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Old June 2nd, 2004, 04:17 PM   #1
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Film Theory

Hi fellows

Wondering if anyone here is interested in film theory. Most of us spend so much time on the technical aspects that sometimes we forget that the most important aspects to telling a story is the actual craft.

So I've been reading some film theory books. The latest one I am reading is a book called "On Directing Film" by David Mamet.

I'm about halfway and so far the most important things he is saying is:

1. Shots must be uninflected (unrelated) - goes back to Sergei Eisenstein's montage theory. If you juxtapose two unrelated shots together, their "collision" brings about new meaning. If you join a shot of a man with a neutral face and a bowl of soup, the effect you get is the idea of hunger. Making shots uninflected lets the audience discover new meaning on their own, without us holding their hands or insulting their intelligence.

2. The series of uninflected shots advances the story along. But their must be a "throughline" which is basically the ultimate idea you want to communicate. If you wanted to communicate the idea of "boy wants a date with girl" then through a series of uninflected shots, you build beats until you reach the throughline.

Of course all this theory sounds nice, but I wanted to know if anyone has actually applied any of this (even without awareness to these theories). the thing about theory is that as nice as it looks on paper, it can be abused and end up NOT working on screen.
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Old June 2nd, 2004, 04:30 PM   #2
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The "collision" of unrelated shots is actually called the Kuleshov effect. Search the boards and you'll find a discussion about Lev Kuleshov; I wouldn't mind getting that thing going again. It's a great topic.
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Old June 2nd, 2004, 04:59 PM   #3
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I started reading film theory books back in the'60s - Eisenstein was one of my heroes.
Even though I've worked in broadcast television (BBC) since then, I've never never forgotten that early exciting introduction to our "craft and sullen art" (Dylan Thomas ;-) )
It might not be topmost in my thoughts when directing or shooting a sequence today, but it sure as hell is still there and occasionally surfaces. When it does, I still get a tingle. I think its because one knows that one is manipulating the audience and knowing how exactly to get an effect accross to them.
Thing is, its so successful sometimes that I even get carried along with it myself (gulp)

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Old June 2nd, 2004, 05:13 PM   #4
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I admit to having dodged Mamet's book, probably because I'm not nearly as impressed with him as a director as I am a writer. Most of my issues with him stem from his insistence on having actors deliver his holy words in a stagey monotone, although he seems to have relaxed this in recent years. And it seems that most of my favorite films that he has written were directed by other people... OK, I'll admit it, I was put off by his dismissal of Steadicam in that book (and even that is something that he seems to have come around to in recent years)! But he does know how to advance a story.

I'm reading an interesting tome called "First Time Director: How to Make Your Breakthrough Movie" by Zemeckis protege Gil Bettman, which is oriented towards those who are looking to break into the system (as opposed to those who want to make films purely for the art). It's a good, useful read and touches on many practical areas of directing.

It's great to read books that range from the theoretical to the practical, there's something to be learned in all of them.
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Old June 2nd, 2004, 05:22 PM   #5
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I've heard of that book as well, the "First time director" book and will pick it up eventually. I've heard Mamet is not so great of a director but what he lacks in that field he makes up in his writing.

I'm all for learning the craft in aspects of what works and what doesn't. I'm not into the countercultural modern art, avant-garde stuff, because they simply limit their audience appeal - and most of it is nonsense.

Of course, some of you may disagree with that and that's fine, but in the end, I am interested in making films that communicate the traditional narrative structure (Aristotle), evoke emotions and thoughts, and of course, make some money :D
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Old June 2nd, 2004, 05:32 PM   #6
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Yes, I am all for a theory discussion too.

I agree that by and large this group focuses on the craft of making films, which is hugely helpful, but I would like to see more discussion of the art.

I will try to pick up that book.

Your question about the theory versus practice is an interesting one. I've had many discussion about music theory that come down to this: "genius writers make great music, theorists then try to break it down to decide why it was great." Which is to say the theory is almost more retrospective than instructive. But in truth, of course, it is both.

