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September 03, 2008
TV Drama: Textual Analysis
TV Drama: Genres
This posting is targeted towards AS Media students on the OCR course although many others will hopefully find it useful. For those doing this course the key aim is to develop textual analytical skills particularly in relation to the moving image. This should becomes developed by understanding the the concept of representation and its relationship to the way a media text is constructed. This means that the focus of this unit is not about the genre of TV drama in general and the large numbers of sub-genres which have developed within this. There is no need to know anything about the history of the development of TV Drama which is of course an important issue in its own right.
The fundamental focus of this unit for exam purposes is understanding the relationship between how meaning within a text is constructed though the use of sounds, clothing, lighting, performance and camera angles, and tpyes of shot used. Much of TV Drama uses the same techniques for creating moving image as film. Core differences are production values which are constrained because of costs. The use of extremly expensive sets and models along with casts of thousands or even extensive use of very expensive special effects which are seen in Action-Adventure Films is simply not possible in TV. Another major difference between films made for cinema release compared to made for TV films is the way in which the characters perform more centrally on the screen. The action tends to take place here because many millions of people still have squareish TVs rather than widescreen TVs. Increasingly TV programmes are designed for widescreen format and if you are watching on an older TV you will lose some of the credits. Having a digital box there will be a "wide mode" on the handset that will change the proportions of the image.
In order to fully understand how a preferred meaning is created by the makers of a media text you will need to understand the concept of media representation. Remember the term media means being in the middle or inbetween things. People and places you see on TV or in film are re-presentations of a real person or event if it is a a documentary or imagined in a particular way if it is fictional like a feature film or TV drama. When you see people on screen for example how you see them is constructed using technical conventions such as lighting and camera shots / angles to create a preferred meaning by the makers.
TV Drama: Textual Analysis & Representation
A major shift is the course this year is an increased emphasis upon issues of representation. Areas covered by this terms include gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, class & status, physical & mental ability / disability, regional identity, rural / non-rural, Britain / Rest of the World.
Moving Image Grammar & Conventions & the Creation of Meaning
Analyse and discuss the grammar and conventions of the moving image medium in relation to TV Drama in order to discuss the representation of individuals, groups, events or places. We will be learning to understand the structure and visual language embodied in moving images. This is a language which has evolved primarily in relation to film as this media form preceded TV as a media technology.
Textual Analysis Hub links
Please note that all this work is based upon film and it tends to have a focus on Action-Adventure Films as well as this was the old specification. However the basic information about camera shots framing and sound is the same.
For more detailed work on the shot please follow this link
For more detailed work on Camera Movement / Mobile Framing please follow the link
For more details about the use of sound including some YouTube examples follow this link
For discussion and YouTube Extracts about mise en scene please follow this link
For a revision check list of things to remember in a grid form to practise doing textual analysis at home please follow this link
For glossary guides to explanations of the terms that you will be using there are three Film & Media glossaries spilt into alphabetical sections as follows. Where you see entries with just a green hyperlink this will take you to a fuller entry.
European Cinema and Media Glossary A-E
European Cinema and Media Glossary Ed-Mo
Media and Film Studies Glossary N-Z
Here is a Quick revision guide to technical terms using the work of Media College.com
Here is some Kinoeye work on genre. It is primarily written about film but the key elements of genre hold good across different media forms. An Introduction to Film Genre.
May 27, 2008
Return to Unseen Europe Hub Page
Isabelle Huppert in Joachim Lafosse's Private Property
This is a piece which is part of the 'Unseen Europe' section of the Kinoeye Blog. Despite efforts by the European Union to encourage the cinematic representation of all its members the industrial and commercial nature of cinema vitiates its long-term health as an art form. Lack of marketing power and only weak exhibitionary systems mean that many interesting European films are never seen in the cinema, or only very briefly. These articles are meant to direct interested visitors to some of these films and any web discourse which helps contextualise them.
Biography of Chantal Ackerman : From the Deutsche Film Institute
La Captive (The Captive) (2001)
Toute une nuit (1982) YouTube extract below:
The Dardenne Brothers
The Dardennes Bros with their best screenplay award Cannes 2008 for La Silence de Lorna
In 1999 Rosetta by the Dardenne Brothers wins Palme d'Or at Cannes
In 2005 L'enfant by the Dardenne Brothers won the Palme d'Or at Cannes
Film Philosophy Review by Joseph Mai of a book on the Dardenne Bros
La Silence de Lorna (2008) by the Dardenne Bros. YouTube extract below. It won the prize for best screenplay in the 2008 Cannes Festival
Romney 2008 on: The Silence of Lorna
Video of the Guardian interview at the Southbank with the Dardenne Brothers
Weight of Water. Sight and Sound Article April 2006 by Johnathan Romney on the Dardenne Brothers
Rosetta. Sight and Sound Review March 2000 by Lizzie Francke
Independent: Sheila Johnstone on Secret of Dardennes Bros Success
Private Property (2006). Sight & Sound May 2008 review by Ginette Vincendeau
Philip French review Private Property Observer April 2008
BBC interview with Chantal Ackerman
The Cinema of the Low Countries
Return to Unseen Europe Hub Page
May 25, 2008
The Good German (2006). Stephen Soderbergh
The Good German
I don't stray much into Hollywood (well American independent) territory at present, however, a cheap deal on The Good German (Soderbergh 2006) tempted me. The film was worth its £5-00 although I wouldn't rate it as brilliant but well worth seeing. The mise en scene seemed to be a straight derivation of Rossellini's Germany Year Zero combined with Carol Reed's The Third Man. There were also shades of Michael Curtiz's Casablanca. This tells us a lot about the aspirations of the film, however, setting itself against these standards the film was very unlikely to excel. These sort of judgements are relative after all and I have found that, despite any shortcomings measured against the iconic films of the 20th century referred to above, the film leaves a reflective viewer with much to think about. Other films that contain a melancholic air of mystery, in a Berlin in which nothing and nobody are quite as they seem are 1960s spy-thrillers such as The Quiller Memorandum. Although although shot in colour Soderbergh seeks a mise en scene that is downcast and dirty like that of The Good German which is shot in black and white.
Shooting in black and white is a deliberate aesthetic device which, for a film literate audience many of whom have seen documentary footage from the time, is probably a more effective way of being placed in that time period than shooting in colour. The device serves to heighten the reality effect of the film in a way reminiscent of Spielberg's Shindler. The film is very auteurist in the sense that Soderberg did his own cinematography and editing as well with the film's credits to Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard being pseudonyms. According to the Guardian DVD release review the film 'tanked':
The Good German tanked about as badly as it's possible to tank (from an estimated $32m budget, it brought in $1.2m in the US). (Rob Mackie The Guardian Nov 2007)
I think it is a pity it didn't do well. Flawed it might be but given the amount of real rubbish that people spend their time watching this film rates. When it comes to getting into the pantheons of the great, better to have tried but failed than not tried at all. This film raises underlying issues about society which Rossellini, Carol Reed nor Curtiz managed; that alone makes it worth seeing.
Cate Blanchett put in a memorable performance although sometimes I felt her accent didn't quite hold together. The film's aesthetics were generally very good and the use of the chiaoscuro lighting worked very effectively. Many would attribute this style to 'film noir' although of course both German and French films pre-war used this type of lighting a lot. The Times online review is a classic fudge in this respect. The reviewer specifically denies the core political issues underlying the film and tries to critique the film as a bad rehash of a "film noir", a category which primarily exists in the eyes of a certain group of critics in any case. This is the sort of bad reviewing which one might expect from a Murdoch paid hack in thrall to the status quo. Although the Channel 4 review is considerably better, it too sees the film in a hackneyed way as a 'film noir' to describe the category.
I largely agree with the estimates of the performances from Erica Abeel writing an insightful review in Film Journal International. Like her I initially felt that the Clooney character didn't quite gel and lacked the necessary deep erotically driven obsession required by the part. Perhaps our view of how Clooney should have played the part is highly romanticised in relation to The Third Man and Casablanca. Perhaps the direction of Clooney is precisely to show up to audience their dependency upon conventions of romance. Only when Lena declares that she wants to make love with Geismer does the audinece understand that the pre-war relationship really had extremely powerful erotic resonances. Perhaps it wasn't meant to be like Casablanca after all? In Abeel's suggestion that Tobey Mcguire was a serious miscasting error to play the deeply unpleasant Tully rather missed the point. Precisely because nothing in Berlin was as it seems allows the typecasting of Hollywood genredom to be broken. Because Lena saw in him a 'boy' just like her husband, the innocent looks of McGuire provide an explanation of Lena putting up with him albeit to further her own agenda.
Lena Brandt shouldn't be associated with the notion of the 'femme fatale' - at least one blog has- certainly she is the object of desire for Clooney who leads him to put himself into danger. His desire also put him into conflict with the wishes of authority. These aspects don't make her a femme fatale as such. Arguably her character functions as a trope for a Berlin which is entirely different to the prewar Berlin of Geismer's experience. Lena Brandt doesn't evince any interest in Geismer, and her determination to achieve her aim would go up to the point of shooting him. The scene in which she pulls a gun on Geismer is underpinned by a change in the diegetic sound track for the audience to experience her thoughts as she makes her way down sewers towards her husband, who we are about to see for the first time in the film approximately three quarters of the way through. This is an excellent aesthetic device and well handled, as an audience we are convinced that this is a very different Lena from the one that Geismer knew prior to the war. This shift to interiority is unusual and as a device moves the audience into the realm of the subjugated female voice which is unable to tell its tale out loud. This is hardly traditional femme fatale territory. For the knowing audience too who might wish to think about the gun scene as a 'pastiche' of Phyllis Dietrichson shooting Neff (Double Indemnity), worth remembering that Phyllis couldn't finish the job. This interiority tells the audience that Lena is on a mission and would shoot Geismer.
The occasional sceptical comment has been made about redemption, yet this is what the core motivation for Lena was. It was her raison d'etre, were she simply a survivor she could have easily left Berlin, but in a psychoanalytical way this characterisation was right. Whilst apparently some audiences took the line 'It is impossible to leave Berlin' as an overpompous statement the fact that the film exists at all and creates resonances tells us something about the position of Berlin as a city at a synechdochal and mythical level. What has easily been dismissed as pastiche by 'knowing' audiences might be an artistic flaw but in terms of the underlying meaning perhaps shouldn't be quite so quickly dismissed.
My own doubts about aspects of authenticity within the film relate to the prewar experiences of Geismer and Lena Brandt. What held to to Berlin at a time when she might have been still able to get out. After all until 1938 the emphasis of the Nazis was one of pushing Jews out of the country rather than mass extermination. Given that she was in an adulterous relationship with Geismer at the time justified by Geismer on the grounds that the husband was hardly ever around what was the nature of the relationship with the husband. Given that Geismer was of Jewish extraction surely these issues would have been discussed at the time?
Films set in Berlin frequently use the sewers and the underground as a spatial trope to express the subterranean desires, activities and practices in post-war Berlin. Here Lena Brandt is making her way towards her husband's hideout.
Edward Dimendberg is concerned with examining the representation of spatial relationships of the city within 'Film Noir'. He particularly focuses upon the constructions and representations of centrifugal and centripetal space. However these spatial representations don't really seem to work with films that are better charactersied as 'Rubble films', where the breakdown of the precepts of modernity and the need to re-establish this discourse is of primary concern. Taking this architectural / geographical discourse into account allows us to think of The Good German as separate from but linked to the critical construction 'Film Noir' tempting though it is to entirely conflate it with 'noir'. These rubble films certainly introduce 'the tensions permeating centripetal space' (Dimendberg p 91), the centrifugal though is associated with the powers and tensions of the state at the international level which will eventually lead to the Berlin Airlift in 1948-1949 and the establishing of the Berlin Wall which became a synechdoche of the 'Cold War'. The subterranean spaces of the 'rubble film' need to be worked into a fuller analysis of the spatial representations of modernity.
The Viennese sewers in The Third Man offering quite literally underground networks of crime and transitions betwen differetn sectors of the city. In 1945 Vienna too was an internationally run city between the American, British, French and of course the Soviets.
At times the sets seemed a little too artificial, such as the high angle shot of the airport strip at the end where all the crates seemed just a little too perfet and things smacked of CGI. Rossellini's Germany Year Zero shot in Berlin a few months after the setting of this film (which was July 1945) had a certain dustinesss to it.
Soderbergh makes great play of restricting himself to camera lenses and equipment of the day. This means The Good German unspools with the requisite one camera set-ups, screen wipes, even the flickering, linking archive clips it would have utilized had it been made in 1945, rather than just set then. (Channel 4 Review)
At times there was a visual contrast between the archive footage and the modern set footage. For example when Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett) pulls a gun on Geismer (George Clooney) and there is a low angle shot which shows a clouded sky through a shell or bomb hole in the roof of the building. There was something which was too carefully constructed about this.
The film raised two especially interesting issues. Firstly it was a clear political attack on the US and its preparedness to cover up certain issues in order to gain superiority in any forthcoming arms race. The fact was that Geismer had been unwittingly brought to Berlin to help the Americans track down Lena Brandt with the hope that she would lead Geismer and then them too the whereabouts of her husband Emil Brandt who they wished to eliminate.
Geismer with the driver he has been assigned called Tully (Tobey McGuire) meet Lena Brandt in a Bar. Tully is a convincingly unpleasant amoral opportunist who is Brandt's current lover. Unbeknownst to Tully Geismer and Brandt had a relationship prior to the war.
The film is a conspiracy type of thriller which has a political message that contradicts most of the films within this genre. These usually pit an able but näif hero against some mavericks within the system (the Bourne series for example). The hero with the help of an insider who upholds the true value of the constitution eventually manages to defeat the mavericks who become power obsessed.
Here the 'mavericks' were the most powerful people in the country and they were determined to get their way. It was made clear that the future next hundred years was what was being played for as the high stake Potsdam treaty discussions unfurl in the background. Soderbergh's film raises the question of how much Nazi activity was engaged in by the scientists on the advanced nuclear and rocket weapons programmes, and as a concommittent how far America was prepared to sweep history under the carpet for the sake of gaining the expertise for its own postwar weapons programme.
A futher question which is raised by the film is jsut how much we should be judgemental of those Jews who ended up collaborating with the Nazi programme in order to save their own skins (quite literally). The denouement at the very end Lina finally admits the awful secret she has been hiding from Geismer, however Clooney had to press her to get her to admit it. He wouldn't have done this without Bernie (Leland Orsner) having pointed out that what was in her file could have her put away for life in terms of crimes against humanity. But in a world where everybody is feverishly following their own agendas, love intersts, money, reasons of state regardless of any attempt to stick to moral codes is Geismer's moral judgementalism fully justified or should we be looking to "the mote in our own eyes"?
Soderberg's The Good German certainly provides food for thought. It raises questions of moral ambivalence, questions of loyalty, truth and morality when the traditional mores of society have been broken down by war and the complete breakdown of civil society where the rule of law needs to be re-established and become respected. In this sense a contemporary reader could apply the situation to post-Saddam Iraq as much as to Berlin, but that conflict will doubtless generate its own specific stories in due course.
Dealing with the film it gradually dawning on me just how important the representations of Berlin in film are within a Western consciousness. Whether it is the pre-war Berlin of Joe May or Fritz Lang, the post-war Berlin of Rossellini, Le Carré there is a human geography of fragmentation, displacement, division, disillusion, ambivalence and masquerade in which Berlin has become a key synedoche. If somebody isn't doing a PhD on this very subject they ought to be!
Apple Trailers for The Good German
Dimendberg Edward 2004. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge (Mass) Harvard University Press.
March 21, 2008
Guerilla Cinema: The 'Other' of Contemporary British Cinema
This was an entirely refreshing find for a Good Friday Morning when I didn't have to get up early. Check this site out and send them some sponsorship money this is such a great idea!!!! Architecturally ands in terms of urbanism this has to be a good 'parafunctional space'.
Guerilla Cinema: The 'Other' of Contemporary British Cinema
I have entitled this posting 'guerilla' cinema because it is there to signify that ongoing tension or little war between mainstream cinema which is primarily about creating an ongoing business which feeds the creation of a cycle of stars, festival goings, critics and articles and slots in TV wotz'on this weekend on Friday nights. The more "artsy" it is the later it is broadcast. Film festivals by themselves or as a part of larger festivals are increasingly a part of the shift towards a "cultural industries" agenda which seeks to 'colonise the lifeworld' as the social theorist Habermas might describe it. For those of us who attend these things you are doubtless overburdened with evaluation forms given out to gain audience feedback on the event space etc. Of course these are done as much as anything to cover the bums of the events organisers as anything else. They can be used to justify the event and to argue for "quality improvements" next time around. Of course this kind of surveillance of culture can kill any poetry in an event stone dead.
