Ann De Vaney
Structural Critique Excerpts from
De Vaney, A. (2002) Television and film in the classroom: The presence and absence of people of color Making Schooling Multicultural, ed. by C. Grant, & M. Gomez, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; Prentice Hall, 349-367.
Critiquing Film and Television
For centuries teachers have guided students in methods of critiquing a text; questioning a text to discover author intentions and reader interpretations is a natural classroom activity. Post modern texts, however, go beyond the written page and students are bombarded daily with visual texts which transmit much of their contemporary culture. I suggest that the critiquing of those texts is a necessary curricular task and can become a springboard for formation of self image and understanding, respect and appreciation of the Other.
Films and television programs are visual texts that can be read in a manner similar to the way one reads newspapers, essays or short stories. A written text consists of words, sentences and paragraphs while a visual text consists of frames, shots and scenes or sequences. Just as the study of syntax and grammar of a written text prepares students to read and produce written material, so does the study of syntax and organization of frames, shots and sequences prepare them to produce and read film and television. Since most people have tacitly acquired many decoding skills, a teacher begins the study of visual texts with an advantage. Studying these skills, it is hoped, will simply uncover them.
A camera is not a window on the world. People have become so used to commenting on any picture of a child by saying, “Oh. Isn’t that a cute baby,” that the means for the construction of images become invisible. A baby picture is not reality, but an image mediated by the technology of photography. In this post modern age images are so ubiquitous they become pleasurable in themselves and it grows easy to mistake an image for reality. Television news, which one wants to believe, is also constructed. A televised shot of an urban resistance movement is not a “slice of life.” It has been constructed with intent by a director and camera-person and transformed by the technology of the video camera. It probably represents the most sensational aspect of the resistance and needs to be read by mentally juxtaposing less fiery or less violent scenes.
A structural method of critiquing an image relies on the notion that the form or structure of a communication is as important in delivering a message as is the content. The structures of a TV program, for instance, frame, shot, edits and scene, fabricate the message that a viewer receives. Questions such these help students uncover messages hidden in the form. What do you imagine lies outside the frame?
What is the angle of the shot? What kind of lighting is used in the scene?
What is the distance of the camera from the focal point? What types of edits are used and how are they paced? What is the sequence of scene or segment presentation?
The smallest structural unit in film and television is a frame, that which can be differentiated and identified when one holds film stock to the light, or – for purposes of this chapter – that which one can capture by pressing the pause button on a video cassette recorder. What is included in a frame is read not only by its content, but by what has been excluded. If viewers sees a single televised shot of Michael Jordan advertising athletic shoes on a basketball court, they interpret his movement as if set within a stadium, although they may not have actually seen the stadium. In other words they create the geography of the frame by imagining the space outside of it. This reading of visual information within the frame by mental reference to what viewers suppose resides outside the frame is a learned skill that they acquired as children. Students can be made aware of their ability to construct the geography of a frame by asking them to question the frame. What lies inside and outside that electronic border? Many teens today are such facile TV viewers that they may claim not to be influenced by the medium and maintain that they know when a message is authentic or fabricated, but the point here is that all the messages are fabricated and most TV watchers do not realize that fact. Part of my job is to analyze TV, but I am sometimes caught off guard. During the 1989 Loma-Prieta earthquake that hit the Bay area around San Francisco with great force, I watched TV coverage of the event from Wisconsin. Broadcast and cablecast television cameras were trained on the Marina area of San Francisco where many houses were burning quickly. A section of Oakland was one of the hardest hit areas and my daughter lives in Oakland. (I was unable to reach her by phone, because all the lines were down). No matter how often I told myself that what lies outside the frame is tame compared to the fiery scene within the frame, I had a hard time remaining calm. My daughter was fine, but I had an opposite experience in the 1994 Northridge (Los Angeles) earthquake. I was in Anaheim (Oragne County) at the time of the earthquake and followed TV coverage of it. News teams consistently showed the same footage over and over. One large apartment house in Sherman Oaks had collapsed and that was displayed frequently; scenes of laborers and their families camping in local parks in Red Cross tents were shown frequently, but I was perplexed. The newspapers indicated that damage was widespread in wealthy sections of Los Angeles, such as parts of Santa Monica, the foothills of Thousand Oaks, Brentwood and sections of West Los Angeles. The discrepancy between newspaper reporting (without pictures however) and TV coverage was telling. I believe an effort was made by the producers of news who them selves probably lived in those neighborhoods choose to exclude pictures upper middle and upper class neighborhoods for fear of raids. But viewers want to believe that the camera is a window on the world, even when they know better.
