Day 1 - The Documentary
Day 2 - The Narrative Form
Day 3 - History and Fiction in Film
Day 4 - Sound in the cinema / What makes a good story?
Day 5 - Writing about the movies / Characters in film
Day 6 - "This isn't real life" / Mise en scène / Staging
Day 7 - Camera movement / Acting / Fundamental qualities
Day 8/9 - Cinematic response to Alain Brigand's 11'09''01
Day 10 - European identities
Day 11 - Discussion on Salut cousin!
Day 12 - The Documentary revisited: The Battle of Algiers

Day 1: The Documentary

What is a documentary film?
A documentary film is designed to "document" reality in some shape or form. We often expect the information presented in a documentary film to be trustworthy, but it's good to keep in mind that an unreliable documentary is still a documentary. There are several types of documentary films as listed below:

(1) Compilation
(2) Interview/"Talking heads"
(3) Direct-cinema/"Cinéma vérité"
(4) Nature
(5) Portrait
(6) Synthetic

In class we discussed what it means for a documentary to be successful. A successful documentary is one that not only invites the viewer to think critically about the real world, but one that allows the viewer to form their own opinions. These documentaries do not present information as absolute truth nor do they insist that the viewer change his/her opinions.

Form in Documentary Film
(A) Categorical form - intended to convey information

(B) Rhetorical form - intended to persuade through rhetoric

Day 2: The Narrative Form

Key terms from Film Art:

narrative - a chain of events in cause-effect relationships occurring in time and space
story - the set of all the events in a narrative (explicitly stated and inferred)
plot/discourse - everything visibly and audibly present in a film
characters - the agents of cause-effect (can also be a disaster)
exposition - lays out character traits and story events in the opening situation

(a) Order - chronological, flashback, flashforward
      (b) Duration - screen duration / plot duration / story duration
      (c) Frequency-repetition of images/action seen in many ways

Plot patterns:

      (a) Change in knowledge
      (b) Goal-oriented
      (c) Investigative pattern

Narration: The Flow of Story Information

(A) Range of story - restricted vs. unrestricted narration

(B) Depth of story - the continuum between objectivity and subjectivity

Day 3: History and Fiction in Film

The Battle of Algiers (1966)
The scenes Three Women and Three Bombs from Gille Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers  illustrate the role of women in the Algerian War for independence from French rule. What is interesting about Pontecorvo's documentary is the way in which it is filmed. The documentary blurs the line between historical fact and fiction by dramatizing real events and using actors to reenact the urban warfare.

The two scenes we viewed in class showed three women crossing over French lines and placing bombs in public places on the francophone side of Algiers. High-tempo beats heightened the suspense as the women dolled themselves up to get past the French guards. Each woman easily made it to their planned location and planted their bombs. Before the bomb in the café explodes, Pontecorvo chooses to show the viewer a close up of a child eating ice cream. Without a doubt this universal symbol of innocence was placed in the film to give the victims of the bombings a human face. After the explosions, the shots of debris and dead bodies play more like "news footage" than anything else. Although these scenes were all composed by Pontecorvo, the archival quality of the filming complicates the viewer's perception of fact. 

Can a documentary be taken as historical truth? The special features of the DVD includes an interview with U.S. government officials who equate the film's depiction of street bombings to terrorism. Considering that the Pentagon studies the film as if it were truth, it's clear that Pontecorvo's film has made a big impact beyond the cinema.

Day 4: Sound in the Cinema / What makes a good story?

Sound is very important to the viewer's cinematic experience. Not only can sound actively shape our perception and interpretation of the image on screen, but sound can also:
  • Direct our attention within an image
  • Engage a distinct sense mode
  • Give a new value to silence
Sound offers numerous editing possibilities as well from sound mixing to dialogue overlap techniques. There are three perceptual properties of film sound: (1) Loudness (2) Pitch and (3) Timbre.

Loudness or volume refers to the sound we hear from vibrations in the air. Volume manipulation, for example, is used to draw the viewer's attention from the noisy background to dialogue between characters in the foreground. Loudness also relates to perceived distance - what this means is that a louder sound is perceived to be closer than a softer sound.

Pitch refers to the highness or lowness of sounds. Varying pitch helps distinguish music or speech from other noises in a film's sound track.

Timbre refers to the harmonic components of sound that give it a certain color, or tone quality. When someone's voice is described as mellow or nasal, that's a reference to the timbre of the voice.

Types of Sound
  1. Speech
  2. Music
  3. Noise (sound effects)
Dimensions of Film Sound

Rhythm - the idea that sound occupies duration.  Rhythmic changes can shift the viewer's expectations

Fidelity - the idea that sound relates to a perceived source. Infidelity of sound can be used to comic effect such as when a dog opens his mouth to bark and a cat's meow is the accompanying sound.