The idea for the posting came from reading an article in the latest Sight and Sound about the difficulties of distribution and exhibition for British independent filmmakers when even the "Arthouse" cinemas are increasingly showing the same fare, in a sort of mainstream for the middle-classes. Some of these issues of control are already covered elswhere in the blog. combining this perception with flicking through an issue of Architectural Design entitled Poetics in Architecture reminded me of how staid, sterile and boring everything which smacks of the 'New Labour' is or has become. This whole blog started out as an aid to Open Studies Learning which has emerged as "Lifelong Learning" in the New Labour lexicon of control terms. Whilst under the aegis of extra-mural studies this form of learning wasn't controlled in terms of having to make the students perform some work. The space of learning was poetic in as much as an enthusiast delivered a course and a group of people interested came and interacted with the content and in that specific learning space in a dynamic and performative way which wasn't subject to measurement and control. If people were disatisfied then they would move on. Many of the attendees had good qualifications in other areas but simply wanted to extend their ideas and knowledge base into different areas at a more informal level without writing essay etc. Now this form of education has become instrumentalised. Humans on the whole are inquisitive if they are not browbeaten into accepting false limitations.
The increasing commercialistion of spaces of alternative cinema at the same time create a residue 'a surplus' in which expressive and creative acts and desires find no menas of expression. The exponential explosion onto the web of YouTube and similar sites bears witness to this surplus of creativity which is largely outside of the commercial. Yet this is still unsatisfactory for cinema in its origins was a social space of F2F interactions amongst the audience. Here cinema intersects with architecture. This posting is the beginnings of an investigation into the possibilities of creating spaces of exhibition for an ever expanding multi-media consciousness which like many popular music forms seeks recognition but is also part of an unfolding cultural dynamic in which a search for 'poetry' which is defined here as a resistance to the rationalisation and control of all aspects of social life. It is a search for performative cinematic space which is 'parafunctional' in the words of Nikos Papastergiadis.
The term parafunctional space:
Refers to zones in which creative, informal and unintended uses overtake the oficially designated functions. In parafunctional spaces social life is not simply abandoned or wasted; rather it continues in ambiguous and unconventional ways.
Now Papastergiadis was thinking of older industrial cities where areas are becoming rundown or corners where people resist the instrumentalism of everyday life under New Labour by glue sniffing -See This is England. But as he points out this fits in with Bachelardian notions of poetics of space because it is dreaming and an attempt to break free of colonisation.
The Campaign over the Dalston Cinema is a good example of a parafunctional space.
7 Inch Cinema as Parafunctional Space
What they say about themselves:
Two things helped give birth to 7 Inch Cinema: masses of good films out there, particularly shorts, that never get near our cinemas or TV screens; and more and more people choosing to watch film online or on beefy home entertainment systems. We are firm believers in the old-fashioned communal film experience. Our job is to sift through festivals, archives, DVD submissions and the web for interesting work and then to screen it in a relaxed setting for people to enjoy, perhaps alongside a discussion, a bit of music or a quiz. The setting could be a pub, an art gallery, a church, a warehouse, a military decontamination tent. It could even be a cinema. The main thing is to create a sense of occasion, and to show people something they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Flatpack Festival Birmingham
Good news for Flatpack
Monday 16th Jun 08
The UK Film Council have selected Flatpack Festival as one of the seven recipients of their national Festival Fund. Whoop! If you don't believe us you can get it straight from the horse's mouth, and there's also some info on the 7inch blog.
Here are some interesting links when I used the search term "Guerilla Cinema".
Chorlton Film Institute: guerilla cinema
Centre for Contemporary Arts Glasgow
Cannes in a Van (Seems togive a nice sense of the general ethos)
BBC Film Network John Wojowski
Document 2: Documentary Film Festival
Guardian on the rise of Machinima
It's not British Cinema but its a great Idea. Check out this Parasite site for a metro projection system in Berlin
Well my search turned up Moviola which is a small charitable organisation which provides screenings in villages across several South Western Counties. OK it's not exactly the normal concept of Guerrilla but it is provinging alternatives and developing film culture.
Well I found the above link on Mad Cornish Projectionist who seems to be well linked.
March 15, 2008
Camera Movement / Mobile Framing
Camera Movement / Mobile Framing
Return to TV DRAMA Hub PAGE (AS 2008 onwards)
Return to textual analysis hub page(A2 Resits 2008-09)
With mobile framing the framing of the object being filmed changes. The concept of the mobile frame means that parameters such as camera height, camera angle, camera level and distance may all change during the course of a shot. below is a list of the different terms which describe the possibilities for the camera. Firstly though just to whet your appetite here is the famous tracking shot utilising a crane from Touch of Evil by Orson Welles. At the time is was the longest in duration and most ambitious tracking shot ever produced, enjoy it really is a classic.
Bordwell and Thompson note that camera movements have had a strong appeal for filmmakers as well as audiences ever since the beginning of cinema. They explain this as follows:
visually camera movements have several arresting effects. They often increase information about the space of the image. Objects become sharper and more vivid than in stationary framings. New objects or figures are usually revealed. Tracking shots and crane shots supply continually changing perspectives on passing objects as the frame constantly shifts its orientation. Objects appear more solid and three dimensional when the camera arcs (that is tracks) around them. Pan and tilt shots present space as continuous, both horizontally and vertically. (Bordwell and Thompson 2008 p 195/6)
In this YouTube extract from Malick's The Thin Red Line. In following the progress of a group of soldiers through the jungle there is a cut to the camera tilting upwards while tracking to almost 90 degrees tracking the forest canopy whilst maintaining the feeling of being with the awestruck soldiers. There are two diagetic soundsources: the internal thoughts of one of the soldiers and the sounds of the jungle and the men advancing through it. Non-diegetically there is the beating of drums which have the feel of instruments of Pacific Islanders mixed with some electronic rhythms, this keeps a progressive tension in the consciousness of the viewer. The camera then tilts and cranes down again to track them through some bamboo groves.
Bordwell and Thompson point out that in this film Malick used a crane with a 72 foot arm which allowed the camera to rove over the high grass in a very unusually shot battle scene. (bordwell and Thompson 2008 p 195).
The Main Camera Movements
Crane Shot. Please see extract from Touch of Evil above for an excellent example of a crane and tracking shot of very long duration.
Dolly Shot. A dolly is a platform with wheels which allows the camera and camera operator to move around very smoothly. for a tracking shot the camera is placed on rails. this allows he camera to make smooth changes in distance in relation to the subject of the shot. The word dolly is also used as a verb to describe the action of moving the camera when it on a wheeled platform. See tracking shot below.
Hand Held. Hand-held camera gives a shaky documentary feeling of really being at a place where events are happening. The now well known invasion of the Normandy beaches in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan provides an excellent example of this:
This YouTube extract from the second chapter of Saving Private Ryan features a lot of crane work near the water level as well as plenty of hand-held camera work giving a real feeling of being there. It is of course best viewed in the cinema to have anything like the full-on effect. Recommended.
Pan ( short for panorama). This extract from Lawrence of Arabia starts with a panning shot to the right. Later there is a pan to the left as Peter O'Toole is enjoying his new Arab robes.
Steadicam. The invention of the Steadicam by Garrett Brown has enabled cmaera operators to shoot in difficult circumstances whilst keeping the shot steady. This has enabled filmmakers to maitain a more continuity based editing sysyem which doesn't draw attention to the film making process itself whilst being able to take advantage of making shots that were previously only available in handheld with the inevitable shaky feel. This shaky feel is now used as an aesthetic effect see entry under handheld. Wikipedia entry on the Steadicam. Interview with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown.
Tilt. The camera is able to point either up or down in the vertical axis.
Tracking Shot / Dolly Shot. Please see the opening sequence of Touch of Evil. Also check entry for 'Dolly' above. The film camera is quite literally placed on a low platform (a dolly) which is on a track like a railway track. This means that the camera can be kept at a precise heigght and the speed can be adjusted. A very famous and extremly long tracking shot is in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend which tracks in a parallel way alongside a road filming dozens of cars which have been involved in a a pile up. Tracking can be in parallel to a scene or else the camera can track forwards or backwards. The way the tracking is done can create a range of different connotations. Tracking done at high speed is often used in Action-adventure films in chase sequences which will emphasise the sense of speed. If tracking is done very slowly a dream or trance like feel is expressed. If a person is held consistently within the frame at one extreme of the frame it could impart a feeling of being imprisoned for example. Below is the forementioned extract courtesy of Youtube from Godard's Weekend:
Return to TV DRAMA Hub PAGE (AS 2008 onwards)
January 19, 2008
Contemporary British Directors: Paul Greengrass
Return to Contemorary British Directors hub page here.
