What Makes Movies Cinematic

Now that I’m taking a short break from writing, I can finally complete my three post series on the interesting movies of 2012. Check out my first post on Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses and my second post on Warrior and Moneyball. Also, check out my bonus post on The Help. For my final post on the interesting movies of 2012, I discuss what makes a film “cinematic”.

Before I begin, some quotes:

“I have every confidence that in this film, every piece of information is there and flawlessly meshes, but I can’t say so for sure…I became increasingly aware that I didn’t always follow all the allusions and connections.” – Roger Ebert

“I think that, if you haven’t read the book, it is impossible to understand the story as it is presented in the movie.” – Uncle Howie (paraphrased)

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, the 2012 espionage thriller starring Gary Oldman and directed by Tomas Alfredson (who also directed the absolutely brilliant Let The Right One In) is the film these quotes refer to. And I agree with them. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, while beautifully made, is incomprehensible. I watched it, I enjoyed the craft that went into making it, but I had no idea what happened.

However, while I say the film is incomprehensible, it is not completely so. Most audiences might have been unable to comprehend it, but I know one person who understood the film completely. So completely that no matter how much I questioned her, she answered intelligently and credibly, always supported and never contradicted by the events in the film.

That person is my girlfriend, Inna.

That’s right, a medical device engineer who helps people that have lost their vision gain it back understood Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy better than myself, my uncle, and even Roger Ebert. How did she do it? One, she’s freaking smart and super awesome; two, she is not a movie buff, she is a literature buff, and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is not cinematic, it is filmed literature.

While both movies and literature tell stories, movies are not filmed literature. The difference lies not in the story being told, but in how the story is told. Each type of storytelling uses the techniques their medium provides, techniques that have strengths, weaknesses, things that can be done, and things that can’t. This is true not just of film and literature, but also theater, music, public speaking, and every other type of storytelling.

To define: literature, through its use of words, tells stories through description and character thought/action. Theater (I’m throwing theater into the mix since it is so closely related to literature and film), through its use of the stage, tells stories through acting, dialog, lighting, and art design. Film, through its use of the camera and microphone, tells stories through acting, cinematography, art design, editing, sound design, and music.

If you look at the above, you’ll notice why certain stories feel like they belong in certain mediums, even if that is not the medium they were actually told in (ie a cinematic book or a theatrical movie). Both Requiem for a Dream the book and Requiem for a Dream the movie feel cinematic because the story is told using cinematic techniques. Through Hurbert Selby Jr.’s use of language, Requiem for a Dream the book creates its own sound design, its own lighting, editing, acting, etc. The same is true for Carrie. The book is written in such a way that, while reading it, I could see how the movie was shot and edited, even for the scenes that weren’t in the actual movie!

On the flip side, stories that are not told using cinematic techniques do not translate well to the screen. Most theater productions rely on dialog to tell their stories. And despite the works of Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen and others, dialog is not cinematic; dialog is how you tell your story when it cannot be seen. Since theater audiences do not go onstage but film audiences do (through the camera and the close-up), theater must use dialog to tell the story, whereas films simply show it. The result is that most stage adaptation are not fully cinematic; the emphasis on dialog, taken from the theater, is inherent. (This is exacerbated by another limitation of the theater: limited locations. For logistical reasons, stage plays have much fewer locations than the average film does. And therefore, stage adaptions have much fewer locations than normal films do)

Getting back to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, literary storytelling techniques also do not translate well onscreen. For example, let’s look at the acting: Gary Oldman, cool and calm, lowering the temperature of the room just by being in it. The problem is, we don’t get any information from it. What is he thinking? What is he feeling? What is he doing? I don’t know! In the book, I’m sure there are elegant descriptions his thoughts, his emotions, the action going on around him. But in the film, it’s just Gary Oldman, standing there, cool and calm; the audience gets nothing.

The same is true for other elements of the film. The cinematography is beautiful, but does it push the story forward? If it did, I didn’t get it. I didn’t get anything as telling as the POV shots in Psycho, the chaotic yet seamless camerawork in The Hurt Locker, or, for a really obvious example, the use of color versus black-and-white in The Wizard of Oz. Likewise, the editing in Tinker Tailer Solider Spy, while flawlessly crafted, gave nothing to clue me in on the story, nothing like the parallel editing that climaxes The Godfather or the use of split screen and fractured timeline in 500 Days of Summer or the single cut that connects early human ancestors to future space explorers in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And here’s one last thing, something that I’m sure does wonders to make Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the book comprehensible: the ability to backtrack. In a book, when things get confusing, you can stop, flip back a few chapters, refresh yourself on what occurred previously. But unlike books, you can’t stop a movie; movies start and then continue straight to the end. This gives little time for processing and no time for refreshing. And when there are as many dots to connect as there are in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and when they aren’t being connected in cinematic ways, you just get lost.

I was completely lost in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy because I approached it as a work of cinema. I looked to the acting, cinematography, editing, all the cinematic elements to understand the story. And I got nothing. What I should have done was approach the film as literature, watch the descriptions, character thoughts, backtrack and process throughout. How you do that in a film I do not know. My girlfriend does, and she therefore can enjoy literary films. She enjoyed this one, while I, as much as I appreciated it, did not.


About Gabriel Bruskoff
I make movies! See gabrielbruskoff.com for more information.

2 Responses to What Makes Movies Cinematic

  1. Pingback: A Moment of Surrealism « OLDBOY PRODUCTIONS

  2. Pingback: Welcome, welcome (and a status update) « OLDBOY PRODUCTIONS

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