Term Paper: Analyzing Movies

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¶ … film is a comprehensive work of art with visual, symbolic, auditory, and potentially political elements. Yet individual scenes can be deconstructed to reveal the role of the camera, its angles, and lighting on the overall impact of the movie. Directorial cues and cinematography therefore comprise the most basic means of analyzing a movie. A movie is, after all, a motion picture. Cinematography is a key element of film quality but the visual dimension of film is not limited to its cinematography. Directorial elements including setting, tone, and mood of a movie are also part of a comprehensive film analysis. The use of special effects and editorial prowess should also be viewed as part of the overall impact of a film. Beyond its visual dimensions, films depend on deft use of sound. Moreover, issues related to screenplay quality and dialogue must also be taken into consideration when analyzing a film. The casting and quality of acting also make a movie memorable. Casting and acting also play a role in how a film is marketed, which affects its social impact. While some films are unabashedly trivial, others aim for political or emotional punch. Film analysis takes into account the various manifestations of cinematography, sound, writing, and acting.

Francis Ford Coppola's the Godfather demonstrates how each of these individual elements can come together in a cinematic masterpiece. The setting and lighting imparts mood, just as deft use of camera angles and other directorial cues determine the impact of each scene of the film. Decades before the Godfather, director Orson Welles revealed the power of film to enable the chiaroscuro of the Dutch painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. Alfred Hitchcock's command of setting and cinematographic elements set the stage for future directors. Prototypical movies like the original German silent film Nosferatu are also emblematic of the visual power of movies. Cinematography is therefore the most basic of all analytical elements.

In Cinematography: Theory and Practice, Brown (2002) lists the most crucial elements of a film's visual language. What a director opts to focus on in each frame informs the viewer what to focus on as well. Thus, in a room full of people the camera will focus on one face to tell the audience who to pay attention to without losing sense of the context of the scene. Camera dynamics -- including dolly movement, craning, and aerial shots -- play a slightly different role than the lens. Whereas lens may literally tell a viewer where and how to focus on a scene or character, the camera dynamics have the power to change the pace and feel of the film. Action movies take advantage of the range of camera dynamics available due to technological advancements. Even slower suspense-oriented films like those directed by Alfred Hitchcock rely on panning and other dynamic elements.

Like camera dynamics, lighting and color effects are crucial to the mood of a movie. Lighting has the power to create the intense shadows such as those in Orson Wells's movie the Third Man or in Murnau's 1922 silent masterpiece Nosferatu. Color and lens filters add unique dynamics that no other cinematographic technique can provide. For example, the Coen Brothers used an unusual sepia tone in their 2000 production O Brother Where Art Thou? Modern filmmakers may opt for black-and-white film for effect, whereas filmmakers in the early days of the media had no choice. For filmmakers in the 1930s, lighting, exposure, and shadow spoke for themselves. Lighting can even be considered a means of storytelling in film noir (Brown 2002). When analyzing a movie, the quality of the techniques is far more important than their quantity or relative technological advancement. This is one of the reasons why a 1922 film like Nosferatu can be a better example of filmmaking than a 2010 vampire movie, in spite of the greater number of special effects possible in the latter.

Modern filmmakers have the ability to choose from any number of different visual elements that can influence the overall outcome of their movies. For example, a filmmaker can use high definition cameras or even 3D technology like in the 2009 James Cameron movie Avatar. Such elements can alter the visual imagery of the film but will not be able to compromise for a poorly-written script. Thus, cinematography is only one of many of the tools used to analyze and judge the quality of a film.

A film like Avatar can be visually stunning while lacking in emotional impact. Emotional impact is conveyed primarily by the strength of a screenplay. A good director can enhance an already well-written screenplay by incorporating cinematographic elements. A well-written screenplay can fall apart in the hands of the wrong director, but an excellent director can only do so much with a poorly written screenplay. Movies like the Godfather combine the full package of stunning cinematography with stellar screenwriting.

Analyzing a film depends on an appreciation for the screenplay as a whole, including but not limited to its dialogue. The quality of the screenplay as a whole determines the meaning, impact, and often even the marketability of a movie. Even the most aggressively marketed film will fizzle out in the long run, whereas classics like Casablanca continue to be purchased as parts of film libraries. Dialogue is only one aspect of a successful screenplay. While dialogue can propel some movies, others rely more on the writer's ability to communicate emotional intensity. For example, films like Mike Nichols's 1966 film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a screenplay based on a stageplay by Edward Albee. As such, the film is filled with incredible dialogue and even though it only takes place in one scene yields enormous emotionality. At the other end of the spectrum, surrealist cinema often relies solely on imagery to convey central themes. Surrealist cinema takes the meaning of "motion picture" quite literally, whereas dialogue-driven films focus more on the potential of cinema to mimic theater. In either case, film analysis demands a simple appreciation for the media as well as the message.

When media and message converge, as they do in truly great works of cinema, analysis becomes particularly enriching. For example, Bellour (2000) points out the nuances in Hitchcock's Dial M. For Murder. Bellour (2000) notes that Hitchcock embedded "M"-related symbols within the movie such as the name Margot, and the use of a close-up shot showing Margot's finger dialing the M. digit on the phone (p. 230). Master filmmakers like Hitchcock understood the power of cinema to combine sound, staging, lighting, script, and camerawork into a cohesive work of art. Symbols can be multilayered, which enables viewers to return to the same movie again and again without losing interest.

In Hitchcock's Psycho, for instance, Marion's murder is not the only event propelling the plot. The psychotic Norman Bates is the focal point of the film. Centering the attention on Bates, the viewer understands that Freudian neuroses related to his dead mother have been creating the tension all along. The viewer is forced to face uncomfortable feelings related to matricide as a result. Silence of the Lambs also forces viewers to grapple with the interface between intelligence and insanity. How a protagonist deals with difficult situations allows viewers to project their own desires onto the characters as they would in a great work of literature. Film analysis can focus almost exclusively on this literary dimension of film. Film analysis enables exploration of themes ranging from psychosis to romantic love.

When analyzing both media and message, it is important to understand what the director does with sound. Sound can contribute to the overall mood and meaning of a movie. For instance, in the 1981 film Das Boot, the filmmakers recreated the atmosphere inside of a submarine using sonar sounds like blips and bleeps. Instead of relying on music to create mood, the filmmakers allowed the stark silence to speak for itself. In other films, music plays a front-and-center role such as in Robert Zemeckis's 1994 film Forrest Gump in which the soundtrack includes classic rock hits. Similarly, Cameron Crowe's 2000 film Almost Famous and Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalype Now reveal the power of a solid soundtrack. Each of these films uses classic rock hits to enhance the screenplay and bring the film environment to life. Original scores are also an integral part of film analysis. Movie music can set the pace of a scene, increase the sense of suspense, and achieve many other thematic goals.

Film editing is also important to the overall impact of a movie. Especially in films like Babel and Traffic, editors work side by side with directors to establish the film's function. The quick cuts from scene to scene that characterize movies like Inarritu's 2006 film Babel depend on the deft skills of a visual editor, but sound editors are equally as important at piecing together the bits and pieces that form the full feature film. Likewise, the editing in Martin Scorsese's (1990) classic Goodfellas relies on editing to create… [END OF PREVIEW]

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