"The Godfather," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Notebook," we all have our favorites. Some movies (perhaps the entire "Transformers" movie franchise, if we want to get petty) are profit-fueled monstrosities that we never want to see again; others, which are lauded as masterpieces ("Interstellar," "Ratatouille") are watched repeatedly -- sometimes without knowing why. Is it that one line uttered as the music swells, or the way the silhouette of a young man against the sunset strikes into us a sense of yearning, or satisfaction, or both? It as taken many decades for directors to hone the art of film into something not only appreciated by the masses and their wallets, but sought after again and again, lifetimes later. We quote, we pay homage, we dress up in costumes, we write our own theories and stories for things that do not exist.
One can argue that it started with Plato's Allegory of the Cave; the Greek philosopher's famous story bears a striking resemblance to the modern cinema: a light source projects shadows onto a wall, creating shapes that the prisoners of the cave, shackled down and never having known anything else, believe to be reality. Even when one escapes the cave, sees a three-dimensional world, and returns to free his cellmates, the other prisoners seek only the familiar comfort of the shadows. The desire for escapism can make the perfect prison.
Some of the best movies make us forget that we are even in the theater, thanks to a number of creative decisions made on each level of the movie's production. You can read all of the academic papers you'd like on the cinematic apparatus, but for now we'll start with the basics of movie analysis.
Mise-en-scène (pronounced meez-ahn-sehn) is the catch-all term for the arrangement of everything that appears in each particular shot of a movie. The four basic elements of mise-en-scène are setting, costumes/makeup, lighting, and staging.
Setting - Often tailored to reflect a certain mood or a character's state of mind, the setting is more than a background; it should tell a story of its own, as well as have some bearing on the character's journey.
Costumes/Makeup - Extra dressings can emphasize an actor's features (yes, the men wear makeup too); costumes are always very deliberately designed to give off a certain feel - The titular character in "Carol," seen by some of the other characters as an immoral seductress, is almost always seen wearing her red jacket or red lipstick. Therese initially dresses in clashing, childlike colors, to emphasize her inexperience and immaturity. Throughout the course of the film, we observe the color schemes between the two do almost a complete reversal: Therese wears makeup and dresses in more professional, muted tones, indicating how her relationship with Carol changed her into a sexually mature woman.
Lighting - The number and placement of lights used to illuminate a set can create dramatic contrast. Key, fill, and backlight are arranged for a three-point lighting that creates a sense of depth. High-key lighting eliminates shadows and makes a scene appear soft and bright, while low-key lighting casts large shadows and creates sharp contrast. Sometimes, lighting can be more direct than just generating mood: the soft lighting used on women in the original "Star Trek" television series was meant to emphasize their softness, while the lighting highlights the fierceness in the Captain's expression. The lighting establishes that he is the brave, determined, complex captain, while the woman is soft, vulnerable, and meant to be looked at, like a painting.
Staging - The art of acting has evolved over time, moving from overtly expressive to nuanced. An entirely different discussion could be had about what constitutes good acting, but it undoubtedly has a substantial effect on how well is a movie is received. Depending on the type of movie involved, the performance may be naturalistic (method) or stylized (non-method) acting -- either way, it is the responsibility of the actor to bring his or her character to life. When multiple actors are involved, the way they are arranged in the frame lends extra weight to their relationships and ambitions.
Decisions made outside the set can change the quality of a potential film. From crossing out cliches and tropes in the writers' room to everything done in post, editing can make or break a movie. Jump cuts can either shorten time (two short shots of a man climbing the stairs instead of one unnecessary long take of him taking each step) or be jarring to the audience if done for seemingly no reason.
One must also consider the movie's plot: In the age of instant gratification, thinly-veiled plot holes and people who are clearly only plot devices are used to further the story or offer exposition details. Common sources of conflict in Hollywood productions often stem from miscommunication or an overheard, out-of-context conversation. It's frustrating for both characters and audience alike, and not in an interesting way. Admittedly, while I'm still bored by predictable Western plotlines, "nontraditional movies" like Park Chan-wook's "The Handmaiden" can still be frustrating and difficult to follow at first, but the buildup is more than worth it for the twist at the end.
A lot of a movie's bonus points come from a good musical score -- filled with motifs, recurring themes, all while being unique but not too distracting -- that give a film its flavor. We all recognize John Williams' iconic opening notes of the Star Wars franchise, and how it instills the nostalgia and fondness that keeps drawing us back to the theater.
However, the hardest part of making a movie is striking a beautiful balance of these elements, and how they interact with each other; Lucas's prequel trilogy fell flat because he relied on dazzling CGI effects to compensate for poor writing and characterizations, which led to awkward, clunky acting that made it even more obvious the whole thing was filmed in front of a blue screen.
Below is a sample analysis of an old film, with particular emphasis on how mise-en-scène creates meaningful symbolism.
