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Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

Video

Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema

Articles

Book Reports

Observations on film art

Off-center: MAD MAX’s headroom

Wednesday | February 10, 2016

Furiosa 500

From Mad Max: Center Framed, by Vashi Nedomansky.

DB here:

If you’re a filmmaker, how do you frame the action you’re shooting? Put aside documentary shooting, which doesn’t allow you as many options as staged filming does. A lot of your compositional decisions depend on the aspect ratio of the image.

After the mid-1910s, filmmakers relied heavily on close views—framing typically two or three people, or even just one. These “portrait” framings were well-suited to the 4:3 format that was standardized in the silent era. But what happens when filmmakers must compose in wider frames, especially the 2.35:1 format that became common with CinemaScope?

 

Too much scope in ‘Scope?

In classic Western painting and other traditions as well, a horizontal format is associated with fairly distant views of groups or landscapes.

Last Supper 400     230h icarus

Early ‘Scope filmmakers did sometimes favor distant, spread-out ensemble staging, with greater or less depth. (Below: Island in the Sun; Bad Day at Black Rock.)

107     101

I try to track some of those early options in this online lecture.

But as technology improved, filmmakers managed to shoot medium- and close shots in the wide format. They “tamed” ‘Scope to a more traditional continuity. And as there were pressures toward “intensified continuity,” filmmakers adapted those tenets to ‘Scope. They gave us close-ups, fast cutting, and roaming camera movements within the widescreen array.

Like all solutions, this involved trade-offs. The 4:3 format was well-suited to the human body, and even a tight facial close-up could fill it fairly well. But a single or even a two-shot, in anamorphic widescreen, can leave a lot of the frame vacant or relatively unimportant.

Furiosa 400     Brides 400

Cinematographer Boris Kaufman objected to the extra real estate. In traditional arts, the design should fit snugly into the format, with all areas contributing to the image’s effect:

The space within the frame should be entirely used up in composition.

But close views in widescreen typically leave a lot of dead space. If you put the figure in the center, that dead space can be on the sides.

Max to camera 400

The bilateral symmetry of Wes Anderson’s frames is achieved on the premise that the figure is facing straight out at the viewer, so Anderson has the problem of filling up the flanking areas.

Or the dead space can be bigger on one side of the frame than the other. In that case, the figure, even a close one, is placed off-center in the 2.35/2.40 frame. This can suggest that the object of attention is somewhere beyond the empty zone.

Off center 400

To avoid sheer dead space, you can try to settle something in the background. If it’s dramatically important, you can generate some nice compositional tension, in the manner of the wide-angle, deep-focus look of the 1940s.

Depth 1 400     Depth 2 400

So as with most creative options, making a choice involves (a) tradeoffs and (b) further choices, some of them fairly forced. Go with widescreen, and you have to fill the frame somehow. Make one choice, and you have some dead areas, but you can control the viewer’s attention. If you fill the areas with significant action, you need to find some dynamic compositions. But you divide the viewer’s attention. You now have to make people look where you want and when you want.

 

Cuts for composition

Now add in cutting. How do you cut widescreen shots together, say in a conversation scene?

Go back to painting. Sometimes the most important item sits in the geometrical center of the picture format. Rudolf Arnheim points out that often the exact center is vacant and items are grouped around it. The result is a pictorial tension, with elements balanced, either symmetrically or in more complex patterns. In Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, the major action is split–a dramatic splashdown, a world that doesn’t notice. The fall takes place somewhat off right of center, in a bright but far-offf area. It’s still almost indiscernible. The indifference of the peasants is given in the very composition of the image.

Leonardo perspective 400     icarus 206h

So too with cinema. In a single image, when the main point of interest isn’t dead center, there can be either symmetry, or important items grouped around the center.

Symmetry 1 400     asymmetry 400

Going beyond the single image, we find that editing can create a fairly gentle seesawing around the central area. A common tactic is shot/ reverse-shot, with over-the-shoulder framings. In widescreen, that option tends to make the center fairly empty.

Shot 400     Rev shot 400

Or you can try “compensatory” shot/ reverse-shot cutting, so that the empty area of the first shot is filled by the corresponding figure or action in the next shot.

Furiosa shot 400     Max rev 400

This second isn’t a bad solution, since the two shots together satisfy Kaufman’s dictum in a roundabout way. They become a “cinematic” way of filling the horizontal format, but in time rather than purely in space. And in this instance the main characters’ angled eye levels fit together snugly, in the upper center.

Superimposition Furiosa-Max

There can be a certain suspense added, as the second frame slowly fills up to reveal the item. When Furiosa looks off right, we cut to a shot of what’s caught her attention–an attack vehicle drawing into the frame on the right.