What I'm saying by this is that you can look at a genius movie and say certainly that it worked by giving the audience a series of images that let them discover things. But that theory does not tell you which images to pick to make your movie. Some choices will work, some will fail miserably, even though they all fit the theory perfectly. (just as you can use music theory to create an entirely "correct" piece of music that is boring or even unlistenable).

For your "Boy wants a date with Girl" question, what images could you use?

Boy stares in to space.
A date book, largely empty.
A telephone, not ringing.
A woman walking by.
The boy looking up.
The woman talking to another man.
Boy stares in to space.

That tells the story to some people. But so much depends on the subtleties of the looks on their faces, the setting, the pacing, many other things. There is no formula.

It is interesting to me that many film schools start you off by making a silent movie to get you used to the idea that you are telling a story with images, not with words. Your theory example suggests to me that maybe they should start with telling a story through a series of still images even. It would be an interesting challenge.

What do you think?
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Old June 2nd, 2004, 05:33 PM   #7
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Heres something that I wanted to ask you guys about.

Mamet states that "the job of the film director is to tell the story through the juxtaposition of uninflected images - because that is the essential nature of the medium. It operates best through that juxtaposition, because that's the nature of human perception: to perceive two events, determine a progression, and want to know what happens next."

I find this a very interesting concept. And it certainly makes sense to me, but what do you think?
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Old June 2nd, 2004, 06:20 PM   #8
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Young-H., it seems to me that the Mamet quote drives at two different ideas: dramatic conflict in juxtaposition and profluence in ordered sequence. The two are really not related, and a story can lack either one (or both, in the case of a David Lynch movie), though the stories that tend to be most universally appreciated possess both in spades.

The sticky point is this business of an "uninflected image." I'm not really sure what Mamet means by that. No image can really be uninflected, as every image passes through the human filter of subjective interpretation on the part of each audience member. Words like "dog," "tree," and "boy" seem perfectly neutral, but take a picture of any of these things and every person is sure to read something into the image he or she sees. Even a 50% gray color card will trigger some assocation or other.

But juxtaposition of two ambivalent counterimages is the heart of all dramatic conflict--the more "inflected" the better. Think of Biff Tannen's laughing mug cut together with the wincing, pathetic face of the rootless George McFly as Biff twists his arm and his feeble pride in Back to the Future, or the resigned Fredo saying his prayers in the fishing boat as his unscrupulous brother Michael looks on with solemn malice from the window of the house on the shore in The Godfather Part II. Such scenes, simple two-shots, evoke feelings in the viewer; our heart-strings are tugged, as it were, as our consciences clamor for justice. And such clamoring is the soul of "dramatic conflict," which is, in actuality, the inner deliberation between right and wrong motivation, projected onto the characters we observe: introspection turned inside-out.

"Profluence," the sense that a story is getting somewhere, has more to do, I think, with the symmetry of plotting, the checking off of setups with payoffs, pairings that Aristotle termed energeia: "the actualization of the potential which exists in character and situation."
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Old June 2nd, 2004, 11:23 PM   #9
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Hi fellows

thanks for the posts thus far, its starting to get interesting.

Barry: I visualized your shot sequence and I think most people in our culture will probably get some kind of feeling that he is lonely. The power of the effect thus, really depends on your directing style. Let's try to explore the possibilties with Mamet's theory:

If you ask Mamet to direct this scene, he will abide by the "uninflected" philosophy which basically says that you must NOT "load" the shot, that everything must be simple. The more you narrate and TELL the audience what is going on, the more you rob them of discovering the meaning on their own, and hence the less powerful it is. Now, he would also tell the actor to act just as simply, neglecting all questions the actor might have such as: "Is the character lonely? Does he want a girlfriend? What is his background?" All of which Mamet would reply with a stern "I won't answer any of those questions because all of that is unecessary."

At this point, I disagree with Mamet. I really think that you need to answer those questions with the actor, so he can give a performance that rings true, with all the nuances that a lonely person might express on his face. Mamet simply tells the actor to do the action without knowing the motivation. In page 68 of "On Directing Film," he writes:

"Just as the shot doesn't have to be inflected, the acting doesn't have to be inflected, nor should it be. The acting should be a performance of the simply physical action. Period. Go to the door, try the door, sit down. He doesn't have to walk down the hall respectfully." <-- referring to a illustration he was giving about how to film a boy who is trying to win the respect of his teacher

What do you guys think?