Angle, Lighting, Distance.
Other structural features beside the frame are used in the production and interpretation of a shot on television. The angle of the camera, lighting and distance of the camera from the focal point are used by directors to construct the shot and by viewers to read the shot. An interior shot of Hilton Lucas’ kitchen may communicate its meaning by being shot with high key (bright) lighting for a cheerful and busy mood. Hilton may be standing in the doorway and the camera shoots him from a low angle which forces viewers to look up to him; the shot actually encourages people to admire him, and conversely, a high angle shot would make viewers look down upon him. He may be sitting on his sofa in his studio living room after having made a fool of himself and the director selects a high angle shot to reduce his stature for the moment. If the camera then zooms out from a tight shot of Hilton Lucas on the sofa to a medium-long shot of the living room, viewers are able to smirk at Hilton at close range and then see who else may be in the room smirking. Here the camera is detailing the geography of the visual space to help viewers makes sense of the intended messages.
A medium shot allows students to compare and contrast people or objects within its frame. The camera may move from close-up for detail, to medium shot for comparison and contrast, to long shot for establishment of locale or to give an overview. It also moves from low angle where viewers feel less powerful than the person depicted, to a level angle where they are “on the level” with the person’s image, to a high angle where they may feel more powerful than the person depicted. Lighting in the shot can move through a range of low-key suggesting a quiet, somber or fearful mood to high key suggesting a cheerful or celebratory mood. Without thinking spectators use these structural clues to read the image.
Within a shot the camera can move in a limited number of ways and directors use each of these to layer different meanings on the shot. A camera can only zoom in or out, tilt up or down and pan, left or right. If a director moves the whole camera, she can only dolly or truck the camera, usually moving along with the moving object in the shot. Traditionally, these structural features were used in a seamless hidden manner designed not to call attention to them; viewers were not encouraged to notice them but were led to believe they were watching a “slice of life.” Current films and television programs often call attention to themselves by accenting those structural units used by viewers to read TV. This is apparent on MTV and in those numerous films and programs imitating MTV. Innovative use of within shot motion techniques and between shot edits allow viewers to take notice of television; it calls attention to the clever use of production styles. After generations of attempting to imitate reality, many film television formats are calling attention to themselves and it is within these formats that one can learn the nature of the medium itself. It is as if a director was saying to viewers, “Look at what I can create,” instead of saying, “I don’t want you to know that that camera is here.”
Frames are static, but when a camera moves from frame to frame , it is called a shot; a shot is a series of frames. Shots are juxatposed in film and television just as sentences are juxtaposed in a paragraph. The mixing and matching of shots can deliver as many different messages as the mixing and matching of sentences in a paragraph. There are a limited number of edits or transitions from shot to shot in film and television; these are cuts, wipes, dissolves and superimpositions. Often the last two are combined and, as I indicated, a director can use seamless editing by matching the geography of one shot to that of another and attempt to keep the camera invisible; or, she can use jump cuts to jar spectators to toss them around in the geography of the visual space and call attention to the ingenuity of the people behind the camera. MTV and imitators makes frequent use of jump cuts as did Serge Eisenstein in early Russian films such as Ivan the Terrible and Potemptkin. (Eisenstein used jump cuts to establish the practice of cinematic montage which can be powerful and encourage mental metaphors in spectators).
