Article: Extract from Understanding Literature and Film; Dr Derek Soles

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Understanding Literature and Film


One-minute Overview:   In the last chapter, we learned that drama is the least print-based of the literary genres.  You likely will read and study the text of a play in your literature classes, but you will soon realize the limitations of studying drama this way.  Drama is more a visual than a print medium.  When you see a play performed, you get a quite different perspective of its action, setting, and characters than you do if you simply read the text of a play.  As an audience member, you experience all of the play at once; you don’t read twenty pages one day, another forty the next, and so on.  Moreover, the director’s interpretation of the play’s theme (see Chapter 10) and the actors’ interpretation of the characters; the props and scenery the set designer builds and the clothes the costume designer puts on the actors; the artistry of the sound and lighting technicians—these and other technical features will colour your perception of the experience, your understanding of the play.  Poetry and fiction engage our senses profoundly but indirectly and subconsciously; live drama engages our senses more viscerally.

     If drama is the least print-based of the literary genres, film is the least print-based of the dramatic arts.  Certainly, it is a form of drama, a genre of literature.  But rarely do we read a screenplay before we see, or in lieu of seeing, a movie.  Rarely would you study a screenplay in a literature class.  A film is a series of “moving talking pictures,” which we must see and hear to understand and appreciate.  Fortunately, DVD players make films as easy to watch as books are to read—which is one reason why the analysis and interpretation of film is so often an important component of introduction-to-literature classes.

     The process of understanding, interpreting, analyzing, and appreciating a film is, in some ways, more complex than the process of understanding written text.  Viewing may be easier, more passive, or, to many, more fun than reading because a film packages for us the colour, motion, setting, and the special effects we must construct ourselves when we read a story.  But film has a highly technical dimension, absent in poetry and fiction and present in a limited way in a live play. To really understand and appreciate a film, we need to consider these technical elements.  Yes, we interpret a movie in the context of the standard elements of literature; we consider plot, theme, setting, character, point-of-view, imagery while we watch the film and after it has ended.  But there are, as well, these technical elements we need to consider if we are to interpret and understand a film as completely as possible.  Specifically, to understand and appreciate a film, we need some understanding of

  • How a director composes a “shot”;
  • How a director positions and moves the camera;
  • How the film’s editor chooses to assemble the shots into a coherent visual text.

The Composition of the Shot

     Film is a series of still celluloid photographs or “frames” flashed before us so quickly that they create an illusion of real-life movement and action.  Most film reels travel at 24 frames per second (fps), so fast that our eye sees a movie the way it sees the real action and movement we experience in day-to-day life, though the movie is really the quintessential optical illusion. 

     Each frame is part of a shot.  A shot is a single setting or moment of action in a film.  A shot may be composed of a limited number of frames and thereby pass us by very quickly or it may be composed of thousands of frames and appear before us for some minutes.  A director may try to compose a shot symmetrically by positioning props and characters of similar size and shape in similar positions on either side of the screen.  Or she may stage an asymmetrical shot by placing props and actors of disproportionate size and number—but of equal visual significance—on either side of the screen.  The “equal visual significance” is crucial because a director wants balance and harmony even in an asymmetrical shot, unless, for artistic reasons, the director consciously seeks to establish a sense of imbalance.  A shot ends when the camera “cuts” to a different setting or moment of action—to the next shot.  A shot must, at the very least, establish a setting, though sometimes, especially at the beginning of a film, that is all a shot does.

    Within the film’s narrative, shots become more complex, consisting of some kind of performance from an actor or from two or more actors In dialogue with each other.  The actors move in ways appropriate to the film’s purpose, their faces express their feelings and emotions, they speak, they use “props,” they dress in a way that indicates their role in the film.

