Talking about movies

Watching movies: a few tips

March 10, 2010

At a recent dinner event for a retiring University of Michigan colleague, I was seated at a table with a number of professors from different academic backgrounds. In introducing ourselves, I mentioned my emeritus status as a professor of Screen Arts and Cultures and former public radio film critic. A woman who identified herself as a history professor got us all into a round robin discussion when she commented "I love movies, but when the film starts I just see the actors on the screen and hear the dialogue and the music. Without ever having a film class, how can one become a more discerning moviegoer?"

The comment prompted a response from an assistant professor who teaches Romance Language classes, some of which are courses in national cinema.

"That's a good question," he said. "In my cinema classes the students are not film oriented and I have to work hard to get them to discuss elements other than plot. I ask what about the editing, the structure, the director's visual styling?"

It was enlightening for me—after a half-century of studying and teaching about cinema—to hear a discussion about film brought back to an elemental level of inquiry: how does one begin to approach a motion picture in order to "see" the many elements that have been used to convey the story, its characters, and the narrative's thematic intentions?

When I began teaching my undergraduate Art of the Film class at Michigan in the late 1960s, film teaching on college campuses was just beginning to blossom, and we instructors had to be inventive. Our resource materials were primarily 16mm prints of historically important silent films that could be bought cheaply from a company called Blackhawk Films in Iowa or rented from a Chicago-based feature-film provider, Films Incorporated.

Learning from film history

My curriculum strategy in trying to open the students' eyes to the methods of cinematic expression involved at the onset the selection and viewing of short one-reelers made by the very earliest of filmmakers. The idea was to observe how, in its infancy, film evolved rather quickly from an approach best described as "canned drama"—where the filming involved little more than shooting the action as if it were on a proscenium stage, often with a single run of the camera.

I would contrast one of these "canned drama" examples with the narrative innovations of Edwin S. Porter, e.g. cross-cutting and parallel development in "The Great Train Robbery" (1903). Porter used these editing techniques to reveal two or more story lines that had occurred simultaneously.

Also we looked at Cecil Hepworth's discovery of screen direction continuity in "Rescued by Rover" (1907) where a series of shots of a dog running from screen right to screen left create the illusion of a lengthy journey.

Porter and Hepworth were experimenting with the way editing manipulations can create screen worlds that don't adhere to a rigid time/space continuum. We don't experience real life like a movie—jumping instantaneously through space and time—but we are so used to that sort of story-telling we forget how revolutionary those early editing experiments really were.

Film techniques to watch for

Cuts and edits

So one of the fundamental skills for figuring out how a film's techniques influence its content is to watch for edits. I used to ask students to mentally note when a cut—an edit—had occurred in the film's flow. What was the cut's purpose? To get closer to the action? To reveal an object or a detail that might not otherwise be noticed for its narrative importance? To shift the story to another location?

Then the students were asked to observe how the cutting affected the film's pacing. We would watch D.W. Griffith's one-reeler, "The Lonely Villa" (1909), a last-minute-rescue melodrama.

Near the film's end, Griffith intercut shots of decreasing length, which seemed to accelerate the film's climactic pace. The quick cutting imposed an "external" rhythm on the film's flow, and intensified the on-screen "internal" actions of the characters.

Camera angle

While observing the roles played by editing in the screen experience, we also studied how early filmmakers discovered the various roles camera placement—angles—had on image composition. The earliest filmmakers positioned the camera in a single wide-angle view of the scene. But in short time directors began to use side angle shots. These added depth and dimensionality by placing scenic elements into an oblique relationship with one another.

D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) employed low angle (uplooking) and high angle (downlooking) shots for varied screen perspectives. In one instance a low angle shot of charging horses appeared to have been taken from a hole dug in the ground's surface. For the final Civil War battle scenes at Petersburg, wide high angle shots were used to reveal a sprawling bird's-eye view of the battlefield.

Camera movement

Griffith was also a pioneer of camera movement. In closer views of the war action the camera was placed on a moving vehicle and "tracked" ahead of the Confederate troops as they made their final desperate charge against the Northern army.

Confederate cavalry attacking soldiers in a scene from Birth of a  Nation

A scene from D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation." Griffith's films were showcases of dynamic camera angles and movement. He shot from steep up- and downlooking angles and moved his cameras right along with the action in ways that had not been seen before.

By this time in our class, about three weeks into the term, the basics of film analysis were in place: editing and its effect on story development, structure and pace; camera position and its relationship to compositional aesthetics; camera movement and its potential for energizing the action.

Students often said they had even begun to notice the little starbursts that appeared in the right upper corner of the film frame, a cue to the projectionist for an upcoming reel change.

Even without the visual resources available in a film appreciation class, I think that the approach of viewing any film, from "It's a Wonderful Life" to "Up in the Air", and making mental notes each time a cut or change of camera angle occurs can help one to develop critical skills in the art of watching movies.

Why do so? Over time, this skill actually enhances and deepens the film experience. The old word for developing the ability to understand artistic technique was "appreciation"—as in, "art appreciation," "music appreciation" and, yes, movie appreciation. It's possible to enjoy movies without this knowledge, but once you have it, you can really savor the elements that make really great directors and their films so good.

Frank Beaver

Frank Beaver is a film historian and critic, and professor emeritus of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan.