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Essay: Film Analysis and Early Technique

November 9, 2011

The Evolution of Technique

            Whenever the films of today are examined, those that critics acclaim and award shows praise, they can be viewed as the highest form of art.  Most people do not realize this, and many even laugh at the idea of modern movies as art, but the great films of today are, in essence, a blend of what people do consider art.  The story behind the movie, the artistic creation of the visuals, the musical choices and creations, and the actual physical acting are all combined to create movies and modern day cinema have even more techniques available that allow directors to create movies in incredible new ways.  As an audience views these movies, they must remember that all these aspects and techniques used today are actually built on the great movies of the past.  In viewing these techniques, it is important to look at the past and see how they were created and evolved into what we know and use now.

Looking at the beginnings of film, minds generally drift to the silent film era.  These are not just experiments with a camera, like many of the short films that came before, but actual films in their starting point.  These films were made not just before computer editing was available, but before color was shown and people talked through title cards.  This makes Buster Keaton’s use of the camera technique to create such amazing effects in Sherlock Jr. all the more remarkable.  It is said that Sherlock Jr. is “a self-reflexive work, a film about a film,” that examines and reworks the clichés of the time, and this is the truth (145).  Yet, at the same time, the audience must surely see that, at its heart, Sherlock Jr. is an intensely visual movie.  Through the film, the audience will not only see Keaton’s vaudeville background, but also his interest in the creation of a scene and “how that picture got put together through the cutting room, and the mechanics of the camera” (143).

One technique that Sherlock Jr. uses to a great degree of effectiveness is the tracking shot.  Tracking shots is a shot with smooth camera movement that is able to seamlessly follow the action, usually with the help of a dolly or some other type of mechanical equipment.  This may seem silly and small in comparison to the great many techniques out there, many of which are also used in this film, but the tracking shot is extraordinary because, used the way it is in this film, it actually is special.  Nowadays, not using the tracking shot, at least without some sort of stylistic reason, would be seen as ridiculous, but Keaton uses them for a specific effect.  Quite plainly, Keaton uses these tracking shots to show off his skills as a performer in a time before these skills could be faked.

One of the first times that tracking shots are used for this specific effect is a little more than a fourth of the way through the movie; when the young projectionist decides to, following the advice of his detective book, follow his man closely.  In this long, tracking scene, Keaton follows the local sheik (played by Ward Crane) so closely that, as they walk, Keaton’s left foot overlaps with Crane’s right foot.  More than just walking closely behind, Keaton copies every action of Crane to the point where he is “almost a literal shadow, and he duplicates, on a physically smaller scale…, his rival’s every step, stumble, and gesture” (150).  This showcases Keaton’s ability to maneuver and copy the person inches in front of him, but it is the extended tracking shot that makes this truly impressive because, in a method that is still used in this day and age, these full-body extended shots prove that the actor is capable of performing this by himself and in one take.  We see this again, at the end of the follow sequence, when the projectionist escapes a train by jumping onto a water container, pulling the spigot down with him, leading to a flush of water pushing him directly onto the railroad tracks.  This whole scene, from the train hopping to the water pumping, is done is one long shot and long take with a tracking camera that starts high, but follow Keaton to the ground and shows him as a performance artist, even at the risk of personal injury.

One of the most compelling and powerful example of the excellent use of tracking shots in this film in, in fact, in the one of the most noteworthy parts of this entire film.  This part occurs in the film within a film, as are protagonist shifts from a mild-mannered projectionist to the eponymous detective Sherlock Jr.  This sequence occurs in the last quarter of the movie, as Sherlock runs from the villains.  This take follows him with a tracking shot as he runs next to his assistant on a bike.  Sherlock, who is anxious to escape his pursuers, jumps on the front steering part of the bike, trusting in his assistant to help their escape.         Unfortunately, it is very early on in this chase scene that their plan hits a literal and metaphorical bump.  A shallow ditch in the road, filled to the brim with water, creates a bump that knocks Sherlock’s assistant of the bike.  This leaves Sherlock, unknowingly, as the bikes only occupant, and it is the long tracking shot that shows Keaton’s ability to ride a bike from the steering wheels.

That particular shot ends, shifting to a tracking shot that occurs ahead of Keaton, keeping the camera one step in front of him as he keeps his place on the bike, never looking back.  This sequence of shots actually shifts from tracking shots keeping close watch on Keaton to quick stilled shots that watch as he zooms by, using the two together to show Keaton skill at maneuvering the bike from his post while zipping between cars, knocking over women, and even winning a tug-of-war.  While the idea of using long tracking shots as a style may seem amateurish, it is important to remember that this was in the beginning stages of movie development.  It was not that Keaton was using these techniques, but that he was using existing techniques in new ways and to his advantage that helped evolve filming developments for years to come.

