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Film History Courses

Go Behind the Scenes of Movie Production

Photo provided by Warner Bros.
In “Gravity” Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone is seen desperately clinging to an air hatch, determined not to let go and drift into the everlasting vaccum of space.

The theatre darkens, and in the seconds after the screen lightens, you are transported into another existence. It is easy to become so enveloped within a film that the intricacies which make it something greater are lost. Within film, an inconspicuous richness and texture will allow us to transcend “entertainment” and enter art if we learn how to look.
As with any form of art, moving pictures should be studied for their merits. In the 2000 Oscar-winning “Gladiator,” Russell Crowe’s character Maximus famously remarks to the surrounding crowd, “Are you not entertained?” As onlookers examine the score of Maximus’ bloody corpses, while Maximus is questioning humanity as a whole for watching and enjoying his murder. The question is still valid.
Another important inquiry is “What is art?” Susan Rochester, professor of art and fine performing arts at UCC., says, “[It is] the core of everything that’s human . . . that innate desire we have to create.” Within every art form is something singular which makes it artful.
Film viewers can find the art in movies, Rochester suggests, by asking themselves“Does the movie communicate something, does it evoke something in the viewer, emotion or some reaction?”
We look at a painting, and the artist’s intent comes through the vibrant colors or facial expressions which are then finalized by our own emotional reckoning. Skill with a material, whether paint or marble or film, captures a message.
Directors inhabit their films with these messages about human traits or profound truths. Cinematography, editing, visual effects and story lines help. The placement of a camera on a certain angle will elicit a subliminal reaction from viewers which would differ if it were placed elsewhere. For example, a character shot from the ground is immediately viewed as more sinister or powerful. A shot from above pictures a character as weaker or more subservient.
Quentin Tarantino films, such as “Pulp Fiction,” use a camera trick called the “Trunk Shot.” The camera is placed inside of a car trunk and angled up at the actors. This effect allows those actors to appear more menacing as they hover over and above our field of vision.
Likewise, film has the ability to display memorable beauty or artistic quality to set a tone. Rochester’s favorite director for this is John Ford, as his “westerns, [have] the quality . . . in how he understands the landscape.” Images of picturesque scenes of amber-brown plains and plateaued mountains of Arizona come to mind. Ford creates settings for his films which become characters themselves which the actors must interact with. The image breathes life into a film with a sight that almost looks drawn on.
Wes Anderson is an amateur when it comes to camera framing and placement of beautiful imagery. His most recent film “The Grand Budapest Hotel” offers stunningly shot images. He carefully constructs shots so items are placed symmetrically, and his distinct choice of color and camera movements create an aesthetic to his films which make them a joy to watch.

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“The Grand Budapest Hotel” characters Zero (Tony Revolori) and Agatha (Saoirse Roman) share a scene with director Wes Anderson’s distinct visual aesthetic serving as the background.

Visual effects and story help to form artistic views of film. Visual effects span the entirety of film history but have perhaps never been presented as beautifully as in the 2013 film “Gravity.” The scenes of asteroids barreling through space and destroying satellites is stunning to view. The hushed soundtrack, taking in only the gasping breaths of the actors’ characters as they fight to survive coupled with the expansive destruction enveloping the screen, creates a realistic tension for the audience.

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Films such as the 2012 Oscar-winner “Argo” play with emotions as well, creating tense situation from each film’s story. The entire movie of “Argo” walks along a razor’s edge of anxiety as the characters attempt to escape a revolutionist Iranian country bent on seeing any member of the United States imprisoned. The pressure rises towards the climax, where the film makes the audience members feel as these characters must feel in their dire circumstances.

Photo provided by IMDb.com
“Argo” characters Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) and Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) formulate their plan to extract American citizens from Iran.

Certainly, not every film is art. “There aren’t a lot of films I wouldn’t say at least aspire to be art, whether they make it or not. Film as a category is art, but some films don’t make it. I wouldn’t categorize ‘Dumb and Dumber’ with ‘Casablanca’, for example,” Rochester says.
The merits of art are difficult to attain for any of its forms. Art is possessive of the soul, of human nature and all the exquisite truths and fallacies which surround what makes human beings who they are. “Are we not entertained?” Certainly. Should we not be more than that, though?
To judge for yourself the merits of artful film making, Rochester offers an intuitive look into film through her Film History courses. Her class, American Film “looks at film and its intent . . . taking students back to how it developed as an art form. And, to help students get a better appreciation of the films we enjoy today,” Rochester says. The course is offered in the fall term every year.
During spring, Rochester offers another layered study through the Foreign Film course. “International films are very different from American films,” Rochester says, “in the aesthetics of the stories told, and there’s certainly the outside influence on American filmmakers and film.”