trends when you watch contemporary films, as these three points of view inform all films today.
2. AS ENTERTAINMENT OR ESCAPE
This is the most common use of film, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with dreams and laughter. Problems arise when these films give a false view of life through oversimplification and tend to corrupt viewers into thinking reality is the way the film portrays it. Such films can be tremendously harmful when they are used as role models in the real world. These films usually avoid real human issues—as the old saying goes,” Who wants to see a movie about real life? That’s boring and depressing. It’s bad enough as it is!”
3. AS PROPAGANDA
To make the viewer initiate certain acts, or support certain points of view is another potent use of film. These films generally lose value when the wrongs they expose are eliminated. The contrary is also true. THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, for example validated the policies of the Nazis, and later destroyed the career of its director, precisely because it was so effective.
4. AS REPORT OR DOCUMENTARY
Here, also, film has triumphed. From the early documentaries (Flaherty’s NANOOK OF THE NORTH) it has left a record of the age. Fiction films which documented Europe at the end of the war (PAISAN and OPEN CITY) still retain the power of being there. Today documentary films have come into their own, exploring new aspects of modern life in absorbing ways.
5. AS AN EXPRESSION OF THE ZEITGEIST
Film shares with novels in helping us understand periods in the past. Masterworks like MOLIERE, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and BARRY LYNDON present the past with a vividness and breadth that is hard to match. Contemporary films like LA DOLCE VITA and APOCALYPSE NOW capture important aspects of their eras and become symbolic of them.
6. AS A CREATOR OF LIFE STYLES AND ARBITER OF TASTE
Another great influence films have on the world is because of the huge audience it reaches. Television also has a huge impact on influencing the life styles and taste of viewers—an impact less than ideal. But blockbusters like HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, TITANIC, STAR WARS also have an enormous influence on their audiences.
From the early days of film it became evident that films which reflected popular ideas about life and reaffirmed the false values many people never question were going to be more popular and well liked than difficult films which reflected a more realistic view of the human condition. The entertainment value of films has never been questioned, but as films tried to conquer the “market”and compete financially with others many film makers were forced to tilt their thinking and ideas into a more acceptable, popular direction.
Many of these types of films reinforce popular myths—that people fall in love at first sight and live happily ever after, for example, or that immorality will lead a sinner to ruin, crime doesn’t pay, etc. (the most destructive being killing someone doesn’t have any consequences)—and in many cases are central to the film’s meaning—films show characters in jobs they would never be able to hold in real life, for example, or living in houses they could never afford, in situations that could simply not happen because of the circumstances of the character and place.
We refer to these manipulations as the “magic” of film—that ability to help the viewer put his reason on hold, in the name of “seeing is believing.” An inexperienced viewer needs to be constantly on alert, questioning and challenging the distorted content of films that reinforce lies.
Films are stories, but they are also about ideas. Like fiction, these ideas concern character, plot, theme and subject matter, but also important is how these ideas are being expressed. This “how” has also to do with ideas in film.
When you talk about film, certain phrases, references and terms will always pop up. They concern the essentials of what is being told, and how the story is being created. Here are the building blocks on which film is built.
We’ve already covered the separation of plot, theme and subject matter, but we also need to consider how the story is being told. For this we need two new terms, LINEAR and NONLINEAR.
LINEAR: The most common way a plot is told is from beginning to end (linear narrative). The story starts at the beginning and goes through to the end without interruptions. Because this method is so common, it is sometimes referred to as traditional or “conservative” which doesn’t mean the film maker is not interested in trying anything different or new. It indicates only that the director wants to tell a good story, and sets about it with the most traditional tools.
NON-LINEAR: Another way of telling a story is to jump around between present, past, and future (nonlinear narrative). Film is unique because it uses pictures rather than words to tell its stories. Many researchers tell us that what we see delivers a more lasting impression than what we hear or read. “It’s true, I saw it with my own eyes” is a very ancient expression.
One of film’s great strengths is the ability to move the same way memory does. When we remember something in the past, we often remember an image—just a flash, that can trigger thoughts of our experiences. (Sound, smell and taste also act as vivid triggers to memory.)
