Gone to the Cinema? How to Become a Film Buff Bluffer September 26 2014

So what did you think of the film?  How many times have we heard those words when emerging from the darkened cinema into daylight to find we have nothing enlightening to say.  We may have been thrilled, bored or challenged for the past two hours, yet lack the words to vocalise how we feel.  On average we watch our favourite films a staggering 29 times.  We must know every line, every scene and experienced the emotional rollercoaster but actually how much have we understood what has happened on the silver screen?  For all those bumbling film buffs who can’t find the words to say what they love or hate, here are some tips and terms to improve your appreciation.

  1. Can you compare the narrative to a fairytale?  According to Vladimir Propp’s linguistic theory, most films follow the fairy tale narrative - i.e. innocent victim who needs rescuing by a hero from someone’s villainy until it all ends happily ever after.  The characters fit the fairy tale stereotypes and the ending is inevitable but we enjoy being smug about guessing it anyway.  Early Hollywood films are often like this whereas films from the late 1950s  onwards particularly with the rise of European cinema and the French New Wave distorted this structure and sometimes did the exact opposite: there is no definitive ending, the narrative does not follow cause and effect but may have flashbacks or forwards; no key protagonist or distinction between good and evil; a focus on a character’s interior life rather than what he/she does.  A conventional film narrative means you do not have to think much but just enjoy the formulaic nature of the film; whereas an alternative narrative makes you work harder to understand the film and to try to draw meaning from it  - which may ultimately prove elusive.  
  2. Is the ending open or closed?  A closed ending is where all the problems in the film have been resolved  to produce this ‘happy ever after’ ending.  An open ending does not answer all the questions set by the narrative and can sometimes raise further ones.  Which one do you feel most satisfied by?  Which one is  closest to reality?
  3. How did the music work?  If the music goes with the emotional flow of the sequence it is known as redundant or parallel; for example sombre violins at a moment of tragedy.  If the music challenges the emotions you see on screen it is called contrapuntal.  Tarrentino is renown for using comedic music for moments of considerable violence which can sometimes make it more unnerving.  Music that comes from within the scene such as a record player you can see in the background is called diegetic sound i.e. from within the narrative.  Music that the characters on screen do not see or hear but is used to enhance your interpretation of a scene is called non-diegetic - outside of the narrative.  Finally, have you noticed how sound often acts to bridge scenes by starting just a fraction before you see the visuals?
  4. What is the ideology of a film?  The ideology is a set of beliefs and values promoted by the film - a world view.  Do you agree with the message the film is promoting?  A conventional fairy tale narrative often promotes the ideology that love conquers all and meeting Mr Right will lead to ‘happily ever after’.  A more alternative narrative which distances you from the film by not having stereotypical characters, music that is contrapuntal, a disjointed, non-linear narrative and open endings can cause alienation.  If you are alienated from the film, you are distanced from it not identifying with its characters or ideas.  This type of film is often designed to get you to question the ideology behind the film.
  5. Which character did you identify with and should you?  We are often encouraged to identify with a particular character fairly early on in the film.  We will often empathise with them in an embarrassing moment, feel sympathy if struck by an unhappy event or admire an act of bravado or selflessness.  Directors can sometimes make you unwittingly identify with someone who you should find morally repugnant after a potentially admirable character voices or does despicable things; for example Scorcese’s portrayal of Jordan Belfort  in The Wolf of Wall Street was criticised for encouraging us to identify with him - but wasn’t the whole point that we should have been thinking for ourselves and not being led by a charismatic conman?
  6. How was the setting portrayed?  We refer to what you can visually see in a shot as the mise en scène. This includes the set design, the colours, the costumes that characters wear and so on.  This can become very important in a detective film where you are looking for clues to solve a murder.  The key to understanding Citizen Kane is to be alert to mise en scène. earlier in the film.  Lighting can set the mood for a scene.  The low lighting in film noir creates an element of menace with long shadows and stark contrasts between light and darkness with a shadowy lit femme fatale usually portrayed in silhouette at some point.  
  7. Did the camera shots and editing contribute to your appreciation of the film? There is a grammar to film which usually starts with a long shot which gives you as large a view of the setting as possible with often the camera panning across to widen this.  Eventually this may zoom in to a close-up to focus on a particular location, event or person and may even turn into a point of view shot where you see what the character does.  Continuity editing is where the editing appears invisible as the film flows grammatically from shot to shot; for example characters remain on the same side of the screen during a conversation or there is an eye-line match between them. If there is music, the change of shot - cut - may occur on the change of tempo or beat of the music. Non-continuity editing occurs when, for example, there is a jump cut from one close-up to another which does not match.  A montage of close-ups can appear disjointed and disturbing to watch which is excellent when portraying a chaotic fight scene or scary moment.  Early Soviet cinema used this technique to get viewers to question the ideology of the films they were watching.  
  8. Was there symbolism in the film?  Describing what you can see in the film is called the denotation. However if you take this a stage further to look for the ideological significance of something, this can deepen your understanding.  For example the connotations of the colour red are danger, stop, love and so on.  To make a meaningful understanding you would have to link the connotation to circumstances in which it is used; for example is it a love scene or a murder investigation?  Look at the colour of characters’ clothing and is this linked to a colour used elsewhere in the film? What objects you may see continually repeated and why?  Directors nowadays try to avoid stereotypical connotations which are linked to what we call binary oppositions; for example a villain may be blonde and dressed in white and the hero is unattractive and wearing dark clothing.
  9. What was the genre of the film?  Does it fit the formula you would expect of a musical, detective or horror story?  Is it an action adventure or a fairy tale romance?  Where does it vary from your expectations from these types of films?  Does it draw-on, pay tribute to (pastiche) or parody similar films?  Maybe it is a hybrid by bringing two different genres together? 

Finally, don't be late to the cinema.  The most important part of the film is often the beginning.  Directors use economic presentation to pack into the first few minutes huge amounts of information regarding the plot, what has happened before, indicators for future events, setting through the mise en scène, characterisation, themes and the genre. There is no better moment to get your head out of that bucket of popcorn and watch closely.

So when you next come out of the dark delights of the cinema and asked to shed light on what you think about a film, as well as telling others what your general reaction was, think about why you feel that way too.  Were you meant to like or hate it?  Did the director try to make you ponder its problems and question its ideology or just simply to  mindlessly, stuff your popcorn, sit-back and enjoy.  But above all, remember to leave our little ‘Gone to the Cinema’ sign for your friends and family so that they ask the question in the first place!  

See our sign in 'Fit & Fun' at: http://bit.ly/1nWg2Z7