Of course you don't simply creep along and talk about what you're looking at. It helps to have a grounding in basic visual strategy. When the Sun-Times appointed me film critic, I hadn't taken a single film course (the University of Illinois didn't offer them in those days). One of the reasons I started teaching was to teach myself. Look at a couple dozen New Wave films, you know more about the New Wave. Same with silent films, documentaries, specific directors.
I bought some books that were enormously helpful. The most useful was Understanding Movies, by Louis D. Giannetti, then in its first edition, now in its 11th. He introduced me to the concept that visual compositions have "intrinsic weighting." By that I believe he means that certain areas of the available visual space have tendencies to stir emotional or aesthetic reactions. These are not "laws." To "violate" them can be as meaningful as to "follow" them. I have never heard of a director or cinematographer who ever consciously applied them. I suspect that filmmakers compose shots from images that well up emotionally, instinctively or strategically, just as a good pianist never thinks about the notes. It may be that intrinsic weighting is sort of hard-wired. I am not the expert to say. I can observe that I have been through at least 10 Hitchcock films and not found a single shot that doesn't reflect these notions.
I already knew about the painter's "Golden Mean," or the larger concept of the "golden ratio." For a complete explanation, see Wiki, and also look up the "Rule of Thirds." To reduce the concept to a crude rule of thumb in the composition of a shot in a movie: A person located somewhat to the right of center will seem ideally placed. A person to the right of that position will seem more positive; to the left, more negative. A centered person will seem objectified, like a mug shot. I call that position somewhat to the right of center the "strong axis."
Friday, September 05, 2008
Ebert on how to read a movie: