Based on our class from Wednesday, Sep. 16, Chapter 11 of The Art of Watching Films (PDF under Course Materials) and other material related to “Director’s Style” posted on Blackboard, write a short essay after comparing 2 movies of your choice from the same director (it could be Pulp Fiction and any other Tarantino’s film, or Y tu mamá también and any other Cuaron’s film.

Since Looking at Movies presents the director as the head of the film project and the artist behind every accomplishment (or failure) achieved by the film, your essay should focus on the similar decisions taken by the director in both films about the different aspects of the creative process: from the story, the themes, the casting, the situations, etc.

Remember: you don’t need to tell me the plot of these movies.

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sing both contemporary and classic films, ?he Art of

UWatching Films helps students develop critical skills in the analysis and evaluation of film. By suggesting what to look for and how to look for it, the text challenges

students to sharpen their powers of observation, establish habits of perceptive watching, and discover complex aspects of cinematic art that will further enhance their enjoyment of

watching films.


• A new full-color design, including new color photos and movie stills throughout, adds to the book’s attractiveness and appeal to students; more importantly, it helps them better understand concepts discussed in such chapters as Color, Cinematography, and Visual Design.

• New coverage of such thought-provoking topics as the treatment of sex, violence, and language; censorship and the MPAA Rating System; the “foreignness” of foreign films; and social problem films is now highlighted in new Chapter 15, Film and Society.

• The new “Flashback” feature gives students a brief historical overview of such topics as the history of film editing (Chapter 6); the use of color in filmmaking (Chapter 7); voice dubbing (Chapter 8); acting in silent films (Chapter 10); and the role of the screenwriter (Chapter 13).



This CD-ROM, designed specifically for The Art o/Watching Films, provides short film clips that reinforce the key concepts and topics in each chapter. Along with each film clip is commentary that relates the film clip to the ideas discussed in the text. A short quiz accompanies each clip and commentary. Film clips are from such movies as The Graduate, Psycho, Pleasantville, Meet the Parents, Do the Right Thing, Vertigo, and Shakespeare in Love.

The McGraw’HiII

McGraw-Hili Higher Education


This Web site for The Art o/Watching Films includes tools for both instructors and students. For instructors, the Online Learning Center (OLC) offers a new instructor’s manual; a test bank; EZ Test Computerized Test Bank; a PowerPoint presentation including outlines for each chapter and discussion questions; and multiple-choice questions for use with the Classroom Performance System. Instructors also have access to all the assets in the Student edition of the OLC, which include a special feature “Writing About Film;” a selected bibliography and list of resource materials; self­ testing quizzes for each chapter, including multiple-choice and true-false questions; and study materials for every chapter, including chapter outline, Internet exercises, and Web links.

ISBN 978·0·07·353507-4 MHID 0-07-353507-9


IT] > z



The ART of Watching FILMS





The McGraw’HiIl Companies “Ii’

• Higher Education Published by McGraw-Hill, an imprint of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Copyright © 2008. All rights reserved. No part of this public”tion may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written consent of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., including, but not limited to, in any network or other electronic storage or transmission, or broadcast for distance learning.

This book is printed on acid-free paper.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 DOC/DOC 0 9 8 7

ISBN-I3: 978-0-07-353507-4 MHID: 0-07-353507-9

Editor in Chief: Emily Barrosse Publisher: Lisa Moore Sponsoring Editor: Chz’istopher Freitag Developmental Editor: Nancy O’OChiere Marketing Manager: Pamela Coopez’ Media Producer: Stacy Bentz Production Editor: Brett Cokez’ Interior Designer: Kay Fulton Cover Designer: Preston Thomas Art Edi tor: Ayelet Az’bel Photo Research Coordinator: Sonia Brown Production Supervisor: Richard De Vitto Composition: 10.5/13 Janson by Tbompson Type Printing: 45# Publisbers j\IJ.atte Plus by R.R. Domzelley & Sons

Credits: The credits section for this book begins on page C-I and is considered an extension of the copyright page.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Boggs, Joseph M.

The art of watching films / Joseph M. Boggs, Dennis W Petrie.-7th ed. p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN-13: 978-0-07-353507-4 MHID: 0-07-353507-9

1. Film criticism. 1. Petrie, Dennis W. II. Title.

PNI995.B525 2008 791.43’OI5-dc22


The Internet addresses listed in the text were accurate at tlle time of publication. The inclusion of a Web site does not indicate an endorsement by the authors or McGraw-Hill, and McGraw-Hill does not guarantee the accuracy of tlle information presented at these sites.








Lord of the Rings

1 The Art of Watching Films 2








Analyzing Your Responses to a Film 18

The New World

2 Thematic Elements 19


Focus on Plot 20


Focus on Emotional Effect or Mood 20 Focus on Character 22 Focus on Style or Texture or Structure 23

Focus on Ideas 24 IDENTIFYING THE THEME 32


Analyzing Theme 36 Video Exercises 37 Films for Study 38

Finding Neverland

3 Fictional and Dramatic Elements 40



A Good Story Is Unified in Plot 42 A Good Story Is Credible 42 A Good Story Is Interesting 46 A Good Story Is Both Simple and Complex 48 A Good Story Handles Emotional

Material with Restraint 51 THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TITLE 53


Linear, or Chronological, Structure 54 Nonlinear Structures 55 Endings: Fine-Tuning the Denouement 56



Characterization T hrough Appearance 60 Characterization Through Dialogue 61



Characterization T hrough External Action 62 Characterization Through Internal Action 62 Characterization T hrough Reactions of

Other Characters 64 Characterization Through Contrast: Dramatic Foils 64 Characterization Through Caricature and Leitmotif 65 Characterization Through Choice of Name 66 Varieties of Characters 67



Universal and Natural Symbols 72 Creating Symbolic Meanings 73 Symbolic Patterns and Progressions 76 Symbolic Values in Conflict 78 Metaphors 78 Overreading Symbolism 79


Dramatic Irony 80 Irony of Situation 81 Irony of Character 82 Irony of Setting 82 Irony of Tone 82 Cosmic Irony 83

Analyzing Fictional and Dramatic Elements 84 Video Exercises 86 Mini-Movie Exercise 88 DVD Filmmaking Extras 88 Films for Study 89

Memoirs of a Geisha

4 Visual Design 90





The Script: The Starting Point 97 Setting and Its Effects 101 Studio Versus Location Shooting 105 Period Pieces 106 Living Spaces and Offices 107 Fantasy Worlds 108




Analyzing Visual Design 119 Video Exercises 120 Mini-Movie Exercise 121 DVD Filmmaking Extras 121 Films for Study 122

Brokeback Mountain

5 Cinematography and Special Visual Effects 124




Objective Point of View 127 Subjective Point of View 128 Indirect-Subjective Point of View 130 Director’s Interpretive Point of View 132


Focusing Attention on the Most Significant Object 134 Keeping the Image in Motion 138 Creating an Illusion of Depth 143


Handheld Camera 151 Camera Angles 152 Color, Diffusion, and Soft Focus 153 Special Lenses 155 Fast Motion 157 Special Lighting Effects 157




Analyzing Cinematography

and Special Visual Effects 175 Video Exercises 176 Mini-Movie Exercise: Cinematography 177

Contents vii



Mini-Movie Exercise: Animated FX 177 DVD Filmmaking Extras 178 Films for Study 183

The Constant Gardener

6 Editing 1 85









The Freeze Frame 212 The Thawed Frame 213 Stills 214


Questions for Analyzing Editing 216 Video Exercises 216 Mini-Movie Exercise 219 Mini-Movie Exercise 220 DVD Filmmaking Extras 220 Films for Study 220

Gone With the Wind

7 Color 222


Effects of Color on the Viewer 225

viii Contents


Color as a Transitional Device 233 Expressionistic Use of Color 236 Color as Symbol 238 Surrealistic Use of Color 238 Leitmotifs in Color 239 Color to Enhance Mood 240 Comic Book Color 240 Comic Strip Color 241 Painterly Effects in Color 242 Ironic Use of Color 244 Special Color Effects 244


Analyzing Color 252 Video Exercises 252 Mini-Movie Exercise 253 DVD Filmmaking Extras 253 Films for Study 254

A Prairie Home Companion

8 Sound Effects and Dialogue 256







Sound Effects to Tell an Inner Story 267 Distortion of Sound to Suggest Subjective States 268 The “Personality” of Mechanical Sounds 268 Slow-Motion Sound 269 Ironic Juxtaposition of Sound and Image 269 Placing Unusual Emphasis on Sound 269 Using Sound for Texture, T ime, and








Voice Dubbing 282 Subtitles 283


Analyzing Sound Effects and Dialogue 285 Video Exercises 286 Mini-Movie Exercise 286 DVD Filmmaking Extras 287 Films for Study 288

Walk the Line

9 The Musical Score 290





Heightening the Dramatic Effect of Dialogue 294 Telling an Inner Story 295 Providing a Sense of Time and Place 296 Foreshadowing Events or Building Dramatic

Tension 297 Adding Levels of Meaning to the Visual Image 298 Characterization Through Music 298 Triggering Conditioned Responses 301 Traveling Music 302 Providing Important Transitions 302 Setting an Initial Tone 303 Musical Sounds as Part of the Score 304 Music as Interior Monologue 304 Music as a Base for Choreographed Action 304 Covering Possible Weaknesses in the Film 307



Analyzing the Musical Score 311 Video Exercises 312 Mini-Movie Exercise 312 DVD Filmmaking Extras 313 Films for Study 316


10 Acting 3 1 8







Impersonators 332 Interpreters and Commentators 332 Personality Actors 333



Casting Problems 339 The Typecasting Trap 340 Supporting Players 344 Special Casting Challenges 347 Extras and Small Parts 349



Analyzing Acting 356 Video Exercises 357 Mini-Movie Exercise 357 Mini-Movie Exercise 358 DVD Filmmaking Extras 359 Films for Study 361

Contents ix



King Kong (2005)

1 1 The Director’s Style 363












Analyzing a Director’s Style 396 Mini-Movie Exercise 397 DVD Filmmaking Extras 397 Films for Study 400

The 5hawshank Redemption

12 Analysis of the Whole Film 403


Theme 405 The Relationship of the Parts to the Whole 405 The Film’s Level of Ambition 407 Objective Evaluation of the Film 407 Subjective Evaluation of the Film 408


x Contents

The Film as Technical Achievement 409 The Film as Showcase for the Actor:

The Personality Cult 409 The Film as Product of a Single Creative Mind:

The Auteur Approach 410 The Film as Moral, Philosophical, or Social

Statement 411 The Film as Emotional or Sensual Experience 412 The Film as Repeated Form: The Genre Approach 412 The Film as Political Statement 414 The Film as Gender Statement 415 The Film as Insight to the Mind:

The Psychoanalytical Approach 416 The Eclectic Approach 418




Analyzing the Whole Film 424 Mini-Movie Exercise I 425 Mini-Movie Exercise /I 426 DVD Filmmaking Extras 427 Films for Study 428

The Chronicles of Narnia

13 Adaptations 429


Change in Medium 430 Change in Creative Artists 431 Cinematic Potential of the Original Work 432


Literary Versus Cinematic Points of View 433 FLASHBACK: THE WRITER’S PLACE IN HOLLYWOOD 436

Third-Person Point of View: Challenges 438 First-Person Point of View: Challenges 439 The Problem of Length and Depth 440 Philosophical Reflections 442 Summarizing a Character’s Past 444 The Challenge of Summarizing Events 446



Literary Past Tense Versus Cinematic Present Tense 447

Other Factors Influencing Adaptations of Fiction 448


Structural Divisions 450 Sense of Space 451 Film Language Versus Stage Language 454 Stage Conventions Versus Cinema Conventions 455 Other Changes 567


Analyzing Adaptations 463 Mini-Movie Exercise 465 DVO Filmmaking Extras 466 Films for Study 468

Superman Returns

14 Genre Films, Remakes, and Sequels 470


Values 472 The Strengths of Genre Films 473 Basic Genre Conventions-and Their Variations 473


Remakes 492 Sequels 495

Analyzing Genre Films, Remakes, and Sequels 501 Mini-Movie Exercise 502 OVO Filmmaking Extras 503 Films for Study 505

Grey Gardens

15 Film and Society 512













Analyzing Films in Society 546 Mini-Movie Exercise 548 OVO Filmmaking Extras 549 Films for Study 551





Contents xi



ONLINE APPENDIXES Writing a Film Analysis


(John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath)


(Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver)


(Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence)

xii Contents

Selected Bibliography and Study Materials
















Not only is there an art to making films, there is also an art to watching films. We wrote this book to challenge students in introduction to film courses to sharpen their powers of observation, develop the skills and habits of perceptive watching, and discover complex aspects of film art that they might otherwise overlook. We designed the text to complement any film studied; its analytical framework can be applied to films as distinctly different as The Grapes ofU/rath, Cache, Dreamgiris, Batman Begins, Little Miss Sunshine, and Flags of our Fathen.

