Using Tools of Academic Criticism
There are so many ways to critique a film. One method is to look at style and the best way to proceed is to analyze if the film falls under realism or formalism. Another way to do it is to determine the tone of the movie, if it tells of doom, hope, corruption, manipulation, salvation etc. Another way to analyze film is to determine the genres, if it is a crime movie, thriller, romantic comedy, sci-fi films, war movies, teen flicks etc.
While there are different methods to help a movie critic derive meaning from film it can be argued that the aspiring movie critic must have at least a basic understanding of how movies are made in the 21st century. The film critic must be knowledgeable about basic elements of film such as cinematography, sound, and editing. Overview Film critics can be grouped into two broad categories. The first group is composed of movie reviewers and their “…closest comments regarding purely filmic qualities are related to a director’s use of techniques (Schaefermeyer, 1997).
With the second group, one can find academic critics. Scholarly criticism touches on the medium’s history, functions, practitioners, techniques and aesthetics (Schaefermeyer, 1997). This study is leaning towards the more popular form of film criticism which is the one exhibited by movie reviewers. Based on the preceding discussion a movie reviewer is well-aware of “filmic qualities” as well as the various techniques used by the director to make a film. This includes elements of filmmaking such as cinematography, sound, editing, and music.
But aside from knowing these different elements it is also helpful if the film critic is also well aware about the general feel of the movie such as the style, tone and genre. Combining all these skills can make one a respectable film critic or at least become a decent movie reviewer, one that can help others understand what the latest flick is all about or to help appreciate classics created by master filmmakers of yesteryears. Style, Tone and Genre Determining the tone and genre of the film is arguably the simplest way to perform a film criticism.
Depending on the experience of the movie reviewer the tone can be arrived at after a complete viewing of the film. At the end, the movie reviewer can determine if the tone is about hopelessness, or if it is about salvation or maybe even perhaps about corruption. It is like having an overview of the film and using a simple method of describing it the reviewer can use tone as a means of interpreting the basic meaning of the film. Same thing goes with genre. It is also a general description of the film and a good way to start the process of film analysis.
With genre the critic can easily ascertain if it is a crime movie or a sci-fi film even at the early or middle-part of the film. In the movie E. T. by Steven Spielberg it is obvious that it is science fiction from the very beginning. It can also be argued that the best way to start a movie review is to categorize it based on style. As one becomes more familiar with the two major styles used by filmmakers it is easier to understand why it is important to begin the analysis knowing whether the film can be called an example of realism or formalism.
In a nutshell, realism is the use of film as a medium to portray real life while formalism is a more complicated and stylized presentation of a story and it may not necessarily be about things that one can find in a real life. It is important to distinguish which style the director uses because it helps the film critic to decide whether to expect reality or fantasy. According to one critic realism is the use of film to render the real world objectively and it is characterized by “…long takes, depth of focus, location shooting, sunlight, and the use of nonprofessional actors” (Schaefermeyer, 1997).
In formalism there is a distortion of reality because of the use of techniques such as extreme close-ups and excessive editing where there is often no continuity between shots. The first scene shows Venice, Italy and the second one shows Los Angeles, Califorinia. The distortion of reality is not simply because the director wanted to portray pure fantasy but the techniques used are in keeping with a more modern method of filmmaking (Haberski, 2001). Irregardless of the style that would be used there is still the need to understand the basic elements of modern cinema (De Vaney, 1994).
The following pages will take a closer look at the essence of cinematography, sound, and editing. Cinematography Cinematography deals with many things but the most important components are: 1) lighting; 2) frames; and 3) angles. A good way to start of course is with lighting. Cinematography at its core is all about the science and art of photography and photography would be impossible without light. The most sophisticated lens requires light and lighting can be used to create the mood of the story. Even without the use of words the director can immediately send a significant amount of signals just by an expert use of lighting.
Lighting is also used to provide contrast and to focus on a character. If the actor is bathed in light while the surroundings are in total darkness then the audience will focus on the character. There is also a significant difference if the director chooses to use natural light like sunlight for instance as compared to the use of artificial lighting that can be further manipulated to set the mood for the scene. In the film 300 the director attempted to develop a “comic book” feel to the movie. But aside from that the lighting heightened the feeling that the soldiers were all doomed.