Paul Greengrass has had a history of working at the cutting edge of documentary and also writing making firstly with the Granada World in Action TV documentary series. Although he should not be regarded as politically radical his career has been one which has sought to make liberal democracy become more transparent and it appears as though he sees the role of media as making a powerful contribution towards this. His treatment of events in Northern Ireland, his contribution to the Spycatcher book, which tore into the British establishment in the 1980s. His documentary United 93 underpinned the power and determination of ordinary people who will sacrifice themselves for others in the face of a totalitarian terrorism expressed on this occasion by the despised Al Quaida. Most of his early work has trodden where many other filmmakers and creative people have feared to tread. As as John Patterson in The Guardian puts it:
Five years ago, Paul Greengrass was an avowedly political, low-budget British filmmaker working within the documentary-style tradition that constitutes the core - the deepest, oldest thread - of British cinema; now he's a big-name director making kinetic, visceral Hollywood movies that are eagerly awaited at multiplexes worldwide. Ultimatum, budgeted at $125m (£62m), looks set to become one of the biggest hits of the summer. Funny how things turn out.
Greengrass went to school in Kent, winning a scholarship to Sevenoaks School, and started his film-making career with a super 8 camera he found in the art room. He made a series of animated horror films, using old dolls and bric-a-brac props. He went on to Queens' College, Cambridge, and then, inspired by the story of Woodward and Bernstein's uncovering of the Watergate scandal in All the President's Men, decided to become an investigative journalist. (Guardian overview of Greengrass).
He worked with the "World in Action" (ITV, 1963-99) - TV documentary series. The series itself gained a reputation for being cutting edge and hard hitting often being more controversial and less mainstream than the main BBC competitor of the time which was Panorama. As Greengrass commented in a Guardian interview:
I arrived there 1978-79. The great days of World in Action had been the 1960s and it had lost its way somewhere, somewhat, in the mid-70s, but the onset of Margaret Thatcher gave it this tremendous new lease of life. (ibid)
During the 1980s, Greengrass also co-authored the controversial book Spycatcher with former MI5 Assistant Director, Peter Wright. The book, which detailed Wright's attempts to ferret out a Russian spy from the ranks of the British intelligence agency, was banned by the government and held from release until 1988. In the mid 1980s Greengrass met the controversial filmmaker Alan Clarke who had made Scum and had had a strong influence upon his thinking. Greengrass has also been influenced by the realism of Ken Loach particularly Kes and also Peter Watkins’ controversial documentary The War Game.
It seems as though Greengrass’s film Resurrection (1989) taught him a lesson about drama and film making which allowed him to break with the strongly social realist mode of his previous work enabling him to film an event which it wouldn’t be possible to witness – a brutal mock court martial. It allowed him to take his aesthetic approach to a different level. The film was nominated for a Golden Bear winning some jury awards at the Berlin Film Festival.
We were using the dispassionate, observational documentary eye I had developed, if you like, on recreated events, and the collision between the two allows you to get at a bigger truth than you could by using just the one approach or the other. (ibid).
From Gritty documentaries to Hollywood Action Adventure with an Edge
For many followers of Greengrass who seemed to be following a path well trodden by many British directors working within a social realist mode it came as a great surprise when Greengrass was chosen to direct the Bourne Supremacy (2004). It was so successful - apparently netting $175 million in the box-office that he directed the Bourne Ultimatum (2007). It hasn't won Greengrass friends everywhere as a summariser from the Independent on Sunday noted in an interview with Harold Pinter and Time Out magazine which was scathingly critical:
I saw a film, The Bourne Ultimatum," Pinter begins, "and I thought: Fucking hell! This guy is clearly the strongest man in the world. He can beat up about 12 people in about 35 seconds and kill half of them.
"The whole thing is totally unreal. I was stupefied by it, it was so lacking in intelligence." He adds that he sat in the cinema "seething, thinking: What am I doing here, being bombarded by this sound? It knocks you out."
The interviewer pointed out that Oscar-nominated Greengrass is considered a master of dramatic realism.
"Paul Greengrass?" replies Pinter. "I saw Bloody Sunday, I also saw United 93: that fellow is no chump."But: "I've never been able to write a film which I didn't respect, I just can't do it."
John Patterson in the Guardian was rather more sympathetic to the project than Pinter and in doing so comes to a position which finds cross-overs between auteurism and genre cinema almost identifying a British hybrid genre of the 'political-realist action-action thriller':
Bloody Sunday may be political and tragic, but it's also an action-movie manqué. Indeed, the idea of a left-progressive action-movie director isn't even that novel: in Britain it's almost a mini-tradition. Peter Watkins is an action director without compare - witness Culloden or Punishment Park. And no one shot mayhem and violence more compellingly than Clarke. Given such forebears, the move from Bloody Sunday to Jason Bourne is an entirely natural and seamless one. (My emphasis; Guardian ibid).
Patterson has a point for it is clear that Pinter has little notion of the action adventure genre and in this sense we can point to the subversion of the sterotype.
And instead of the usual boringly indestructible, mindless right-wing macho man in the lead, the left-leaning Matt Damon plays the isolated and existentially solitary Bourne as a man whose memory may have been erased, but not his sense of morality or his essentially liberal strain of patriotism. It's all subtly embedded within a framework of thrills and violence, but it's there none the less. Greengrass wouldn't be Greengrass if it wasn't.
Whilst Pinter from a more realist mode is right to criticise the impossibility of Bourne being able to whisk aside several hardened CIA operatives just like that this is merely a convention of this type of film. This can be seen in films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. It is a dramatic device for when Bourne meets the Arabic operative sent to kill him in a hand to hand he only just makes it similarly he only survives the car chase by chance. Here he is taking on his own kind the super-killer of which he is the Ur-figure gone wrong. As a political thriller there is a long tradition of defending the supremacy of the American political system against corrupt methods which would ultimately undermine the very raison d'etre of the United States Constitution itself. This appears on John Gresham novels and films and older films such as Clear and Present Danger dealing with drug cartels. Although not directly dealing with an American theme these kind of highly secretive undercover operations by states are also critiqued in films such as Spielberg's Munich.
What Greengrass brings to this more American sub-generic category is a decidely British aesthetic which arguably has its heart in European cinema itself. Greengrass brings a gritty realism which belongs to the tradition of the British gangster-heavy (Chibnall) tradition which hasdeveloped thought films such as Brighton Rock, Get Carter (made by Mike Hodges who also worked for World in Action), The Long Good Friday. All of these involved corruption of some sort usually amongst police and local government. Greengrass is well placed to deal with higher level governmental corruption because of his involvement with the Spycatcher affair. all those British gangster films are strong on a sense of place. This is an aesthetic that Greengrass has brought wioth him. One can compare the car chase scene in the Bourne Ultimatum with the ridiculous street shoot out in Heat, to gain a real sense in the difference aesthetic which as Patterson notes is one which is a:
... patented newsreel-style, quasi-documentary, highly organic aesthetic - non-professional casts, few effects or soundstages, lots of hand-held and SteadiCam, much wobble and blur, extremely long takes, cut together in sequences often made up of hundreds of microscopically attenuated shots -... (ibid)
In the Guardian interview with Patterson Greengrass comments that he sees the Bourne character as analagous to Patricia Highsmith's Ripley character becuase there is a duality:
I love Matt in it. He's not only a brilliant actor, but also brilliant in that part because he's a wonderful player of duality - you think of [Tom] Ripley and other parts he's played. You don't know which side of that duality he's on at any moment. And that's Bourne: a duality, a killer who's redeemed himself, the man on the run with a dark past, so he's perfect. You couldn't ask for a better actor in the part than Matt.
I don't think that this is a good analogy at all because Ripley is an entirely amoral opportunist. The comparison revolves around the issue of individual agency. Ripley sees an opportunity and takes it and gradually becomes involved in murder and then serial murder and his character declines. Bourne is an allegory for the honest truly democratic USA which has literal agents within who are suborning the true nature and aims of the country. Bourne represents this tension, this duality. We know he has truly broken with this dark instilled past when he fails to kill the other super-agent at the end of the car chase. When this person is positioned to kill Bourne a little later he lets him go asking why Bourne failed to kill him. Here the conversation allows for self-reflexivity for it is a question which many americans including their military are asking themselves: is what is going on in Iraq just? Are we making things better or worse? By what authority are we here? Given the CIA information about "Weapons of Mass Destruction" was the excuse for the USA to go to war and for the British Government to follow suit despite there being no clear evidence then means that we can see the Bourne Ultimatum as an allegorical critique of American foreign policy.
It is this lack of recognition by Pinter of the necessity to work within popular genres in order to subvert them if one is able to amount any critique at all within the American cinematic system. It is a reading that will have flown over the heads of many viewers of the film inevitably but audiences have many ways of viewing a text.
Other recent non cinema work
The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999). ITV Documentary. Directed by Greengrass.
Omagh Channel Four TV Documentary. Greengrass was the producer and writer of this.
