Bong Joon-ho directorial Korean language film ‘Parasite’ won 4 Oscars, including the best picture award in 2020, to become the first international film to achieve the feat. In the previous year, the masterpiece had won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, a film festival better oriented to world cinema.
If one takes a look at the reviews of this film or discussions about it in the major newspapers and websites, one would notice that most of them concern themselves with the film’s gripping storyline, impactful characters and the strong social commentary which is hard to ignore, even if one intends to.
Parasite is a blend of masterful technicality, sheer attention to detail and other nodes of interplay with film form and language. Barring the usual mention in avant-garde magazines catered to the spectacled intellectuals in book-filled desks, those aspects got little attention.
What is unfortunate is that this is not unique to ‘Parasite’. The inattention to film form and unfamiliarity with film language surrounds the vast majority of mainstream discourse about cinema. Needless to say, this was not the norm, certainly not in the prime days of Cahiers du Cinéma and François Truffaut.
Having established that cinema is more than just the narrative that it portrays and that its quality is largely determined by the other aspects of film, we may attempt to understand what they are.
The Language of Cinema
There is a significant difference between CCTV footage of a burglar running away with stolen items and a movie sequence depicting a running burglar. In the former, the video will display the burglar running in real-time, shot from a stable single-perspective. The footage will be of use to its viewers, if it leads them to find the burglar. In the latter however, the film sequence may contain a few shots taken from a lower angle, where we can only see the burglar’s shoes, and the subsequent shot taken from behind the burglar, played in slow-motion and so on.
The point is that these mediations by the filmmaker, make the film a pleasant watching experience, and together with a few other aspects, account for film language.
Film form collectively refers to the constituent elements which make a film. It is distinct from content. If the vast yellow wheat-fields and pale blue skies make the content of a painting, the shades, the brush-strokes, the canvas texture et cetera, would make the form. Similarly, for cinema, the form consists of the shot composition, camera angle, camera movement, colour composition et cetera.
In bringing together the units of film form, certain principles are kept in mind:
1. Function: The function of any element of film form is its raison d’etre or purpose of existence. For instance, the 2021 film ‘Malcolm & Marie’ was shot in black and white. The idea of going monochrome was certainly not one arising out of the whims and fancies of the creators to do something different. The question of the characters’ colour was an important theme in the film and the monochrome reflected that. Other reasons for going black and white could be to hide away the unnecessary details of the penthouse in which the entire story of the film takes place.
2. Repetition: Recurrence of elements in film causes audiences to form certain associations and also contribute to the creation of a pattern. The recurring elements could be characters, camera angles, music or dialog lines. For example, the L theme song in ‘Death Note’ plays whenever the detective (L) finds himself in an advantageous position. Another instance of repetition is that of the colour red in the little girl’s costume in ‘Schindler’s List’. A simpler example of repetition could be the intro-line “My name’s Bond, James Bond” by the famous Hollywood spy.
3. Variation: The jarring effect of film is created oftentimes when repetition is broken. When a whistling schoolboy doesn’t whistle anymore, we know there is trouble. In the French sci-fi short film La Jetée, all the scenes are static photographs. In a scene towards the end, we are shown a glimpse of a woman’s eyes. We naturally assume that this too is a still image. However, the eye blinks. The effect of that variation is beyond description.
Mise en scène
The above-mentioned elements and principles of film form are interwoven in a manner that is mechanically coherent and yet artistically appealing. The integration of all of the aspects including those of actors, costumes, props, settings as well as those of form (such as camera angle, colour, shot composition) into a cohesive whole is called mise en scène.
The setting, which might be as vast as a city or as little as a desolate alley, oftentimes becomes more than a mere background. In the earlier cited ‘Parasite’, when the protagonists arrive at the masterfully constructed avenue of the architect, there is a paradigm shift in the setting. While the earlier setting consisted of the narrow under-garages with a visible congestion and a claustrophobic positioning, the present one was both aesthetically and materially beautiful. In this case, the setting illustrates an important theme of the film – that of inequality. While the portrayal of inequality in the story can make for an apt social commentary, it is the form that succeeds in making the audience feel its vulgarity.
Camera movements illustrate that the device that made cinema possible, is not a passive spectator. Different types of camera movements are used to enunciate various aspects of film, therefore giving it meaning. The Iranian anthology film ‘The Day I Became a Woman’ talks about the intersected lives of three women at various stages of their lives. In the first section about a young cycling girl, the camera follows the cycle speedily, symbolizing the dynamic nature of her youth. In the final section centred around a wheelchair-bound aged woman, the camera almost always remains in the same position. This time the camera movement, or the lack thereof, stands for the immobility and rootedness of age.
Alfred Hitchcock once said about the trends in cinema current to him, “They are what I call photographs of people talking.” With the reduction of cinema which is an audio-visual art form to a mere didactic, we only make Hitchcock’s lamentations a reality. While it is certainly not necessary or even recommended for film-goers to have in-depth knowledge of every titbit of filmmaking jargon, an understanding of film language and form helps.
Much of what is expressed in movies, at least in the good ones, is done by making use of the audio-visual elements. In order to appreciate and understand films, it is vital for film-goers to learn to notice the same.
Liked this piece? Also read: The Art of Cinematography.
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