What are the Main Elements that make up a Film's Stylisticsystem. Illustrate these with reference to a clip of no more than 10 minutes.
Various artistic and technical factors interact with film formto establish its style. Subtle cues that the viewer's subconscious picks up onhelp in defining the action in the film and the plot development in relation toits context. The main elements that make up the stylistics of Hollywood'sformal system can be distinguished as the means in which the filmmaker constructsthe representation of the story. The viewer does not only look at the filmhe/she looks into it and it is the representation of setting and charactersselectively through elusive cinematic devices that enhances the narrative ornon-narrative form. Through constructing form in relation to content usingmise en scene, cinematography, editing and sound the director is able to exerthis control and guide the viewer along with the narrative or simply drawattention to his own particular style. Within film, these assume an 'organisationalstructure' that achieve significance through a consistent pattern and lendthemselves to a particular style.
This style can be established through shots, setting,lighting, editing, sound, costume and actors to recreate realism according tothe expectations of the genre. For example it is commonplace in thrillers touse music to build up suspense and to use close up shots to focus on powerfuldramatic expression from characters.
Mise en scene is a French word that draws its origins fromthe theatre, meaning to stage an action. In film parlance however it refersto the Director's control over what appears in the film frame. Often to theuntrained eye these techniques are invisible since they are there to simplyfill out the meaning of otherwise neutral spaces in the interests of theaudience's wider dramatic involvement. However, the composition of a frame willuse camera angles to establish importance to a specific character within thenarrative or to focus on an object that will hold some significance as the plotunravels. Kolker (1998) remarks that a focus on mise en scene permitted anemphasis upon the elements of film that made it distinct from other narrativeforms and was used to explain how images generate, narrate, and even guide ourperception through a film. However whilst the spectator must make sense ofthe film according to his/her expectations, this is heavily shaped by activelyencouraging the viewer to co-operate in fulfilling the film's form.
Editing is the process of achieving a transition betweenshots over a continuous length of film stock. It is considered to be the mostimportant aspect of a film's stylistic system since this is the means in whicha film achieves its organisational structure. Since the arrangement of shotsdictates the shape the film assumes, it also impacts on the effects on the spectator.It is necessary to use editing techniques to exercise the representation oftime and space. Hollywood tends to rely on continuity editing practices so asnot to disrupt the understanding of the audience. This type of editing providesthe most invisible transition from one scene to the next by deflecting from theshot change by emphasising the continuity of action across the cut.
To illustrate how stylistic elements work together to createa system, I will refer to Taylor Hackford's courtroom/biblical/psychologicalthriller Devil's Advocate. This is a grand spectacle of a film that is richin stylised cinematic techniques that act as symbolic plot devices and at timescreate the catalyst for the ensuing narrative. Starting from the part in thefilm where one chapter ends and another begins, the shot sequences and editingtechniques are used to represent a temporal ellipsis in time. Contrast is maderemarkably more poignant by the mise -en-scene as the long shot of Theron andReaves driving away in the distance along the open country road is cut toanother long shot of an aerial view of New York's skyline. The change in thelives of Reaves and Theron as they embark on a new life in New York ispresented by a series of clips revealing dynamisms of scale. The camera as itis positioned from an aerial view looking down on New York's buildings suggeststhe relevance of this new setting and parallels with the narrative. Bypresenting an overall view this acts as an establishing shot of the context forthe forthcoming action. To fill in the gaps between one important part of thenarrative to the next, a sequence of clips are used in a montage sequence,which is a device employed by classical continuity to illustrate temporalellipsis in time. The audience expects that these are relative to storycausality and achieve a purpose of creating suspense and having a motivationwithin the plot. There is a strong sense of emotive symbolism created bycutting between the aerial long shots of New York's corporate looking skylineand close ups of angels on frescoes. This lends itself to the biblical genreof the story and provides a symbolic representation of the divide between goodand evil and the presence of evil in the Modern World. It suggests to the viewerthat perhaps Reaves may in fact be getting out of his depth here byhighlighting the power of the imposing buildings. The camera then focuses on aclassical statue and pans down to the forthcoming action taking place in thecourtroom. In shifting from stills to action the film gives prominence to differentstylistic techniques to create meaning. The stills focus on long shots wherethe camera is rotated around an axis supported by extra-diegetic sound giving asense of fantasy and setting a sinister tone. When the narrative assumes itsrole in shaping the story, the camera focuses our attention on the delivery bypresenting close up shots enhancing dialogue yet not detracting from theimportance of the characters in the background. Our attention is diverted tothe Reaves' delivery of dialogue by a series of close up shots as he conferswith the