A few years ago I took an international film class at UMW. We talked about film techniques, movements, themes, all that stuff. It was just a summer class, but I thought I was so smart because I got to watch and analyze a buttload of classic movies. What I didn’t realize was that I didn’t actually have a more refined cinematic palate. I had just turned into Statler and Waldorf.
Reading Roger Ebert’s “How to Read a Movie” brought back some of that shame for me. Oops! It was, however, a nice refresher for the things I learned in that film class. For example, in Ebert’s explanation of scene composition, he notes that diagonal tilts or lines imply a world out of balance. One of the first films we watched in the class was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which used strange and extreme angles in its set design to impart a sense of unrest, chaos, or insanity. Below are two stills of street scenes from the film. They look like M.C. Escher pieces!
What struck me the most was Ebert’s technique for reading films along with other people. Instead of standing at the front of the room and directing a conversation, he joins the audience. When someone says to pause the film at a particular moment, he pauses it so they can talk about it. For people who want to pick apart a movie and see how every piece works together, I think this is a really great idea. (If someone is there because they just want to watch a movie, they’d probably lose their mind after pausing every few minutes to talk about framing or sound bridges or whatever.) This “democracy in the dark” sounds to me like one of the best ways to teach people how to analyze and think about film. It’s not just “this is why it’s done this way, it says so in the book,” but more of a socratic discussion where more than one person can provide insight.
Regarding intrinsic weighting, it did frustrate me to read that Ebert had “never heard of a director or cinematographer who ever consciously applied [the “laws” of visual space].” It makes filmmaking sound innate and very exclusive, like if you don’t get it, you won’t get it. Maybe I could be able to read a film well enough, but could I ever compose one with an aesthetic that was on par with a Kubrick, a Tarantino, a Hitchcock or an Anderson without working to the point where my brain turns to soup? I’d have to be thinking about all the techniques that Ebert describes these directors as doing by what seems like second nature. What a pain.
It reminds me of the joke you hear about high school english classes, where the teacher asks you what the author was trying to communicate when they said the curtains were blue. Maybe the main character is depressed. They couldn’t go on with their life. The blue of the curtains represented the turmoil within them. “No,” you imagine the author saying, “I meant the curtains were freaking blue.” But according to Ebert, if this were film… could the director unconsciously choose blue for the curtains of a depressed character? I want to be in the secret club of born filmmakers, darnit.
The video that I thought was hilarious was the one where Hitchcock is explaining the Kuleshov effect. It seems like such a simple way to influence how the viewer feels about a certain character or event, and it’s all in how the individual pieces are stitched together. With editing, you could make anyone look good or bad – Hitchcock even shows us that you can make a person look kind or you can make them look like a “dirty old man.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they used this technique in reality TV to up the drama factor by 1000.
The match cut (also present in this video as a “form cut” and here as “cut”) is a really cool way to connect two separate shots. In 2001, Kubrick uses the similar shapes and movements of the bone and the space station and has them act as a kind of bridge between the two scenes. The scenes are distinct from each other – they aren’t sequential in time, but they are connected. The bone is thrown upward, and as it begins to fall back to earth, the shot cuts to a space station that looks like it’s following the same downward trajectory.
The most informative video by far was the video on Camera Angles and Techniques. I knew how to do the “climb up the side of the building” illusion already, but I would have totally skipped over providing establishing shots. I probably would have made one continuous unedited shot and called it a day. For the climb scene to be effective, there needs to be more of a visual narrative – a shot of the tension in the rope, additional angles, and shots of things that dangle to provide a sense of gravity. Pictures like this…
work because they’re pictures. It’s a single shot that doesn’t need a whole lot more work. If it were a scene in a movie though, they’d need to edit in some more stuff to establish the sideways world they’re in. Maybe a shoe falls and goes flying into the window. Maybe a shot of a bunch of locker doors falling open. Lots of possibilities!