A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about trailers and how I can sometimes deduce the entire plot just from what is shown within this few minute slot. Whilst I wrote that blog I realised that the reason for this is more than likely because I can read/deconstruct films rather than simply some lucky guess work. So I thought for this blog I would do an overview ‘how to’ guide on how to read films.
Before I begin I’ll quickly verify my concerns with Prisoners. Remember in that trailers blog I said I wanted to see Prisoners but was worried that something they showed in the trailer (Hugh Jackman’s character kidnapping Paul Dano’s character) would be a plot twist, as lets face it trailers have done that before. Well it wasn’t a plot twist at all and actually happened within the first half of the film. I won’t say anymore than that except that you should go and see this film. It was a very tense and gripping film, Hugh Jackman’s performance was top notch; I still feel he was robbed by Daniel Day Lewis for the Best Actor Oscar last year (Day Lewis was great in Lincoln but I felt just not as good as Jackman in Les Miserables), either way I would be pissed if Jackman doesn’t get a nod for his performance here.
Anyway, getting back on track. How to read a film, now the simplest thing to say here at the beginning is this: LOOK AT EVERYTHING! This may seem extremely obvious but it’s something which most people don’t actually do. Most people get wrapped up in the narrative that they forget that what they’re actually looking at is 24 individual still frames flickering a second. That each frame could be considered (and in all purposes is) a photograph. You wouldn’t look at a photograph for 1/24 of a second and move on the next would you? Now this is taking it a bit far I know, you can’t slow down the rate of the film (unless watching it at home, but that would just piss everyone off), and it would be pointless to do so. Thankfully the same shot may be present for a few seconds, even minutes at a time, so you can quite easily take in the entire shot without having to adjust the speed of the film or making your brain implode from trying to see every single detail in every single frame flashing past. Getting back to the point, you need to look at everything in the frame; how it’s composed, what can be seen, what can’t be seen, the lighting, the colouring, everything. Some of you may be think ‘what can’t be seen, what the fuck is he on about?’, by this I mean what is out of the frame but you are still aware of. This can be someone talking out of frame; we can hear them but we cannot see them, or something such as the character leaving the front door open and walking through the house; the door is still open we just can’t see it in frame anymore.
Being aware of everything means that you can start to read how actions might happen. For instance in Prisoners (it comes to mind as I saw it recently and ultimately decided to write this blog after seeing it), Hugh Jackman is sat in his truck. It’s a side on shot, he’s sat back, you can see the steering wheel, fine, a normal in-car side on shot right? Not entirely. The front door can quite clearly be seen framed through his car window. There is a relatively deep depth of field in play so the background isn’t completely thrown out of focus. Jackman sits there for a few moments before his wife comes out of the house to talk to him, but I knew straight away that someone would open the door to interact with him, whether he drove off or stayed to listen was a different story, but the fact that the door would open was a given, and not something which could have been predicted from the narrative conventions at play. Now this may seem trivial, why would you care if I knew the door would open or not? The point is I read the frame and concluded what would happen correctly. The fact that the door opened didn’t exactly add to the story, or help me figure out any plot twists which may occur; I just simply used this as an example because it seemed like an easy one to explain outside of pictorial form.
Most people can read film relatively successfully within certain situations but are unaware of what they are doing. This situation is the horror genre. You see an attack coming, something to make the characters jump etc. This is played upon in a very obvious manner within the genre but only because the filmmakers are manipulating the audience in a greater context. You’ll see the killer enter the house and hide in the closet waiting for the victim to enter the room unaware. You don’t forget that the killer is inside the closet, but why not? Simple, because they’re a pretty big fucking deal, plus it’ll keep cutting back to POV (Point of view) shots, or at least voyeuristic shots to remind us he’s still there. So when the killer barges out of the closet we don’t immediately think ‘how the hell did they get there?’. Of course horror films have moments where they make the audience jump, having something appear out of nowhere to scare the shit out of you, and a lot of people study the film so not be made of fool of these moments (I rarely jump during horror films simply because I can read the film so successfully). These people are unaware that they are looking for everything and anything to hint a scare moment, but they are. Now the benefit of the horror genre is when these scare moments happen they can A. be pretty obvious and B. usually have a slower tempo within the film so you have more time to read the frame.
Now I only wanted to use the horror genre as an example of how you may read a film without really realising it, so that you can simply see where reading the frame may benefit. But reading the frame doesn’t stop at being able to predict what actions might happen, it can also help add to characterisation and the viewers sense of atmosphere; this is called the mise-en-scene (which translates literally as ‘put in the scene’). Take the main image I used for this blog, a shot from American History X, it shows Derek (Edward Norton) in Danny’s (Edward Furlong) room after he is out of prison. Nothing unusual here right? A load of Nazi paraphernalia across the walls matches Danny’s character quite precisely. But look closer, on the side of the computer is an American flag sticker. Everything else in the room connotes the Third Reich; posters, flags, ornaments, but suddenly there’s this little glimpse of the flag. Of course their original house (in the flashbacks/black and white) showed an American flag attached to the porch; Derek considered himself a patriot and not simply a white supremacist (hence he was so shocked when the police arrested him for killing the two African Americans outside his house). Obviously Derek’s values were instilled onto Danny, but clearly Danny has gone off the rails. You look at Derek’s room during the flashbacks/black and white, nowhere near as much Nazi paraphernalia, you look at their house now/colour, no American flag or other such patriotic items anywhere. This tiny sticker shows that Danny still has some hope of changing; he hasn’t completely become engulfed by the white supremacist cult and is willing to believe in more respected, grounded American values.
Looking at the image below demonstrates how everything in the frame is purposeful. The director constructs everything that we see. Nothing is there by accident. This shot is taken from Pulp Fiction. Most of you probably recognise it as the scene where Mia (Uma Thurman) has overdosed and Vincent (John Travolta) is about to inject her with adrenaline. What else can you see though. In the front of the frame, on the left, we see two games stacked on a table; ‘Operation‘ and the ‘Game of Life’, an ironic, black humour nod at what is happening in the other room. Now this is something small, which most people probably never noticed, but it adds comical nature to the scene. It highlights that the onlookers of the scene (Trudi and Jody) see this much like a game, waiting in anticipation to see whether Vincent wins or looses/Mia lives or dies.
Of course everything isn’t limited to just the frame. The music and sound is as important as what you see. Take The Dark Knight; the conductor created a slow, ominous, rising sound for Joker. This sound is present every single time we see Joker, most of the time however the audience may be unaware of this as it’s layered into the background. But it’s still there, and without the audience realising it, it adds to the threat of Joker, it makes him more menacing and the audience more uncomfortable about him. This is also accomplished obviously through Heath Ledger’s spectacular performance and Nolan’s great writing and directing. But the sound adds a subconscious element which burrows deeper than the performance and the writing. The next time you watch The Dark Knight be sure to listen out for this sound, it is there, every time you see the Joker without fail.
I think I’ll end the blog there simply because I could write for days about mise-en-scene and how to read films through what you see and hear, but I haven’t got days available to do such a thing. The point is look and listen to everything. Soon you’ll begin to understand the connotations and connections between showing or not showing certain things. How music or sounds can completely change or exaggerate the dynamics of what is being seen on screen and ultimately how to read a film successfully.