Traditionally, a shot transition or edit which suggests no passage of time or place, is a match cut. A wipe is like the curtain coming down or going up on the stage and suggests the close or opening of a scene plus a passage of time and possibly a change of place. When a TV image dissolves to black it also signals a passage of time, but if a dissolve and superimposition are used together it is usually for aesthetic or decorative purposes and may enhance the mood. The speed of edits, transitions from one shot to the next, can set the tone for the scene or sequence just as tempo can set the mood in music. Staccato editing, as in the shower scene from Psycho, can build tension and be frightening. Long uninterrupted shots can call attention to the dialogue or other aspect of the scene that the director feels is important, or they can be used to suggest a sense of boredom.
Film and Television as Visual Text
Like rhythm in music and syntax in language these structural features pace the presentation of film and TV images and provide program continuity. Without thinking students tacitly use these features to read the screen and this process is similar to the linguistic process of reading a printed text. Television and film are visual texts which viewers read daily. If spectators read MTV in a traditional fashion expecting the physical cues of matched cuts and seamless editing, they will be tossed around in the geography of the space by all the jump cuts. Since younger viewers have accrued thousands of TV viewing hours, they may be challenged by jump cuts; they may enjoy making sense of the geography of the visual space, and may employ visual metaphors without thinking. (While some designers of visual literacy curricula tout this ability as cognitive sophistication, it is actually lower order thinking).
In film and TV texts messages are encoded visually and a code here is a syntax pattern which can best be illustrated by reference to a written code. Syntax refers to the organization or arrangement of a communication whether a sentence or a visual scene. When an arrangement is consistently repeated in the production of a communication, a code develops (DeVaney, 1991). “Have a nice day,” has become a code in the United States for a well wishing goodbye. “Don’t have a cow, man” is a borrowed code from television for telling someone to take it easy. “Who’s been sitting in my chair?” is a familiar code for the child listening to The Three Bears. Codes develop only through repetition and readers of printed or visual texts tacitly know the meaning of codes often before they can verbalize that meaning. In movie theaters it was Alfred Hitchcock who taught spectators to be afraid by offering a visual syntax pattern which he and other directors frequently repeated in Hollywood films. Current film or TV watchers are frightened by Hitchock’s code when a hand held camera presents a villain’s point of view (POV) shot while the camera stalks a victim in the woods or down the dark corridor of a house. This syntax grew from daily production practices that were repeated often in murder mysteries or horror formats; they included hand held cameras for tentative human like movement, POV subjective shots, medium shots of dark corridors or somber paths in the woods. Another visual syntax pattern that Hitchcock taught us is the fast paced transitions used in the shower scene in “Psycho. ” That fast paced editing along with jump cuts of body parts and specific music has become a code for murder in a horror film.
Even when Bernard Shaw presents the news on CNN codes of realism are employed to make viewers believe in him and the news, But they are not watching Mr. Shaw read the news; they are watching a televised representation of him. This image is one remove from reality and it is important to note that camera and structural codes are used to imitate reality. Using television news codes a director usually shoots Mr. Shaw on the level, so viewers see him “eye to eye” and he gains their trust. It is difficult but necessary to remember that the camera always lies; it presents a fiction. It may record an authentic event, but that event is reshaped by the technology of film or television and presented as a story to viewers.
Students will be enabled viewers if they understand that everything they watch in film and television is a text that has been constructed with intent by a director, encoded in socially constructed signs and symbols and interpreted by them as members of a community that has access to those signs and symbols. These popular media, therefore, can be explained in a discursive fashion. To heighten student’s understanding, teachers can encourage their students to experiment with video cameras, so they may experience the construction of a visual text as they do the construction of an essay. This capacity, however, is only the first step in the process of recognizing complex and credible representations of any people; such recognition includes the development of additional skills.