Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Media "Literacy"

I first came across Henry Jenkins' blog via Observations on film art and Film Art. The entry referenced by Kristin Thompson is a defense of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and an introduction to a greater dialogue regarding criticism and mainstream moviemaking, two subjects I have written about quite a bit over the last month or two (here and here). I hope to comment on these issues in the future -- specifically regarding how different visual narrative media influence each other, i.e. television's influence on cinema -- but right now I'd like to highlight Jenkins' recent post about the implications of shifting modes of acquiring information via digital domains, i.e. Wikipedia and other online forms of writing. Though it's not mentioned, blogging definitely enters into the conversation. Here is an excerpt:

"The practices and tools that sustain Wikipedia are designed to insure the highest degree of transparency -- the most controversial entries come with the maximum numbers of warnings. Yet, realistically, many young people are going to the site in search of quick data and may lack the critical vocabulary necessary to use its contents meaningfully. So, at the most basic level, a media literacy practice around Wikipedia needs to focus attention on the basic affordances of the site, so that students are encouraged to move beyond the top level and see what's going on underneath the hood.

Researchers have shown that the current generation of young learners often exploits digital tools to copy and paste information, sometimes getting confused about where any fact came from, or blurring the lines between their own insights and those from secondary sources. Preliminary work from the researchers at a MacArthur funded project at the University of Southern California suggests that differences in access to digital technologies further impact young people's research practices. Those children who have the most extensive access to networked computers are most likely to look critically upon the kinds of information that they draw from Wikipedia: they have the time to experience knowledge production as a collaborative process. For those young people whose only access is through schools and public libraries, however, they need to get in quick, get the information they need, and make way for the next user. These time constraints encourage them to see the web as a depository of information and often discourages them from taking time to closely examine where that information comes from or under what circumstances it was produced. This is only one of the many consequences of what we are calling the participation gap.

The participation gap is shaped by uneven access to technologies but also by unequal access to formative experiences and thus unequal opportunities to acquire the social skills and cultural competencies we are calling the new media literacies. Participation in these online communities constitutes a new hidden curriculum which shapes how young people perform in school and impacts the kinds of opportunities they will enjoy in the future."

While only an introduction to a greater dialogue, Jenkins' piece represents the beginning of an essential dialogue about education, information, and meaning structures in the digital age. Therefore, Jenkins approaches these issues more as an observer and inquirer, and therefore has more questions than answers. But that is his whole point. More difficult and demanding questions must be asked if we are to be responsible advocates or opponents of cultural staples such as Wikipedia and YouTube.

With all that's being taught on electronic and digital technology, how to utilize it and understand its role in the workforce and classroom, it continues to amaze me how little we really know about these various technologies and media. Terms such as "visual literacy" and "media literacy" are routinely used in schools and organizations, yet, outside of serious media and culture graduate and doctoral programs, questions concerning the implications of various media on culture and organizations are rarely asked. If they are, it's often for the explicit purpose of supporting an opinion of favor or doubt. What isn't being looked at in any serious manner is the nature of the relationships and negotiations resulting from our participation an relation to the so-called breakthroughs in technology.

Look at the release of the supposedly revolutionary iPhone. Take notice of what's being discussed, focused on, and the nature of the general discourse surrounding this new device. (Note: I haven't performed a formal analysis of the critical and popular discourse, so I am therefore basing this on my own observations.) Consumer culture dictates that if something can be done, then it should be done. This is a dangerous mentality fueled more by capitalistic ideology rather than the appropriate critical thought. But this is a reflection of an apparent emphasis on commodity in cultural relation and identity negotiation, which has restructured public consciousness inasmuch that it imposes controlled meanings by limiting the possibilities of response and participation, directing our thought-processes and abilities to think critically at all.

What does it mean to be media literate, after all? Moreover, what is media? What is technology? Are they interchangeable? How do they relate to one another? Simple questions such as these often cannot be answered simply because they are never asked. We use these terms daily, in conversation and in practice. Our economic institutions and scientific discourse are structured around them and progress according to them, yet many of us cannot sufficiently understand or even conceptualize the very fundamental terms that make them up. "Culture" and "organizations" are discussed as if they are real, tangible things, as notion of efficience and productivity are continually emphasized. All the while, these functionalist ideas to which we cling largely ignore the fundamentally constitutive nature of the communication, e.g. language, media, technology, through which we structure and produce the world we perceive, interpret, and act on. Therefore, these dialogues regarding media literacy, visual literacy, and (my personal favorite) cultural literacy should be reflexive and critical of the very tools and processes with which we understand these concepts. Communication is the air we breathe. It is not something that be "made more effective," as if its another cog in the machine. It is the machine. A focus on "the message" severely limits one's understanding of and participation in such discourses, which is why we should think critically about the medium itself, not just of these emerging trinkets of convenience like the iPhone, but all socially structured and shared meanings.

On a reflexive note, I say all of this as somebody who engages in many of the digital practices that (as I complain) aren't be thought of and discussed in a productive manner. I am more than aware of this, which is why I take the time to write posts like this... complete with hyperlinks and pictures pulled from the Web. This discussion (at least on this blog) is not going to end, and it affects the very practices of reading and writing in this format, which Jenkins observes in his post. Stay tuned to his blog for at least one more entry on this subject, or perhaps more. And I recommend checking out some of his other entries as well, since it seems he's written extensively about digital information and culture. It's worth your while.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Musically Mapping Affect: Revisioning the Film Score Part II

In my previous piece on film scores, I argued that sound, i.e. effects, dialogue, music, etc. is an integral part of filmmaking and film viewing. Unfortunately, the significance of sound is often relegated to the background of film studies in favor of the more visible components of an image. What needs to take place is a forefronting of cinematic sound, with an inquiry into its specific relationship to those visible aspects of the moving image. Of course, this isn't easy. The moving parts of images are hard enough to break down without account for sound; nevertheless, the unique connection of sound and image -- despite representing a deeply intricate relationship culminating in the interpretation of movement and narrative -- comes relatively easy for most viewers when it comes to interpretation. Yet even for your typical moviegoer who is uninterested in analysis, the emphasis is still on the visual nature of cinematic images, and rightfully so. Sound, I would argue, is part of the image.

Why? Because (at least in the case of a score) it is not meant to be diagetically connected to the world of the film, but instead exists for the viewer to better comprehend the emotion of a particular moment or character. Much like camera angles, colors, and other visual aspects processed on an unconscious level of cognition and interpretation, the score often helps the viewer to identify with a character as well as the "world" of the film. In that sense, the music aids in creating an atmosphere or mood, and, together with the images, moves at a certain speed, operates at a certain volume and complexity to form a feeling of the space created by the visible image. The music allows the spectator to inhabit the four corners of the screen, which is not to say that the image itself can't do that, because it can. Rather, a score can evoke something in image that is either already there or perhaps not there. The viewer registers the movements on screen and the sounds in the music to anticipate certain motions in the narratives, while also engage in the world that the characters inhabit.

Beyond its representative qualities, music also enables the spectator to more easily process the nature of the moving images. It can easily provoke a response from the spectator virtually whenever it wants. For some, this means that the music would "follows the action" of the image, a la mickey mousing. At Lost in Negative Space, Peet Gelderblom examines two dominant forms of scoring, underscoring and the aforementioned mickey-mousing. But is there really a difference? He explains:

"When a composer drums up a frenetic, percussive score to support a thrilling car chase, or lays an elegiac theme over a melancholic tableau, his or her technique isn’t that far removed from Mickey Mousing. The music still follows and punctuates the visuals–only the beats are longer.... Sometimes film music is supposed to take a back seat or provide its own commentary on what happens in the picture. Sometimes film music needs to work in tandem with the visuals to help the viewer relate with the characters or a given situation. Both approaches are legitimate."

Peet pointedly observes that the two approaches are not all that different. They are perhaps two sides of the same coin insofar that they appear to be opposites working against one another, but are instead two approaches bowing to the same overriding logic of affect and narrative consumption. In the case of mickey-mousing, in which a composer synchs the beats in the music precisely to the action on screen, this may come in the form of a cymbals crash or punctuation in the the brass as the hero punches the villain; or the musical rhythym can be set to the cutting between shots; or perhaps to mimic the physical movement on screen, e.g. a character tiptoeing as scored by plucking strings. These are all exaggerated examples of things that are (more often than not) much more subtle in the overall stream of interpretation associated with the movement of images as they contribute to an overall narrative. The line between mickey-mousing and underscoring can become blurred in some instances, as Peet points out in his comments about Vertigo, one of the great contributions to film music and cinema as a medium). In sequences involving several dramatic shifts in tempo, rhythym, and style, the music may not necessarily capture the key moments of impact in a given movement or cut, but instead form a momentous feeling that may result from a particular action or a building moment.

