Everything you always wanted to know about FILM (but didn’t know how to ask)

There are certainly no lack of writing on films on the internet or elsewhere. But I hope what you will find in the following is a little different. This is a series of articles organized in the form of a self-paced course. Together they offer an introduction to the basic ideas of film aesthetics, a subject that is taught at many higher institutions in the US under the title Film Intro. In fact, they are my lecture notes teaching the course several times.

As such they are intented for anyone who seeks a liberal education on the subject of film; but I have also tried to offer something new, something that cannot be found anywhere else. They verge on film scholarship and offer directions for further inquiries. You should take this web-course if you are:

  • curious about films but not always happy with film reviews
  • want to experience different films than those played at AMC
  • learn to talk and write about films in more substantial ways

You should also go ahead and read them if:

  • you can’t think of what we need to study about films
  • you have little tolerance with films you don’t like
  • you have no intention to write about films

Hopefully gaining knowledge about films will change your perspective.

In a college setting this would a gateway course. Having finished this students can go on to other more “advanced” courses such as film history, or on specific topics such as “East Asian Martial Arts Films.” But make no mistake, this is not the easiest topic in film studies. It introduces you to the most fundamental questions of film as an artistic medium. These questions will haunt you all the way because there are no definitive answers to them.

One thing I need to mention is that a film intro course can be taught in many different ways. Some regard scriptwriting and the history of Hollywood essential. Some are more concerned with economic, social, ethnic, gender-specific questions. These questions are of course important. But I do believe that we need a good foundational understanding of film as an aesthetic experience. The questions I focus in my course are therefore:

  • What is the nature of our experience in cinema?
  • What is a film? What is it made of? What are their formal elements? How do they work with each other?
  • How do we study films? How do we analyze and interpret films?

The idea is that, by reading all these posts, watching all the clips, and doing some other complementary activities (such as analyzing and interpreting films), you would achieve a similar if not exactly the same effect of taking a film intro class.

Speaking of taking a class, if you need a textbook, I recommend David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson’s Film Art: an introduction. The book is written by leading scholars of the field who possess not only a huge amount of knowledge but also passion and dedication. The first version of the book came out in 1979. The two authors have spent more than 30 years constantly revising the content, adding new material so that it takes its current form. Also, the language is highly accessible, unlike the majority of film scholarship.

My lecture notes only loosely correspond to the book. They are meant to complement each other. There is very little overlapping between the two.

What is film studies?

One of the most frequent reactions I got when I told people I study film is a blank expression, which reads to me, “what is there to study about films?” Some actually spit the said question out, sincerely looking for an answer. To answer this question I think it is useful to compare what film studies do to what film criticism does.

Film Criticism is a form of writing on film that everybody knows. It is basically a form of journalism. And it has all the traits of common journalism such as style, timely info, etc. It champions writing skill. It is essentially about how we feel about a film, about how does the film remind us about other films and stuff in life, about subjective evaluations, recommendations.

Academic film studies, on the other hand, is not about writing skill (although it still plays a part); it is rather about critical thinking and contribution to knowledge. What is this knowledge?

Film is an aesthetic object. Film has its own artistic medium (although morphing). It is a unique audiovisual experience (not necessarily artistic) that rose to prominence in the 20th century. In fact, many would agree that film is one of the defining characteristic of the 20th century.

Although a film can be studied in aesthetic isolation, the general idea of film is decidedly a cultural phenomenon. In other words, most often than not, many individuals and institutions are involved in the production and consumption of film. This makes film an almost inevitable representation of cultural values.

It also has a history (or histories, like everything else). It makes use of a complex set of technologies. The process of commercial filmmaking is a highly organized economic activity. All these are complex phenomena that need to be carefully examined.

So how to do we study films?

Imagine all the films in this world as an ocean. There are many ways to study this ocean.

  • The science of ocean study is called oceanography.
  • Every film is unique, but it also belongs to a broader context such as:
  • Film School: basically a bunch of fishes/films that decide to swim together, for a while.
  • National cinema: a particular corner, region of the sea that has its unique geographical shape, volume, amount of oxygen, food, sun light, etc. These correspond to the specifics of cultural milieu, industrial practice, period conception etc.
  • A particular filmmaker’s work: a family of fishes raised by the same person that might resemble each other somehow.
  • There is style of film: the particularities of the film/fish.
  • And there is a stylistic history of cinema: the development of particular traits: eyes, fins, the swim pattern, etc.
  • There are other things, such as the institutions that produce, distribute, and exhibit films: marines.