Space - the idea that sound adds conditions. There is a distinction between sounds from the story world (diegetic) and sounds from outside the story world (nondiegetic). The most common use of nondiegetic sound is music that is used to enhance the cinematic experience. The viewer takes it as given that the characters cannot hear the music. A filmmaker may blur the distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic sound to great effect in order to affect the viewer's expectations.

What makes a good story?
A good story in a fictional film has a unified plot or central theme. Events in the plot contribute to the overal theme of the film and the character's relationship to the theme is clear. Good stories have a strong cause-effect relationship and the outcome must be either inevitable or predictable (within reason). It may seem obvious, but a good story must also capture and hold the viewer's interest.

To hold the viewer's interest some stories withhold information until the climatic end. Good stories are also credible. They create an illusion of truth. It should be noted that there is no "reality" in film. There are only observable truths, internal truths, and artificial truths.
  • Observable truths - "the way things are"
  • Internal truths - "the way things are supposed to be" (the viewer's set of unconscious expectations)
  • Artificial truths - "the way things never were and never will be" (often dependent on technology)

Day 5: Writing about the movies / Characters in Film

Coherent paragraphs
> well-constructed sentences become unified and coherent paragraphs
> the unifying idea must be explicit in the topic sentence of each paragraph
> do not use a plot sentence in place of a topic sentence
> transitions connect parts of sentences, separate sentences, and separate paragraphs

Introductory paragraphs
> must hold the reader's attention
> do not start with a string of commonplaces
> thesis statement tells exactly and specifically what is the argument of the essay
> do not simply restate the title in the introductory paragraph
> identify the object of study and the topic the writer is focusing on
> aim to convince your reader immediately that you have something worthwhile to say
> avoid the massive thesis statement

Concluding paragraphs
> common strategy is to rephrase the opening thesis in slightly different words - comes off as mechanical and dull
> aim to make your reader attend to your conclusion - some summary is not necessarily a bad idea
> sweeping generalizations are risky
> conclusions (and openings) are always more rhetorical than other paragraphs

Revisions and Proofreading
> often overlooked
> permit yourself time to look at your first draft with fresh eyes
> remember: the importance of appearance should never be underestimated

Checklist for writing an effective essay
  1. Be prepared for a movie - ask preliminary questions about when and where it was made and about your own expectations
  2. Learn to look carefully at the movie and take notes
  3. Let your questions lead you to a manageable topic that involves both the themes and the films technical and formal features
  4. Try to view the movie at least one more time after you have decided on a topic
  5. Keep clarifying your argument
  6. Sketch out the organization of an essay in outline form
  7. Begin to write - don't put it off
  8. Think about your subject as you write
  9. Regularly save and back up all your writing on your computer
  10. Revise, revise, revise
  11. Print out a clean copy
  12. Proofread your final copy and insert any necessary corrections
Characters in Film
The first thing that most viewers notice about a character is appearance. How a character looks often determines how we "read" them. Assumptions can be made through a character's facial expressions or dress, while what a character says can also be revealing. For a character to be successful in a film there should be a clear relationship between the character and his/her actions (external and internal). Internal action refers to the subjectivity that occurs within a character's mind, like his/her emotions. Characters are also developed through interaction with other characters. Just like in a novel, what other characters say about another creates a fuller view of characterization. A narrative will center around its main characters, but secondary (supporting) characters and stock characters also play a role. A secondary character is often used to help build up the main character, while stock characters do not play crucial roles, but help create the film's setting. Depending on how closely linked a character is to the plot a character can be either static or dynamic. One other element of characterization - often important in European film - is irony.

Day 6: "This isn't real life" / Mise en scène / Staging

The artistic and business sides of film collide in the opening scene from Sex is Comedy (2002). Set on a beach on a cold day, the filming of a kiss goes terribly wrong. There is no pleasing the director who deconstructs the kissing scene for two shivering actors. Nothing goes right. The extras are too annoying, the male actor refuses makeup, and worst of all the kiss is not "interminable". When the director reminds the actors that they will need to make love in a later scene the irony of the entire situation comes to the forefront. Because the actors cannot remove themselves from their own lives the viewer cannot identify with their misbehavior. After this scene completed de-romanticizes the kiss, viewers may never have the same feelings toward the traditional Hollywood kiss again.

Mise en scène / Staging
The main components of mise en scène include: (1) setting (2) lighting (3) costumes and (4) the behavior of the figures on screen. There are several different types of lighting based on the location of the light source (frontal, back, under, top). The primary light source is caled the key light and the other lights make up the fill light. Lighting creates either attached or cast shadows.

Staging refers to the moving subjects on screen. Acting, itself, comes in a variety of styles from individualized to stylized. Since the camera controls the viewer's gaze, actors must act to the camera. The notion of space is also important when talking about staging. A viewer should look at film as if it were like a painting. A director can direct the viewer's eye with depth cues and facial shadowing.