As Sherlock Jr. shows, sometimes it really is the silent movies, films at their earliest, that are the greatest examples of ingenuity.  These had very little to work with in terms of editing and camera techniques, but more than made up for this with a skilled usage of the camera.  Battleship Potemkin is a Russian film that proves that, even without the fancy editing software of today, a true artist can use a camera to create emotion and imply more than the basics shown on the screen.  Battleship Potemkin uses everyday people as the actors, chosen based on their outward similarity to the characters they played rather than their acting ability, and then used montage to help create the emotions for the audience to witness.  Montage is an editing technique that sequences short shots together in a manner that implies condensed information for the audience to interpret.

One scene early on in the film, in Act I, shows the crew surrounding a large piece of rotten meat.  The camera examines the meat closely, showing the audience that it is covered in maggots and rotting, but the camera flashes from this to the doctor explaining it away, to the crew stone-faced and batting away the meat.  It is very short shots (the crew – the doctor showing of the meat- the crew- the doctor- the crew batting at the meat), but they way they are interspersed together creates feelings that, truthfully, are not shown on the crews face.  Between that actual picture of the maggots and the doctor waving around the meat with no shame, we already feel the disgust that we seem to see in the crew.  Disgust and anger at the circumstances and the nerve shown.  It is the use of montage, the putting together of these scenes that create these emotions.  We see this effect again soon after.  We see fast shots of men eating anything they can find and barter for, to the captain dismissing his men and staring at an empty dining hall, the table swaying back and forth and no one eating the soup full of the rancid meat.  The captain does nothing but widens his eyes and walk quickly out the room, but we do not need to see the later violence to know he is seething with rage.

Out of all of the moments in this film, though, the one that best uses montage to create an emotional reaction in the audience.  In Act IV, the sequence occurs that creates emotional turmoil that even today’s big budget movies sometimes fail to inspire.  The peaceful citizens of the town our punished for helping the rebellious shipmen.  The attack shifts directly from two young children, waving happily to their heroes, to a young women screaming in terror and pain.  The shots come in quickly after that.  We see the citizens run down the stairs, starting with a cripple who is definitely no threat to anyone, and this shifts to shots of the soldiers chasing them to shots of the citizens as a whole fleeing down the stairs.  The audience does not need to see the individual faces or hear the screams to know that the crowd is stricken with terror.  It only gets worse, though, as random bodies start falling in the crowd: men, women, and children.

We see people jumping to the side and hiding behind rocks and guns being shot.  It is a mess plain and simple, but the confusion and panic felt during this scene is definitely not because of any particularly great acting.  If the scene is examined closely, it could be noted that most of the bodies do not fall to the ground, but instead sit and then lay down quickly.  The young children do not look particularly frightened in many scenes, showing confusion more than anything else does.  These are not trained actors.  They are simply real people doing their best.  The terror and panic the audience feels at this scene is truly the work of the camera editing.  The quick cuts do not give the time to fully look at the acting and the audience sees the running and confusion, the gunshots and the bodies, and the montage provides the emotion that the acting does not.

The use of montage in films is still relevant.  Fifteen years later, after sound has been introduced to films, montage is still used to get similar effects in Citizen Kane.  While the acting is much better in Citizen Kane, montage is used more with inanimate object put together to show sense visuals to the audience.  An example occurs right in the beginning of the film as the camera approaches Kane’s home.  First, it pans from a no trespassing sign to the top of the gate, the dark K sitting on top, with the dark castle in the distance.  The montage, using fades instead of straight cuts, shows monkeys and boats to jagged rocks and creepy signs.  This is Xanadu, and it is the first hint of Kane’s personality that we see.  By showing these images together, the camera is creating a personality of the castle.  Creepy and strange, it “looks a bit like the home of a sorcerer” and is “both a wonder of the world and a monument to bad taste” (345).  The audience’s first time actually seeing Kane is also his last dying breath.  Yet, the viewers are already forming an opinion of his character because of the flash of scenes just experienced.  Like his home, Kane is separated from the outside world, mysterious and overzealous in his appearance.  He is consumed with the perception of him and manages to become a great figure of renown, but also a clash of bad taste.  In addition, for the most part, these initial ideas, gleamed from a dash of images faded together, are accurate.