     Lighting is also an important element in the composition of a shot.  Typically a shot is lit with high key or balanced lighting, which attempts to reproduce the natural, the real lighting we would expect within the given shot.  But sometimes a director will toy with light to realize a particular artistic purpose.  An especially brightly lit section of a shot filmed mainly with high key lighting will draw our attention to that part of the shot even if that part is not in the shot’s foreground.  Low key or chiaroscuro lighting darkens some aspects of a shot and can heighten fear and create suspense.  Fill light might be used to eliminate shadows.  Backlighting will highlight the edges of the actors and other elements within a shot, making those characters and elements more distinct.  The main source of light in a shot is usually placed at eye level, but if it is placed above eye level (top lighting), it enhances actors’ features; if it is placed below eye level (under lighting), it distorts features and makes characters appear rather ominous.

     Shot size also influences the film’s narrative and the viewers’ response to it.  An extreme long shot is often used to establish setting, since an ELS can frame a large area—a complete cityscape, for example.  An extreme close up, on the other hand, will focus attention on an important, specific detail—a guilty smirk, a phone about to ring, a wasp about to sting.  In between are the more commonly used long shot, mid shot, and close up, their use dependent upon the director’s narrative intent and on the level of audience attention he wishes to focus on particular details. 

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     The duration of a shot or the length of take also influences tone and narrative flow.  An average “take” in a typical movie is about six seconds, but the duration tends to be longer at the beginning of a movie when the director is introducing to us the characters and establishing the settings within which they will interact.  A serious dramatic film, slowly paced and with complex characters, will tend to have longer takes to accommodate the extended dialogue needed to establish character, motive, and plot.  Action films are characterized by shorter takes, which augment the suspense and heighten the conflict typical of that genre. 

The Use of the Camera

     A film’s director tells a story by focusing a camera on a person or a group of people; by following them around as they go various places, do various things, and interact with various people; and by recording what they have to say.  But the camera does not merely record the story; it influences the way filmgoers perceive, process, and understand the sequence of events which forms the movie’s plot.  Camera movement, angle, and depth of field are especially influential in shaping an audience’s response to a film.

     A camera can, for example, pan or rotate from left-to-right or right-to-left, perhaps to follow a moving object.  Similarly, it can track a moving object, in which case the camera does more than pan, it moves along with the object upon which it is focusing.  In a tracking shot, the camera is usually fitted to a dolly that runs on rails so the movement is steady, though a camera person might hold the camera if the director wants to create the reality effect that an unsteady shot can create.  The recent invention of a contraption known as the steadicam allows for a compromise: a smoother movement with a hand-held camera.  A camera can tilt or rotate up and down, a movement a director will often use to indicate height.  If the director wants a big tilt combined with an option for horizontal movement, he or she will go with the versatile crane shot.  In a zoom shot, the camera seems to move, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, toward an object upon which it wants to focus, “seems to move” because it is really the camera lens that is changing position, not the camera itself.  

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     Camera angle also influences perception.  Usually, a director positions a camera at eye-level because that position corresponds to the audience’s sense of reality.  But the director might film from a high camera angle to establish a context for a scene or to indicate an imbalance of power between characters: a character photographed from above appears small and weak.  Or the director might film from a low camera angle to highlight the fact that the person he or she is focusing on is large and powerful, perhaps somewhat ominous.

     Depth of field refers to the visibility of characters and props in the foreground of a scene compared with the visibility of characters and props in the background of a scene.  A shallow focus shot blurs images in the background to highlight character and action in the foreground.  A deep focus shot allows the audience to see clearly what is behind the characters and props in foreground.  The choice depends upon narrative intent.  If the director wants us to see something important going on behind the main action in the foreground, he or she will likely choose a deep focus shot. 

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     Editing is the process of splicing together shots from a movie into a manner that is in keeping with the story –telling needs and intentions of the filmmaker.  Usually shots are spliced together—i.e. edited—to form a coherent, chronological story, but a film editor, in collaboration with the director and producer, might splice shots together in a less-than-coherent or chronological manner to fulfill a variety of artistic purposes: to create suspense, to flashback to an earlier point in the story to establish character motivation, to juxtapose two separate stories against each other.