Furiosa elm 400     Vehicle 400

Assume, as most people do, that our attention fastens on certain aspects of the frame—typically those that attract us perceptually (brightness, movement, color, sound source, etc.) and that provide ongoing story information. So now you have to consider: How closely do you want your second shot to pick up on the crucial area of the first shot? That is, is the smoothest cut the one that starts the next shot with the viewer’s eye in the same part of the frame?

Some editors argue for this sort of continuity. “If the eye is led to one side of the screen,” notes one primer, “the action of character in the next shot might be located on that side also. Again, the purpose of the cut is to allow the eye to follow the movement.”

We’re back with our old friend the guided saccades, the fast, jerky eye movements that sample our environment. We’ve seen saccades at work in a single shot, thanks to staging that guides our attention. (Go here for a first-pass analysis, here for the eye-tracking evidence.) What about the cuts? The research of psychologist Tim Smith suggests that many editors intuitively try to match the point of interest across cuts. This is especially evident in the default zone, the geometrical center.

Keeping the viewer’s attention fastened on one area of the screen across the cut could be of great value in fast-cut action scenes. That way the viewer couldn’t miss the most important thing—a face, a gesture, a prop. This was the aim of George Miller in certain scenes of Mad Max: Fury Road. According to cinematographer John Seale, the centered compositions make it easier for the viewer to follow the action.

Your eye won’t have to shift…to find the next subject when you’ve only got 1.8 seconds of time to do that.

Vashi Nedomansky has created a striking video, complete with centered crosshairs, that shows the strictness of framing and composition during one action scene. Both long shots and fairly close ones are center-framed.

Vashi 1     Vashi 2

Vashi 3     Vashi 4

Vashi notes that Michael Bay and other directors seem to rely on fast cutting without due concern for where the viewer’s eye lands at the end of each shot. Combined with very short shots, compositional confusion can flummox us. We don’t know where we should be looking.

Miller uses a greater variety of compositions in other stretches of the film, as my illustrations above indicate. At times he applies his “matching zone system” to more off-center layouts. Furiosa is shown waiting for the biker gang to complete the deal, and she’s center framed.

Furiosa canyon 1 400

We cut to one biker surveying the scene. He (she?) is positioned off-center, so that we get a certain foreground/background dynamic between him (her?) and the truck far in the background. Now cut to Furiosa, who’s now in the same area of her frame; the empty space on the left seems to confirm what her eyeline suggested about the biker’s position above the canyon. (Interestingly, Miller slightly breaks the axis of action to get this smooth graphic cut.)

Biker 400     Furiosa canyon 2 400

Still, you can argue that for fast-cut scenes it’s better to adopt a brute-force simplicity of composition, favoring the center. (While of course assuming that ordinary continuity principles, such as matching of movement, screen direction, eyelines, and so on, are obeyed.) Tim Smith’s experiments have shown that all other things being equal, our eyes drift to the center of the format from shot to shot–a point that Arnheim also makes about “the power of the center” in all images. This visual habit is challenged by so-called empty-center painting of the 1960s and 1970s, as seen in Kenneth Noland’s Shadow on the Earth and Larry Zox’s Decorah.

Noland 436h     Zox_Decorah 436h

Mad Max: Fury Road seems to me a superbly directed film in its chosen style, but we can find alternatives. What about fast cutting that tries, as a part of an action scene’s kinetic drive, to shuttle or bounce the viewer’s attention more widely across the frame? This option wouldn’t be helter-skelter in the Bay manner; it’s calculated, and engenders its own pictorial excitement.

 

Not exactly a picture scroll, but kind of

We can find many examples in the Asian action tradition. Take for example one of the extended pursuits in Benny Chan’s New Police Story, a 2004 Jackie Chan vehicle. Jackie is clambering up along an angled beam of the Hong Kong Convention Center, and the framing puts him far to the right, emphasizing the distance and steepness of the climb.

Jackie 1

As he scrambles up, he seems not to notice that his pistol falls out of his pocket. But we do, because it stands out against the pale cladding as it slides down to the bottom of the slope. Miller would have given us a separate, centered shot of this crucial action, but here it becomes an instance of that “gradation of emphasis” that widescreen encourages.

Jackie 2     Jackie 3

Before Jackie can hit frame center, there’s a cut that reverses the design of the first shot. A low angle puts him at the far left corner of the frame as he reaches the top. We never really see Jackie in the center of the frame in either shot.

Jackie 4

The two shots are cut fast (about 3 seconds each), but there’s no problem grasping the action. Hong Kong filmmakers realized that you could cut long shots quickly if the composition and lines of movement were very clear. There is, it turns out, enough time for the eye to catch up to the main point of the composition, but it does ask us to exercise.