For example, the truck chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great example of music that builds continuum of thematic ideas. (YouTube link here. Take note that this is not an ideal viewing experience. This clip exemplifies everything that's good and bad about YouTube... it's available to watch on the web, but anyone who knows the scene should know the music doesn't sound right.) Some of the musical ideas in this sequence are already established previously in the film (still, others are not) that mirror the action while also building states of intensity, humor, and speed between moments of impact, during which composer John Williams builds a feeling of visual structure. While most of the shots during the desert chase involve shifts in musical momentum, each time Williams almost seamlessly changes direction and tempo. His changes are stark, but they somehow feel right.

The beginning of the chase has Indiana Jones atop his horse in a long shot, the dust rising behind him as the horse gallops to a triumphant long brass rendition of the Raiders March.

The next shot is from the other side of Indiana, glaring past him into the chasm through which the armed vehicular escort of the Ark is moving. As Indiana -- forefront, bottom of the shot -- turns his head to look down on the cars and trucks, the brass rises in a moment which says "there you are!", as if Jones knows both exactly what he's doing but is also completely "making up as he goes." That sense may have already been in shot without the music, but the score makes the brief change of direction part of the motion already being built in the movements and music together.

After this, there is just enough time for one more Raiders March rendition before Indiana and the music stop at the edge of cliff. But this moment of silence accompanying Indy's dust-surrounded face is short-lived.

With a cut to the horse running down the mountain, the score picks up once more in charging militaristic fashion; the snare drums perfectly match to the horse's hoofs digging into the sand as they hurtle down the side of the mountain and the brass powerfully belts out a new motif that continues through the duration of the chase but in different permutations. Williams continues along this hard-edged path as the Nazis realize what's happening and open fire on Inday while his horse runs alongside the truck. Although guns are fired at Jones, the music maintains its same rhthym as if to suggest that this is only the beginning and that we have a long way to go despite the close encounter with bullets. Indy makes his way off the horse in heroic fashion and then Williams' score shifts course, becoming more punchy and brass-oriented.

There is a hint more of a rugged spirit with the music slowing down and changing direction as Indy engages in hand-to-hand combat with those in the driver and his accompanying passenger. While Indy drives along with the nazi, the music is playful but at the same time adventurous so as to keep up with the pace of the scene, since there is still much at stake. They fight and drive as the truck moves frantically through towns, swerving from one side of the rode to the other, during which time the score remains playful but fuses that humorous spirit with adventuruous brass chords.

Later in the chase, after several minutes of lone brass renditions of the Raiders March as Indy easily disposes of nazi vermin, a real threat is introduced both visually and musically. After several failed attempts by the nazis in the back of the truck to penetrate the driver's seat (where Indy is driving), one nazi slips through unnoticed -- accompanied by rising high brass statements deviating from the pre-established rhthym -- and shoots Indy in the arm. Interestingly, when Indy is actually shot, the score moves along very high woodwinds (not your typical choice for a hero getting shot), before moving into a rumbling, slow rhythmic motif on low brass notes and deep sustained notes of counterpoint.

The music builds this idea until one more nazi journeys across the roof of the truck (notice the great overhead shot of the truck, perfectly timed to the biggest build-up of the motif), ultimately making his way into the drivers seat, where he persists at wounding Indy further. The rest of the sequence involves Indy's personal duel with the last nazi on the truck, during which he is hurled over the front of the truck and then climbs underneath the truck to come back at him from behind. (It's much better on screen than in words, I swear.)

At this point, the music moves from disbelief (momentary swirling winds and strings as he moves under the truck) to a complete romancing of our hero's rather unorthodox acts of heroism as it returns to a more upbeat rendition of the same motif stated after he is shot. As the viewer begins to realize that Indy's coming back, Williams works the secondary, more heroic counterpoint section of the Raiders march into the pre-existing motif which had been building since he got shot. When Indy finally gets back into the driver's seat to battle the nazi once more, we know this time it's different. The exact same motif is used, only in a more enthusiastic, less distressed pattern, as Indy throws the nazi over the hood of the vehicle. At this point, the battles is won and Indy aggressively changes gears to go after the lead car (where the arch-villains reside). To assist in the release, Williams unleashes a powerful version of the seconday theme of the Raiders march now that the viewer can finally experience the climax towards which the entire sequence was building (visually and musically) since the beginning.

After this visual and musical release, Spielberg cuts to a shot of Indy still driving the vehicle, with a smile on his face that turns to a frown aftger he realizes the pain he's in from the gun shot wound. Williams then tones down the score, easing the viewer back into her/his seat in a slow coming down involving mostly woowinds and brass, bringing to mind a sense of relief but the pain Jones now feels. We know from the visuals and music that the battle is still now over.

The debate over mickey-mousing and underscoring is only the surface of an endless array of ideas and exploration associated with the music-image relationship. Nevertheless, it raises many concerns about film music, the greatest of which is the greater need for analysis of not just film scores themselves, but how they exist in unison to cinematic images. My efforts to hit on every aspect of the music-image relationship of the the desert truck chase are futile, but hopefully I've provided a sense of the music's position as part of the image, despite not actually taking up space. This sequence is an example in which the underscore may be masquarading as mickey-mousing, or vice versa, since the music rhythmically mirrors the action but in a sustained context of building moods and atmosphere for the scene. It essentially is both. It hits physical and emotional highs and lows, sustains and atmosphere throughout, and maintains a narrative consistency and intensity that continually builds upon itself. It's a magnificent sequence (with masterful editing, I might add).

Obviously, an action sequence such as this lends itself to an overt visual and musical approach so as to make an analysis like this easier. Many of Spielberg's films are musical in nature in that he designs his compositions around how they will look and sound. In truth, most sequences or cinematic moments (if you will) can examined in this fashion. Usually, there is some kind of tempo or rhymthmic feeling to a scene (with or without music) that, in its being a certain way, may enact the spectator to understanding it in a specific manner, or perhaps an ambiguous one. There are cues both visual and auditory that a viewer must interpret in order to make sense of temporal and spatial relationships that the visibile and musical properties of an image work to create. When they come together -- and often times they do -- it can result it incredibly rich filmmaking. Trying to put these image-music linkages into words is extremely difficult, especially since they can form such abstract moments of feeling that no shot-by-shot or note-by-note analysis can account for. In the case of a chase sequence, that abstraction is usually in the form of high-speed intensity rather than subtle emotion. Nonetheless, a perfectly compsed and scored chase sequence such as this (as well as others like the Indian sequence in John Ford's Stagecoach or the asteroid sequence Irvin Kerschner's The Empire Strikes Back). But just about any other kind of shot or sequence can create a mood and feeling within that moment in which so many feelings from identification with characters, the atmospheres of the film's world, the viewer's own experiences and memories, and other emotions associated with the viewer's own memories of previous moments in the film all come together in a moment of sublimity that can be subtle, overt, or both.

So what exactly does the score do, then> It's hard to quantify something that is by nature intangible. But attempts to do so in broad terms may be helpful. In his chapter in the book, Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion, Jeff Smith emphasizes three links between music and emotion as manifest in film music: the signification of characters' emotions (i.e., identification), the communication of an overall mood, and the arousal of emotional responses in audiences. All of film scores essentially break down to these three points. Smith observes:

"The three [music-image linkages] I have emphasized comprise a structure of film-musical affect that corresponds with different levels of emotional engagement... Such processesmay seem relatively routine, but they are nonetheless intergral to a number of larger aspects of narrative comprehension, such as the discernment of character motivation, the anticipation of future narrative developments, and the encoding of important narrative information in the spectators' memories."

Interestingly, these three linkages don't always divide so easily from each other. In fact, they are rarely ever so easy to split from one another. Moreover, one could argue these are the central concerns of visible elements of moving narratve images as well. Are they so different, and is it possible that a film can be exhibiting all three of these image-music properties in any given moment? If so, then one could speculate that the score is designed to both perform the same function of the moving image while also becoming part of that very image in the process. These are dizzying concepts to think about, and I couldn't begin to answer the questions that image-music relations open. But there still remains much to be explored when it comes to that relationship between the two. Its affect may be easily felt, but to understand that feeling and the nature of that affect may enhance how it is processed and experienced.

