Before reading this extended response, it is best to read what this article is responding to. So, if you are not already familiar with Luke M.’s “Film Analysis: Film Theater Versus FilmED Theater”, it is recommended that you follow this link before proceeding.
Now, that article seems pretty benign. Most of the article is a rather pedantic overview of the development of technology in film storytelling. He does not address his theory at all until about halfway through his article. He devotes five short paragraphs to his theory before diverging into quotes by Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles that are hardly related to his theory at all. It is akin to an elementary school child who abundantly uses “very” to make the 1000 word quota. However, this article is not a critique of Luke’s sophomoric writing style. It is concerned primarily with those aforementioned five paragraphs that make up the substance of his article. Luke’s analysis is not only a hindrance to appreciating film but it illuminates an inherent problem with critiquing film based on home video viewing.
In those five paragraphs, Luke invents terminology to describe his perception of the distinction between two styles of cinematic storytelling. His first created category he calls “FilmED Theater”. He succinctly describes this style as “just seems like a camera crew followed actors on stage as they’re acting out Shakespeare on Broadway” adding that it is “cut and dry”. As examples of “FilmED Theater”, he provides Gone With The Wind, The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz and possibly, Casablanca. This article intends to primarily address this offense. His other created category is “Film Theater” in which the “camera becomes a character”. Oddly, he does not provide much more of a distinction beyond that description although he implies that, in “Film Theater”, the objects on the screen are carefully positioned to accentuate elements of the filmed story. What he is explicitly stating is that the differences between these two kinds of films is that, in one category, the cinematography is actively enhancing the storytelling and, in the other category, the cinematography is passively recording the action. Again, in films like Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, and The Wizard of Oz, the camera is merely recording the action according to Luke’s theory. This is a grievous disservice to the work of the artists behind the camera responsible for these great films.
The most simple explanation for Luke’s analysis is that it is based on a basic surface response to watching films on his television set. There is a large segment of amateur film critiques nowadays that is based on the critic’s initial surface reactions. We all have a reaction to what we see. Did we like it or not? Was it good or bad? In many cases, we don’t go beyond that. It is not important to us why we liked something. It is just important that we did. Unless you are going to explain your response to someone else. And, even then, we are more likely going to analyze our response to the film and not analyze the film itself. In Luke’s case, after watching many films, it must have become apparent to him that, in some films, the camerawork is overt and, in other films, the camerawork is subtle. His response to that is that, in some films, the camera is helping to tell the story and, in other films, the camera is not. Or, at least, that one is doing more than the other. Now, if Luke actually did a more careful and thorough analysis of those films with more subtle cinematography, it would become apparent how much work that the camera is actually doing to tell the film’s story. Just because something is subtle or invisible to the conscious mind, it does not mean that it is non-existent. Just because you do not notice something as you are passively viewing, it does not mean that it is not there.
Also, it is important to always remember, when studying a film, to consider its intended presentation. This is a key setback to analyzing classic films from your living room. Films, before the home video age, were crafted to be projected on a screen higher than two stories in front of a large audience. To consider the effect that a film has, you must remember that the projected image is supposed to be large. An image that may be too subtle for a 50 inch television is perfectly nuanced for a 50 foot movie screen. This is one of the pleasures of seeing your favorite film in a movie theater. You may be familiar with the film on your television but it is a different experience on the movie theater screen. It is in the theater that you notice and truly appreciate certain aspects, like the cinematography, of a film. This is a problem with living room film criticism. It becomes difficult to appreciate the effect of the film’s theater presentation.
Going back to Luke’s description of “FilmED Theater”, he describes these films as though “a camera crew followed actors on stage as they’re acting out Shakespeare on Broadway”. The easiest way to dismiss this description is to consider editing. If the camera is merely recording the action, there is no reason to cut. If these films are just like filmed plays, the filmmaker would only need to set the camera on sticks, let the actors enter the scene, do their part, and exit the stage just like they would while performing a play. That is what Luke is describing. However, most people know this is not what a film does. Most people notice that, during any scene, the image will change viewpoints. The film cuts from one image to another. This is an indication that the camera is doing something. There is a reason that the film cuts from one kind of image to another image and the differences of those images is the work of cinematography. The camera is changing what kind of image you are seeing to tell the story more effectively. If the camera was not doing anything to tell the story, it would stay at a constant viewpoint. But, by changing the image, it is not just the actors that are telling the story. It is just not the dialogue. It is also the change of view that is telling the story. If this change did not help tell the story, there would be no change.
Once you notice that the filmmaker changes the viewpoint, you must ask yourself why. What does that change do? How does that image tell the story better than staying on the preceding image? Why change the image to a shot of one of the character instead of the shot that showed all of the character? Why change the image to a shot of that particular character? Why did the image change at that particular moment? At that point, you have to consider the distance of the shot and the position of objects in that shot. Why is the shot a close-up of the actor’s face as opposed to a shot showing the waist up? Why is the character being seen more in profile as opposed to straight on? Why is there that much space between two characters in that shot? Once you start considering these kinds of questions, you begin to understand that the camera is not merely recording the action. We are not merely watching the actors perform. When you start to ask yourself these questions as you watch a scene, it becomes impossible to see these films as “filmed theater”. The way that the camera reveals the Tin Man as Dorothy is searching the ground for apples in The Wizard of Oz. The camera follows her close on the ground and stops once the Tin Man’s foot is revealed. As Dorothy knocks on the Tin Man’s foot and, then, his leg and on up until she fully discovers the Tin Man, the camera follows her up revealing the Tin Man bit by bit. The startling first shot of The Godfather which is a quick fade from black to a close up of Bonasera’s face as he begins to the story of his daughter’s brutal beating and the miscarriage of justice that followed it. As he tells his story, the camera very slowly pulls back to reveal that he is telling his story to a man at a desk: The Godfather. After Bonasera whispers into The Godfather’s ear what he wants down to those men, the film cuts abruptly to a shot of The Godfather’s disapproving face. The moment that Scarlett first notices Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind and, as Cathleen tells her who Rhett is, the camera cranes down the staircase to a close shot of him. Deconstruct any scene in any great film and you will find the same thing. The pictures are telling the story, too. Showing us exactly what we need to see at the precise moment in the perfect way.
The danger with Luke’s theory is that it invites the reader to disregard the cinematography of certain films. If you believe that the camera is just recording the actors, you will not consider what the camera is doing. And, the truth is that most filmmakers do not want you to consider the work that they are doing. They want you to get lost in the story. In the characters. In the world. They want you to get swept up in it all and not think about the fact that they are carefully crafting each moment to tell the story perfectly for you. But, their artistry should not be dismissed, disregarded and disrespected either. So the next time that you watch Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz, or any other great film, take a moment and ask yourself why they shot that scene that way. Notice the change of shots. Notice the moment that it happened and ask yourself why. Notice what the shot changed to. And, smile when you begin to appreciate the artistry that these filmmakers put into that film.
Luke M., “Film Analysis: Film Theater Versus Filmed Theater,” Associated Content by Yahoo!.