We are excited to offer this new seventh edition of The Art of VVatching Films in full color. The addition of color photos and movie stills throughout not only adds to the book’s attractiveness, but also helps students better under­ stand concepts discussed in such chapters as Color, Cinematography, and Vi­ sual Design. In all, more than 450 images with extensive, informative captions illustrate key points in the text.

As in previous editions, we have tried to include as examples a large num­ ber of contemporary films that today’s students are likely to have seen. We do this with the understanding that students learn better and are more engaged by the subject matter when they start with what they know. However, we also in­ clude numerous examples from American film classics, which are discussed in a way that does not assume prior knowledge. Moreover, throughout the text, we examine and include examples from films from other countries, documentaries, and animated films.


In its formal organization and intent, The Art of TVatching Films is as straight­ forward as possible, with a focus on narrative film. The first chapter offers a rationale for film analysis while providing suggestions for deepening film appreci­ ation from day one of the course. The text then develops a foundation for under­ standing theme and story (Chapters 2 and 3) and moves on to discuss dramatic




xiv Preface

and cinematic elements (Chapters 4– 1 1) . Chapter 12 provides a framework for integrating knowledge of all these elements into an analysis of the whole film. Subsequent chapters explore special topics: adaptations (13); genre films, re­ makes, and sequels (14); and film and society (15).

Based on extensive reviewer feedback, we have made the following organi­ zational changes to the seventh edition:

• The topic of special visual effects is now covered in Chapter 5 on Cinematography.

• A special section on animated feature Films was added to Chapter 5. • Examples from silent films are integrated throughout, but special coverage

of silent films can be found in Chapter 10, Acting, and Chapter 15, Film and Society.

• As with silent films, examples and discussion of foreign films are integrated throughout, with special coverage in Chapter 8, Sound Effects and Dialogue, and Chapter 15, Film and Society.


New-“Flashback” Features

New to this seventh edition of the text are seven boxed features that explore important aspects of film history. “Flashback” features are illustrated by one or more photos and give students a brief historical overview of such topics as the history of film editing (Chapter 6); the use of color in filmmaking (Chapter 7); voice dubbing (Chapter 8); acting in silent films (Chapter 9) and the role of the screenwriter (Chapter 13) and the underrated art of documentary filmmaking (Chapter 15).

New-Chapter on Film and Society

A new chapter on Film and Society covers such thought-provoking topics as the treatment of sex, violence, and language; censorship and the MPAA Rating System; the “foreignness” of foreign language and silent films; and social prob­ lem films, including documentaries.

Student CD-ROM with Film Clips and Commentary

This CD-ROM, designed specifically for The A17 of Watching Films, provides short film clips that reinforce the key concepts and topics in each chapter. Along with each film clip is commentary that relates the film clip to the ideas discussed in the text. A short quiz accompanies each clip and commentary. Film clips are from such movies as The Graduate, Psycho, Pleasantville, Meet the Parents, Do the Right Thing, Vertigo, and Shakespeare in Love. The CD-ROM



was created by Donna Davidson-Symonds of College of the Canyons, Santa Clarita, CA.

Unique Chapter on Adaptation

Chapter 1 3 , Adaptation, treats a major aspect of current filmmaking that is rarely covered in textbooks: the adaptation not only of works of literature, but also television series, computer games, graphic novels, children’s books, and even magazine articles, into feature films.

Video Exercises

End-of-chapter video exercises offer a hands-on immediacy to the study of film. Assuming that most students have at least limited access to a VCR or DVD player, we have devised video exercises for nine of the chapters in the text.

• For VCR: To view the section of film dealt with in each exercise, set the VCR counter at “0000” (or the real-time counter at 0:00:00) at the very end of the studio logo, just as the “movie proper” begins. (The “movie proper” includes such things as “Paramount Pictures Presents,” opening credits, and the main title). Then fast-forward until the numbers given in the exercise appear.

• For DVD player: For examination of comparable scenes on any available DVD, merely follow the descriptive references in the “chapters” indicator of the main menu.

Questions for Analyzing Film Themes and Techniques

Questions at the end of every chapter help students apply chapter concepts to the analysis of any film. They increase students’ involvement in the film experi­ ence, encouraging them to participate actively in an engaging quest rather than respond passively to the surface details.

Mini-Movie Exercises

Chapters 3 through 15 also provide students with exercises for examining a short film or “cinema sampler” (part of a feature film that is virtually self-contained). These exercises permit scrutiny of “complete,” unified works rather than just frag­ mented bits and pieces of a feature-length film. They should be especially help­ ful to students and teachers who necessarily work within limited time periods.

DVD Filmmaking Extras

Chapters 3 through 15 contain annotated lists of topic-specific materials about the filmmaking process to be found on DVD versions of many movies. In

Preface xv



xvi Preface

addition, instructions are given for locating many “Easter eggs” (special hidden features) on DVDs.

Writing About Film

Many instructors ask students to write about the films they watch-either in­ formally in a journal or formally in an essay to give structure and logic to their own critical responses. In this text’s Web site (www.mhhe.comlawf 7). we offer guidelines for writing a film analysis and three sample student essays. The first is a lengthy, complete examination ofJohn Ford’s The GTapes ofWmth, showing how a student might approach a paper assigned as a major class project. The second is a shorter, simpler paper focusing on important techniques employed in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi DTive1′”. Both of these essays illustrate the types of analysis that one might expect students to write by using this text and a video source for multiple viewings. So that students using this book can grasp the in­ terrelationship of the text, film, and finished essay, we have noted in the mar­ gins of both papers the pages in The An of Watching Films that helped each student writer. The third student essay is a sharply focused analysis of Scor­ sese’s The Age of Innocence without textual annotations.


An Online Learning Center (OLC) for The An of Watching Films can be found at 7. The Web site includes tools for both instructors and students.

For instructors, the OLC offers:

• An instructor’s manual including chapter outlines, chapter summaries, lecture ideas, discussion questions, and lists of recommended films.

• A test bank containing, for each chapter, over 3 0 multiple-choice, matching, and true-false questions.

• EZ Test Computerized Test Bank, a flexible and easy-to-use electronic testing program that allows instructors to add their own questions and export tests for use with course management systems such as Blackboard or WebCr It is available for Windows and Macintosh environments.

• A Powerpoint presentation includes chapter outlines and discussion questions.

• Questions for use with the Classroom Performance System (CPS), a revolutionary wireless response system that allows instructors to pose questions to students and have their responses tabulated instantly. Go to www.mhhe.comlcps or ask your McGraw-Hill sales representative for further details.

Instructors also have access to all the assets in the Student edition of the OLC, including:



• The special feature “Writing about Film,” described above, which provides guidelines for writing a film analysis and three sample student essays.

• A selected bibliography and list of resource materials. • Self-testing quizzes for each chapter, including multiple-choice and

true-false questions. • Study materials for evelY chapter, including chapter outline, internet

exercises, and web links.


This new, all-color seventh edition of The Art of Watching Films exists primarily because readers have embraced its predecessors enthusiastically. I wish to ex­ press enormous gratitude to the past and current users of my work and that of Joe Boggs.

In addition, I offer my sincere thanks to my family, friends, colleagues, and students for their ardent encouragement tllroughout the making of this book. Immensely praiseworthy among those who actively supported my efforts are Michael Blaz, Carol L. Briles, Miriam J. Briles, Elizabeth Gill, Sandy S. Ridlington, Jeanine Samuelson, Jane A. Tubergen, Robert J. Whelchel-and, especially, Robert D. Briles, Roberta Tierney, Suzanne K. Van Wagner, and Thomas P. Tierney.

Many valuable kindnesses also came my way from Marcia Adams, Deborah Blaz, Jeanne Braham, Ray Hatton, MalY E. Heltsley, Miles Hession II, J acque­ line E. Orsagh, and Robert C. Petersen. And co-workers whose thoughtfulness eased my labor include Timothy Hopp, Donald P.Jones,Joan Karbach,Jeanine Samuelson, Jan Schlegel, Lisa Toner, Katllie Wentworth, and Vicki Frey.

Within McGraw-Hill Higher Education, senior sponsoring editor Chris Freitag, sponsoring editor Gina Boedeker, development editor Nomi Sofer, photo editor Sonia Brown, and copy editor Patricia Ohlenroth were particu­ larly helpful. To senior production editor Brett Coker lowe many thanks for his extremely effective leadership and wise counsel. Most of all, I offer my heartfelt appreciation to senior development editor Nancy Crochiere, whose intelligence, creative wit, and patient professionalism sustained me throughout the progress of our challenging tasks.

Finally, I thank all of my colleagues who served as reviewers for this edition:

Brian]. Benson, North Carolina A & T State University

TimotllY Case, University of SOUtll Dakota

John Ernst, Heartland Community College

Mark Freeman, San Diego State University

Robert Gore, Sacramento City College

James Gorham, Midwestern State University

Preface xvii



xviii Preface

Michael Haddock, Florida Community College

Robert Kagan, Manchester Community College

Julie Levinson, Babson College

Cynthia Lucia, Rider University

Valjoan Myers, Oakland Community College

David Popowski, Minnesota State University

Jan Quinn-Weyent, Long Beach City College

John P. Smead, Central Missouri State University

Janice Vierk, Metropolitan Community College

A very special thanks to Donna Davidson-Symonds of College of the Canyons for her superb work on the shldent hltorial CD-ROM that accompanies this text.

Dennis W Petrie



The ART of Watching FILMS





The tremendous expense involved in producing motion pictures reminds us that film is both an industry and an art form. Each film is the child of a turbulent marriage between businesspeople and artists. Yet despite an ongoing battle be­ tween aesthetic and commercial considerations, film is recognized as a unique and powerful art form on a par with painting, sculpture, music, literature, and drama. A. O. Scott, a film reviewer for The New York Times, has eloquently iden­ tified other tensions within our insatiable appetite for going to the movies:

T he e sse ntia l pa rado x .. . is t hat it is at o nce co lle ct ive a nd rad ica lly so lita ry, a n a ma lga m o f the co he sive so cia l rit ua l o f t heate rgo ing a nd t he ind ividua list reve rie o f nove l- reading. The movie s offe r vi sio ns o f a bette r wo rld eve n a s t hey a re sy mpto ms o f e ve ryt hing wro ng wit h t his one . As such, movie go ing is pe rha ps sti ll . . . t he e xe mpla ry mode rn cult ura l a ct ivit y. It spl ice s to get he r ind ivid ua lism a nd ma ss cultu re -t he insiste nce on the pa rt icula rit y o f ide ntit y a nd the sta nda rd­ izat io n o f e xpe rie nce, t he li ne at t he bo x offi ce a nd t he so lita ry d rea mi ng in t he da rk-like a se re nd ipito us a rt- ho use po uble feat ure pro gra mmed by a de it y wit h pe rve rse ta ste s a nd a n odd se nse o f humo r. I

As a form of expression, the motion picture is similar to other artistic media, for the basic properties of other media are woven into its own rich fabric. Film employs the compositional elements of the visual arts: line, form, mass, volume, and texture. Like painting and photography, film exploits the subtle inter­ play of light and shadow. Like sculpture, film manipulates tl1ree-dimensional space. But, like pantomime, film focuses on moving images, and as in dance, the moving images in film have rhythm. The complex rhythms of film resemble those of music and poetry, and like poetry in particular, film communicates through imagery, metaphor, and symbol. Like the drama, film communicates visually and verbally: visually, tl1rough action and gesture; verbally, through dia­ logue. Finally, like the novel, film expands or compresses time and space, trav­ eling back and forth freely within their wide borders.

