Learning to Read a Film


As with our spoken languages we learn to ‘read’ films at an early age in our culture (and in most cultures around the world). And just as studying the rules of the language (parts of speech, sentence structure, etc) hones our ability to communicate, learning the grammar films is a way to become more perceptive viewers, critics, and, especially at a place like SVA, creators of film narratives.
Toward that end film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson offer a nutshell version of film analysis in their post, How to watch an art movie, Reel 1.

These fifteen shots constitute the film’s first reel, and they lock in place many of the intrinsic norms. But these norms won’t simply be repeated in the course of what follows. They will be varied in cunning ways. The omission of certain information will keep us in suspense, heightened by framing that excludes what we need to know. After we’ve become used to the norm of the offscreen speaker or listener, one later shot will use it surprisingly, with disquieting emotional effect. After shots in black-and-white, two are in color. After the rigorous objectivity of what we’ve seen so far, we’re surprised to see a shot that is likely to be a hallucination. And the film’s one optical POV passage will be decoupled from its owner, in both time and space.
… In Sueño y silencio, the conventions of art cinema allow Rosales to present profound pain with a measure of tranquility. We can register this mixed emotion all more acutely because we’ve participated in creating it. We grasp the conventions he’s exploiting, and we can enjoy seeing them employed in fresh ways.

Below are some titles to expand on their brief introduction to the field.

Film art : an introduction / David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson – PN1995 .B617 2010


Narration in the fiction film / David Bordwell – PN1995.B6173 1985


Planet Hong Kong : popular cinema and the art of entertainment / David Bordwell – PN1993.5.H6 B63 2000


Master shots : 100 advanced camera techniques to get an expensive look on your low-budget movie / Christopher Kenworthy – TR850 .K46 2009


Grammar of the film language / Daniel Arijon – TR850.A8

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