The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007
The Bourne Supremacy,2004
Bloody Sunday, 2002
The Theory of Flight, 1998
The Sweetest Thing, 1995
Indie London interview with Greengrass
BBC the Writer's Room a Q & A with Paul Greengrass
A Times overview of Greengrass's work
Guardian: Hollywood's Favourite Brit
Guardian overview of Paul Greengrass
Independent on Sunday. Noting Harold Pinter's disgust at The Bourne Ultimatum
Working Title entry on Greengrass winning BAFTA with United 93
Sight and Sound Review of Bloody Sunday
British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) for Bloody Sunday
An interesting comparative review by the well respected David Tereshchuk who was actually at the Bloody Sunday Event reporting for the BBC
Return to Contemorary British Directors hub page here.
January 04, 2008
Glossary of Documentary Film Terms
Glossary of Documentary Film Terms
From the Kinoeye Reference Section
Aleatory techniques. Aleatory technique is when the element of chance is incorporated into the film making process. Action and sound may not have been planned or scripted. The British film maker Humphrey Jennings was renowned for this. Even in fiction films this technique has been used. Jean-Luc Godard used improvisational interview techniques with his actors which questioned the distinction between acting and being and also the division between documentary and fiction.
Cinema Verite. A type of observational film which uses available light, fast film stock, handheld lightweight cameras, portable sound recording and a minimum of other equipment to record profilmic events. Aleatory techniques are very important to this style. The style became widely known after being introduced by the anthropologist / filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Jean Morin in Chronicle of a Summer (1961). Rouch saw the camera as a participant in the unfolding of events which makes cinema verite quite different in approach to Direct Cinema. Rouch believed that the camera functioned as a psychological stimulant which although it altered behaviour in front of the camera arguably revealed deeper underlying truths about personalities. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) can be understood as a precursor of this approach. The camera did boast of its own presence and influence upon the profilmic events. The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) by Marcel Ophuls can be seen as another example.
City Symphony film. This developed as a sub-genre of documentary film. They are often abstract films loosely structured around the theme of the day in the life of a city. The use of montage provides a sense of rhythm and movement. Rien que les heures (1926) Alberto Cavalcanti was shot on the streets of Paris. It was the first of the ‘City Symphony’ films made in Europe during the 1920s and preceded the better know Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) by Ruttman. It was very influential amongst the documentary movement at the time. Man With a Movie Camera: Dziga Vertov (1929) is far more than just an impressionistic view of the city. The film is an optimistic perspective on the importance of industrialisation and modernisation. Vertov also brings in a strong element of reflexivity in which the film is shown as being made as well as showing the audience and the place of exhibition.
Crown Film Unit. In August 1940 the GPO Film Unit was remaned the Crown film Unit directly under the Ministry of information thus becoming a directly propaganda organisation. Many of the films were made by Humphrey Jennings as well as Watt and Jackson. After the war documentaries were stil made but the energy, belief by government and and social consciousness had dissipated. The Unit was closed in 1951.
Direct Cinema. A type of observational documentary practice which developed in the USA during the 1960s. Profilmic events were recorded as they happened without rehearsal or reconstruction. Unlike cinema verite the practivce sought to be as unobtrusive as possible giving rise to the term ‘Fly on the wall’ coined by the film-maker Richard Leacock. Stylistically they feature long takes and minimal editing and try to keep a chronological structure to preserve profilmic events as effectively as possible. Subjects are allowed to speak for themselves and the camera observes ho0ping to record a privileged moment which will display the truth of the person behind the words.
Documentary. The term was invented by John Grierson when reviewing of Flaherty’s Moanna (1926). Any film practice that has as its subject persons events or situations that exist outside the film in the real world also referred to as non-fiction film. The first films ever shown to the public were documentaries exhibited by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895. They were very popular for some some with travelogues being especially popular. As editing techniques developed fictional narrative films gradually eclipsed documentaries. Documentary then survived inside the institution of cinema as newsreels. Pathe News began these in 1910 and soon other major companies began making them. Nanook of the North: Robert Flaherty (1922) was the first ever full length feature documentary. It demonstrated that fictional techniques could be used in a documentary.
Few full length documentaries have ever been made. Woodstock : Michael Wadleigh (1970) was one that managed to be distributed in mainstream cinemas. Documentaries differ from fiction because they refer to the historical real. The documentary theorist Bill Nichols describes the pleasure derived from watching documentary as ‘epistephilia’ or knowing about the real world. Fiction film cannot substitute for the hooror of an on-screen assassination or the explosion of the space shuttle challenger or the planes flying into the world trade centre. There is no need to suspend disbelief. Initially for many the fact that real events were caught on camera meant that documentaries were somehow unbiased. Nowadays it is widely accepted that documentaries are biased, as a result those seeking more objectivity take more concern with how the subjects of the documentary represent themselves. Blandford, Grant and Hillier (2001) argue that documentary isn’t a genre citing Nichols who comments that:
Documentary as a concept or practice occupies no fixed territory. It mobilises no finite inventory of techniques, adresses no completly known taxonomy of forms, styles, or modes’.
Nevertheless on the arguments that Neale uses to describe 'Art Cinema' as a 'genre' by virtue of its exhibitionary and distribution target audience, documentary with all the sub-generic forms has a more powerful case to be described as a genre. Interestingly Bill Nichols himself has included two articles on documentary including one by himself under 'Genre Criticism' in his seminal Movies and Methods Vol 2 (1985).
Empire Marketing Board (Film Unit). Existed to market the British Empire. John grierson headed the film unit between 1928 - 1933 when the whole board was wound up. It produced nearly 100 short films including The Drifters (1929) by Grierson himself and also Industrial Britain 1932) by Robert Flaherty. The Public Relations head Tallents went to the GPO and took Grierson and the film unit with him.
Ethnographic Film. Anthropological documentary that seeks to present and describe other cultures with a minimum of interpretation and ideological distortion. The first feature film usually considered as a foundational ethnographic film was Nanook of the North: Robert Flaherty (1922). However it romanticised the Inuit people. This type of approach to documentary film making can often be seen as condescending by representing indigenous people as ‘exotic others’.
Fast Film Stock. This describes how sensitive the emulsion is to light. Fast film stock is more sensitive to light and is rated at 400 ASA and above. Slower film stock can start as low as 50 ASA. Fast film was very useful in low light conditions and shooting could take place without artificial lighting. The disadvantage of this was that the film would look grainy compared to slower speed films.
Free Cinema Movement. This was a short lived movement in the late 1950s in Britain which tried to develop a different approvoach to documentary cinema. It had a powerful effect upon the British New Wave feature films which emereged soon afterwards. It was founded by Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. The term was used to designate a number of documentary films they made during the 1950s. The ideals held in common were that documentary films should be made free of all commercial pressures. That they should be inflected with a humanistic and poetic approach. This gave the work of Humphrey Jennings over that of John Grierson. Both anderson and Reisz were critics for the film magazine Sequence . The magazine criticisd British documentary for being conformist and feature filmmaking for its lack of aesthetic innovation. They also criticised the monopoly practices of British cinema. They also criticised the predominant genres of war films -which seemed to glorify war and avoid the horrors - and weak comedies. Their own shorts were largely self-funded although some grant money from the BFI was forthcoming. Ford UK was also a significant source of funding. Ford commissioned a series of documentaries ‘Look at Britain’. Free Cinema was responsible for Every Day Except Christmas : Anderson (1957) and Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959). These filmmakers believed in representing working class culture as it was lived. The editing was very rhythmic dliberately connoting Jazz which had become an important part of working class subculture. Stylistically these 3 directors were smilar and 4 out of the 6 films they made had Walter Lasally as the cinematographer. The directors they were influenced by included John Ford, Marcel Carne, Jean Cocteau, Jean Gremillon, Humprey Jennings, Jean Renoir, Vittorio de Sica and Jean Vigo.
GPO Film Unit. This started under Grierson in 1933 after the Empire Marketing Board was wound up. It became the main institution to be associated with documentary film in the 1930s. It had a wide brief only some being linked directly to the Post Office. The films were heavily influenced by montage alongside a committment to representing ordinary people. It was propagandist in so far as it existed to serve the needs and purposes of the state. After Cavalcanti joined the unit there was also experiment with sound montage. Tensions arose between exponents of developing new forms and those who emphasised a more straightforward aproach. Later 1930s films tend to be less experimental than the earlier ones. There was also the development of drama documentaries. Many of the Unit’s conceptions were based around a similar public service principle to the BBC. In 1937 Cavalcanti took over the unit. In 1940 the unit was renamed the Crown Film Unit under the Ministry of Information.
