A long time ago, in a state far-far away, I was a graduate student studying film.
I was a neurotic going for his masters who always felt way over his head, sitting alongside Ph.D. students and professors I knew were way smarter than me. I have a penchant for finding myself in situations that are way over my head. That is a confessional conversation for another day.
Though writing papers and wading through heady philosophical conversations by the likes of Roland Barth and Jacque Lacan to get to meaning drove me mad, I loved learning about the underpinning of how films were brought together. Cinema takes on a particular richness once you have some inkling how lighting and sound and frame composition come together to carry that meaning.
I’ve never watched a film the same way since. So much more goes into a story than a script, or the actors. Film truly is an amazing art form.
Which is why a day or two ago I got really excited when I stumbled across a project by Steven Soderbergh that reminded me of this complexity. It’s been 10 years or more since the graduate school program I never completed.
Soderbergh took Raiders of the Lost Ark, stripped it of all color and sound, forcing viewers to pay attention to frame composition, lighting, and even the facial expressions of the actors. He calls it “staging” and defines it on his blog, Extension 765. He goes on to make an assignment for the viewer of his experiment:
So I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are. See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order?
I haven’t watched the whole thing yet, but what I can say of what I have seen is this — Mind blown. Ark, in this context, is like seeing an old love in new light and appreciating it even more. Romance reignited. The music overlay takes some getting used to, but the lack of dialogue forces you to pay close attention to how each frame works, and conveys meaning. It is all tightly done and a masterfully produced work.
Also, and this is an aside here, a friend and I discussed Harrison Ford’s acting chops. We both agreed they were OK, but after watching his facial expressions and how that conveys emotions, I’m re-evaluating that too.
What do you think of Soderbergh’s experiment? Has it made you re-evaluate the film?