Learning to Read Movies

The first task of Week 10 has been to learn how to read movies. We all know how to watch movies, but can we all read them?

I’m a Communications and Digital Studies major. For one of the elective requirements, I took Intro to Cinema Studies here at UMW last semester. Here I thought that the semester would be full of just watching movies. This was definitely true, however, it was so much more than that. We had to learn the different parts of cinematography and got to go a little bit behind-the-scenes in order to understand why and how some of our favorite movies were made the way they were. It was not easy, I will tell you that. For example, it was strongly engrained in my brain that there is a huge difference between a shot and a scene in a movie. When I saw that we would be having a video unit in this class, I wondered if I would need to revisit my movie-sleuthing, if you will, abilities. I was (sort-of) right.

I finished reading Robert Ebert’s articleHow to Read a Movie, and it brought me right back to last semester. One thing that he mentioned that really stood out to me was how he explained the difference between when you put a character on the left of the screen and when you put a character on the right of the screen. As Ebert says, “in general terms, in a two-shot, the person on the right will “seem” dominant over the person on the left.” Who knew? He explains it a little more comprehensibly by saying, “Right is more positive, left more negative. Movement to the right seems more favorable; to the left, less so. The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left. The top is dominant over the bottom. The foreground is stronger than the background. Symmetrical compositions seem at rest. Diagonals in a composition seem to “move” in the direction of the sharpest angle they form, even though of course they may not move at all. Therefore, a composition could lead us into a background that becomes dominant over a foreground. Tilt shots of course put everything on a diagonal, implying the world is out of balance.” I never knew that a character’s placement in a film could mean so much.

The next part that I did was I watched four videos about four different aspects of filmmaking/filmmakers. You can watch these videos too:

Kubrick//One-Point Perspective

The Shining – Zooms

Tarantino//From Below 

2001 A Space Odyssey

First of all, they were each short, which was a nice luxury for a busy college student.

The first video is a montage of one-shot perspectives in Stanley Kubrick’s films. For example, in the movie, The Shining, the shots in the movie in which the camera is at the end of the hallway looking forward, are examples of one-shot perspectives.

Source: Bloody-Disgusting.com

The second video is a montage in which all the shots/scenes in which zooms are used from The Shining. As each shot of a zoom is displayed on the screen, they each continue to play together which makes it feel somewhat chaotic. This also feels appropriate for a movie such as The Shining.

Source: Tenor

The third video is a compilation of all the shots in which the camera is at a tilted angle facing upwards as to make you feel like you are looking up at the characters in Quentin Tarantino’s films. Talk about intimidation while you’re just trying to enjoy watching a movie!

Source: Pinterest

The fourth and final video that I watched was a depiction of what a match-cut is in films. This video uses a scene the film A Space Odyssey in which a match-cut is used. A match-cut can be defined as when two shots of two different, but similar, elements are joined together. For example, in this video a bone is ‘match-cut’ with a space station.

Source: Reddit

As a last piece of learning how to read movies, I watched the film The Quiet Earth on Kanopy. The film is about a man, Zac Hobson, who wakes up one day to a world in which he is the last man on Earth. Everyone has disappeared, however, as Hobson explores the city, cars are abandoned on the road and no one is home or at work. He soon realizes that he now has all the power and can do whatever he wants! He moves into a mansion in one part of the movie and another scene is of him driving a police car around town. Is he alone, though? What happened, exactly? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out!

Below, you can find a video that I created as a video essay in which I analyze a scene in the film. The scene I chose is when Hobson is living in the mansion, and he makes a “presidential” speech to different cardboard cutouts that he has placed in the yard. One of my favorite lines that he says is “I’ve been condemned to live.” Powerful, right?

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