Understanding The Language of Cinema – Part One
If you watch and enjoy films to any extent then you most certainly have an understanding of film language to which you have probably never given much thought. Believe me, people are always smarter than they give themselves credit for and it can take the simplest of thought processes to trigger their understanding of this. As a film critic, I like to think of myself as a kind of interpreter of the themes and ideas communicated in a film into a language that laypeople can fully understand. The truth is that without film critics, people would be perfectly capable of watching films, responding to them and understanding them for themselves. As an exercise in critical thought, I am going to do my best to take you through some simple thought processes to make you understand why it is you respond to films the way you do, from merely following a narrative thread to understanding subjectivity and abstract expressionism. Don’t worry, this isn’t a film school class I’m talking about; we’re all friends here and I’m not going to throw you in at the deep end. I’m going to try to use examples from films most of you are likely to have seen, including a lot of recent releases, rather than send you out with a list of films you’ve never heard of to track down and watch. If you are a film student, you may find these essays a little beneath you, both in my explanations of certain terms and in the basic, entry-level approach to film theory that I will be employing here. This is the first step on what I hope will be a fun and informative journey and I welcome all comments and feedback.
Part One: Following a Narrative
To an alien who had never encountered a film before, they might appear at first as though they are nothing more than a series of moving images with sound (which they technically are). People talk to each other, things happen and everything is constantly flitting about in time and space. However, when watched altogether it is very clear how sudden movements from one location to another, the blending of sounds that occur both within the scene and outside of it, quick cutting and bizarrely unnatural dialogue all comes together as a single narrative. There are various techniques which ease us through this; after all, our eyes are not accustomed normally to sudden changes in direction and location. As we encounter real life, every movement we make registers and our eyes adjust accordingly. In a film, a cut from one scene to another should be jarring to us, but there are various techniques that are employed to ease us into these sudden visual changes.
To begin, we’re going to be taking a look at Die Hard, which is – structurally speaking – one of the finest-crafted films you could ever hope to watch. Every element of Die Hard is very carefully constructed to guide its audience through the action so that they will never be lost no matter what happens. If you’ve got a copy of the film to hand, why not pop it in? Just for the first few minutes so we can take a closer look at some of the techniques it uses to lead its audience through the narrative.
Die Hard opens on a very quiet scene, we are introduced to John McClane (Bruce Willis) as he lands in L.A. and a fellow aeroplane passenger gives him advice on how to acclimatise himself when he arrives (remove your footwear, walk around barefoot and make fists with your toes), which becomes a major plot component. Die Hard is a good example of a film that takes a lot of time to show you the intricacies of travel and even here we jump from the plane to the terminal to inside a limo without any of those sudden changes feeling jarring. That’s because the scenes are very carefully intercut. We start with a black screen and the sound of the plane, then an exterior (possibly stock footage) shot of the plane itself landing. The engine sounds are constant as we then cut to the interior of the plane cabin and a close-up of McClane’s hand anxiously gripping the armrest of his seat. We’ve already learned a lot about McClane and the situation he is in from these few images.
The scene on the plane ends with McClane taking his giant teddy bear and leaving. As he leaves, he exits the view of the camera and also leaves behind the fellow passenger whose face was the first to appear on screen. As McClane walks away, the musical score kicks in, it is a very simple rhythmic sleigh-bell kind of thing and it eases us into the next scene. As McClane left the frame to end the previous scene, this scene begins with him out of frame as we watch him walk up some stairs into the airport baggage collection area. The music is constant throughout this scene and it even leads us into the next scene which has in scene music that follows a similar rhythm, although it is a much more pleasant melody. Visually, we have left McClane just to the left of the centre of the frame. After the cut, we are introduced to Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta), another principal character, standing slightly to the right of the centre of frame. This is a technique generally used to keep a solid sense of geography during conversation scenes as the camera cuts back and forth between the two speakers so we feel like we are located directly between them, turning our head back and forth between them as they exchange dialogue. In scenes like that, this maintaining of the eye line is a hard and fast rule, here it is simply a technique to guide you through these scenes.
This scene is another wonderful example of establishing geography as the camera follows Takagi from his office to the large lobby area where a Christmas party is being held. From the top of the stairs he watched Holly Gennaro move through the crowd. We then cut to a hand-held camera (possibly a steadicam) following Gennaro through the corridors of this floor. She shoots down a terrible attempt to hit on her from Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner) then sits at her desk and picks up the phone. Our mind is automatically moving onto where the next scene could be taking place. Just before we cut away, the camera takes a peek over Holly’s shoulder to reveal some family photos, here we learn that she is actually married to John McClane. The next scene begins with a ringing phone in the foreground and two children playing on the floor in the background, obviously the same children from the photographs. The cutting from someone dialing a number to a ringing phone being answered is as natural and expected as cutting between two faces in a conversation. Had this sequence of events happened in a different order – introducing us to the children answering the ringing phone before we meet Holly – we would have had to think backwards through context clues to pick up on what is immediately established here. Another common technique in handling phone calls is to not cut to the other side of the conversation until after we hear the voice of whoever it is.
At the end of the phone call, Holly lays down a photograph of McClane. This makes an uncommonly loud bang which punctuates the cut back to the airport where McClane is now talking to Argyle (De’voreaux White), his limo driver. We see this technique used a lot in modern films, often leading to a soundtrack full of bangs and harsh, rhythmic tones. The scene ends with McClane asking “What do we do now, Argyle?” and then waiting for a reply. The reply never comes in dialogue, but appears as a cut to the next scene where he is sitting up front in the limo with Argyle. This is another common technique, allowing a pause in a scene of dialogue to hang just long enough to make the audience await the reply. When the reply doesn’t come verbally, we wait for something else. In most cases, the “something else” is a simple scene transition.
We’re not going to go any further into Die Hard (though, feel free to watch the rest at your leisure), but you can see how these first few minutes establish a lot of editing techniques that are designed to keep audiences on the same page. A lot of these originated in theatre, anytime a scene ends by having all the actors leave the frame or a fade to black, that’s a theatrical technique. The lingering dialogue and leading sounds come from radio drama and the loud bang effect is pure cinema. We see a lot more techniques throughout Die Hard, mostly establishing geography. For example, McClane sees the Nakatomi building up ahead from the limo and we then cut to an interior of the building. There’s also a lot of use of walkie-talkies in the film to keep a natural movement from scenes between the villains and the police outside. In one instance, McClane finished one conversation on a radio and then starts another with a different character immediately after. At the start of the second conversation, he turns around to face the opposite direction. This not only establishes geography, but is reminiscent of another cinematic technique where the protagonist would finish a serious conversation with one character who would leave from the left and then cross the stage and begin speaking to a comic relief character who has just entered from the right. (If you want to see more of this theatre/cinema blending and how cinema has pulled away from these restrictive techniques, I’d suggest you watch Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet – assuming you’ve got four hours to kill).
Now you can see why something that should fundamentally be a confusing series of images makes perfect sense to us as a logical progression through simple technical tricks. What I’ve been explaining to you here is simply baby-steps. Next time we’re going to have a little bit more fun and look at how our brain interprets visual art on a day-to-day basis and how we then apply that to our enjoyment and understanding of films.