     One of the biggest responsibilities of a film editor is continuity.  Filmgoers should not be conscious of an edit from one shot to another any more than they are conscious of the blinking of their eyes.  An edit usually advances scene and plot sequentially, a process that helps make the edit seem invisible; but, even if the edit shifts direction of the movie markedly, the spatial, temporal, and narrative relationship of that edit to the previous one should be unobtrusive.  In film making, one scene may be shot over the course of a few days, and the actors, from one day to the next, might inadvertently change clothes or wear jewelry they were not wearing earlier or change even slightly a hair style.   The editor must watch for such changes so that an edit, within a scene that is supposed to take place at a given time and in a given place, does not reveal a change that could not have taken place.  Some movie buffs take pride in spotting continuity errors and sharing them with others.  Indeed, there are scores of Web sites devoted to pointing out continuity errors.

     One common editing technique is the shot/reverse shot edit, often used when two characters are conversing.  When one character speaks, the camera is on his or her face and shoulders, but the back of the other character’s face and shoulders can also be seen.  When that character responds, an edit is used to reverse the perspective so the attention of the viewers is focused on that character’s words and on the facial expressions that accompany them.  If the characters are not at eye level, if one character is sitting, for example, and the other standing, the editor needs to be aware of eye-line match and make sure, for example, that when the camera is focused on the sitting character, his or eyes are looking up to the other character.

      Frequently, a director will call for a match on action edit, which juxtaposes two or more different shots of one action, one filmed from a different angle than the other, perhaps, or from a different distance or perspective.  An orchestra conductor might, for example, be filmed from the back so the director can illustrate the musicians’ perspective and responses, then be filmed from the front to get the audience’s reaction, then from the side to indicate the stage manager’s response to the performance.   The director might even cut to the exterior of the concert hall while the orchestra continues to perform to show, for example, a group of terrorists creeping toward the building to kidnap a cabinet minister when she exits.  This type of edit is called a cutaway shot.

     A similar editing technique is the cross-cut, in which two (perhaps more) different but related actions are juxtaposed with each other several times.  Suppose, for example, that while the terrorists race away with the cabinet minister, the director cuts to the police visiting the minister’s office, where they are told that she is at the concert; then he cuts back to the terrorists as they race the cabinet minister to the plane, taking her out of the country; then he cuts back to the police racing to catch up with the kidnappers before they reach the plane.  Cross-cuts are frequently used to heighten suspense.

     The 180 degree rule is another important principle of film editing.  The rule asserts that the camera should not cross an imaginary line running through the middle of the action, especially if that action involves two or more characters.  Suppose, for example, that Tom and Harry are confronting each other and that the camera is to Tom’s left and, therefore, to Harry’s right.  In the course of the scene, the director should not cut a shot, then move the camera across the line to film from that perspective.  Now the camera would be to Tom’s right and Harry’s left, and the effect can be disorienting to viewers.  As with all rules, of course, some directors deliberately break the 180 degree rule to achieve a particular effect.

     The 30 degree rule asserts that when two shots of one action in one location are edited together, the camera should, for the second of these shots, move position by at least thirty degrees.  If it does not, the edit is obtrusive because it seems that the action does not change perspective so much as jump out of focus; indeed, such an edit is called a jump cut.  Sometimes, to avoid a jump cut, or to create a particular effect, an editor might end a shot not by immediately cutting to another shot but by fading the shot to black and fading the next shot from black.  Or a shot can appear to dissolve into the next shot or can appear to be wiped off the screen while the next shot gradually emerges.

     These rules and conventions of editing, then, help establish the continuity the audience expects so they can follow the film’s narrative faithfully.  A good film editor creates the illusion that his job does not exist, that it is life the audience is watching life unfold before them, not images on strips of celluloid carefully spliced together.