The unifying principle of visual and musical cognition and interpretation is affect. Therefore, the defining quality of cinema is its emotional expressiveness. Narrative is the topical path upon which the spectator treads, but the visual and auditory means by which that narrative takes form spawn intricate relations which make cinema a medium of emotional abstraction and exploration. A spectator doesn't just see an image or just hear an image. The spectator feels an image. Therefore, movies cannot and should not be reduced to a simple form of response and interpretation. Its basis in narrative and fiction is deceiving, but its real creative potential and aesthetic capabilities are right there in the moving images, which (in the case of a good film, obviously) flow together fluidly to create movement-based reality of memory and emotion that is binded by abstraction. The image is the music, and the music is the image. With cinema, the two are brought together in unique, challenging, and provocative ways.

Stanley Kubrick says it best in his famous, perfect quote about cinema: "A film is -- or should be -- more like music than fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Revisioning the film score

I would guess that the word "image" shows up on this blog several hundred times, with probably several appearances in each of my posts. As my readers may be aware, I am a member of the critical camp who advocates complete focus on the images of movies and their interrelated elements and movements. These moving parts are constructed in such a way to create a relationship between image and spectator to therefore enact the spectator to interpret a narrative. Caught somewhere between Bordwell and Deleuze, I think that the interpretation moving images -- contextually based in narrative and visual convention -- is a deeply intricate act grounded in cognitive, physical, and social processes of thought, perception and response.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (although I fear I may already do this), I will attempt to steer away from my usual "form is content" ramblings in the majority of what is to follow. Nevertheless, I find it appropriate in this instance to highlight my steadfast emphasis on matters of the image in understanding cinema. Why do I mention all of this? Because for almost six months of writing for this blog, I have sparingly mentioned a crucial component of cinema in my construction of image-related arguments.

Many formalist and neoformalist film scholars perform shot-by-shot analyses of films, breaking them down to their elements by freezing a moving image to a still image to enable greater analysis of how a given image functions as a moving image. As useful as this method may be towards analyzing every element of a film's composition, it ultimately doesn't account for all of the film's elements. One can get a sense of the lighting, mise-en-scene, angles, editing (when looking at several shots back-to-back). But such an analysis does not account for sound. Some proponents for the importance of sound/music in cinema would claim that this fact contributes to a bias against sound/music in film criticism. Whether that's true is hard to say. But it definitely warrants consideration.

Another popular claim on the part of film music buffs is that the film experience is half audio and half visual. Though I am completely in support of the spirit of giving sound and music it's fair due in assessing cinema, I'm not sure I would so easily buy the idea that cinema represents a 50/50 split of audio and visual. I may be acting nitpicky here, but the problem I have with this attitude is that it supposes that the two elements that make up a whole, while obviously working together, function independently of one another in doing so -- undoubtedly affecting each other in how they stand exist next to one another. This is far too simple to account for a relationships that, in my mind, is incredibly complex. While some amount of simplifying is probably necessary to understand basic concepts in any field, I think we tend to latch on to them at the onset of learning and therefore all future learning is based on these simple notions and overarching critical perspectives tend to grow into more intricate versions of the same basic model.

If I were to make a broad claim about sound in cinema, I would say that sound is a crucial part of movies, but that its importance varies depending on the particular movie and how the details of its images function together. Spoken dialogue obviously counts as sound, as would diegetic and non-diegetic music, as well as sound effects. In general, the image is the most fundamental aspect of cinema, and I would argue that all other elements serve the moving image and assist in giving it movement and life. That being said, sound, more specifically, music has always played a great role in the classical tradition and has since maintained its own importance in visual storytelling. Was it necessary? Probably not. But filmmakers nevertheless felt some kind of urge to "score" their images.

This may be due to the fact that much of the early cinema that featured extensive music was movement-based. Filmmakers were experimenting with movement so as to separate the art of cinema from theatre. Maybe it wasn't such a self-conscious step away from the actor-based, stage constricted nature of theater but a curioisity and experimentation of what moving images could accomplish. Before Eisenstein, music was prominent in cinema, but not nearly so as it was after his theories of montage revolutionzed how cinema was thought of and made. Editing a sequence together based on images connected in a comprehensible manner so that the viewer could make sense of the different perspectives on the movement from multiple angles and views altered how viewers conceptualized of moving images. Debates continue over the cognitive and affective nature of editing techniques and how they relate to the viewer's sensemaking abilities in constructing a knowledge of a sequence based on various moving images spliced together. But there is little doubt that the presence of music in cinema increased dramatically with the montage.

The question then becomes, does the music compliment the image and provide it with rythym, or does it conribute to an already existing "feel," from how the images are cut together and how their movements exist? This is an extremely hard question to answer, if only because we are all so familiar with movie images containing music that it would be nearly impossible to think of them without musical accompaniment. Again, I should ammend this statement by noting that not all cinematic images call for accompaniment of music. Some great films don't contain any music at all - score or song - and some have very little sound at all. So it is certainly possible to have a movie without music, but it's essentially a musical decision to not have sound or music in a film. Nevertheless, the question remains as to the specific role of music in a film. Naturally, depending on the type of film, the importance of music will vary. But perhaps this is too broad.

Something about imbuing movement with sound or music allows the image to exist differently. Music does provide a rhythm, a tempo, to the image simply by existing and "matching up" the image. It instead creates rhythms, tempos, moods and atmospheres that exist in the image as result of the fusion of sight and sound. Music, therefore, isn't so much a complimentary device to an image that provides more of something already contained in an image; it is rather an organic part of the image itself (assuming there is music at all).

Regarding analysis, I find the most effective method of assessing the relationship of sound/music and image isn't to look at film types or genres, but instead to hone in on individual sequences or "moments," and then attempt to understand how those sequences build upon one another to form a greater sense of narrative. Cinema is about pure feeling. Every aspect of any type of analysis -- be it formalist, psychanalytic, or otherwise -- is geared towards understanding how those images on a screen affect the viewer or culture in the way they do. These approaches naturally take very different directiions in understanding an experience that is in simple terms intangible. Coming from a cognitivist/affect/Deleuzian perspective, which in my mind is the most essential entry point to cinema studies, it's important that all aspects of that image are examined, even ones that aren't necessarily part of the visible image.

An image with any kind of music cannot and would not exist in the unique manner that it does were it not for the music. Once a composer and director select a certain musical approach and record music for that specific image, neither the image nor the music can really exist independently of their marriage together. Sure, a shot-by-shot analysis of a movie is helpful towards understanding compositional details, just like listening to a film score apart from the movie is enjoyable and can conjure memories of the movie or other feelings. But neither of these are complete experiences with movies or the music. That is because images and music inhabit one another, live off of one another, and create the nostalgia and nuances of cinematic images.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Kicking Off the Film Music Blog-a-thon

Between now (official start: tomorrow) and June 25, Damian Arlyn is hosting a Film Music Blog-a-Thon at Windmills of My Mind. If you haven't heard about it already, I strongly encourage to head over to his blog to check it out and consider adding your own contribution in what will surely be a memorable weekend in film writing.

This is the first of (hopefully) several posts on my blog between now and June 25 on the topic of film music. During this time, I will be focusing my thoughts on this single important topic in cinema studies before returning to the more broad areas of film studies and discussion. This blog-a-thon has provided me good opportunity to begin a greater exploration of the term "audiovisual" as it relates to cinema. I consider this upcoming weekend an entry point into a mode of thought and criticism that will likely continue long beyond the blog-a-thon. So thank you, Damian, for putting this blog-a-thon together! I can only hope we will see a wealth provocative and exciting writing on a subject that desperately needs more attention!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Desiring Closure

Jim Emerson has written a few posts about the controversy surrounding The Sopranos finale. (For details about the ending or the show itself, he is a much better resource than me). His response to the naysayers that have come down on the show's supposedly ambiguous ending ("What, that's it?") is perfect. Rather than providing a rationale or structured argument for why people should like it, he simply asks: whaddaya want? Those two words just about sum it up.

