Filmmaking is a collaborative effort with several elements that are worthy of analytical consideration. The success of a film is dependent upon telling a story that is cohesive and interesting through the use of cinematic elements, talented actors, and a host of other factors that affect the films quality. The ability to analyze these elements by the audience can enhance and deepen their viewing experience. Paying attention to the details of a film along with the nuances that occur between actors during their interactions with one another adds further dimension to what would have otherwise been a simple, flat story line.
Some of the criteria that a quality film should meet according to the standards of an educated film critic would include believable settings, actors, and dialogue. The film sequences would be cohesive and logical and the costumes would be relevant to the setting and time period. Perhaps there would be a moral to the story, but this is not necessary if the intent of the film is to entertain or frighten. Motivational movies are great; who does not like to be uplifted from time to time? In essence, when analyzing or reviewing a film, there are many elements one should be aware of.
Accurate and effective film analysis is dependent upon some knowledge of the film making industry as well as its cinematography aspects. Background knowledge of the movies producer will also aid the film critic in arriving at more accurate conclusions about the films message and purpose.
There are many reasons for which films are made. Some films are meant to be entertaining and uplifting, like The Secret Garden (1994) that inspired young girls to trust and explore their nurturing nature. Other films are looking to thrill audiences by frighten their sox off. Alfred Hitchcock was one such director as he produced films like Psycho (1960). Still, there are those who choose their films based upon the message it contains about social, personal, or relational issues. Such films might include Schindler’s List (1993) that dramatically detailed the abuse and uncontested genocide of millions of Jews. Similarly, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) brought to light the plight of the mentally ill. Because there are many reasons producers make a film, one must be aware of why the movie was made when considering the accuracy of what was portrayed.
Whatever the reason one chooses to view a movie, their viewing pleasure can be increased through an education of the filmmaking process. One must also contend with whatever preconceived ideas one has about a film. Whether these ideas originate from its genre, its actors, or even its producer, the ability to develop a more objective attitude towards movies will open the field for broader experiences. “As students of film, once we have gathered facts, decided what movies to see, and attempted to clear our minds of preconceptions, then what? We should begin to deepen our perceptions” (Boggs & Petrie, 2008, p. 17).
The more one becomes experienced in analyzing film, the more one can become open to the perceptions and opinions of others. After all, a film is the collaborative expression of the screen writer, producer, actors, as well as the entire film crew. These expressions can be detected within the cinematography and the elements of its visual style. These elements include color, space, focus, depth of field, camera angles, point of view, composition, movement, aspect ratios, lighting, and atmosphere. The quality usage of each of these elements contributes to the overall feel and quality of the film.
Color can be used to facilitate atmosphere, harmony, irony, leitmotifs, mood, as well as symbolism and expressionism. In Rebel Without a Cause (1955) the red jacket is used to convey the rebellious nature of Jim (James Dean), the red lipstick that later transitions to pink signifies the way Judy’s (Natalie Wood) father makes her feel like a harlot, and the one red sock worn by ‘Plato’ (Sal Mineo) demonstrates his confusion about relationships. The use of color is and important element used in films as a form of communicating further, deeper meaning to the audience.
The portrayal of space, focus, and depth of field enhances the picture quality as well as informative content of what is viewed by the audience. The use of depth of field as well as deep focus by producer Orson Wells in the film Citizen Kane (1941) enhanced several of its scenes. The shot of Kane (Orson Wells) walking down the mirrored hallway allows us to simultaneously view several images emphasizing the irony of the lonely position he now finds himself in. It is the viewer’s awareness of these elements that adds to the meaning and feel of a film. As indicated by Boggs and Petrie, the objective camera simply conveys the actions of the characters without implying emotion or feelings.
Other elements that are used in order to more effectively add dimension and meaning to the story are camera angles, point of view, and composition. In Rebel Without a Cause the opening scene is a composition of the films three central characters. Each character is introduced to the audience at the police department as each one has been brought there for unrelated reasons. While the audience is allowed to view more than one of these characters at a time, they are not necessarily aware of one another. This objective point of view indicates the ultimate interconnectedness of these young people.
