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Learning to Speak the Language of Cinema

I’m often asked: Does being a film critic ruin the pleasure of watching movies for you? Are you so focused on analyzing or deconstructing a film while you are watching it that you can’t simply enjoy it?
I answer them: No, I enjoy movies because I approach them critically, analytically. I enjoy movies all the more because, rather than turning my brain off while I watch them, I turn my brain on even more, looking for the details and nuances and patterns that make any perceived experience of beauty all the richer. Or rather, I turn on my brain in a way that is simply more perceptive and open, eager to pick up on and appreciate things because I’ve learned to be a lover of the language of cinema.
Learning the language of cinema starts with a deep consideration of the form itself. What is a movie? How is the medium different from theater, literature, photography? What are cinema’s unique abilities and potentials? When you start asking this question, you’ll soon come to contemplate a fact which you already intuitively know: Cinema has a unique relationship to reality and time. It has the ability to manipulate, condense, and elongate time so that we can experience the whole lifetime of a character for decades of narrative history in the span of a couple hours.
Theorist and filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky called filmmaking “sculpting in time,” and wrote, “I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience.” Part of “sculpting in time” is the art of editing, or montage—the putting together of fragments of captured time and observed reality (scenes, shots) to the end of creating meaning. Why are certain shots juxtaposed to one another or put together in a sequence? Perhaps it’s meant to evoke paranoia and stress (Black Swan), or hallucinatory mirage (127 Hours), or the elemental beauty of passion (as in the infamous bee-pollination/love scene in I Am Love). Sometimes one cut or one montage sequence can be so jarring that the entire movie hinges on it. There’s an abrupt cut in Never Let Me Go that still haunts me—a cut that captures the “completion” of one of the main characters in brutally sudden fashion.
Another aspect of the language of cinema has to do with the concept of what is sometimes called the camera’s “gaze.” What is a camera looking at, and how is it looking at it? This includes the various ways that the camera draws attention to itself: zooms, pans, lingering static takes, close-ups, etc. Directors often hope that the camera is invisible and objective, even while they use its various functions to focus our attention here and there, subjectively choosing objects and faces to showcase; but I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be aware of the camera while you’re watching a film.
Sofia Coppola’s new film, Somewhere, for example, is full of noticeably long takes—of characters sitting together on a couch or lounging at the pool, of a desert racetrack with a sports car periodically zooming through the frame. There’s even a painstakingly long, slow zoom in on the main character (Stephen Dorff) with a plaster mold mask on his face. Why? What’s the point of all these long takes and the film’s resultant slow pace? A viewing of Somewhere that doesn’t try to understand the rationale for its stylistic choices would likely result in frustration and boredom. But thoughtful consideration of the film’s unique cinematic language—slow, observant, probing, unrushed—might lead one to see Coppola’s film as an intentional upending of the typically fast-paced, ephemeral, glitzy Hollywood style. Rather, it’s an un-Hollywood examination of Hollywood, exposing—through its luxuriant, long-take language—the unseen and quiet moments of a celebrity’s life outside the spotlight.
Another tool in the linguistic palette of cinema is the movement of the camera itself. In this way the camera can mimic a human observer—as a seeing eye that moves through a scene or surveys various angles of it—but it can also provide glimpses and angles and subjective emphases that human observations might miss. In movies like Children of Men or the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, for example, there are sequences of long, uninterrupted shots in which the camera effortlessly moves through complicated and vast spaces. Are these just cool, showy, technical achievements? Yes, but they also serve a purpose. They emphasize the scope of a space by exploring it, and they highlight the chaos and complexity of a variety of interlocking characters and plot points in one fell swoop. In addition to editing, camera movement and shot length, the language of cinema also includes things like mise-en-scene (the composition of elements within the frame), lighting, sound, set design, costumes, makeup, effects, and dozens of other artistic elements that each can be employed in specific ways to communicate something about the film.
All these elements comprise the letters in the language of cinema, and to understand the pieces is to better understand how they can work together as a whole. It then becomes easier, and more thrilling, to analyze complicated films or particularly challenging scenes within them, such as the regatta scene with the Winkelvoss twins in The Social Network. What was going on in this scene? On one hand, there’s its plot/thematic significance: The Winklevoss twins lose by “just that much” in the rowing race, just as they do to Mark Zuckerberg in the Facebook race. But then there are the stylistic details like the Trent Reznor-contorted version of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” an ominous perversion of a Romantic classic.
And what’s up with the tilt-shift cinematography that makes everything look miniature? Why are the spectators in the stands wearing Victorian era boater hats? Why is this 90-second interlude so stylistically different than the rest of the film? Being conversant in the language of cinema allows one to see how the formal details of this scene work together and to what end. It’s a turning-point scene meant to encapsulate the film’s changing-of-the-guard motif: the upending of the traditional privileged class, the fast-moving remixing of power structures, and the transition from a spectator-performer bifurcation to a more flattened space of interactivity.
In addition to being a useful help in the understanding of particular scenes and movies, learning to the speak the language of cinema also allows one to see better the patterns of style that define a certain filmmaker’s body of work. It helps us to recognize a certain combination of shots or favored camera angle as being the signature of a certain director. We’re able to watch any five minute stretch of The New World and recognize that, “Oh yeah, this is a Terrence Malick film” or turn on The Social Network and recognize in the first shot that it is indeed a David Fincher film.
In the same way that studying art history allows one to peruse a museum and recognize a stellar example of abstract expressionism from a middling one, or to delineate a Picasso masterpiece from a “minor Monet,” cultivating a proficiency in the language of cinema helps one to become a better connoisseur of the cinematic art form. It helps us to more thoroughly appreciate the very best of films and to discover the thrill of truly understanding what a film is and can be.

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