Film is structured like a language. Or is it? Composed of fundamental units, called shots, films rely upon edits to join shots together into larger strings called sequences (a series of shots united in time and space), just as words become sentences. Many films depend for their intelligibility upon rules or cinematic conventions, a form of film grammar that has evolved over time. A military parade, such as the masses in motion in the German propaganda film Triumph des willens/Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935), always moves in the same onscreen direction, for example; flashbacks, or temporal ellipses of many sorts, are often signaled with a dissolve (that edit which joins two shots, the first fading while the second gradually appears). And, like a language, new elements, born of both technological innovation and imaginative invention, enter the cinematic lexicon, while others disappear or become anachronistic. Special effects master Dennis Muren’s compositing (mixing several visual components in one shot), as Hollywood insider Anne Thompson notes, “makes possible the morphing T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991) and the fleet-footed dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993)” (Thompson 2005: 2). The use of the iris (another edit, a round mask that closes to black, or that opens to a begin a sequence, or that encircles an important detail) has even come in recent years to signify “oldfashioned,” associated as it is with the silent narrative cinema and

with its trademark use in the Looney Tunes. Like language, film opens to different uses or forms. Some films are like stories, others more like novels or serials. Some films seem poetic; others, striving perhaps toward profundity, seem simply nonsensical. Some documentary films want their language to seem transparent, as much of the language of journalism aspires to be, while other films want us to do nothing more than to notice their language, as with filmic explorations of the avant garde and other experimental makers. But films do more than speak. First, films involve screen duration:

they cut out and rearrange time as they unfold in time, a phenomenon made especially palpable by Christian Marclay’s installation The Clock (2011), a 24-hour compendium of clips from thousands of films that reference time (clocks, watches, bombs) and that unfold in the real time of exhibition (if a clock says “11:14” onscreen, you’re watching it at exactly 11:14). Films enlist our sensations, perceptions, and responses in and over time, as much as they appeal to our memories, our archives of what we know and have known, of what we experience and have experienced. They appeal to and become part of our personal and individual histories, and part of our collective lives. I may experience the break-up of my relationship in the terms of melodrama, hurling lines such as “You never loved me!” in imitation of the best melodrama queens like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis; you show your friends the testimony in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) to convince them that the slogan of “never again” (will Jews suffer genocide) is complicated by collective loss experienced variably and individually. Only by making appeals to the way we move through the world, literally our “common sense,” does the cinema endure, and only by doing so can cinema rearrange those unquestioned ideas, our unexamined relationships to the past, to history. Some films are notable for the way they dislocate time, fragment it, or interrupt its seemingly linear flow: Alain Resnais’ films Nuit et Brouillard/Night and Fog (1955) and Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) crucially contest our understandings of the monumental and personal devastations wrought by the Second World War, in the death camps and in the bombing of Hiroshima, respectively. But other films also play with history, if in more conventional ways, in order to challenge pious or commonsensical attitudes toward simple ways of understanding the past. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek, 1989)

gives History over to the little guys, California high school students who think Caesar is a salad dressing, while The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996) invents Hollywood history from the perspective of a Black lesbian, who is searching both for love and for (nonexistent) images of herself in the world of cinema. Second, cinema’s reach is everywhere; its time is its entire past. I

suggested in the previous chapter that if film preservationists were to deposit a fraction of what the cinema has been into an archive, that collection can never represent, as a portion of a dictionary does, a fraction of the elements available for the cinema’s future. Cinema, in other words, bears a distinctly different relationship than does language to conceptions of totality: that’s part of what makes it daunting (for one can never imagine, much less see, even a smidgen of what has been or been recorded) but also what makes it powerful, compelling, fascinating. For it bridges a gap between the self and the limitless whole, between what we know intimately and what we can never know. In an oscillation between innovation and industrial co-optation, between invention and repetition, cinema makes itself part of us, literally imprinting itself upon our retinas and lingering there. But also figuratively: we speak in the language of cinema, calling celebrity photographers “paparazzi” after the character of Paparazzo in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), or challenging an opponent with the line Clint Eastwood popularized in the Dirty Harry films, “Go ahead, make my day.” We remember in the language of cinema, summoning our images of Hitler, of John F. Kennedy, of the first space walk, or of true love from its vast archive. We feel through the language of cinema, in the bonechilling effects of the thriller or in the deluges we unleash in the “weepies.” Even through these intimate experiences of the cinema, however, we will still never really know what it has been or what it might become; its totality, as our own does, eludes us. Finally, in understanding the comparison to language to obtain

between scholarly approaches to film form and linguistic treatments of grammar – so that we are comparing the study of elements of film form and their rules of combination (shot, sequence, continuity editing or challenges thereto) with the study of elements of a given language and its rules (words, sentences, “correct” vs. “incorrect” usage) – we risk diminishing both film study and our conception of language and its study. We reduce both, in other

words, to normative analyses, for to study a system and its rules is to reduce a phenomenon in order to make it manageable. Grammar elides other fascinating realms of linguistics: history, texts (philology), comparative linguistics, the philosophy of language, the study of its use, and the like. Film analysis – the name for the study of film as “like a language” through a taxonomy of its form and an examination of its rules – similarly brackets film history, theory, the philosophy of the image, fandom, technological shifts, industrial organization, and so on. Film analysis, furthermore, lends itself most easily to the study of narrative film, a dominant form to be sure but, as we have seen, by no means the only one. As the words in bold type throughout this book indicate, how-

ever, I find some specialized language nonetheless helpful for describing what we see and hear and then thinking deeply about it, just as the ability, I believe, to parse a sentence renders one’s own writing more precise and nuanced in order to make an argument. Here in this chapter, then, I condense key areas of film analysis; in the remainder of the book, I visit some of these other ways of thinking through the phenomena of cinema. The title of this chapter, “the language of film,” means, then, to suggest that one learn the language of film analysis precisely in order to say something meaningful about a given film, or about cinema (and you will see that most of what follows applies equally to digital practices, some of which I distinguish especially in the realms of cinematography and editing). After reading this chapter, you ought, for example, to be able to identity and describe (and these are all defined subsequently) rear projection, the axis of action, or a tracking motif. The point is not simply to describe the world you see onscreen; it is to risk having a point in the description, to make an argument about a film’s form. The selection of key terms aims not to offer encyclopedic knowledge or the upper hand in trivia games, but instead to help you begin to think through different issues or questions that various formal strategies present. The question that ought to underlie close analysis, to put it bluntly, is “so what?” What is the function of x or y? What results from the choice of y over x? Why does x leave me cold? Or why does y convince me? A note for future study: many fine textbooks extend the discus-

sion of film analysis you are about to read. Three of them upon which many academics and college/university courses rely regularly

are Jill Nelmes’ Introduction to Film Studies, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction and Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White, The Film Experience. All three texts multiply the number of terms I present here, and they acknowledge the paradoxical, if not impossible, nature of any taxonomy of film. In giving names to what we see and hear, that is, we necessarily translate; we represent, in the medium of written language, the sensory experience of watching and listening. (The still images sprinkled throughout this text and others repeat the problem on another register, insofar as they finesse the phenomenon of duration and exemplify in their stillness all that cinema sought to overcome in its illusion of motion. Would that the web overcome the hurdles of copyright so that you could read this with “live” streams.) This summary means, then, to spur you toward more watching, more listening, more reading, more thinking about what you see and hear. That said, there is no other chapter-length summary like it. It moves quickly and might function nicely as a reference to which you may wish to return.