EXAMPLE: Analysis of "Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans" (1927) Dir. F.W. Murnau [watch]
This silent film follows the story of a young farmer's efforts to reconcile with his loving wife; after being seduced by a sinful City Woman, he comes close to murdering his wife by capsizing their boat when out on the water. At the last second he is overcome with guilt, and allows her to escape. In shock, the Wife jumps on a train to the city, and the distraught Man follows, begging for her forgiveness. They spend the rest of the day exploring the city: they get haircuts, flowers, food, their photos taken, and dance at a funfair, slowly warming up to each other and trying to mend their relationship.
The Wife is often portrayed as a white, innocent figure, while the morally-confused Man is initially under the Woman From the City’s dark influence, and has makeup under his eyes to suggest its effects; for the duration of the couple’s adventure in the city, the Wife clutches desperately to a bouquet of damaged flowers, suggesting that she’s desperate to hold onto her damaged, but still beautiful, relationship with her husband; the frame rate of the physical film itself appears to speed up at points of urgency in the story, such as when the Man is hastily throwing on his jacket to go meet the Woman From the City. It was reported that the actor who played the Man had lead weights in the heels of his boots, in order for him to emphasize his sullen, grim countenance.
What struck me in particular during my viewing of "Sunrise" was Murnau’s manipulation of setting, particularly props, in order to make a motif out of circular objects. Perhaps the unending circularity represents the ability of a relationship to be able to revive itself and go back to where it started, similar to how the Man and the Wife “renewed” their vows while sneaking in on a wedding taking place in the city cathedral. It could also relate directly to the actual wedding ring, which is known to symbolize the unbreakable promise of matrimony.
Throughout the story, circular objects are placed in the center of the frame at the beginning of a sequence of events that furthers the plot, and what exactly becomes of these scenes changes the relationship between the Man and the Wife. The Woman From the City’s mouth forms a seductive ‘O’ when she whistles to the Man at the beginning of the movie; he runs away with her, leaving the despondent wife and her (circular) bowl in the center of the frame. The elopers conspire to drown the Wife under a perfectly full moon; when the camera later focuses on the Man’s hand hiding the bundle of reeds (which he will use to keep himself afloat once he capsizes the boat), the audience gets a clear view of his wedding ring gleaming in the moonlight. After his failed attempt to murder his innocent, loving wife, he tries to console her with a (circular) plate full of cakes in a café. The plate remains in the center of the frame as the Wife cries miserably. Later, when the couple go on their “date”, the conservative Wife fiercely defends her braided buns at the barber’s, then waits for her husband on a bench, right next to the spherical hot-towel machine that foreshadows the incoming jealousy scene with the Obtrusive Gentleman and the Manicure Girl.
As they’re waiting for their photograph to develop, the two accidentally behead the Photographer’s statue as they fool around on the couch, and hastily replace it with the nearest spherical object the Man can lay his hands on. At the beginning of the funfair sequence, the audience’s view is limited to the spinning circular decoration at the entrance to the park.
On the couple’s boat trip back home, the Man takes care to lay his jacket over the Wife’s braided buns. The moon makes a reappearance at this point, reminding the viewers of the nearly-forgotten promise between the Man and the Woman From the City, and a chaotic capsizing scene ensues in the midst of a sudden storm. Only when the Wife is recovered, and happily reunited with her faithful husband, does the (half-circular) sunrise dominate the final frames.
The motif of the camera’s repetitive focus on circular objects enhances the “till death do us part” aspect of a marriage, how starting over may be necessary in order to keep the relationship alive and healthy. It serves as a benchmark for how the tone of the film changes as the story develops. The symbol starts as something dark and sinful, of plans for murder made in the dark – most symbolic of this is the shot of the Man’s hand, wearing the wedding ring, holding the reeds, a prop that will help him in his plot to end his marriage. But, when the love between the Man and the Wife becomes rekindled, it can become something fun, even youthful. Most of the props are introduced or influenced by the Man, expressing his genuine effort to fix his relationship with his wife. It is also important to note that the Woman From the City never really shares in this motif; she contributes only the whistle (a shallow attempt at replicating the affection between man and wife) and the moon she plans murder beneath. In reality, her world is all sharp edges and lopsided surfaces, hardly stable enough for a relationship.
So, how does this tell me whether "Sunrise" is a good movie or not? It doesn't, really, but it certainly tells me how much thought went into the writing behind it. Modern films seem to have lost sight of such nuances -- not to say that a good film doesn't have to be chock-full of repeating symbols, of course -- but an awareness of how all of these elements interact with each other to add another whole layer of meaning beyond the spoken dialogue, especially in a silent film.
Be on the lookout for the little things the next time you watch any movie -- you might even develop an increased appreciation for the cotton balls Marlon Brando stuffed in his cheeks for his part of Vito Corleone.