Film as Art: The Formal Process (1)
Seeing film as an art form requires that we become aware why a movie is the way it is, and not another. At the core of the matter is choice.
Understanding cinema as an art form could begin by asking ourselves why a film is designed the way it is. After all, most of the films that are exhibited in commercial cinemas "are designed to create experiences for viewers" (p. 2, original emphasis). That's how Film Art: An Introduction, Twelve Edition (New York: McGraw Hill, 2020), written by film scholars David Bordwell, Jeff Smith and Kristin Thompson, set the stage for readers. If we laugh or cry when a movie ends, it's reasonable to ask: How did the filmmakers achieve that effect? Their first suggestion is simple: Try to think like a filmmaker. "Filmmakers constantly ask themselves: If I do this, as opposed to that, how will viewers react?" (p. 2, original emphasis).
At the heart of film-making is choice. That's because in any art there are so many creative possibilities. The book explores two basic areas related to choice in the art of film: form and style. A key point is made early on: "More than most arts, film depends on complex technology" (p. 1). Knowing the mechanics of how cameras and projectors work is essential, if only to get a sense of how different equipment can produce different artistic outcomes. And because many creative choices are usually made before filming begins, a good starting point is to get familiar with the production process.
Film Art gives a brief overview of the mechanical part (cameras and projectors), including an updated segment dedicated to digital film-making (pp. 9-16), but chapter one concentrates in the production process. Cinema is a collaborative process, which means that decisions must be made by several people along a hierarchical structure. Understanding how productions are organised is vital to grasp how key decisions are made even before the camera starts to record the action. The book divides the production process in four phases: 1) script-writing and funding, 2) preparation for filming, 3) shooting, and 4) assembly. The first two are usually grouped into what's called pre-production; the third, production or principal photography; and the fourth, post-production. Twelve pages are dedicated to all phases (pp. 17-28). If you want to find out what does a script supervisor, a colorist, or a second unit director do, this is the place to do it. I found useful, for instance, the many divisions of the producer role.
The process has artistic implications, and the authors summarise it as follows: "Every artist works within constraints of time, money and opportunity" (p. 29). It's within these constraints that filmmakers make their choices. You can't make a large-scale production in two months, rent professional-grade equipment for £10, or hire the actor of your choice if his schedule doesn't allow it. The movie you make, and the movie we'll experience as spectators, depends on all three constraints. Once a movie is finished, it has to be distributed and exhibited.
"Distribution companies form the core of economic power in the commercial film industry" (p. 34). Filmmakers need them to distribute their work, and exhibitors need them to supply their screens. Roughly eight and a half pages are dedicated to these two phases of film-making (pp. 34-43).1 The goal is to expose ourselves to the business side of film. When we get a better understanding of how the industry works, we are better prepared to understand choices like screen duration, or why some films receive a limited instead of a wide release. By understanding the type of constraints that filmmakers could face at each stage of the process, viewers not only get an insight into how movies are made from a financial and logistical point of view, but also enhance their appreciation of cinema as an art form.
The next two chapters are dedicated to form. And we are given two types: film form (chapter 2) and narrative form (chapter 3). "Although there are several ways of organizing films into formal wholes, the one that we most commonly encounter involves telling a story" (p. 49). But what is form? "By form, in its broadest sense, we mean the overall set of relationships among a film's parts" (p. 52). We create those relationships by picking up patterns. And by following how one element relates to another, we create and readjust expectations as the pattern develops over time. In other words, we try to make sense of what's in front of us. There are several tools at our disposal. Our experience of the world is the default one, while our knowledge of similar artworks often plays a significant role, among other things.
These relationships affect our emotional responses and the meaning we ascribe to movies. When it comes to emotion, it's useful to "distinguish between emotions represented in the artwork and an emotional response felt by the spectator" (p. 57, original emphasis). We might see a character in pain, but if the movie is a comedy, we might laugh. What's represented on-screen doesn't correspond to what we feel, but it largely depends on the context created by form (in this case, the convention in the comedy genre of laughing at the misgiving of others). When it comes to meaning, we are given four types: Referential (things or places already invested with significance in the real world), explicit (what's stated directly), implicit (what's stated indirectly; interpreting the «text») and symptomatic (set of social values; social ideology).
Because referential and explicit meanings are somewhat considered "obvious", some people often look for "hidden" meanings, therefore concentrating on the implicit and symptomatic types. But I cannot stress this enough: "[T]he search for implicit meanings should not leave behind the particular and concrete features of a film" [...] [W]e should strive to make our interpretations precise by seeing how each film's thematic meanings are suggested by the film's form" (pp. 59-60, original emphasis). There are people out there who see an insert shot with an element that has meaning for them, and proceed to write a 2,000-page encyclopedia, only for that element to have vague referential meaning in relation to the overall movie. They over-interpret. The key ability is to ground the meanings we find in an artwork with specific aspects found in the film's form, not on our imaginations. And see how that meaning is related to the film as a whole. We can then look for external factors that influence how we interpret a particular movie and adjust our analysis accordingly.
Remember that form, in the broad sense defined by the authors, is the "overall set of relationships among a film's part". The key idea is that form is not a container that can have different shape and sizes. Form is a process. And perhaps in the most controversial aspect of the chapter 2, content is not treated as subject matter. Here's an example why: "[A]liens can be either peaceful or hostile. [If you were to make a film about aliens,] you'd have to decide how to treat the subject. [...] In Independence Day, presenting the aliens as an invading horde fits well with a story of American of all classes uniting to conquer a threat. By contrast, Close Encounters of the Third Kind treats alien visitors as spiritual teachers. [...] The aliens of Mars Attack! pretend to be peaceful but then turn treacherous. [...] In each case, the filmmakers' choices about form have repurposed the basic subject matter of aliens" (pp. 53-54).
I suppose that every part of a movie, because is the product of a filmmaker's choice, can fall into the term form. And film form would be the overall relationships of all those parts. Remember that we are trying to view film as art, and the first step that the authors suggested was to think like a filmmaker. From an artist point of view, subject matter isn't simply what his work will be about. An artist needs to make decisions about how to present it to his audience (Will the aliens be funny or menacing? Will they be big or small?), and all those decisions are embedded into what's called the formal process. It's okay for an spectator to treat subject matter as content. The filmmaker must view it somewhat different. If I understand correctly, filmmakers view content as meaning (p. 59), at least in the book's sense of «filmmaker». Once they have made their choices (form), they must ensure that those choices convey the meaning they want to achieve (content).2
The final pages of chapter two (62-70) are dedicated to some broad principles of film form. We have, a) function, b) similarity and repetition, c) difference and variation, d) development, and e) unity and disunity. Lastly, when we watch movies, we often evaluate them. We say the film was "good" or "bad". But personal taste is not the same as evaluative judgement. "I liked this film" is not the same as "It's a good film". Film Art offers specific criteria to make the evaluation of film relatively objective (realism, morality, coherence, intensity of effect, complexity, originality). However, the book minimises evaluation. "The purpose of this book is not to persuade you to accept a list of masterpieces. Instead, by considering how films create our experiences through form and style, you will have an informed basis for whatever evaluations you want to make" (p. 62). That's a deal.
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Film-making is usually divided into three phases: Production, Distribution, and Exhibition. The production process falls into the Production phase of film-making, which itself subdivides into four (as stated above).
As you can probably sense from the way the paragraph is written, I'm not convinced that my interpretation is correct. Take it with a pinch of salt.