05 Feb 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 26 | February 5, 2010

ParlezVous Cinéma?

Our theme this week
Film terms from the French

Featured this week
Monday         —   Mise-en-Scène
Tuesday         —   Montage
Wednesday    —   Cinéma Vérité
Thursday        —   Auteur

Le septième art

Pronounced, lə-sĕ-‘tyĕm-aʁ
Literally, the seventh art

The essentials
Le septième art is, in a word, cinema.

The origin of the term is French, though among speakers of English you’ll probably hear it in translated form, “the seventh art.”  In any language, you’re still more likely to hear the term in a Paris café than a Hollywood boardroom.  The French like to think of film as art.  Americans, not so much.

The term goes back to a time long before Cahiers du Cinéma.  It was coined by Ricciotto Canudo, an Italian-born writer who lived primarily in France.  In 1911 he published a manifesto arguing the cinema was indeed a new art.  The title of his work (as translated) was The Birth of the Sixth Art.  Canudo was borrowing from the ideas of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose Lectures on Asthetics was published posthumously in 1835.  Hegel’s work was highly influential.  Among other things, it examined what Hegel regarded as the five major art forms, namely:  architecture, sculpture, painting, music, and poetry.

How did “sixth” become “seventh”?  Canudo later added dance to Hegel’s list.  In 1920 he started a magazine called “Le Gazette de Sept Arts.”  His best-known essay was “Reflections on the Seventh Art,” published in 1923.

Beyond the final credits
Canudo was not the last to come up with a new epithet for cinema.  The French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau liked the term  “la dixième Muse” (the tenth Muse), but that one never quite caught on.  (Perhaps there’s a certain art to coining new names.)

Immortal Beloved (1994)
“Ode to Joy”

The seventh art takes a look at one of the first six.

MAD Announcement:
The answers to the puzzles in the MAD Launch Contest are now available.  You can find them here.  Thanks for playing!

Quote of Note
Jules:  “Do you know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in France?
Brett:  “No.”
Jules:  “Tell him, Vincent.”
Vincent:  “Royale with cheese.”
Jules:  “Royale with cheese.  Do you know why they call it a Royale with cheese?”
Brett:  “Because of the metric system?”
Jules:  “Check out the big brain on Brett.”
—Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), Brett (Frank Whaley), Vincent Vega (John Travolta), Pulp Fiction (1993)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 05 Feb 2010 @ 06:16 AM

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 04 Feb 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 25 | February 4, 2010

ParlezVous Cinéma?

Our theme this week
Film terms from the French

Featured this week
Monday         —   Mise-en-Scène
Tuesday         —   Montage
Wednesday    —   Cinéma Vérité


Pronounced, ō-‘tər
Literally, author

The essentials
Film is a collaborative art.  Stick around for the final credits and you’ll see hundreds, if not thousands, of names scroll by on the screen.  No one makes a movie alone.

But the question “Who made it?” is easier to answer if you subscribe to the “auteur theory.”  The theory holds that one person is the auteur, or primary creative force, behind a film.  That person invariably is the director.  That’s a flattering thing to think if you’re a director.  If you’re someone else, say, a screenwriter, you may have a different opinion.

The battle over who should get the major credit for making a film goes way back.  Writer Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon), former president of the Writers Guild and of AMPAS, relates this story:

Ever since director Frank Capra hired Russell Birdwell (a truly creative public relations guy) to burnish his image by inventing the idea of “The Capra Touch” as an advertising slogan, things have gone downhill.

Robert Riskin (Capra’s writing collaborator), angered by Birdwell’s slogan, walked into Capra’s office and tossed 120 blank pages on Capra’s desk and said, “There, Frank, put the Capra touch on that.” Made a point.

The auteur theory grew out of ideas of critics at Cahiers du Cinéma (particularly François Truffaut) during the 1950s.  The theory was famously promoted by U.S. critic Andrew Sarris during the ’60s.  It has been the subject of endless debate.  To this day “authorship” of movies remains an issue that hasn’t been settled, but the dominant thinking maintains that the director, more than anyone else, is the person most responsible for the creation of a film.