Despite these similarities, film is unique, set apart from all other media by its quality of free and constant motion. The continuous interplay of sight, sound, and motion allows film to transcend the static limitations of painting and sculpture-in the complexity of its sensual appeal as well as in its ability to communicate simultaneously on several levels. Film even surpasses drama in its unique capacity for revealing various points of view, portraying action, manip­ ulating time, and conveying a boundless sense of space. Unlike the stage play, film can provide a continuous, unbroken flow, which blurs and minimizes tran­ sitions without compromising the story’s unity. Unlike the novel and the poem, film communicates directly, not through abstract symbols like words on a page but through concrete images and sounds. VV’hat’s more, film can treat an almost infinite array of subjects:

The Art of Watching Fi lms 3




It is impo ssible to co nceive o f a nyt hing w hich t he eye might be hold o r t he ea r hea r, i n a ctua lit y o r ima ginat io n, w hich co uld not be re pre se nted in t he med ium o f film. Fro m t he po le s to t he e quato r, fro m t he Gra nd Ca nyo n to t he minute st flaw in a pie ce o f stee l, fro m t he whistling fl ight o f a bullet to t lle slow growt h o f a flower , fro m t he fl icke r o f t ho ught a cro ss a n a lmo st impa ssive fa ce to t he fre n­ z ied ravings o f a mad ma n, t he re is no po int in spa ce, no de gree o f ma gnit ude o r speed o f move me nt w it hin t he a ppre he nsio n o f ma n w hi ch is not wit hin rea ch o f t he fil m. 2

Film is unlimited not only in its choice of subject but also in its approach to that material. A film’s mood and treatment can range from the lyric to the epic. In point of view, a film can cover the full spectrum from the purely objective to the intensely subjective; in depth, it can focus on the surface realities and the purely sensual, or it can delve into the intellectual and philosophical. A film can look to the remote past or probe the distant future; it can make a few seconds seem like hours or compress a century into minutes. Film can run the gamut of feeling from the most fragile, tender, and beautiful to the most brutal, violent, and repulsive.

Of even greater importance than film’s unlimited range in subject matter and treatment, however, is the overwhelming sense of reality it can convey. The continuous stream of sight, sound, and motion creates a here-and-now excite­ ment that immerses the viewer in the cinematic experience. Thus, through film, fantasy assumes the shape and emotional impact of reality (Figure 1.1). The technological history of film can in fact be viewed as a continual evolution toward greater realism, toward erasing the border between art and nature. The motion picture has progressed step by step from drawings, to photographs, to projected images, to sound, to color, to wide screen, to 3-D and beyond. Attempts have been made to add the sense of smell to the film experience by releasing fragrances in the theater. Aldous Huxley’S novel Brave New World depicts a the­ ater of the future in which a complex electrical apparatus at each seat provides tactile images to match the visuals:

Go ing to t he Fee lie s t his e ve ning, He nry? … I hea r t lle new o ne at t he A lha mbra is first- rate . The re ‘s a love sce ne on a bea rskin rug; t lley say it ‘s ma rve lo us. E ve ry ha ir o f t lle bea r re produced . T he mo st a mazing ta ctua l e ffe ct s.3

Although Huxley’s “Feelies” have not yet become reality, the motion pic­ ture has succeeded-through Cinerama, !MAX, and other wide-screen, curved-screen, large-screen projection or computerized virtual reality tech­ niques-in intensifying our experience to a remarkable degree. In fact, by cre­ ating images that are larger than life, films have sometimes been made to seem more real than reality. A cartoon published shortly after the release of the first Cinerama film (This Is Cinerama, 1952) illustrates tl1e effectiveness of tl1is de­ vice. The drawing pictures a man groping for a seat during the famous roller-



FIGURE 1.1 Making Fantasy Become Reality The f i lm medium gives such fantasy

movies as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the texture and emotional impact

of real ity.

coaster sequence. As he moves across a row of theater seats, another spectator, in a panic, grabs his arm and screams hysterically, “Sit down, you fool! You’ ll have us all killed!” This cOlnic exclamation echoed similar ones from early silent film patrons who reacted nervously to the first train that swiftly entered a cinema’s “station.” What awesome delights must await us consumers of movie CGI (computer generated imaging) in future decades.


The properties that make film the most powerful and realistic of the arts also make analysis challenging. A motion picture moves continuously in time and space. Once frozen, a film is no longer a “motion” picture, and the unique property of the medium is gone. Therefore, film analysis requires us to respond sensitively to the simultaneous and continuous interplay of image, sound, and movement on the screen. This necessity creates tlle most challenging part of the task: We must somehow remain almost totally immersed in the experience of a film while we maintain a high degree of objectivity and critical detach­ ment. Difficult though it may seem, this skill can be developed, and we must consciously cultivate it if we desire to become truly “cineliterate.” Innovations in videocassette recorders (VCRs), laserdisc players, and now digital videodisc (DVD) players and recorders can help, initially at least, by simply making screenings (as well as multiple viewings) of a film easier than in the past.

The technical nature of the medium also creates challenges. It would be ideal if we all had some experience in cinematography and film editing. In the

The Art of Watching Films 5




absence of such experience, we should become familiar with the basic tech­ niques of film production so that we can recognize them and evaluate their effec­ tiveness. Because a certain amount of technical language or jargon is necessary for the analysis and intelligent discussion of any art form, we must also add a number of important technical terms to our vocabularies.

The most challenging part of our task has already been stated: We must be­ come almost totally immersed in the experience of a film and at the same time maintain a high degree of objectivity and critical detachment. The complex na­ ture of the medium makes it difficult to consider all the elements of a film in a single viewing; too many things happen too quickly on too many levels to allow for a complete analysis. Therefore, if we wish to develop the proper habits of analytical viewing, we should see a film at least twice whenever possible. In the first viewing we can watch the film in the usual manner, concerning ourselves primarily with plot elements, the total emotional effect, and the central idea or theme. Then, in subsequent viewings, because we are no longer caught up in the suspense of what happens, we can focus our full attention on the hows and whys of the filmmaker’s art. Constant practice of the double- or multiple-viewing technique should make it possible for us to gradually combine the functions of two or more viewings into one.

We must also remember that film analysis does not end when the film is over. In a sense, this is when it really begins. Most of the questions posed in this book require the reader to reflect on the film after viewing it, and a mental re­ play of some parts of the film will be necessary for any complete analysis.

Finally, as we move through the chapters that follow toward the analysis of individual films, we must always remind ourselves that if the medium can truly be called an “art,” then it is definitely a collaborative one. Scores, if not hun­ dreds, of commercial professionals are involved in the production of the aver­ age “picture” (to use the term that many filmmakers themselves prefer). When we analyze a literary work such as a novel or poem, we judge the toil of a single creative individual. By contrast, our close examination of a film requires an awareness of the talents of many different artists, including producers, direc­ tors, production/costume/makeup designers, and, of course, actors. Usually, though, in the beginning is still the word, and the screenwriter-who has his­ torically been viewed as the least respected major team player in Hollywood­ remains the primary O1’iginating force within cinematic art.


Before we turn to the actual process of film analysis, it may be worthwhile to look into certain fundamental questions that have been raised about the value of analysis in general. Perhaps the most vocal reactions against analysis come from those who see it as a destroyer of beauty, claiming that it kills our love for the object under study. According to this view, it is better to accept all art intu-



FIGURE 1 .2 Learning

to Dive Watching

classic f i lm d ramas like

Ingmar Bergman’s The

Seventh Seal helps us to

u nderstand our human

selves with a depth

that m ight e lude us


itively, emotionally, and subjectively, so that our response is full, warm, and vi­ brant, uncluttered by the intellect. However, an either/or, black-and-white po­ larization of intuition and analysis is flawed. It denies the possibility of some middle ground-a synthesis that retains the best qualities of both approaches and embraces as equally valid both the emotional/intuitive and the intellec­ tual/analytical approaches. This book rests on that middle ground. It assumes that the soul of the poet and the intellect of the scientist can coexist within all of us, enriching and enhancing the film experience. Analysis need not murder our love of the movies. We can experience beauty, joy, and mystery intellectu­ ally as well as intuitively. With the tools of analysis, we can discover the deepest reaches of understanding that only the poet within us can fully appreciate (Fig­ ure 1.2). By creating new avenues of awareness, analysis can make our love for movies stronger, more real, more enduring. The analytical approach is essential to the art of watching films, for it enables us to see and understand how each part functions to contribute its vital energy to the pulsing, dynamic whole.

Analysis, generally, means breaking up the whole to discover the nature, proportion, function, and interrelationships of the parts. Film analysis, then, presupposes the existence of a unified and rationally structured artistic whole. Therefore, the usefulness of this book is restricted to structured or narrative films-films developed with a definite underlying purpose and unified around a central theme. Limiting our approach to structured films does not necessar­ ily deny the artistic value of unstructured films. Many of the movies that ex­ perimental and underground filmmakers produce do communicate effectively on a purely subjective, intuitive, or sensual plane and are meaningful to some degree as experiences. But because these films are not structured or unified around a central purpose or theme, they cannot be successfully approached through analysis.

The Art of Watching Films 7




It would be foolish to suggest that a structured film cannot be appreciated or understood at all without analysis. If a film is effective, we should possess an intuitive grasp of its overall meaning. The problem is that this intuitive grasp is generally weak and vague; it limits our critical response to hazy generalizations and half-formed opinions. The analytical approach allows us to raise this in­ tuitive grasp to a conscious level, bring it into sharp focus, and thereby make more valid and definite conclusions about the film’s meaning and value. The analytical approach, however, does not reduce film art to rational and manage­ able proportions. Analysis neither claims nor attempts to explain everything about film. The elusive, flowing stream of images will always escape complete analysis and complete understanding. In fact, no final answers exist about any work of art. A film, like anything else of true aesthetic value, can never be en­ tirely captured by analysis.

But the fact that there are no final answers should not prevent us from pur­ suing some important questions. Our hope is that, through analysis, we can reach a higher level of lmderstanding about films, a level where we are reflect­ ing on the most significant aspects of the film art as opposed to the merely mundane, the practical, and the technical. Film analysis enables us to lmder­ stand some elements habitually, thus freeing our minds to concentrate on the most significant questions.

Analysis helps us to lock an experience in our minds so that we may savor it in memory. By looking at a film analytically, we engage ourselves with it intellec­ tually and creatively and thus make it more truly our own. Furthermore, because our critical judgments enter into the process, analysis should fine-tune our tastes. A mediocre film can impress us more than it should at first, but we might like it less after analyzing it. A great film or a very good one will stand up under analysis; our admiration for it will increase the more deeply we look into it.

