We are used to watching films purely for entertainment. When we
watch in this way, we are mostly passive observers of the action,
not really thinking much beyond our feelings and impressions of
what is on the screen. As scholars, though, we have to be more
diligent in how we treat a film. A film is something we can read
just as carefully and consciously as a book or poem. Thus, the
first step to being a good film reader is to watch with pen and
notebook (or writing journal) in hand, jotting down notes as you
watch the film. This will give you specific things to talk about
in our class discussions and when you write your essays. Here are
some things to look for when “reading” (not watching!) a film:
The first important
thing to do when you watch a film is to not merely pay attention
to the story, plot, and characters, but to how they are presented
by the camera. We tend to think of film as “realistic” because the medium renders people and objects in such a life-like detail. Remember, we as an audience can only see what the camera’s “eye” shows us, and that nearly everything we see on the screen is manipulated by the director and others who make the film. So, pay careful attention to how the director “sets up” a
shot in any given scene:
Is the director using a long shot, a medium shot, a close up,
or an extreme close up? Is the shot taken from a high angle,
a low angle, or from eye level? Is the camera placed in an “objective” location,
or does it represent the point of view of one of the characters?
Does the camera move or does it stay in place? Is it handheld
Consider also the composition of the scene. That is, how has the director arranged
actors, objects, lighting, etc. to make the effect of the scene? Is there something
implied going on off screen? This shot from The Graduate is one of the most famously
composed images in film history. What does it convey? Why is it so effective?
Does the film utilize effects like voiceovers, text, direct addresses to the
camera and other narrative devices? What is the effect of these devices?
- Pay attention to how the movie opens and ends. The first thing you see in a
movie is the credits. What images are shown in these credits? How is music used
to set the mood of the film?
- Editing: Most people do not pay attention
to how a film is edited or how it cuts from shot to shot and
scene to scene. This, though, is an important part of how film
has an effect on an audience. Pay attention to whether the
rhythm of the editing is fast or slow, does the director use
long takes in a scene or does he/she divide the scene up with
many short takes? Does the editing make for a unified and continuous
effect (i.e., you don’t really notice
it) or is it jarring or destabilizing? Does the editor/director
use effects like fade in/fade out frequently?
- Consider the overall mood of the film
as created by acting, music, lighting, sound effects, costumes,
colors, sets, etc. (All of these things taken together is what
film scholars call mise-en-scene, French for “put before the camera.”)
These small details, all of which filmmakers often pay a great
deal of attention to, often go unnoticed but play a crucial role
in a film.
- Look for repetitions that cue you in to the things the director or writer thinks
are important. Is there a recurring song, music, camera technique, special effect
that adds meaning to the film? Just as when you read a book or play, pay attention
to these repetitions.
- Finally, think about how your observations relate to the over-arching ideas,
issues, and themes of the film. How do these particulars help your understanding
of the whole?