Many viewers invest in a show/movie to the extent that they willingly participate in the manipulation of the narrative: its plot details, character arcs, etc. This is especially true of television since an individual must invest a lot of time, on multiple occasions over an extended duration. Though a great majority of commercial media and visual narratives are built around the principles of plot and structural familiarity, many viewers don't seem to notice their manipulation until the end. An ending cannot simply be an ending. It must mean something. The elements of a narrative need to come together, and if they don't, that too is often treated with some kind of thematic unity and is subject to convention. If an ending "leaves you hanging," most viewer react negatively and feel abused and manipulated, as if the whole experience was worth nothing simply due to the absence of a satisfactory ending. But what makes an ending satisfying? Moreoever, what is it about endings that attracts/repels most viewers?

The very idea of closure is synomonous with narrative, folklore, and mythological tales. Perhaps our fascination with happy endings is partly due to our sequential understanding of time and our own lives in which we constantly move along some straight line, with death marking the end of that line. Many have argued that narrative, language, and communication -- in its principles of organization and providing structure to perceived stimuli -- are mechanisms which assist socialized members of a culture to process the finitude of death. Happy endings would then represent the repressed fear of death that is somehow intrinsic to human lived experience, physically and socially. One could take that argument further and attribute the cultural creation of religion, spirituality, and the idea of an afterlife to the fundamental logic of our understanding of and participation in language and narrative; specifically, one's conscious or unconscious acknowledgement that narrative essentially constitutes any sense of memory, self, and purpose, which is why no culture or individual can divorce it/him/herself from narrative.

These issues undoubtedly play a great role in understanding narrative as a uniquely human invention, an idea I could not even begin to claim to understand but am at the very least provoked by. But I get the feeling that there's something more with regards to the nature of the public response to finale of The Sopranos. I should note that have not seen a full episode of The Sopranos in its eight-year run. Over the years, I've caught bits and pieces of the show and was consistently impressed with its focus on character, and its prizing subtlty and ambiguity over plot. In the world of television, such qualities are typically nowhere to be found. That is why I think there is more going on with the conjecture of the show's finale and the public response to it. In wake of the show's apparently controversial final episode, I have been thinking about issues of spectatorship, specifically concerning the viewer's relationship with the content of a given medium such as television or cinema.

I use the term spectator here as both a greater idea of "cultural audience" and in a basic individual sense. That relationship continually drives me to question my own motivations as a spectator of an image and a witness to a narrative. With cinema, television and other visual arts, one must account for both spectatorship and the "narrative experience." While visual media often converge these roles, we must be careful not to lump them together. This idea is crucial to understanding visual narratives, but for many reasons -- such as the absence of a formal manner of appreciating the moving image in education systems and a general negative attitude toward electronic media as artistic -- audiences/spectators tend to think they watch something on television or a movie in the same way they might read something on a page, which is why audiences by an large claim to favor thickly plotted stories that follow familiar paths so as to allow for easy interpretation and entertainment.

I realize that the last couple of sentences may be construed as something of an attack on the literary-minded, but that is not my aim. The point I wish to articulate is that the socialization process of education and beyond tend to condition individuals to appreciate the written form of narrative, and due to the rising visual nature of most narrative media and the continued absence of a real understanding of their components, a great amount of people interpret narrative media as if they were of the literary variety. While I would argue that there are many similarities and that visual narrative media by and large emerged from the literary (though I don't think this is entirely true), it is an act or pure laziness to lump visual media in with everything else. The written form -- be it the novel or analytic essay -- is not any less important or more simplistic, but should instead be understood as different. While all forms of media and technology extend from the relationships among various other media forms collide, part of the reason for this is that we construct and interpret new media based on our understandings of previous media. Therefore, any new elements introduced to a given system must be assessed based on how they contribute to that already existing system. Does this mean that "everything is the same" and that narrative is narrative no matter what form it is manifested in? Not at all.

In fact, the best way to understand new forms of media and narrative is to explicitly focus on their elements and seek to understand how they function by serving to sustain familiar frameworks of narrative idenfitication yet also create new relationships. I understand that television and cinema are vastly different (as I will explore in more detail in a forthcoming post), but the example of The Sopranos finale exemplifies a great struggle in visual narrative, and that is the overemphasis on plot and familiar narrative frameworks over the viewer's saturation of living, breathing images that transcend the simple boundaries of plot structure. I am not claiming that the fundamental process of experiencing a narrative is simple -- I would argue the reverse -- but that we are in a sense trained to discard narratives that take full advantage of the intricate nature of images and present abstractions and ambiguities. For sure, some narratives make anti-convention an exercise in pure convention (e.g. Paul Haggis's Crash), but these types of narratives are usually at the mercy of the same perspective that breeds the mentality faovring plot and narrative structure over ambiguity. In these cases, the filmmaker/storyteller, while trying to be different, usually goes about doing so with an approach firmly embedded in the very conventions they claim to fight. A work of true abstraction is one in which the image lives, and compositional details serve to either uphold or question those frameworks that form the basis of our understanding. In doing so, that very mode of understanding may be expanded, stretched, and confounded.

The debate will surely continue over The Sopranos and other movies/shows with controversial or surprising endings. But so long that we are arguing about them, we only assert our total surrender to them. While we continue discussing the relevance of endings -- our frustrations and surprises with them -- we affirm the the real mystery of narratives by consciously diverting ourselves away from the unconscious pleasures of their details. The ending may be what's discussed and debated, but whether one consciously likes or dislikes it was never the point. Whadda we want, then? Now that's a question I can't begin to understand the answer to. But rather than thinking about the possibilities, perhaps the expectation of an answer to that (or any) question is what we really ought to be thinking about.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Precision On Queue: How Netflix Changes the Movie Experience

Over the last two months, my Netflix queue hasn't moved very much at all. That's not to say I didn't catch a few movies. For example, I've seen Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, and Gabriel Range's Death of a President. When I wasn't catching up on missed 2006 releases, I took in a few 80's flicks I've waited a long time to see, such as John Carpenter's Escape From New York, David Cronenberg's Videodrome (which I want to write at length on in the near future), and Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill.

The queue is moving slowly lately due to a number of things, such as summer housework, a summer class, and the day job. But this hasn't stopped me from wanting to see more movies and continually reading and learning about what's new in Hollywood and Indiewood, film reviews, and books on film history and theory (you should see my ever growing wish list...) As you can guess, I suffer from a bad case of inflated ambition though, which is why the list keeps getting longer, rather than shorter. (I think it's somewhere between 400 and 500 right now; and I think I'm going to watch all of these movies!) Today, I will be receiving Eric Steel's The Bridge, a movie I've wanted to see ever since I read Jim Emerson's great review of it last year. Also upcoming are a few movies I've let slip by in recent years, including Terrence Malick's The New World, Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, Tommy Lee Jones's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Jonathan Glazer's Birth. I've read so much about these movies that I decided to move them all to the top of my list and stop procrastinating. Also, a few unseen classic await my viewing, particularly Jacques Tati's Playtime, Werner Herzog's Stroszek and Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. I must admit that I'm trying to catch up on all three of these auteur's (Tati, Herzog, and Altman) work since I have inexcusably only seen a small number of each of their films (in the case of Tati, I've seen none).

It's a lament of mine that I'm sure will continue to grow: my time to watch movies is diminishing. I will never be at a point when I can't watch any movies at all, since I will make it a point to do so no matter what, but coming to terms with the fact that I must cut it down can sometimes be depressing. It got me thinking about how other cinephiles upkeep their movie watching trends. Of course, critics watch and write about movies for a living, which makes it a bit easier. But for those of us whose professions don't involve seeing/writing on movies, it can be quite a commitment to take this "hobby" seriously. I hate to use the term, hobby, because I think it's demeaning of the passion and commitment I have for cinema. It's a great part of who I am, as is true for many movie lovers I've read on various blogs and websites. Andy Horbal said once that even though it may not be a job, it's good to think of it as one. That being watching a variety of films and upkeeping a website about cinema which one would hope really may contribute something to the greater discussion and evolution of film criticism.

So often we discuss how blogging is changing film criticism, making it so accessible for almost anyone with a computer and internet access. Yes, it has its drawbacks and suffers from an image of zero credibility, but this experiment is continually growing and is really pushing into new avenues and modes of thinking and writing about cinema. If I'm a small part of that in any way, I'm more than lucky to be a part of it. So to me, this is a job, one that I take very seriously. But I must take care not to take it too seriously, as Dennis Cozzalio's second sub-head quote to his blog indicates.