Film analysis, then, offers several clear benefits. It allows us to reach valid conclusions on a movie’s meaning and value; it helps us to capture the experi­ ence of a film in our minds; and it sharpens our critical judgments overall. But the ultimate purpose of analysis, and its greatest benefit, is that it opens up new channels of awareness and new depths of understanding. It seems logical to as­ sume that the more understanding we have, the more completely we will ap­ preciate art. If the love we have for an art form rests on rational understanding, it will be more solid, more enduring, and of greater value than love based solely on irrational and totally subjective reactions. This is not to claim that analysis will create a love of films where no such love exists. Love of movies does not emerge from a book or from any special critical approach. It comes only from that secret, personal lmion between film and viewer in a darkened room. If that love does not already exist for the viewer, this book and its analytical approach can do little to create it.

But if we truly love films, we will find that analysis is worth tlle effort, for the understanding it brings will deepen our appreciation. Instead of canceling



out the emotional experience of watching the movie, analysis will enhance and enrich that experience. As we become more perceptive and look more deeply into the film, new levels of emotional experience will emerge.


Before we begin our analysis, we need to consider obstacles to objectivity and maximum enjoyment that we create through our prejudices and misconcep­ tions and by the particular circumstances in which we watch the film. Each of us reacts in a unique and complex way to internal and external forces that are beyond the filmmaker’s control. Although these forces lie outside the film itself, they can have an effect on how we experience a film. Awareness of these forces should help us overcome them or at least minimize their effect.

One of the most difficult prejudices to overcome is that which leads us to dismiss certain categories of films. Although it is natural to prefer some types to others, most of us can appreciate or enjoy aspects of almost any film. We should keep in mind that not all films will fit our preconceived notions. For example, a person who dislikes gangster movies might stay away from Bonnie and Clyde; another, who dislikes musicals, might shun Chicago, and a third, who dislikes fantasy movies, might ignore Tbe Lord of the Rings: Tbe Retu1’7z of the King (Fig­ ure 1.3). All would lose a memorable film experience, for those three films are more than simple formula pieces.

Others may reject worthwhile movies because of their unwillingness to venture beyond the norm. Some may stay away from black-and-white films, always preferring color. Others may shun foreign-language films because they dislike reading subtitles or because they are bothered by dubbing that is not perfectly synchronized with mouth movement.

Also narrow in tl1eir outlook are filmgoers who have inflexible preconcep­ tions about what movies are supposed to be. This type of categorical rejection may be illustrated by two extreme examples. At one end of the spectrum are filmgoers who say, “1 just want to be entertained,” and are offended by a film that is grim and depressing. At the other end are viewers, equally limited in their outlook, who expect every film to make a profound artistic statement about the human condition and who are disappointed if a film is not grim and depressing. Closely related are those who set up their own criteria for what makes a good film and reject movies that operate under different rules. Viewers who demand to comprehend all the plot details by the film’s end would reject, for example, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, which deliberately requires multi­ ple viewings. Moviegoers who insist that a film hold them in a tight grip may dismiss Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for its slow-moving segments. Excellent films may be discounted because the characters are not sympatl1etic or the action is not realistic. We must avoid these kinds of misconceptions and instead try to be open to the film’s goals and meanings.

The Art of Watching Fi lms 9



FIGURE 1 .3 Suspending Our Dis­

belief To enjoy movies such as Lord

of the Rings: The Return of the King,

we must u ndergo the memorable

experience of chal lenging our pre­

conceived notions of real ity-or, as

the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor

Coleridge suggested, ” suspend our

sense of d isbelief” in narratives that

break the n atura l , logical ru les of

everyday existence.


Almost as detrimental as categorical rejection is the blindness caused by over-responding to individual elements rather than to the film as a whole. An example of this prejudice is offered by viewers who are infected with a near­ fatal case of actor worship or antipathy: “I just love all Russell Crowe pictures !” or “I can’t stand Julia Roberts movies !” Such extreme reactions are certainly common among viewers who refuse to see the actor as subordinate to the film.

Less radical illustrations of this blindness include over-response to certain film elements. The two ingredients most likely to cause this kind of reaction are sex and violence. Certainly, some filmmakers exploit these ingredients and emphasize them to the point of the ridiculous, but this is not always the case. Films sometimes demand the use of nudity or violence to present honestly the story they have to tell. Thus, a perceptive filmgoer does not condemn the use of sex or violence per se, without considering the film as a whole, and neitller does he or she reject or praise a movie simply because of its treatment of sex or violence. For example, many would argue tllat tlle violent ending of Bonnie and Clyde does not, by itself, determine the overall quality of that film. And works as diverse as Boys Don ‘t Oy and Mrs. Henderson Presents actually require some em­ phasis on sexual encounters to tell tlleir stories. Recently, tlle popular film re­ viewer Roger Ebert, in responding to an objection by one of his readers about the sexual scenes in Paul Schrader’s Auto FocZls, repeated what Ebert has often identified as one of his favorite and most telling critical observations: “a crucial rule for anyone seriously interested in movies: It’s not what tlle movie is about that makes it good or bad, but how it is about it. ” Even if viewers reject this sug­ gestion about the supremacy of style or “form,” they also must surely not insist that subject matter or “content” is always most significant.

Another subjective factor tllat influences film evaluation is expecting too much from a movie, whether it has won awards, critical acclaim, or great re-



views from our friends. Expectations may also filll too high if we are particu­ larly fond of a novel that is later adapted to film. \Vhen our expectations are too high, a film can’t possibly measure up, and our disappointment clouds a work that we would otherwise have liked immensely.


Many movie lovers argue that ideally we should view any film in what they call its “proper” environment: a comfortable and attractive theater, preferably one with modern stadium seating and the highest quality projection and audio equipment. There, these advocates further claim, we may not only consume films in their state-of-the-art glory, but we can also participate in one of the primary social rituals of modern life: watching movies with others in a public setting (Figure 1 .4) . In fact, our theater-going experiences are often much less than perfect. Noisy patrons chat and argue over and about the film’s dialogue, rattling their popcorn bags and candy wrappers; often, they not only allow cell phones to ring repeatedly, but tllen talk loudly into tllem. Certainly, in a well­ equipped theater, sound and image wash over you, immerse you, massage you. You need not direct your attention. Seeing a movie in a good tlleater is like div­ ing into heavy surf witll the tide coming in; seeing a movie on a standard tele­ vision screen is like taking a sponge bath out of a gallon pail. As actor Richard Dreyfuss describes it:

[FJilm has a power over us. \Vhen we sit in a darkened room and symbolically hold hands with one another and say, “Give me this experience”-we are investing religiosity to that experience .. . we will be swept up with it .. .. But if it’s on TV, who cares? Because TV has no impact, it is simply part of the furniture sitting next to the potted palm or the refrigerator. It has no impact on a primal level.4

Still, even as attendance at movie theaters continues to grow (although proba­ bly never again to the numbers during the glory days of American film in the late 1 940s), more and more of us most frequently view films in our own homes via the domestic magic of modern technologies. Increasingly, we have larger and sharper television screens-some of them wondrously flat and lightweight, constructed of LCD and plasma panels. The wealthiest movie watchers, of course, may also be able to afford spacious, elaborate, and elegantly appointed home theaters. But even those viewers must be aware tlut the home film­ watching experience still differs radically from that in the multiplexes-in both negative and positive ways.

Most of the negative aspects of home viewing center upon the quality of tl1e sight and sound delivery systems. First, consider tlle simple factor of size. An image approximately twenty feet high on the average movie screen is re­ duced to a maximum height of about two feet on tlle typical home TV Becom­ ing physically involved in the action of a narrative as we would in a theater is

The Art of Watching F i lms 1 1




FIG URE 1 .4 Sharing Happiness With Others in the Dark Here, in a scene from one

of Woody Al len’s most popu lar fi lms, Annie Hall, the tit le cha racter (Diane Keaton) and her

boyfriend (Woody Al len) wait in a c inema queue. Wh i le impatiently d iscussing their own

re lationship, they i nteract with other offbeat moviegoers, who provide laughs a n d groans i n

equal measure for this f i lm’s ” m irror” audience.

nearly impossible at home. For example, a theater viewer who is susceptible to motion sickness may get a little queasy during the racing scenes in Seabiscuit or the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter movies. But the same visceral sen­ sation is nearly always lacking, as Richard Dreyfuss says, when we’re watching that little box across the room. The events occurring on television seem re­ mote, locked in the safety of a 27-inch (or even a 65 -inch) screen. The change in size reduces the intensity of our experience and decreases our involvement (Figure 1 . 5).

Not only is the size of tlle image changed, but in many cases, tlle basic shape of the composition is altered as well. For instance, when a film shot in a wide­ screen (rectangular) format (see Figures 4. 1 and 4.2 in Chapter 4, pp. 94-95) is squeezed onto an essentially square TV screen, crucial visual information is often lost. Wide-screen formats are adapted to the standard television shape by a special editing process called panning and scanning. A scanning device de­ termines when tlle most significant information in each frame is so far to the left or right of center as to be outside the perimeter of the narrower television picture. TV (and also video and DVD) producers then adjust accordingly by centering tllis peripheral information in tlle transmitted or re-recorded image. Of course, the cinematographer’s art suffers from this process, because the visual composition is compromised when a large portion of the original image



FIGURE 1 . 5 Reducing Viewers’ Involvement Watching such larger-tha n-l ife fi lms as

King Kong (2005) on a smal l television screen may decrease the intensity of our involve­ ment and, hence, the qua l ity of our total movie experience.

is sliced off each side. The process frequently introduces camera movement not intended by the film’s creators, and thereby can alter significantly the visual rhythms of the film. The alternative to this cinematic mutilation-at least when the “square” TV shape is involved (vs. the newer high-definition tele­ vision’s [HDTV] 1 6 [wide] X 9 [high] aspect ratio)-is the use of black bands at the top and bottom of the screen. This feature irritates many viewers and, iron­ ically, makes some believe tllat they are being cheated of tlle whole original Image.

Throughout its brief history, the videocassette (whose use is now in rapid decline) seldom presented wide-screen films in their original format, and, even now, among television cable channels, few except Turner Classic Movies adamantly present films in what is called their “theatrical release aspect ratio.” Initially, the advent of the DVD format brought great hopefulness to enthusi­ asts of watching wide-screen films at home. Often, in fact, the enormous stor­ age space on DVDs allowed producers to satisfy everyone by offering both tlle wide-screen and the pan and scan version on opposite sides of the same disc. More recently, however, large-volume video rental and sales .companies such

The Art of Watching Fi lms 1 3




as Blockbuster have reportedly convinced producers to release more of their films exclusively in the “standard,” “full-screen” version, fearing that their customers will be too naIve to understand the beauty and practicality of wide­ screen films.

Television viewing of films has traditionally compromised sound even more than image. A modern movie theater equipped with multiple speakers can sur­ round viewers with sound, immersing them in an encompassing aural environ­ ment. In the Jurassic Pa1ek movies, for instance, the rumble of a dinosaur passing back and forth in a landscape moves all over the theater as the SOlU1d dramati­ cally increases and decreases in volume and shifts from place to place. Histori­ cally, most common television sets, even the largest ones, have had inadequate speakers by comparison, and many didn’t even have tone controls. However, electronics manufacturers have been vastly improving sound quality, and so­ called “home theater sound systems” have become commercially successful during the past few years.

