Moving Picture Book Worm

Another week passes, and another famous dead person’s advice is put under the proverbial microscope. In this case, it’s Roger Ebert, the late, great film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, who redefined the profession as one-half of both Siskel & Ebert for three decades, and Ebert & Roeper for a fourth; suffice it to say, he knew what made a good movie great, and a bad movie worse.

In 2008, two years after leaving the balcony for the final time for thyroid cancer treatment, Ebert wrote the essay, “How to Read a Movie,” on his website. The selling point of the article was a brief backstory to Ebert’s reviewing style, primarily how a fellow critic of Roger’s, named John West, told him of a method to reviewing movies, similar to how high school football coaches review plays: “Just pause the film, and think about what you see.”

This style, later dubbed “democracy in the dark,” and eventually, “Cinema Interruptus,” by Conference on World Affairs founder Howard Higman, is what this class is going to do to classic films, past and present, as a key part of this week’s checklist, but before I do that, I must first understand what Mr. Ebert was looking for, when he used it to dissect his era’s big pictures.

For starters, we learn about the “Rule of Thirds,” also known as the “Golden Ratio;” Ebert said this rule implies that the further to the right of an ideal center a character is placed on film, the more “positive” they look, and the further to the left they are, the more “negative” they look, with the center frame providing proper objectification, similar in vein to a criminal’s mug shot. It basically means that in what is referred to as a “two-shot,” or a shot with two people involved, the man furthest to the right of the camera’s range will play the more dominant role, regardless of how the scene, itself, is shot.

This does make sense, given the proper context; in talk show interviews, the focus is always going to be on the person furthest to the right, either because the interviewer’s a trusted name, or their guest’s a foremost expert on certain topics. In several scenes from television episodes that I remember viewing over the years, it’s the character that’s furthest to the right, at least among those actually speaking, that tends to have the voice of reason, while everyone else takes the situations thrown at them to their most logical extremes.

This is probably why Ebert sums up the “Golden Ratio” as the future living on the right, and the past, on the left; the more idealistic, and optimistic, the argument is, the farther to the right of the screen the character representing it should be shown, while the more realistic, and often, fatalistic, the argument is, the farther to the left its representative should be. Again, this is all from Mr. Ebert’s perspective, not my own; according to him, these opinions are intrinsic, and not absolute.

Reading further into the essay, Ebert also said that “movement is dominant over things that are still,” suggesting that any form of body language, no matter how little of it there is, can still tell a better story than someone who strikes a pose for a lengthy amount of time. This is self-explanatory, as a man running for his life from a nearby threat is going to conjure up more emotion than someone standing in the middle of the road, in total indifference to the car coming his way, almost as if he wants to die.

Plus, the foreground – the characters and their dialogue – is more important than the background – the location of the conversation proper; in other words, regardless of the scene, the scenery’s expendable, and all of the focus falls on the people on screen to move the plot forward, and not Chekhov’s gun. Again, this sort of thing works the best if the characters have the chemistry to make the conversation they have feel believable, even if the situation it’s based on isn’t relatable to the general audience; the best possible way this can fail is if the key actors, in essence, break the suspension of disbelief by phoning in their lines, showing the paying public how little they care about their scenes, in general, much less the movie, as a whole.

Another piece of advice, which states that “a POV [shot] above a character’s eyeline reduces him,” but “below the eyeline, enhances him,” means that the cameraman, if close-up shots are necessary, must let the character’s facial expressions speak for them, when body language will not. This can work if someone is as good at facial expressions as Charlie Chaplin, but in recent years, as more and more actors are preparing for roles where they portray no emotions outside of obligatory reaction shots, it seems like this is fast becoming a lost art form.

Finally, the claim that “extreme high angle shots make characters into pawns,” while “low angles make them into gods,” shows the audience that positions of authority are in play during a scene, or a feeling of sympathy is in order, should the “lesser beings” fail an increasingly-impossible quest; this is something hinted at, all too well, in the music video for the XTC song, “Dear God,” which opens and closes on those extreme angles, with the same intentions in mind. A gimmick like this can work when the situation portrayed in the scene is within striking distance of the point of no return, and every last alternative has been tried; it can only fail if the shot is done solely to look the part, without any reason, whatsoever, for it to be there at all.

As part of the writing process for this entry, I’ve also taken the time to watch three separate YouTube clips, regarding specific elements of filmmaking. The first leg of our triple-feature is Videomaker’s “Camera Angles and Techniques,” which mainly focuses on camera placement and a technique called the “Zolly,” two things used in action films to great effect, especially during the buildup to the scenes every paying theater patron watches them for. Camera placement is a matter of creativity, as the drama of a film increases whenever the necessary shots and angles are used, to justify the feeling of dread; the “Zolly,” on the other hand, has two things occur at the same time, and at the same speed, to, also, increase the tension on screen; “by zooming out with the camera while using a dolly to move in, the subject stands out, as separated from the background, and looks as if they were floating toward the camera,” according to the video.

Another video that helps justify the filming of a movie as “a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world” is Oscar Feiven’s list of the “Top 20 Amazing Cinematic Techniques,” which digs a little deeper into what kinds of angles make for more memorable imagery; the very first clip on that list, from Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, gets everyone’s attention immediately, as the merging of “Doggicam” and long takes lets you feel all the people’s emotions at once, while the angry mob pelts their caravan, leaving the audience to better understand the cause of the main cast’s woes. This further proves the earlier quote about movement selling the story more than standing still, as having the focus on one person driving a car, while the sounds of panicking passengers are heard en masse, only tells part of the story, and doesn’t even do a good-enough job with that; even the following entry, also from Children of Men, replaces “Doggicam” with a tracking shot, to add to the realism of the piece by giving the audience the illusion of running alongside someone for cover from tank fire!

The final screening for this evening goes to Joe Boyd’s infamous match cut example, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; for those of you that don’t know, a match cut is when two things in separate scenes graphically match, like a dinosaur bone and the exterior of a space shuttle, in order to provide scene-to-scene continuity, as well as a metaphorical link between the two acts, like one representing man’s evolution from beating each other senseless with whatever weapons we could find, to building ships capable of exploring new worlds. This clip sums up everything an aspiring movie expert needs to know about 2001, as it visually reveals to the audience that everything that ever happened in the past, present and future all stems from the exact same point, with someone entering unknown territory, and coming out better for having done so.

The entire process of making this post made me realize how much time and effort goes into making any movie, of any kind, and that for all of the negativity that goes into calling something a cutthroat industry, that phrase may actually be the one that makes the most sense, when it comes to describing how movies are made. While I may stick to my personal preferences and comfort zones, from time to time, I now know how far I must go to make my future projects better than what the blueprints suggest, and I don’t think I’m going to let any of these cinematic titans down any time soon.

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