Anyway, I want to highlight one key point about these topics before going off the deep end about on particular issue. Us bloggers are often reflexive about what it is we do and how this medium of writing and participating in a dialogue about movies is contributory to the overall approaches of criticism. But equally important as the medium in which we write about movies -- i.e. blogging -- is the medium through which we watch movies. This can take us down the root of home theater systems and how the experience of watching movies has changed or remained the same with ever advancing home theater and digital technology (For more thoughts about this, check out Jim Emerson's thoughtful post on the DVD experience and David Bordwell's article about how new media may alter a film experience by sustain other kinds of viewing/reading experiences.) I plan on commenting on these topics more extensively after I have read this book. But right now I think an equally intriguing topic is online rentals, a business that has gained massive popularity with Netflix and is now the standard for film renting. How Netflix has altered the film experience is of real interest to me, especially since the retail store industry is kicking and splashing to stay afloat because of it and how it stands in relation to the inevitable soon-to-be standard of digital downloads. Netflix really represents the transition from going to a store to rent a realy physical movie to shopping online with the click of a mouse and watching a digital composite of a movie, right then and there.

From an availability standpoint, Netflix and the forthcoming medium of digital downloads clearly have an advantage over video stores. Netflix has some 60,000 titles to choose from, far more than your typical video store. Also, the consumer can choose a plan that works best for her/him and pay accordingly. No late fees. No driving the film back. It would seem that online renting, then, presents a number of advantages over the video store, much like the home theater experience is more cost-efficient and ever-more-comparable to the theater experience, right? For me, this is tough to accept. Call me traditional, but I don't think any amount of advancing technology can recreate the theatrical experience, and there are a number of reasons for this (as Jim points out in the above-mentioned piece). In short, it comes down to the conditions under which you see the actual films that really create that experience. With DVDs you have total control. You can freeze the frame at any point, take a phone call, check your email, exchange words with a spouse/boyfriend/child as they walk through the door. You can also see movies in pieces. I hate to do this when watching a movie for the first time, but I'll admit I have done it for the sake of convenience, say when I'm getting tired and want to watch the rest of a movie in the morning or if I only have an hour but want to start a movie. Such a thought does not enter my mind when I drive to the theater, pay my money, and sit in the dark to watch the movie. In that scenario I am at the movie's mercy, whereas the home market flips that around. While this presents many advantages, the pure movie experience is one that the theater provides, one in which I literally and figuratively shut off the world around me and form a relationship to the screen's images for two hours. These may seem like small things, but they shape our conceptions of movie watching and movies as narrative and visual media.

Just like the home theater will never replace the movie theater, online renting will never replace the video store. Neither of these claims may be true (as some suggest that theater and video chains may be obselete someday), but they reflect my own perspective and desire to keep them. Let's think about the advantages of the video store. Yes, the selection is limited. Yes, it costs more. Yes, there are lines and (oh no, not that!) human interaction. But there is something about perusing the aisles and finding some obscure movie that looks interesting based on its cover. Online, I can see how others have rated it. I can see every detail about it and read reviews of it by one-clicking over to Imdb or Rottentomatoes). But at the video store, barring the intrusive presence of cell phones ("Honey, I did we see this one? It's got Matt Damon and he's..."), you're locked away, forced to make decisions based on little information and your own intuition. And while I love having information at my disposal on the web, there's something genuine about deciding to take that movie home, pop it in your player, and see where it takes you. Instead, I have a shopping list of movies which I have total control over. I have everything at my fingertips, but I can't help but feel a sense of nostalgia for the time in which I was driven more by curiousity when choosing movies. That experience is being lost both at the theater and at home. But I'm not coming out against online renting; not at all. I wouldn't be able to see half the movies I watch were it not for the selection and ease of use of Netflix. It's a great resource. But it doesn't represent the best form of renting movies by any stretch, even if it's so convenient.

Netflix is marriage of the real and the digital. You order and pay online but have real, physical DVDs sent to your house. It has given way to its own competition (though it may go all digital, once that takes effect) and represents the old with the new. But it's only a transition. Soon, we may not even have the pleasure of putting a movie in our player. This may be a long way's off, but it's immanent. This is all so important because the technological advances in the home theater market, advertising, and information-acquiring have truly restructured our thought-processes with regard to the context in which we see movies and thus our conceptions about the movies themselves have changed along with it. What's the big deal? Well, this is affecting how movies are made and thought of. While no one big thing may be occuring, many small things about the movie experience are changing and, slowly but surely, it's changing right before our eyes.

This is really only the beginning to the issues, concerns, and questions being raised concerning the "movie experience in the digital age." There still remains much more to be discussed, questioned, thought-about, and proposed, and I will hopefully have more to contribute to this greater discussion sometime in the future. But now that I've layed out my initial thoughts, this topic may be a bit lower on my queue. What's on yours?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Shifting Reflections

I am deeply suspicious of "movements" within critical discourse of any medium or mode of communication. I tend to align myself more with a McLuhan-esque model of thinking which holds that media are extensions of ourselves and of each other.* To simply state where, when, and how one era, movement, or period ends and another begins is too simplistic and problematic. Nevertheless, this manner of thinking restructures thought to the extent that media and institutions come to embody the properties and categories through which we understand them, despite not intrinsically existing as such. In other words, I would venture to guess that even though categorizing modes of thought, media, narrative, etc. is inherently reductive, it nonetheless enables our cultural institutions and media to embody the oversimplifications that we impose on them.

In terms of the cinema's technological evolution, there are undeniably certain "movements," e.g. the introduction of sound, color, animation (though animation preceded photographic properties of cinema), and countless other subtle advances which affected the construction of images. There were also institutional, economic, and social factors that guided particular movements in cinema such as the implementation of the Hays Code in the early days of cinema or the MPAA in the late 60's. Even beyond these factors specifically relating to cinema and its production are cultural and social components that have yielded certain stages in the development of the movies as an art form, critical artifiact, and technological medium. There are probably hundreds, thousands more factors that influence periods in cinema, and this broad idea should be something that all critics, viewers, and scholars should take note of. Interestingly, many of these factors convened in the late 1960's and early 1970's, resulting in many undeniable changes in the direction of American cinema. However, in favor of highlighting these changes and asserting a liberated filmmaking atmosphere (an attitudes that persists even today) in which American cinema "came into its own" and made great strides to catch up with European art cinema, it's very tempting to screen out certain elements of the time that may call the consistency and tidiness of such an argument into question.

No one can deny that American cinema changed immensely at that time, but the reception of that (or any) change often depends on the already established context and conditions under which such change takes place. In terms of stylistic and narrational aspects of filmmaking, of which there were many shifts in the 1970's, many of these aesthetic properties were influenced by the technical knowledge and expansion of cinematic media. For example, that filmmakers began employing widescreen cameras changed how shots could be framed, which then affected how filmmakers envisioned compostions. This example is overly simple, yes, but it effectively captures the notion that many of the artistic changes were undergirded by not only subtle technical changes in technology as well as the cultural familiarity and preparedness for that change. If a culture, audience, or individual is accepting of change, they/she/he are usually already accustomed to what to expect in this change and are therefore more willing to embrace it. This is usually the case in more subtle alterations in films and filmmaking capabilities as the increased use of widescreen camera lens late 60's and 1970's American cinema shows.

However, when it comes to changes that greatly affect the technical, stylistic, narrational, and even structural aspects of cinema, cultures/audiences/individuals are almost unanimously opposted to such change. This is likely because they have built a familiarity (consciously and unconsciously) with the specific elements that contributed to cinematic storytelling before sound and therefore came to view sound in cinema as bastardization of all that cinema was. But the overriding claim I'm making -- one that deserves much more critical thought -- is that how positively or negatively a movement or change is received seems to vary according to social and technical conditions, i.e. the nature of the change is measured and understood by manners in which the "new" elements interact with existing familiar styles and cinematic elements, which are influenced by social and technical conditions. Thus, epistemological and phenomenological questions about cinema are central to responsible criticism of and thought about it.

