Watching a Movie as if you were a Film Reviewer

May 5, 2011 · 6 comments

I feel communicating with people in our lives can be one of our great pleasures. People love to talk, argue, share perceptions, and discuss movies. The purpose of this blog post is to suggest a language and way of viewing a film that will enhance your discussions. Use it to widen your film vocabulary in order to express our many perceptions, feelings, opinions and thoughts we get from watching a good film. Let’s increase our ability to have a great conversation.

Writing

With film, the writing is the beginning (after the idea) of a collaborative process, which leads to various interpretations and languages for each interconnected component of the film. In other words, the camera speaks a language, as does the acting and directing and sound. A good film always has a wonderful interconnection between the various collaborators. The people who write a screenplay need to use a special language, other than dialogue, which gives instruction and information. For instance it might just say interior: with a description of the decrepit home or exterior with a very brief description of the rain outside the crowded streets of the city they are in. Good screenplay writing (even when taken from a book) must talk several languages for each component of the film. Even then, the director changes the color or tone or location. The actors interpret where to put emotional emphasis and the camera picks up an expression

Have you experienced that when discussing films, many times people tend to compare the film with the book. I don’t like the discussion, a book starts and stops with writing as the art form. The book would have all written descriptions, while the film will take the written description of the sunset and show it with the camera, or the emotional outpouring of a character. They are such different animals. I suggest moving on as fast as you would stop drinking tepid coffee.

Zig Zagging

Lets have a conversation about the writing in a film. A good screenplay uses dialogue in a Zig Zag manner, which is how people usually talk to each other. Zig Zag is an accurate description of indirect communication when we converse. Who doesn’t remember how obtuse we can get with family, in relationship and life in general? Often we dance around with our words. For some people directness is just plain uncomfortable. Therefore most screenplays are written where the characters communicate indirectly, or Zig Zag, as they look at each other.

Subtext

Sometimes indirect dialogue and words can say one thing, and mean another. A well-written script in the hands of terrific actors often leaves the unspoken, or indirect word underneath what is being said. This is called the subtext. It is a powerful opportunity for us to feel for, empathize, care about (or despise) the various characters. Good camera work captures the teardrop, smile, frown or look of disgust, which works with the spoken words, but helps inform us what they mean. When a character starts a film by talking in a very zig-zag fashion; it could be the writers intent to use the subtext to involve us the audience in feeling the conflict, or igniting our curiosity. Many times an audience has to be hooked, or feel involved quickly. Clever dialogue uses words to hide what is going on inside the character and the story. In discussing the writing, look for what wasn’t said that leaves you curious.

The King’s Speech was so beautifully written because often the words between Jeffrey Rush as speech therapist Lionel Logue, and Colin Firth as King George VI of Britain, conveyed more feeling by what wasn’t said. The words used were just a clever way into a deep beautiful friendship. Also, the way they spoke, especially the Jeffrey Rush character using clever and smug words, had an important purpose. His dialogue at critical times conveyed humor to relieve them of the enormous tension. We quickly felt and cared for Colin Firth because of his huge struggle with stuttering and acute social awkwardness. We were made aware of conflict, pain, and the beginnings of an important relationship almost immediately. We were sucked in. We cared. The actors took exceptional writing and told a fantastic story. Storytelling at it’s best.

When you discuss films with your friends or family or chat with a stranger, the most important aspect of the film is; What kind of storytelling is it? And what made that storytelling special in the collaboration process?

Acting

When discussing a film people usually think the most impressive aspects of the film is the acting, because acting is so critical to our impression of a film. Here’s something to look for that can enhance your point of view of the acting, which makes a good film so delightful to observe. When two equally fabulous actors are both in dialogue together and neither tries to be bigger or better then the other actor. They just maintain their authenticity of their character and communicate with each other. An example is Robert Deniro who plays a very smart crook and Al Pacino who is an equally shrewd cop in the mediocre film “Heat.” There’s a scene where the action and thriller aspect of the film is stopped and the two actors are in a diner seated at a table opposite each other. DeNiro moves his mouth in his famous mouth moving way, and Pacino stares and talks with his Pacino intensity. But they discuss the business they are in all the time letting the subtext underneath the dialogue scream out loud. Pacino says I’m going to catch you and take you down and DeNiro weaves and bobs and says no you’re not. I just watched these two American jewel actors and loved the interaction. This is also true with great ensemble acting. Each actor and actress so inhabits their character, and they play off of each other, it looks and feels like a smooth silk dance. When discussing the film’s acting, try to include how the various actors played off of one another. It will broaden the discussion.

