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CMS 2100 Q & A

Feel free to ask me any questions you have at any time during the semester. I'll post the answers to questions I receive outside of class via email here. Use these to help you study for quizzes and exams in Introduction to Film.

 

Introduction

 

Film Form & Meaning

Q. I don't quite understand Symptomatic Meaning: the definition I got was to understand a film's explicit or implicit meanings as bearing traces of a particular set of social values. I don't quite understand what that means. Can you explain a little better for me please?

A. Good question! Weíll talk through this at length in our next class, but the short version is that a filmís Symptomatic Meanings betray the ideological and social values of the time the film was made, the directorís underlying ďintentionsĒ (always tricky to parse out), the viewerís ideological values at the time of watching the film, etc. Like Implicit Meanings, the Symptomatic Meanings are more abstract and very deep meanings, as opposed to the more surface and concrete meanings of Explicit and Referential Meanings. Think in terms of fundamental social values like race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.; what is the film teaching us about these values, even if the film isnít aware that itís doing so? For example, think about Rear Window. Does the film send racist messages even if director Hitchcock wasnít trying to make a racist film? Is the film teaching us that Communism is bad even if the film isnít about Communism officially?

Narrative & Narration

Q. I was a little confused about unity vs. disunity...I know that films will usually have flaws as you stated in the lecture but are the films usually one extreme or the other? Like in Rear Window, you never really know how he killed his wife or why (well he never really states it other than her being a nagger) or what was buried in the garden. I know these are flaws but how open does the film have to be to make it have disunity?

In order to categorize a film as unified it should be pretty well wrapped up and clear at the end, which Rear Window is. The film does hint that it's the saw buried in the garden and that marital discord/nagging wife/infidelity is the reason for the murder, for example. If a film leaves things hanging intentionally (say, to prepare for a sequel), that's okay too and still qualifies as unified. But if it's a mess and things are left hanging unintentionally, then it's not unified. Pulp Fiction, Memento, and other films, however, intentionally play with unity, and therefore shouldn't be evaluated based on unity; they should be considered based on a system of disunity. In short, a film should be quite "open," as you say, to qualify as disunity.

Mise-en-scene

 

Film Production & Early History

 

Camerawork & Cinematography

Q. What is an example of Diagonal Composition?

Rather than a more static, grid-like composition of verticals and horizontals, the arrangement of figures/objects/scenery/etc. in the frame follows a diagonal. This is a much more dynamic composition that leads the eye from one corner of the frame to the other. We have seen many examples of this framing in The Piano, Run Lola Run, etc.

Q. How can you tell the difference between optical movement and tracking visually while actually watching a film?

You can tell tracking easily if the camera is moving in most any direction, of course, except forward and backward. That's when to look for whether objects/people seem to retain the same perspective, or whether they look manipulated and warped by the zooming lens. Look for things to get somewhat skinny and squeezed together when zooming to telephoto range, and for things to get fatter, curved, and stretched when zooming to the wide angle range. The space will be distorted by the zoom lens, but not by tracking forward/backward.

Editing

Q. I tend to have a little trouble determining an Iris from a fade in/out; what do you think is an easy way to differentiate the two?

In a fade out, the onscreen image goes completely black (or red, or white, or whatever color you like); in a fade in, the image comes up from the completely black (etc.) screen. An iris is a circular (usually, it can be other shapes) closing in or out of the image. We saw an example of this from Citizen Kane and also in O Brother.

Q. At the end of the movie Amelie, when they were on the motorcycle; are those jump cuts?

Some jump cutting and also fast motion.

Q. I'm not very clear on what 180 degree system is.

To maintain a consistent screen direction, the camera must film only from one side of a line imagined where the actors are. This is the "axis of action." The camera can move anywhere within the 180-degree arc that this line permits, but the camera cannot cross that line. (See the drawing in the Editing chapter of your textbook.) The goal is for the actors to always be facing the same, consistent direction they were when they were first introduced by the master shot, and therefore to keep spatial relationships clear. If the camera crosses the line and films from the other side of the line, then the actors will suddenly face the opposite direction. This is very disorienting to viewers and it's a nightmare in the editing room when one is trying to edit in a Continuity Editing style.

Q. Could the scene that we watched in Battleship Potemkin be considered parallel editing? I guess there arenít really two lines of narration occurring, but the way that Eisenstein edited the film coupled with the music gives it that effect. We have the confusion and ant-like action of the crowd and then the ordered horizontal march of the soldiers.

Yes, it is parallel editing since there are multiple planes of action/character groups that Eisenstein cuts to in the Odessa Steps sequence.

Q. Well, the two terms I am having a hard time distinguishing are ellipsis and montage sequence. Can you please tell me the difference between the two?

Ellipsis is when narrative time is dropped out through the editing, like the walking up stairs example. The clip we saw in the lecture was from the Harry Potter movie: first we see him as a baby and then after a cut he's suddenly 11. So that's an ellipsis of 10 years over the space of a cut.

A montage sequence uses ellipses to compresses a large amount of story time into a short amount of screen time. Think about the "love montage" in romantic comedies with just a few shots that show the couple at a restaurant, then at the beach, then at the movies, all covering a long time of dating in just 30 seconds or so. Or think about the "training montage" in boxing movies that shows six months worth of training in just a few shots of doing sit ups, punching a bag, running, etc. Usually nondiegetic music bridges the entire sequence to help connect these discontinuous events and make them feel more continuous (as Continuity Editing prefers).

Q. Can you explain to me about the "Kuleshov Effect"? It was on the study clip 7 and I was still confused when I read the meaning behind it.

The Kuleshov Effect is a nifty effect in editing, discovered by Lev Kuleshov. In the absence of an establishing shot, spectators will assume that shot A and shot B have a spatial connection, even when they really don’t. This is very efficient, because you don’t have to shoot two people talking within the same frame in a Shot/Reverse-Shot sequence, for example; you can show them in two separate shots, but spectators will still think they’re talking to each other. Note that the absence of the establishing shot is crucial: if the film DOES show the two people in a frame together at first, then it’s NOT the Kuleshov Effect.

Special Effects

 

Sound & Sound Design

Q. I was noting the motifs in Amelie; would the Gnome be considered a motif or leitmotif?

Motif. Leitmotif is music.

Q. Can you explain the difference between sound bridge, ambient sound, and nondiegetic soundover?

A sound bridge links two shots or scenes together through continuous sound. Sound can either travel from shot A across the edit into shot B, or the sound from shot B can begin early while shot A is still onscreen. Sound bridges can take the form of dialog overlaps, ambient noises, nondiegetic music or voiceovers, etc. Any sound that bleeds from one shot to another qualifies. A sound bridge works much like Continuity Editing in that it helps smooth over the fact that shots were actually filmed and edited discontinuously. For example, sound bridges are useful in shot/reverse-shot conversation sequences, when dialog overlaps connect shots, and in montage sequences, when a popular song or nondiegetic score bridges together all of the discontinuous shots of a "love montage" or such.

Documentary

Q: Can you explain what self-reflexive means? We talked about it in the context of Morris's documentary but how was it "self-aware" as you said?

Self-reflexive means that a film is aware of its own making, and presents itself as such. So Morris never tries to "hide" the fact that he's *making* this documentary--that it's a *film.* Most films that are not self-reflexive practice more of a kind of illusionism (no pejorative slant intended, just their style), where we can check out and relax into the world of the film without being reminded that it's *a film* that we're watching. But The Thin Blue Line uses changing re-enactments, the obviously-not-the-original-gun props, the repeated evidence of the director's input, etc. to constantly *remind* us that Morris made this film. Also, most films about filmmaking are self-reflexive, like the clip we saw from Living in Oblivion or Singin' in the Rain too.

Q: [Continuing the above question] So would continuity editing be an example of a film trying to hide it's identity?

Yes, C.E. is an important factor in helping viewers forget that they're watching a movie. Sound is another powerful technique that helps us forget it's a movie, along with realism and good acting--all creating the illusion of another world of the movies.

But if a film calls attention to itself as an artform, a manufactured product of much work/vision and even of contradiction, censorship, etc., viewers are encouraged to adopt a more distance and a more critical eye toward the film and its issues. We're more aware that what we're watching is someone's idea/fantasy/agenda/propaganda/etc. and we're less swept away into that world of the movies.

Techniques for this might include having the director and/or crew appear onscreen (e.g., Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine), or movies about making movies (Singin' in the Rain, Living in Oblivion, Barton Fink), the use of direct address, etc. Think about, for example, the clip from Yvonne Rainer's film that we saw in class, Film About a Woman Who... (An Emotional Accretion in 48 Steps)--inconsistent use of subtitles and intertitles, voiceover interrupted by intertitle, minimalist sets that are obviously staged, melodramatic plot with little melodrama in the staging, etc. Very self-reflexive! That film is sooooo aware of it's own process of making; it constantly reminds us about that so that we must *think* about how this movie and, hopefully, all movies are ideologically constructed.

Avant-garde and Experimental Film

Q: There are 4 non-fictional formal systems (Rhetorical, categorical, abstract, and associational)...is there a parallel list for fictional narratives?

Nope.

Q: Did we study any non-fictional films other than documentaries? (e.g. do the 4 forms from above apply only to documentaries?)

