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Prof. Michael Goldberg

Some suggestions on "how to read a film"

The film critic Christian Metz has written "A film is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand." We are used to sitting back in the dark and viewing a film uncritically; indeed, most Hollywood films are constructed to render “invisible” the carefully constructed nature of the medium. Further, because a film is constructed of visual, aural, and linguistic components that are manipulated in numerous ways, it is a challenge to take apart the totality of the film experience and to interpret how that experience was assembled.

Below you will find brief explanations of ways to analyze the language of film. While this list is not comprehensive, it does contain a lot of information. If film interpretation is new to you, you will not be able to keep track of all these elements while viewing the film—this is an acquired skill. Concentrate at first on a few things that seem to offer the most opportunity for critical reading.

If viewing the film only once, try to take notes in shorthand while watching the film. Arrows can be used to note camera angle and camera movement; quick sketches can be used to note shot composition and elements of mise-en-scene. As soon as possible after viewing the film, write out your impressions of the film, noting the most important elements. If you will be writing on the film and will be seeing it again, take minimal notes the first time through (although do note important scenes you will want to return to) but still maintain a critical distance.

When analyzing a film as a historical document, keep in mind the film's contemporary audiences or authors. Your own personal reaction to the film may serve as a starting point, but you need to convert these impressions into historical analysis—how are you different and similar to the historical audiences/authors? What has changed and what has stayed the same? Remember too the technological changes that have taken place, and keep in mind what audiences would have expected, and how film makers used the technology at their disposal. It is especially important to consider substantial changes in the manner of presentation if you will only be watching the film on a television. Also, be aware that most Hollywood films made after the early 1950s have an "aspect ratio" (height and width ratio) different from television screens. Most video tapes of these films have been altered by the "pan and scan" method which dramatically changes elements such as shot composition and camera movement. Video tapes that are "widescreen" preserve the correct aspect ratio. Most DVDs now come in both "standard" (altered) or "widescreen" (check the writing on the disk) or only in the correct aspect ratio, and most laser disks use the correct aspect ratio. If possible, find a format that has not altered the aspect ratio.



MISE-EN-SCENE—Everything going on within the frame outside of editing and sound

CINEMATOGRAPHY—The camera work that records the mise-en-scene between edits. Each shot represents many choices made by the film makers. Why have they made these choices? What do these choices represent?

MONTAGE—Editing (“cuts”) within scenes and in the film in general, creating continuities and discontinuities, juxtapositions, and narrative structure. The standard Hollywood practice is to make cuts “invisible,” and thus they are often difficult to pick up within a scene. "Montage" is also the term used for a series of quick cuts from a variety of locations that cohere narratively or thematically (the baptism scene in The Godfather I is a good example). "Accelerated montage" is what it sounds like (the prison escape scene in His Girl Friday).

SOUND—Sometimes non-dialogue sound is the hardest element to pick out and analyze, yet is often extremely important and subject to just as much of the film makers focus as other elements. Note how sound is used—to underscore emotions, to alert the audience to an upcoming event, as an ironic counterpoint, etc. Carefully created and edited sounds (including the use of silences) creates a rich aural images the same way that mise en scene, shot composition, and montage create visual images. Note that sound is both part of the mise-en-scene and is a separate category of editing (since the audio track is separate from the video track).

For links to definitions used in film theory, CLICK HERE.

List of Essential Film Terms from Bordwell and Thompson, Film Art, CLICK HERE.


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last updated 9/14/00