rest of the legal team over his reasons for selecting the jury. Conversationsbetween characters are depicted in shot/reverse shot and a dialogue overlap isused to smooth down the visual change in the shot. Hollywood uses thistechnique to move from actions to reactions to show both perspectives. Cuttingto the other person to see their reaction often before the person has finishedspeaking is s standard technique employed by Hollywood for reactionary shotsand point of view shots. Cutting from inside the courtroom to outside, thecamera follows the consistent emerging pattern of panning downwards from anaerial view to highlight spatial relations and dynamics of scale by focusing onthe law building's imposing structure to create the mise-en-scene. In the sameshot the camera pans across and tracks Reaves coming down the steps of thecourtroom building. The buildings are given prominence in the setting andcomposition of the frame and we see later that these are cues that then becomewoven into the narrative. This is an example of how mise-en-scene subtly drawsattention to architectural features to enhance the viewer's understanding oftheir significance. Later in the film when Theron claims how the building rapesher, we realise that the composition and frame achieved by the camera hasalready prepared the audience for this and it becomes an even more powerfultheme. As Will Wright describes it makes the image maximally meaningful. Thepattern of cutting from dialogue in a realistic setting to visual imagery in anevocative way using extra-diegetic sound, contextual lighting and compositionsuggests an association between fantasy and reality in this film and it adds alot of entertainment value. It also enhances the spiritual and superstitiousquality of the genre in true Hollywood style by satisfying the expectations ofthe audience. Sound adds a new dimension to spatial quality in film and inthis case it serves to function alongside montage sequences to convey timepassing. Significantly the powerful persona of Pacino as Satan is firstbrought into the frame to give the audience privileged access as the storyunfolds. At this point Reaves is unaware Pacino is watching him from a distanceand the viewer sees the camera switch from an establishing shot of Pacino commandingan intense gaze to walking away into the distance. Although there is no interactionor dialogue between to two main characters initially, Pacino's introduction isgiven more omnipotence by the editing techniques and mise en scene that followshis exit from the frame. The viewer is encouraged to make a direct correlationbetween Pacino and the evil power he possesses, by a series of clichéd shots inthe same manner as the flash of lightning above a haunted house. Flashes oflight spill across a long shot of the law firm building illuminated against adark backdrop. The composition of the frame accompanied by the howling sounds andechoes build to a dynamic climax as the pace of the music quickens before dramaticallycutting to the next frame. Editing techniques of dissolves and fade ins andouts manipulate light and shade and create the desired sinister effect. This patternof explosive cuts throughout the film routinely act as an interface to mark animportant development in the narrative- in this case the introduction of theantogonist in the film: Pacino as Satan and his position as owner of the lawfirm. Colour and depth within the mise en scene are consistently used as symbolismto the contextual landscape. The grey scale of the palette is applied toattribute a corporate dimension to the setting and give it a cold, hard edge.The structured lines of the building are focussed on as the camera routinelyrotates round the axis to produce dynamisms of scale and reinforce thenarrative progression that Reaves has now hit the big-time working for this powerfullaw firm. As the camera switches from context to characters it brings withit a shift in camera shots. Cutting to the next scene with Reaves returning tothe apartment to give his wife the good news about the jury selection, Hackfordagain uses a typical cinematic technique called the Hollywood Shot where twocharacters form the focus in the frame. Using this method the camera alwayscuts from the character on the right to the character on the left usually withdialogue overlap so as just as the person has finished revealing somethingimportant the reaction can be captured as it occurs. Timing is overlooked withthis and although there is often only a minute's overlap before one personfinishes speaking and the other reacting to what has been said, divertingattention to the next shot is crucial in covering up an unnatural cut. Insteadthe viewer's interest is guided to focus on the reaction from the other personwhich takes precedence. Throughout the rest of this film we see that the techniquesI have referred to operate in consistent patterns to contribute to thestylistic system. Compositional framing of key features in the narrative suchas the corporate landscape, reactionary shots conveyed through dialogueoverlap, extra-diegetic sound to represent temporal ellipses in time and themise en scene, give this film an intense visual appeal that is heavilydependent on stylised techniques to enhance the narrative. This is typical ofHollywood convention since it works on the principal of actively involving theparticipation of the viewer into the setting and the viewer is encouraged notjust to look at cinematic space but to look into it. The combination of all ofthese elements can be said to give film a three-dimensional quality and depth.
Burton, G, Media and Society: Critical Perspectives,Maidenhead Open University Press: 2005.
Bordwell, D and Thompson K, Film Art- An Introduction 6thEdition, McGraw-Hill: 2000.
Hayward, S, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, London,Routledge: 2000.
Maltby, R Hollywood Cinema, London: Blackwell 1995.
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