Today, we are experiencing something similar to the introduction of sound in cinema: digital cinema. While there was no one film that signaled the onset of a new mode of cinematic intrepretation -- a la The Jazz Singer -- many movies of the past 20 years (Young Sherlock Holmes, The Abyss, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Toy Story, the "Star Wars" prequels, Miami Vice, Inland Empire) have given ushered (in some cases, demanded) new ways of constructing and interpreting cinematic images and movements. The digital movement is happening continually, and its effects are seen in movies of all shapes and sizes, not just films using the technology. It has been met with plenty of resistance, i.e. those claiming that the only true form of cinema is that which is captured on celluloid and projected onto a screen. This perspective is baffling in how stubborn its advocates are. It also doesn't hold up under close scrutiny, but instead only works in generalities. The very discussion of whether it's "good" or "bad" for cinema is more revealing of the ideological issues that sustain particularly limited approaches to media, art forms, and organizations. Nevertheless, ideology enables us to make sense of and advance these very modes of communicating, so to try to act independently of them is foolish as well.

My argument (in very broad terms) is that we are married to forms of language and categorization, which enable the formation and understand of eras, movements, etc. We are trapped within them but inevitably constituted by them. While I am skeptical about movements, I cannot deny their very real presence and take part in the construction of said changes as well. Nevertheless, it's very important to be reflective participants rather than passive viewers of cinema (or any medium) and ask questions of such "changes" that reduce so many technological, social, and cultural factors contributing to all media to one simple plane. Maybe we should question the glory of the American 1970's, actively ponder the validity of the overwhelmining critical denouncement of digital cinema, or the basic claims that certain modes of storytelling or film styles are inherently bad or not "artistic." That is not to say that any broad assumption is incorrect; just that we should push ourselves to think about all factors that may contribute to any advances or movements of any kind. Reducing them to generalities promotes highly reductive understanding of them.

Assuming we choose to engage in critical thought about cinema that refuses to abide by a single plane of understanding, one that takes easily tagged movements and simplified understandings of periods, genres, and visual techniques with a grain of salt, what then is cinema? This is harder to answer. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge the nearly infinite amount of elements that contribute to an experience many consider to be simple: watching a movie. For those who approach cinema on a critical level, this becomes all the more important (as the digital movement reminds) as the medium itself and the other media that influence it continue to change along with our relation to them. Approaching the production and interpretation of cinema from affective, cognitive, and social schools of thought may reveal much about position to and understand of it; its narrational, representative, and structural properties as they pertain to the relation to and understanding of visuality. Doing so may finally spark the critical thought that such an influential, complex, and important medium demands.

* Note: I do not worship at the altar of McLuhan in all matters of media since I find him overly simplistic regarding some things, but I think his contributions to communication and media studies are essential and innovative in the age of electronic media.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Jaws: Another (deserving) look

"Slow ahead... I can go slow ahead. Come on down and chum some of this shit."

This past weekend, I enjoyed an all-too-short vacation on the beach. Actually, I spent very little time on the beach; I instead sat on a breezy (and shaded) deck, or in cool air-conditioning to catch up on some much-needed reading. Fortunately, in between the lounging and reading, I was able to upkeep a long-standing personal tradition of mine. Since the time I was very young, I have made a habit of watching one of my very favorite “beach” films whenever I’ve been to the beach.

Although most people would probably prefer digging their feet in the sand and engrossing themselves in dark crime novels or unabashed romances while baking in ultraviolet light, I never had a problem sticking to the air conditioning and taking in a “beach watch.” And nothing fits this bill better than Jaws. I say this not to demean the film, as if it was breezy trash designed to “take your mind off things” for a few hours. I instead use the term in the highest regard, because to me Jaws is a very nostalgic film. I saturate myself in its pastel compositions and its incredible ability to contrast the pictaresque townscapes of Amity Island with a more abstract, implacable leviathan of the sea, bringing them together at a shoreline that separates crowded bureacratic establishment and the uncompromising primal instinct of creatures of the sea. I am swept up in this conflict in new ways every time I see the film, but something about breathing in the ocean air on the beach and enjoying the laid back lifestyle of shore houses gives Jaws the extra edge that resonates with me so deeply.

Much has been written about Jaws, from its sexual imagery and symbolic gender relationships to its status as arguably the first true American blockbuster. (While on last year's beach vacation, I read Antonia Quirke's excellent book in the British Film Institute's Modern Classic book series.) The problem with writing on Jaws and countless other classic movies is that it's often hard to write with a fresh perspective since so many approaches have been exhausted, e.g. analyses of any of Alfred Hitchcock's films of the 1950's and 1960's. I devour many of these books and articles and learn a great deal from them, but in instances of films like Jaws or Psycho, much of the literature treads on familiar ground.

There are two opposing issues I have with this. First, sameness in perspective in the literature about a given topic typically breeds a very limited overall approach to the artifact (or movie) in question and makes it so that it would be almost impossible to approach it from another angle. But there is a flip side to this problem. Given the prominence of a certain broad approach to an artifact of study, the critical community may consciously attempt to operate on new ground and yield new perspectives and in doing so become numb to benefit of the dominant consensus. That is why it is much more difficult than it may seem to contribute to the overall critical persective of a film like Jaws. By simply acknowledging the overwhelming emphasis on certain key factors of the movie, I am positioning myself in relation to them and may tend to either assert them too superficially for the sake of comfortable familiarity or potentially pay lip service to crucial details that I don't allow myself to acknowledge due to my inability to really examine a perspective with which I have become so topically familiar. For these reasons, I have elected to focus on specific details about the film's images and how they relate to the overall structure and thematic depth of the film. I will attempt not ignore or privelage the well-tread critical ground concerning Jaws, but instead place them in perspective of some of the film's more subtle moments and compositions.

For many critics, scholars, and movie lovers, any reference to Jaws brings to mind some of the film's most memorable elements: the underwater "shark vision" perspective; the escalating two-note musical motif signaling the shark's closing in on it prey; a skinny dipping young woman violently dragged along the surface of the ocean, disrupting its calmness but not its apathy to her inevitable demise. All of these things are what we remember when recalling Steven Spielberg's 1975 movie. But in focusing on these aspects and examining them from a critical and/or thematic framework, the more subtly stated details of the movie may potentially go undetected, which I think is more likely to happen in a critical and cultural staple such as Jaws.

That is why I honed in on the images, the transitions, the temporal and spatial relationships from shot to shot, scene to scene, the elements of an individual shot, and the structural details of the scenes and how they build together to form a briskly paced and compulsively watchable film. Watching it again recently, the film has revealed to me a number of things. Firstly, minus the inevitable continuity errors of the sun's reflection on the ocean, which at times are glaring, Jaws is nearly compositionally perfect, representing the appropriate combination of deliberately placed elements -- i.e. color palettes, background and foreground stagings, visual thematic details, etc. -- and "accidental" effects, which are necessary for almost all great art to achieve greatness. It is both intensely calculated from a mise-en-scene and framed movement point of view, but it also feels somewhat gritty and natural.

The real beauty of the film is how all of its structural and visual motifs and components interact with each other to form two worlds in the consciousness of the viewer: an innocent vision of Amity island and a bleak nightmare that lurks beneath the surface of its waters in the form of a 25-foot, three-ton weighing shark whose physical presence is only felt in the visera of witnessing its hunt in the film's land based scenes. The spectator, in many ways, becomes the shark that it so desperately wants to see. Thus, Jaws seems to embody a tug of war between representation and embodiment. Are we supposed to identify with the shark or the victim? Do we feel the pain of being enveloped by its teeth, each "the size of a shot glass," or do we feel the pleasure of clamping down on helpless, squirming human flesh? The movie never remains consistent on this, which is partly why it is so effective.

While one could argue that Jaws cleanly adheres to a three-act classical film structure, it is really about the relationship of two distinct sections: a monster story of a relentless predator preying upon an innocent small-town community, and a high seas adventure of male comraderie with a "human vs. nature twist." Aside from the differences of setting, careful detail is provided to each section, in different ways but in similar manners as well. In the "land" section of the film's first hour (roughly), Spielberg builds a beautiful contrast between the recreational activity of a small community, (e.g. beach conversation in which everyone knows each other, a main street parade with kids playing their instruments poorly, and a cloudless sky) with the grisly acknowledgment of death and primal instinct that seemingly corrupts the very innocence that the film works so hard to create. But the shark hardly represents a force deliberately preying upon small town America, but rather an invasion of nature and instinct in a society of people who are "civilized." But the film illustrates that humanity, while distinctly separate from the primal nature of the ocean it so enjoys and builds towns around, is hardly civilized. Amongst the harmless conjecture of the townspeople, we see the slimy actions of Amity's mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), a bureacratic twit always thinking in the interest of the economic stature of Amity and the monetary gain associated with holidays and the "clean" image of the town.