Thus, seeing (and hearing) movies at home, though still not “ideal” for many of us, may rapidly be gaining desirability. The sales momentum of the DVD player since tl1e device’s first wide availability in the fall of 200 1 has greatly outperformed even that of the audio compact disc. Its potential for swiftly increasing our “cineliteracy” surpasses even that of the so-called “video revolution” with the advent of the videocassette in the late 1 970s. DVDs are beginning to re-educate film viewers about tl1e art form’s possibilities. Director David Cronenberg (Spider [2003] , eXistenZ, Crash [1 996] , The Fly [ 1986] , A History of Violence) has expressed well what many filmmakers and fans now feel:

I love, love, love DVDs, and I pushed for them years ago when people were dubi­ ous. The first thing for a filmmaker is always picture quality and sowld quality; those to me are the real reason that you want a DVD . . . . You have to understand, when I was a kid, you had to see the movie when it came to the theater, and that was it. This was before televison and before movies were shown on television. There was a time when Hollywood wouldn’t even allow a television set to be shown in a movie, they were so afraid of it. So the idea that you could possess a movie like a book on your bookshelf, that you could take it out and look at favorite scenes, is fantastic. Now you can have a genuinely cinematic experience at home and have it in your control. I must confess I watch more movies at home on DVD than I do in the theater .. . . I don’t think a filmmaker can afford to be afraid of technology . . . . [I]t’s really an extension of our bodies and our minds into the wliverse which then comes back to change us.5

The editors at IFCRant (a publication of tl1e Independent Film Channel) agree: DVDs “allow film aficionados a chance to get better insight into the people who brought the film to life” and also “the . . . format encourages other forms of expression beyond just tl1e release title . . . . [\V]ho knows what crazy tl1ings people might start making in the form of supplementary material for tl1ese



DVDs. ,,6 And Peter M. Nichols has begun to answer, in swnmary form, this

implied question:

As t he DVD a ud ie nce br oade ns, so d oe s a ppre cia tion of t he d isc’s e xt ra feat ure s. C onsumer st ud ie s by t he DVD Ente rta inme nt Group, a t rade a ssocia tion, ra nk impr oved pict ure a nd sound as DVD’s most va lued att ribute s. Ext ra sce ne s, out ­ ta ke s a nd e spe cia lly blooper s (a lway s a favor ite wit h fa ns) a nd be hind-t he- sce ne s looks at movie s be ing made a lso score highly .

Eve n t he most time- consuming of e xtra s, t he movie- le ngt h d ire ct or’s comme n­ ta ry, is proving popula r e nough t o e ncoura ge reams of filmma ker s’ re fle ct ion in spe cia l ed itions of newe r films a nd increa singly wit h simpler re lea se s of olde r one s. T he ca sua l viewe r may fee l no compulsion t o d ive int o t his mate ria l , but it is t here a nd ofte n we ll worth a 100k.7

This book attempts to encourage the reader to explore the frequently rich elements of data contained in DVDs beyond these entertainments and routine audio commentaries. At the ends of Chapters 3 through 15 in this edition of The Art afWatching Films, we have provided a feature called “DVD Filmmaking Extras,” which is a kind of road map for digitally augmenting tl1e various topics discussed.


How much should we know about a film before we see it? There is no simple answer to this question. Often we have little control over how much we know about a movie before we see it. Sometimes it is pleasurable (if now almost im­ possible) to enter a theater without one bit of information about what we are going to watch. Then we can see it free from others’ opinions and judge it purely on its own merits. But given the increased price of movies, few of us can afford this freedom. We find other ways to gauge our interest in seeing the newest films. In any case, a few general guidelines on how to prepare for watch­ ing a film might be helpful.

An easy way to gain some knowledge about a film before seeing it is to read reviews, which usually provide factual information: film credits, running time, MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating (G, PG, PG- 1 3 , R, or NC-1 7), a summary of the subject matter and plot. Most reviews also mention the elements in the film that are significant and worthy of attention. They may help us pla ce the film in context by rela ting it to similar films by other directors or to other films by the same director or production team. The review may an­ alyze the film, breaking it into its parts and examining tl1e nature, proportions, function, and interrelationship of these parts. Although most newspaper and magazine reviews are written quickly against deadlines, they almost always in­ clude some kind of value judgment, some negative or positive opinions of the film’s overall worth (Figure 1 .6).

The Art of Watching Fi lms 15




FIGURE 1 .6 Reading Movie Reviews When we consult movie reviews before watching

a fi l m new to us, we are a l most a lw3Ys vulnerable to the k inds of value judgments they offer,

whether negative or positive. Such critical opin ions of the f i lm Munich, for example, infl u­

enced many viewers about the overa l l qua l ity of the fact-based work.

In those cases where we do consult the opinions of reviewers before we head out to the multiplex, we should remember not to place too much faith in any one notice, unless we are already familiar with the tastes and biases of its author. Better, we might choose to read several reviewers’ work, preferably published in sources that we know represent a variety of philosophical bents.

Indeed, when reading reviews, we must remember that criticism-journal­ istic, academic, or otherwise-is a highly subjective process. If we take any sin­ gle review or even a series of reviews too seriously before seeing a film, we will restrict our ability to judge the work independently. Also, if we rely too much on the reviews, we may completely lose faith in our own judgment and end up in a tug-of-war between critical opinions.

Reviews, of course, are not the only source of information and attitudes about films. The enormous amount of publicity generated for almost every movie (both by producers and studios and also, frequently, the media outlets owned by conglomerates that also own the studios) can influence our reactions. Ubiquitous television talk shows continuously feature interviews with actors and directors of recently released films. A great deal of important information can also be picked up from the grapevine, the word-of-moutll reviews by friends who have seen the movie (Figure 1 .7). And now most moviegoers also have the vast cinema resources of the World Wide Web at their immediate command. Two indispensable sites are the Internet Movie Database ( and Rotten Tomatoes ( The latter’s idiosyncratic name and



FIGURE 1 .7 Succeeding by

Word of Mouth Sometimes, fi lm­

makers with very modest expecta­

tions for their movie’s commercial

success d iscover an enormous

audience for their work via the

grapevine: oral recommendations

by friends a nd relatives who have

seen and enjoyed the movie. I n this

manner, March of the Penguins, an

i ndependent fi l m produced on a

min iscu le budget, becam e one of

the g reatest box office successes i n

the h istory o f motion pictures.

the gossipy tone of the former’s very visible daily news entries may at first repel some readers. Nevertheless, film students should perhaps begin their “cine­ literacy” journey with The Art of Watching Films by visiting each site at length, becoming familiar with the multipaged insights and delight available there, in­ cluding everything from movie facts and still photos to preview clips that we can download and view.


As students of film, once we have gathered facts, decided what movies to see, and attempted to clear our minds of preconceptions, then what? We should begin to deepen our perceptions.

After watching a film, we naturally start to think about our reactions to it. Sometimes, though, we hesitate to speak with others about our experience. Typically, we want to deal with our personal, emotional responses first, perhaps silently, perhaps while we “savor the moment” during the movie’s end credits or even throughout the ride home. At other times, we are compelled immedi­ ately to speak out loudly with friends or family members who have accompa­ nied us on our cinematic journey, sharing their joy or misery, or arguing not only about the work’s emotional landscape, but also about its logical sharpness or stupidity. If the film has indeed encouraged any cerebral responses, we may especially desire to record our reactions in written form, all the better to under­ stand our experience. Now, as we turn directly to the analytical approach to film viewing, consider keeping a movie journal. Record what movies you see

The Art of Watching F i lms 1 7




and, quite literally, what you see in them. Take note of both the emotional and the intellectual levels of your watching. Ask yourself questions about every as­ pect of the film, and let these questions lead you to other, more complex ones in your continuing to read this book. As you progress, stop to consider the questions for analysis that accompany each of the following chapters.


1. Do you have any strong prejudices against this particular type of film? If so, how did these prejudices affect your responses to the film? Does this film have any special qualities that set it apart from other films of the same type?

2. How much do your personal and highly subjective responses to the following aspects of the film affect your judgment: actors in the film, treatment of sexual material, and scenes involving violence? Can you justify the sex and violence in the film aesthetically, or are these scenes included strictly to increase box­ office appeal?

3 . What were your expectations before seeing the film? How did these expecta­ tions influence your reaction to the film?

4. Was your mood, mental attitude, or physical condition while seeing the movie less than ideal? If so, how was your reaction to the film affected?

5. If the physical enviromnent in which you wa tched the film was less than ideal, how did this fact influence your perception?

6. If you watched tlle movie on a TV screen, in which scenes do you feel you lacked the intensity of involvement needed to enjoy the film most completely? In which scenes does the small-screen format work?

7. If you read reviews or scholarly essays before your viewing, what observations or opinions caught your interest? What is your own opinion after having seen the movie?






In the context of novels, plays, and poetry, the word theme connotes an idea­ the central idea, the point, the message, or the statement made by the work as a whole. For film analysis, however, that definition of theme is too narrow. The theme of a film is not necessarily an idea at all.

In the context of film analysis, theme refers to the unifying central concern of the film, the special focus that unifies the work. As the director Sidney Lumet has observed,

What t he movie i s abo ut wi ll deter mine how it wi ll be cast, ho w it will loo k, how it will be e dite d, how it will be musi cally score d, how it wi ll be mixe d, how t he t it le s will loo k, and, wit h a goo d st udio , ho w it wi ll be re le ase d. What it ‘s about wi ll deter mine how it i s to be made . !

A filmmaker may choose to focus on ideas but is just as likely to emphasize one of the four other major elements: 1 ) plot (2) emotional effect or mood, (3) char­ acter, and (4) style or texture. All five elements are present in all films; but in any given film, one is predominant. Keeping in mind this broader concept of theme will help us to analyze films ranging from Capote to The Producers (2005) or from Sin City to The New World.

Focus on Plot

In adventure stories and detective stories, the filmmaker focuses on plot-on what happens. The aim of such films is generally to provide escape from the boredom and drabness of everyday life, so the action is exciting and fast paced. Characters, ideas, and emotional effects are subordinate to events, and the final outcome is all-important. Events and the final outcome, however, are impor­ tant only within the context of the specific story being told; they have little real significance. The theme of such ,a film can best be captured in a concise sum­ mary of the plot (Figure 2 . 1) .

Focus on Emotional Effect or Mood

In a relatively large number of films, the director creates a highly specialized mood or emotional effect. In such films, it is possible to identify a single mood or emotion that prevails throughout the film or to view each segment of the film as a step leading to a single powerful emotional effect. Although plot may be very important in such a movie, events are subordinate to the emotional re­ sponse they produce. Most horror films, the Alfred Hitchcock suspense thrillers, and romantic tone poems such as A Man and a Woman can be interpreted as having a mood or emotional effect as their primary focus and unifying element.



FIGURE 2.1 Focus on Plot

Gladiator, Spider-Man, and

Hidalgo (2004) are fast-paced action fi lms that focus on what


The theme of such films can best be stated by identifying the prevailing mood or emotional effect that the filmmaker has created (Figure 2 .2) .

In some films, a balanced combination of two emotions may make it diffi­ cult to tell which emotion is dominant. The Squid and tbe Wbale, for example,

Thematic E lements 21




FIG URE 2.2 Focus on Emotional Effect or Mood A wide variety of emotional effects

or moods can serve as a thematic concern in modern fi lms. There are movies to scare us,

l ike The Shining (top left), movies to make us cry, l ike Off the Map (top right), movies to

make us laugh, l ike The 40-Year-Old Virgin (bottom right), and movies to make us feel

romantic, l ike The Notebook (bottom left).

might be classified as a comedy/drama, Tbe Ice Harvest as a comedy/horror film. An analysis of such films needs to consider the elements that contribute to each effect and the way the two prevalent emotions play off each other (Fig­ ure 2 . 3) .

Focus on Character

Some films, through both action and dialogue, focus on the clear delineation of a single unique character. Although plot is important in such films, what happens is important primarily because it helps us understand the character being developed. The major appeal of these characters lies in the qualities that



FIGURE 2.3 M ixed Emotions Some fi lms do not focus on bui lding a s ing le emotional

effect but i nstead blend two different emotions in the same story, as does The Royal

Tenenbaums, with its idiosyncratic blend of comedy and pathos. Pictu red here from left

to right are Ben Sti l ler, Danny G lover, Gwyneth Pa ltrow, and Angel ica H uston.

set them apart from ordinary people. The theme of such films can best be ex­ pressed in a brief description of the central character, with emphasis on the unusual aspects of the individual’s personality (Figure 2 .4).

