RE: “How to Read a Movie”


CC Flickr seriykotik1970

As a COMM major, I deal with a lot of media analyses. I’ve even done some of my own. Thanks to my high school AP English class, the University of Michigan COMM department, and now this reading, I’ll probably never be able to thoroughly enjoy a movie again. I’ve already found myself analyzing each and every scene in a movie to the point where I’m immune to the pathos tactic.

In this article, Roger Ebert explains how easy it is for one to analyze a movie and he describes his shot-by-shot technique. It seems overwhelming when it’s written out…

  • Right is more positive, left more negative.
  • Movement to the right seems more favorable; to the left, less so.
  • The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left.
  • The top is dominant over the bottom.
  • The foreground is stronger than the background.
  • Symmetrical compositions seem at rest.
  • Diagonals in a composition seem to “move” in the direction of the sharpest angle they form, even though of course they may not move at all. Therefore, a composition could lead us into a background that becomes dominant over a foreground.
  • Tilt shots of course put everything on a diagonal, implying the world is out of balance. I have the impression that more tilts are down to the right than to the left, perhaps suggesting the characters are sliding perilously into their futures. Left tilts to me suggest helplessness, sadness, resignation. Few tilts feel positive.
  • Movement is dominant over things that are still.
  • A POV above a character’s eyeline reduces him; below the eyeline, enhances him.
  • Extreme high angle shots make characters into pawns; low angles make them into gods.
  • Brighter areas tend to be dominant over darker areas, but far from always: Within the context, you can seek the “dominant contrast,” which is the area we are drawn toward. Sometimes it will be darker, further back, lower, and so on. It can be as effective to go against intrinsic weightings as to follow them. (Ebert, 2008)

…but in reality, once you’re used to looking at all of these elements to determine the overall meaning, they all seem to blur together; as they should. 

As Ebert suggests, there may be times when you look at a scene over 30 times and each time find a detail that you missed the time before.

Sometimes I wonder if directors include all of these elements on purpose or have analysts thought too much into it and made something of nothing. Or maybe the first to ever do a tilted screen did it by accident and once someone analyzed it and named it a “method” maybe then or film creators adapted the technique. 


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