The most common way a linear film narrative is interrupted is when a character stops and remembers. At this moment, the film cuts away from the present, and gives us a scene from the past. This technique is called “flashback” and is a popular and frequent example of a “nonlinear” technique. In films that go to the trouble of “setting up a flashback” (preparing us and leading us through this “cut away”) these scenes give the viewer little trouble. In “forties” films, the scene usually dissolves slowly, accompanied often by music or a voice over, and the “memory” scene replaces the contemporary one. (Also the use of titles—One Year Later, 10 Years Before and so on—easily help the viewer.)
EXAMPLES: REBECCA (d. Hitchcock) & SUNSET BOULEVARD (d. Wilder)
Hitchcock’s REBECCA is a memory film that begins with a slow move through a forest road toward the ruins of a manor house in the distance. A woman’s voice is heard over the picture, explaining her need to return to the past. The scene then fades to the past. This is a classic memory technique. A film of this sort usually returns to the present to end the story.
Several twists gave this formula a new flavor—Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD opens with a dead narrator—a body floats in a swimming pool. The voice over is that of a dead man who becomes the narrator of the memory. This classic beginning and end to a film ( with a narrator) was the most common use of the “memory” film until the sixties, when this technique became more complex.
Difficulty for the viewer comes as films strive for more sophistication in the way the story is told. Here a viewer who does not become attentive and active ( asking questions: where are we now? where have we jumped to?) can get lost.
EXAMPLE: CITIZEN KANE (d. ORSON WELLES)
Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941) is a classic example of the nonlinear film. The way the film jumps forward and backward is skillful, and there are plenty of devices to help the viewer along. Its bold touches with this technique give the film much of its unique quality. The film begins in a castle, with a deathbed scene (Kane’s). The next scene jumps to a newsreel which outlines the plot of the film we are about to see, and ends in a screening room, where reporters are sent to solve the “mystery” of Kane’s life by interviewing his close circle of friends. This way it uses several voice overs (one for each friend). Each person’s narrative moves chronologically through the story, ending before another narrative begins, or overlapping with other narratives. Thus the film is constructed like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, which, when put together, give an overall picture of the story.
CITIZEN KANE is a film of exceptional originality and left a huge impact on generations of film makers who wished to continue these “nonlinear” ideas about film.
EXAMPLE: RASHOMON (d. Akira Kurosawa)
Kurosawa’s RASHOMON, through its construction, is also easy for the viewer to follow. Here four narrators tell their versions of the same story—a rape and murder in the forest—and each episode is filmed from a different point of view and perspective. As the story is reenacted, it shifts according to the perspective of the narrator—the form of the film relates to the film’s ideas about perceived reality and truth. The ending is unresolved, and left open ended.
As films became more complex, many directors abandoned trying to make nonlinear stories easily accessible.
EXAMPLE: LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (d. Alain Renais)
Alain Renais’ LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD begins with long moving shots through the gilt and mirrors of a Bavarian castle. The voice-over resembles a cant—it doesn’t narrate, or explain, but hypnotizes. The early scenes in the film are constructed primarily to invoke a mood. The “story” is constructed in fragments, pasted together like collage—scenes of isolation and longing in what could or could not be taken as a love affair. The “plot” is one that uses repetition of scenes to evoke memory. Nothing “happens” in the movie, but the intricate overlay of images and event leave the story open to the viewer’s imagination. The viewer must decide what has happened and what the scenes mean.
EXAMPLE: THE CONFORMIST (d. Bernardo Bertolucci)
Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST tells a rather straightforward “memory” story—it opens in the present (or at least, the end of WWII), then goes back in time. But the viewer doesn’t get any help and, especially difficult, is that the past becomes a “memory” story—a car ride in the rain lets the hero muse on the “recent” past (in the past). This technique becomes even more complex when the man’s memory involves a scene in which his memory inserts a character from his present—that is, a woman he will fall in love with, but hasn’t met yet in the story. She is seen in a memory, completely out of context, and almost out of character, as a vamp wrapped across a Fascist official’s office desk as if she is a wish-fulfillment on the part of the hero. ( Almost all our students were thrown by these scenes.)
Non-linear films can also move between different stages of the present, memory and fantasy.
EXAMPLE: 8 ½ (d. Federico Fellini)
Fellini’s 8 ½, an extremely popular but complex nonlinear film takes place in the head of its major character, a film director who panics when he experiences a creative block in his work. The film opens in a dream, moves into the present, then into several dazzling scenes at a spa, filmed as if they were scenes in a film the director is imagining. Constantly the film moves back and forth between the past, the present, and fantasy, from the imagination’s (a film maker making a film) point of view. But the viewer gets little help. Often the memory scenes are filmed like fantasies, the scenes in the present like “films.” The insecurities, anxieties and longings of the director build into a climax that lead to his suicide. The suicide, however, in this context, has to be seen as symbolic. The scene is what he “feels” like doing. The director is quite alive in the very next scene, where all the film’s themes meld into a grand finale—the director films a final dance, with all the characters from his life, his memory, his present and his fantasy moving together into a unified whole—the film he had wanted to create all along.
A film as complex as 8 ½ needs an attentive viewer, one who is quick to connect the implications and quickly shift from present to past, dream to fantasy. This takes practice, and explains why films of complex natures can be returned to again and again and still seem fresh and original.
EXAMPLE: THE MIRROR (d. Andrei Tarkovskt)
Another famous example of a nonlinear film is one that abandons help for the viewer entirely—Andrei Tarkovsky’s THE MIRROR. On the surface, this story of family life (a wife, husband and children) seems realistic and believable. But the way the scenes follow each other make no real sense. The viewer must piece together the elements. The film is composed of fragments of memory in no chronological order. Scenes return again and again, like themes in music, and certain grim scenes (the mother visits a village crone for what could or could not be an abortion; the fierce domestic arguments) are returned to from mirrored perspectives that give the structure of the film the same disjointed character of dreams. (I know film goers who have seen THE MIRROR more than 10 times—they claim they have never see the same film twice!)
Sometimes films are constructed in a linear way that moves between dreams and reality. These films often explore philosophical themes that are highly challenging to the viewer.
Example: PERSONA (d. Ingmar Bergman)
Bergman’s PERSONA, for example, seems fairly simple on the surface. It moves through a linear narrative with ease–two women spend time together on an island––one, an actress who refuses to speak and two, her nurse who never shuts up. What becomes so intriguing is to ponder what so many of the strange scenes mean. The film begins with a series of totally abstract, disturbing images. Often scenes are filmed like dreams, and slowly the two personalities of the women merge. Or do they?
The implications of the plot lead the viewer to contemplate the complexities of character:
Less sophisticated films tend to be preoccupied with plot, and the characters in them conform to certain stereotypes —”types of people”—easily recognized. In many current action films it is objects themselves, as well as “kinetic” (anything moving, exploding, threatening or scaring you) incidents that are far more important than the characters in the film. These films are comfortable with easily recognizable “types” in “good” or “bad” moral categories—the “good” cop vs. the “bad criminals,” the “good” hero vs. the “bad” extras—which allow the plots to move in predictable and comforting ways to conform.
EXAMPLE: JAMES BOND series
The notorious James Bond movies exploit objects as the main characters in a movie: the car, the gun, the attitude and the way a martini is mixed. The popularity of this approach has influenced four decades of action film making. The Bond influences extend to any film which etches its characters in blatant black and white (good and evil) coupled with pyrotechnics and material opulence.
In more complex and more sophisticated films, the human personality and the way it reacts to the stress of artfully selected experience tends to be the chief focus. Character can be based on animals (BABE, the Walt Disney classics, and Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST are good examples; and of course, there’s LASSIE), on caricatures (in literature think Dickens and in film think TRAINSPOTTING, or the majority of comedies or dramas) or on complex, unpredictable and often unexplainable personality (in literature you have Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Balzac, Henry James and Dostoevsky—in film, not much comparable.) A character in film generally tends to be simple (though the actor’s shadings make it more complex and “true to life”). It is this human element in relationship to character, life, relationships, our own experiences that gives films their importance in our lives.
To believe a character, most people only need a body, a firm position in time and space, and the most superficial parcel of behavioral attributes. All of us get hints that we might be complex and inconsistent, but we often want to imagine other people as being simple and easier to understand.
Often audiences get exasperated with characters who for one reason or another do not conform to their easy explanations or approval of the character’s actions. In films, characters are often judged by their “worst” behavior, where in real life we often ignore bad behavior in people we know, because we have an overall picture of them that puts their difficult behavior in a context which helps us understand it. If the character in a film has attributes of people we’ve met or know, we generally believe them regardless of how cliché or unrealistically they might act. We give them the benefit of the doubt.
To create people “bigger than life” has been the goal of film making since it began, even if creating these people means adding unbelievable action, and asking preposterous things of them. Disturbing, unpredictable and well rounded characters are rare in movies where the lines are drawn in good or bad. But some popular films have been successful in creating complex characters.