Handheld Camera. Rather than using a tripod, dolly or crane the camera operator had far more flexibility and mobility. Images produced handheld weren't stable before the development of the steadicam. This created a certain look and feel usually associated with cinema verite and Direct Cinema both of which sought to follow profilmic events as they happened.
This Steadicam system allows film makers to significantly reduce the unstable feeling of handheld cinematography. Handheld photography can now be used as an artistic device to impart a feeling of reality for the viewer. A good example of this is the sequence in Saving Private Ryan where the American troops are pinned down on the beach by Nazi gunfire as they launch the invasion of France.
Observational Cinema. This is a type of cinema in which the camera follows the profilmic events as they happen intending to reveal truths about these events. Ethnographic film, cinema Verite and Direct Cinema are all types of observational cinema. The question of whether and how much the film exploits, manipulates or documents the social actors are central. The films are seen as relatively truthful as they aren’t constrained by the technological limitations of older equipment which required dramatic reconstruction and a voice of god narrator.
Portable Sound Recording. Sound recording of location sound remained a problem until the 1950s when the break through in electronics which saw the development of the transistor meant that locational synchronised sound and filming was possible. This encoured styles such as cinema verite and Direct Cinema. The Swiss Nagra sound recorder was very popular with the French New Wave.
Profilmic Event. This is a theoretical term for the reality in front of the camera which is photographed. In observational documentary such as Direct Cinema / Ethnographic Cinema / Cinema Verite film makers aim to preserve the spatial and temporal integrity of these events (what is filmed) as much as possible
Voice of God Narration. The term has developed to describe the use of voice-over in documentary films. It is often used to describe the voice-over style used in Grierson produced documentaries. The voice is usually male, disembodied and omniscient. This style has been rejected by documentary makers in recent times as it is considered as being patriarchal, ethnocentric and manipulative. Personal voice-over is often used as in Roger and Me (Michael Moore, 1989)
Other Kinoeye glossaries include:
European Cinema and Media Glossary A-E
European Cinema and Media Glossary Ed-Mo
Glossary of New Media Technologies (A-N)
Glossary of New Media Technologies (O-Z)
January 01, 2008
Please note currently under construction
For further Kinoeye reference pages please go to the: Kinoeye Reference Hub
Globalisation is a very important concept which helps to explain the state of the contemporary World. Media and Communications theorists have played an important role in developing the theories of globalisation going back to the work of Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s. Globalisation itself can be broken down into several distinct spheres for the purposes of discussion. These spheres of course overlap in practice but it is useful to identify the spheres as economic, political, and cultural. If you have found this page and others associated with it as they are built, you are likely to have come from a films page. The importance of this more abstract work is to try and gain a more anchored understanding of what it is the fim makers are representing at the level of the underlying process which position particular human actors in these sorts of positions and which the film actors are portraying.
From Rocco and His Brothers 1960. Arrival in Milan carrying migrant labour from the Mezzogiorno
Whilst contemporary British cinema is currently perhaps the best in the World when it comes to representing these issues it should not be forgotten that other films have represented the economic and political processes which force migration and diaspora. Notable amongst these are Visconti's Rocco and his Brothers (1960) which charted through representing the developments in a single family the massive internal migration in Italy from south to north which was the basis of the Italian postwar 'economic miracle' , and Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul (1974) about the infamous Gastarbeiter economic system which existed in Germany and was crucial to its postwar economic re-development. By comparison Britain and France were reliant upon their colonies and empires which as they were breaking up also provided much needed labour upon which their postwar restructuring and development was based upon. Another film which shows the brutal exploitation of ordinary people especially women is Lucas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever based upon the true story of a Lithuanian teenage girl who gets trapped into the global sex-slave trade as the former Soviet Union is economically devastated by the shock therapy regime imposed by the Thatcher Reagan neo-liberal planners.
Image from Fassbinder's powerful film Fear Eats the Soul (1974) examining the Gastarbeiter sytem and also tackling ageism and attitudes to mixed race relationships in society.
Globalisation and Economics
In talking about globalisation and economics what is meant is the transformation of the different styles and types of economies into an integrated system in which each part becomes increasingly interdependent with the other parts.
The most important area of change has been the globalisation of financial markets. This is apparent in the flows of capital around the world with money being exchanged electronically. The money is used to finance international trade and for a range of investment purposes. Thiese could range to the investment in physical goods especially by Multinational companies (NMCs) or else by financial institutions using financial instruments such as the 'carry trade'. The carry trade is where institutions buy a currency such as the Japanese Yen which is at a very low interst rate. They then reinvest this money in a fairly safe currency like the US Dollar which pays a much higher interest. The finacial company concerned pockets the difference. (Mad or what?).
Financial globalisation really got under way once information technology had improved. Global markets can now operate in real time and funds can be transferred instantaneously.
another key aspect of economic globalisation is the continuing increase in wealth and power of Multi-National Companies. They are largely responsible for the massive increase in global trade since the middle of the 1980s. The largest ones have economic turnovers and earn greater amounts of money that far exceed many smaller nations. As a result say Abercrombie et al MNCs:
...are largely beyond the control of any national government (Abercrombie et al 2000 p 153).
With the increasing intensifcation of the networked society Castells identified a tendency for the increasing power of criminal networks which have a global reach.
Globalisation and Culture
It is argued that there is an increasing globalisation of culture especially through the:
- The increasing power and extended global reach of Mass Media Companies - which are often MNCs. Some argue there is a form of cultural imperialism being operated through mass media companies
- Mechanisms of mass tourism
- Increasing flows of migration as a response to economic change
- An ideology of consumerism which some argue is 'debasing' local cultures
- The marketing activites of Multi-National Companies (MNCs)
In the field of culture these influences and processes have lead to the theorisation of hybridity which refers to the ways in which these processes are articulated in tensions and changes concerning local customs and practices in relation to emerging standards and ideas often present in the cosmopolitan mega-cities or megalopolis.
Globalisation and Politics
In the realm of politics but with strong overlaps to economics there has been a rise in the importance of powerful international agencie such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). These are in an increasingly powerful position to regulate the World economy and thus limit the powers of national states.
Political sociologists have identified a number of issues which appear to be eroding the power of national states. These include environmental issues, citizenship rights and definitions, migration and inter-ethnic / inter-racial conflict.
Abercrombie, Hill and Turner. 2000 (4th edition): The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Globalisation A BBC Hub Page
April 09, 2007
Mise en scene: how for does style determine meaning?
Does style determine meaning ? The scope and importance of Mise en scene criticism
In the final paragraph of his recent review of mise-en-scene criticism John Gibbs comments:
..that style determines meaning, that how an event is portrayed on screen defines its significance, that single moments or images of films cannot be adequately considered when extracted from their context - then close study continues to be vital. My belief is that an understanding of mise-en-scene is a prerequisite for making other kinds of claims about film..... A sense of how style relates to meaning needs to be central to your enquiry.’ (My emphasis: Gibbs 2002, p 100)
Gibbs is concerned to point out that although it shouldn’t be the sort of thing that goes out of fashion the idea of mise en scene went out of fashion. The fact that in the question AS OCR Media Students will receive for AS textual analysis ‘Action - Adventure’ films the term mise en scene is relegated to bottom of the list shows that the examiners are yet to catch up with the latest thinking on the matter! The handout below will argue that the term mise en scene necessarily includes elements of film making such as camera angle, shot, movement and position.
Mise en scene criticism is particularly important to an understanding of Hollywood cinema because within the production system directors are frequently assigned to projects rather than originating them unlike European cinema. It is a cinema which is self-evidently not ‘art’ in terms of the stories that are chosen.
The development of mise en scene criticism has therefore been to discover how layers of meaning can be incorporated into films through stylistic devices of the director who is not in control of the overall project. It is possible for example that the style could subvert the intended meaning of a script which the producers have decided to turn into a film. Bearing this in mind John Orr has pointed out the changes in direction of European realist cinema which have taken mise en scene in new directions. See the blog posting on Lilya 4-Ever for more on this.
At its heart mise en scene criticism is a critical concept which draws attention to and makes easier to discuss all those elements of a film which communicate in a non-verbal fashion. It allows us to understand film as a visual and sensory experience rather than just a literary one.
A working definition of mise en scene
The term is based upon a French theatrical term and has been used in Britain since at least 1833. Mise en scene is the contents of the frame and the way that they are organised. In this argument Gibbs prioritises the work of Robin Wood and the French critic Doniol-Valcroze arguing that the tone and atmosphere is all mise en scene. Mise en scene is what people go to the cinema for as it transforms a dry script and gives a form of expression unique to cinema. This means that it is the realisation of the script organising all the cinematic elements into an organic whole which is mise-en-scene and is ultimately the responsibility of the director.