Another powerful example of this amazing usage of montage is in the final moments of the film.  After everyone leaves Xanadu, all that is left on screen are images.  There is no narration to tell the viewer what to think with no signs pointing out answers.  Left only with dramatic music in the background showing the importance of the scene, the audience looks to the slowly flashing images to make sense of what is occurring.  The final words have already occurred, explaining that one word could not accurately show a man from the sum of his parts, but now the audience sees more information than expected.  They see a room too large to imagine, no walls in sight, filled to the brim with random flights of fancy.  The camera fades closer, panning over the items, most of them indistinguishable, but all mostly meaningless items, symbols of status and acclaim.  Things meant to fill a hole.  The camera zooms in and, this time, Welles uses montage differently.  He creates a composition of interestingly put together items like a collage on film.  Instead of just statues and artifacts, bought with money he barely cared about, the audience sees an old record player and bits and pieces of a bed.  There are newspapers tied up and old paintings a dolls and, of course, the sled.  Aside from the moment where the audience learns of the meaning of Rosebud, it is this montage of items put together on a screen that carefully craft together the image of his childhood.  A careful viewer can remember a younger Kane looking for items of his childhood, items he apparently found and hoarded just the same as expensive statues.  These pieces show just as fully as the sled that, for all his crazy spending and hoarding, the one thing he wanted in his life was what no money could afford.  He keeps these items, but it is the intangible past, his never forgotten childhood, that he truly aches for.

After looking at a movie including sound, it only makes sense to next examine a movie introducing sound.  What is incredible about Singin’ In the Rain is how it introduces new bits and pieces to the general film techniques, while still uses and experimenting with the techniques before.  Like Sherlock Jr., it heavily uses long shots to highlight the talents of vaudeville-esque performances and is inherently a film about a film.  It uses new techniques and the abilities with color to create montage scenes that allow us to learn more than what is strictly shown.  Yet where this film truly shines has little to do with the camera techniques itself and more to do with the sound supplied.  It is only fitting, as both a musical and a movie about how sound affects movies, which this film experiments and plays with sounds magnificently.

One way this film experiments with sounds is the diegetic sound in the movie, or the sound that the characters in the movie hear and react to.  Right in the beginning, we have all the characters speaking and acting normally, with one exception.  Lina Lamont does not speak for the first twelve minutes of the movie, instead just smiling and looking pretty.  At first, it really is not too noticeable.  Don Lockwood is describing his past, so it makes sense that Lamont would just stand and listen.  In his actual flashback to their first meeting, it just seems that she is the silent type.  It is when the duo is speaking to the audience (in-movie) that it becomes noticeable, as Lockwood has to keep stopping her from speaking.  It raises the tension and when she finally opens her mouth, behind the curtains, the viewers will find her voice to be that much more hilarious.  More than that, this effect could never have happened during a silent movie.  At most, other actors could flinch.  However, purposefully altering a voice to sound screechy and uneducated is itself a new technique and plays with the idea of audience and movie perception.

It would, of course, be absurd to not talk about the actual musical numbers as well.  These numbers straddle the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, because of course everyone hears them (and sees them and joins in), but it is something a step away from reality.  Any child of Disney knows how to take a musical number incorporated into a scene and believe in it, but Singin’ In the Rain does this in different ways.  Instead of just acting through music that randomly appears, Singin’ In the Rain incorporates them in a reality-based setting.  “Make ‘Em Laugh,” for example, is Cosmo actually performing to make his friend laugh. “Singin’ In the Rain” is Lockwood so full of love that he performs in the streets, to the chagrin of a local cop.  “You Were Meant For Me” is preformed for Kathy Seldon as Lockwood must make a performance out of everything.  It is a unique of introducing songs as diegetic sound that works well with the actual plot of the play.

The most clear-cut and amazing example of Singin’ In the Rain’s use of diegetic sound comes from the premiere of their first movie.  In “The Dueling Cavalier” (the movie within a movie), the audience sees how hard it was to incorporate the sounds we take for granted today.  The footsteps are loud, but then this is overshadowed by magnified sound of Lamont’s shifting the pearls on her necklace.  Lamont’s voice is displayed prominently in this scene as the effects of her vocal lessons come and goes, such as when she succeeds in holding strong vowel in “can’t” but ruins it in “stand’em.”  This toying with accents is phenomenal for the time.  In addition, it is impossible to miss the tricks with the microphone, already shown earlier in the movie, as the old-fashioned microphones have some problems picking up noise.  This movie takes a real world problem that it has passed at this point and recreates it to a hilarious degree.  Then, throughout the entire scene, the in-movie audience is laughing and making remarks over the movie.  Overall, Singin’ In the Rain used many tricky, inventive sound methods to create a phenomenal scene and an incredible movie out of what was most likely a lackluster plot.

It is easy to be unimpressed with movies from the past at times.  The ones without sound or color can seem boring compared to the IMAX or 3D movies shown today.  However, it is important to look closely at those old movies and see the ingenious techniques used as they did more than just made do with what they had.  They made masterpieces out of nothing and invented the building blocks to the movies we all enjoy today.  It is these movies from the past, with their evolving techniques and styles, which made our current day blockbusters possible.

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