Directors exercise control over more creative aspects of filmmaking than anyone else, including writers (writers have more clout in the theater, and even television, than in film).  Those directors most often regarded as auteurs are ones with a signature style and with a consistent thematic thread running through their films.  Not all directors are created equal, and those considered auteurs are typically among the greats.  Their ranks include many of the familiar names:  Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Welles, and others too numerous to mention.

Beyond the final credits
Pauline Kael, one of the most influential critics during the later decades of the 20th century, argued against the auteurists in an essay titled “Raising Kane.”  She claimed that writer Herman J. Mankiewicz deserved as much credit as Orson Welles for Citizen Kane, the consensus pick for greatest movie ever.  The dust still hasn’t settled on that one.  Others also have claimed that writers, often the originators of the stories made into movies, deserve a greater share of the credit.  David Kipen, Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, published a book in 2006 called The Schreiber Theory, which claims that screenwriters have a greater impact on the quality of a finished film than anyone else.  (Schreiber is the Yiddish word for writer.)

Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock, director


The auteur tours the Bates Motel.

The 400 Blows (1959)
François Truffaut, director

One way for the critic to make his point:  make movies.

The Last Tycoon (1976)
Elia Kazan, director
Harold Pinter, writer
Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel

Monroe Stahr explains the old order in Hollywood, same as the new.  That is, why the auteur is not the writer.

Award Spotlight
The César Awards are the French equivalent of the Oscars.  Awarded since 1975, the César Award for Best Film is almost always awarded to a French-language film.  The two exceptions were Tess (1979) and The Pianist (2002), both films directed by Roman Polanski.


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 03 Feb 2010 @ 08:27 PM

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 03 Feb 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Wednesday Minute
No. 24 | February 3, 2010


Our theme this week
Films term from the French

Featured this week
Monday         —   Mise-en-Scène
Tuesday         —   Montage

Cinéma Vérité

Pronounced, ‘si-nə-mə-ver-i-‘tā
Literally, cinema-truth

The essentials

Another French film term that owes a debt to Soviet cinema.  Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda (“Film Truth”) was a newsreel series of the 1920s.  Cinéma vérité means literally the same thing, but as a film technique did not become popular until the late 1950s, when smaller, quieter, and more mobile cameras offered a way of making more intimate films. 

Cinéma vérité is a term commonly used for a kind of documentary film, including work from acclaimed filmmakers such as Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.), D.A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back), and Michael Moore (Roger & Me et al.).  But cinéma vérité can also refer a technique used in fiction films.  John Cassevetes (Faces et al.) used a cinéma vérité style to great effect, often shooting with hand-held cameras that add a level of authenticity to his work you won’t find in more sleek productions. 

Some cinéma vérité films are the result of necessity; lacking a bigger budget, filmmakers used whatever means were available.  Today, many filmmakers think of cinéma vérité as one technique in their standard bag of tricks.  The Steadicam has eliminated much of the jumpiness associated with hand-held cameras, but even now, a director may opt to go hand-held for a more jumpy image.  It depends on the effect desired.  Sometimes it takes a high degree of manipulation to achieve the illusion of “truth.”  That shouldn’t be a surprise.

Among the many directors working today who have employed cinéma vérité techniques are Alfonso Cuarón, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Gus Van Sant.

Beyond the final credits
A reaction against the use of special effects and other expensive production techniques is the movement called Dogme 95, created by  avant-garde Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.  Dogme filmmakers must conform to a restrictive set of ten rules, including use of hand-held cameras only, filming entirely on location, no sound or music added in post-production, and no credit for the director.  Vinterberg’s The Celebration and von Trier’s The Idiots, both made in 1998, are a couple of Dogme films.

Dont Look Back (1967)
D.A. Pennebaker, director


Bob Dylan’s screen test for I’m Not There.  Cate Blanchett won the part.

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)
Barbara Kopple, director

Workers’ rights.  A time capsule from another era.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, directors

Cinéma vérité as a style, not the “truth.”