Focus on Style or Texture or Structure

In a relatively small number of films, the director tells the story in such a differ­ ent way that the film’s style or texture or structure becomes its dominant and most memorable aspect, making a stronger impact on our minds and senses than any of the other thematic elements. Such films have a quality that sets them apart-a unique look, feel, rhythm, atmosphere, tone, or organization that echoes in our minds and senses long after we leave the theater. The unique style, texture, or shape permeates the film (not just isolated segments), and all the cinematic elements are woven together into one rich tapestry. Such films are often not commercially successful because the mass audience may not be prepared for or comfortable with the unique viewing experience that they pro­ vide (Figure 2 .5).

Thematic Elements 23




FIGURE 2.4 Focus on Charac­

ter Some fi l ms, such as Ray

(right), Frida (bottom right), and

Raging Bull (bottom left), focus

on the u nusual aspects of unique


Focus on Ideas

In most serious films, the action and characters have a significance beyond the context of the film itself-a significance that helps to clarify some aspect of life, experience, or the human condition. The idea may be L0mmunicated direcdy



FIG URE 2.5 Focus on Style, Texture, and/or Structure Both Memento (top) and Waking Life (bottom) leave us feel ing we have experienced a one-of-a-kind movie.

through a particular incident or stated by a particular character. Most often, however, the idea is presented more subtly, and we are challenged to find an interpretation that we feel best fits the film as a whole. This indirect approach increases the likelihood of varying interpretations, but varying interpretations

Thematic Elements 25




FIGURE 2.6 Moral Implications Such fi lms as Crash (left) and The Prize Winner of Defi­

ance Ohio (right) lead us to think carefu l ly about the consequences of the moral decisions

we make i n our l ives.

are not necessarily contradictory. They may be equally valid, complementary statements saying essentially the same things in different terms or approaching the same idea from different angles.

Perhaps the first step in identifying the central idea is accurately identifying the abstract subject of the film in a single word or phrase-for example,jealoury, injustice, prejudice. If this is as specific as we can get in determining the theme, we should not despair; some concepts can be stated explicitly but others cannot. At any rate, the identification of the true subject is a valuable first step in film analysis. If possible, however, we should attempt to carry the determination of central idea beyond the mere identification of the subject and see if we can for­ mulate a statement that accurately summarizes the subject that is dramatized in the film and conveyed by all its elements. If such a specific statement of the film’s primary concern is possible, the film’s central idea might fall into one of the following categories.

1. Moral Implications. Films that make moral statements are intended primarily to convince us of the wisdom or practicality of a moral principle and thereby persuade us to apply the principle in our own lives. Such principles often take the form of a maxim or proverb such as “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Although many modern films have impor­ tant moral implications, very few are structured around a single moral statement, and we must be careful not to mistake a moral implication for a moral statement or judgment (Figure 2 .6).

2. The Truth of Human Nature. Quite different from films that focus on unique characters are those that focus on universal or representative characters. The characters in such films take on significance beyond them-



FIGURE 2.7 The Truth of H uman Nature Fi lms like Lord of the Flies (1 963) a n d

Deliverance take a penetrating l ook a t the nature o f humankind when t h e t h i n veneer

of civilization has been removed.

selves and the context of the particular film in which they appear. These characters are representative of humanity in general, and they serve as cin­ ematic vehicles to illustrate some widely or universally acceptable truth about human nature (Figure 2 .7).

3 . Social Problems. Modern filmmakers are very concerned with social problems and show their concern in films that expose social vices and fol­ lies or criticize social institutions. Although the underlying purpose of such films is social reform, they rarely spell out specific methods of re­ form; usually they concentrate instead on defining the problem and em­ phasizing its importance. A social problem film may treat its subject in a light, satirical, or comic manner, or it may attack the subject in a savage, harsh, and brutal manner. The social problem film, unlike the human na­ ture film, concerns itself not with criticism of the human race in general or with the universal aspects of human nature but with the special func­ tions of human beings as social animals and with the social institutions and traditions they have created (Figure 2 .8).

4. The Struggle for Human Dignity. Many serious films portray a basic conflict or tension between two opposing sides of human nature. One is the desire to surrender to animal instincts and wallow in the slime of human weakness, cowardice, brutality, stupidity, and sensuality. The other is the struggle to stand erect, to display courage, sensitivity, intelligence, a spiritual and moral sense, and strong individualism. This conflict is best shown when the central characters are placed in a position of disadvantage,

Thematic Elements 27




FIGURE 2 . 8 Social

Problem Films Fi lms

l i ke Do the Right Thing

(racial prejudice), Dead

Man Walking (capital

punishment). and Vera

Drake (abortion) force

us to examine current

social problems.



FIGURE 2.9 The Struggle for H uman Dignity In The Insider, a network television pro­

ducer (AI Pacino) strugg les to protect the sense of identity and dignity of a former tobacco

company executive (Russell Crowe) who is his journal istic source.

having been dealt a bad hand in some way, so that they must play against tremendous odds. The conflict may be external, with the character strug­ gling against some dehumanizing force, system, institution, or attitude. Or the conflict may be internal, with the character struggling for dignity against the human weaknesses present in his or her own personality (Fig­ ure 2 .9).

A triumphant victory is sometimes, but certainly not always, achieved. However, the struggle itself gives us some respect for the character, win or lose. Boxers are often treated in films with the dignity theme. In On the Wateifront, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) achieves his dignity by leading the dock workers to rebel against a corrupt union, but Malloy’s summary of his boxing career echoes clearly his personal struggle: “I could’a had class . . . I could’a been a contender . . . I could’a been somebody! . . . Instead of just a bum, which is what I am.” Sylvester Stallone takes the character of Terry Malloy and gives him the chance to be “somebody” in each film of the Rocky series. In Requiem fo1′ a Heavyweight, over-the-hill fighter Mountain Rivera (Anthony Quinn) fails to achieve dignity but wins respect for his effort. Recently, protagonists in two popular boxing

Thematic Elements 29




FIGURE 2.1 0 The Complexity of Human Relationships Meryl Streep, in The Hours,

attem pts to comfort her former lover (Ed Harris) who is dying of A I DS (top left) . Heath

Ledger and Jake Gyl lenhaal play i l l icit lovers who lose a l l for love in Brokeback Mountain

(top right). Tom Wi lkinson and Sissy Spacek, as the parents in In the Bedroom, confront

their separate and m utual g rief after the violent death of their young son (bottom).

narratives-Hilary Swank in Million Dallal’ Baby and Russell Crowe in Cinde7″ella Man-have constituted studies in this theme.

S . The Complexity of Human Relationships. Some films focus on the problems, frustrations, pleasures, and joys of human relationships: love, friendship, marriage, divorce, family interactions, sexuality, and so on (Figure 2 . 1 0). Some show the gradual working out of a problem; others help us gain insight into a problem without providing any clear resolu­ tion. Although a great many films of this sort deal with universal problems in the relationships between men and women, we must also be on the lookout for unusual treatments such as Midnight Cowboy (a “love” story about two men) .



FIGURE 2. 1 1 Coming of Age In movies l i ke American Graffiti (left) and Undertow

(right), you ng people go through experiences that cause them to become more aware or

more mature.

6. Coming of AgelLoss of Innocence/Growing Awareness. The major character or characters in such films are usually, but not always, young people going through experiences that force them to become more ma­ ture or to gain some new awareness of themselves in relation to the world around them. Such concepts can be treated comically, seriously, tragically, or satirically. The central character of these films is always dynamic-that is, different in some way at the end of the film from what he or she was at the beginning. The changes that occur may be subtle internal changes or drastic changes that significantly alter the character’s outward behavior or lifestyle (Figures 2 . 1 1 , 2 . 1 2) .

7 . A Moral or Philosophical Riddle. Sometimes a filmmaker may pur­ posely strive to evoke a variety of subjective interpretations by developing a film around a riddle or puzzling quality. The filmmaker attempts to sug­ gest or mystify instead of communicating clearly and attempts to pose moral or philosophical questions rather than provide answers. The typical reaction to such films is “What’s it all about?” This type of film commu­ nicates primarily through symbols or images, so a thorough analysis of these elements will be required for interpretation. After even the most perceptive analysis, a degree of uncertainty will remain. Such films are wide open to subjective interpretation. But the fact that subjective inter­ pretation is required does not mean that the analysis of all film elements can be ignored. Individual interpretation should be supported by an exam­ ination of all elements (Figure 2 . 1 3) .

Thematic Elements 31



FIGURE 2. 1 2 Com pounding the Problems Coming of age is

always difficult, but it is a l most overwhel ming when, l ike the title

character (Jamie Bel l) in Billy Elliot, you love bal let but your father

hates it-or when, l ike the fifteen-year-old journal ist (Patrick Fug it)

i n Almost Famous, you a re caught between the demands of a

stern mother and those of Rolling Stone’s editors.



Identifying the theme of a film is often difficult. The theme is not likely to re­ veal itself in a flash of light midway through the screening. Although simply watching a film may give us a vague, intuitive grasp of its basic meaning, accu­ rately stating the theme is quite another matter. Sometimes we cannot do so until we leave the theater and begin thinking about or discussing the film. Fre­ quently, just describing the movie to someone who has not seen it will provide an important clue to the theme, because we tend to describe first the things that make the strongest impression on us.

Identifying the theme can be considered both the beginning and the end of film analysis. Mter seeing a film, we should make a tentative identification of its theme to provide a starting point for close analysis. The analysis itself should clarify our vision of the film and show all its elements functioning to­ gether as a unique whole. However, if our analysis of the individual thematic elements does not support our original view of the film’s theme, we should be prepared to reconsider our opinion in light of the new direction that our analy­ sis indicates.

Plot, emotional effect or mood, character, style or texture or structure, and ideas are the central concerns of most films. There are exceptions, however-



FIGURE 2.13 A Moral or Philosophical

Riddle In Persona (top left), Fight Club

(top right), and Being John Malkovich

(bottom), directors Ingmar Bergman, David

Fincher, and Spike Jonze suggest multiple

meanings that mystify us.

films that do not focus exclusively on any one element and films that focus on more than one. In our efforts to identify theme, we must also be aware that certain films may possess, in addition to the single unifying central concern that we define as theme, other, less important, areas of emphasis called motifs. These are images, patterns, or ideas that are repeated throughout the film and are variations or aspects of the major theme. Above all, we should remember that the statement of the theme cannot convey the full impact of the film it­ self. It merely clarifies our vision of the film as a unified work and enhances our appreciation of its thematic elements as they function together in a unique artistic whole.

Thematic Elements 33




FIGURE 2.14 Themes Limited in Time and Place Wild in the Streets (left) and Easy

Rider (right) dealt with problems and issues that seemed very relevant in the late 1960s and

early 1970s, but many of their concerns may seem old-fashioned today.


Once we have identified the theme, it is important to make some kind of evalu­ ation of it, especially in a serious film that attempts to do more than simply en­ tertain. For the most part, theme evaluation is a subjective process, and any attempt to provide systematic guidelines for making this kind of value judg­ ment would be prejudicial. A few generalizations, however, are permissible.

One standard commonly applied in theme evaluation is universality. A universal theme is one of lasting interest, one that is meaningful not just to people here and now but to all human beings in all ages. Therefore, a theme with universal appeal may be considered superior to one with an appeal strictly limited in time and place. Four social problem films illustrate this point. Those strictly limited in time and place like Wild in the Streets (the generation gap of the 1960s) and Easy Rider (a grab bag of 1960s problems) had a powerful im­ pact on young film audiences when they were released but seem dated today (Figure 2.14). However, On the Wateifront (union corruption in the 1950s) and The Grapes of Wrath (the plight of migrant farm workers in the 1930s) speak to us in loud, clear voices today, despite tlleir age. Migrant farm workers still have problems, and corrupt unions still exist; but those films have universal appeal because of the real and powerful characters portrayed, the heroic struggles waged for human dignity, and the artistry with which both films were made.

