Monday, January 2, 2012

Filmic Thinking? - Key Points of Film as Research

Coal Company thugs bullying a union family in Matewan

I think it's important to notice that video (especially long, narrative films like these, and most especially fictional representations of actual events, like Matewan) can seriously manipulate - even mislead - our thinking about an issue or an event.  There are a lot of ways to construe this story, and a lot of things that you can say about coal mining and its checkered history.  Fictional films always present events from a specific perspective (a particular camera angle), and that choice always affects the representation of events.  Who is in the center, for example, in the above image from the film Matewan?  The sheriff (the guy with the cigarette and the gun on his belt, played by David Straithairn) is in the center of the frame, alongside the slightly-off-center Coal Company bully, who is speaking and directing the removal of these people's belongings from a Coal Company house.  This frame puts these two men at the center of the action, which will turn out to help with the next step, which is when the sheriff stops this forced eviction.

But if you move the frame a little to the left, you shift the focus to the young man with the suspenders and blond hair.  He becomes an important character because of the way the coal company men mock him.  (What a great depiction of bullying in this movie - the scene where the two coal men are sitting at the dinner table with the kid, his mom, and his grandma, and making fun of his preaching, even pulling a gun on him.)  If you do that, the whole scene shifts to the effects it has on the townspeople.  Shift to the right, and focus on the stocky guy with the suit - who is the other Coal Company thug in the town at the moment - and you make this "sidekick" character suddenly important.  Is he conflicted about their tactics?  Is he seething with hatred and prejudice against "hillbillies"?

The most important question, really, is this: who's standing next to that guy?  Who is outside the frame?  Who is left out of the picture?  And, why does the director - or whoever is deciding what goes into the frame - choose to leave these people out?

As soon as you ask that question, you start to realize that the whole film is deliberately and carefully constructed from a huge assortment of film, and that every scene - every image - every moment reflects a conscious, purposeful decision.  Someone has a message to convey, and the images - their order, their content - even the sounds that go with them - represent an attempt to convey it.  Film is no accident.

Roll that up with an understanding of bias and perspective, and you start to think about how important a director (and whoever is helping the director edit the film) really is.

Watching a movie like Matewan as a kind of research is a lot like reading a novel about coal.  It's a made-up story from someone's point of view, really just meant to entertain.  Watching a documentary about the coal industry is different, but it still represents a carefully crafted message, delivered with a purpose.  It's easier to forget that manipulation with film.  It's easy to forget that someone is holding the camera, and that someone else is cutting and putting scenes together for the final product.  Someone is controlling what you see, and we must be careful that we don't forget that when we watch a movie.
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