EXAMPLE: GONE WITH THE WIND (d. Victor Fleming and others)
One of the most popular films, GONE WITH THE WIND has a complex and disturbing character at its center. Scarlet O’Hara is at once beautiful, charming, head-strong and emotional. She is also self-centered, greedy, relentlessly ruthless and selfish. The view the audience gets of her is quite selective—her energy, determination and single mindedness is seen as strength of character, and the negative consequences of her ruthlessness are shown only in passing (very briefly).
EXAMPLE: ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS (d. Luchino Visconti)
In Visconti’s ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS complex characters make the scenes in the film seem hard to believe if viewed from an orthodox sense of what people are like. Complexity here leads to problems in audience recognition. (“Who would act like that? That’s crazy!”) The hero forgives his malicious brother again and again for a series of terrible betrayals and his perverse sense of goodness moves the plot towards its climax of violence and tragedy. In relation to the tremendous wrongs done to the hero, his passivity and compassion for the wrong seem to many in the audience as unbelievable—it propels the tragedy forward, and in the end the film’s exceptional qualities relate directly to its mysterious, troubling and uncompromising view of character.
EXAMPLE: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (d. David Lean)
Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is a good example. Until the middle of the film the perversity of the hero’s character is only hinted at—he is seen as brave, generous, vain, thoughtful, and non-conformist. The last half of the movie finds him vengeful, crafty, filled with anger, blood lust, with self destructive inclinations and blatant dishonesty. The selective mixing of these negative and positive elements in character give it its complexity, and “many sided” qualities.
Early films were created on film lots, in natural light, on constructed sets that filled the need for a revolving series of comedies and melodramas. For years, the authentic quality of these constructed sets varied.
Many early directors like Chaplin and Von Stroheim were comfortable shooting “on location” in the actual settings like those in which the story takes place. Naive audiences didn’t pick many bones about things looking “real” as long as they had some identifiable details.
As films became more complicated, more attention was paid to detail. The new styles in decor from Germany—expressionism, with its brooding lighting effects and heavy architecture—allowed sets to become more stylized and left a large influence on the look of films.
The coming of sound in the late ‘20s brought radical change. Now outside sound was a problem, and scenes shifted from outdoor locations, to studio “outdoors” so the sound could be contained and balanced. This led to a period of artificiality which developed into a “studio style” of heavy back-lighting, highlights on actors faces, and elaborately built sets. “On location” was reserved for scenes that did not require sound. All films took on the “studio” look, with few exceptions. Films filmed “on location” still retained the stilted look of the “studio.”
At the end of WW II the Italian films of the neo-realist school began to be seen by American film makers. The films coming out of Italy were all shot on location, with real people mixed with actors, in natural light. They were considered authentic and startling. There influence was strong, and today the location of films varies—some are in studios, some on location or both. Many directors prefer to shoot in studios because of the control they have of lighting , sound and equipment.
The settings of films do not have to be drawn from real life models. Films may be set inside the mind, in the body, the future, in space, but they need to have a consistency of style to convince you of their realness. Far too many films use setting as simple decor, not understanding that where a story takes place can be important to the values and ideals of the characters, and effect the believable way the plot moves forward.
When we discuss “style” in films, we refer to several different elements. For example, certain types of films—“expressionist,” “film noir,” “the Hollywood film”—are characterized by visual and subject matter that so clearly define them, their identity forms a style of film making. We also may discuss a certain director’s style, provided he has developed far enough with ideas about his techniques and themes that would make them identifiable.
There are a certain number of important directors of classic films whose style is instantly recognizable. The look of work done by the Italians now referred to as “neo-realism” has an instantly recognizable style—outdoor realistic locations, a grainy black and white film stock, a type of verisimilitude that is unmistakable. Certain film makers tend toward fluid, complex camera movements, where others prefer a fixed, static camera. We sometimes refer to “subjective” and “objective” styles of film making. In the “subjective” style, the camera movements, editing, compositions are active forces in the film, guiding the viewer and selecting what he should see. In “objective” film making, the camera and the film techniques remain as invisible as possible, allowing the viewer to make his or her own judgement on what should be seen.
Style refers to the overall characteristics of a film’s techniques, look, subjective or objective views of its director, and implies that the director has had an important say in the way the film has been created. Films of certain periods (the Hollywood films of the early sound period, for example) in history have their own styles as well. For example, a film with obviously built sets, excessive artificial light, unrealistic crowd scenes, make-up that seems perfect for even the most slovenly characters might suggest a “product” film from Hollywood during the 30’s and 40’s.
