Does Studying a Film Kill Its Magic?

Discovering the Language of (Meta)cinema

 

“Most of us want to be fooled.”

A film is like a magic trick. It uses the tools and conventions of cinema to manipulate an audience into the suspension of disbelief, so that they believe the world onscreen.

For example, a script is conjured from the mind of the writer and committed to screenplay format. Actors are cast for the resulting roles. Sets are constructed and costumes created and scenes lit to achieve the director’s desired effect; in post-production, visual effects, color, and sound design continue the artifice, while the editing strings scenes together like words in a sentence, giving rise to meaning.

And so a film’s constituent parts form a (hopefully) coherent whole.

From The Prestige | Buena Vista Pictures Distribution & Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006

The Prestige | Buena Vista Pictures Distribution & Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006

Some filmmakers acknowledge such tricks underpinning their magic. Among them is Christopher Nolan, the director of classics including Interstellar, The Dark Knight trilogy, and the lesser known but no-less-great The Prestige, about two competing stage magicians in London at the end of the 19th century.

“As a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan always wants to walk a fine line,” Evan Puschak shares in his analysis of The Prestige. Specifically, Nolan wants to immerse the audience in the spell of his film while also being metacinematic, so that the audience senses they’re watching a fabricated work of fiction. Cinema as a shared narrative can be a hugely powerful cultural force,” and Nolan consciously highlights this idea in his work.

But how can you immerse an audience in your film’s reality if they perceive the craft behind it? Is it possible to perform a magic trick “with a wink”, acknowledging the audience’s awareness of the artifice without robbing the trick of its transportive power?

For Nolan – and for us here at Lights Film School – the answer is “yes”.

Puschak’s fantastic breakdown of The Prestige shows us how:

Essentially, to avoid seeming “deconstructionist”, Nolan “hides in plain sight” by avoiding style for style’s sake. “The complex narrative structure is totally subservient to the story Nolan wants to tell,” Paschal synthesizes – for example, the twists are concealed until the film chooses to reveal them.

As an aside, watching Puschak’s video essay, I was reminded of the power of the cut; of how beautiful and strange the language of film editing actually is.

“Why do cuts work?”, legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch wonders in his book In the Blink of an Eye. “At the instant of the cut, there is a total and instantaneous discontinuity of the field of vision.”

Murch muses that “we accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams” – as well as the way the blink of the eye separates and punctuates our thinking in waking life:

I would go so far as to say that (filmic juxtapositions) are not accidental mental artifacts but part of the method we use to make sense of the world: We must render visual reality discontinuous, otherwise perceived reality would resemble an almost incomprehensible string of letters without word separation or punctuation. When we sit in the dark theater, then we find edited film a (surprisingly) familiar experience. ‘More like thought than anything else,’ in Huston’s words.

In other words, for Murch, the language of film editing has evolved in accordance with the language of human thought. The craft reflects – and plays upon – its creator’s hardwiring.

From The Prestige | Buena Vista Pictures Distribution & Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006

The Prestige | Buena Vista Pictures Distribution & Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006

Ultimately, “Most of us want to be fooled,” Puschak observes of both The Prestige and the average moviegoer. We want to surrender to the spell of the film. Yet, “All films invite a probing eye”, some more obviously than others.

Here at Lights, we, like Puschak, believe that “studying a film doesn’t kill its magic” – on the contrary, it enhances it.

In fact, our Getting Smart with Story Structure series is an extension of that conviction. Not only do we learn lessons we can apply to our own productions when we break down a film, but we also innately enjoy the process – there’s something satisfying about glimpsing the secret behind a film’s “prestige”, even as we lose ourselves in its constructed reality.

So… “Are you watching closely”?

 Michael Koehler, with


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