about movies

1.i remember that in a discussion with hitchcock,truffaut was comparing the way hitchcok shot a scene in one of his movies,and the way the same scene was shot by some american director who remade that movie.the scene was two guys talking in the street.bad guys probably.hitchcock shot it from inside a room, from above,so you could see them through the window but not hear them.the american director shot it from up close, and i think you could hear the dialogue and see the characters clearly.truffaut’s claim was that hitchcock’s way was superior because it preserved a sense of mistery and menace about the two strangers, whereas in the remake that sense was gone.

my question is why this is superior.maybe the remake had a different view of the characters and there were other things the director was interested in.for example,we get aquainted with the characters that way.i don’t think it’s good to generalize and say that one way to do it is the best absolutely.it depends on the overall effect the director is after.

2.why is that it’s claimed sometimes that certain techniques generate specific feelings or thoughts in the viewer?for example, close-ups are said to bring you in closer psychological contact to the characters, whereas shooting from a distance is supposed to be more distant and neutral.is that some psychological fact about film viewing?it doesn’t seem obviously true to me.

also,suppose you shoot a scene in a bar, with many characters everywhere, and you do it by moving the camera around very smoothly and nicely, a la scorsese (on a dolly maybe). someone else could do the same scene by editing, cutting a lot and so not in one shot.now, is the one superior to the other?sometimes i hear that editing is more artificial,and it draws attention to the medium,whereas the long take is more realistic .i can’t find aything in my experience of movies to support that.maybe if it’s editted very fast,but usually editing doesn’t create any impression of artificiality.

and even more interestingly, what possible justification could someone have for using one technique rather than the other in shooting a scene,other than personal taste?can they really say ‘This kind of shooting will lead to this effect in the viewer,whereas this other way will lead to this other effect’?there may be of course limitations in what you can do:i don’t know how john woo would have shot an antonioni movie,but there the script and story imposes the limitations.you might have a story that is very slow,like satan’s tango,or nostalgia.but within that aim,slowness,i’m not sure how many of the technical choices are not just immaterial to the overall effect(i.e., a lot of the things could have been done differently and it would not have mattered.if p.t. anderson had shot inglorious basterds, i’m sure it would have been different, but probably not worse).

to conclude,im not sure to what extent a lot of technical decisions matter in movies.

there might be some tension between my thoughts on 1 and 2,but that’s fine,im confused about stuff most of the time

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8 Responses to about movies

  1. David says:

    Hi Juan,

    Interesting post. You write:

    “There might be some tension between my thoughts on 1 and 2….”

    I agree. In fact, I think it’s a rather serious tension. In 1, you suggest that evaluating directorial and editing decisions must take into account the effects the director/editor aims to produce in the viewer. In 2, you seem to express skepticism about whether aiming to produce certain effects in the viewer is a coherent aim.

    Apart from this ‘tension,’ I don’t understand your reasons for skepticism about whether technique in film can influence the viewer’s experience. Just think about the stock techniques used in horror films. There’s a reason these are stock techniques in films seeking to produce fear and tension in the audience.

    That being said, I’m confused about stuff most of the time as well.

  2. Nates says:

    I would hope that there’s not anyone claiming a direct relation between level of close-up and level of psychological revelation. If there is, all the worse for them. I guess the point I would emphasize is that different film strategies offer different emotional opportunities. Many of our feelings are expressed through fairly subtle facial expressions, so obviously a close-up is better at capturing these. But one can also work from father back to reveal emotions in a different way. A good example is in Polanski’s adaptation of “The Pianist.” It’s a flawed movie, but there’s a memorable scene where the camera starts from a close up of Adrien Brody, gradually panning out to show him in the midst of a totally abandoned ghetto. It’s a great way of expressing the intensity of his isolation and loneliness, and it’s very moving.

    That said, I’m not sure how this supports the skeptical claim. It just means that the truths about what works and what doesn’t work are complicated.

  3. Juan says:

    Thanks for the replies, David and Nates

    I suppose my worry is about some of the relations between technique and effect on viewer, not all, and I agree about the horror case.But horror is probably different from what I was referring to, and I should have made that clearer.I’m thinking maybe my claim applies more to questions of how to interpret and infer things about what you see on the screen, and not to very direct effects as in horror.In horror, those stock techniques work well because that is how we react to them on a very direct and immediate physical and psychological level.Horror techniques of the sort you mention trigger reflex reactions,but there’s more than that that a director might want to show.

    for example, take Nates’ very interesting claim about the shot in The Pianist: “it’s a great way of expressing the intensity of his isolation and loneliness”.This is the sort of claim I have trouble with usually in film reviews.what exactly is the connection between that move of the camera and the guy’s isolation?why does it necessarily produce in me, the viewer, the idea that the character is isolated?suppose he had shot it differently,with the camera suddenly fixed on the image of the character in the middle of the ghetto,and staying on the character for half a minute.would that not have conveyed isolation, or less efficiently, and why?

    i take the point about close-ups,though i would say that in tokyo story, for ex., i don’t think there’s any close-ups but still we feel the sadness of the parents who are a hindrance to their children.maybe i’m misremembering.

    actually i suspect i may be wrong about a lot of this, but it’s a little hard for me to see where, given that so many technical decisions just seem intuitively irrelevant to the content of a movie.

    why does the page keep going up as im writing?

