One of the first classes I took at UMW was Professor Mathur’s Shakespeare in Film. On more than one occasion during discussion, I stressed to my fellow students that everything — everything — on the screen is there for a reason.

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My arguments were met with quiet derision. Well, pearls before swine.


But now and again, I see something that reinforces my assertion. Roger Ebert, long hailed as a leading authority on film and its techniques, did so in his article, “How to Read a Movie.” He discusses blocking within the film frame, how the position of people and elements on the screen subconsciously invoke moods and convey emotions to the audience, whether they know it or not.

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In my discussions on the subject over the years, people have countered that the deluge of film could never conform to a set of “rules,” there being simply too much counter of any one example. But Ebert addresses this, directly saying the guidelines he enumerates are not laws, and that violating them can be as effective as following them. The novice’s problem is that you must know the rules before recognizing when they’re being bent or broken.

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For examples, Ebert lists a few of these guidelines, such as how high camera position tends to minimize characters while low shots make characters larger than life. He also walks the reader through a single scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, describing how Cary Grant’s walk into negative space subtly reinforces a plot of the movie.

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So, Ebert helped prove me right, at least in my own mind. I’ll quietly sit back and enjoy my Schadenfreude.

2 Replies to “Schadenfreude”

  1. You do a good job in analyzing Ebert’s piece in depth, I would however have to disagree with your assertion that everything in film is there for a purpose, at least not a major purpose. If by serving a purpose you mean an object could be serving as a space filler, sure. However not everything has an deep meaning to it. It is this approach that undermines objects with actual purpose.

    1. John, not to be combative, but I stand by my assertion. Now, yes, a certain percentage of media will contain on-screen stuff that’s just ‘filler,’ but I assert these media are not produced by those learned in the very techniques we’re discussing. Let’s take any major motion picture for example. If I ran a multi-billion dollar company producing films that cost into many millions of dollars, I’m going to pay for the BEST people to write, edit, costume, set design, etc., and these people will have that education. Also remember that everything on a soundstage (and most on-site locations) must be physically brought there. People have spent weeks making lists of what to bring/make to the set, and each item on that list needs a justification and represents a dollar value. Heck, even the background items would often be selected because they support a specific aesthetic. “Hollywood” employs the best people in the business, and the best people don’t leave little details to chance. Cheers,

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