A more percussive cut comes when Frank, also unarmed, searches out Joe, the gang leader, in a toy department. A snap-movement of the kind HK filmmakers love shows an off-center empty slot; Frank pops in from screen right.

Frank 1a     Frank 1b

Cut to Joe stalking Frank, seen in another slot. It’s an optical POV shot, but it’s also off-center, balancing the composition of the first shot. A cut back to Frank closes the POV pattern. Perhaps the oscillation around the frame center can prime us for the next shot.

Joe 1b     Frank 2

To get a sense of this “all-over” frame composition, have a look at this sequence from Yuen Kwai’s Ninja in the Dragon’s Den (1982). The combat swiftly passes from the center to the sides or to a corner. Thanks partly to the architecture of the cabin and the mill wheel, and partly to the judicious framing, there’s a sense that Kaufman might be satisfied that the space in the frame is “entirely used up”–not in a single shot, but in the totality of shots. (I’ve left in the English dubbing so subtitles don’t distract your eye.)

Hong Kong filmmakers mastered dynamic compositions during fights, but they were seldom as eccentric as their Japanese colleagues. Once anamorphic widescreen became common in Japan, directors pushed points of interest to frame edges and exploited unusual framing.

Consider the shootout at the climax of Suzuki Seijin’s Underworld Beauty (1958). A gang has trapped the protagonist Miyamoto and a young woman in a boiler room and is subjecting them to some heavy ordnance. In one series of shots, we see a gunman fire to the right, and as a result of his strafing, one boiler starts to blow.

Beauty 1     Beauty 2     Beauty 3

The progression of boiler shots shifts us more or less rightward across the basement, and the empty area on the far left of shot 3 suggests that the gunman remains offscreen in the upper left. Now we get a sort of establishing shot showing the two boilers of shot 2 more fully.

Beauty 4

I think we’re inclined to place the offscreen gunman still in the upper left. The spraying boiler we’ve seen is now on frame left. What’s surprising is that Miyamoto and the woman are crouching way down in the lower right corner. As you watch the shot, you might not notice them at first, but Suzuki has them change position after a moment so their movement attracts our eye. In addition, the shot is fairly prolonged as the boss calls out to his prey, so viewers have time to discover them. This is, I think you’ll agree, a pretty bold use of the anamorphic frame.

Once we’ve noticed them, how does Suzuki cut closer to the couple? Unpredictably.

Beauty 5a

I feel a bump here every time I see it, because it’s hard to read the facial expressions from this angle. Instead, we get an almost abstract composition spread in a diagonal across the frame. Again, the geometrical center is less important than the shapes, edges, and tones that cross it.

At last we get something like an orthodox framing of the couple, eased by a match on action as the woman tips her head.

Beauty 6

So the passage ends with a center-framed image. As often happens, decentering registers as an accent, a transitory departure from the baseline, the centered image. Not only will most action pass through the center, but we can be yanked to other regions in confidence that we’ll eventually return to it.

The shots in Underworld Beauty aren’t especially fast-cut, but I’ll close with another extract that is. This is the opening of Baby Cart at the River Styx (in the Lone Wolf and Cub series; dir. Misumi Kenji, 1972). Again, I’ve disabled the subtitles. (NB: Probably not best for children to see this.)

In a burst of shots, we get centered images, off-center ones, and radically off-center ones.

Baby Cart 1     Baby Cart 2

Baby Cart 3     Baby Cart 4

Continuity rules are respected and the camera is angled properly; but the compositions bounce from perfectly readable to perversely indiscernible. Some shots keep us in suspense about what’s about to happen, yet at no point is the action unclear. Again, the impact comes partly from simply composed, but highly varied, images.

 

George Miller’s strict target-framing is very powerful, but there are other options, even in fast-cut sequences. The idea of leading our attention across areas of the screen goes back to Eisenstein, the theorist-director who enjoyed zigzag graphic designs and the pictorial clatter created by a cut. One lesson: Every bit of the frame can be used, if only to jolt the viewer’s eye. All the action on the screen isn’t just in the story.


My quotation from Boris Kaufman is taken from Edward L. de Laurot and Jonas Mekas, “An Interview With Boris Kaufman,” Film Culture 1, no. 4 (Summer 1955): 5. The quotation about matching screen zones comes from Steven E. Browne, Video Editing: A Postproduction Primer, 3d ed. (Focal Press, 1997), 147. Bruce Block discusses “affinity continuums” from shot to shot in Chapter 7 of The Visual Story: Seeing the Structure of Film, TV and New Media, 2d ed. (Focal Press, 2013).