We can study how an individual fish looks like and its physiology or biology. This is called Textual Analysis.

We can study how a particular trait evolves in the species, eyes, fins, scales, particular body shapes; how do certain kinds of fish learn to emit light, electricity, poison, or ink. This is called Stylistic History.

We can study how a film is produced, promoted and circulated: this is called production/distribution/exhibition studies.

We can study how a film is received by its audience: Reception studies; how do the circumstances of moviegoing change and what does it mean: Spectatorship Studies.

How does a film make sense to its observer (how do we cook and eat the fish): Cognitive film theory.

What does one group of films have in common: Study of auteur, national cinema, cinema of a specific period, and so on.

How are gender, race, class and other cultural values represented in films: gender studies, cultural studies.

How does the species evolve over time: Historiography

How does fish compare to other sea animals? Comparative media studies (literature, theater, video game)

How does film relate to anything in the world such as staircase, mobile phone, snack, Greek history: I don’t have a name for this yet!

As you can see (in a very boring way I admit), instead of simply watchinging a film and liking or disliking it, there are many ways to approach film seriously. As a result, film studies as we know it is a hybrid/open discipline, just like film is a hybrid/open art. It raises more questions than it can answer. And every set of questions constitute a particular approach. But I think there is a set of questions that is fundamental to anyone who wants to engage with films. These are the very questions this course shall raise.

What is the nature of our experience in cinema?

Roland Barthes, in an essay called “Leaving the Movie Theater,” writes the following:

There is something to confess: your speaker likes to leave a movie theater. Back out on the more or less empty, more or less brightly lit sidewalk (it is invariably at night, and during the week, that he goes), and heading uncertainly for some cafe or other, he walks in silence (he doesn’t like discussing the film he’s just seen), a little dazed, wrapped up in himself, feeling the cold-he’s sleepy, that’s what he’s thinking, his body has become something sopitive, soft, limp, and he feels a little disjointed, even (for a moral organization, relief comes only from this quarter) irresponsible. In other words, obviously, he’s coming out of hypnosis.

Later in the same essay, he writes (bold is mine),

This is often how he leaves a movie theater. How does he go in? Except for the-increasingly frequent-case of a specific cultural quest (a selected, sought-for, desired film, object of a veritable preliminary alert), he goes to movies as a response to idleness, leisure, free time. It’s as if, even before he went into the theater, the classic conditions of hypnosis were in force: vacancy, want of occupation, lethargy; it’s not in front of the film and because of the film that he dreams off-it’s without knowing it, even before he becomes a spectator. There is a “cinema situation,” and this situation is pre-hypnotic.

Therefore we might say there are two modes of perception involved in film watching:

Hypnotic Mode

  • passive, flow based engagement
  • narrative and character psychology oriented (center of projection)
  • subjective evaluation (like or dislike)
  • close to dream, hypnosis, and renders a quasi-scopophilic (love of looking) pleasure

Analytical Mode

  • active, critical (dissective) engagement
  • rigorous attention to details
  • voluntary effort on the construction of visual, auditory patterns
  • arguments, interpretations or stylistic anomalies that wait to be explained

If we are trained as doctors, when we look at a beautiful patient we don’t just see the surface beauty, we see how everything works together underneath the skin. We see beauty as the result of perfect functioning. And we also see internal problems; we see little cosmetic anomalies that only a plastic surgeon can see.

But there is no absolute boundary between the two modes; only different orientation. And I would not say one is superior than the other. In fact, once you have acquired both modes, you can easily switch between them.

What is a film?

We talked about film experience, but what is a film? Is there anything that exists independently of our individual experience that can be called a film? Is it the celluloid strip? Or is it the digital file on your hard drive you got from the piratebay?

Hollis Frampton, one of the most well-known avant-garde filmmakers, defines film as this:

…a film is anything that may be put into a projector that will modulate the emerging beam of light.

This is basically saying that, if you put a hand that blocks the light of a projector, your hand becomes the film. This is a very profound definition. And I know there are film screenings (except Frampton’s own “a lecture”) that are just like that. Several years ago I attended a recent 3D film screening by Ken Jacobs: The Nervous Magic Lantern. Throughout the film you see images (like the following picture) that are slowly pulsating. You see stalagmite-like textures whose detail come in and out of focus. They create a mesmerizing, hallucinatory effect but in the same time strongly (and curiously) three-dimensional. In the soundtrack, you hear sounds from NYC subway platforms and traffic noises. It ends with someone (himself)walking upstairs and talking to his wife about some mails.