     Some film directors, however, want to stress that film need not always hold a mirror up to life, that film can, instead, shatter mirrors and thereby sacrifice narrative to make social or political statements.  To help them achieve these goals, these directors often use a technique known as discontinuity editing. In such films, the cuts or edits are obvious and sometimes jarring.  The best know type of discontinuity editing is montage, a series of brief, sometimes instantaneous, shots spliced together, used not necessarily to advance the narrative but often to kick start the audience’s attention in certain desired directions.  Montage can intensify the violence of war, the horror of a murder, the tenderness of love.  The freeze frame also creates discontinuity because, in reality, a moving image cannot suddenly stop as if frozen in mid-stride or in mid-air.  But the freeze frame is a good editing technique to use when a director wants to highlight, to focus viewer attention on a single image.

     Let’s look now at three highly-regarded films and analyse them, focusing on those technical aspects discussed above, those technical aspects that distinguish films from other literary genres.

The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed

     Carol Reed’s 1949 movie The Third Man illustrates how cinematic style and technology can add texture to a story in ways an artist working in print cannot.

     The Third Man is set in Vienna after World War II.  Vienna is a shadow of its former sophisticated self, a bleak city of bombed out buildings, incompetently and corruptly administered by a consortium of British, Russian, American, and French bureaucrats.  Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles) runs a medical unit in the city and has invited an old friend, Holly Martins (played by Joseph Cotton), to come and work for him, as a glorified secretary.  But Martins learns, right after he arrives in Vienna, that Lime has died after being run over by a truck.  Martins senses suspicious circumstances surrounding his friend’s death and launches his own investigation.  This suspicion intensifies when he is threatened by some of Lime’s acquaintances and after a porter, who had witnessed Lime’s death and who was going to provide Martins with some crucial information—specifically that there was a mysterious third man at the scene of Lime’s death—is murdered.  Ultimately, Martins learns that Lime is alive but staged his own death—by murdering one of his own accomplices—to escape from the authorities, who want him for selling diluted penicillin on the black market.   Horrified by his friend’s crimes and disillusioned by the general corruption he witnesses in Vienna, Martins helps the authorities track Lime down.  Indeed, it is Martins himself who ends up shooting Lime as he tries to escape underground through the sewers of Vienna.

     Stylistically, The Third Man owes much to the influence of the film noir genre.  In the early ‘40’s, a series of films featuring amoral characters cheating, murdering, or double-crossing each other in seedy, dingy alleys and apartments were produced.   The atmosphere in film noir movies is always bleak and dreary.  These films were deliberately poorly lit and most of the action occurs at night, action which often features violent scenes, shot from obscure camera angles.  The sharply-edited, climatic chase scene, in The Third Man, through the sewers of Vienna, where the armed and morally bankrupt Harry Lime seeks escape from the police is typical film noir action.  The camera, often weirdly angled, pans the ancient tunnel walls and fetid cobblestone walkways, pursuing Harry as he runs up a circular stairway and tries to push a man-whole cover open to reach the street and continue his escape.  All the while, the refrains of a lone zither are heard, creating a memorable score that augments the film noir ambience. 

     The femme fatale is another staple of film noir, and, in The Third Man, this role is played by Alida Valli, who is Harry’s lover, Anna Schmidt.  Holly is bewitched by Anna whom he meets while he investigates his friend’s death.  Martins tries to rescue Anna who, as a Czech, must turn herself in to the Russian sector.  But Anna is furious with Martins when she learns he is helping authorities capture a man she still loves, and she refuses his help.  As the movie comes to an end, Martins is seen waiting for Anna, after Lime’s funeral.  She approaches slowly; the camera holds her a very long stationary shot; then she walks deliberately by, without a word, a gesture, a look.

     Another cinematically effective sequence in The Third Man occurs when Major Calloway, the British military police officer (played by Trevor Howard), who is hunting Harry Lime down, tries to convince Martins that his friend is a wanted criminal.  Calloway shows Martins the evidence: fingerprints, photographs of accomplices, vials of stolen penicillin.  The evidence is presented in a striking montage sequence, which gradually and dramatically convinces Martins that Lime has, indeed, become a truly evil man.

