Ten Things About Film

10. Film is a purposeful manipulation of space and time. At least a part of its appeal is that film allows us to see a world in a way that need not be bounded by the constraints of human vision or earth physics. A filmmaker can change the perspective, location, speed, and duration of any event, at any point, to any degree.  Movie worlds are welcomed to be enhanced and heightened, or to construct purely cinematic space and time existing apart. Even as we accept the ‘truth’ of what we see on the screen, each film is its own little universe of insanity.

9. The basic unit of film is the cut. Like the poetic foot is to the meter, the cut can determine pace, rhythm, tone, mood, and even meaning in itself. An absence of cutting usually is thought of as more observational, an excess as more energetic or involving. However, each can be manipulated for the opposite purpose, and where one is normalized, the other gains significance. It is the cut that allows film to move through space and time with the freedom and impunity that it has.

8. Editing eliminates the unnecessary. Because of the cut, the filmmaker has the power to show only what he wishes the audience to see. Extraneous events, characters, dialog, even time, can simply be elided. The filmmaker’s challenge, then, is to balance what things to show the audience directly and what information to leave outside the cut. Leaving things outside of what’s shown on screen forces the audience has to make a leap to connect them to the sounds and visuals they are absorbing and working to understand as a coherent whole. If you show them a mysterious forest long enough, they’ll start inventing the elves that guard it or the plane that crashed in it.  Omission engenders creation.


7. The viewer has to look at something. A good film understands how to control the viewer’s gaze to see and understand what it wants the viewer to see; a great film will actually utilize its audience to achieve its own ends. Where does the viewer stand in relation to the events on the screen, as the observer, the participant, or even maybe the perpetrator? The best films somehow challenge the passivity of the viewer experience, getting their audiences to involve themselves in the action, the storytelling process, or in metafictional consideration.

6. First impressions matter. Does your main character steal cabs? He does, doesn’t he? I mean, that’s not that terrible, especially if he’s also Cary Grant, but, later, when he stumbles heedless into something else that doesn’t belong to him, should you really be surprised? When he’s resourceful enough to sneak onto a train or break out of a hospital, that makes sense too. Introductions are important, especially for characters. We remember whether it’s the playboy who’s falling in love, or the orphan who’s killing the thug, or the dog-kicker who’s becoming the Pope, and that affects our perception of those events.

5.  Each film makes its own laws. So your movie’s set on Mars. Great. But why would the characters suddenly starting singing in the third act? It is for each filmmaker to define her world’s relationship to the reality of our own, but this relationship need not be static. It can fly further off into the unreal or come crashing down to reality, or both. Only deliberate choice justifies any play with these levels. Once a base-reality has been established, a fluctuation creates incredible tension for the viewer, and needs to be transitioned in and out of carefully. You get to make the laws, but the viewer will know when you out-and-out break them.

4. Film logic is based on emotion, not reason. If a character having a confrontation were to suddenly shout, “I HAVE A GUN!” there are two possible reactions: 1. “Wait, where’d she get that gun?” 2. “Oh god, is she gonna kill him?” The first assumes an investment in a logical progression of events, the second an investment in a more feeling predicament. Emotion can be the ruling logic of a film, especially a Hollywood film, and guide a film to go places reason and causality normally would tell us are impossible. The key is to get the audience invested in that emotion as well. It is the through-line between what’s onscreen and the people sitting in the chairs.


3. The filmmaker’s goal is control. Film is a collection of choices and intensions. You can go in wanting to watch a movie for an actor, lamps, or the color blue. The viewer ultimately makes the choice of what to look at. It is for the filmmaker to construct a frame that imposes their own vision on the viewer, allowing them to see nothing beyond what they are supposed to be seeing, thinking and feeling nothing beyond exactly the reactions that have been charted for them. When you watch a great movie, you feel like you had a very personal response to it, that you discovered something as it unfolded, or that something was revealed to you. The trick is in getting everyone in the audience to have those same thoughts and feelings. That is what makes film such a powerful weapon – it is always about control.

2. Genre is collectively subjective. Films don’t exist in a vacuum. Viewers bring their expectations in with their popcorn; and while these expectations, of story, plot, setting, character, and hats among other things, can be understood as the conventions of actual films, no actual film contains all of them at once. They are the ideas each viewer has about certain types of movies, yet each film must somehow address, accede to, or challenge the whole of those ideas. A good genre film will use genric elements as building blocks to construct something original.

1. Film is the genus of a larger family. Everything that applies to film? It applies to any visual art that moves. Television, commercials, web series, everything we’ve come to think of as visual media has these possibilities and problems to be solved. Our definitions and expectations might be adjusted for the mode of presentation –Oscar Bait vs. Cable Hour-Long, Imax vs. Retina Screens – but the term ‘cinematic’ doesn’t just belong to the cinema. It is much more about the experience of that somehow enhanced or different perspective: it is creating the feeling that when you come out of a movie, the whole world has changed.

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