The Analysis as a Journey
To analyse means to watch again. To turn a largely «unconscious» process into a «conscious» one. To recognise, comprehend, describe and interpret
I'm revisiting an old friend of mine, Cómo analizar un film (Barcelona: Ediciones Paidós Ibérica, S.A., 1991), translated by Carlos Losilla and written by Francesco Casetti and Federico Di Chio. The original title is Analisi del film, published in 1991 by Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, Milan; and its English title, by its literal translation, is How to analyse a film. It's been a while, but here I go.
The goal of the book is simple: To be an introduction and a guide to film analysis. "In the same way that a unified theory of cinema doesn't exist, we can't provide a universal model to analyse films" (del mismo modo que no existe una teoría unificada del cine, no se puede proporcionar ningún modelo universal de análisis de films, p. 12). The value for a potential reader is that it provides a clear framework to work upon. It's a practical guide. With enough knowledge of its inner-workings, I don't see a reason why it could not be customised to fit a specific goal for the analyst.
What is analysis? Well, for the authors, analysis is the process that helps to better identify the construction and functioning principles of a given object ([I]dentificar mejor [...] los principios de la construcción y funcionamiento [...] [de] un objeto determinado, p. 16). It's like having a toy that you dismantle and reassemble to understand how it's made from the inside, how its various mechanisms work, etc. So in this sense, the «object» in question is the movie to analyse, treated theoretically as a «text».1
The analytical process is conceived as a journey (recorrido) in which the analyst performs a series of tasks to discover the aforementioned principles. But before this journey takes place, the individual in front of the «text» needs to find the «optimal distance». This refers to the notion that we shouldn't be close enough to our object of study, or we risk losing the big picture; and, at the same time, not far away so we lose sight of it. In practical terms, it means that we shouldn't get too attached to a movie ("Oh dear, but I have a crush on this actress"), and we shouldn't get too indifferent either ("I'm only watching it because my girlfriend likes it; I couldn't care less"). "From this point of view, an «optimal distance» is the one that allows a critical investigation, without excluding a passionate one" (Desde este punto de vista, una «distancia óptima» es aquella que permite una investigación crítica, y a la vez no excluye una investigación apasionada, p. 21).
To continue the journey analogy, the analyst will perform a series of mental operations along the road. The authors suggest four: recognise (reconocer), comprehend (comprender), describe (describir), and interpret (interpretar). To recognise means the ability to identify everything that appears on the screen. To comprehend refers to the ability to group what we have recognised into clusters of meaning.2 But there's a tricky part: Between recognising and comprehending there's a dynamic nexus (nexo dinámico), a reciprocal bond (vínculo recíproco, p. 22). We can't comprehend something if we don't recognise it first. So there's a back and forth. But this is largely an «unconscious» process. The goal of the analysis is to make it «conscious».
I see it the following way: To analyse a movie involves the act of watching it again (volver a ver). When we watch a movie for the first time, we are primarily focused on making sense of the story (narrative dimension). As a result, we might miss many significant details related to form and style. Therefore, our first view, in terms of the potential «richness» that the movie has to offer, is approximate and partial (even more so if it's a complex film). Our second view, third, fourth, and so on, are more precise and complete.
During our first view, our brain is working by «default». In making sense of the story, many of the processes happening in our «minds» are «unconscious». But during subsequent views, we can program our «minds» to recognise and comprehend specific cues ("look for all instances when there's a wipe transition in Star Wars; then compare the action during those transitions to the ones where there isn't one"). Technology makes it easier by allowing us to pause, rewind, fast-forward, re-arrange, isolate audio tracks, mute the action, etc. Once we do that, we have made the dynamic of recognising and comprehending «conscious». Now we can start our journey of analysing.
To describe means to explain in speech or in writing how something or someone is, in this case in a very detailed manner. If we're going to analyse a sequence in a film, we should first describe it. This is, for the most part, an objective exercise. And to interpret, according to the book, is to "capture with precision the meaning of the text" (captar con exactitud el sentido del texto, p. 23). This is, for the most part, a subjective exercise. But there's a clear warning: We should be faithful to the «text» (movie). In other words, our interpretations need to be supported by the film. The goal of the analyst is not to make a movie say what it doesn't want to say.3 In short, the task of describing needs to aim at interpreting, and our interpretation needs to be based on our descriptions (debemos enfrentarnos tanto con una operación descriptiva ya orientada a la interpretación, como con una actividad interpretativa basada en la descripción, p. 24).
