Dr. Yelizaveta Moss and Dr. Candice Wilson
Film Appreciation is dedicated to the remarkable faculty and students of the CMJ department at UNG. Thank you for inspiring us to take on this project.
It is a pleasure to acknowledge and thank those film professors and students who have reviewed the project and contributed to its content. Thank you to the faculty insert contributors Michael Lucker, Dr. Tobias Wilson-Bates, Alex Lukens, and Dr. Jeff Marker. Thank you to the students who contributed their essays as writing samples, Hope Gandy and Eric Azotea. And thank you to the students who piloted the textbook and provided feedback: Peyton Lee, Carly Martinez, Marissa Oda, Danna Sandoval, David Sutherland, and Elise Wilkins.
This textbook is an open educational resource developed with funding from an Affordable Learning Georgia Textbook Transformation Grant.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Table of Contents
- Film History
- Beyond Genre
- Writing Film Analysis
Introduction: What is Film?
Since the early 1900s, filmmakers and theorists have argued over the question of what differentiates film from the other arts of literature, painting, theater and photography. Film, also known as cinema, or movies, refers not just to moving images and the telling of stories, but also to the celluloid or film stock upon which these moving images were printed. For well over a century, film has profoundly impacted our world and the ways in which we perceive ourselves and others. However, we have also had an impact upon the medium. Surrounded as we are in society by a constant barrage of images from television, cell phone and computer screens to digital ad screens in subways, department stores and airports, moving images have become so ubiquitous that we fail to recognize how trained we already are in reading images. We often neglect to give these images the careful, critical consideration they require to develop an appreciation for their construction, and the different kinds of audiovisual experiences in which they invite us to participate.
Film celluloid is composed of frames, still images that together make up the entirety of a film. The practice of framing a subject or a shot within the ‘frame’ of the camera’s rectangular shaped viewfinder delimits and directs our vision. For instance, a camera can move to follow a young girl home from work late at night. This young girl can be positioned in different ways within the camera’s rectangular viewpoint to be ‘read’ in a framing of the shot. As we follow film history, we see the development of our cinematic sight from an objective stance where we are held at a distance from the screen, to a subjective one where we begin to perceive the emotions or aura of things. Today, cinema constantly moves between these two states of objective and subjective positioning of the spectator. But it also interacts with a third state—the invisible. Invisible processes, such as the story world off-screen or outside the camera frame, and the cultural, political, economic, technological and industrial events constantly occurring in the real world off-camera, influence both the content and the appearance of the films we watch and the ways in which we consume them. In this way, there is always an inside and outside the frame, what we can visibly see and hear, and what works outside of our vision on the image.
Imagine, for example, the aforementioned young girl who is walking home alone at night. She seems tired, but unworried as she hurries home. The camera keeps her clearly visible and to the front of the frame, but over her shoulder, in the background, an indistinct figure follows. Why are we concerned? What is behind her? A harmless passerby, a serial killer, a supernatural monster? The director deliberately prevents us from knowing for certain, which makes the figure looming behind the young girl more threatening. Positioning the girl in the foreground brings her closer to us, so that we try to understand what she is feeling, and begin to align ourselves with her perspective. While her face is in focus, naturally attracting our gaze, the blurred figure in the background takes on a more ominous cast, removed as it is from the familiar and the human.
Through the choices the director makes, we begin to shift from a purely objective view (the visible) where we watch a woman walk home, to a more subjective viewership where we begin to feel uneasy as we are emotionally influenced by subject positions and the structural elements that make up the film. Film physically moves us. When the hairs on our arms raise or we leap from our seats in fear, when our faces contort with anguish for a character, and our chests heave with a sudden intake of breath in shared shock over the death of a beloved character, we are emotionally moved by the communal experience of cinema. But, we also move cinema in turn by suspending our disbelief, and immersing ourselves fully into the wonderland of film sound and image. Even as clearly and carefully constructed as a film may be in its effort to critically direct its meaning and influence us emotionally, the film audience ultimately makes the leaps and connections in cinema driving the film forward. We bring our own experiences and understandings to the film, making cinema not just a communal experience but also an intensely personal one. What moves us may not move another.
For French philosopher Roland Barthes, one of the chief ways in which cinema separates itself from an art like photography, is in its ability to fully immerse audiences into the screen so that they forget they are watching a film (also called “suturing”), and to have the audience see themselves projected onto the screen, an ability that cinema depends upon. This cinematic world, one imagined by a director or character, can seem very familiar to us, entwined as we are within the screen and with the character. Cinema can embody us within the screen, where we adopt the vision and point of view of characters. Simultaneously, it can hold us at a distance allowing us to examine the social norms in which we participate and take for granted.
Roland Barthes speaks to the double nature of cinema, one that produces an ‘enthralled spectator’ and forms the basis for the promise of a shared community, a community where we all touch and are touched by images. This enthrallment by the moving image points to a darker aspect of cinema— its insidious ability to manipulate and encourage mass audiences to consume harmful images and ideologies. For example, The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915) and Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, 1935), both instant successes on their release, used the emotionally persuasive craft of cinema to bolster white nationalistic pride through heroic Christ-like representations of the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler respectively. Mainstream cinema, films geared towards wide release in theaters and marketed to wide audiences with the aim of attaining the greatest revenue, tends to adhere to a dominant system of belief that largely neglects stories told from marginalized perspectives and outside the Hollywood narrative system. In this way, even ‘light’ fare, like romantic comedies, Marvel superhero movies and Disney animations, can participate in producing narratives that privilege heterosexuality, monogamy and marriage as well as certain races, religions, ethnic groups, genders and their way of life over others. Think here, for instance, of how many films you have seen that feature a queer character at its center? Or a practicing Muslim character as its hero? What do they wear? In what language do they speak? What is typically represented as social reality in the mainstream cinema of your country?
We can think of film as constantly moving between dream and disruption. The dream machine of cinema allows the spectator to imagine that the intoxicating images on screen are true representations of reality. The destabilizing cinema, on the other hand, shakes the audience out of its stupor through violence and fear, stark documentations of reality or a self-aware camera that demands audience participation in its production of meaning. In Funny Games (Haneke, 1997) for instance, characters on screen constantly interrupt the action (breaking the fourth wall), and taunt the cinema audience, making the spectator complicit not just in the torture of the family on screen, but so too in the mass production of these grisly images. The audience is made to feel uncomfortable in their casual pleasure taking in such violent images. The cinema spectator thus always walks a tightrope between pleasurable absorption in the image and distrust of the image. By learning to appreciate film, we not only gain new insight, but also a new ability to perceive and challenge representations of the world. Peering through the frame of the camera, we see our own selves through the eyes of others across the globe.
Features of the Textbook
Online video links will be embedded in chapters.
Bolded terms in chapters are summarized in peach boxes at the section's end and in the glossary at the back.
Celluloid: A malleable thermoplastic. Used in cinema as photographic film stock. Frames: Still images that make up celluloid film.
Objective filmmaking: Distances the audience from the story's action and the characters's experience.
Subjective filmmaking: Involves the audience in the story action and character experience.
Suturing: A film theory term that describes the process of immersion, whereby the audience is "stitched" into the film by becoming emotionally invested.
Fourth wall: The screen through which the audience watches film. "Breaking the fourth wall" makes it appear as though characters are addressing the audience directly.