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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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Notes on the Nature of Film Language: MIMETIC ELEMENT
Hum 3: Film Principles

To understand the film medium, its power of communication, we will consider the two unique elements of cinema: the mimetic and the kinetic elements.


 Mimesis means imitation.

 We have often heard that art is an imitation of life.  But film as an art is not an exact copy or imitation of life.  It is not a reflection of reality, but rather a transformation of it.   The film may even be a distortion of reality or sublimation of it.  In other words, cinema is a new way in which to see life.

 The fact that cinema presents so comparatively complete a picture of the real world (more complete than any other art) has encouraged people to think that the way to artistic perfection lies in approaching nearer and nearer the full physical reality.

 We’ll see that the film differs enormously from physical reality and it is largely in these differences that the film’s artistic power lies.

 The advocates of perfect cinema (cinema total) claim that cinema is imperfect to the extent that it falls short of complete reality.  (Perfect cinema is total reality)  But if this dream were realized, namely cinema equals reality completely, then cinema would be reality itself and would cease to be an art.  And art is only an imperfect imitation of life.  But no matter how the imperfect imitation is, people do enjoy seeing a movie.  For them watching a movie is more enjoyable than its counterparts in reality.  Why is it so?

 Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, claimed that we delight in recognition -- we delight to see things in a work of art that are also very familiar to us from our experience of reality.  Siegfried Kracaeur, for example, contended that one of the unique pleasures of cinema is its ability to show us devastating catastrophes that either could not be experienced in life at all without killing the participants or could not be experienced without revulsion, horror and pain.  Certainly, the “new wave” of disaster films (Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Airport ’75, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Jaws, The Day After, The Abyss, Perfect Storm) supports this observation.

 But how can we take pleasure in witnessing something quite painful?

The classic answer is that the painful experience produces some positive, healthful result -- a “catharsis” or purgation.  The cathartic phenomenon is the figurative cleansing of the emotions, especially pity and fear, described by Aristotle as an effect of tragic drama on its audience.  It is some kind of a release of emotional tension, as after an overwhelming experience, that restores or refreshes the spirit.   This operative function of the film sometimes relieves tension and anxiety by bringing repressed feelings and fears to consciousness.

Stanley Cavell’s description of our psychological relationship to the world as projected on a screen is much more direct to the point.  He sees movies as inherently voyeuristic.  “The pleasure movies give is that of wrapping the spectator in a cloak of invisibility, allowing us to be present and not present at the same time, a viewer with no responsibility except to view, a participant whose only participation is not physical.”

Voyeurism, an obsessive observation of sordid or sensational subjects, allows us to experience all the excitement of disaster and pain from a distance, to witness the most horrible events (wars, violence, accidents, etc.) without any danger of feeling the real pain.  The disaster is very real (for it is there before us in the screen!) and yet absolutely not real (for we know it has occurred or it is only a fiction or make-belief) at the same time.

We call this movie-experience vicariousness -- feeling or undergoing the activity as if one were taking part in the experience or feelings of the character in the movie.

The mimetic work of art allows us to be subjected to the extraordinary excitement.  It even frightens in its exciting extraordinariness.  Oliver Stone’s film account of the Kennedy assassination in JFK is more exciting and more shattering than the actual event itself.

The same voyeurism and vicariousness that allow us to experience painful catastrophe with pleasure also allows us to experience idealized goodness and beauty with pleasure.  Therefore, mimetic art allows us to experience both a world much better, more pleasant, and more harmonious than our own … and a world harsher, much decadent, more painful than our own.  Films push the ordinariness of everyday life to the limits.  They thrust the fluctuating moments of joy and sorrow to the edge of extraordinary, with purity and consistency.  They allow us to undergo the extraordinary experiences that the ordinary life does not do.  They give us as much as many kinds of extraordinariness as possible under the sun.  They take us not only out of our lives but out of our skins, allowing us to see and feel life vicariously within as many other kinds of skin as possible.


In order to experience this vicarious way of life with a mimetic work of art, you must be convinced that you are living through it (at the same time you know very well that you are not).

In order to actually “live through” this concrete dream or nightmare in viewing the film, you must have the conviction in the experience.

 This unshakable belief in film without need for proof or evidence is needed in order to actually “see” the film.  You cannot feel the terror of being trapped in a towering inferno unless you have convictions that you are actually undergoing that horrible experience.  Those who laughed during that film show (Towering Inferno) simply demonstrated their lack of conviction.

 This conviction parallels several more familiar and traditional narrative concepts.  Like “willing suspension of disbelief”, conviction implies an “internal” emotional response on the part of the viewer, who gladly and willingly accepts a fiction as a kind of truth.  This internal disposition of the viewer is the condition of possibility of the vicarious experience.

 Like “empathy” or “character identification,” conviction implies the sympathetic response of the viewer to a person (or persons) in the mimetic work, who serves as his surrogate.  We will only suspend disbelief to participate in the fiction as “real” if the work convinces us to do so.  And once we have been convinced, we accept the “realness” of the fiction until the work does something to unconvinced us.