Lastly, it's vital to recognise other significant factors besides the «optimal distance» and the four mental operations suggested above. These refer to «the point of entry of the analyst» (la entrada en escena del analista, p. 30). Any individual who decides to analyse a movie brings along a preliminary comprehension of the «text» (what the person knows about the object—and by extension, the world—beforehand). There's always an idiosyncratic presence from the analyst. And to start the first mental operation of recognising, a sort of exploratory hypothesis comes into play. To analyse doesn't mean to start looking for things randomly. An analyst should start with a goal in mind. In my previous example, wipe transitions in Star Wars. This guides the analysis, but in no way determines it. It's possible that, along the way, we could reformulate the hypothesis or scratch it altogether.
This leads us to the scope of research (delimitación del campo de investigación, p. 27). Are we going to analyse wipe transitions in just one Star Wars movie? A trilogy? All the films in the saga? We can also expand our analytical horizon. What about in the entire genre of science fiction of the United States of America in the last 25 years? Or we can be more specific. What about just one sequence in Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi (2017)?
Once we have determined the scope of our investigation, we should choose our exploration method (método de exploración, p. 27). The authors suggest four: Semiotics, sociology, psychoanalysis and history (don't forget, the book was written in 1991; semiotics and psychoanalysis, as far as I know, have lost currency). But fret not, there are many other avenues of exploration, and you can combine them in an interdisciplinary approach. I suppose that in today's world, "inter-sectional feminism" could be one of those avenues (good luck with that). Or better yet, classical philosophy, or cognitive psychology.
The last factor points to the exploration of the specific aspects of the inquiry (aspectos específicos de la indagación, p. 27), such as «linguistic components», «modes of representation» (the world that is portrayed on the screen and how it's configured by the filmmakers), the «narrative dimension» (narrative form), or the «strategies of communication» (the way the "sender" [movie] and the "recipient" [spectator] «interact» with each other). In other words, the specific aspects that you want to study from the movie. These are the same aspects that the book will cover in the remaining sections.
To summarise, the analyst comes to perform the task with a preliminary comprehension of the «object» of study (world and movie knowledge; personal experiences); he has to adopt an «optimal distance» (critical but passionate); he should possess an exploratory hypothesis (a goal in mind); he should specify the scope of research (a scene, a sequence, a movie, a group of movies, etc.); he should choose an exploration method (sociology, history, philosophy, etc.); he should focus in one or more aspects of inquiry (narrative, film technique, etc.); and he should perform four mental operations: recognise, comprehend, describe and interpret. And perhaps the most important advise of all: The analyst interpretations need to be grounded to the movie. Don't make a film say what it doesn't want to say.
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The film as a «text» is a topic beyond the scope of this article. I will refer it as such, at least in this entry, because that's the way the authors approach it. However, if you want to get a deeper understanding about it, the book provides the following sources: Théorie du film (Paris: Albatros, 1980) by Jacques Aumont and Jean-Louis Leutrat, specifically «Le texte du film» by Francesco Casetti; and two texts by Marie-Claire Ropars: «Le film comme texte», in Le Francais Aujourd’hui, 32 (1976) and Le text divisé: Essai sur la écriture filmique (Paris: Presse Universitaires de France, 1981).
My use of «clusters of meaning» might not do justice to the definition presented by the authors. Here's the full quote: "[…] the capacity of inserting everything that appears on the screen into a wide cluster: The concrete elements identified for the text's benefit, […] It's an integration job which consists in connecting more elements together [instead of isolating them in their singularity] and to dispatch every one of them to the cluster around it [instead of identifying their specificity] (la capacidad de insertar todo cuanto aparece en la pantalla en un conjunto más amplio: los elementos concretos identificados en interés del texto, […] Se trata, así, de un trabajo de integración que consiste en conectar más elementos entre sí [antes que aislarlos en su singularidad] y en remitir cada uno de ellos al conjunto que lo rodea [antes que identificar su especificidad], p. 22)