There is, of course, no real formula for the classic film, tlle kind we never grow tired of seeing. The classic film has a sense of rightness to it time and time again. Its power does not fade or diminish witll the passing years but actually grows because of its universal themes and motifs. The Grapes of Wrath is not



FIGURE 2.15 Universal Themes Although the specific problems forced upon Rick

(Humphrey Bogart) and lisa (Ingrid Bergman) by World War II have long since disappeared,

Casablanca lives on because of strong universal themes that reach beyond the romantic

love story at its core.

simply about migrant workers forced to leave the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in the 193 Os. It is about the common man, the downtrodden, the underdog, about courageous men and women, about people who endure and constantly struggle to preserve their dignity. In the same way, Casablanca is more than just a story about two people losing and then finding each other in a world too chaotic for romantic dreams. It is a story about a beautiful woman and a mysterious man, about war, responsibility, courage, duty, and most of all, about doing the right thing. Such classics endure because of their strong, universal themes (Fig­ ure 2.15).

Thematic Elements 35




This does not mean that we place no value on themes that lack universality. Even if a theme’s appeal is limited to a specific time and place, it may have some relevance to our own experience. We will naturally consider a theme that says something significant to us superior to one that does not.

We also have the right to expect that a thematic idea be intellectually or philosophically interesting. In other words, if a film attempts to make a signifi­ cant statement, that statement should be neither boring nor self-evident but should interest or challenge us.


On Theme and Focus

What is the film’s primary focus: plot, emotional effect or mood, character, style or texture or structure, or ideas? On the basis of your decision, answer one of these questions:

1. If the film’s primary concern is plot, summarize the action abstractly in a single sentence or a short paragraph.

2. If the film is structured around a mood or emotional effect, describe tlle mood or feeling that it attempts to convey.

3. If the film’s focus is on a single unique character, describe the unusual aspects of his or her personality.

4. If the film seems to be built upon a unique style or texture or structure, describe the qualities that contribute to the special look or feel of the film.

S. If the film’s primary focus is an idea, answer these questions: a. What is the true subject of the film? What is it really about in abstract

terms? Identify the abstract subject in a single word or phrase. b. What comment or statement does the film make about the subject? If

possible, formulate a sentence that accurately summarizes the idea dra­ matized by the film.

On Identifying the Theme

1. Although a director may attempt to do several things with a film, one goal usually stands out as most important. Decide which of the following was the director’s primary aim, and give reasons for your choice. a. providing pure entertainment-that is, temporary escape from the real

world b. developing a pervasive mood or creating a single, specialized emotional

effect c. providing a character sketch of a unique, fascinating personality d. creating a consistent, unique feel or texture by weaving all of the complex

elements of film together into a one-of-a-kind film experience e. criticizing society and social institutions and increasing the viewer’s aware­

ness of a social problem and the need for reform



f. providing insights into human nature (demonstrating what human beings in general are like)

g. creating a moral or philosophical riddle for the viewer to ponder h. making a moral implication to influence the viewer’s values or behavior 1. dramatizing one or more characters’ struggle for human dignity against

tremendous odds J. exploring the complex problems and pleasures of human relationships k. providing insight into a growth experience, the special kinds of situations

or conflicts that cause important changes in the character or characters involved

2. Which of the items listed in the previous question seem important enough to qualify as secondary aims?

On Evaluating the Theme

1. Is the film’s basic appeal to the intellect, to the funny bone, to the moral sense, or to the aesthetic sense? Is it aimed primarily at the groin (the erotic sense), the viscera (blood and guts), the heart, the yellow streak down the back, or simply the eyes? Support your choice with specific examples from the film.

2. How well does your statement of the film’s theme and focus stand up after you have thoroughly analyzed all elements of the film?

3. To what degree is the film’s theme universal? Is the theme relevant to your own experience? How?

4. If you think the film makes a significant statement, why is it significant? 5. Decide whether the film’s theme is intellectually or philosophically interesting,

or self-evident and boring, and defend your decision. 6. Does the film have the potential to become a classic? Will people still be

watching it twenty years from today? Why?


Watch the first 5 minutes of any two of the following films: Billy Elliot, The Grapes of Wrath, Midnight Cowboy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Rookie, Shane, To Kill a Mock­ ingbird, and The World According to Garp. T hen answer these questions.

1. From the 5-rninute segments you have just seen, can you make intelligent guesses about each film’s primary concern?

2. What does the music suggest about the emotional quality of each film? Will the film be happy, sad, or bittersweet? Funny, serious, or a mixture of the two?

3. What do you learn about the characters introduced in the beginning? Which of the characters are point of view characters (characters with whom we iden­ tify and through whose eyes we experience the film)? Which of the characters will we end up viewing more objectively, from a distance?

Thematic Elements 37




Focus on Plot

Black Hawk Down (2001) Die Another Day (2002) The Fast and the Furious (2001) Fnaky Friday (2003) Gladiator (2000) The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Focus on Emotional Effect or Mood

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) De-Lovely (2004) The Piano (1993)

Focus on Character

Ali (2001) A Beautiful Mind (2001) Capote (2005) Cinderella Man (2005) Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) Crumb (1994)

Focus on Style, Texture, or Structure

The Age of Innocence (1993) Brazil (1985) Days of Heaven (1978) The English Patient (1996) Fargo (1996) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Focus on Human Nature

Deliverance (1972) Groundhog Day (1993) A Hist01Y of Violence (2005) House of Sand and Fog (2003)

Struggle for Human Dignity

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) II Postino (The Postman) (1994) The Insider (1999) Mad Hot Balh’oom (2005)

Independence Day (1996) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) The Road Wt117ior (1981) Spider-Man (2002) Titanic (1997)

Psycho (1960) The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Somewhere in Time (1980)

Elizabeth (1998) The Great Santini (1979) Grizzly Man (2005) Patton (1970) Raging Bull (1980) Zorba the Greek (1964)

Memento (2001) The New World (2005) Pulp Fiction (1994) Raising Arizona (1987) The Saddest Music in the World (2004) 3 Women (1977)

Lord of the Flies (1963) Nine Lives (2005) Requiem for a Dream (2000) Shane (1953)

On the Waterfront (1954) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Rent (2005) Schindler’s List (1993)



Complexity of Human Relationships

In HeIr Shoes (2005) The Hours (2002) Junebug (2005) Magnolia (1999) Midnight Cowboy (1969) Terms of Endearment (1983)

Coming of Age/Growing Awareness

About a Boy (2002) Almost Famous (2000) Bee Season (2005) Billy Elliot (2000) Empi1re of the Sun (1987) Finding Nemo (2003) Hearts in Atlantis (2001)

Moral or Philosophical Riddle

Being John Matkovich (1999) Blue Velvet (1986) Fight Club (1999) Northfork (2003)

Focus on Social Problems

Bully (2001) Dead Man Walking (1995) Falling Down (1993) Far From Heaven (2002) Mississippi Burning (1988)

Three Colors: Blue (1993), White (1993), Red (1994)

The War of the Roses (1989) When Harry Met Sally . . . (1989) The World According to Ga1p (1982)

A Little Princess (1995) Sixteen Candles (1984) Summer 01’42 (1971) To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Winter Solstice (2005) Y Tit Mama Tambien (2001)

Run, Lola, Run (1998) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Waking Life (2001)

Natural Born Killers (1994) Norma Rae (1979) The Rainmakelr (1997) Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996)

Thematic Elements 39





Film has properties that set it apart from painting, sculpture, novels, and plays. It is also, in its most popular and powerful form, a storytelling medium that shares many elements with the short story and the novel. And because film presents its stories in dramatic form, it has even more in common with the stage play: Both plays and movies act out or dramatize, show rather than tell, what happens.

Unlike the novel, short story, or play, however, film is not handy to study; it cannot be effectively frozen on the printed page. The novel and short story are relatively easy to study because they are written to be read. The stage play is slightly more difficult to study because it is written to be performed. But plays are printed, and because they rely heavily on the spoken word, imaginative readers can conjure up at least a pale imitation of the experience they might have watching a performance on stage. This cannot be said of the screenplay, for a film depends greatly on visual and other nonverbal elements that are not easily expressed in writing. The screenplay requires so much filling in by our imagination that we cannot really approximate the experience of a film by read­ ing a screenplay, and reading a screenplay is worthwhile only if we have already seen the film. Thus, most screenplays are published not to be read but rather to be remembered.

Still, film should not be ignored because studying it requires extra effort. And the fact that we do not generally read films does not mean we should ignore the principles of literary or dramatic analysis when we see a film. Literature and films do share and communicate many elements in similar ways. Perceptive film analysis rests on the principles used in literary analysis. Therefore, before we turn to the unique elements of film, we need to look into the elements that film shares with any good story.

Dividing film into its various elements for analysis is a somewhat artificial process, for the elements of any art form never exist in isolation. It is impos­ sible, for example, to isolate plot from character: Events influence people, and people influence events; the two are always closely interwoven in any fictional, dramatic, or cinematic work. Nevertheless, the analytical method uses such a fragmenting technique for ease and convenience. But it does so with the as­ sumption that we can study these elements in isolation without losing sight of their interdependence or their relationship to the whole.


What makes a good story? Any answer to this question is bound to be subjec­ tive; however, some general observations might be made that will apply to a large variety of film narratives.

Fictional and Dramatic Elements 41




A Good Story I s U nified in Plot

The structured film is one that has some broad underlying purpose or is unified around a central theme.

‘ Regardless of the nature of its theme-whether its

focus is on plot, emotional effect, character, style or texture or structure, or idea-the fictional film generally has a plot or storyline that contributes to the development of that theme. Therefore, the plot and the events, conflicts, and characters that constitute it must be carefully selected and arranged so that their relationship to the theme is clear.

A unified plot focuses on a single thread of continuous action, where one event leads to another naturally and logically. Usually a strong cause-and-effect relationship exists between these events, and the outcome is made to seem, if not inevitable, at least probable. In a tightly unified plot, nothing can be transposed or removed without significantly affecting or altering the whole. Thus, every event grows naturally out of the plot, and the conflict must be resolved by ele­ ments or agents present in the plot itself. A unified plot does not introduce out of thin air some kind of chance, coincidental, or miraculous happening, or some powerful superhuman force that swoops down out of nowhere to save the day.

Although plot unity is a general requirement, exceptions do exist. In a film whose focus is the clear delineation of a unique character, unity of action and cause-and-effect relationships between events are not so important. In fact, such plots may be episodic (that is, composed of events that bear no direct rela­ tionship to each other), for the unity in such films emerges from tlle contribu­ tion each event makes to our understanding of the character being developed, rather than from the interrelationships of the events.

A Good Story I s Credible

To become fully involved in a story, we must usually be convinced that it could be true. A filmmaker can create the illusion of truth in a variety of ways.

1. Externally Observable Truths: The way things really are. The most obvious and common kind of truth in a film story is the approximation of life as it is. To borrow Aristotle’s phrase, these are stories that “might occur and have the capability of occurring in accordance with the laws of probability or necessity.” This kind of truth is based on overwhelming evidence in the world around us, so it may not always be a pleasant truth. Human beings are flawed creatures. Married couples don’t always live happily ever after, and tragic accidents, serious illnesses, and great mis­ fortunes often befall people who don’t seem to deserve them. But we accept such truths because they conform to our own experience of the way life is (Figure 3.1).

2 . Internal Truths of Human Nature: The way things are supposed to be. Another set of truths seems true because we want or need to believe



FIGURE 3.1 The Way Things Really Are The Last Picture Show (top left), Driving Miss

Daisy (top r ight), and Rain Man (bottom) are credible because they conform to what we

perceive as real-life experiences.