Historically within Hollywood the director has not always had total control of all the elements. The soundtrack for example has frequently been somebody else’s decision therefore some mise en scene criticism has ignored the importance of sound in their attempts to look for evidence of ‘authorship’ coming from a director. Consequently these critics have focused upon visual style alone.
It is essential to focus upon both parts of this working definition.
The expression ‘frame contents’ = The inclusion of lighting, decor, properties and the actors themselves.
The expression ‘frame organisation’ = The way the contents of the frame encompass:
- Firstly : the relationship of the actors to one another and the decor
- Secondly: the actors relationship to the camera therefore also to the audience’s view.
This means that in talking about mise en scene one is talking about framing, camera movement, the particular lens employed and other photographic decisions:
Mise en scene therefore encompasses both what the audience can see, and the way in which we are invited to see it. It refers to many major elements of communication in the cinema, and the combination through which they operate expressively. (Gibbs John, Mise en scene: Film Style and Interpretation, 2002).
Gibbs looks at a range of 9 elements which contribute towards the mise en scene and argues that how a particular film or part of a film depends for its effect on an interaction of elements including:
- Lighting: The organisation of light, actors and camera makes possible a series of suggestive readings.
- Costume: clothing can be particularly significant. In films such as Thelma and Louise the clothing worn by the character changes gradually throughout the film signifying both internal and external changes in their condition.
- Colour. Colour is an expressive element for filmmakers. It is often mobilised by means of costume, which has the advantage of a direct association with a particular character. It might however be a feature of the lighting, the set decoration or particular props. In Thelma and Louise the home of Thelma is very dark and gloomy. Shots of Thelma discussing going away for the weekend show the interior with a bluish-grey hue signifying boredom, imprisonment and enclosure. After the shooting their getaway is within a frame which is of a bluish hue. A colour commonly associated with neo-noir cinema.
- Props. Props such as cars are usually associated with road movies, guns and other weapons with crime or crime thriller genres and various scary things with horror genres. The early slightly oblique shot of a gun making it difficult to recognise in Thelma and Louise gives the spectator an early inkling of something horrible to come. A few shots later a gun is clearly tossed nonchalantly into a bag. When Louise later sees the gun she asks why it was necessary. In case of a ‘psycho-killer’ replies Thelma in an ironical tone. The gun becomes an important element of the story.
- Decor. Robin Wood has argued that ‘It is his business to place the actors significantly within the decor, so that the decor itself becomes an actor;’ (Wood cited Gibbs, 2002 p 57)
- Action and Performance. It is important not to forget how much can be expressed through the direction of action and through skilful performance. A great deal of significance can be bound up in the way in which a line is delivered, or where an actor is looking at a particular moment. Critics have found writing about performance difficult but performance is central to our understanding of narrative film.
- Space. Space is a vital expressive element which is at a filmmakers disposal. In thinking about space we might think about the personal space between performers and our own sense as an audience when it is impinged upon. There is also the issue of ‘blocking’ that is the relationships expressed and the patterns created in the positioning of the actors. Look out for groups of three actors which allow for a range of opportunities to express relations. Always remember to try and identify whose point of view (POV) is being represented through the camera within any given shot.
- Position of the Camera. By thinking about space we necessarily think about the position of the camera. The position of the camera governs our access to the action. The same event filmed in a long shot is going to have a different effect upon the audience compared with shooting something close up. Decisions such as whether a character ‘leads’ the camera or whether the camera anticipates his / her arrival can give a different feel to a film: ‘...one of the instantly identifiable characteristics of Hitchcock’s mise-en-scene has been the subjective tracking shot, that places us in the actor’s position and gives us the sensation of moving with him; this usually alternated with backward tracking shots of the actor moving.’ (Gibbs 2002, p 20). Other directors such as Preminger in Laura the camera positioning has the opposite function. The camera tends to watch the character rather than implicate the audience in his movements. The critic Robin Wood has argued that camera movements connect whereas editing separates.
- Framing. What is in the frame is only a selective view of a wider fictional world. In the act of framing an action a filmmaker is presented with a large range of choices including what to withhold and reveal to an audience.
- Interaction of the elements. Gibbs proceeds to argue that it is the interplay of all the events that is significant. Any individual element only acquires its significance because of the context within which it is operating: in others words the world of the film itself.
This is because any filmmaker will be developing accumulating strategies of creating layers of meaning within the film. Gibbs strongly makes the point that ‘...it is terribly difficult to make claims for an individual element or moment without considering it within the context provided by the rest of the film.’ (My emphasis: Gibbs, 2002, p 39). The reason for this is the importance of identifying two related ways in which a film makes meaning which are through coherence and complexity.
Coherence in a film
There are basically two ways in which a film is ‘coherent’.
Firstly there is the example of a visual motif. This would be an element which acquires significance through repetition. In Thelma and Louise for example being out on the road seems to offer freedom and hope. As soon as they stop anywhere trouble not of their own making seems to occur. Out on the road they utilise the stereotypically sexist men such as the truck driver and the policemen to get a light-hearted revenge on a world of men which is oppressing them. When they do this it is only to take the mickey out of the men concerned. They don’t do any real harm.
The other way to consider the issue of coherence is of different elements of a single moment. Some argue therefore that the very form of the film is the content. The important thing to be considering is the question: Is everything within the frame pulling in the same direction developing the drama? Coherence isn’t everything. Something very simple and uninteresting can be coherent. What gains our attention is whether the coherence is combined with complexity or inner tensions which can bring a greater depth of meaning to the film. In Thelma and Louise for example the mise en scene which pictures Louise in the driver’s seat of the car soon after the killing breaks the image up by shooting her behind the edge of the windscreen. Shots like this give greater depth of meaning as they symbolises the deep rift in her mind as she struggles to decide what to do at that moment. The reasons for her decision unfold later in the drama but that moment is important and what is in the frame clearly marks this cinematically.
The overall coherence of Thelma and Louise finally is reached when it is understood that all the mise en scene aspects are also intertwined with generic conventions. This combination of mise en scene as a part of genre helps to lend this film extra subversive power.
April 03, 2007
Comedy Part 1: Comedy Conventions
Comedy Part 1: Comedy Conventions
Initially comedy seems to be a very easy genre to deal with, most people like ‘amusing’ films, however, one person’s sense of humour is another person’s misery. From the perspective of genre the ability to appeal to a wide range of people to gain financial success means that it is a very difficult genre to do well, either as a genre in itself or as an aspect of a multi-generic or hybrid generic film. What constitutes comedy and the comic is complex. Film comedy is frequently a genre hybrid. Comedy can be made as; ‘black comedy’ with a bleak sense of humour; it can be reliant upon slapstick, gags or sharp-edged satire; it may be parodic of other cinematic conventions.
Comedies frequently rely far less than most other genres upon standardised narrative devices. A study of how the comedy genre operates throws the issue of narrative into sharp relief. The diversity of these comic forms is covered in part one of this three part section on comedy.
Part two examines narrative and its functioning within comedy. Part three looks at how comedy can act as a release of social tensions through well-managed social transgression, and also considers how comedy can function as a critique of social reality in a way which other genres can find difficult to do.
The diversity of comic forms means that a single definition of comedy is insufficient. The criterion of laughter isn’t enough to define a film as a comedy. This is because comedy is widely used in other genres for momentary effects. Think of the rather deadpan comic aspects of the Terminator films for example. These effects are a feature of the films rather than the central purpose. The Terminator films can’t be defined as SF-comedy. The term ‘comic’ means the ability to cause laughter. Even a real event can be comic. ‘Comedy’ is an aesthetic term with two distinct meanings:
The Oxford Concise Dictionary definition is : ‘Comedy, n. Stage-play of light, amusing and often satirical character, chiefly representing everyday life, & with happy ending (cf. TRAGEDY);’ The key meanings here are: ‘Amusing’ and ‘A happy ending’.
Notably the word laughter isn’t mentioned in this definition although the expression ‘amusing’ can be seen as a partial synonym for laughter but it expresses far more than this.
Social Class , Comedy and Comic Conventions
Historically both the content and the structure of comedy have tended to have a class bias. As far as content is concerned, where the upper classes are represented it is in their more private or trivial aspects of life. The enormous political power of these elites allied to the control of land, industry and the effects of this power on most people’s lives is ignored. Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2002) can be considered as comic from this point of view.
In comedy note the importance of creating a happy ending and also the representation of everyday life which was normally concerned with the middle and lower orders of society.
‘...comedy was for centuries the most appropriate genre for representing the lives, not of the ruling classes, of those with extensive power, but of the ‘middle’ and ‘lower’ orders of society, ...whose manners behaviour and values were considered by their ‘betters’ to be either trivial, or vulgar or both’ (My emphasis: Neale & Krutnik, 1990: 11-12 ).