All of this is established in what I will call the "land" half of the film. In this portion, a relationship is built between three characters, the aforementioned mayor, Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a family man so eager to make a difference, but touchingly naive in his grappling with his own inability to deal with the simple concerns of townsfolk, and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an oceanologist rich-boy who understands more than his appearance leads on. The focus in this half of Jaws is on the central relations of these characters, specifically Brody and Hooper, and how they team up to work against the arrogance of the mayor. Concerning the shark and its attacks on three individuals (Chrissie, Alex Kitner, and the man in the boat whose leg we remember more than the rest of his body or performance), its presence is always felt despite its surprising lack of involvement. Though the shark isn't in the movie very much in the "land" section, the characters' and spectator's constant acknowledgement of it juxtaposes nicely with the pleasant, sunny atmosphere of the Amity beaches. Even when the shark is devouring its victims, the spectator hardly ever sees it. Instead, we see from its own eyes, which brings to mind the tension of identification mentioned above.

Apart from compositional details, which I will discuss further in my discussion of the "water" portion of the movie, the structural straightforwardness of the "land" section is refreshing and is practically a self-contained movie in its own right, with the mayor finally coming around by the end. After he allows Brody to close down the beaches and go after the shark, mayor Vaughn exits the narrative and the shark hunter, Mr. Quint (Robert Shaw, whose character's first name is never given, or necessary for that matter) takes center stage. The first elongated scene with Quint in his shark sanctuary littered with countless trophies (shark jaws hanging on walls) represents the narrative morphing into almost an entirely new movie: the "water" half, or the ocean hunt. Interestingly, Quint does appear in the "land" section of the movie. Many critics and movie lovers will fondly recall his introduction, slowly scratching his nails down the chalkboard during the town hall meeting, literally and metaphorically disturbing the community culture in which he lives but takes no part. Despite the obvious purpose of the introduction to his character -- in very memorable fashion so that the spectator is more than aware and prepared for his real entry in the film -- Quint's presence on the land-based section of the movie doesn't feel right. He is not a land-based character in the slightest, which is why he doesn't fit. His only home is the sea, which is why his presence in th stagnant town hall feels strange in relation to his more natural environment aboard the Orca, his creaky old boat on which Quint, Brody, and Hooper reside for the remainder of the film.

Although the "land" half of the film represents one long setup due to its practically being a self-contained movie in the sense of the spectator's familiarity and connection to the characters and "world" of the film rather than the narrative arcs, its status as such presents the "water" half of the film as its own narrative as well. The only difference in structure is be the resolution of the two. In the visual depth and thematic unity, the "water" portion of Jaws is entirely different.

This is signaled by the brilliant shot of the Orca leaving the land and heading toward the open sea, as seen through the window of Quint's house, with the vessel framed within the jaws of one of Quint's previous kills. While the camera slowly follows the boat through the jaws, which eventually frame the entire shot, John Williams' music signals the onset of a mythological journey in its muted brass theme complemented by rising strings. But rather than arriving to an end of dramatic spirit and foreshadowing the "man versus nature" duel that makes up film's last hour, Williams instead opts to imbue the images of the Orca's departure with a sense of fun, which, given the preceding setup might seem inappropriate. But the strange thing is, it works. It's as if the narrative is reminding us that it is precisely that: a narrative. The images invite the spectator to take part in the brooding sense of darkness lurking underneath the film's first half as the protagonists now have decided to duel this leviathan in its own territory, but it also reminds the viewer that this will be, plain and simple, a fun ride.

This contrast is present throughout the film, which is reflected in the crisis of identification in the perspective of the stalking/attacks in the first half of the movie. The spectator is constantly torn between enjoying this narrative for pulp adventure and pleasure, and being subjected to a disturbing feeling of being eaten alive as suggested in its exploration of primal fear. But this is all suggested in the many dualistic tensions of the land-based end of the film, e.g. the representation/embodiment of the shark and its relation to its victims and the corruption of bureacracy invading small-town innocence. The simple halfing of "land" and "water" sections is evidence of two opposites coming together. While the two acts are separate, the overriding point seems to be that they take effect due to their individual relation to opposites and their constantly working against each other. The second narrative of Jaws explores these dualities more from the perspective of the viscera of pure adventure and a constant battle between the hunter and the hunted. It becomes a constant battle of strategy among the three members of the Orca but also between the shark and the three men.

The shark's first real appearance in the film is one of pure shock. it is the moment in which the film completely changes gears and is no longer in a "transition" stage. With the unannounced sight of the shark to quickly and unexpectedly, this one shot signals that the rules are now different and that this is the beginning of a massive duel that will dominate the rest of the narrative. In this shot (as seen at the top of the page), Brody stares back over the camera (presumably at Hooper, who is directing the boat) and utters a line that, in my mind at least, has always been more memorable than the one that follows it. Of course, Brody's "You're gonna need a bigger boat" line is one of the classic movie lines in history, I find that his "Slow ahead..." comment is more memorable, mostly due to the context in which it is uttered. The shot consists of his face foregrounded and occupying much of the right half of the frame and his chum tossing and the ocean in the background. A cigarette dangles from his mouth as he speaks comfortably for the first (and only) time aboard the ship. Immediately after he makes the comment "Come on down and chum some of this shit," a gray mass bursts out of the water, encompassing the rest of the frame as it lunges towards the Orca. For me, this is one of the most memorable movie frames I can recall and its purely for the quick burst of energy that was waiting to be unleashed. Before the shark even arrives (note that he does so without his two note motif or three note theme for the first time), there is something uncomfortable about the shot, almost as if it's preparing us for the shock it will contain.

Note that this shot does not resemble that of a contemporary horror film, in which the camera slowly pans over from a character's face to create empty space for an inevitable scare by a killer/monster; those instances are predictable in every fashion. But here, we are given just enough of the ocean in the background to not expect it, yet the elements the composition somehow suggest the inevitable appearance of the shark, perhaps because the nature of the shot differs so much from more elongated takes of the movie. While the movie features plenty of close-ups of Chief Brody, this particular shot is unique because it involves him and the water. By the point, the film has thematically and visually established his fear of water and has kept a distance between Brody and the ocean, but here in this shot they are connected. Another note about the shot is that it scares the hell out of me each time I watch it. I know it's coming, but the details of the frame itself somehow make me uncomfortable in my anticipation of the shark's appearance. There may be a few reasons for this. First, the nature of suspense (as David Bordwell observes in this essential piece) is much more due to how the viewer processes the elements of composition, i.e. editing, staging, background/foreground, in a film rather than the pure shock of something unexpected happening. Following this idea, the shot's ability to create suspense for me nearly every time I see it may be due to how the shark briefly appears, in full view for the first time, in relation to the viewer's previous knowledge of him based on a lack of sight. Roger Ebert observes in his archived Great Movies review of Jaws:

"When the shark does appear for its closeups, it is quite satisfactorily terrifying... The shark has been so thoroughly established, through dialogue and quasi-documentary material, that its actual presence is enhanced in our imaginations by all we've seen and heard."

This effectively captures the experience of the entire movie. Its motions and moving parts interact so fluidly and so brilliantly, so as to operate on conscious and unconscious levels, that they form relationships with the spectator to the extent that the images remain in memory, despite constantly moving and changing. The spectator's memory of these moments then interact with the present shots, giving them a power and viscera that they might not ordinarily have if seen alone. that is the beauty of cinema, and part of the reason why this film is so brilliant. Whether calculated or accidental, every composition (and its elements) is beautifully presented, working together to create a sense of atmosphere and character. Notably, the film rarely provides single shots of characters that are saying one thing at one time or of one place for the purpose of establishing its presence or purpose in the narrative. Jaws works so effectively because it always has so much going on and it creates an environment and a strong sense of the major and minor characters in its more naturalistic approach to editing and compositional details. Yes, there are one-shots of characters (for the purposes of reaction) here and there, but they are always deliberately and sparing placed so as to compliment the more important shots, featuring many characters, conversations, and events. Furthermore, the score is very restrained and seems to enter at just the right time so as to not call attention to itself. The film is more interested in building the essence of its locations through long, wide shots, the level of activity in them, and the authenticity of real sounds. Iit seems that none of the sound was added in post-production but that the natural sounds of the locations and actual organic sounds are what we hear in the movie.