     Martins is devastated, goes out drinking, and pays a visit to Anna.  Anna’s cat is frightened and runs off.  The camera then dramatically moves among the plants on Anna’s window sill, then moves out the window to the dark, wet street below.  It finds the cat and tracks it as it as it creeps its way to a doorway, where a man’s foot is visible.  Meanwhile, Martins, rebuffed by Anna, leaves the apartment, hears the meow of Anna’s cat, and sees the man’s foot.  Martins challenges the man.  A neighbor, irritated by the noise, turns on his light, which illuminates the smirking face of Harry Lime.  The sudden reappearance of a character thought dead is a common cinematic trope, and informed viewers may not be shocked by Harry’s reappearance.  But in few other movies is this trope handled so deftly and effectively as it is in The Third Man.   The film-noir ambience of the scene, combined with the chiaroscuro lighting, illuminating Harry Lime’s face, with its self-satisfied almost coquettish expression, creates one of the most startling and memorable resurrection moments in film history.

     Harry flees, but Martins contacts Harry’s co-conspirators and arranges a meeting.  The meeting takes place on a Ferris wheel, in a scene that has become part of film legend.  A microcosm of Vienna, indeed, of all of post-war Europe, the Ferris wheel is all that is left of a once-bustling amusement park.  War has ravaged Vienna; few things work; and so many of the children who would play in the park are hospitalized, victims of the violence of war.  As the Ferris wheel rises, Martins confronts Lime, asking him if he has ever seen the victims of his crimes: the sick children who cannot get penicillin because Lime waters it down and sells it to the highest bidders.   Harry’s response is cynical and contemptuous, as he suggests his childhood friend would do the same if he had the chance to make a lot of money.  At the top of the ride, he threatens to kill Martins but reconsiders when he learns that the authorities know Lime is still alive.  But he continues his twisted and perverted rant, arguing that societies governed through terror and corruption—societies like Italy under the Borgias—produced Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, while societies ruled with peace, democracy, and brotherhood—countries like Switzerland—have produced only the cuckoo clock.

     Still Martins is reluctant to turn Lime in but agrees to do so, when Major Calloway promises he will not turn Anna over to the Russians. When Anna refuses to be a part of a conspiracy to capture a man she still loves, Calloway takes Martins on a tour of a children’s hospital where they see the victims of Lime’s scam.  Martins agrees to help capture his erstwhile friend, in fact kills his friend in the climatic chase sequence.

The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols

     Released in 1967, The Graduate is the story of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a young man who returns home to Los Angeles, after graduating from an Eastern Ivy League school, to try to decide what he is going to do for the rest of his life.  The very concept of the future oppresses him, and so, instead of trying to make any decisions, Ben sits around the pool all day, doing as little as possible, despite a family friend’s now famous recommendation that Ben get in to “plastics.”  Plastics, of course, the plastic culture of American materialism and superficial contentment—embodied by his parents—is exactly what Ben does not want to get in to.

     After a party at Ben’s parents’ house, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of Ben’s father’s law partner, asks Ben to drive her home then attempts to seduce him.  He resists at first but, bored and lethargic, he eventually bumbles his way into an affair with the seductively beautiful, manipulative, and controlling Mrs. Robinson.  When the Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) comes back from Berkeley, Ben’s parents insist Ben ask her out, and Ben can’t raise suspicions by refusing to do so and agrees, despite the frantically maniacal protests from Mrs. Robinson.  The children fall for each other, but Elaine furiously refuses to see him ever again, after she finds out Ben has had an affair with her mother.  But she has become Ben’s happily-ever-after, and he stalks her, following her to Berkeley, conspiring to see her.  He is encouraged when she visits him, even though it is to tell him she is marrying someone else, and, eventually, he tracks her to Santa Barbara on her wedding day.  He arrives just after she has exchanged vows, but she responds to his shouts, and he drags her out of the church.  As the movie comes to an end, they are escaping together on a city bus.