 It is easier to show how mimetic works fail to convince us because of their verisimilitude[1] than to demonstrate the means by which they succeed.   Here are examples of cinematic flaws that cause in one way or another their failure to convince the viewer:

 Speech: The actor who forgets or stumbles over a speech (in a play or movie) instantly reminds us that he is an actor doing an impersonation, shattering, perhaps only for an instant, our conviction that he is Hamlet.

Modes: Although many takes of movies allow us to avoid this kind of shattering, the film actor can destroy our conviction if the line sounds hollow, faked, forced, or somehow out of keeping with the personality of the actor, the character, or imprudently out of place with the scene or with the ordinary human intelligence.

Mismatch:  Obvious mismatching of shots that we are supposed to accept as matching continuous sequence.  Like different lighting set-ups in one scene.

Mockery: A familiar bit of movie fakery that “reads” instantly as fake is “day for night”  filming, i.e. shooting night scenes during the day but using filters and laboratory processes so that the scene looks vaguely and bluely night scene.  The scene turns a bluish color such as never been seen in reality, and the actors cast shadows that can never seen even in the fullest and brightest moonlight.  (Francois Truffaut’s points in his film Day for Night, a lovingly ironic examination of cinema artifice, that in order to solicit conviction from the viewer, the artifice must never seem to be artificial.)  Imagine watching Darna flying in the sky but the viewer can see the nylon strings that hang her.

Intervals and Lapses: lapses in the continuity are another source of shattering our conviction.  Props -- flowers are problems.  More often than not realistic, fake flowers are used, since real flowers that wilt overnight will a cause a distracting temporal jump’ in the picture. 
Another is keeping the liquid at the right level in beverages can drive the prop people mad.  Same with the cigarettes.  This is called anachronism[2] -- when props or costumes accessories are used before or after their time. (Ex. Wristwatches and tennis shoes worn by gladiators in Spartacus; sounds of jet planes in the soundtrack during the execution of Jose Rizal in Noli Me Tangere.

Example of Costume and Make Up and other Flaws:

    • Judy Garland’s hair changes in length at least three times in The Wizard of Oz.
    • Glenn Close’s dark blue suit and a white blouse become a dark brown suit and a light brown blouse in the same courtroom scene in Jagged Edge.
    • In Batman, the young Jack Nicholson, in a flashback, has blue eyes; later Jack’s eyes turn brown.
    • In Indiana Jones, the Last Crusade, young Indy gets roughed up and the dripping blood on his chin switches from left side to right side.
    • In the Wizard of Oz, the cowardly lion’s crown, supposedly made from a broken flowerpot, bounces when it falls from his head.
    • An assistant director can be seen in a jeep waving extras in the 1956 War and Peace -- wrong war!
    • In Indiana Jones, Indiana asks Hitler for an autograph -- der Fuhrer signs his name ADOLPH rather than the correct Germanic ADOLF.  To compound the crime, Hitler signs with his right hand, but Hitler is left-handed!

The distinguishing mark of a work of art, therefore, is the element of verisimilitude.  Verisimilitude is the quality or the state of having the appearance of truth -- short of being similar to truth.  Even if a movie is an escapist or sheer entertainment, it should register faithfully to the demands of reality.  It must reek of the common believable experience -- something that makes us perk up and say to ourselves -- yes -- that is true, just like in real life.


We have seen from the previous notes that the intemperate rendering of reality is one of the chief sources of conviction in movie.  There is then the problem with sci-fi films and cartoon.  Why do we enjoy these films?

One of my professors in college tells me that when we read the newspaper, we shift our level of understanding from one section to another.  We read the news as factual, yet we read the editorial as opinion, not factual.  Later we read the comics.  We do not treat each section with the same criteria -- we believe the headline, yet we believe the cat while reading Garfield, as if there is really a cat that talks back to its owner (our laughter signals that we are convinced by Garfield).

Conviction does not deny the verisimilitude and legitimacy of films like Walt Disney’s cartoons and science-fiction films.

If scenery, for example, is supposed to look natural, it must look like nature.  If the scenery is not supposed to look natural (as in cartoons), it must not be.  We will not have a conviction in an obvious lie --- that a flat piece of painted cardboard is a tree --- unless the artist admits that it is a lie and is using that fib for some artistic purpose.

In such films, like cartoons, we are not asked to have conviction in a painted cardboard as tree but are invited to have a conviction in a world in which painted cardboards pass for trees.  Only when the artists tells us that the obvious cardboard is a tree and he sees it as exactly as we do, otherwise we suspect that he either blind, stupid, lying or some combination of the three and thereby lose conviction.

Things in mimetic art had better seem to be what they are supposed to be -- especially in cinema, in which we can see clearly what they seem to be.  If possible, of course, to feel a limited conviction in a mimetic experience, both to feel some conviction of “actually” undergoing a real experience and to be aware of the trickery and fakery at the same time.  Our pleasure in classic horror films (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Werewolf, Superman, King Kong, or E.T.) lies in the admiration of the imaginative devices for depicting them. z

[1] The quality of appearing to be true or real

[2] A misplacing or error in the order of time; an error in chronology by which events and props are misplaced in regard to each other, esp. one by which an event is placed too early; falsification of chronological relation.


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07 December 2001