How to Read a Movie – Chapter 1

Movies have become the most popular form of modern art and are easily accessible to everyone, whether at the cinema, on dvd, on line, or on TV. Their enormous audience make them hugely influential on the way people think about topics and issues in the real world, whether we realise it or not. Movie makers use a number of techniques to draw their audience into their story, known as cinematic language.

Is it a film, movie or cinema?

Movies are generally thought of as pure entertainment for the general public; films are considered more serious; cinema is more serious still, for films thought of as works of art, such as ‘French cinema’.

The vast majority of all movies are narrative; ie they tell a story. This could be a fictional story or a documentary. This is part of their appeal to the general public, as we live in a culture with a tradition of storytelling. However, the style of storytelling will vary across different cultures, for example films made in Iran often have no clear ending, allowing their audience to develop their own endings, and in Indian Bollywood films characters often break from the action of the film to address their audience directly, bringing them out of the ‘reality’ of the story.

The development of modern technology has made film making much more accessible, with good quality affordable digital technology available to independent film makers working on a small budget with very small crews, who have many more outlets for their work than the traditional cinema, including film festivals, cable TV and YouTube.

What makes a Movie?

The most striking difference between a movie and other art forms, such as painting, photography and drawing, is that they are ‘moving pictures’. A film will be shot using a number of the rules developed in other art forms, such as use of light and composition of a subject within a frame, but the shots taken are then watched in quick succession (normally 24 images per second) making them ‘moving pictures’. As the films are made up of individual shots, these shots can be put together in various sequences, so that the director can decide exactly what his audience sees and when (editing). This is in sharp contrast to a theatrical performance, when the audience has one view of the action and cannot be ‘zoomed in’ to watch a particular element in close-up to suit the director. In a movie, this edited sequence of shots can also include cutting to events in the past to assist the storytelling.

Ways of looking at Movies

Aim: to analyse the movie, ie to break down the movie or part of the movie into its individual elements/techniques and understand how these elements work together to produce the desired effect, such as laughter.

Invisibility & Cinematic Language

Movies were originally made to be watched by an audience in a cinema. (Now we can watch them on DVD and us the pause button.) This meant the movie was seen as one long continuous sequence with no chance to pause the action to study or think about a particular element, unlike when reading a book, when the reader can determine how fast to read the story and can go back over any passages to consider them further. This means the audience is constantly being shown images, each full of information, to lead them through the story with no chance for analysis of specific elements. Early film makers realised an audience automatically identifies with the camera’s viewpoint and, by considering ways we automatically interpret information in our daily lives, they developed a film grammar (or cinematic language) of techniques to help the audience interpret certain elements of a story without even realising:-

fade-out/fade-in : this signals the passing of time, as in the sun setting, leading to darkness, and then rising to signify a new day. In this technique, the screen ‘fades out’ to black at the end of one scene, very briefly, before ‘fading in’ to the next scene – the audience subconsciously accepts this as the passing of time, as in their real lives.

low-angle shot : in our real lives we look up to someone who is more important or powerful, or perhaps physically higher such as on a stage or speaking on a podium . This suggests power. When a character in a film is shot from a low-angle, the viewer subconsciously interprets this as them having power, good or bad.

cutting on action : this editing technique helps smooth the change from one camera shot to the next as the action on screen continues. In a scene the shot will often switch to one further on in a continuing action, such as a fight, so that in the viewer’s mind the action has just continued as one continuous action. This technique relies on continuity of makeup, lighting, clothing, hairstyle, etc, as the different shots can be taken quite some time apart.

Not all films use these invisible techniques, such as the work by the pioneering Soviet film maker Eisenstein and by those inspired by him to produce ‘experimental’ work, who thought that every edit should be clearly seen. However, invisibility is generally the norm.

Cultural Invisibility

As a society we have many cultural beliefs and ideals that we take for granted and perhaps aren’t even aware of, such as the importance of family and caring for others, and if a film is to be commercially successful it will usually tap into these beliefs/desires, as it wants to entertain its audience. Even a supposedly ‘provocative’ film may subconsciously appeal to an audience if it can trigger an emotional reaction to a deeply held preconception or desire. As directors etc have usually been raised in the same cultural environment as their audience, on occasions they may themselves not realise how society conventions are affecting their films.

