I have tendency to watch good films twice, at least. It is a burden I must keep on my shoulders for the rest of my life. See, years ago I had the marvellously stupid idea to spoil one of my greatest passion by attending university. There, I was taught to analyse and dissect every little piece of moving images and sound to make educated guesses as to when, what, how, and why we feel the way we feel when we watch movies.
Do not get me wrong, film schools guided and accelerated my learning. But, I got to the point where I could not “enjoy my popcorn” and relax anymore. My enjoyment was different. Watching films had evolved into a game of riddles with hints the filmmakers had placed for me to find. Why are you moving that character? What is this lighting setup meant to mean? Where are you taking me with this soundtrack? How are you making me tearful? Bastards!
This obsession came from the combination of two sets of perspectives. The 4 elements of film style according to David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson as presented in Film Art: An Introduction and the idea of cinematic functions presented by Bob Foss in Filmmaking Narrative and Structural Techniques: Narrative & Structural Techniques. These tools were fundamental in guiding my early attempts at deconstructing the filmmaking process.
Focus on the mise en scene encouraged me to pay attention to the inside of the frame, to discover the importance of wardrobe, set design and set dressing, to focus on the details shaping the various acting styles, the importance of staging setups, to admire the quantity of work and the attention to detail applied during pre-production and production.
Focusing on cinematography taught me to analyse the way the frame is painted with light and shadows, the way it moves and the impact it has on our experience. A slight camera move or angle transforms the action inside the frame into something different.
I fell in love with exploring the timing and rhythm of the edits, paying attention to the relationship between the various frames. Guessing at the hidden meaning of certain juxtapositions.
Finally, the appreciation of the lyrical and emotional force of music and sound alerted me of their importance, especially at the emotional level. Sound is too often underestimated by students and professionals alike.
These simple and concise perspectives encouraged me to breakdown a film in thousands of little pieces, and reinforced the idea that it takes a village to make a film.
The cinematic functions prompted me to ask why? Why are good filmmakers doing what they are doing? The functions, realist, dramatic, thematic, lyrical and comic, gave me broad sets of possible purpose for the decisions identified looking at the elements of film style.
The realist function reminded me of the importance of suspending disbelief and on the various versions of ‘realism’, from long takes to handheld camera.
The dramatic function invited me to look into the development of the plot and most importantly to the development of the characters. How is a character revealed on screen in an interesting and ‘satisfying’ way?
With an exploration of the thematic functions, I learned to appreciate the other important layer of communication between the filmmakers and the audience, where social issues or deeply rooted human needs are discussed and carefully explored.
When I think of the lyrical function, a quote comes to mind: ‘You do not want your audience to think, you want you audience to feel’. I’m in admiration of filmmakers that can manipulate my feelings (even though I hate them for making me feel like a puppet).
The comic function showed me the importance of using small amounts of laughter even in the most depressive and saddest plot, to defuse moments of tension and plan an emotional roller-coaster. It reminded me how important laughter is in our lives. When a film can make us laugh out loud or even just smile it has achieve something positive and beneficial.
These functions gave me a set of boundaries to wonder into and play the guessing game. What? When? How? Why?
The reason I have to watch good films twice is because of a last function: The non-function. The function that reminds us that we read too much into what we might see on a screen. Sometimes, film talk to us in very specific ways, recalling our memories and triggering a series of emotional responses. We might believe the filmmakers intentionally combined various elements of style to create something we alone can see.
The non-function taught me to watch films twice. If the film is good, my first watch will be a ride. I will switch the analytical part of my brain off and enjoy the show. The second time, I will enjoy it again, sometimes even more, dissecting it and feeding on its insides like a carnivore seeking to understand the craft of the makers. If the film is bad, I will start dissecting it almost right away (and no I will not feast on it). I will be guilty of playing the game, guessing what makes it a bad film? what are the stylistic mistakes that made it fail to deliver on the intended functions? In the end, I believe that having to watch good films twice, at least, is a necessary sacrifice for the lifelong learner.