    • Nates says:

      Juan, I think I’m still not quite getting what drives your concern. Maybe it’ll help if I say a little more about the scene from The Pianist and your alternate version of it. So, here’s Brody in Warsaw:

      As you note, one could arrive at this moment in different ways. In the movie, Polanski starts with a closeup and pans out. But he also could have started from the wide view and held it there. I think we agree that both versions would effectively capture his sense of isolation, since both show a tiny human figure surrounded by a vast empty urban space. But the way one gets to that point also matters and can effect the viewer’s emotional response to the scene. So, in Polanski’s version, the character’s solitude (and the extent of it) are only gradually revealed through the pan-out. The viewer’s slowly dawning realization of Brody’s situation parallels his own gradual realization. (Keep in mind that he’s been in hiding and is going outside for the first time in months.) The parallelism is an effective means of putting us in his shoes, as it were, seeing the empty city the way he sees it–as a stunning revelation.

      Of course there’s a lot more going on in the scene, and I’m sure we could subject it to further fruitful analysis. Like literature, film is rich and complex, and it resists complete analytical determination. If anything, the problem is that there’s no end to what one can say about it, not that there’s nothing to be said. Or so it seems to me.

  4. juan says:

    Hi Nates

    I think your argument is pretty convincing
    Maybe an easier way to put my concern would be this:either you can achieve the same effect by a variety of technical means, or you cannot.So, for example, either it’s possible to convey grief,loneliness,depression etc. in many ways, or you can’t.If you can,i.e. if it’s exactly the SAME effect you achieve, then technique as such is immaterial and deserves no praise.
    now,your discussion of Polanski might be taken to show that it’s not possible to achieve the very same effect by different means,i.e. that after all the technique makes a difference.That is because Polanski shows not merely loneliness, but achieves an effect of gradual awareness of that loneliness,so this is a more fine-grained concept than ‘loneliness.’ On this view, alterations in camera-work are going to give rise to different effects in the viewer automatically (there is a threshold where these alterations become insignificant, but the contrast between a still and panning shot is pretty significant,so you are probably right about this).

  5. Josh says:

    Juan writes “Maybe an easier way to put my concern would be this: either you can achieve the same effect by a variety of technical means, or you cannot”

    I think I understand your general criticism – that directors cannot count on a specific emotional reaction by using a specific technique.

    This seems to be a roundabout way of saying that directorial decisions are not driven by necessity of any sort – or to continue the rephrasing – direction is an art, not a science. To the extent that a director is a good artist, they will deploy techniques that produce *interesting* effects. MAYBE they will be a better director if they produce a more consistent effect, but then, maybe also, a director could be a good director if they used techniques that produce different and interesting reactions in different viewers. A good director would have a “knack” for doing things that create interesting reactions in their audiences. A good director would probably not harbor the illusion that a specific technique’s use would produce a specific reaction in its viewers. That sounds more like manipulation than an attempt to be artful.

    To me, a good director would make the sorts of decisions that give rise to interesting thoughts and emotions on the part of his/her viewers. In that sense, it’s got the “enthymemic” quality – there is a part of the “argument” of the film that is supplied by the viewer. And I mean “argument” in any sense – it could be at the micro-level (a scene that leaves room for an audience member to have a particular emotional reaction of their own) or at the macro-level (I would watch an entire movie and it leads me to develop a particular opinion about human experience, morality, politics, etc…)

    But in either case, one of the things I think would make it good art would be if it opened up a space for reaction that I could supplement myself, and that I would want to supplement myself. This to me makes room for criticizing bad movies on two fronts – they can be (a) too obvious (the latter Matrix movies or any given episode of SVU… the “moral of the story” has been blugeoned into you, not leaving you room to contribute to the enthymeme, or (b) too empty (no opening up or possibility for any for of interesting thought or emotional reaction, just leaves you totally unmoved – Glee” and “Gray’s Anatomy” gives me this feeling – like it just doesn’t make you react at all).

  6. Nates says:

    Josh, I agree with most of what you say, but these two sentences make me a little uneasy:
    “A good director would probably not harbor the illusion that a specific technique’s use would produce a specific reaction in its viewers. That sounds more like manipulation than an attempt to be artful.”
    I get the idea that a director can be too dogmatic, spoon-feeding the movie’s meaning to the viewer. But I fear that you’re going too far in the opposite direction. The director surely still expects that certain techniques will produce certain reactions–often, fairly specific reactions. Otherwise, how would one proceed?
    To put my point another way, I agree that movie-making is an art rather a science, but even an art still involves understanding: of the possibilities and limitations of the medium, of the audience, of what works. So, no necessity, but surely still some regularity. I’d like to think this is consistent with the idea of good movies having a degree of open-endedness and being enthymemic. (And, yes, I had to look up that last word.)

  7. Josh says:

    Is “enthymemic” actually a word? I was just extrapolating on the idea of an enthymeme

    I think you’re right that directors would still have a somewhat concrete idea about the sort of reaction they’d create. Maybe more what I meant was that a good director would respect his/her audience enough to envision a range of emotions which an audience member might experience – that there would be a sense of limitedness/unpredictability in the reactions something might produce. There would be a general goal on the part of a director, but there would also be an understanding that as the people watching are human beings, and not extremely predictable automata who would respond on command in necessary ways.

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