An example of this Cultural Invisibility is Juno (2007) where the film is outwardly about a rebellious teenager who becomes pregnant, initially decides to have an abortion, but then decides to give her baby up for adoption to an unconventional couple, which would appear to be against our cultural norms; but Juno herself also appeals to our love of individuality, which has often been portrayed in films by rogue heroes such as Dirty Harry. Juno also ultimately is looking to provide her child with a traditional family, also appealing to our culture.

Implicit and Explicit Meaning

A movie will have many layers of meaning; some explicit, some implicit. An implicit meaning is something which lies below the surface of the movie and the viewer infers from the explicit meaning, which will be on the surface of the movie. These meanings can be from the whole of the movie or just individual scenes, such as Juno applying lipstick in a scene being explicit (a fact) but it implying she is getting keen on Mark (an inference) which is implicit. These meanings occur in most movie scenes.

Explicit meaning : the plot of the film and what actually happens in the film. Eg in Juno how a promiscuous 16 year old becomes pregnant, decides to have an abortion, can’t go through with it and decides to give her child up for adoption. Her parents support her through the pregnancy and she finds a couple to adopt the child. The film tells the story of how her pregnancy affects these people and how Juno deals with it.

Implicit meaning : this is more of our usual understanding of ‘meaning’. It is what the movie is ‘trying to say’, which is how the viewer interprets the film and what they infer from it. It is therefore more arguable than the explicit meaning, as it is someone’s personal interpretation. Eg in Juno, a 16 year old finds herself having to make adult choices, but discovers that an adult’s world is no clearer or less complicated than that of a teenager.

Explicit meaning is therefore easier to identify than implicit, but it will not always be obvious. The viewer needs to be aware that some explicit meaning will be dependent on and linked to other scenes. Eg Juno denies (dishonestly) vomiting into one of her stepmother’s urns, which is linked to a later scene when she throws a blue slushy into the same urn; the viewer needs to link these two scenes to analyse the explicit meaning properly.

Viewer Expectations

When someone chooses a film to watch they will have at least some expectations of what they are going to see, whether from word of mouth, reviews, or promotion for the film, such as the genre (eg a comedy or a tragedy), whether there will be special effects, how good the film will be. They will also expect it to be made to a standardised format, telling a story, with continuity between scenes and using cinematic language, with a main character in search of certain goals, which will happily be achieved after some misadventures along the way. How these expectations are met will be reflected in an analysis of a film, such as whether the film deviated from the normally expected format to perhaps mislead the viewer.

A viewer’s expectations may also be affected by seeing an actor in previous roles and the type of character he usually plays, or by previous work by the same director. Eg Michael Cera had previously appeared as an endearingly awkward teenager in Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007) and Arrested Development (TV series, 2003-2006) before he was Juno’s almost boyfriend, and his fans would already have a preconceived idea of his character as likeable before he appeared in this film, affecting how they viewed this new character, Paulie Bleeker.

Formal Analysis – analysing a film according to the film form, which is ways in which film is expressed

This analysis breaks down the complex make up of the film, such as cinematography, sound, composition, design, movement, performance and editing, to understand the meaning of the film; ranging from something as simple as the film’s setting, to the mood or tone of a scene (implied meaning). Every element of a scene is put there by the film maker for a reason and once the viewer has analysed the narrative purpose of the scene, then they can analyse the formal elements being used to convey the intended meaning.

Looking at the film Juno:-

First two shots in film (screenshots from film) – 12 seconds:-
Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 10.02.01 Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 10.02.14

– The first shot sets the scene; middle class suburbia at dawn.
– Once the viewer understands the protagonist (film’s leading character) is trying to decide what to do about an unwanted pregnancy, he can analyse how this is portrayed by the scene – Juno is tiny to the left of the first shot, closing in to make her larger, but still small in the shot, when she is staring at the chair – this conveys her vulnerability.
– Theme (or motif) introduced – the empty chair, ‘It all started with a chair’ – represents Juno’s empty and abandoned emotional state; where she became pregnant; at the end ‘It ended with a chair’ – when the motif has become a mother’s rocking chair, shadowing Juno’s own life’s transformation full of hope for the future.