The Rudolf Arnheim book I’ve mentioned is The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts: The New Version (University of California Press, 1988). “Empty-center” painting is discussed by Thomas B. Hess in the essay of that title in New York (2 April 1973), 64-65 and in “Olitsky without Flattery,” New York (1 October 1973), 76-77. Hess describes paintings in which “the picture plane is stretched like a trampoline, with lots of spring action at its quivering edges.”

Tim Smith’s eye-tracking research is relevant to the framing principles I’ve been considering. Although he has yet to consider the more complicated cases of dispersed points of attention, he has found strong evidence that the default area remains the geometrical center of the screen. See his “Watching You Watch Movies: Using Eye Tracking to Inform Cognitive Film Theory,” in Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, ed. Arthur P. Shimamura (Oxford, 22013), 170-171; the relevant video, with a heatmap of viewers’ attention, is here. Tim’s website is full of other examples from his research. Thanks to Tim for correspondence on this point.

Thanks also to Patrick Keating for email discussion of some of these matters.

I discuss principles of early widescreen shooting and staging in the online chapter “CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses.” See also the video lecture of the same name. For another example of radical decentering during a fast-cut combat, though put to different uses than in the Japanese examples here, see my entry on a King Hu jump cut.

Incidentally, we might wonder whether the centered compositions in Mad Max: Fury Road aren’t also acknowledging that on  some displays (cable, streaming, airlines) these images will be cropped. To put important material too close to the frame edge risks losing it on downstream platforms. See “Filling the Box: The Never-Ending Pan-and-Scan Story.”

Ninja 500

Ninja in the Dragon’s Den.

Rotterdam supports Busan International Film Festival

Friday | February 5, 2016

Rotterdam 600

DB here:

An entry earlier this week noted Tony Rayns’ open letter criticized the attack on Busan’s Lee Yongkwan. Now staff and industry professionals at the Rotterdam Film Festival have gone on the record with their support. Full details at the BIFF site.

FILM ART: The eleventh edition arrives!

Tuesday | February 2, 2016

Cover 600

DB here:

Forty years ago, Kristin and I signed a contract with Addison-Wesley publishers to write Film Art: An Introduction. The first edition, a squarish item with a butterscotch-brown cover, was published in 1979. Like most textbook authors, we had to assign all rights to the publisher. Addison-Wesley sold our book to Knopf, which produced a second edition in 1985. Then the book was acquired by McGraw-Hill. McGraw-Hill published the subsequent nine editions, from 1990 onward.

Last week, Kristin and I and our new collaborator Jeff Smith received our copies of the eleventh edition. It looks very good and we think it’s our best effort yet. By chance, we learned at the same time that Film Art, in all its editions, currently ranks as 153 in books assigned in American college courses (based on a sample of nearly a million syllabi). No other film textbook appears in the top 400 titles. Back in the 1970s we never imagined such success.

FA 11e contains many new features, which I’ll talk about shortly. But I’d also like to say some things about the book’s perspective on cinema. I’ve discussed the conceptual side of our approach in an entry devoted to the previous edition.

But since concepts don’t arise from nothing, I thought I’d wax a little personal and talk about how Film Art has reflected my developing ideas about movies. Readers wanting the meat-and-potato information about the new edition can skip down to the section, “Humblebragging, minus the humble part.”

 

A bookish movie wonk

Knight 300I came to movies through books. I must have been fourteen or fifteen when I read Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art (1957). It was the first grown-up book that I thought I completely understood. Soon after I read Rudolf Arnheim’s Film As Art (1957), which I knew I did not completely understand. But those two books became my guides to what films to see and what ideas to think about.

Living on a farm, I was somewhat isolated, but I did see Hollywood classics on television, and I could occasionally catch current releases at theatres in nearby towns, notably Rochester, NY. With the aid of Andrew Sarris’s “American Directors” issue of Film Culture and some issues of Movie (UK), my high-school years became devoted, in part, to film.

During the 1960s, interest in film exploded. Europe’s “young cinemas” like the French New Wave came to prominence. Hollywood films became edgier. High-tone magazines began to pay attention. This was the era in which James Agee, Parker Tyler, and Manny Farber gained somewhat delayed fame as critics. (I talk about this development in my Rhapsodes book.) Cahiers du cinema became known outside France, and American critics like Sarris and Pauline Kael became artworld celebrities.

In the same era there came a burst of film-appreciation books. They weren’t textbooks per se, but they were often used in the film courses that were springing up across the country. Among those books were Ernest Lindgren’s The Art of the Film (rev. ed., 1963), Ivor Montagu’s Film World (1964), and Ralph Stephenson and J. R. Debrix’s The Cinema as Art (1965). I was drawn to the idea of a general account of the possibilities of film as an art form, so these books, followed by V. F. Perkins’ contrarian Film as Film (1972), appealed to me. I later realized that they belonged to a genre that stretched back to the 1920s and included extraordinary contributions like Renato May’s Linguaggio del Film (1947). Still further back, they, like all texts, owe a debt to Aristotle’s Poetics and Renaissance treatises on the visual arts.

