Film form refers to the constitutive elements that make a film uniquely a “film” and not a painting or a short story. All works of art might be said to have both form and content. Content is what a work is about, while form is how that content is expressed. Form and content are inextricably combined, and it is an old adage of art theory that “form follows content,” which means that the content of a work of art should dictate the form in which it should be expressed. For example, many different poems might have the same content – say, for example, a rose – but the content of a rose can be expressed in various forms in an infinite number of ways: in a sonnet, a ballad, an epic, a haiku, a limerick, and so forth. Each of these formal structures will create a different “take” on the content. For example, a limerick tends to be humorous or flippant, while a sonnet tends to be more serious and romantic. Likewise, different films with similar content can be serious, frivolous, artistic, intellectual, comedic, or frightening. Therefore, understanding how cinema communicates or creates meaning requires more than paying attention to what is specifically going on in the story (the film’s content); it also requires paying attention to how various artistic choices (the film’s form) affect the way the story is understood by the viewer.
Many entire books have been written analyzing the various formal elements of film but, for the purposes of this basic introduction, they can be broken into five main aspects: literary design, visual design, cinematography, editing, and sound design. The first aspect of film form, literary design, refers to the elements of a film that come from the script and story ideas. The literary design includes the story, the setting, the action, the characters, the characters’ names, the dialog, the film’s title, and any deeper subtexts or thematic meanings. Film is capable of many literary devices: metaphor, irony, satire, allegory, and so forth. Some films are black comedies and must be understood according to that form. Other films are dramas to be taken seriously while still others try to make us laugh by being deliberately juvenile. Yet other films try to shock or provoke us with new and unexpected ideas. Analyzing a movie’s literary design is a good place to start when analyzing a film, but one should not ignore the four other axes of film form and how they contribute to a film’s meaning.
Another broad aspect of film form has been labeled mise‐en‐scène, a French term for what goes into each individual shot (or uninterrupted run of film). Aspects of mise‐en‐scène include our second and third formal axes: the visual design of what’s being filmed (the choice of sets, costumes, makeup, lighting, color, and actors’ performance and arrangement before the camera) and the cinematographic design – that is, how the camera records the visual elements that have been dictated by the literary design. The cinematographic design includes things like the choice of framing, lenses, camera angle, camera movement, what is in focus and what is not. Each of these choices of mise‐en‐scène can affect the viewer’s feelings toward the story and its characters. A room that is brightly lit may seem comfortable or even festive; that same room with heavy shadows may seem threatening or scary. If everyone in a crowd scene is wearing various shades of gray and black, the viewer will tend to see them as just a crowd; if one person is wearing red, the viewer will tend to focus on that one person. Similarly, a camera shooting up from the floor at a character will create a different feeling than a camera aimed at eye‐level. In yet another example, if only one couple on a dance floor are kept in focus, the viewer will pay attention to them; if the whole ballroom is kept in focus, the viewer may choose to look in a number of directions.
The fourth axis of film form is called montage or editing, and refers to how all the individual shots the camera records are put together in order to create meaning or tell a story. Most movies are made up of hundreds and hundreds of shots which are edited together to make a full‐length feature film. Many choices get made at the editing stage. Not only do filmmakers usually have multiple takes of the same scene to choose from, they also choose which shots to place together with other shots. It may seem obvious to an audience, since the editing would seem to need to follow the story (A follows B follows C), but an editor may choose to break up a shot of a group of people talking with individual close‐ups of people in the group. Such a choice affects audience understanding by forcing the viewer to pay attention to just one person instead of the entire group. Audience identification with specific characters can be encouraged or discouraged in this manner. Montage also involves choosing the length of each shot. Usually, longer shot lengths are used to create quiet or contemplative moments, while action sequences or chases often are put together with short, quick shots.
The fifth and final formal axis of cinema is sound design. Although cinema audiences are usually referred to as viewers or spectators, audiences both watch and listen to films, and the same types of artistic choices that are made with the visual images are also made with the soundtrack. The dialog of some of the characters on the screen is easy to hear, while the dialog of others is inaudible (thus directing the audience member to pay attention to the conversation that the filmmakers want them to pay attention to). Most films have a musical score that the audience can hear but which the characters cannot. Choosing what type of music to play under a scene will greatly affect viewer comprehension – that is why the music is there in the first place – by directing the viewer toward the preferred understanding of the images. Playing a luscious ballad during a scene between a woman and her fiancé helps create a romantic sense, but playing ominous music during the same scene may make the viewer think the man is out to hurt the woman (or vice versa).
Although this only begins to introduce the subject of film form, these few examples do point out how cinema’s basic aesthetic qualities help to create meaning. Discussing how various types of people are represented in American cinema, then, requires more than analyzing only the stories and the characters. For example, let’s imagine a film about both a white man and a Native American man. The story alternates between the two characters, showing their daily activities: getting up, eating, interacting with their family and friends, working, and then going to sleep. There would seem to be nothing necessarily biased or prejudiced according to this description of the film’s content. Yet, in this hypothetical film, all the scenes with the white man are brightly lit, with the camera placed at eye‐level; the shots are of medium length, and calm, pleasant music is used for underscoring. In contrast, all the scenes of the Native American man are composed with dark shadows, with the camera constantly tilted at weird angles; the shots are quick and choppy, and dark, brooding music is used for underscoring. Such choices obviously slant how a viewer is supposed to react to these two characters. The content of the film may have seemed neutral, but when the other axes of film form are analyzed, one realizes that the white man was presented in a favorable (or neutral) light, while the Native American man was made to seem shifty or dangerous.
The above example is an imaginary one, but throughout this book actual films will be analyzed in detail in terms of both content and form, in order to examine how various American identities are represented in American films. As the next chapters will discuss in detail, the Hollywood studio system developed certain traditions in its formal choices that would vastly affect how race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability were and are treated in mainstream narrative films. But before turning to specifics, we must also examine the social and political nature of American society itself, as well as the theoretical tools that have been developed to explore the relationship between film and “real life.”
American Ideologies: Discrimination and Resistance
The Constitution of the United States of America famously begins with these three words: “We the People.” Their importance highlights one of the founding principles of the nation: that the power of government is embodied not in the will of a dictator, nor in that of a religious leader or a monarch, but in the collective will of individual citizens. In conceptualizing “the power of the people,” the newly formed United States based its national identity on the principle of equality or, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” Yet, as admirable as these sentiments were (and are), the United States of the late 1700s saw some individuals as “more equal” than others. Jefferson’s very words underline the fact that women were excluded from this equality – women were not allowed to vote or hold office, and they were severely hampered in opportunities to pursue careers outside the home. People of African descent were treated far more differently than anyone else at this time of history. The vast majority of them were brought here as slaves, or bred into slavery on American shores. The writers of the Constitution acknowledged (and thus implicitly endorsed) this institutional system of slavery against blacks, even as they valued them (for purposes of taxation and representation) as only three‐fifths of a person. This devaluation of black lives is still felt in many quarters today. Native Americans were denied even this dubious honor and were considered aliens. Even being a male of European descent did not necessarily guarantee inclusion in the great experiment of American democracy, for many statesmen at the time argued that only landowners (that is, those of a certain economic standing) should have the right to vote or hold office.
Over the years, Americans have come to understand that the Constitution is a living document, one that can be and has been changed to encompass a wider meaning of equality. In America today, there is a general belief that each and every individual is unique, and should have equal access to the American Dream of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Not everyone will necessarily reach the same levels of happiness and success, but ...