Welcome to another edition of Cutting Into The Scene.
Professor Ironman Jo has entered the class.
This one was an essay I wrote nearly over a year ago and still consider very highly of. It was in fact an experiment... The lecturer ask the class the question 'Can you tell how the film will play out just by watching the first ten minutes?' ... I wanted to answer it in a deep and full manner, so I explored the Introductions to 2 very different films and noticed that even the slightest angle can mean a whole lot more than you think.
Right Kids, Class is in Session!
Today's lecture is all about examining the construction of a scene to help create an established image in the audience's mind. But instead of looking at a whole film, I'll just be examining the first 10 minutes or so of each film. Lets look at our subjects and their introductions:
Jackie Brown: Part 1
Constantine(Even though this is in French, my argument can still be followed)
The concept behind the art of storytelling is one that can be seen in many forms, whether it is through literature, theatre, painting or other expressive displays. Cinema is no exception, having both the visual and audio elements to help tell an engrossing story. However, unlike other outlets, it has many subtle ways in translating the narrative and can lure an audience to understand a character, manipulate opinions or become intrigued with the development of a current situation appearing on the screen. ‘All film techniques, even those involving the ‘profilmic event’, function narrationally, constructing the story world for specific effects’1. A fine example of this theory can be explored by examining the opening sequences of a film. ‘The opening provides a basis for what is to come and initiates us into the narrative’2. Everything that has been designed or placed on the screen can help visually give an overall indication of the plot’s progression and gives the viewer an understanding of the diegetic world that is on display. This theory will be explored using the opening sequences to the films ‘Jackie Brown’ and ‘Constantine’. Both of these scenes have a strong usage of mimetic effects but present them in different ways to help concentrate on keys factors relevant to its narrative.
The build-up of a lead character is almost essential in any film following classical Hollywood narrative structure. The relationship between the film’s star and the audience needs to be properly established by using a certain appearance, personality trait and character flaw. ‘In most cases, the emphasis remains on the human figure’3 and how it is displayed. A simple step to define the hero or heroine of the piece is to find the individual character with the most amount of screen time. In the opening airport sequence in ‘Jackie Brown’, the audience becomes aware that the female on the screen is the main protagonist solely on her dominating presence within each shot. Pam Grier is positioned roughly central to the screen and is continuously being followed by the camera as she runs around the airport in a series of several long takes (Fig. 1). Pam Grier is positioned in each shot as the most eye-catching feature, subtly gaining the audience’s attention. Her bright uniform and big hair, in comparison to the dull coloured surroundings of the airport, makes her stand out, transforming her into the most relevant figure within each shot. Her overpowering presence on the screen can give the viewer an idea about her character’s importance to the film’s plot.
‘Constantine’, however, doesn’t use this dominating mimetic approach to clarify the protagonist but uses these techniques to concentrate on the character’s traits and its significance to the story. ‘In general, a character’s traits are designed to play a casual role in the narrative’4. Keanu Reeves, unlike Pam Grier, has points of spoken interaction that demonstrates his capable abilities as an exorcist, giving the audience more insight into his personality than to have him visual conquer the screen. One of the strong visual motifs that are used in the opening scenes is the multiple close-ups of Constantine’s cigarette smoking (Fig. 2). From the first moment Keanu Reeves’ character makes his entrance, the trait of him being a very heavy smoker is constantly being told to the audience both mimetically with the visual focus to his cigarettes and diegetically through the characters’ dialogue that surround him. This trait may seem irrelevant in the opening sequences but from the way in which it is dominantly displayed, it gives the viewer the impression that this trait is an important aspect to both the character’s identity and the film’s narrative in the foreseeable future, making the cigarette one of the relevant features of the scene.