Burch 300Throughout my college years, I thought that the core activity of film culture was criticism: the effort to know a movie as intimately as possible. That’s still a widely-held view. In graduate school at the University of Iowa, my horizons expanded, as I was exposed to film history, though not through much primary research, and film theory, which was just starting to be a major wing of academic cinema studies. My dissertation was on French Impressionist silent cinema, what’s come to be called the “commercial avant-garde.” I wrote it because I wanted, ultimately, to understand the context around Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, but for the project I concentrated on directors like Gance, L’Herbier, Epstein, Dulac, and Delluc. The thesis had three parts: one on the historical context, one on Impressionist theory, and one analyzing the films. This mixed approach has become a common one for me. I still think that a movie will sit at the center of my interest, but I’m attracted to questions that cut across criticism/history/theory boundaries.

Before the 1970s, most college film courses were organized historically, running from Lumière/Méliès/Porter to Neorealism. (Arthur Knight again.) But there was emerging a different sort of course, one that surveyed “the language of film” conceptually. Just as an introduction to music would lay out basic categories like melody, harmony, rhythm, and form, so film courses—in the manner of the aesthetics surveys I mentioned—would try to isolate the basic elements of cinema. This new orientation was probably also inflected by semiotics, then becoming a hot topic in grad-school circles.

When I came to UW—Madison in 1973, ABD and eager to work, I was given the basic survey course, Introduction to Film. It enrolled about 400 students a semester and was held in a gigantic classroom; from the stage I could barely see the students in the back. (There were a lot of them back there, for reasons we now understand.) I had four stalwart teaching assistants: James Benning, Douglas Gomery, Brian Rose, and Frank Scheide, all of whom have gone on to fame. Learning as much from them as they did from me, I organized the course as a survey of film form and style. That overall structure was the first rough cast of Film Art.

By this time there were several books designed as textbooks for such an appreciation course. After reading a few I decided not to use any. I relied on Perkins’ Film as Film, Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Practice, Jim Naremore’s excellent monograph on Psycho, and photocopies of essays by Bazin and others. After teaching the course for three years, I decided, at the suggestion of the Addison-Wesley editor Pokey Gardner, to propose it as a textbook. Kristin had by then taught the Intro course with me, had published some articles, and was working on stylistic analysis for her dissertation on Ivan the Terrible. She became my coauthor, beginning what some have called America’s longest study date.

 

From treatise to textbook—and back again?

filmart1st

Although we wrote it for the textbook market, I didn’t think of it as a textbook. With the hubris of a twentysomething, I thought of it as my treatise on film aesthetics. I wanted it to be as comprehensive as I could make it.

As Perkins pointed out, most books on film aesthetics were tied to the idea of the silent film as the pinnacle of film art. Editing was conceived as the supreme film technique, and Griffith and Eisenstein were presented as paragons. Admiring both of them and silent film as a whole, Kristin and I wanted nonetheless to give decent weight to “the Bazinian alternative”: long takes, camera movements, staging, and cinematography in depth were no less significant artistic resources. Color, sound, widescreen, and other resources were often ignored by the older tradition, but they had to be given their due. (At this point Play Time became a touchstone for us. It still is.) Burch’s book was particularly important as a quasi-structuralist revision of Bazinian ideas; I found, and still find, this book inspiring.

Just as important, I thought, was a need to situate techniques of the medium in a holistic context. While I was pursuing DIY film studies down on the farm, I was also reading modern literature and the New Criticism that then dominated literary life. For me, The Context Of The Work was everything. The whole would always nourish whatever technical tactic or local effect we might pick out.

Many textbooks still insist that techniques have localized meanings: a high angle means that the subject is diminished and powerless. Yeah, except when it doesn’t, as we insisted about this shot from North by Northwest in the first edition and since. (“I think that this is a matter best disposed of from a great height.”)

5.018 North by Northwest 4 300 dpi

Because I was interested in the whole film, I was attracted to philosophers of art who balanced a recognition of style with a recognition of overall form. Thomas H. Munro’s Form and Style in the Arts (1970) helped me with this, but the major influence was Monroe Beardsley’s Aesthetics (1958), with its distinction between texture and structure. That distinction meant realizing that films displayed large-scale formal principles, like sonata form in music. What were those principles?

