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Hum 3: Film Principles
Fr. Rene C. Ocampo, SJ/Bong S. Eliab
Second Semester, 2001-2002
Humanities Division
School of Arts and Sciences
Ateneo de Davao University


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THE ELEMENTS OF FILM
Humanities 3: Film Principles
Ateneo de Davao University

Contemporary film theory -- at least part of it -- is increasingly concerned with how a film is put together.   What are the irreducible parts or elements?   How do they relate to each other?  How do they work on an audience?

Ideally, a movie is very simple: you are watching something and listening to something.

Abstractly what you watch are: color, shape, form, and movement.  What you listen to are: language and sound, with rhythms, harmonies, and melodies.

Concretely we watch people, either alone or together, objects, scenery, and events.  We listen to monologues and conversations, narration, sound effects, music and silence.

Simple eh?

 Successful film artistically or financially or both, simply combine all these elements, concrete and abstract into a pleasing pattern.

 But the whole question is what makes one pattern pleasing and another not?

 What sells?

 The industry moguls certainly do not know, at least, in the long run.  Film business is notoriously mercurial and even the best efforts of conglomerate accountants and vice-presidents have not been able to bring and stability to it.

 What we do know now, as in the seventies, is that the value of a film does not lie so much in its particular genre but with elements that historically have been associated with that genre that can be abstracted and grafted onto another subject entirely.

 Caper films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, Five Easy Pieces, Scarecrow, The Chase, The Fugitive did not last as pure genre much past 1975 simply because filmmakers learned to use the elements of suspense and myth inherent in those genres in other types of films.

 The hybrids had more going for them.  Example, French Connection has a superb chase in it.  It has also the elements of caper.  It was a Buddy film in part, but primarily it was copy story.

 All the President’s Men was not just a movie about politics.  It was an intellectual chase (inexorable because we know the aftermath).  A bit of a caper, with touches of docudrama, and an undercurrent of Buddy.

 Literary texts used to list the basic elements of a novel as plot, character, setting, theme and style.  This five (5) point model remains useful for an analysis of the conscious motivation of the film.  Psychologically, film may work in a much more complex manner -- but practically for both the filmmaker and film viewer  -- movies remain stories, stories about people, in certain locations, that present a number of ideas, and do so in a more or less recognizable aesthetic manner.

 

A. STORY

 More than anything else, a good story is the basis for most successful films, and it is told in the most conventional manner despite what you may have heard about the new artistic freedom in Hollywood. (The following Tagalog films succeeded in a way because of their stories: Pakawalan Mo Ako, Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising, Tinimbang Ka….)

 A good story has a very clear beginning, middle and end.  It is divided into fairly equal thirds.  It moves in a good order from exposition through development, to denouement and conclusion.  It is tightly knit (then what happened? And then? And then?), but it often leaves space for other profitable enterprises, such as character and setting.

 The best way to organize the telling of a story is through proper balance of suspense and action.  Alfred Hitchcock was fond of defining suspense as the “the opposite of surprise.”

Surprise: when something happens and you don’t expect it.
Suspense: when you expect it and it doesn’t happen.

 Any story upon which the element of surprise, action and suspense can be superimposed is a candidate for success in the Hollywood format or any format for that matter.  Often, the suspense/action balance can be adjusted after the film is shot.

 Steven Spielberg owes much of his success to an instinctive understanding of this process n Jaws (also to Verna Field’s excellent help in editing).  In both Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg is confronted with rather thin stories.  Not a lot happens either.  The films work because of what does not happen.  In Jaws, the shark enters the bay, but it does not eat the children.  In Close Encounters, the aliens give the signal but their spaceships do not land until the end of the movie.  Spielberg knows very well how to build on these non-events by keeping the nervous tension of the characters at a high level from the beginning.  He even shoots new footage which appears at the opening of the film Close Encounters.  There is no reason for a sandstorm in the desert to be there when Lacombe goes to investigate the mysteriously returned airplanes.  No reason, except that the sandstorm is noisy, tense, dangerous.