Quote of Note
“The awful thing about life is this:  Everybody has their reasons.”
—Octave (Jean Renoir), The Rules of the Game (1939)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 03 Feb 2010 @ 08:19 PM

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 02 Feb 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Tuesday Minute
No. 23 | February 2, 2010

ParlezVous Cinéma?

Our theme this week
Film terms from the French

Featured this week
Monday         —   Mise-en-Scène


Pronounced, män-‘täzh
Literally, putting together

The essentials
Yesterday we had “the shot.”  Today we have “the cut.”  Montage, broadly speaking, is an editing technique used to create a succession of images for a certain effect.

The word is French but was adopted by Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s.  Sergei Eisenstein called montage “the nerve of cinema.”  His theory was that images in a film sequence are not perceived as being next to each other but as being on top of each other—the whole of a sequence has a greater effect than the sum of its shots.

Montage can be used to create any number of effects.  The juxtaposition of images can be used to create conflict or establish rhythm or indicate the passage of time.  Montage condenses action and creates meaning.  A poor baby cries from hunger—cut—a king sits down to a sumptuous meal:  the filmmaker has made a point.

A montage may employ a variety of editing techniques:  cuts, dissolves, fades, wipes, superimposed images.  Some famous examples of montage are the shower scene in Psycho, the breakfast scene in Citizen Kane, and virtually any chase sequence, where editing and pacing are critical to telling the story and building tension.

Better than to read about it, though, check out the films below.

Beyond the final credits
It’s been said that mise-en-scène is favored by film realists, montage by expressionists.  Realism does tend to favor the long take, but the labels can’t be applied quite that simply.  Either technique can be used to create different effects, ranging from the naturalistic to highly stylized.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to cite one example, is hardly realistic but uses mise-en-scène masterfully.

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Sergei Eisenstein, director
The Odessa Steps


Eisenstein on how he created rhythm and tension:  “The Odessa steps sequence in Potemkin is a clear example of this [rhythmic montage].  In this the rhythmic drum of the soldiers’ feet as they descend the steps violates all metrical demands.  Unsynchronized with the beat of the cutting, this drumming comes in off-beat each time, and the shot itself is entirely different in its solution with each of these appearances.  The final pull of tension is supplied by the transfer from the rhythm of the descending feet to another rhythm—a new kind of downward movement—the next intensity level of the same activity—the baby-carriage rolling down the steps.”

Up (2009) 
Pete Docter, director
Carl & Ellie:  Married Life (A Love Story) 

The most sublime four minutes of film from all of 2009.  The wonderful score, by the way, is from composer Michael Giacchino.

The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola, director
The Baptism

On one level, there’s the evident conflict of images between the church scene and murders, but there’s a greater point.  The baptism you’re watching is not just the infant’s, but Michael Corleone’s.  Notice the use of sound, too.  Filmmaking doesn’t get any better than this. 

Point of View
“Film is truth twenty-four times a second, and every cut is a lie.”
—Jean-Luc Godard


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 01 Feb 2010 @ 12:12 PM

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 01 Feb 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Monday Minute
No. 22 | February 1, 2010

ParlezVous Cinéma?

Let’s start with a couple of questions:  What is cinema? and Is cinema more important than life?  (No answers required but if you have the urge, don’t let me stop you.)  The words (as translated) may be English, but even if you don’t hear it right away, they have a certain accent.

Check out this passage:

Cinema must remain the occasion of a meeting or encounter.  This is the other reason why I am not a lover of DVDs.  To have a film in one’s hand, like a book from a library, is tantamount to eradicating the chance of a meeting, or creating an excessive familiarity, of running the risk of repetition and of saturation.  When the melody turns into a repeated refrain, all at once are lost the charm of the past and the desire of the future that drive the intensity of the present.

Got that?  Yes, another translation, and you guessed right if you guessed the writer is French.  There’s something distinct about the French—they don’t write, or think, quite like the rest of us.  (Those first two questions were famously asked by Cahiers du Cinéma co-founder André Bazin and Nouvelle Vague director François Truffaut.  The not-so-famous passage is by anthropologist Marc Augé, from his new book, Casablanca:  Movies and Memory, translated by Harvard professor Tom Conley; it’s worth a read.)