Juno’s visit to the Women Now clinic:-
– Up to this point the viewer believes Juno will abort the baby.
– She appears to be unaffected by Su-Chin’s pro-life views and treats the info that a fetus has fingernails as an interesting fact, but irrelevant to her.
– In the next 13 shots and just 30 seconds on screen Juno changes her mind, which changes the nature of the story – this can be formally analysed to consider the forms used to portray this – sound, moving camera, composition and editing – and how these forms are used to portray that the idea of the fingernails has infiltrated Juno’s thoughts and changed her decision.
– Sound is used to show Juno’s emotional state as she hears all the various nail sounds; a mother drumming on her clipboard; a woman picking her thumbnail; someone applying nail polish; a man scratching his arm. The sound level is abnormally high to Juno to show how she is being affected.
Below are some screenshots from the film showing some of the noises Juno was hearing.
Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 10.06.57 Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 10.07.08 Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 10.07.20 Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 10.07.30 Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 10.07.40 Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 10.07.52

– Camera – the camera zooms in and out to portray her emotions – it zooms into her face to show her emotional thoughts. Initially there are shots of Juno in between each shot of a nail sound, but to intensify the effect of the noises they then become rapid shots of fingernails only, each one adding another noise and at a louder level to signify the intensity of the sound getting to Juno.
– Editing is used to establish a pattern of a sequence of shots, and this can be broken to give dramatic impact, as here. At first the camera returns to Juno after each fingernail shot to show her reaction, but ends with a rapid succession of just fingernail shots, becoming shorter and louder. The sequence is then again broken, in that at first the camera returned to Juno to show her reaction to the noise, but after the last sound it shows her staring ahead, deep in thought, hearing the loud sound of all the nail movements. The camera gradually dollies in to her, for a longer time than in the earlier shots in the scene, building up to the climax; film audiences are used to this suggesting a character is coming to a decision.
– The film is then edited to show Su-Chin in the car park and then Juno rushing past her. This editing has left out the scene when Juno rushed out of the waiting room and has moved ahead in time – this reflects Juno’s own instability. Cinematic language has explained how Juno has come to the decision to keep her baby without any actual words being spoken. Below is a screenshot from the film:
Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 10.10.45

Alternative approaches to analysis

There are a number of other ways to analyse a film apart from its form, such as how it affects and is affected by the culture and social norms of the time; this would be from implicit meaning.

Using Juno as an example film, ways to analyse the film could include looking at class (comparing the depiction of Juno’s family and the richer adoptive parents); from a feminist viewpoint (the way the three fathers are depicted, the treatment of women and childbirth; the fact that the story is written by an ex stripper and sex blogger, Diablo Cody); a linguistic analysis (the language used by Juno & her friends; the implicit meaning of the T-shirt slogans used); society’s view of illegitimate pregnancy (comparing Juno with other films looking at the same subject produced in different decades, or by women vs men). a cultural analysis (American vs European views). Analysis could also be done comparing a director’s works, such as what political views he is putting forward or the structure of his films.

Cultural views could be analysed in Juno by considering the way it promotes an anti-abortion message: the clinic is in a visually depressing area and the clinic’s only employee is negatively portrayed – cynical with multiple piercings; the pro-life demonstrator outside has a positive message with good arguments. However, Juno could also be seen as pro-choice: the campaigner Su-Chin has poor linguistic skills, is wrapped in pink almost like a child, and has a poorly constructed home-made sign, overall not a very positive image. It could be argued that the film was aiming to appeal to an audience supporting either side of the argument, or equally that it was more concerned with its storyline that there are no easy choices.

BARSAM, R., 2006. Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film (3rd ed). New York: W. W. Norton & Co;

Juno, 2007. Directed by Jason Reitman. USA: Fox Searchlight Pictures


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s