Aside from lighting the most important tool at the disposal of the director is the effective use of film shots. The following are some of the most common shots used by filmmakers: • Extreme long shot • Long shot • Medium shot • Close-up • Extreme close-up Extreme long shot is usually used to show big, outdoor settings such desert, the mountains, the ocean, a cityscape, two armies in pitched battle in a desolate landscape (Piper, 2001). In the film Gladiator one can observe the use of extreme long shots in the opening scene. This is to show the scale of the battle.
A long shot was used to show the soldier in battle array and this is also used to show the base camp from which the Roman army would begin their strike. Then in the same opening scene a medium shot is used to show soldiers fighting the barbarians. The medium shot allows for a head to toe photography of the combatants. In the film The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola the opening scene shows a man in supplication – explaining to Don Corleone why he needed his help and why he needed revenge. The close-up of the supplicant reveals his emotions and it was easy for the audience to understand how he suffered.
A close-up is necessary to focus on the character and to show the facial expressions of the actors. Extreme close-up on the other hand is a technique that is best used to focus on an object. It is very much effective when the audience needed to see the details of a clock or a handwritten note. In the film the Peacemaker there was a need to have an extreme close-up of the digital clock linked to the nuclear device, in order to show that it is about to explode and that the protagonist must hurry to diffuse the nuclear bomb.
The least recognizable component of cinematography is the use of angles or the position of the camera when it is doing its photography. Nearly all photography is done at eye level – at the level of the eyes of the cameraman (Piper, 2001). But for heightened effect the director would sometimes ask the camera to be placed below the eye level, say waist high or even lower; and sometimes the camera is elevated to shoot down on the actor (Piper, 2001). There are therefore three types of camera angles: • Low angle • Eye level • High Angle
There is a reason why directors would use low-angle shots and most of the time the reason is to render characters larger-than-life, intimidating, dominant, scary, confident or in charge (Piper, 2001). Michael Bay is an example of a popular director who uses this type of shots in many of his films. In The Rock there was a car chase scene between the character of Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery, cameras were placed inside the cars to provide low-angle shots and this help render the character as larger-than-life and in charge.
In the immortal classic, Citizen Kane there were many memorable scenes but one that stood out was the low-angle shot of the millionaire Kane as he was pacing a room and it was unmistakably the director’s way of enhancing Kane’s attributes as a leader and the person in-charge of his campaign to run for governor. The high-angle shot on the other hand produces the reverse effect. The camera in this case seems to be looking down at the actor and this means that the actor is rendered inferior, small, or insignificant (Piper, 2001).
The best way to understand this is to see a film where the camera is looking down at a child’s face. Obviously the shot is from the point of view of the adults. The intended purpose is revealed when the child looks up to the parent and this action based on this point of view depicts the child as inferior and looking up the helplessness of the child is intensified. Sound In the early phase of the history of film, it was all about moving pictures and there was no sound. But it did not take long before sound became part of the movie experience.
In this regard it is important to take a closer look at three major components of sound as it relates to film criticism: • Dialog • Music • Sound effects If film remained silent it would still attract people. Yet the addition of sound made the experience more worthwhile. The silent movies can be interesting in the long run but the addition of dialog made it extremely engaging because in the real world people are not silent – they talk. Romantic comedies would be very difficult to understand and appreciate without the help of dialog.
In the film The Last of the Mohicans the central character of the movie made a pledge to his lover that he will find her no matter what it takes. It was an emotionally-charged scene because the love of his life is about to be captured by a band of murderous Native Americans and he had to strengthen her resolve not to give up for he will find her. It is very difficult to send that message across if it was a silent movie. Music is another important part of modern cinema. Even in the silent movie era Charlie Chaplin’s silent films was made more enjoyable by the use of music.
In the 20th century music became an indispensable part of filmmaking and directors spend considerable time and effort to choose the best musical score for every scene. On the other hand there are those who remark that music if not properly used can be distracting and sometimes one can feel that the director is forcing the audience to be in a certain mood even if the film was not expertly made to induce such kind of response (Piper , 2001). This is very much evident in mediocre films such as a horror movie or an action movie that rely so much on additional elements to make it better.
A good musical score can easily elevate the film into greater heights as it heightens the audio-visual experience. In the film Amadeus the music is not just an added ingredient but a major part of the film that helps explain the genius of Mozart. Music sets the mood for the movie and one good example is The Godfather the music is full of pain and longing. It easily conveys the theme of the movie, that against all odds the immigrants from Italy tried their best to succeed in America but at the end tragedy awaits them. Sound effects is another important use of sound in filmmaking.
