Well, that title certainly promised a lot, so I might as well also promise that this will be the single greatest blog post you will ever read, and also please lower your expectations. Anyway, the point is, I’m shooting myself in the foot regardless, because it’s not hard to talk about movies. Everyone can do it – I mean, hell, they gave Armond White a blog (and no, I’m not going to link it, I have a theory that if we just ignore him he might go away). But we’ve all pretty much got a sense of what makes a good movie and a bad movie; what I’m interested in is that division between walking out of the theater and going “Hey, I liked that,” versus academic/professional/pretentious criticism.
To be clear, I say pretentious to get it out of the way; I legitimately believe that, if you know about this stuff, it makes watching movies (and television and webseries and probably the more sophisticated Vines and like a really ambitious gif) more rewarding and interesting. Now, I don’t want to pretend to be an expert, because that way leads to derision and Internet mockery, but there are some things you can look at and talk about that sound a lot more complicated than they are, and that make your discussion a little more compelling. Another disclaimer is that this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, mostly because a piece of culture that you could reduce into a list would be a wildly dull thing to talk about.
With all that out of the way, here is Rachelle’s By No Means Exhaustive And Also Probably A Little Flawed And Seriously This Is Just To Get You Started Guide To Talking About Movies Like You Know What You’re Talking About.
What is a “Three Act Structure”?
Made famous by Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat series of books (though obviously used long before that), a movie that follows the three act structure can be broken down thus:
Act 1: Introduces characters and status quo, gets story moving, ends with a decision by the main character
Act 2: Most of the plot, conflict, intrigue, prank wars – where things get really hairy for our heroes. Ends with the hero at his or her lowest point.
Act 3: Resolution. Can go one of four ways: (1) Character gets what they want and is happy about it. (2) Character doesn’t get what they want and is unhappy about it. (3) Character gets what they want but is unhappy about it, because what they wanted was stupid. (4) Character doesn’t get what they want and is happy about it, because what they wanted was stupid.
“Cinematography” is a big word, so why should I use it?
“Cinematography” is a big word, but it’s much less scary than it sounds – it just refers to how the movie looks. Are the colors bright? Dull? Flashy? Are the settings tidy? Cluttered? Unimportant? Does it seem like someone took a long time creating a specific meaning with the visual aspects of the film, or was it thrown together slapdash over the course of a frantic all-nighter? (Hint: The first one wins Oscars. The second gets made fun of on obscure blog posts.)
Oscar-winning Cinematography (yes, I know it was only nominated, but I’m counting all of Gatsby’s wins as belated Moulin Rouge nods and there’s nothing you can do about it.)
Is it a “studio film” or an “indie”?
So, the first thing to do is to stop associating the word “indie” with things like “twee,” and “twee” with things like “Zooey Deschanel,” and things like “Zooey Deschanel” with things like “ukuleles,” and things like “ukuleles” with “terrible music.” But back to the point, which I had, in the simplest of movie terms, “indie” just means it was independently financed – as opposed to “studio,” which means that it was produced and financed by a studio (the big ones are Sony, Universal, Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers, and Disney). The major studios often have “independent” or “art film” arms (Fox has Fox Searchlight, Universal has Focus Features, Sony has Sony Pictures Classics, etc.), and studios are often involved with the distribution of independently produced films. Confused yet? Good, because the whole point of the independent/studio dichotomy is that it’s so blurred that, for casual purposes, it’s not really an effective way of talking about movies. What’s important about it is the way it can be understood as a genre – so, if someone mentions an “indie” film, it’s much more likely that they’re talking about a movie that’s small-scale, intimate, less-widely distributed, and probably (though not always!) with smaller-name actors and lower production values.
How is it shot?
This is one of the most complicated-sounding things you can talk about, and also one of the most concrete, easy things to learn.
Close Up – This thing is important, too! But it’s more about emotional intimacy than emotional claustrophobia.
Medium Shot – Neutral. Probably boring. There’s likely something else important going on here that they didn’t want to distract from.
