Saturday, August 30, 2008

Reading Between the Frames

One of the great joys of studying movies is making new discoveries. The beauty of the lively seventh art, to paraphrase Gilbert Seldes' affectionate name for it, lies in its clamoring to be analyzed from every conceivable perspective. This is precisely what leads to golden moments of Epiphany experienced when a young film scholar spots a previously unnoticed bank of set pieces -- cutting instruments mounted on the wall of a hardware store -- on his tenth viewing of Psycho. How do directors plant these subtle brushstrokes that penetrate our subconsciousness, only to migrate to our conscious awareness later? Moreover, how can viewers raise their awareness of these seemingly inscrutable touches? Roger Ebert provides an engaging answer to the latter question in his latest blog posting on how to read a movie.

While Ebert's article does not present a comprehensive guide to studying movies, it certainly qualifies as a good starting point. For a more in-depth reference source, I must take a walk down Memory Lane. On the first day of a spring film seminar I took at Pacific Lutheran University ten years ago, I was furnished with a two-page handout entitled "How to 'Read' a Film". In that document, my wise professor pointed out specific patterns for which to listen and watch. What's more, he codified them under a series of subheadings. (e.g., mise-en-scène, costume, lighting, dialogue, camera movements, sound) Unfortunately, I have long since misplaced that invaluable guidepost, an act for which I may never forgive myself. Should I happen to recover it, I will be sure to upload it on a future posting.

The laying down of such rules invariably leads some film students to raise objections. "How am I supposed to enjoy a movie if I keep vigil for all this stuff," some grumblers ask. It's a valid question. The coldest, hardest fact of film criticism is that you can't just sit back and allow yourself to be caught up in the magic of the movie, as any audience member would, if you expect to grow as a film scholar. One must learn to dissociate.

The mere thought of such discipline is enough to make most film fans heartsick. Then again, the first-year film student may ask, "Is it possible to analyze and enjoy a film at the same time?" The answer to this question is yes, but it takes practice. It is a skill that is akin to the one music scholars employ when listening to the patterns of Mendelssohn's melodies and being moved by them at once. Dramatists argue that entertainment is impossible without suspension of disbelief. Even this critic still catches himself being led off track by an engrossing story, a heartbreaking score, or a stunning performance by an actor from time to time. A simple solution to this problem would be to use the first viewing as an opportunity to watch the movie as a regular audience member. Then on subsequent viewings, the cerebral tools can be taken out of the shed, sharpened, and put to use.

This compromise works well for recreational movie fans, but it presents a problem for serious film scholars aspiring to work as film critics. Reason: lack of sufficient time. Pity the poor reviewer who has but one viewing to absorb every drop of a given movie's intellectual and emotional juice before the publishing deadline arrives. To this end, I've often wondered how Leonard Maltin and other critics who rank movies with stars can render such judgments so soon after seeing them. Movies need time to digest. That's why the dormancy period is important. We've all seen movies that tasted great going down, but left a nasty hangover the next morning. (viewer's remorse, if you will) I shudder to think how often reviewers shoot themselves in the foot by writing reviews when caught up in the emotional first impressions of a mediocre film. It goes without saying that periodic reassessment is an important part of criticism. Tastes change as time passes, as do the effects certain films have on audiences.

In cases when time is not of the essence, the film scholar has the DVD in his or her favor. The advent of home video arrived as a dream come true for film buffs. Thirty years ago, graduate film students had to wait weeks to catch redeye showings of Rouben Mamoulian's early works on late-night TV, and then scribble page after labored page of notes for a doctoral dissertation while watching. Today, the creation of a Netflix account eradicates this problem with the click of a mouse. In his article, Ebert speaks of his teaching experience as deeply rewarding. A scaled-down version of this classroom in the dark can be attained by inviting a few friends over to scrutinize The General (the 1927 version starring Buster Keaton, that is) and encouraging anyone in the room to call "stop" whenever a new discovery is made. The best work is done in teams, and sometimes all a great film needs is a fresh pair of eyes to find a hidden treasure. If an ad hoc study group cannot be assembled, Steven Spielberg has sage advice: watch movies with the sound turned all the way down.

Ebert makes insightful observations about camera movements. The only comments I have to add focus on temporal placement. In Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, for example, the camera moves to the left whenever Victor Sjöström's curmudgeonly professor returns to his past, and tracks to the right upon his return to the present.

Similarly, Ebert's thoughts on placing actors and other subjects in the frame are on target. To write an addendum, it bears mentioning that an unwritten rule applies to most two-shots featuring a man and a woman: the lady goes on the left. The age-old rule of ladies first applies to cinema just as much as it does to etiquette. This placement is used when the relationship between the couple is happy. Conversely, the lady almost always appears on the right whenever tension or trouble is at hand. One marked exception to this rule can be found in North by Northwest, where Cary Grant appears on the left side of the frame in the vast majority of the film. This places his face in the top-left -- or northwest -- corner of the shot. (As an aside, astute viewers will notice that characters with strong moral fiber symbolically occupy one side -- usually the right -- of the frame, as a hero adheres to his principles. An exception to this rule comes to us in the form of Toshiro Mifune's morally ambiguous rogue samurai in Yojimbo, who bounces all over the frame from one scene to the next as he plays both sides of a crime-ridden town against one another.)

Here, I resist the writerly temptation to go out on a zippy line. Instead, I invite you to contribute to this article with your own reactions. Which movies among your favorites continue to reveal previously hidden secrets? Do you follow any film study prescripts not covered by myself or Mr. Ebert? If so, please leave a comment below. I would love to read your thoughts.

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