Day 7: Camera Movement / Acting / Fundamental qualities

Camera Movement
Some of the most common camera shots include the close up, medium shot, and long shot. The close up is used to intensify action, emphasize a character's subjectivity, or build characterization. Medium shots are of a part of the character's body, but they also focus on the character's environment. The long shot shows a character's full body and emphasizes the environment surrounding the character.

The camera can zoom in or out, pan, or track. Different lenses can also capture the image differently. For example, a telephoto lens can make distant objects seem closer than they really are. The angle of a shot can also be used to cinematic effect. High-angle or low-angle shots can give a scene from a film a very different mood.

Discussion led to the question of what makes a good actor. The qualities that were discussed include: the convincible portrayal of a role, the adaptability of character, and the appropriateness of the acting. Our relationship to an actor also determines how we perceive the quality of acting. Some viewers may decide to watch or avoid a movie just because of the actors. The way an actor is portrayed by the outside media can also determine how we judge an actor.

Fundamental qualities of a film (my own thoughts)
  1. Credibility
  2. Technical craft
  3. Artistic vision
  4. Strong characterization
  5. Effective use of audio / visual
  6. Emotional connection with narrative / characters
  7. Quality of script / screen play
  8. Entertainment value
Six approaches to writing about film
When you write about a film, you may want to focus on one of the following approaches:
  1. Film history - places a film within its historical context
  2. National cinema - cultural identity in film
  3. Genre - classifying films according to form and content
  4. Auteur - identifies and examines a movie through association with a director or another dominant figure
  5. Formalist - film criticism concerned about matters of form and style
  6. Ideology - focusing on the message of a film

Day 8/9: Cinematic response to Alain Brigand's 11'09''01

Read the review of 11'09''01 under the Film Reviews tab.

Day 10: European identities

Our discussion today focused on European identities as depicted in the films we have seen these past few weeks. We concluded that film can be a very appropriate medium for capturing the essence of European identity, but then again condensing the identities of Europe into one form is an impossible task. I've found that nostalgia or the wistful affection for the past is strongly tied to European identity. German films such as Good Bye Lenin! and Run Lola Run are commentaries on how the new generation must deal with the unification of Germany, while the light French comedy, L'auberge espagnole is a film that shows how European integration is breaking down national stereotypes.

Film can effectively portray these European identities because it is a very adaptable medium. A feature film can capture the sights and sounds that are a part of an identity, much in the same way that Alex Kerner recreates East Germany in his mother's bedroom in Good Bye Lenin! Alex hires young school boys to sing patriotic East German songs for his mother's birthday celebration and he relabels produce packages to mask the changes in German commercial society. In Run Lola Run, the title character speeds along the old East-West Berlin border transcending old identities.

In this course we have seen dfferent portayals of identity in European film. What we have come to know as French, German, Italian, or Spanish is often better perserved in film than in real life. Xavier from L'auberge espagnole realizes that he, like many contemporary Europeans, identifies with a more unified European identity than he may have thought. This demonstrates the changing nature of European identity and the generational differences that come with it. Events such as World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall are less so a part of the identity of the new generation of Europeans, nonetheless their impact on European identity is still represented in film. European identity may be losing the structure or specificity it once had, but a more unified identity is still not fully developed.

Day 11: Discussion on Salut cousin!

Today in class we read our reviews of Merzak Allouache's Salut cousin! Most of us did not like the film, but still gave it credit for trying to shed light on the immigration of Maghrebis to France. We determined that the film lacked focus and failed to develop any of it's aims. It did, however, show how difficult assimilation can be. There are many levels of irony in this film about cross cultural exchange, but the mood was never well established.

When we read our reviews out loud we were able to provide instant feedback. I enjoyed listening to the different ways that my classmates approached the film. Most reviewers were able to look over the scattered plot and pick out the film's important messages. But, we all agreed that the film tried to be too many things. For a comedy it's not that funny, and for a drama it isn't quite dramatic enough. Even the love story seemed tacked on for no real reason other than to give the plot an optimistic ending.

All in all, our discussion of Salut cousin! proved to be far more interesting than the film itself. We uncovered the deeper messages that the film only hints at. I still cannot recommend the film, but at least now I have a greater appreciation for what it tried to do.

Day 12: The Documentary revisited: The Battle of Algiers

On our last day of class we revisited our discussion of documentary film. We watched a short video featuring interviews with five of Hollywood's best-known directors. Each one of them praised Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers for its disturbingly naturalistic depiction of warfare. Oliver Stone was really taken by the way that Pontecorvo was able to make everything in the film seem so casual, like real life. Mira Nair said that above all other films, she wishes she could have directed this one.

It was great to hear praise from a director's point of view, especially because a director looks at film in a more critical way. The Battle of Algiers is technically and stylistically amazing in that it resembles real life, but it is also a very politically-charged documentary. After having watched these short interviews, it became very clear that any inspiring filmmaker should first become familiar with The Battle of Algiers.