How to Analyse Movies #1: The Introduction
This is the first part in an eight-part series on how to analyse movies. The language of film (or video or TV) can only be detected by analysing the “moving image texts”. The idea is that every image conveys a meaning, like a photograph would convey a feeling or a message.
This is the first part in an eight-part series on how to analyse movies.
The language of film (or video or TV) can only be detected by analysing the “moving image texts”. The idea is that every image conveys a meaning, like a photograph would convey a feeling or a message. For instance, consider the photograph below.
With a picture, it’s a little easier (compared to film) to distil its meaning. There is just one frame or scene to analyse, the “image text” being the message it is trying to convey.
The photograph above was taken by Alessandro Grassani, an Italian photographer, in Mongolia in 2011. The person in the picture is a young woman. The photo could be interpreted as conveying desperation, sadness and poverty, illustrating the woman’s circumstances. It illustrates the people’s circumstances in the area or situation the woman is living in, if you would want to generalise the photo’s meaning. An additional reading could be embarrassment, implied by how the woman is holding her hands to cover her face.
As you can see, there’s already a lot to interpret from just this one photograph – or shot. A film exists out of thousands of shots, which is why it’s so much harder to read. Just like one would read a book, one can “read” a movie. Though instead of reading an actual text, you have to distil the “text”, its meaning, from the (moving) images. It’s like they say: a picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s certainly the case with film.
Meaning of Film and Decoding It
The film language is how a film “speaks” to its audience. Filmmakers tell a certain story, transfer a certain idea. Even when they aim to just entertain their audience, without consciously adding a layer of meaning to their film, their film will still likely carry some meaning. That’s because the audience can create meaning, even when it’s not there purposefully.
This is called decoding. The audience “decodes” a story’s meaning, just like one would interpret spoken language or written texts. When watching a film, the viewer takes all their own previous experiences and knowledge and subconsciously apply it to what they see. People always interpret a film with pre-existing expectations.
It’s impossible to watch film in a vacuum; people will always relate what happens in a film to things they have experienced in their own lives. For example, they can relate to parents who are having their first child, a couple going through a divorce, a teen going to school, a death in the family, et cetera. The film doesn’t even need to show the full extent of what the characters are going through, because the audience can fill it in for themselves.
Then, how does one relate to murderers if they have never killed, or to extreme poverty depicted in a film if they have never experienced poverty themselves? In those cases, they take the knowledge of other films they’ve seen, or even other media depictions, like news items, which will help them understand and interpret a film’s meaning.
On the one hand, film often reflects how people think about, for instance, political, social or even economic issues. On the other hand, film also moulds the way the audience thinks about those issues. It’s a dynamic process.
An example of a film without purposeful meaning would be Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007). It is a film mostly void of meaning, but a distinct meaning that has been assigned to Transformers and its sequels is how it objectifies and sexualises its female characters (foremost, Megan Fox). It’s a meaning that’s been assigned to the film by its viewers, but was, debatably, not consciously inserted by the filmmakers.
A film with a lot of purposefully inserted meaning would be Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. Del Toro is one of those directors who loves to play with the audience’s mind by assigning meaning to every element in every shot. While at first glance, Crimson Peak may just be a ghost story with disappointingly few scares, it is instead a story about the evil of humans, and the ghosts are merely there to underline the evil of the living characters of the story (listen to this great podcast where Del Toro tells more about his ideas).
It’s a classic, gothic horror tale of the sort that were popular from the late 19th century to the 1960’s. Crimson Peak is frequently misunderstood due to the audience’s understanding of modern horror. Modern horror is relatively unsubtle, with lots of gore and jump scares. The film’s marketing also contributed to this misunderstanding: it was presented to the audiences as a modern horror, emphasising on the few ghost scares in the film’s trailers.
The Window on the World
What makes a movie so infinitely compelling to us – curious creatures as we are – is that it offers a “window on the world”. It creates an appearance of reality. It’s like peering through your bedroom window when there’s noise coming from outside, or when the entire highway gets jammed because of rubbernecking, watching the crash that happened on the highway going the other way. It’s morbid curiosity. People love seeing drama, and fantasising about what the drama or commotion leads to, or means.
In the 1920s and 30s, movies were considered “truth machines”, able to reveal certain social and political truths. In the 1960s, famous French philosopher Jean Baudrillard said that fiction as well as non-fiction are merely simulations.
Today, though, it’s understood that film should not be compared to reality, whether it is to measure the gap between reality and depiction, or to measure the accuracy of the depiction. Instead, we should look at how movie and reality are related to each other, how they are interlinked. Film draws from real life, but also influences it. It’s not so much about the gap between movie and reality, but the interaction between them. Lines between reality and fiction have blurred (and not just in film!).
No depiction in film is objective or neutral. This is why one can’t speak about a film’s “truth”, “reality” or “authenticity”: film (as well as reality) is in the eye of the beholder.
Not only does film entertain, it also informs and educates people about the world around them. Most importantly, film persuades them to see the world in a certain way. Most are not aware of this persuasion or influence, but if you are, trust me, it’s so much fun to recognise, analyse and criticise the way films persuade its audience into thinking about things in a certain way. It greatly adds to the experience of watching a film, and it is what I enjoy about film most of all.
Surely, you will encounter films that convey meaning and persuade its audience in ways you don’t agree with at all, which can be frustrating sometimes. Especially when you realise that the casual audience member has no idea of what’s being inserted into their subconscious. Nonetheless, film analysis and delving into the hidden depths and meanings of film will be revelatory, and totally worth it.
Next in this series is How To Analyse Movies: Signs, Codes & Conventions. I’ll discuss semiotics, the study of meaning in a film through decoding symbols and conventions.
Do you enjoy thinking about or discussing the meanings of a movie after you’ve watching it? How do you go about “reading” a movie’s meaning? Can you think about any movies that have made you understand the world better, even fiction?
Next in How To Analyse Movies…
Part 2: Signs, Codes & Conventions
Part 3: Mise-en-Scene & Editing
Part 4: Considering the Camera
Part 5: Lighting, Sound & Score
Part 6: Story & Genre
Part 7: Iconography & Realisticness
Part 8: Putting it into Practice
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