Tone refers to an individual element within the whole and is a more sophisticated term when discussing the relative success or failure of ambitious films. The curious thing about tone is that it is an unimportant aspect of mediocre and less ambitious films. Tone affects the integrity of the overall final production and has to do with the separate ingredients of film making—acting, direction, script, lighting, art direction, make-up, sound, etc.
As a film becomes more ambitious (strives toward a higher goal of quality and integrity) tone becomes extremely important, and faulty decisions in this area can cancel the overall integrity of a film. Many fine films fall short of the perfection to which they aim because of lapses in tone. A single element being off in an individual scene does not mean the integrity of a film collapses, but this lapse of judgement is often fatal to a film that would be otherwise a more perfect work of art.
In acting, tone might be described as underplayed in one instance, overplayed in another, or adhering to intense mugging or pantomime. In an ensemble work, where all the actors are underplaying (muting) their roles, an actor who mugs his role would be “off in tone.” In the highly exaggerated acting style of films by Ken Russell, the period comedies of the Coen Brothers, or Baz Lurhman, for instance, an underplayed actor (acting in a highly subtle, realistic style) would be “off in tone.” The more stylized the look and feel of a film is, or the more original its unorthodox style is, the more difficult it is to keep the tone consistent.
In a highly stylized film (lets say one using garish light in bright colors for effect throughout) a subtly lit, realistic scene would seem “off in tone.” Tone which veers wildly in a film, usually means a director is aiming for short term payoffs and is not considering the overall consistency of the film.
Tone also refers to an overall feeling. For example, if the subject matter of a film called for an energetic, bubbly style that would match its upbeat script, a ponderous, plodding style of film making would be definitely “off in tone.” If the film reflects realism and grit, idealized scenes with moral lectures would seem “off in tone.” These incidents might diminish the integrity of a film as a work of art, but do not damage in the least its popular appeal.
From the beginning, ambitious film directors have been interested in depicting historical sweep and social complexity. Films of this category form the high peaks of achievement in the history of film. A unifying vision of the director is needed before a film with dozens of characters, a cast of hundreds—even thousands, and a strong theme that will support the movement of these masses through some important event in history.
D. W. Griffith created the prototypical historical epic with BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) which takes place during the American Civil War. He followed this with INTOLERANCE (1916) which wove several historic periods together, from biblical tales through the war between the Hugenots and Catholics in France, culminating in modern tales of injustice in America. Other great examples of epic films centered around major historic events include Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, Fleming’s GONE WITH THE WIND (the American Civil War), Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (WWI) and Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (Vietnam War).
The term “epic” implies scope—breath and width—something that important historical events produce. However, “epic” also can be applied to the social fabric of life. To qualify as a “social epic” a film must include characters from many ranks of society, and give voice to a wide array of values and points of view. The models for this type of film come from 19th century novels including the works of Charles Dickens, Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA, Balzac’s PERE GORIOT, Stendhal’s THE RED AND THE BLACK, and Dostoyevski’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.
“Epic” also implies length, so it’s no accident that these films are among the longest in film history. The original version of Von Stroheim’s GREED was over 20 hours. The producers thought he was mad, but Stroheim was intended to let the material define its own length. If he had been able to break his film into one-hour sequences and show them on television as a mini-series, the tragic fate of his film could have been avoided. The length of popular films had been capped arbitrarily at 90 minutes, mainly for commercial reasons (allowing two or three showings an evening, thus a larger box office). GREED was chopped mercilessly to 3 hours and even then its grim realism was barely tolerated by the public. The legend created by those who saw the original full-length reels has given GREED a mythological place in film history.
Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON originally clocked in at over 6 hours. GONE WITH THE WIND was released at a 4 hours, unprecedented for such a popular film; the public was often treated to sandwiches during its intermissions. Other examples are Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (3.5 hours), Bondarchuk’s WAR & PEACE (6 hours); Fassbinder’s BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (18 hours) and a series of films about life in a German village: HEIMAT (19 hours), HEIMAT II (26 hours) and HEIMAT III (11 hours). These extra long films challenge conventional ideas about film by proving that audiences will stand (or rather sit) for longer than 90 minutes if the material is rich and engaging enough.
