Let me first tell you why I want to write this series on how to analyze movies. I studied Criminology. At first glance, that may not seem like it has anything to do with movies. But Criminology does concern itself with movies: many criminologists have discussed how exactly movies (and news and books and music and so on) influence people in the way they think about crime.  I focused on movies: I wanted to research how dystopian science fiction films depicted developments in law enforcement and punishment in the past 40 years. This meant I had to start learning about how one analyzes a movie, not just for fun like I used to, but also on a level. How can one really say something useful about a film and its depictions?

This lead me to learning more about the language of film, which is what I’ll focus on in this introduction. The posts in this series will probably all be longer ones (and I have planned quite a few for you), so bear with me! In the posts coming up in the next few weeks, I’ll discuss semiotics (the study of signs, codes and conventions in film), the analysis of a scene, how camera angles and movement, lighting, special effects and even sound can all tell you more about the message the creator of the movie conveys. You’ll learn how to detect certain subtle hints at ideas or philosophies, hints you previously missed and can have a great influence on how people see the world.

So, before I carry on for too long, let’s get started.

The Language of Film

The language of film (or video or TV) can only be detected by analyzing the “moving image texts”. The idea is that every image conveys a meaning, like a photograph would convey a feeling or a message:

alessandro grassani

Photograph by World Photography Finalist Alessandro Grassani/LUZphoto

With a picture, it’s a little easier to distill its message than with a movie. You just have one frame or scene to analyze, the “image text” is the message it is trying to convey. In this case, that would probably be a sense of desperation, sadness, to illustrate the circumstances this person is in. You can tell a lot about this person’s life from just looking at this picture (for what is the actual context and story behind the picture, click on the image).

Just like one would read a book, one can “read” a movie – though instead of reading the actual text, you have to distill the “text”, its meaning, from the (moving) images. It’s like they say: a picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s certainly the case with a movie.

Meaning of Film and Decoding It

The film language is how the movie “speaks” to its audience. Those who create the movies (the great coöperation of directors, producers, editors, et cetera) want to tell a certain story, transfer a certain idea. Even if they just aim to entertain, their movie will likely carry some meaning, because the audience can create meaning, even when it’s not there. This is called decoding. We “decode” a story’s meaning, just like we would interpret spoken language or written texts. We take to a movie all our previous experiences and our knowledge and subconsciously apply it to what we see – we interpret the film with pre-existing expectations.

We can’t watch a movie in a vacuüm – we will always relate what happens in a movie to things we experienced in our own lives (e.g. you can relate to a mother getting a baby, a pair going through a divorce, a teen going to school, etc.), or even relate the movie to a movie we’ve seen before. On the one hand, film reflects how we think about certain issues (political, social, economical, what have you), but on the other hand, film also molds the way we think about those issues.

The Window on the World

What makes a movie so infinitely compelling to us – curious creatures as we are – is that it offers a “window on the world” – it creates a (appearance of) reality. It’s like peeking through the window when you hear commotion in your street, or (collectively) slowing down on the high way to watch when an accident happened. The guessing what the commotion will lead to is what fascinates us.

In the 1920s and 30s, movies were considered “truth machines”, able to reveal certain social and political truths. In the 1960s, famous French philosopher Jean Baudrillard said that fiction as well as non-fiction are merely simulations. Today, though, it’s understood that film should not be compared to reality, either to measure the gap between reality and deption, or to measure the accuracy of the depiction. Instead, we should look at how movie and reality are related to each other: movie draws from real life, but also influences it. It’s not so much about the gap between movie and reality, but the interaction between them. Lines between reality and fiction have blurred (and not just in film!).

The Book Thief (2013) - Behind the Scenes

The Book Thief (2013) – Behind the Scenes

No depiction in a movie is objective or neutral. This is why we can’t speak about a movie’s “truth”, “reality” or “authenticity”: film is in the eye of the beholder.

And on a final note…

Not only does film entertain, it also informs us and even educates us about the world around us, and most importantly, persuades us to see the world in a certain way. Most are not aware of this persuasion, but if you are, trust me, it’s so much fun to encounter, analyze and criticize the way the movies persuade us into thinking about things in a certain way. It gives watching a movie a whole new dimension, which is what I enjoy about film most of all. Although, I have to admit that some movies carry meaning I do so absolutely not agree with that it can be a tad frustrating that people are not aware of the way they’re being influenced. Nevertheless, the deeper understanding of the world that film analysis can offer is, in my opinion, definitely worth it!

Tuesday next week, I’ll publish the next article in this series on how to analyze a film, which is when we’ll get started with the actual analyzing. I’ll discuss semiotics, the study of meaning in a film through decoding symbols and conventions.

Do you enjoy thinking about or discussing the meanings of a movie after you’ve watching it?

How do you go about “reading” a movie’s meaning? Can you think about any movies that have made you understand the world better, even fiction?

P.S. if you liked this article, I’d really appreciate it if you’d share it! Also, if you want to be notified when new articles in this series are published, please follow me on Facebook or Twitter. See you there!

Some books and articles I used for this article and can heartily recommend

Ben-Shaul, N.S. (2006). Film: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Campbell, E. (2010). The Future(s) of Risk: Barthes and Baudrillard go to Hollywood. Crime Media Culture, 6(1), 7-26.

Dowler, K., Fleming, T. & Muzzatti, S. L. (2006). Constructing Crime: Media, Crime, and Popular Culture. Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, 48(6), 837-850.

Kohm, S. A. (2009). Naming, shaming and criminal justice: Mass-mediated humiliation as entertainment and punishment. Crime Media Culture, 5(2), 188-205.

Rafter, N. (2006). Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.