There is a difference ‘between modes of narrative that tell their audiences what happened, and modes of narrative that show them what happens’5, but both forms rely on the cause-effect reaction to motivate it along. Each one has a distinct effect, however, on how the story is later uncovered. ‘Jackie Brown’ uses a diegetic source to help move the film’s story along by introducing the audience to a whole new set of characters and their contributing traits. The scene opens up with a mimetic narrative effect by having the title screen to the video ‘Chicks Who Love Guns’ display itself on the television (Fig. 3). This creates a cause and effect moment by having Samuel L. Jackson’s character react to the video by discussing it with Robert De Niro. He continues to elaborate on what is occurring on the screen as the video plays, having a sort of running commentary through it. This moves the story along by expanding on the character’s trait, his knowledge on weaponry, and hence expanding the film’s narrative.
‘Constantine’ uses the opposite approach to that used in ‘Jackie Brown’, by having the story beginning diegetically, using a simple title card to set the basis for the narrative and then elaborating on this statement visually (Fig. 4). The scene following the title card was designed to visually tell the story, with the use of special effects and camerawork to set the tone for the rest of the film. There are moments of dialogue spoken in a foreign tongue, but it isn’t subtitled. This is a sign from the filmmaker to the viewer that the speech in this sequence is irrelevant to the narrative and has no effect on the progression of the story.
It opens onto the sight of a deserted church ruin being searched by homeless scavengers, leading to one of them to find an ancient spearhead wrapped around a Nazi flag (Fig. 5). This is a reflection to what has been referred to in the opening title card. The viewer can now visually make the connection between the two mediums and can now establish that this is the Spear of Destiny. The magical or evil properties of this weapon are continued to be shown mimetically, having the finder of this weapon become entranced and mysteriously survive a brutal car crash (Fig. 6). The camera steadily turns and views the scavenger walk into the path of a speeding car. The crash is shown in slow-motion to help exaggerate the impact and to make it appear more shocking to the viewer of his survival, enhancing the story’s link to the enchanted object.
Space sets up the backdrop to the film’s plot, placing an event with a certain spot. ‘Normally, the place of the story action is also that of a plot, but sometimes the plot leads us to infer other locales as part of the story’6. The space in both films, within the opening sequences, is established diegetically with text stating where the event is taking place (Fig 7 – 9). ‘Constantine’ uses other diegetic forms to help clarify the space even more clearly to the audience. In the Mexico scene, the characters in the scene speak in Spanish and Latino music can be heard from the cars driving by, proving the authenticity of the setting. ‘Jackie Brown’ uses the visual setting itself to describe itself. As the scene continues, more of the home is shown to the viewer, having shots of the beach being seen through the balcony doors at the back side of the living room. The attire of the characters is also a clear indication of the reality of the space as most of them are in beach wear.
Fig 7 - 9
Within just ten minutes of a movie, the basis of the story is already being set. Using subtle but effective mise-en-scene and non-diegetic elements such as text, each individual scene is gradually creating a narrative or characters that will foreshadow future events in the film. ‘Jackie Brown’ and ‘Constantine’ may have each taken a different approach in terms of what is considered important to move the plot, but both of them use filmic effects to their advantage to make an impression on the audience and set the structure of role, story and tone for the movie. ‘Fictional narrative begins not with the framing of a pre-existent action but with the construction of that action to start with’7.
‘Jackie Brown’, 1997, Quentin Tarantino
‘Constantine’ 2005, Francis Lawrence
Quote 1: David Bordwell, ‘Narration in the Fiction Film’ (London: Routledge, 1985) Page 12
Quote 2: David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, ‘Film Art: An Introduction’ 7th Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2004) Page 80
Quote 3: Robert Kolker, ‘Film, Form & Culture’ 3rd Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2006) Page 62
Quote 4: David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, ‘Film Art: An Introduction’ 7th Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2004) Page 72
Quote 5: Richard Maltby, ‘Hollywood Cinema’ 2nd Edition (Blackwell, 2006) Page 456
Quote 6: David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, ‘Film Art: An Introduction’ 7th Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2004) Page 80
Quote 7: David Bordwell, ‘Narration in the Fiction Film’ (London: Routledge, 1985) Page 12
Alright Students, Class Dismissed!
Remember that sometimes 10 minutes us all you need to understand a movie... sometimes even less... I knew Meet The Spartans was bad just from the first 10 seconds.