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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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A "motif" is any significant, repeated element in a film. Almost any visual or aural element can become "motific," provided it plays a significant role in either the film’s narrative or stylistic system.

Although visual motifs are quite common and easy to identify, a motif can be almost anything--a recurring melody on the soundtrack, a particular, distinctive camera movement or technique, a prop, a lighting technique, a line of dialogue, even an abstract theme or idea.

Motifs serve several important functions within a film’s narrative and stylistic systems.

  • Unity: Motifs help unify films by establishing central issues and images to which the film returns again and again. Motifs can make the viewer recall previous moments in the film when that image or idea appeared, allowing the film maker to help the audience identify narrative patterns, making connections between characters, events, and ideas.
  • Aesthetic coherence: Motifs help provide coherence to a film’s visual style (it’s "look"), and can suggest thematic meanings.

From John Ford’s The Searchers (1956)

Can you spot the motif? What might it "mean"?

From North By Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959)

What do these 5 stills have in common?

Here, the motif draws parallels between Roger and Vandamm (each are competing for Eve’s loyalty, affection, and identity).

The motif also communicates Eve’s vulnerability at crucial narrative moments. When her lovers doubt her "true" identity, which she must conceal, they refuse to touch her body.

Here the compositional motif evokes classic western-style face-offs and shoot-outs, using blanks, of course! ("She had me pinned down for five minutes before I realized it was that same, silly gun of yours.")

Does this selection of images from the film suggest a possible pattern for the film’s narrative development ?

Ideally, each element in a film should be motivated. That, is, it should serve some kind of function. Initially, Roger’s monogrammed matchbook tells us something about his character and gives Roger a chance to gallantly light Eve’s cigarette and make a self-deprecating joke.

Later, however, the attention Hitchcock gave the matchbook in the earlier scene pays off narratively, when Roger uses it to covertly communicate with Eve. Had the matchbook, and the distinctive monogram, not been established earlier, this scene would make no sense.

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Ateneo de Davao University
15 November 2001