Hence a chapter on narrative and non-narrative forms. We developed ideas of narrative out of formalist and structuralist theories. In the first edition, there was a lot more on narrative than on other sorts. In later editions, we tried to flesh out some genuine non-narrative options: abstract form (Ballet Mécanique and many experimental films); categorical form (e.g., Gap-Toothed Women, The Falls); rhetorical form (e.g., The River, Why We Fight); and associational form (e.g., A Movie, Koyaanisqatsi, and many “film lyrics”).

Motif page FILM ART 600
In teaching Introduction to Film, I noticed that many students hadn’t been exposed to basic aesthetic concepts like form, style, theme, subject matter, motifs, parallels, and the like.  The old New Critic in me rose up. I thought these ideas and terms, being central to the aesthetics of any medium, needed to be in the book too. Hence a chapter “The Significance of Film Form.” (Above is a page illustrating visual motifs: perspective design, props set up to be used later.) Some have taken this chapter as a manifesto of a “formalist” perspective, but actually the ideas in the chapter are ingredient to any aesthetic position whatsoever. Every analyst will trace patterns of development in a film, or weight the opening strongly, or notice thematic parallels. These are basic tools for thinking and talking about any art.

But I wasn’t a New Critic 100%. I’ve always been interested in going beyond the artwork itself to look at the artistic traditions and institutions behind it. Because a film results from a concrete process of production, I thought it important to include a chapter on how a movie gets made. That topic was the first one in our introductory course; the reading was Truffaut’s “Journal of Fahrenheit 451.” Starting Film Art with a chapter on production served to introduce film techniques in a concrete context, and it showed how what appeared on the screen was the result of choices among alternatives. We thought, and still think, that this chapter might engage students who want to pursue filmmaking themselves. It’s been gratifying to learn that some production courses use the book.

The concern for practice led us to specify, for the first time in an introductory studies text, the 180-degree system of editing, the four basic dimensions of film editing, a  layout of what you can do with sound in relation to space and time, and other practice-based concepts. We tried to systematize what filmmakers do, however intuitively. Sometimes we popularized terms that were already specialized (e.g., “diegesis” for the world of a story). Sometimes we had to invent terms for things that didn’t have names (e.g., the graphic match in editing). Sometimes we had to pick one usage of a term that was used in several ways (e.g., jump cut). Sometimes we had to make distinctions that weren’t explicit in the literature, such as the difference between story and plot, or deep-space staging and deep-focus cinematography.

Creating such labels may seem pedantic, but once we have a name for something we can notice it. Kristin and I believed that a study of film aesthetics has to be alive to all creative possibilities we can imagine.  For example, in probably the toughest part of the book, we sought to account for all the possible creative choices involved in relating sound to narrative time. Maybe some options are rare, but they do exist as part of cinema, and they may yield powerful effects.

 

Aesthetics in history

Beetlejuice 500

Beetlejuice.

Other features of the book flowed from these central ideas. Because of the emphasis on holism, we added sample analyses as well—studies of single films that showed how the various techniques worked together with overall form. The urge to be comprehensive led us to devote more space to experimental, documentary, and animated film than was common in introductory textbooks. And, since this was a period in which academic film studies was making important discoveries, Kristin and I thought it important to discuss the concept of the “classical Hollywood cinema,” a powerful tradition of story and style that students would have often encountered. By the time Film Art 1e was published, we were planning what would become The Classical Hollywood Cinema, written with Janet Staiger.

So Film Art became a treatise. Was it a textbook? I wasn’t sure. I thought the publisher might turn it down. Even though it incorporated examples that were student-friendly, it had a daunting infrastructure. I thought faculty might find it too complex for most classes. Had it been rejected, I would probably have tried to publish it as a free-standing book like those 1960s treatises.

Surprisingly, all these features of the book were acceptable to the readers to whom Addison-Wesley sent the manuscript. Still, many had a big objection: There was no chapter on film history, and that would kill it for them.

I hadn’t included a historical unit in my introductory course because there wasn’t time. Besides, our department had a parallel course surveying film history. But Kristin and I were happy to accede to the readers’ request. We took as the chapter’s motto a line from art historian Heinrich Wölfflin: “Not everything is possible at all times.” (You see what I mean about complexity; what film textbook quotes Wölfflin?) The sentence simply means that the artist, in this case the filmmaker, inherits a limited set of possibilities of form and style, to which she can respond in a wide but not infinite variety of ways. We (mostly Kristin) used the concepts we’d developed in the book to trace a series of major traditions and schools, from early cinema through to the French New Wave. We’ve since enhanced that account, bringing it up to date with the New Hollywood and Hong Kong film, and accentuating the continuing importance of older trends–signalling, for instance, German Expressionism’s legacy in horror comedies like Beetlejuice, above.