Fictional and Dramatic Elements 43




FIGURE 3.2 The Way Things Are Supposed to Be Movies such as Mr: Smith Goes

to Washington (left) and Millions (right) present credible images of the world as we m ight

like it to be.

in them. Some of the greatest film classics do not even pretend to repre­ sent the actualities of real life; instead, they offer a fairy-tale or happily­ ever-after ending. The good guy always wins, and true love conquers all. But in a very special way, these stories are also believable, or at least can be made to seem so, because they contain what might be called internal truths-beliefs in things that are not really observable but that seem true to us because we want or need them to be. Indeed, the concept of poetic justice (the idea that virtue will be rewarded and evil punished) serves as an example of such an internal truth. We seldom question poetic justice in a story simply because it is the way things are supposed to be. Thus many film stories are convincing because they conform to an inner truth and satisfy a human need to believe. Of course, such truths can ring false to those who do not want or need to believe them (Figure 3.2).

3. Artistic Semblance of Truth: The way things never were and never will be. Filmmakers are also capable of creating a special kind of truth. With their artistry, technical skills, and special effects, they can create an imaginary world on the screen that, for the duration of the film, seems to­ tally believable. In such films, truth depends on the early and thoroughly convincing establishment of a strange or fantastic environment, sense of another time, or unusual characters, so that we are caught up in the film’s overall spirit, mood, and atmosphere. If the filmmaker is skillful at creat­ ing this semblance of truth, we willingly agree to suspend our disbelief (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge observed), and we leave our skepticism and our rational faculties behind as we enter the film’s imaginary world. If the fic­ tional reality is successfully established, we may think to ourselves, “Yes, in such a situation almost anything can happen.” By communicating this per-



FIGURE 3.3 The Way Things Never Were and

Never Will Be By using their special brand of

a rtistry, fil mmakers can create on the screen an imagi­

nary world that makes us wi l l ingly accept incredible

settings, characters, and events in such films as

Edward Scissorhands (top l eft). The Matrix (top right).

War of the Worlds (bottom right), and Men in Black

(bottom left).

vasive and real sense of an unusual situation or environment, filmmakers in effect create a new set of ground rules by which we judge reality (Fig­ ure 3.3). And for the brief period of two hours or so, we can believe thor­ oughly in the truth of Rosemary’s Baby, The Day the Earth Stood Still, King Kong, The Lord of the Rings, The WiZa1’d of Oz, or E. T The Extra-Terrestrial.

Fictional and Dramatic Elements 45




Thus the plausibility of a story depends on at least three separate fac­ tors: (1) the objective, external, and observable laws of probability and necessity; (2) the subjective, irrational, and emotional inner truths of human nature; and (3) the semblance of truth created by the filmmaker’s convincing art. Although all these kinds of truths may be present in the same film, usually one kind of truth is central to the film’s overall structure. The other truths may contribute but play supporting roles.

A Good Story Is I nteresting

An important requirement of a good story is that it capture and hold our inter­ est. A story can be interesting in many ways, and few if any stories have equal appeal to all filmgoers, for whether a story is interesting or boring is, to a great extent, a subjective matter. Some of us may be interested only in fast-paced action/adventure films. Others may be bored by anything without a romantic love interest at its center. Still others may be indifferent to any story that lacks deep philosophical significance.

But regardless of what we expect from a motion picture-whether it be the relaxation gained from being entertained or a clue to understanding the universe-we never go to the movies to be bored. Our tolerance for boredom seems very limited: A film may shock us, frustrate us, puzzle us, or even offend us, but it must never bore us. Thus, we fully expect the filmmaker to heighten the film’s reality by doing away with irrelevant and distracting details. Why should we pay to watch the dull, the monotonous, or the routine when life pro­ vides them absolutely free of charge?

Even the Italian neorealist directors, who stress everyday reality in their films and deny the validity of invented stories, argue that their particular brand of everyday reality is not boring because of its complex echoes and implica­ tions. As Cesare Zavattini puts it, “Give us whatever ‘fact’ you like, and we will disembowel it, make it something worth watching.”l To most of us, the expres­ sions “worth watching” and “interesting” are synonymous.

Suspense To capture and maintain our interest, the filmmaker employs a multitude of devices and techniques, most of which are in some way related to suspense. These elements heighten our interest by exciting our curiosity, usu­ ally by foreshadowing or hinting at the outcome. By withholding bits of infor­ mation that would answer the dramatic questions raised by the story, and by floating some illlanswered question just beyond our reach, the filmmaker pro­ vides a motive to keep us constantly moving with tlle story’s flow (Figure 3.4).

Action If a story is to be interesting, it must contain some elements of action. Stories are never static; some sort of action or change is essential if a story is to



FIGURE 3.4 Suspense In Witness the

solution to a brutal m u rder is locked in the

m ind of an Am ish boy (Lukas Haas), who

witnessed the crime. Suspense builds

steadily throughout the fi l m as a police­

man (Harrison Ford) tries to protect him

from corrupt law enforcement agents.

be worth telling. Action, of course, is not limited to physical activities such as fights, chases, duels, and great battles. It may be internal, psychological, or emotional. In films such as Star T¥tm and The Last of the Mohicans, tlle action is external and physical (Figure 3.5); in The Remains of the Day and In the Mood for Love, the action occurs within the minds and the emotions of tlle characters (Figure 3.6). Both sorts of films have movement and change. The interest cre­ ated by the exciting action in The Road Wtl1�rior is obvious and needs no expla­ nation. But the action within a human being is not so obvious. Nothing very extraordinary happens in The Remains of the Day, but what takes place in the hearts and minds of its characters is extremely interesting and exciting.

Internal action stories require more concentration from the viewer, and they are more difficult to treat cinematically. But they are worthwhile subjects for film and can be as interesting and exciting as films that stress external and physical action.

Fictional and Dramatic Elements 47




FIGURE 3.5 External Action The exciting action in The Last of the Mohicans g ives us

l ittle time for reflection. We are kept on the edge of our cha i rs throughout and, by fi l m ‘s

end, are totally exhausted by the constant, fast-paced tension.

A Good Story Is Both Simple and Com plex

A good film story must be simple enough so that it can be expressed and unified cinematically. Edgar Allan Poe’s idea that a short story should be capable of being read in a single sitting applies to film. Experiencing a film is less tiring than reading a book, and the single sitting for a film may be a maximum of, say, two hours. Beyond that time limit, only the greatest films keep us from becom­ ing restless or inattentive. Thus the story’s action or theme must usually be compressed into a unified dramatic structure that requires about two hours to



FIGURE 3.6 Internal Action

Although d i rector Wong Ka r-Wai’s

elegant In the Mood for Love con­

tains l ittle physical action, what is

happening in the minds and hea rts

of the characters played by Tony

Leung and Maggie Cheung is

extremely vibrant and excit ing.

unfold. In most cases, a limited, simple theme, such as that in 8 Mile, which fo­ cuses on a small part of one person’s life, is better suited for the cinema than is a story that spans the ages in search of a timeless theme, as D. W Griffith at­ tempted in Intolerance. Generally, a story should be simple enough to be told in the time period allotted for its telling.

However, within these limits, a good story must also have some complexity, at least enough to sustain our interest. And although a good story may hint at the eventual outcome, it must also provide some surprises or at least be subtle enough to prevent tl1e viewer from predicting the outcome after tl1e first hour. Thus, a good story usually withholds something about its conclusion or signif­ icance until tl1e very end.

But new elements introduced into tl1e plot at the very end may make us question the legitimacy of the surprise ending, especially if such elements bring about an almost miraculous conclusion or make too much use of coincidence or chance. A surprise ending can be powerful and legitimate when the plot pre­ pares us for it, even when tl1e plot elements and the chain of cause and ef­ fect leading up to the ending escape our conscious attention (as in The Sixth Sense). The important thing is that the viewer never feel hoodwinked, fooled, or cheated by a surprise ending. The viewer should gain insight by means of the ending. Such insight occurs only when the surprise ending carries out

Fictional and Dramatic Elements 49




FIGURE 3.7 Complexity The levels of confusion created by the constant jumping back

and forth between i llusion and reality in The Stunt Man may stimulate some viewers but

may be too complex to provide the relaxing enterta inment expected by others.

tendencies established earlier in the story. A good plot is complex enough to keep us in doubt but simple enough so that the seeds of the outcome can all be found.

A filmmaker’s communication techniques must also be a satisfying blend of simplicity and complexity. Filmmakers must communicate some things simply, clearly, and directly, so that they are clear to all viewers. But to challenge the minds and eyes of the most perceptive viewers, they must also communicate through implication and suggestion, leaving some things open to interpretation. Some viewers are bored by films that are too complex, that make too much use of implication or suggestion. Other viewers-those who prefer an intellectual challenge-are not interested in films tlut are too direct and simple. Thus, a filmmaker must please both those who do not appreciate films they cannot eas­ ily understand and those who reject films they understand all too easily.

Filmgoers’ views of life also influence their attitudes toward a film’s com­ plexity or simplicity. Those who see life itself as complex and ambiguous are likely to demand that kind of complexity and ambiguity in the films they see



FIGURE 3.8 Simplicity The non-stop action sequences in Daredevil may enterta in

viewers looking for escapist enterta inment but bore others who demand more depth and


(Figure 3.7). Such viewers may reject an escapist film because it falsifies the na­ ture of existence by making it seem too easy, too neat, too pat. Other viewers may reject the complex view of life presented in realistic or naturalistic films for the opposite reason-because the film is too full of ambiguities, too complex, or because it does not conform to the inner subjective truth of life-life as they would like it to be (Figure 3.8).

A Good Story Handles Emotional Material With Restraint

A strong emotional element or effect is present in almost any story, and film is capable of manipulating our emotions. But this manipulation must be honest and appropriate to the story. Usually we reject as sentimental films that overuse emotional material. Such films might even make us laugh when we’re supposed to cry. So a filmmaker must exercise restraint.

Reactions to emotional material depend on the individual viewer. One viewer may consider the film The Bridges of Madison County a beautifully touch­ ing and poignant experience, whereas another scoffs and calls it “sentimental trash. ” The difference often lies in the viewers themselves. The first viewer probably responded fully to the film, allowing himself to be manipulated by its emotional effects without considering the filmmaker dishonest. The second

Fictional and Dramatic Elements 51




FIGURE 3.9 Emotional Re­

straint Simple dia logue cre­

ates e loquent understatement

d uring crucial d ramatic scenes

in To Kill a Mockingbird.

viewer probably felt that the film unfairly attempted to manipulate her emo­ tions, and she responded by rejecting it.

When the emotional material in a film is understated, there is little danger of offending. In understatement the filmmaker downplays the emotional mate­ rial, giving it less emphasis than the situation would seem to call for. In To Kill a Mockingbird (Figure 3.9), Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) uses a simple phrase to thank the boogeyman, Arthur “Boo ” Radley (Robert Duvall), for saving the lives of Scout and J em: “Thank you, Arthur . . . for my children. ” The effect of understatement is demonstrated by the tremendous emotional weight carried by the simple phrase “thank you,” which we often use for the most trivial fa­ vors. The normally insignificant phrase takes on great significance, and we are moved by what is not said. The voice-over narration from the same film offers another example of understatement:

Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good luck pennies, and our lives.

A wide variety of elements and techniques influence our emotional re­ sponse to a film. Both understatement and the overuse of emotional material



are reflected in the way the plot is structured, in the dialogue and the acting, and in the visual effects. Elements of a film’s visual environment or setting (dis­ cussed at length in Chapter 4), and its creation of atmosphere, can also appeal to the viewer’s senses and affect his or her emotional reaction. But a filmmaker’s approach to presenting emotional material is perhaps most evident in the musical score, which can communicate on a purely emotional level and thus reflects the peaks and valleys of emotional emphasis and understatement (see Chapter 9).


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