Critical analysis and reviews can be difficult for a reader to assess and can often make them angry (see: The Dark Knight Rises). We know for a fact that people have wide-ranging opinions on movies, some of which are formed solely on expectation. One person’s Citizen Kane is another person’s Jack and Jill. I think the misunderstanding boils down to personal requirements and modes of analysis when watching a film. In the case of The Dark Knight Rises, critics were pointing out script faults and narrative developments that did not work while the fanboys were clamoring for an epic Batman-Bane battle and a rewarding finale regardless of how the film got there. These are obviously two different ways of looking at movies. Neither is technically wrong as long as you can either find what you’re looking for or dismiss it because the film did not meet your requirements. But for film critics I believe there should be a manifesto of their requirements and an explanation of what they look for in movies and what they expect. For example, if Todd McCarthy gives a negative review of a film you enjoyed you could always refer back and deduce that there was no way he would enjoy a superhero movie because his manifesto tells you that he focuses on editing, narrative structure, shot-composition, etc. when he looks for quality in a film. So, in general, the films of Michael Bay need not apply in this case. Therefore the casual film fan could at least base their opinion of a film and the review within the context of the reviewer’s subjectivity.
Well I’m going to provide a template for this manifesto. There are plenty of people who scratch their heads when I give my opinions on film, some who don’t understand and some who just plainly disagree. The fact is, I may look at a movie very differently than you. In all likelihood I do, since it’s nearly impossible for opinions to completely agree on anything. So for anyone who reads this, should I ever post a review or state an opinion on the state of film, past or present, you can understand my thoughts better.
These are the main elements that I look for and pay attention to when I watch a film.
1. Shot Composition: I am constantly studying the frame in order to determine the director’s use of the environment and staging. For a casual viewer this is a reference to the mise-en-scene, or anything that is on the screen in a single shot. What’s most important to know is that all the objects, people, colors, lights, and camera angles have a purpose and have a reason for being there, and a reason for being where they are. It’s important to pay attention to the juxtaposition of characters and objects within the space of the camera lens as well as the position of the camera in relation to the on-screen action. Many times you’ll see actors shot through a doorway or a window, or sometimes in extreme close-up, or other times in a medium two/three-shot. All of these lengths are intended to convey different meanings. The further the distance from the subject the less emotionally engaged the audience can be with the character, while the close-up allows for total emotional assessment. Similarly, scenes shot from behind curtains, through doorways, or over bookcases are meant to imbue a voyeuristic feeling to the scene, as if the audience is watching the action from a corner of the room unnoticed. You could show the exact same scene from five different angles and distances and each would convey different meanings and perspectives. The power or perception of a character can be altered drastically by a slight switch in position or shift in camera angle. We’ve all seen a “hero shot” in an action movie: usually low-angle, well-lit, in close-up or medium shot, facing the camera, sometimes with a camera zoom for a big reveal.
Take those elements away and you lose the feeling. The character does not convey the power, the camera set-up and shot composition do. David Lean was quoted as saying that all the camera pans in Lawrence of Arabia are left to right in order to give the audience a sense of journey. So what seems like a random camera movement is actually intentional and can convey different emotions and feelings. When I watch a movie I’m always looking for interesting set-ups and compositions and camera work, something that surprises me and keeps the film interesting and, most importantly, adds to the narrative. This is not to be confused with style for the sake of style though. Like the David Lean example, the camera work and shot composition should have a purpose and not be stylistic just because it looks cool.
2. Narrative Tone: This element can break a movie down for me. I would say 95% of movies set a tone and fail to keep it throughout the film. The best example I can give is post-2000 comedies and romantic comedies. Films like Wedding Crashers establish a frat-boy, adult-humored, raunchy tone for the first 2/3 of the movie, and they are marketed as such. The trailer shows the laughs and the raunchy set-up to get people thinking it’s an all-out comedy. But then what happens when we expect the comedic pay-off? It goes down Sappy Lane, jams in a romantic angle and loses the tone that got everyone hooked. I do feel like the difficulty in maintaining a constant tone throughout, or at least a tone relative to the narrative developments, sits squarely on the reliance on the studio structure of crafting movies (which I will get to in a few minutes). There are plenty of dramas as well that set up a certain feeling and then spiral out of it during the last 30 minutes or so. Think about films like Drive, Se7en, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, or Requiem for a Dream. These films instill a sense of dread or fear or dark excitement, and each of them follows through all the way to the end. Then look at something like 2012’s This is 40 and Hitchcock, two films that struggled mightily to tell a coherent story because the tone is all over the place. The former wants to be a brash comedy but also an honest picture of family life at a certain age, while the latter tries to show the marital struggles of a Hollywood couple as well as the work-related struggles and the troubled psyche of Alfred Hitchcock. Neither one of them maintain any semblance of a constant tone and because of that they feel scattered and boring at times. In general, films rarely have a great ending that pays off the build-up that came before it. The resolution is the most difficult thing to write and if they do get it right then you’ve got a winner. The easiest way to pay attention to tonal changes is to study the transitions from scene to scene and decide if the progression positively serves the narrative or side-steps the thematic elements that preceded them.