At the end of the screening, Ken Jacobs reveals his trick.

He was holding a piece of translucent plastic sort of alien object with small dark objects molded inside, like insects trapped in amber.

And during the screening he was slowing turning and shifting this object in front of the projector, an act that has caused much ecstasy and anxiety in the audience!

But what about non-projected films? What is a film where no projector is involved? If the Frampton-Jacobs definition of film needs a projector to function, then the majority of stuff we saw on our laptop or TV won’t be films?

A broader, non-projector related definition may look like this.

a film is an audiovisual stream that engage its audience for a specific length of time.

But this is perhaps too broad. This sounds like any AVI file is a film! We know this is NOT true.

Finally, a more specific but not too specific (middlebrow) definition might go like this:

a film is a concatenation of images, accompanied by sound, from which we recognize the objects in this world and the emotions within us.

Notice I never mention anything about storytelling, about photography & camera, or human beings. Having these elements in the definition of film risks losing a lot of good films, such as experimental films that tell no stories (such as Frampton’s Zorns Lemma), or animations (Mickey Mouse is not in a film?).

I am still not happy with this definition. But that’s okay. As I said before, our task here is to raise questions about cinema, and hopefully you will come up with your own definition of what a film is. What matters is that asking these questions will make you think about the essence of film, where its medium specificities lie, and what are its creative, expressive qualities are.

For the purpose of this course let us adopt the following formula.

image + motion + [sound] = sequence

sequence + [narrative] = film

Motion is essential to film. No motion, no film — what you have is a picture. Add motion to the picture and you have motion picture, which is also called moving images, or movies.

There are many ways to add motions to a picture. I come up with four categories:

  • Motion from Nature: sun light, water, smoke, fog, fire, rain, wind induced effects, etc.
  • Organic Motion: plants, animals, human beings that move…
  • Medium Specific Motion: grain structure (celluloid); flicker (projector); medium artifact…
  • Cinematic Motion: staging, camera movement, editing and other non-conventional means

Of course this system neglects to mention the role played by sound. I propse to call it “audiovisual motion.” But we can talk about the sound later.

Motion from Nature is the easiest to understand. How do you incorporate this motion into your photographic image? Maya Deren, a famous American woman filmmaker, has an excellent passage:

The invented event which is then introduced, though itself an artifice, borrows reality from the reality of the scene-from the natural blowing of the hair, the irregularity of the waves, the very texture of the stones and sand-in short, from all the uncontrolled, spontaneous elements which are the property of actuality itself. Only in photography-by the delicate manipulation which I call controlled accident-can natural phenomena be incorporated into our own creativity, to yield an image where the reality of a tree confers its truth upon the events we cause to transpire beneath it.

Some of the earliest Lumière films excel in showing motions from Nature:

The baby is cute. But also pay attention to the leaves, and contrast it with Méliès’ completely artificial and static décor.

Perhaps you remember American Beauty: “you wanna see the most beautiful thing I ever filmed?”

Organic Motion, together with motion from Nature, are two kinds of motion can conquer the first movie audiences. At the turn of century one dancer named Loie Fuller became a superstar in the filmmaking business. Can you guess why?

Another example of the pleasure involved in experiencing motion, Norman McLaren’s Pas de deux:

What is medium specific motion? Again, there are several different kinds that relate to different aspects of the medium and means of display.

The first one is called “grain structure.” Photographic film contains a layer of random distributed small particles, resulted from silver halide that are exposed to light. In each frame, this distribution pattern is different, therefore the effect is like watching a swarm of tiny insects moving around.

Grain structure
History (1970)

Ernie Gehr made a film called History (1970), which is made by holding a piece of black fabric in front of a movie camera without a lens (“its image-forming device”), using a light to illuminate the cloth. “ ‘History’ comes closest,” Jonas Mekas said, “to being nothing but the reality of the film materials and tools themselves.”

In representational films sometimes the image affirms its own presence as image, graphic entity, but most often it serves as vehicle to a photo-recorded event. Traditional and established avant garde film teaches film to be an image, a representing. But film is a real thing and as a real thing it is not imitation. It does not reflect on life, it embodies the life of the mind. It is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea. Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space. -Ernie Gehr, January 1971

Another kind of medium specific motion is induced by a phenomenon called flicker. To simplify this complication matter, I will just say that flicker is the strobing effect produced by blocking the light gate of a projector. Why do we need to block it? Because you need to pull the film strip to display a different image. And if you don’t block the light during this pull phase the image will become blurred. Edison’s kinetoscope did precisely that.