A happy ending is a convention usually coexistent with other conventions, such as the constant generation of laughter through funny lines and situations. Where films have only brief funny moments but with a happy end both the film’s concerns and the structure can be close to the genre ‘we tend to think of as melodrama’ (Neale & Krutnik,199: 13). Under this criterion we can consider Thelma and Louise and Muriel’s Wedding (1994) as melodrama crossing -over with screwball comedies which are comedies about the 'battle of the sexes'.
The majority of comedy films can be seen as being genre hybrids. About a Boy ( 2002 ), The Full Monty, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Trainspotting, Shallow Grave (1995) range through a number of genre hybrid combinations from romantic comedies, to ‘black’ comedies. They have strong narratives as a vehicle for comic aspects. The stronger the narrative the more the film takes on either multi-generic or hybrid generic aspects.
Films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1978) are straight comedies. The longer-term success of this type of film relies upon the sophisticated use of a combination of comic conventions. This allows it to appeal to a wide audience base despite having a weak narrative and avoiding genre-hybridity. Instead of being multi-generic or hybrid generic it utilises parody to raise a laugh from a deliberate send-up of other cinematic conventions of representation particularly the historical heritage costume genre. It also uses political satire when for example King Arthur has a political debate with the peasant’s collective. Black comedy is combined with slapstick humour, simultaneously satirising the power of liberal democracies giving defiant people ‘a chance to change their defiant position’ before being quite literally disarmed like the Black Knight.
Historical Aspects of Comedy
Originating in high bourgeois theatre from the late 18th century there has been a link between comedy and melodrama creating a tradition of ‘sentimental’ comedy. It was a hybrid genre which emerged in several European countries featuring characters of a lower rank than those suitable for tragedy. A major aim was to encourage the audiences to identify with the characters and to weep on their behalf rather than to laugh at them. In France this was called comedie larmoyante or tearful comedy. Neo-classical theory made a distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ comedy thus denigrating non-narrative forms of comedy. There are two fundamental divisions in the field of comedy as a whole. These are the criterion of the happy ending and the criterion of laughter. Narrative forms of comedy must have a happy ending and can have laughter. Non-narrative forms of comedy are only comedy through the criterion of laughter. Stand-up comics such as Ali-G and Paul Merton use non-narrative techniques of comedy.
Narrative comedy has a clear beginning, middle and end revolving around a definite plot. Non-narrative types of comedy just aim to create laughter with the plot a feeble device to act as a vehicle for a continuous stream of gags and slapstick such as Borat.
Comedy was very popular in early cinema which was a media form which appealed primarily to the working class mass audience. This situation changed as film technology and film-making techniques became more sophisticated. The use of narrative as a standard vehicle for comedy developed. Frequently the less sophisticated the audience the weaker the plot, and the narrative structure. Films such as Monty Python and Blazing Saddles (1971) break down this class based comedy by operating at a range of levels from slapstick to parody which depends upon a good level of cultural knowledge so that the audiences can understand the references.
More sophisticated comedies, such as the ‘bittersweet’ tragicomedies of Mike Leigh in Secrets and Lies (1996) for example, astutely play upon painful episodes and experiences of life. These serve to create an emotional ambiguity in the audience. Gags and slapstick don’t really exist in this register of comedy. The representations are usually of working class people often linked with those who have succeeded in, or are trying to better their positions in life. Their power emanates from the closeness to raw reality and are dependent upon a high level of reflexivity amongst the audience.
Comedy and Comic Conventions in Cinema
‘Comedy’ as an aesthetic term has two distinct kinds of meaning. It can refer to the genre as a whole. Alternatively it can refer to particular works - Some Like it Hot. (1959).
The use of the indefinite article ‘a’ tends to imply a narrative form; The TV sitcom the Royale Family is comedy rather than a comedy, because it is non-narrative being based upon a continuous invariant location - the front room in front of the TV. This is a comedic form specific to broadcast media which can concentrate on series production.
The generation of laughter can mark all forms as comedy. It can also mark all genres which leads to a considerable amount of genre hybridity. Hitchcock’s North by North West (1959) can be seen as a comedy-thriller for example.
‘Comedy, however, seems especially suited to hybridization, in large part because the local forms responsible for the deliberate generation of laughter can be inserted at some point into most other generic contexts without disturbing their conventions’ (My emphasis: Neale & Krutnik , 1990 : 18).
Generic hybridization should be distinguished from parody. In contrast to generic hybrids, which combine generic conventions, parodies work by drawing upon other conventions to make us laugh.
Parody need not necessarily be comic. When it is comic and occurs within the context of a comedy, laughter is consistently produced by gags and funny lines which specifically use as their raw material the conventions of the genre involved. Blazing Saddles for example isn’t a Western with comic elements or a comedy-western but a comedy which relies upon a knowledge of the Western amongst the audience to work effectively.
Parody is a mode or way of doing comedy, not a form. Parody has its own techniques and methods but no particular form or structure. It can occur within a narrative feature film, a comedy sketch, a quasi-documentary. Parody is one of a number of modes available to comedy. Slapstick and satire are other modes.
Satire is often confused with parody however it draws upon and highlights social conventions compared to parody which works upon aesthetic conventions.
Satire works to mock and attack. Sometimes prevailing norms are attacked in the name of other non-dominant social values. For example M*A*S*H uses democratic and humanitarian values to measure the undemocratic and inhumane practices used in the war being fought in Korea. The Korean war was long over but M*A*S*H had strong contextual relevance  as an analogy to the Vietnam war which was going on at the time. It stood against the self-professed norms of the US military and governmental establishment and also of war itself.
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) attacked the inhuman values of modern industrial society ‘in the name of disappearing values it associates with pre-industrial life especially rural life.
Examples of films reliant upon satirisation are Muriel’s Wedding which can be described as a satire of small-town life and as a satire upon the social institution of marriage. One reason why parody can be confused with satire is that parody can be used for satirical purposes. The actual process of Muriel’s ‘white wedding’ can be seen as a parody of the aesthetics of a typical white wedding. The audience, Muriel along with her Bridegroom and the Groom’s coach all recognise that the arrangement is not a real wedding. It is purely a business arrangement which is convenient for different reasons for both parties. The aestheticisation of the wedding, which could have been done quickly in a registry office, is a parodic form which serves to satirise the stifling small-town ritual of white weddings prized by Muriel’s peer group.
Thelma and Louise satirises men and masculinity and the role they play in women’s lives. In analyses of audience response the film was popular amongst male viewer’s who didn’t associate themselves with the absurdity of the stereotyped male characters. Thelma’s husband is satirised as being generally incompetent using a gag comic convention of literally putting his foot in it as he steps on a pizza answering the police. The truck-driver is successfully satirised as his masculine fantasies literally go up in smoke. Both are made to look stupid. The police officer who stops Thelma and Louise for speeding is on the other hand parodic, stretching back to the policeman in dark Oakley’s striding ominously up to the victim in a long line of films from Psycho (1960) to Terminator 2. The policeman’s unceremonious bundling into the boot satirises through parody this version of institutionalised masculinity.
Slapstick is another mode of comedy that can be found in a very diverse range of forms. The origins of the term stem from a type of prop which were a pair of paddles to create a lot of noise with minimum danger. This marked violent comic action of the kind to be found in pantomime, circus and ‘low’ forms of farce. The physical plus visual qualities of slapstick were crucial in the early comedy of the silent period. Slapstick is valued for the populist foundation of its aesthetic. Slapstick is inappropriate and inadequate as a vehicle for romance or its fulfilment. It lacks a plot structure that is capable of taking romance seriously. Narrative comedy can accommodate slapstick but the reverse isn’t the case.
The term can apply to any kind of visual comic effect. They can involve a comic effect like a ‘pratfall’ where somebody falls over. In Life is Beautiful (1998), perhaps the darkest of ‘black comedies’, Guido falls off his bike into Dora for example. At the beginning of the film there are a variety of gags which lead the viewer to think that this is comedy which is pure farce as the brakes fail leading the car past a reception for royalty. Gags can be a part of the narrative or else entirely incidental to it. Thelma’s husband putting his feet in the pizza in Thelma and Louise for example.
It is important to differentiate between comic and comedy and it is also important to note the differing forms of comedy which in more sophisticated products might all be present, which lends appeal to a wide range of audiences. It is usually the case that stronger narratives are less reliant upon slapstick styles of comedy and also that these comedic forms are more likely to be marketed as a genre hybrid. In the next section there is a more detailed account of the ways in which narrative works to increase comic effects.
1 See under Genre as ‘Hybrid and Multi-generic’.
2 See under Methods and Methodologies in Film Research / contextual Criticism’.