The French have been thinking and writing about film for as long as film has been around.  In fact, they’ve invented some of the ways we talk when we talk about film.  At times we borrow their ideas, at times the words themselves.  Double Indemnity may be as American as apple pie (okay, apple pie with a worm in it), but what kind of movie is it?  A film noir (literally, black film).  Who is Phyllis Dietrichson?  The femme fatale (literally, deadly woman).

You don’t have to be a cinéaste to know those terms.  This week we’ll look at a few others, words that come from the “birthplace” of film.  Perhaps you’ll find them useful.   Throw one into a conversation and maybe you’ll impress someone.  Or, you may find them a bit too rich, your cue to excuse yourself for a breath of fresh air.  Whatever the case, it’s always better to know what they mean.  You’d rather not ask, “Que voulez-vous dire?”

Our theme this week
Film terms from the French


Pronounced, mē-zäⁿ-‘sen
Literally, putting in the scene 

The essentials
Think of mise-en-scène as “the shot.”  (We’ll get to “the cut” tomorrow.)  All the elements that go into the composition of what you see on screen make up the mise-en-scène.  Some examples:  the framing of the shot; the movement of the camera; the movement of the actors; the lighting; the use of black-and-white or color; the choice of colors; the set design; the costumes; the props; the list goes on.

Mise-en-scène refers to the way that directors (with many collaborators, of course) tell stories through pictures.  The term may be used to mean just the visual components, but often it is more than that.  It may include other elements—music and sound, for example (though not dialogue)—that help create the emotional tone of the film. 

Mise-en-scène was first used in the theater but was popularized in reference to film by New Wave critics and directors.  Though it’s a French term, its use is hardly restricted to French films.  In fact, the term can be used to refer to virtually any film, though how effective the use of mise-en-scène is for supporting the narrative depends on the director.

One of the early movies often mentioned in discussions of mise-en-scène is the silent horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligula, a film that was highly influential, especially on the German expressionists of the 1920s.  The film’s set design is full of sharp angles, the lighting is harsh, and the framing is often off-center, creating a uneasy, anxious feeling for viewers. 

There are countless other examples.  See Bergman’s use of red in Cries and Whispers, or the lack of reds and blues in The Lives of Others, or the girl in the red dress in the otherwise black-and-white scene in Schindler’s List.  See the camera follow Montgomery Clift as he walks into the party in A Place in the Sun.  See Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck walk the streets of New York in Midnight Cowboy.  See the camel riders cross the shimmering desert sands in Lawrence of Arabia.  See John Wayne left outside at the close of The Searchers.  See Hal read Dave’s lips in 2001.

We could go on.  But better yet, take a look at the clips below.  You’ll find one from Dr. Caligari, with shot after shot that are all of a piece.  Then, for the fun of it, a couple of one-shot scenes.  See what Max Ophüls and Robert Altman do without a single cut.

Beyond the final credits
Up above you’ll find a couple of other French terms that any cinema buff will want to know.  La Nouvelle Vague is the New Wave, the group of French filmmakers prominent in the 1950s and ’60s, among them Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Alain Resnais.  Cahiers du Cinéma (Notebooks on Cinema) is the influential film magazine founded in 1951 by André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca.  A number of New Wave directors started as critics for Cahiers.  The magazine championed the work of earlier French directors, including Jean Renoir and Max Ophüls, and Hollywood figures such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Fritz Lang.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Robert Wiene, director
The Somnambulist


This is so my license isn’t revoked.  You’re not allowed to talk about mise-en-scène unless you start with Caligari.

La Ronde (1950)
Max Ophüls, director
Opening shot

Ophüls, the most fluid camera in all of movies.  True, you may need to brush up on your French, but the point here is to watch.

The Player (1992)
Robert Altman, director
Opening tracking shot

Altman, showing off while poking fun at Hollywood.

Quote of Note
“America is not a country where the small gesture goes noticed.  We’re not a country like France, where charm—something light or effervescent—can survive. We want everything you have, and we want it as fast as you can turn it out.”
—Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), Infamous (2006)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 01 Feb 2010 @ 07:43 AM

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