The use of different camera angles can be used to symbolize meanings within shots or scenes. When viewing a scene from a low angle shot the size and importance of the subject can be emphasized (Boggs & Petrie, 2008). This visual element helps to enhance the films message through added dimension. After Kane’s electoral defeat in Citizen Kane, the low angle shots help to emphasize his fall from self-perceived importance to lowliness. Camera angles are to cinematographers as body language is to conversationalists.
The ability to discern the usage and meaning of movement, aspect ratios, and lighting throughout a films presentation can also add meaning and quality when viewing films. Many directors make great use of movement in their films in order to capture and maintain the attention of its viewers. “The eye is …drawn to an object in motion, and a moving object can divert our attention from a static one” (Boggs & Petrie, 2008, p. 135). This element is used in Rebel Without a Cause when Jim (James Dean) exits his position from the bushes when he goes to find ‘Plato’ (Sal Mineo) before the police do. As Jim comes out of the bushes, they continue to shake which keeps our attention focused on the spot into which Judy (Natalie Wood) enters. This was a masterful use of movement within a film.
Aspect ratios are utilized when considering what viewable information needs to be presented in order to tell the complete story. Standard screen allows an edited version of the story to be told, thereby focusing the viewers’ attention on the information most pertinent to the scene. Conversely, “Cinemascope and Panavision can contribute significantly to the effectiveness of horror or suspense films” (Boggs & Petrie, p. 93). An informed viewer will notice the black areas above and beneath the picture when Cinemascope is being used. This helps to eliminate the dead screen, allowing the viewer to become more aware of the subject matter in between.
Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause was filmed using Cinemascope with an aspect ratio of 2.55:1, allowing for more focused, dramatic, and spatial subject content. A wide array of information is available to the viewer, such as the shot of Jim and Judy as they lay in the veranda with ‘Plato’ on the floor at their side. The audience is able to piece together the visual information in order to gain the understanding that Ray intended them to be portrayed as a ‘nuclear’ family. Each of them felt rejected and misunderstood by their own family, creating the idea that they would choose one another as family was facilitated by the use of visual elements. The often tilted camera angle also suggested the confused state these kids were living in. Additionally, the audience must be convinced of the credibility of what they are seeing and these cinematic elements can be effectively used to create the illusion of truth.
Another element available for manipulation by filmmakers is the use of lighting. Effective use of lights and lighting within a film can alter, enhance, or change the mood from scene to scene or shot to shot. For instance, during the scene in Rebel Without a Cause when Judy returns home after her boyfriend is killed in ‘chickie run’, the light that is on her is sharp and bright, illustrating her isolation and loneliness when compared to the soft, diffused lighting in her parent’s bedroom. Illustrating a point or mood through manipulation of lighting is an excellent way to add dimension to a film.
Constructing the correct atmosphere is essential in achieving a successful film. Nicholas Ray conducted personal research into the lives of teens in order to portray with accuracy the atmosphere in which they lived. The atmosphere that is portrayed in the film is that of confused, lonely kids acting out in rebellion or desperation in order to get the attention they desperately desired from both their parents and one another. This tense and dramatically charged atmosphere is perhaps at times more symbolic of how teens feel towards adults rather than how they behave towards one another. Regardless, Ray’s portrayal of the volatility teens feel is portrayed brilliantly when ‘Plato’ begins his emotional rampage when he believes Jim and Judy have abandoned him like his parents did. This added much to the dramatic element and emotional connotation to the film.
The atmospheric presentation in Casablanca (1942) was made memorable with aperture framing through the use of objects and shadows in the composition of many of its shots (Neilson, 2002). These frames served as symbolic meaning as well as elements used to focus the viewers’ attention. The arched doorways in Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) symbolized both the confinement of some of the patrons as well as foreshadowing the ultimate fate of others. They also served to focus the viewers’ attention on the subject matter within the frames.