We know that we owe a lot to luck of timing—to being at the start of academic film studies—and to the many, many teachers who have offered us suggestions for improving the book. One advantage of doing a textbook is that you can improve it incrementally, something not possible with a scholarly book that will probably see only one edition.

We’re gratified that the result has continued to be useful. We continue to meet teachers and students who tell us they’ve benefited from it. Filmmakers, too, from Pixar artists to experimentalists. The book has been given a couple of dozen translations. Other textbook writers have found our concepts, organization, terms, and examples persuasive. (When I see how closely some hew to our book, I don’t know whether to feel gratified or depressed.) We take this wide acceptance as a sign that we contributed something fresh and valid to our understanding of cinema. Maybe we did write a general aesthetic treatise after all—not the first, not the last, but one that remains illuminating and in some respects foundational.

 

Humblebragging, minus the humble part

Coversation 500

From edition to edition our basic framework has been retained, but it’s flexible enough to be revised and fleshed out. Changes in film technology (digital cinema, prosthetic makeup, performance capture, 3-D) have prompted us to trace their effects on style. New developments demanded new concepts and names (“network narratives,” “intensified continuity”). Our research for other writing projects gave us deeper awareness of Asian film, early cinema, ensemble staging, and other subjects we’ve incorporated into our general perspective. Tough subjects to talk about, like acting, have challenged us to come up with some new ways of thinking about them. We’ve found old films that we want people to see; we think that we should also be educating taste and getting students acquainted with things beyond recent releases and cult classics. And of course new films have been made that demand attention—not only because students are aware of them but because the art of cinema continues to grow before our eyes.

The eleventh edition has changes small and big. Of course we’ve rewritten stretches to make them clearer or sharper. We’ve added new examples from about fifty films, from Nightcrawler and Brave to Zorns Lemma, Searching for Sugarman, The Act of Killing, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. The biggest changes involve a recast section on 3D, with discussion of House of Wax and The Life of Pi; a new section, “Film Style in the Digital Age,” with concentration on Gravity; a new section on genre devoted to the sports film (with Offside as a key example); and, as the cover tips you off, an extended analysis of Moonrise Kingdom, a favorite on the blog as well (here and here).

Jeff 300Jeff Smith (right, grinning) is responsible for many of these new attractions, and he has overhauled the entire sound chapter, with examples and analyses of Blow-Out, Norma Rae, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis version), and The Conversation. In addition, Jeff has written a whole new chapter, number 13, on Film Adaptation. It is brilliant. It’s available as an add-on to the print edition for faculty who want to include it, and it comes along free on the electronic edition.

Under Kristin’s direction, with the kind cooperation of Criterion, we have added new video examples to the Connect online platform. Those include sequences from L’Avventura, Ivan the Terrible, I Vitelloni, and other major films, with voice-over commentary by one of us. In addition, our production guru Erik Gunneson has made a marvelous demo explaining sound mixing techniques.

In all, we’re very happy with the way the book has turned out. The pictures are vibrant, the design is crisp, and there are new marginal quotes and links to blog entries. As ever, the blog offers annual suggestions for integrating it with courses. We’ve also put up some video lectures on this site, listed on the left of this page, and of course people are free to use them in classes. A couple weeks ago we gathered some key blog entries around a central topic in Film Art, the nature of classical film narrative. Finally, as we’ve proceeded through many editions, we’ve had to cut several analyses of particular films. But those are still available as pdfs online; most recently,we posted our in-depth study of sound and narrative in The Prestige.

All these supplementary materials are attempts to illustrate and develop the ideas we’re proposing in Film Art–and to do so in a clear, concrete way. As we say in our introduction to the edition:

In surveying film art through such concepts as form, style, and genre, we aren’t trying to wrap movies in abstractions. We’re trying to show that there are principles that can shed light on a variety of films. We’d be happy if our ideas can help you understand the films that you enjoy. And we hope that you’ll seek out films that stimulate your mind, your feelings, and your intelligence in unpredictable ways. For us, this is what education is all about.

We remain grateful to the colleagues, instructors, students, and general readers who have supported what we’ve tried to do.


As part of McGraw-Hill Education’s multimedia publishing program, Film Art 11e is available in many formats, including a print edition and digital editions that meet the needs of entire film courses or independent readers.

*As always, instructors, students, and general readers can get a print copy of the new Film Art. It is available in bound or binder-ready form. Instructors who wish to order a custom print edition may include the bonus chapter on film adaptation.