To simply block the phase where the film strip advances is not enough. Through a trial-and-error process, it is found that for an average viewing situation, in order for still images to be perceived as acceptably flickerless in projection, the frame per second (henceforth fps) needs to be around 50. Note that 50 is only to be understood as the optimal result that corresponds to the amount of retinal illumination obtained in a typical theatrical presentation. Therefore, although film cameras capture images at 24 fps, projectors need to display those images at a higher rate in order to avoid the flicker effect. This is done conveniently by showing each image or “frame” twice, using a double blade shutter (for 16 fps images a triple blade). This means while the image is kept still a second blade will block the gate in a similar fashion as in the case of inter-image blocking.

Although the second blade can be placed anywhere, in order to better mechanically balance the shutter it is placed symmetrically to the first blade (this is also why one blade shutter is not a good idea).

There is a film called The Flicker, made by Tony Conrad, that exploits this particular characteristics of film. The film has only 5 different frames, pure black, pure white, a warning frame, and two title frames. Throughout the film, it switches between black and white frames to produce stroboscopic effects.

The warning text read as follows:

WARNING. The producer, distributor, and exhibitors waive all liability for physical or mental injury possibly caused by the motion picture “The Flicker.”
Since this film may induce epileptic seizures or produce mild symptoms of shock treatment in certain persons, you are cautioned to remain in the theatre only at your own risk. A physician should be in attendance.

Medium artifact is a term I use to refer to cases of imperfection in the medium’s presentation. Different media of course have different kinds of artifacts. This could be, in the case of celluloid strip, dust, decay, scratches and other things. And in the case of digital file, compression artifact.

The following MTV uses compression defect on purpose as an artistic effect:

Sometimes filmmakers draw on, or scratch the celluloid to create a bizarre effect. One who consistently practices this technique is Stan Brakhage.

Art of vision (1965)
One time, an optician, on looking into my eyes, said, “Well, by your eyes, physically, you shouldn’t even be able to see that chart on the wall, let alone read it. But, on the other hand, I have never seen a human eye with more rapid saccadic movements. What you must be doing is rapidly scanning and putting this picture together in your head.” … I wasn’t trying to invent new ways of being a filmmaker, that was just a byproduct of my struggle to come to a sense of sight. — Brakhage in an interview

Now, we are finally at cinematic motion, which is what this course will focus on. Let’s start with some examples:

Mirror (1975)

Try describe what you see, the sensations brought to you by seeing motion.

Finally, a synthetic example of all kinds of motion mentioned above, an excerpt from Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996):

Feature film presentation

It is customary for a film class to include a feature film screening every week. For this lecture, I recommend a film called Decasia, made by Bill Morison.

If you’re the kind of parent who enjoys intentionally introducing your kids to films which will cause loads of irreparable damage that years and years of costly analysis could never fix, I have just one word for you — Decasia

Bill Morrison’s production company is appropriately named Hypnotic Productions. When watching this film, think about the following questions:

  • what kind of motions are involved here?
  • how is the film made?
  • who made this film?
  • how are the sequences connected together?
  • what is unique about this film?

Then try to describe your experience by answering these questions:

  • Are you looking for a narrative? If yes is there? If yes what is it? Are there sections (acts)?
  • How you engage with the film? Where do you spend your attention? Which part of the frame you look at? How do you assign meaning
  • Why does it feel like intentional sometimes? That sometimes the decay induced visual patterns seem to work with the original images like a photo composite?
  • What is the intention behind the sequence ordering? is there a visual theme? a narrative progression of sort?
  • How does the sound work with the images?
  • What is your emotional response (horror? sadness? liberating?)

More analytical questions:

  • what exactly do you see?
  • how do you make sense of the experience?
  • what is neglected in your meaning-making process?
  • what do you think the filmmaker’s intentions are?
  • how does these intentions work with your expectations?

Finally, what is the purpose of the film (choose all that apply!)?

  • induces psychedelic trance (or causes severe brain damage)
  • proposes an alternative (and organic) definition of beauty
  • reflects on the filmic medium, and film rhythm
  • teaches film history (at least an intro to film history)
  • urges us to support film preservation
  • pays homage to the 60s avant-garde movement
  • promotes an anarchist maxim “to destroy is to create”