Humans are ‘the storytelling animal’ – it is through stories that we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. When we speak about films we, more often than not, mean narrative films – films that tell a story. Because stories are all around us (in life, literature, other films) we will approach a narrative film with a great many existing expectations. Further expectations will be aroused as we actively participate in creation of the film’s form: the ending has the task of satisfying or cheating the expectations prompted by the film as a whole. This session will consider how narrative form engages the viewer in this dynamic activity.
When you have a superb filmmaker (Denis), first-class actors, blocking, cinematography and a soundtrack like this, you don’t need words to tell a story.
In The Importance of Film Form we considered the formal elements at the filmmaker’s command, and the the overall pattern of these elements that make up the film’s formal system. This post focuses on the elements of film style – mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, and sound – providing a few examples of how Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) utilises these elements in and, in doing so, draws on other prominent film styles.
Form and Content
In What is Film Studies?, I stated that films have form, and distinguished between content (the subject of a film) and form (how the content is expressed). A useful way to clarify the distinction is to consider the difference between a film in which a robbery is taking place and surveillance footage of an actual robbery. When people (shop owners, police, reality TV fans, etc.) watch surveillance footage, what they are interested in is the content – the actual robbery. Obviously the surveillance camera will have been placed in a prime position in order to see what takes place – it would be foolish, for example, to point it towards a wall or to place it at such a low angle as to only capture people’s legs – however, once these limited choices are made, the camera is, so to speak, left to its own devices. As such, when we look at the footage of a crime, what we see is a shot from a single perspective, played out in real time. The footage will have been successful if it allows us to identify the robbers, unsuccessful if it does not. While we may feel some excitement when watching such footage, this will come from the knowledge that we are watching a real crime take place, rather than from the use of any formal technique.