It is hard to imagine a silent movie out of Saving Private Ryan. The drama is intensified by the use of sound effects, bullets whizzing past the head of Tom Hanks as his character tried to lead his men into the beach at Normandy. The sickening sound of the bullets as it hit the metal barriers made the audience squirm in their seats and the spectators are made to believe that they too are vulnerable and anytime soon a flying projective can cut through their hearts. Editing In a realist film there is not much need for editing.
A documentary requires long takes and the camera follows the main character as he or she moves from place to place. If there is a dialog between two characters the camera can either use a medium shot to show two people talking or it will make a close up shot moving from one person to the next and going back and forth as the conversation progresses. But in a typical Hollywood movie heavy editing is required as part of an elaborate method of storytelling. The director in tandem with an editor will use techniques such as match cuts, cutaways, cut-ins, and crosscutting.
In match cuts the director would allow for continuity. For instance there is a close-up of someone punching another actor, when the long shot is taken to show both actors as well as part of the setting, there must be continuity. This is where match cuts are used. Cutaways on the other hand are brief cuts to a secondary object. For example in the film Music and Lyrics starring Drew Barrymore there was a scene when the focus was on the performer on-stage but then a cutaway is needed to show the reaction of the manager backstage.
Cut-ins are also a very important component of editing as it allows the audience to see some important details needed to enhance the story and make the plot easy to understand. In the Western classic High Noon the central character had to keep watch of the time and aside from looking at his watch he was also made to look at wall clocks and the like. Crosscutting on the other hand is the best way to show two places at the same time. The scene moves from location to the next but there is a certain fluidity in this motion that the audience is not distracted.
This is an important technique because there are scenes where there is a need to show the impact of what was occurring in one location to what was happening in another location. The best example is Spielberg’s E. T. when the alien drank beer his friend who was far away and studying inside the classroom was affected by the alien’s behavior. Personal Method Based on the preceding discussion there are so many ways to derive meaning from films.
Yet an aspiring movie critic will be able to do more if he or she is knowledgeable about the various techniques used by directors especially with regards to cinematography, sound, and editing. But it can also be argued that there are other means of analyzing film. The proponent of this study would like to propose that one of the best ways is to first have an overview of the film. This is similar to determining the tone or genre. In assessing a film it is best to first understand the story. Just like when a child is listening to a fairy tale he or she has an innate capability to grasp the story line.
Thus, it is possible to watch a film and be able to ascertain the major points of the story and to have a general feel of where the director is taking his audience. There is some sort of a map that develops and all the dots are connected. Then the critic can go back to the very beginning and assess how the director used the techniques to deliver the story. One example is the analysis of the film Casino Royale one of the latest James Bond flick starring Daniel Craig. After watching the movie for the first time the critic will be able to understand that this is the prequel to all James Bond movies.
This clue is given in the very beginning when the target was amazed why Bond was sent to kill him when he knew very well that Bond is not yet given the double-O status as an agent for the British Secret Service. This may helps explain why at the opening scene the director chose to use black and white as opposed to full color. This is when the story became very confusing. The use of black and white and the subtitle that says that the setting was in the Czech Republic signifies the fact that this happened during the Cold War when the Union Soviet Socialist Republic was still at the height of its glory.
Therefore, the movie should be set before the 1980s and if this is a prequel to all James Bond movies then the setting should be at least in the 1960s. Then all of a sudden there is a scene where the antagonist took a fairly modern elevator equipped with a digital readout. Then when James Bond pulled out his handgun it was obvious that it was made recently. So the question is simple, what is the purpose of the black and white opening scene? It does not make sense and confuses the audience with regards to the timeline of the story. Conclusion
There are so many ways to analyze films. Yet based on the preceding discussion it would be helpful to begin with style – whether it is realism or formalism. Doing so will alert the critic as to what can be expected, whether the director is hoping to show real life or moving towards fantasy. Then it is also helpful to understand the tone and genre. But these are just preliminaries. A good film critic should be knowledgeable about the various techniques used by the director. The use of lighting, camera angles, music, dialog and editing will reveal nuances about the film.
It will provide details and give a clue as to what was the intended meaning of this work of art. References Haberski, R. (2001). It’s Only a Movie. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. De Vaney, A. (1994). Watching Channel One. New York: State University of New York Press, Albany. Piper, J. (2001). Get the Picture? : The Movie Lover’s Guide to Watching Film. New York: Allworth Communications. Schaefermeyer, M. (1997). Video Criticism. In A. Wells & E. A. Hakanen (Eds. ) Mass Media and Society. CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation.Sample Essay of Edusson.com