Introduction to Film Studies

Thinking about Film

Early Film Exam: Sample Clip Responses

For those of you who are wondering what types of responses to the clips received a high number of points, I have provided some examples below. These answers aren’t perfect, of course, but they give you an idea of the type of information and discussion I was looking for, and usually received 18+ points (out of 20 possible points).

Below is an example  the clip from Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It

This scene depicts Cesare attempting to carry out the dark desires of the doctor by murdering the heroine. Stylistically, the scene uses dark, bluish lighting and otherworldly sets to depict the scene of terror. Cesare is thwarted in his attempts to carry out the murder by his recognition of Janes beauty, which seemingly wakes him from his somnambulism. The ensuing chase scene makes good use of match on action shots and synthetic space to show the procession of Cesare and his captive being chased by her family and the town folk through an alley and over a bridge, where she is left behind, and Cesare makes his escape. These economic shot choices give the impression of a much longer chase scene than the 4 shots outside of Janes room would imply, depicting a movement through the entire town to the outskirts.

The context of this film is within the post-war German expressionist movement and uses set design and dopplegänger storylines to reflect the movements revolt against the realism movement of the late 19th century. Because of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was experiencing harsh economic sanctions, and had a depressed economy. The film makes use of painted lighting and cheap set construction to depict a world of chaos and madness. Additionally, the “evil alter-ego” storylines can be interpreted as a further push against the enlightenment theory of the day, displaying the true darkness of the human heart as opposed to the naïve belief that humans could somehow be perfected.

Below is an example for  Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. It should refer to temporal repetition rather than cross-cutting (since the continuity system hasn’t been invented yet) and discuss how temporal repetition allows for more complicated narratives, but it does a good job with the transition from the cinema of attractions to story films:

The second clip is a scene from The Great Train Robbery (1903) directed by Edwin S. Porter. As the men escape from a moving train and run down a hill, the camera follows the movement with a panning and a tilting shot. When they escape by means of horse, one of the actors has trouble mounting. This was likely not intentional but they did not have the means to redo the shot. There is color tinting in the next clip when, after the clip of the men escaping on horseback, the film cuts to a clip inside the station. This is an example of cross cutting, which occurs when two clips are set in the same time frame but in different locations. This was something film artists had to figure out how to communicate in order for the narrative to remain cohesive and time and space continual. The Great Train Robbery used a lot of unconventional film techniques at the time such as composite editing, on-location filming, and color tinting. In addition, it was filmed actively in that the camera went to whatever place allowed the story to happen. It was foundational in the creation of a whole subgenre of film based upon trains. The train seemed to be the perfect way to introduce storytelling through a screen as the experience of the passing landscape one felt riding a train was similar to the visual experience provoked by cinema. This film was one of the first narrative-based films made and what helped audiences understand the story was that there was a play based upon the same concept, Wild West Shows, and newspaper recounts of train robberies. It was one of the first films to incorporate the long shot, from which depth can be seen at a great distance.

The example below discusses the clip from Keaton’s The General. The film isn’t from Reconstruction (which ended in 1877), and the answer should mention the Classical Hollywood Cinema, with its use of the Continuity System to maintain  temporal and spatial continuity. But the answer is very thorough in other respects:

The cannon scene during one of the many train chase sequences in The General makes use of deep field camera shots to show multiple planes of action. The gags are ones of haplessness and bad luck, but are executed so well that the viewer is never left with a sense of Keaton as inept, he is simply beset by a never-ending string of misfortunes, yet somehow still escapes unscathed. The mise en scène of the shots are always visually compelling, with the long, deep field shots allowing the audience to “see the future” and anticipate the hero’s triumph, placing his terrified reactions in a more comical light. As we see the curve ahead, we can tell that everything will be ok, and the image of Johnny clinging to the cow catcher is somehow hilarious instead of tense. Additionally, the importance of the trains themselves as characters unfolds through the constant screen time they enjoy, and key roles they play in almost every gag.

This film was made during the reconstructionist era, and some might say that the depiction of the heroic southern army is an attempt to whitewash the historic slavery of the rebellious states and humanize the rebel army. While this is true, I think that the choice of sides by Keaton is simply one more trick to make the film funnier. He reverses the roles of the story from the original written account (the name of which escapes me) and casts himself as a southern engineer who is hapless enough to get into impossible situations, and clever enough to overcome them, despite the ruthless efficiency of the northern spies. The film ends with the unlikely outcome of Johnny’s promotion to officer, cementing it as a hero comedy for the ages.

I hope these samples help to clarify a bit what the goal of the clip sections are. Let me know if you have any questions.

~ AC


Ethan versus Martin: Competing Visions of the West

In the reading “Narrative and Narration in John Ford’s The Searchers,” John Kelly makes an observation that seems exactly right to me:

“The story of the American West has always had two contradictory aspects: pathfinding and settlement, and the virtues of westward expansion (which include rebellion, outlawry, non-conformity, self-reliance, and rugged individualism) are not necessarily the virtues of settlement, union, and nationhood (which require the values of tolerance, community, the rule of law, the acceptance of human equality, and, by extension, the acceptance of racial hybridity). At a discursive level, Ethan and Marty separately put into play these two generic understandings of the national story. Against the austerity of Ethan’s epic vision of heroic white individualism, manifest destiny, and the singular bloodline the film juxtaposes Marty’s skeptical chronicle of democratic civility, with its rituals of social cohesion and familial growth, its comic breadth and suspicion of the heroic, and its celebration of inter-racial relations. One is the story of taming the savagery without, the other of taming the savagery within, but one cannot cherry-pick the past, and the film recognizes that the latter cannot come to pass without the former.” (199)

As we move into the last two films we’re watching in this unit–Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Eyre’s Smoke Signals–the competition between these two value systems will also be on display. As you watch these films, thin about the ways in which they play off of one another …

~ AC

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