Several of the avant-garde films qualify as nonfiction too. The 4 forms above apply to a-g too.

Q: Was Bruce Conner's A Movie all stock footage? What about Koyaanisqatsi?

yes. no.

Italian Neorealism, the French New Wave, and Art Cinema

Q: Could you explain intertextuality? I'm a little confused.

A: Intertextuality is when a film refers to another film, novel, artwork, music, etc. In the film Breathless, for example, there are many intertextual references. Michel is obsessed with Humphrey Bogart movies, so that's one movie actor referring to another. Another example is when the woman on the street offers to sell Michel a magazine. If you look closely, the title of the magazine is Cahiers du cinťma, which is that film journal that most of the French New Wave directors wrote for. Patricia also reads from William Faulker's novel, Wild Palms, in her apartment and she talks about her posters of Renoir paintings.

Q: Were Italian NeoRealists also shooting on location or on sets? I thought they were but somehow I have that the FNW brought that change. Certainly, they did change the way they recorded sound; do I have that wrong?

The Italian Neorealists had to shoot on-location. The studios at CinecittŠ had all been bombed! They used post-dubbed sound. Generally, FNW used more directly-recorded sound--yes, that's one of the big changes/difference b/t the 2 movements--though they did occasionally post-dub too, especially early in the movement.

Q: I have Agnes Varda in my notes under FNW - was she making films during that time?

Yup, she was indeed the lone woman involved with the FNW, though technically she was part of the somewhat separate Left Bank Group with along Resnais and Marker. She's often called "the grandmother of the FNW" and Resnais "the grandfather of the FNW." Her film Cleo from 5 to 7 was quite a hit with the FNW boys, as was her first film La Pointe courte from 1954.

Q: Can't the American Avant-garde also be considered Art Cinema?

No. Although for some films there are a few conventions associated with both these movements (like your question about style/authorship below), Art Cinema and Avant-garde are different. They're preoccupied with different thematic concerns and are formally implemented entirely differently. Check the defining characteristics of both movements, including historic/decade differences. With perhaps the exception of a few films that would cross over, they're different.

Q: Style/form/authorship is much more important than narrative/plot. This statement is true for Euro Avant-garde, Experimental, American AG, INR, FNW, Art Cinema, right? ALL of those?

Yes.

Q: What's the difference between subjectivity and Bordwell's subjective realism? For both, my notes say "relate to psychological states"...

Subjective depth of narration means we're inside a character's head--thoughts, dreams, hallucinations, memories (flashbacks), POV, etc.

Subjective realism in Art Cinema is related to this. It conveys a sense of the character's subjectivity, though the fact that we're watching a character's subjective state is not as clearly indicated as in Hollywood films. In Art Cinema, we're often not sure what's "real" or what's in a character's mind or what's somewhere between the two. Think of the clip we saw from 8-1/2. The phone ringing in sync with his movements in the bathroom, the strange panning camera movements when he arrives at the spa, the diegetic music there, the memory of the girl from his past fluttering in to serve him the mineral water--all of these things *appear* to be objective, but they're conveying more of his subjective state than any objective reality.

Likewise, think of the cliff-top search for Anna in L'Avventura. The longer takes and the framing--especially the unusual angles and XLS's of the figures against the empty landscape--convey the subjective loneliness and a sense of disconnect among the characters. Plus, as they get bored with the search, *we* get bored with the search too. This kind of subjectivity is far less clearly indicated in 8-1/2 and L'Avventura than, say, the subjective camerawork in The Lady in the Lake or the many POV shots in Rear Window.

CHC Genres and Ideology

 

Genre Transformation and Ideology

Q: I asked this question in class, but it still is unclear. How is reaffirmation of myths still in genre TRANSFORMATION and not just genre?

The short version is that some of the conventions have been updated/altered/transformed in this mode, but it's still confirming the myths and ideologies prevalent in CHC genre films. So Star Wars reaffirms just about every gender/race/capitalist/etc. ideology we've covered, but there are also some people of color in positions of power and Princess Leia does get to shoot guns (but she never wields the more phallic light sabre, of course!). Raiders of the Lost Ark still gives us the individualistic hero, but he's more vulnerable too.

Ideology and Cultural Criticism

Q: Will our final exam be cumulative?

The answer is no and yes: the final exam focuses predominantly on the second half of the course, which covers film movements, directors, and styles rather than terms specifically. However, itís impossible to study these film movements, directors, and styles without knowledge of the terms we learned in the first half of the course. For example, you canít study the French New Wave without understanding jump cuts. There are also two clip questions on the final exam, but if youíve been practicing those terms on your weekly Study Clips, youíll be up to speed on those terms for the final exam.