LANGUAGE OF FILM

An excerpt from my film book FILMMAKING A TO Z

[Filmmaking A to Z by Vic Alexander]

Now you can buy the book

signed by the filmmaker.

Film is an international language, since its words are made up of pictures all people can understand. It can be said that it resembles a form of ancient pictographic language or hieroglyphics; except that unlike the picture writing of the ancients, whose visual conventions were stylized and differed from culture to culture, the language of film depicts pictures that are generally understood by all cultures.

When you visit the ancient Mesopotamia collections at the Louvre Museum (Paris), the British Museum (London) or the Chicago University Oriental Institute Museum, you'll see reliefs of Ashurai sculptures that tell stories of military campaigns, agricultural projects, fishing or logging industries and just about any other common subject of those pioneering civilizations, all told in a series of carvings and sculptured tabloids that are incorporated into twenty or thirty feet long reliefs which are like several screens or giant frames, if you will, very roughly evocative of the edited pictures and frames of a modern movie.

If they had celluloid and the technology of how to record images on it, it's conceivable that they would've used it for telling stories in some way that would parallel our way of creating and viewing movies.

Take for example the magnificent Ashurai "Lion Hunt" reliefs excavated from Nineveh, exhibited at the British Museum. You'll see in one of them the Ashurai king Ashurnassirpal hunting with bow and arrow from a chariot, and all around him in tabloids or "frames" you'll see different stages of the hunt, the king shooting the arrow, the arrow in flight (frozen in the air), the lions hit and being hunted in different stages. The wounded lions are magnificent works of sculpture and their depiction at different stages in flight is like time-lapse photography -- which is how movies started in the late 19th century!

Therefore, the conception of stories in pictures is really very ancient; however, modern cinema grew out of a technological breakthrough, as a side show of the industrial age, and continues in this day and age as the most dynamic medium of communicating, influencing and even controlling people!

Movies are a powerful tool! Look how many politicians and preachers have put their foot in their mouth recently by claiming that some sort of censorship should be practiced to limit the controlling power of the movies!

Why are movies so powerful? A picture is worth a thousand words, a moving picture one million words!

I'm not going to bore you with any more of this discussion about the power of the movies, because you accept that already, otherwise you wouldn't have put up with me telling you all this stuff so far and reading this page.

Suffice it to say that the image and image making are the oldest, most mysterious and effective form of story telling!

And yet, after all the achievements of pioneering film makers such as D. W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein and Federico Fellini, we find the pure art of cinema floundering today!

You might say, "Come on, movies are bigger than ever and look at all the spectacular effects of computer-generated images, why, the skyís the limit!"

But, Iíve heard some European directors complain about the American movie, "Donít give us any more exploding helicopters!" They want to know where are all those great stories that came out of Hollywood in the "Golden Days," stories about real people and realistic situations, stories told with masterful craftsmanship?

Most of the blockbuster movies recently are trying to outdo each other with the level of violence and dangerous stunts. It seems that the only reason left for having theatrical cinema is to draw an audience to see expensive spectacles, which TV programming canít afford to finance, given the logistics of commercial "air time" rates.

The great artistry of the masters of cinema is a dying art. Fewer and fewer capable film makers are getting financing, because theyíre somehow lost in the shuffle of phony producers who get into the film business through some screwball deal. You know who Iím referring to. To hell with them if they get pissed off, theyíre not film makers, just businessmen who want to make millions exploiting a great art-form.

The need for film entertainment is ironically expanding while the quality and magic of movies are fading. Why is that?

It seems to me that with all the developments in video technology and ease with which people can put a movie together, with the proliferation of digital camcorders, even amateurs, and in fact everyone, can learn how to shoot a camera and proceed to create top cinematic entertainment. So why aren't we seeing millions of great stories in theaters and on TV?

Because, the new technologies have created illiterates in the language of film!

Look at the movies that are made today, especially for television, but I'm not excluding most of theatrical films either, just look at the ones that are real sloppy in story telling. Notice that the editing is without rhyme or reason. Take the TV show that opens in long shot and zooms in on a close up. Then it cuts to another camera angle, in long shot and zooms in on a close up. Again and again and again and again, ad infinitum, until mercifully the program time slot comes to an end.

Then notice how many shows dissolve between every scene or use some other form of "trick" transition, what with the help of video effects generators! It's like the stream of conscious technique of writing developed by James Joyce. Except Joyce was a writing genius; not every amateur who picks up a camera can create stream of consciousness movies!

And what happened to the visual punctuation invented by the editors of Hollywood and world cinema? Do the engineers who create the video gizmos care about what they're putting in the hands of these amateurs?

Okay, I shouldn't call everyone an amateur -- why am I being so antisocial, why the hostility? Forgive me, but I've had it up to here with unqualified people picking up a video camera and pretending to be "producers". Solieri isn't around to give them absolution! The "Patron Saint of Mediocrity" title has to be given to someone new. Please find someone quick, or we'll all drown in a sea of mediocrity!

Everybody and his uncle wants to make a movie. Okay, I'm happy about one thing, there will be more opportunities for young film makers to work -- and God knows how many thousands are being churned out every year by film schools; but, I like to see them find some fulfillment in this industry, otherwise there will be so much unhappiness, as you can see!

All right, I've railed enough about incompetence. What I like you to gather from all this is that you need to discipline yourself in the language of film, so that it becomes second nature to you. I'm about to expound on that now; otherwise, all I've been saying is hogwash!

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