 

B. CHARACTER

 The general run of American films is strongly plot-oriented, however, the best American movies depend heavily on character for the full effect, even at the expense of storyline.  (N.B. Directors who are more interested in character than action: Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, Paul Mazursky, Lino Brocka, Danny Zialcita, Ishmael Bernal.)

 The suspense/action style was so widespread in the 70’s; clearly Spielberg supplied the action in that period, even when the action was not necessarily there.  Films relied heavily on ACTORS to bring the action alive.

 Example, French Connection could not have worked without Gene Hackman.  Star Wars found an appropriate crux in Alec Guinness Obi-Wan Kenobi and the resonant voice dubbed after shooting of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader.

 Without Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw (to a lesser extent Roy Scheider) Jaws would not have been the film it was, and Dreyfuss once more with Francois Truffaut breathed life into Close Encounters.

In the films just mentioned, it is the actor, the star, who brings character to the role.  In films which are in the first place oriented towards character, the material is there to begin with like Ordinary People, Kramer vs Kramer.   On the other hand, there were films, The Godfather for example, that made stars of a number of hitherto unknown actors, because the roles themselves had power: Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, James Caan, Diane Keaton.

 People may go to the movies for the visceral excitement of professionally paced action, but they become moviegoers because of the people they see on the screen.  They come back to see these beautiful people.

C. SETTING

 Setting is probably the most important in film that any other art.  Moreover, it increases in importance with each passing year.  People do go to movies to see places they have not been, whether it is another galaxy, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, or Rio de Janeiro.  (Albeit, they also like to see places they have been.)

 The indoor movies, once a staple of the studios, prisoners of their huge, expensive lights, often seems cramped and claustrophobic.

 But setting alone can’t make a commercially successful film (ex. Cherry Blossoms, Miss X, Pinoy Matador). They are all essentially travelogues. Location work adds immeasurably to a film with other things going for it. For example, Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag, Insiang, Cruising, Julia, The Boys from Brazil have a grit and texture that they would not have had on a studio set. William Friedkin’s underrated Sorcerer might not have been worth the $20 million it cost to make, but it certainly did provide an interesting trip.  Same with Apocalypse Now.

 Since studios per se have been largely freed from reproducing New York streets and plantation mansions, they are now able to devote their energies to the construction of fantasies, like Star Wars, Alien. Hence there is a rise of science fiction (Sci-Fi) like the Red Planet, and wonderfully symbolic and mechanical James Bond interiors.

 Setting is not a matter of locale alone. People are also fascinated by the way things work. One of the main pleasures of the caper films is figuring out how the puzzle will be solved. As the old TV caper series Mission Impossible used to phrase it at the beginning of every show: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is…”. Here are the premises, what’s the solution.

 Francois Truffaut thinks one of the strengths of American movies has been -- they showed how working people’s jobs are done -- as a pedagogical tool, film can explain how to perform a task better than a book, better than a record, and better than a still photograph. This epistemological value should be recognized in fictional entertainment too.

 D. THEME

 Theme is, perhaps surprisingly, a salable commodity. People go to adventure films, to women’s films, to mid-life crisis movies, to youth films etc., at least partially for what those films have to say -- MESSAGE.

 Example Network was not a success because of Paddy Chayeksky’s heaty dialogue. It was not Faye Dunaway or Bill Holden that linked them up around the block -- it was the subject, television and the attitude the film expressed toward it. Network did not make the point very clearly, but people wanted to hear any critique of TV. Same is with Being There, the last film of Peter Sellers.

 All The President’s Men attracted viewers mainly because it helped explain how Watergate had happened and people wanted to hear it too. There had been a market of films about the way we live, and the more it was catered to, the larger it would grow.