Along with the cinematic and visual elements of a film, the narrative must be analyzed in order to fully understand what it is the director is attempting to convey. Nicholas Ray makes use of mise-en-scene in Rebel Without a Cause. The story begins in the middle of the action; much of the story has already occurred and the audience is made aware of these events through the dialogue within the police station. Additionally, the theme is revealed as the teens recount their actions. The express need for open, honest communication between teens and their parents is expressed as the current emotional state of the three is made known. Ray’s clever use of expository dialogue here allows the audience to become aware of information needed to understand the actions of the main characters. Although this film has a linear chronology, the narrative through dialogue provides much of the needed background information.
The montage of parents calling the police station concerning their children was rather expressive of the fact that sadly, it took drastic measures to evoke their parents concern for them. This was an important element of the film that was perhaps intended to inform parents that their children desire to have a relationship with them. It was the actors in this film that made this desire believable.
The skill of the actors is paramount in convincing the audience of the believability of a film. Boggs and Petrie defines action acting as, “demand[ing] skill in facial reactions and body language, physical strength, and coordination but little subtlety or depth in communicating emotions or thoughts” (2008, p. G-1). While the acting in Rebel Without a Cause was outstanding, it did have its weak moments. During the action scene in which Jim (James Dean) was engaged in a knife fight with Buzz (Corey Allen) was not one of Dean’s most convincing moments. This fact lends credibility to the claim made by Boggs and Petrie that action acting demands the use of well choreographed body language.
Moreover, the chemistry between actors adds an extra visually charging element to a film. When Judy approaches Jim before the start of chickie run, the audience could sense the chemistry between these two young, beautiful actors. Romanticism is an element that is not always present between leading actors, but when it is there you know it.
While the actor must submit to the director and to the camera, he must have the ability to remain natural and believable. “Actors must also possess the intelligence, imagination, sensitivity, and insight into human nature necessary to fully understand the characters they play-their inner thoughts, motivations, and emotions” (Boggs & Petrie, 2008, p. 320). They must maintain control of their emotions as well as body language while keeping an objective perspective of the role they are playing.
Sal Mineo gave a compelling display of acting as “Plato”. His facial expressions were as audible as his dialogue and body language. One could feel the desperation with which he sought someone to love and be loved. The emotion with which he acted seemed as real as any actor would have been capable of. The scenes in which he played a part were elevated as far as the acting was concerned; the performances of both Dean and Wood were also emotionally charged.
Along with the acting and cinematic elements, the use of sound and music are important tools used in the making of quality films. “The two most general and basic functions of the musical score are to create structural rhythms and to stimulate emotional responses, both of which greatly enhance and reinforce the effect of the image” (Boggs & Petrie, p. 292). The musical score for Rebel Without a Cause was written by Leonard Rosenman. An effective musical score maintains an accurate reflection of the films emotional patterns as well as its actions from sequence to sequence.
The film begins with orchestral music as James Dean’s character, Jim, is drunk on the ground playing with a toy monkey. Rosenman also makes use of musical scores that were remixed for use in Rebel Without a Cause. Throughout the film, the musical score, as well as sound effects, serve to cue the audience to the magnitude of what is happening or is about to happen. This musical score is not overpowering, but one is certainly aware of its presence. Some have criticized this musical score as being over scored, but many more were well pleased with the effect it had on the feel of the film.
In conclusion, film reviewing is not for everyone. Many feel that dissecting the elements of a film detract from the overall enjoyment of it. Others have the opinion that having cinematic knowledge helps one gain even more viewing pleasure from the film they view. While both have valid points, it is important to note that it is the cinematic knowledge that increases the spectrum of movies one would consider viewing by perpetuating a more open minded public. This open mindedness is what allows one to objectively identify and interpret the meaning of cinematic elements.
Boggs, J. M., & Petrie, D. W. (2008). The art of watching films (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Neilson, J. I. (December, 2002). On visual design and staging in Casablanca. Retrieved February 28, 2008, from Point of View Web site: http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_14/section_1/artc10A.html