     The Graduate reveals the extent to which the technology of film—camera movement, cutting, shot composition—can move forward a story and add layers of meaning to it.  For example, after Ben escapes the clutches of Mrs. Robinson, the first time she tries to seduce him, he runs downstairs where Mr. Robinson is pouring himself a drink.  He begins to engage the terrified Ben in conversation.  Director Mike Nichols films the scene with a shallow field of focus, so when Mrs. Robinson floats down the stairs behind the men, she is blurred, insignificant, the way her husband literally sees her.  Yet she is physically above the two men and so, in an important symbolic sense, more significant, more powerful than they.  She is, after all, about to cuckold her husband and she will have her way with the attractive young man who has caught her eye.

     In another sequence, Ben is swimming in his family pool.  As he lunges his body onto his air mattress, a quick, brilliant edit shows him lunging at Mrs. Robinson, about to make love to her, as she lies prone and naked in bed.  The camera plays between the two scenes, at times making it seem as if Ben and Mrs. Robinson’s secret affair is taking place not at a hotel but in a room in Ben’s house, next to the room where his parents are calmly eating their breakfast.  The sequence suggests that Ben equates his relationship with Mrs. Robinson with a cool swim in his pool and values it about as much, and suggests, as well, his growing power in the relationship, which he will eventually have the audacity—engendered by his love for Elaine—to end.

     The Graduate is also justly famous for its range of shots, from extreme long, to close up.  In the movie’s last sequence, for example, the camera follows Ben as he races to Santa Barbara to stop Elaine’s wedding.  An extreme long shot follows Ben’s sports car as it tears down the highway and crosses the bridge into Santa Barbara, then cuts to mid-shots and close ups as he arrives at a gas station where he frantically tears at a phone book, trying to find out where the wedding is taking place—and forgetting to buy gas.  He runs out of gas and has to run the rest of the way to the church.  The camera soars skyward again, making it seem like Ben is making slow progress towards his goal.  But he gets to the church, makes his way to the loft, pounds on the window, and shouts Elaine’s name.  The camera zooms in to a series of close-ups on characters’ faces, Elaine’s hopeful, Mr. and Mrs. Robinson’s twisted with rage.  The sequence is a microcosm of the movie itself, showing as it does Ben’s frantic struggle to make some meaning of his life, Mrs. Robinson’s deadly combination of hysteria and despair, Mr. Robinson’s malice, and Elaine’s cry for help, as she realizes it is Ben who is her soul mate.

     Finally, The Graduate is enriched by the songs of Simon and Garfunkle, which augment the film’s themes and the many moods of its characters.  “The Sounds of Silence” echoes Ben’s despair, his soul’s silence, which like a cancer will grow, unless he takes control of his life.  “April, Come She Will” and “Scarborough Fair” suggest Ben’s romantic streak, his hope that love will redeem him.  Paul Simon wrote one song, “Mrs. Robinson,” especially for the movie and perfectly captured the anguish of this middle-aged woman who has lost her faith in her childhood heroes like Joe DiMaggio; who is cynical about politicians’ promises, convinced now that “when you’ve got to choose/ Any way you look at it you lose”; and who is blind to the promise that Jesus, at least, “loves you more than you will know.”

Fargo, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen

     The Cohen brothers, Joel and Ethan’s, 1996 film Fargo takes its title from a North Dakota town but is actually set mainly in and around Brainerd, Minnesota. 

       It is the story of a car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who devises a twisted plan to raise the money he needs to get out of debt and finance a business venture.  He will hire a couple of thugs—Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare)—to kidnap his wife, hit up his rich father-in-law for a million dollar ransom, pay a fraction of the money out to the kidnappers, and pocket the rest.  But as soon as the plan begins to be executed, it becomes a complete debacle.  The crime turns in to a triple homicide when the kidnappers are pulled over by a state trooper.  They kill the trooper and the innocent couple who happen to drive by and witness the crime.  Jerry’s overbearing, meddlesome father-in-law insists on delivering the ransom himself and is shot and killed by Showalter, who buries most of the million dollar ransom money in the snow, before returning to the lake house where his partner is waiting for him.  The partner has since shot dead Jerry’s wife, their kidnap victim, because she would not stop whining.  Showalter pays Grimsrud his $40,000 share, saying nothing about the $900,000 windfall he has hidden.  But when he insists on keeping the new car that Jerry gave them as part of the deal, Grimsrud chops him up with an axe and attempts to dispose of the body with the help of a wood chipper.

     Meanwhile, Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) has begun her investigation of the triple homicide.  Even though she is seven months pregnant, she methodically tracks down the kidnappers, and establishes Lundegaard’s guilt.  Her investigation leads her to Jerry’s car lot, where she patiently begins to put pieces of the puzzle together.  She tracks the kidnappers down just as Grimsrud is feeding his partner’s body to the wood chipper.  Later, Jerry is captured in a motel, trying to make his escape.

     Cinematically, the film is notable for the blizzard scenes, one at the beginning of the movie, the other near the end.  As Fargo opens a white screen gradually acquires some texture, as car lights appear, and we realize we are watching not a white screen but a highway in a blizzard.  The car is being driven by Jerry Lundegaard, and he is pulling a trailer on which rides the tan sienna automobile, which he is delivering to the kidnappers in Fargo (the only time the town appears in the film) as part of their payment for kidnapping his wife.  The cold, bleak, unforgiving setting intensifies the sense that the action of the film is occurring within a moral vacuum, soon evident as a husband meets with two criminals, one a psychopathic killer, to arrange for the kidnapping of his wife.  The ineptitude of all involved undercuts the violence with humour but never redeems their evil.

     Near the end of the movie another car gradually emerges from and takes shape amidst a forbidding blizzard.  This time the car is being driven by Marge Gunderson and in the back seat is her prisoner, Grimsrud.  She lectures him about his horrific crimes, concluding by noting “and it’s a beautiful day.”  Her words are genuine, not ironic; for Marge represents all that is good and warm, all that can cope with the cold, indeed see beauty in it, and that can transcend the perfidy of the kidnappers, that can restore order and harmony to what seemed to have become a nihilistic world.  She treats everyone with kindness and respect, but when her sense of justice is challenged, she becomes the tough cop, the relentless detective.  Seven months pregnant, she has no qualms about bringing new life into her world; indeed, the last scene shows her and her husband, wholly in love and at peace with each other, yearning for the two months to pass so they can welcome new life.  Outside, a blizzard may be raging and murderers may be stalking their next victims, but with new life forming within her and a loving husband next to her, Marge represents the triumph of the human spirit that can crush the Jerry Lundegaards and Gaear Grimsruds and still perceive, in the midst of a blizzard, real and metaphorical, a beautiful day.

     In another notable scene, a long high angle shot displays a single vehicle on the snow-covered roof of a parking lot.  The car belongs to Jerry, who appears after he has left a meeting with his father-in-law, where he has been demeaned and humiliated.  The camera zooms in to show Jerry scraping frost of his windshield.  Suddenly, he becomes conscious of the pathetic turn his life has taken, of the consequences of his recent actions, and, in a fit of rage and frustration, he begins to scrape maniacally at his windshield.  But congenitally inept, mild-manner, and ineffectual, he soon calms down and methodically scrapes the snow off his windshield.  Later, on the roof of another otherwise deserted parking lot, his father-in-law is shot dead when he challenges one of his daughter’s kidnappers.


Progress Questions

  1. Explain how a film differs from a play.
  2. How can lighting influence the way we view and interpret a film?
  3. How does camera angle influence the way we view and interpret a film?
  4. What is the role of the film editor.

Seminar Discussion

  1. What criteria do your think the members of BAFTA consider when they select the films for the best-film-of-the-year award?
  2. What elements do you think a film needs to make it a success?
  3. Why are some films panned by the critics but loved by the general audience and others praised by the critics but failures at the box office?

Practical Assignment

Select one of the films nominated for last year’s or this year’s BAFTA Award or Academy Award for best picture.  Go online and find five reviews of this film.  Write a report of approximately 1000 words, in which you analyse and synthesize the content of these reviews.

Study and Revision Tip When you view a film, consider how its technical aspects—shot composition, camera angle and distance, and editing—contribute to the overall effect it has on the audience.

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