We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Movie Terminology (Cont'd) · 15 October 07

Dear Harriet,

I’m working on this meditation in the form of a letter so move it up to today’s date. I am aware that to those who come to read this blog I may appear to be reinventing the wheel, but I am doing so in terms I understand and find useful.

One of my ideas for a book The Austen Movies is to write about a development of Jane Austen movies; I also think I shall have to see them as womens’ films if I am to distinguish between those which intelligent thinking women value and those which are pandering and complicit to the cruelties and anti-feminism (to say nothing of the misogyny) of our culture. My idea for a book or long essay about The Palliser Films is more simply (but it’s very difficult given the number of films and length of Trollope’s books) to grasp the real concrete details in the vastness of the Palliser cycle. For both projects, I find it’s not enough to create an accurate terminology to prevent myself from comparing apples and oranges (say a faithful/ literal adaptation with an analogous/critical one): I have to have some way of getting beyond impressionistic comparisons within types of adaptation.

My task now (if I can ever get to it) is to compare the BBC 1972 Emma, 1979 P&P, & 1983 MP and to take down an accurate transcript of the scripts of each of the Palliser films. To do the first, I need objectively-defined comparable units to study in the case of the Austen films; to do the second with some semblance of usefulness, I need to organize and rationalize my stenography pad transcripts for the Palliser films.

I’ve read (and much admire) Brian McFarlane’s Novel to Film but cannot begin to do what he did: his categories are based on units of camera work rather than content, and they puzzle me. For example, his basic unit of study is the shot. In his descriptive appendix of each for his film adaptations, he has pages of shots for a film, but surely there are more than a few hundred shots: there are thousands. He also divides movies into segments where he does take content into account, but I have not been able to figure out what he means by segment in any cross comparative objective way; his segments seem to be a result of his subjective response to a particular movie (as in here is a hinge-point according to him).

What I’ve come up with is this: for mini-series I follow the manufacturers of the disks in dividing them into parts. And then I follow their divisions of parts into episodes.

Within that I number as a new unit each time we are in a new setting (indoors or outdoors) a scene. It does not matter how many or few characters is in it or if the scene is simply going into another room. If it’s a new setting, it’s a new scene.

Then within scenes I’ve distinguished several different types of action or phases as follows:

The Bridging and then Establishing shots: sometimes camera looks at space to show us what it is and suggest relationships among people. This can include soliloquy or overvoice or closeup. These are highly varied, can be dumb show, focus on objects of signficance.

Conversations. I number each one a new one each time we have a new character come in and talk or leave and the ensemble is changed. This is the French way and it makes sense for the feel of a scene changes when a character leaves or enters.

The conversation overheard from a space outside the playing space. Another type of conversation, with a different effect. Often with camera on someone in front of us who is listening.

Character remembering scene that just passed or imagining scene to come fully. A soliloquy in front of another character.

Character alone. We hear him or her thinking in voice-over.
If you have two together, the effect is often comic.

Series of close-ups in row as camera widens out to show scene. Can be comic or tragic.

Character (or characters) performing for others: Austen movies even frequently have a woman play to an assembled group. In Palliser films, a character delivering a rhetorical speech to an assembly. Characters dancing before others and to the camera (us). Sports. A play within a play too.

Another type is the mise-en-scene where people are grouped in ways that the camera highlights, some specifically against the others, with our attention called to this or that face or pair or small group. Typical of crowded scenes to keep the watcher having some psychological or narrative focus of pair or group while feeding the watcher with subliminal information of other characters seen in background.

The choral pairs and trios looking on the large and weaving groups of people in a mise-en-scene. Really this is a variant on the above, only focus on a particular pair is tighter.

Voice-over from a character not far away can be seen as a variant on mise-en-scene that’s powerful.

Flashbacks (scenes within scene). Can be a dream.

Dumb shows: within a scene the camera can capture an important dumb show, sometimes angled through a specific character’s eyes, but the show reveals things the character’s eye cannot control. The camera is omniscient. These are pantomimes. I distinguish a dumb show from a wordless scene because it’s from afar and the silence itself is not meaningful. It can be the scene is too far away for us to hear the characters speaking.

Letter scenes in many variants: a character seen reading and we hear voice-over of character who has written the letter. Or we see a character writing and they speak voice-over (as in meditation). Comes in phases as camera moves from recipient to writer to recipient.

Window scenes in many variants: characters inside watching others out; characters outside watching character in (not as common); the camera swinging back and forth between the character inside and the one out.

Soliloquizing: the character speaks when they are in solitude or voice-over meditating. I take these to be separate elements or segments of a scene.

Wordless shot, sometimes for whole of scene: either of character or object. The characters are deliberately being silent; there is often an atmosphere of pregnant constraint. Subtypes: where the character looks out a window. Can be a tracking shot.

There’s also the sheer close-up shot if it goes on for a long while. It’s different from the wordless shot as that may be from far or medium range.

Separate category of coda: end of scene shot. Can have anamnesic music come in. Figures become tiny, move off.

Landscape shots: very unconvincing when they’re painted scenes before the camera, like a postcard; should be moving and noise in some way; something to indicate it’s real. Can be no people or people tiny in it, shot from far away. Can be a tracking shot.

Can you make any suggestions? I am wondering if anyone else who reads this blog-letter can add to the above? I’m trying to distinguish different phases of a scene in terms of content. I feel for the first time my units are adequate for they are producing an outline of the films which corresponds to my sense of them, as for example I feel that in the 1972 Emma Mr Knightley (John Carson) and Emma Woodhouse (Doran Goodwin)’s relationship is explored intimately, continually and made the backbone of the story is a way very unlike Austen’s novel. My way of dividing this film up is showing this. I also feel I’m getting a better handle on the Palliser films and that I find I can use these same terms for these Palliser films (whose content is so different from the Austen films) seems a vindication of their usefulness.

It could also be that these kinds of actions in a scene and the types of scenes are typical for 1970s TV mini-series. I can’t tell as yet. I do notice at heights of emotion in movies from 1970s to this first decade of the 20th century, the film-maker must or simply does resort to extravagant filmic techiques: the tracking shot, the zoom, sudden swoops in angles, voice-over, the dissolve.

I’m also interested in distinguishing different types of scenes. Thus far I am only doing so in accordance with how it’s shot (a tracking shot scene, say) and if it’s wordless or not. Are there any conventional distinctions and categories I can use? What books or places on the Net would you recommend for seeing some. When I get to a landscape, I’ll have to see if it’s different and how so. Can be tracking shots, zoom, middle range are obvious ways to frame a scene. Nowadays sometimes scenes divide so you can get two on a screen.

I have finished viewing Love for Lydia and am now watching The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, and hope to talk about these to you eventually; using these terms will be of help to me (it will be a test to see if they do).


P.S. I feel so sad that I have for these many weeks (months) have had to give up putting online George Anne Bellamy’s autobiography and have not been able to read women’s memoirs, but with my teaching schedule, Jim & my present activity-level, & my reading with a very very few friends on lists, I would be stretching my mind too thin. I hope to get back to Bellamy and women’s memoirs when the amount of teaching finally goes down.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. PS: On landscape shots: Poignancy of landscape can be felt when with people: people are ephemeral. With people or objects, landscape becomes a locus for memory: perhaps history, culture. Places become meaningful to us as they embody our memories and the history we share with others.

    Elinor    Oct 15, 7:42pm    #

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