Long Shot – shows the whole actor, may be used to demonstrate their power in the scene.
Establishing Shot – Where are we?
High Angle Shot – puts you in power relative to the camera.
Low angle shot – puts the subject in power relative to you.
Canted Angle – The camera is tilted to disorient you and possibly the characters. But mostly you.
Shot/Reverse Shot – camera movement which shows you a person, the thing they’re looking at, and then the person. Theoretically used to make you identify with the person, but can be used to create a false narrative (how would this be different if they were looking at something else in their line of vision?)
Is the director important?
Look, nobody cares about the guy who directed Battleship. (That’s something anyone’s going to be embarrassed about, and it’s just polite to let them wither away in obscurity.) But some directors have an auteur (I know, big scary word, I’m sorry!) style, which means that you can tell if they directed a movie just by looking at it. You probably already do this – think about what a Tim Burton movie looks like.
So think about what a Quentin Tarantino movie, or a Baz Luhrman movie, or a Richard Linklater movie, or an Alfred Hitchcock movie looks like, and then you can talk about how this one fits (or doesn’t fit) into that pattern.
Also, just to be clear, talking about the “direction” of a movie can get really hairy really fast, because that encompasses so many things, but if the whole thing works or doesn’t work, that can probably be ascribed to the director. The director is probably the one with the vision (although that can also be the writer, or the lead actor, or the studio – see why this can get so fuzzy?), so if you want to talk about the movie’s argument, you can probably ascribe it to them (if you ignore how fundamentally collaborative film is, which you really shouldn’t, but sometimes have to in order to say anything at all).
Who’s in it?
You can definitely talk about how dreamy George Clooney looked (and the great thing about that is that it applies to pretty much any movie he’s been in), but there’s other things you can look at that make you sound perceptive and don’t take much more work. For example, some actors only ever play themselves (actually, George Clooney works here too). So is that what they did in this movie? Or did you manage to forget that you were watching a Major Hollywood Star™? How was their chemistry with their co-stars? (Chemistry is basically impossible to define except in a nebulous “I’ll know it when I see it” sense, but one way to think about is to ask if you could imagine these people hanging out after work.)
Are the actors playing with or against type (in other words, is Robert Downey Jr. playing a lovable rouge)? Does it matter which actors were in this, or could anyone have played that role, and what effect does this actor playing this specific role have on the movie?
Hilariously miscast or an exercise in playing against type?
Was the music diegetic or non-diegetic?
Hey, look, more words that seem a lot more impressive than they are! Basically, “diegetic” means it exists within the world of the movie, while “non-diegetic” means it doesn’t.
So, this scene is diegetic, because the characters know the music is happening:
In this scene, though, the music is non-diegetic, because the characters don’t hear it:
(Also, sorry about the whiplash there.)
How original was it?
Remember that time there were like three movies about attractive white people in their twenties who were having casual sex with each other but then realized they felt something more? Weirdly, that actually happens quite frequently (the “identical movies coming out at the same time” thing. Not the “people having casual sex falling in love” thing, although who am I to judge). So, if this is a copycat movie, how does it compare to its twin?
Another way to think about this is in terms of genre. If it’s a superhero trilogy, does the first installment show the hero getting his powers, the second installment show terrible things happening to the hero and everyone he loves, and the third one kind of suck? If it’s a romantic comedy, do the two leads have a meet-cute but immediately hate each other and then need to learn to soften into a relationship? If it’s an indie, does the soulful twenty-something male lead have to meet a quirky, eccentric manic pixie dream girl (think Natalie Portman in Garden State) who teaches him the meaning of living? These are all the basic clichés of each of those genres, so an original take on a genre is one that does something different with it – like, maybe the hero starts out the trilogy already having and being used to his powers, and so the first movie shows him fighting an established enemy or being defeated by his own arrogance or having to compete against a new, up-and-coming hero. In other words, did this movie surprise you?