The complicated activity and busyness of the shots work are so authentic, real, and alive not just due to the framing, design, and details within them, but with the surprisingly subtle performances (given the nature of the genre) coupled with the perfectly written dialogue in the screenplay. The dialogue in Jaws is among the best written for a movie. Whether it is expository exchanges or arbitrary background conversation, every word of it is genuine and unique, true to the characters and the world they inhabit. In discussing the complex details of the film's compostions, one must not ignore the pitch-perfect screenplay, both in structure and dialogue.

Regarding my previous point about the complex compositional details of each frame of the movie and how they build together to form a sense of the Amity Island community, Quint's creaking Orca, or the calmness of the ocean surface, these perfect compositions (along with the said dialogue) play a great role in building revealing moments of character. Sometimes, no diaogue is necessary at all. And this is the wonder of the film: it's amazing structural balance between quiet moments and intense moments, dialogue driven conjecture and character revealing asides. It all gels so smoothly, creating fluid movements and actions that complement each other and form a visual narrative that is utterly unique in its lightfooted ability to balance so many various elements and make them work together.

A great example of one of these small, character revealing moments is a scene in the "land" half in which Brody sits at his dinner table, stressed by the increasing danger of the town's waters. What starts as a wide shot of the dimly lit room pulls back and becomes an intimate moment between Brody and his son; the two positioned in either side of the frame with the foregrounded table in between them and the lit kitchen in the background. This is the establishing shot to a beautiful moment that Spielberg captures simple with the shot decisions and honest performances. (Like all great movies, Jaws is about moments.) After Brody realizes that his son is mimicking him, the film cuts between two one-shots of their reactions to each other as they share a playful, loving exchage underscored by John Williams' delicate and unsentimental music. Somewhere in between the editing between these two shots, Spielberg cuts to Ellen Brody, watching on from the kitchen. The moment ends with a return to the establishing shot -- this time with Mrs. Brody between them in the background with her as Hooper knocks on the door (one shot of her being interrupted by the sound him knocking). It's a scene that almost any other movie might have cut or treated as arbitrary "character development" material, but Spielberg makes it a character revealing scene, one with unique, subtle details that not amount of backstory to a character can create in building a sense of that character.

Jaws is full of these kinds of moments, in both the "land" portion and the sea-based half. In the midst of all the fun chases and silent bits between the chases of the "water" section, the heart of that section (and of the film) is night scene in the cabin of the Orca, with Quint's haunting Indianapolis speech bookended by lighter moments of drunken lunacy. After the great "battle scars" comparison between Hooper and Qunit in one beautiful long shot (with the occasional cut to a reactionar one shot of Brody), Quint takes center stage in the movie's most compelling sequence, an eerie speech which showcases many of the film's high points: beautiful compositions, sublime performances, perfect writing, subtle character interaction, and thematic depth. All of that is in Quint's story, and it's the heart of not just the "water" section, but of the entire movie.

The sequence breaks down in a series of long shots of him, with Hooper in a blurred background, as he recounts his memory of the day the USS Indianapolis sunk. The first shot is more clear, with an overall focus on the entire composition (Quint on the left), and lasts about 40 seconds as he sets up the sinking and what the soldiers did to survive. After a very brief reactionary shot of Brody, the next shot of Quint is similar to the previous one but is more focused, with Hooper and other background details more blurry and Quint more clearly in the foreground. The composition rests entirely on Quint's eyes and their expression as he goes on to talk about the "lifeless, like a doll's" eyes of shark, and the "terrible high pitch screaming" of the victims he watched die, all the while maintaining his steady, hypnotic mumbled speech patterns. Lasting more than a minute (76 seconds), this shot maintains such intensity because of its total locking onto Quint. After another reactionary shot of Brody (and then Hooper), the next shot of Quint puts him more in the center of the frame, practically erasing everything else around him, including Hooper, as he explains why he will never put another life jacket on.

This speech is riveting in its shot design, writing, and performance and exemplifies the coming together of so many brilliant elements to form pure cinematic feeling, which encompasses not just one or two emotions or bodily states but many sensations of abstraction and ambiguity. The mystery and mastery of great cinema is right there to be experienced in that scene and it's something to behold. Yet, for as dark as it is, it is bookended by moments of drunken bonding, which are just as genuine and moving but in a more lighthearted manner. In these moments and the speech, the characters and atmosphere come to life here in a scene that functions as both a self-contained moment of cinematic greatness, but a reflection of the movie; all its themes, relationships, and nuances, taking place in its own unique space (within a rickety cabin aboard Quint's vessel) and time (as it is the only night scene in this portion of the movie).

The remainder of the film is a more focused duel between the the Orca and the shark. Not that the film has ever been operating under any principles of logic, the sea half practically shuts off the entire world the film worked so hard to built in the first half, operating according to its own rules. In this section, as the shark becomes more visible, its personality becomes more vivid rather than its mythological presence in the first half. It is intelligent and relentless in its engaging the Orca in a game of strategy in a battle for the sea. Of course, no shark would exhibit such intelligence and downright vigor, but as it progresses the movie leaves logic aside and hones in on the experience of the adventure and the inevitable conclusion of the duel.

Apart from the outstanding first chase sequence, which follows the Brody/shark shot I analyzed above, there are a number of chase scenes that delve into a real sense of pirate fun that contrast so harshly with the quiet subtlties of Quint's speech and the growing relationship among the trifecta of men. But somehow, these strange juxtapositions seem right. The adventure, the chase, the ripping through the ocean surface in pursuit of "the barrels"; none of it infantilizes the more quiet, dark material, but it instead compliments it. When the music isn't riffing on the two note stalking motif, it's bouncing around playful pirate melodies which are more driven by strings and and winds rather than pounding brass. It's the right sound for all those barrel chases and it complements the quick-moving visual sequences to a tee.

These all culminate in an action-based final 20 minutes, in which the average shot length quickens, the attacks by the shark become more relentless and frequent. In the final sequence in which all three men are together (when they are putting the cage together in an irresistible montage sequence), few words are said. But we know that the trifecta relationship is at a close, and that the narrative is nearly at its end as well. There is a sobering sense of seriousness to the rest of the proceedings as we realize for the first time that we truly care about the fates of these characters. This is the result of the sublime visual narrative that has built to the wacky action-packed finale and the moments before it. In these final moments of the film, Quint's fate within the shark's mouth is sealed as he we him stripped of his armor (his coat and his hat), disheveled, angered, and beaten. Long before he is taken by the shark, we know what's in store for him. Interestingly, this process of Quint's breakdown and humanity begins with his Indianopolis soliloquoy.

I should note that the movie intelligently ends before our heroes arrive back to shore. Something tells me it would have lost something had we been treated to an epilogue. The final shot—a long shot connecting the land and the ocean one a peaceful beachline—represents the perfect finale and culmination of the film's themes, interestingly suggesting the triumph of humanity and "land" over the instinct of the water. The shot is at a distance from the land and ocean it presents, each of which take up about half the shot, in essence bringing together to film's two sections. From there, we can imagine for ourselves where Hooper and Brody go, what they do when they get back, how Amity reacts to the news; but the movie necesarily ends with the destruction of the shark and the suggestion of a more happy union between the land of the humans and the sea of nature.

I could go on forever recalling the small details that account for the movie's mastery and status as an American movie classic, e.g. the fabulous night sequence involving the discovery of Ben Gardner's boat, the many chase sequences, the shark's lifeless body bellowing a roar as it plummits to the bottom of the sea, filling the frame with a red cloud to the perfect descending piano motif in the score. But all of these moments, some of which I've rigorously analyzed above, can only be experienced in the two-hour experience that is Jaws. During its duration, Jaws exemplifies why cinema is such an evocative artistic and narrative medium. Its structural perfection, subtle character-revealing moments, precise but naturalistic compositions, and commitment to visually and viscerally exploring a variety of themes all work together to a build a movie experience that is justified for being such a cultural staple. It is entertaining and thoughtful, subtle and overt, terrifying and fun. Capturing all of this with a nostalgia for the never-changing waves of the beaches' oceans, Jaws may be Steven Spielberg's ultimate cinematic experience.