Film Noir: A product of the pulp detective novels of the 1930’s. Dark brooding atmospheres highten stories fraught with lowlife criminals and desperate seductive women. Full of murder, revenge and double crossing, heavy on irony. “Neo-noir” films either quote these elements adapting them to contemporary settings. Examples: THE MALTESE FALCON, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, TOUCH OF EVIL. Neo-noir: CHINATOWN, LA CONFIDENTIAL, BRICK
Costume Drama: Also called “period dramas,” these films emphasize costumes, sets and props in order to capture the ambiance of a particular past era. Often very well acted and taken from literary classics. Examples: HOWARD’S END, PERSUASION, CYRANO DE BERGERAC
Horror: Horror films have been popular from the beginning—frightening audiences began with a locomotive moving toward an audience, causing them to scream and dodge. Vampires, werewolves, zombies and monsters (human and subhuman) have now their separate “sub-genres”. Grotesque or haunted subjects, steady suspense, often surprises to startle and large.
Many of the best horror films depend on suggestion to stimulate viewers imagination – from the silent Nosferatu, to recent ones like The Witch. Traditional horror films follow the pattern of the Grand Guignol role model, lots of beheadings, buckets of blood, bulging eyeballs, endless screams of terror. The very popular Game of Thrones, which mixes many of horror films patterns with its mythological tales is a good example. Operatic bloodbath finales are fixtures.
Western: This films hit their high point in the 1940’s and 50’s. They did much to create a mythical idea of the west, with very simple moral lines (good vs. bad) and archetypes drawn from fantasy. More recent post-western films are called “revisionist” and include gore, cruelty and little redemption. Examples: SHANE, HIGH NOON, THE SEARCHERS Revisionist Westerns: THE UNFORGIVEN, McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
Thrillers: A car chase, a conspiracy, a man on the run, a woman in peril, a prowling maniac, a close escape and a last-minute rescue. These films function by keeping you on the edge of your seat so that you never have time to question how absurdly improbable all of it is. Examples: GASLIGHT, PSYCHO, INCEPTION
Musicals: A favorite born out of the depression: comic set pieces joined by extravagant musical numbers. Later musicals include the British PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, which accent the bleak, and MOULIN ROUGE which focused on extravagant style. Examples: BABES ON BROADWAY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, CHICAGO
Gangster Films: first became popular in the thirties during the depression (they empowered the helpless); then they mixed with “film noir” in the forties; and later were revived with the GODFATHER films, and have experienced a population explosion on television. Prohibition era moonshine has been replaced by drugs but the attitude is the same. Examples: WHITE HEAT, BONNIE & CLYDE, SCARFACE
War Films: In times of war these tend to exude heroism and bravery, the nobility of self-sacrifice of soldiers. When the war is over, these become “anti-war” films and focus more on the horror, brutality, cruelty, ruin and reflect a collective madness. Examples: PATHS OF GLORY, PATTON, APOCALYPSE NOW
“Buddy” Films: Whether in pairs (BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID) or in gangs (DINER, AMERICAN GRAFFITI) the accent here is generally on friendship, male bonding, and “manly” virtues like violence and boorish behavior. Examples: THE STING, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, TRAINSPOTTING
Disaster Films: The flaming skyscraper of TOWERING INFERNO (1974) has morphed into earthquakes, tornadoes, asteroids, volcanoes and alien invasions, but the basic plot is the same. These films allow audiences to feign terror and laugh afterwards. Examples: EARTHQUAKE, ARMAGEDDON, 2012
Animal Comedy: Used to be the domain of cartoons but now include talking dogs, cavorting pigs and philosophical babies. very closely related is the DUMB HERO comedy where barfing, farting, and general lewd behavior is mandatory for the lead. Examples: OLD YELLER, DR. DOOLITTLE, BABE
Screwball Comedies: Invented in the 1930s as an escape from the dreariness of the depression. Characterized by “happy-go-lucky” atmospheres, colorful characters, rapid-fire dialogue and ingenious plot lines. Examples: HIS GIRL FRIDAY, YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, MY MAN GODFREY
Bible Epics: Popular in the 1920s-50s. A strange hybrid of historical drama, lofty, Judeo-Christian moral pronouncements, and miracles. This type of film bit the dust when similar, but not exactly biblical CLEOPATRA proved to be a financial disaster. Has made a slight comeback with Mel Gibson's gruesome and bloody THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Examples: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, MOSES, BEN HUR