3. Lighting: This factor is a direct companion to my previous paragraph. Lighting is of the utmost importance in setting tone and is often unnoticed as a subconscious mood setter. Horror movies are scarier when the lighting is dark and shadowy, just as comedic films are generally lit up and bright in order to instill a lighter, happier tone. Take a second and imagine those two reversed and believe me the thematic material would not be the same. Take, for example again, Se7en: any scene shot inside an apartment other than Morgan Freeman’s and Brad Pitt’s is dark, shadowy and usually only lit from natural light sources, such as windows and doorways. Hence the reason for the accompanying screen cap:
A smokey, dark apartment, natural sunlight bursting in from the window and the flashlights cutting a horizontal path through the air as they illuminate the unnatural smoke or fog in the room. This is very cinematic and is a David Fincher trademark. Now check the other screen cap.
Take a look at the light source: entirely from natural sunlight in the windows at the top of the screen, casting long, eerie shadows down vertically through the cinematic space. The furniture is dark and reflective, while the carpet is white or cream in order to display the shadows as well as the red blood. All these elements affect the mood and play an important role thematically. Notice all the vertical lines in this composition: the blinds, arrangement of the furniture, the shadows, and the placement and posture of Brad Pitt in the center of the room. This shot really encompasses the entirety of two of my points, shot composition and lighting. Every element is present and placed in this room for a specific purpose. David Fincher’s movies are usually wonderful examples of all three of the elements I’ve pointed out so far.
4. Structure: Narrative structure is the playground and the prison of the screenwriter. Studio executives are conformists and inside the box thinkers. They have adopted what is called the Three-Act structure into mainstream cinema, and this has been the standard for many years. In short, this structure is a narrative guideline that can be easily identified in most any Hollywood film. Act 1 starts with character introductions and ends with the inciting incident, or the moment that initiates conflict in the story. This moment could be anything: a murder, a character loses their job, someone is wrongly accused of a crime, a heist plan is hatched, a break-up, and so on. Act 2 is the nuts and bolts of the film. Relationships are formed, a goal is set, and the narrative provides the motives and methods as the characters head towards that goal. Act 2 ends with incident number two, which is the moment when the conflict is at it’s highest point of difficulty and seemingly the protagonist is unable to complete the goal. This act is not over until the main character or characters have hit rock bottom, and once that moment comes to light you can be assured that the film is rushing towards the next Act. Act 3 is the final 30 minutes or so and embodies only the climax and resolution of the conflict. Either the hero wins and so gains the spoils of their achievement, or they lose and learn a lesson or two. This structure is easily applied to The Avengers and other similar films.
My issue with this structure is in the very nature of what a structure is: borders. Since when is film a medium which is supposed to be structurally sanctioned and predictable? If you understand the Three-Act structure then you will easily predict the narrative beats of most any Hollywood film. I have a serious issue with providing people with a blueprint for how a story is supposed to be told. So when I’m watching a movie, I’m always looking for unexpected beats that fly in the face of this rigidity. Also, should the film conform to the Three-Act structure, I’m looking for ways in which an inventive filmmaker can circumvent the traditional narrative architecture and make a film that still manages to be smart and surprising. Films are centered on conflict, but there shouldn’t be only one way of presenting that conflict. The strength of a film can be rooted in this presentation, as well as the gravity of the conflict. No conflict, no story. This is the reason many casual film fans have trouble with foreign films, being that this structure is mainly the template of Hollywood films. Many Americans are not used to watching anything but Hollywood films. So the next time you go to the movies pay attention to the flow of the narrative and see if it hits these beats. I’d wager that about 90% of what is screen in movie theaters is guilty of conforming to this blueprint.
So there you have it. That is essentially my thought process when watching and reviewing a movie. I’m not saying that I only look at these four points, but these are all very important to my reading and enjoyment of a film. I hope it helps with your understanding of my personal tastes as well as with your own understanding of the cinematic medium.