Sound Track

I have a friend who memorizes who wrote the score to various films. She is so accurate in describing the emotion or tension or happiness created by the music. Often the music is in the background of our awareness. Some music is so beautiful it deserves to be mentioned.

We could have an evening with friends playing a parlor game where we come up with a song from a film that had a profound impact on us. For instance I will never forget how my mother loved the song “The Way We Were,” sung by her favorite Barbra Streisand in the love story with Robert Redford in the film, “The Way We Were.” At the time, I was emotionally influenced by Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You,’ in the love story “The Bodyguard,” with Kevin Costner. Not only do I love hearing Whitney Houston sing that song, but it took place while I was having a break up. In a way the song acted as my emotional catharsis song. Certain songs from various films will influence us for a life time. Talk about it, it’s fun and meaningful.

Cinematography

I remember a Japanese film I showed at the Mount Shasta International Film Festival called: “Tony Takatami”. We felt at the time that the camera captured a look, a mood, and swept across the screen during silence in such a powerful way that the camera work not only showed the story, but conveyed tremendous emotion through visual images that substituted for dialogue. It was beautiful and refreshing to have a film convey so much information without relying on dialogue.

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Often all great films have camera work that is profound, moody, varied, and expressing stunning visual imagery along with unique texture. When you experience a film try to notice how the camera work captures something special through the visual technique of the cameraperson. One simple way to discuss what the visual quality is when you notice how they used close ups to show emotion, midrange shots and long distant shots. Sometimes we will be scared by an image far away and they slowly bring it closer until we can see the sweat glands on the killer’s face.

Directing

It’s so fascinating to read or hear in an interview with the actors how different directors work. From Woody Allen, Hitchcock, John Huston, Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorsese etc. They all take their vision of the film and work with their actor’s and crew differently. I just finished reading Michael Caine describe how the late and great John Huston directed himself and Sean Connery in the great film, “The Man Who Would Be King.” Sometimes you read or hear that another great director says very little but expects his or her actor’s to nail the character on their own. Regardless of how they do it, almost every great film has to credit the direction. It is such a complex job requiring a person be the leader in every aspect of the film. They resemble the director of a symphony, able to hear every instrument and sound, then know when to pause, emphasize and work with others to create beautiful music. They may sit and leave the work to crew and actors, but they maneuver the film to get made. They make sure the story is told as effectively as it could be. A director usually works with millions of dollars of other people’s money, they can’t have many failures if they want to keep directing. It is an important job to be the leader of a bunch of creative and sometimes crazy people.

I welcome your feedback and ideas on this first blog post.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

donna bringenberg May 8, 2011 at 4:50 am

Jeff….I loved how you chose those wonderful clips to give examples of the point you were making. The one with DeNiro and Pacino is absolutely priceless. Good content also….really gave me a wider glimpse into the film world…other than liking, loving or hating a film. I look forward to reading more insights.

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shantam May 8, 2011 at 3:52 pm

jeffrey… well done…thanks for outlining so many ways to look at a movie.. i love your writing..

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Penny Bloodhart May 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Very very interesting! The differences between the novel and the movie are often sources of contention and discussion, and you are right—they are two different forms of expression. I also appreciated your comments regarding movie music. As you know, I regard the emotional component of music in a movie as quite important!

This is a beautifully written article.

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laurie bagley May 12, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Well done Jeff. I love the comments related to the Kings Speech! In support, Laurie

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DeLeon May 13, 2011 at 11:29 pm

As a young teenager I dated a girl who’s mother and father ran the “Majestic Theater” where we lived. Then as now my first and foremost attraction to movie’s is to be entertained. I expect the film makers to tell the very best cinematic story they can. I like the idea that you chose to open this blog page introducing the parts that can make up a succsesfull movie and their relationship. keep up the good work.

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Elaine Benton May 12, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Dear Jeffrey,
I love what you have written. You and I seem to be on the same wavelength and understand the importance of kindness, compassion and empathy. I an chronically ill with Gaucher disease and at 44 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. You describe and clearly from personal experience comprehend from the patient’s and caregiver’s point of view. Excellent site and blog. Do keep up this valuable work as I am sure you are reaching and helping those who need support. Regards, Elaine

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