 Movies have always been prized by critics and general audiences alike for the strong mythic base on which they are built. That is the chief reason for the perennial popularity of genres like the western, the gangster, and the detective story. (Tagalog films: Ramon Revilla’s “true to life” stories like Nardong Putik, Tiagong Akyat, etc.). All films mean something; whether or not the filmmaker intends it. Interpretation -- supplying meaning -- is the job of the consumers as well as producers.

 The thematic spectrum runs from the direct and relatively simple lessons of realistic films that describe the way we live now (Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer, And Justice for All, Pakawalan Mo Ako, Insiang) to the more complex and amorphous significance of mythological genres (such as Rocky, F.I.S.T., Fernando Poe’s Ang Panday, Santiago). Far more being an intellectual’s preoccupation, theme is the necessary skeleton on which action, character and setting are arranged. If the bare bones are not there, audiences will know it (like Burgis).

Occasionally, a film enjoys a successful run simply because it carries with it the aura of “meaningfulness”. American films that mean to be “serious” are often about outcasts or cripple (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, The Other Side of the Mountain, Inside Moves, Tinimbang Ka…). Partly, audiences are attracted because such movies appeal to voyeurism and maudlin sentimentality, but basically people are interested in such downbeat films because seeing them becomes an act of moral commitment.

 

E. STYLE

 This last of the five elements of the cinematic equation is the least defensible. Only trained observers, mass communication and communication arts students, look for it or appreciate it. If it is blatantly evident, it is usually done in bad faith, and audiences react with sensible contempt (e.g. Celso Ad Castillo’s Uhaw na Dagat).

 In European Films, style usually plays a notably more significant part than in American films. Since European films are on the whole much more personal communications, the tone of voice of the author is an important element in the grand design. You can easily spot a Bergman film, a Fellini, a Godard or Bertolucci. American films, however, can’t rely on this established, intimate relationship between filmmaker and film viewer. American films exist in the context of movies as powerful mass entertainment, so that personal style, when it makes itself evident, often seems intrusive. In terms of American movies, style is all too often defined as the residue that remains after action and character, setting and ideas have been extracted.

 Some American filmmakers are still enamored by the European approach despite its inapplicability to the American situation. Most egregious recent example of this falsely placed faith has been Allen’s Interiors. Same can be said of Ishmael Bernal, who took up filmmaking in India, who tries to inject into his film a style that is too Indian, i.e. slow paced, long pauses, static camera, etc. Nunal Sa Tubig flopped because of this and to a lesser degree, City After Dark, which was too episodic in treatment.

 

F. SEX and MUSIC

 To these five classic elements we should add two others, each of which is something more than a gimmick, but less than a basic component of the construction: SEX and MUSIC.

They are hardly necessary and sufficient like the five from which films are built, but they can often save a “borderline case” film. There is a strong element of voyeurism to the film experience, so a judicious nude scene here and there can mean the margin between profit and less, especially when feature films are in direct competition with television. Even when a film contains no explicit sex, the very presence of actors and actresses often work to provide a sexual subtext.

 MUSIC, on the other hand, may seem exterior to the film itself. Yet, it is the mortar that fills in the cracks, even sometimes when they are large enough to push a dolly through.

Prove it by turning down the sound of your TV. More often than not, it is not the image that moves us, but the musical ground case that tells us what to think and how to feel about that image.

 In conclusion, we can say that in American films, technique has been refined to a high state. Nearly any subject of theme is now permissible. Filmmakers have been freed from the prison of the studio; settings are infinite in their variety. Characters are ready and waiting. BUT, all these elements are useless unless we can escape the tyranny of the suspense/action clichs that rule the vast majority of American movies. We no longer trust ourselves to tell our own stories. If it does not fit the formula, audiences won’t buy it. The industry suffers from a kind of collective aphasia.

 We will know it has been cured when someday, the traditional starting call rings out. “Lights! Camera! Character!”.

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Ateneo de Davao University
14 November 2001