What Makes a Film?

     I was once told that writing is an art form. If this is true, then film must be a project in mixed media. Film combines many elements, both visual and audiographical, to create a piece of art that tells a story. In fact, film is organized, edited, and reworked just as art; a film is just a work-in-progress.

     The bases for many films are not totally original but instead are visual adaptations of literary works. Classic novels like Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind have become immortalized through film.

     Since film, in general, has not one single goal nor can be judged collectively, then each film (in its own right) is to be critiqued on its independent worth. How is this done? What elements should be considered when critiquing a film? To me, a film's language is to be critiqued just like any storytelling; the visual art of film uses language to convey messages to the audience. The three most notable visual elements of film are costumes, setting and cinematography.

     Costumes are extremely important in film, mainly because they build character. For example, the 1938 black and white film Pygmalion, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard and based on George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play, uses costumes to show the growth of the character Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) as she transforms from a dirty, uneducated flower girl to an elegant and sophisticated woman. Costumes are also a quick description to the audience. If a man wears a hat and jeans, and carries a gun in a holster, then the audience will instinctively take him to be a cowboy.

     Costumes not only save explanation time but also can set a mood and show how a character fits into a scene. Scott Sunderland, who plays Colonel Pickering in Pygmalion, wears a reserved and formal suit in a crowd outside the theatre. This costume shows his status among others: orderly and financially set.

     The setting of a story is a vital element in film, too. The setting shows the audience the time frame of the society. The 1973 film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, directed by Joseph Losey, presented the snowy Norwegian community in a setting that was harsh and simple. This was the ideology of the townsfolk as well: harsh and simple. The setting captures the mood, or overall essence of the story. William Wyler's 1939 screen version of Emily Brontë's 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights, uses the mountainous, marshy landscape to better capture the passion of this novel. The setting in The Innocents, directed in 1961 by Jack Clayton and based on Henry James's 1898 The Turn of the Screw, employs vast open forests and gardens, along with an ominous "creepy' estate to reflect upon the mystery and paranoia of Miss Giddens' (Deborah Kerr) ordeal.

     To me, however, the most important visual element in film is cinematography. Cinematography is the "voice" of the film, and is a deciding factor in the success of a film. From simple aspects, like camera movement, to key elements, like plot structure, cinematography must be fully utilized. The closing shot in The Innocents is from the point of view of Miss Giddens as she falls into a frenzy of fear and confusion. In William Wyler's 1949 film The Heiress, based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, the camera walks the audience through the Sloper residence; a scene that allows the audience to reflect upon what has happened there.

     Cinematography establishes the sequence of events, organization, and overall comprehension of the plot of the story. Without these essential elements, film adaptations would merely be jumbled imagery that vaguely represents the purpose of the story.

     When creating a film adaptations of a literary work, one finds that there is a pressure to "stay true" to the original work as much as is possible. To me, that is not necessary. However, without the proper use of the visual elements of costumes, setting, and cinematography, a film may never stand true to the literary work, or even in its own right.

Brandon Smith

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