*If you teach a course using Film Art, you can choose the digital option: Connect. Connect is a course-oranization tool that enables faculty to assign reading, submit writing, take assessments, and more. Connect gives students access to a subscription-based digital version of the book called SmartBook. SmartBook has the Criterion video tutorials embedded, plus the ability to assign all of the pre-built quizzes, practice activities, and other features. SmartBook includes the new chapter on film adaptation, along with additional material including our suggestions on writing a critical analysis of a film, and additional bibliographic and online resources.

Connect can integrate with your school’s learning management system, making it easy to assign and manage grades throughout the semester. Students will get access to SmartBook for 6 months; an instructor account does not expire, so you can reuse your Connect course semester-after-semester. Instructors may contact their local McGraw-Hill Higher Education representative for more information at http://shop.mheducation.com/store/paris/user/findltr.html. (Enter your state and school to find your rep’s name and email address.)

*If you want to read the book independently in digital form, you may choose standalone SmartBook. This version does not contain Connect’s course-administration supplements. The Criterion Collection video examples are embedded in the SmartBook for you to access any time throughout the subscription period. Students can opt for the SmartBook in place of a printed text, even if their instructor is not requiring Connect.

For more information: The buying options are explained here in general and the choices pertaining to Film Art are listed here.

We’re grateful to our editor Sarah Remington, as well as to Susan Messer, Sandy Wille, Dawn Groundwater, and Christina Grimm, for all their help on this edition!

 

KT outline 600

Kristin’s 1977 chapter outline for the first edition of Film Art.

Sometimes a production still…

Sunday | January 31, 2016

FSL table 800

Frisco Sally Levy (MGM, 1927; dir. William Beaudine).

….makes you say, Jeepers.

Henry Sapoznik is an outstanding performer and producer of music, a many-times Grammy nominee, and my colleague here at UW, where he heads the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture. He’s also the grand-nephew of character actor Tenen Holtz. When Henry showed me this still from his collection, it gave me a buzz in many ways. Let me count them.

The Buzz Topical. Open-carry at the family table. It’s not just for breakfast any more. Joey, do you like movies with guns?

The Buzz Narrative. Here’s the plot, courtesy of the American Film Institute:

Sally Colleen Lapidowitz, the daughter of an orthodox Jewish father and an intensely Irish mother, is the steady girl of Patrick Sweeney, a motorcycle cop. Sally becomes infatuated with Stuart Gold, a Jewish dandy, who, though he is approved by her father, soon proves himself to be a worthless cad. Patrick rescues her from the dandy, and all ends happily in the Hebrew-Irish family.

Alas, no mention of this intimate scene.

The Buzz Ethnic-Shtick. Frisco Sally Levy belongs to a cycle of comedies centering on Irish and Jewish families. The most famous are Abie’s Irish Rose (stage play, 1922; film, 1928) and The Cohens and the Kellys (1926 film). Variety thought the movie a hoot, “averaging a dozen laughs to the minute.” Special praise was reserved for the Lapidowitz boys: “as a team of juvenile comedians these two youngsters are unsurpassed.”

Then there’s the gag involving a St. Patrick’s Day parade, evidently in a color sequence. Ma and Pa call out from the sidewalk, “Hello, Pat!” “And immediately every one of the carefully tailored, frock-coated, top-hatted gentlemen turn about with military precision and raise their hats in unison.” “Then,” the critic adds, “there are laughs with the close-ups of an ambulance and a German band leading the Irish patriots.” We’re told that Tenen Holtz puts across his role of paterfamilias well, rising above the caricatured Jewish tailor, which is all too often “obnoxious if over-drawn and too Jewish for comfort.” Ouch.

The Buzz Compositional: Would that today’s production stills were as nifty. The grouping, the eyelines, and Patrick’s gesture all drive our attention to the pistol. But space is left for us to notice Sally’s fixed stare at Patrick (mute devotion? apprehension at the gunplay?). And there are centrifugal attractions. There’s the younger daughter with her head slumped in her plate. Scared? Asleep? Bored? Sick? Doped? And of course the pooch, intent on table scraps, is missing the point. Nice apartment too, with both a phone and a writing desk. A symmetrical room for a symmetrical shot.

Alas, the film has not yet been found (a nice way of saying “lost”). Is there a collector out there with a copy? In the meantime, with stills like these we can make up our own stories.


Thanks to Henry for the still and permission to post it. The review is “Frisco Sally Levy,” Variety (13 April 1927), 13. See also “‘Sally Levy’ Takes Frisco for $26,200,” Variety (27 April 1927), 7.

Other entries in the “Sometimes…” series are: “Sometimes a shot . . .” and “Sometimes two shots . . .” and “Sometimes a jump cut…” and “Sometimes a reframing…”

Tenen Holtz and friends 700

Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World (12 May 1928).

David Bordwell
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comments about the state of this website go to Meg Hamel.