Robert:
You certainly seem to be well versed in film theory. I agree with the two examples from those two films. The conflict between two cuts and the contrast between them causes great effect. I think that hits the heart of one of the fundamental principles of human perception: the law of diminishing returns. The power evoked in anything (but lets stick with film), is a product of the difference between the current stimuli and the next stimuli. So if you have a loud sound followed immediately by a soft sound, the effect is great, but a loud sound followed by a little louder sound, the effect is much smaller.

One question I wanted to ask is: with juxtaposition itself, how do you achieve continuity? It seems that if you just make a montage of unrelated shots you are going to end up leaving the audience struggling every moment to piece together what is going on.

Haven't you ever gotten even a small feeling of disconuity when watching Battleship Potemkin? (the shots of the lion statue, then of the people running down the stairs, then of the guy with his bloody eyeglasses). Of course I am not putting this film down, I think its a great and revolutionalizing film, but if you just make everything montage, it seems that you will wind up with a film that feels slightly discontinuous, which is one of the reasons why I feel that Mamet's phiosophy is somewhat off.
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Old June 3rd, 2004, 01:01 AM   #10
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"So if you have a loud sound followed immediately by a soft sound, the effect is great"

A quick digression. This doesn't diminish your point, but studies of human perception have shown that a stimulus of small amplitude in close temporal proximity to a large amplitude stimulus (occuring either immediately after or, surprisingly, before, to within a few milliseconds) is ignored by the brain's processing outright. (This fact is put to use in lossy perceptual coding schemes, such as the one used in MP3, when disgarding "useless" information that the brain won't pick up anyway.) Now back to the topic at hand:

I have much respect for Mamet's body of work, but like you, I think I disagree with what he's saying here. The cauldron of motives that comprise the human extraconscious very much inform and define our personalities, our behaviors; to deny a good actor essential insight into his character would necessarily, then, very much inhibit his performance. Can you imagine Mamet saying as much to Meryl Streep or Sean Penn? "Your motivation doesn't matter, Meryl, just open the door, sit in the desk"?

As for "loading" shots with "inflection" destroying the delicacy of their meaning: there are surely times when the subtle is to be preferred over the obtuse, but certainly not all of life is subtle, and especially, heated moments between people whose passions are inflamed are not subtle. To proscribe any such scenes from one's work is to categorically deny a whole facet of the human condition, to temper all emotivity into a guessing game played at the audience's expense.
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Old June 3rd, 2004, 06:03 AM   #11
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I think Chris was talking about this Kuleshov thread
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Old June 3rd, 2004, 10:29 AM   #12
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As for "loading" shots with "inflection" destroying the delicacy of their meaning: there are surely times when the subtle is to be preferred over the obtuse, but certainly not all of life is subtle, and especially, heated moments between people whose passions are inflamed are not subtle. To proscribe any such scenes from one's work is to categorically deny a whole facet of the human condition, to temper all emotivity into a guessing game played at the audience's expense. -->>>

I am in complete agreement with this. A good example of a movie with loaded shots- or a loaded shot- might be Hitchcock's "Rope".
The movie is one long (temporarly speaking) shot. The entire power of it is due to this. Everything that happens in this shot is directly related to everything else. It creates an incredible level of tension. the performances- especially that of the two killers and Jimmy Stewart are incredibly inflected. It is, simply put, one of the most chilling movies ever made. Hitchcock it seems to me wasn't terribly worried about insulting the audiences intelligence, and his films are great.

Did that make any sense, or am I totally misundertanding the conversation?

Michael
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Old June 3rd, 2004, 01:14 PM   #13
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Earlier in the thread, Chas recommended First Time Director: How to Make Your Breakthrough Movie by Gil Bettman. What was Gil Bettman's Breakthrough Movie?
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Old June 3rd, 2004, 02:49 PM   #14
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I was looking into buying this book as well and also was looking for more info on Bettman. I am assuming that this is the same Gil...

www.imdb.com/name/nm0079390/
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