Friday, May 7, 2010

What makes movies work?

Okay, this post is going to be very elementary at first, and then a bit abstract. But, it's something I have been thinking about lately, and I have always thought about a little bit. I want to write it down so that I can organize my thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment giving your input!

What makes movies work? Movies are composed of a bunch of shots, cut together to make a scene, and then a bunch of scenes, that skip over periods of time, and sometimes jump around in time, that make the movie. There's also music involved and usually sound effects that actually sound nothing like real life. So, why do they make so much sense to us as we watch them? Music is what I find most intriguing, so that's what I'll focus on most.

Why focus on music? Because it seems so unnatural! I mean, when we're walking and experiencing drama and excitement, we typically don't hear music burst forth from unknown origins, timed perfectly to our actions and emotional state(s). Yet, somehow, when we watch a movie, it makes so much sense.

I envision movies as memories. I think the way our minds remember things is one of the reasons why movies make sense to us. In our memories, we often times cut out the boring parts, exaggerate the exciting parts, and in the end, we link events, items and sounds together that seemed completely unrelated at the time.

Example: The day I proposed to Kerri. Well okay, a little bit further back than that. Throughout our entire relationship we loved listening to certain kinds of music together. Simon and Garfunkle (nicknamed "Simon and G-funk eventually) and Disney music to be precise. One of the songs that we always LOVED (in a "it's so cheesy it's great" way) is the old song from Bambi "Love is a Song." Look it up. You'll love it.
Fast forward again to the day I proposed. I'm nervous, she knows nothing, we're up in Idyllwild for a day trip and I'm planning on proposing later that evening as we look over the valley and watch the sunset. Right now, we're chillin' out in a coffee house listening to an old hippy couple play songs and they actually sing some good ol' Simon and G-funk! We're happy because, this music is special to us. Then, when they're done, I realize the time has come. This is it! I march her up the mountain side, plop down on one knee as the sun's setting, tell her I love her, ask her to marry me and BAM! We're engaged!
As we're driving back down the mountain, what starts playing on the mix cd I made? Love is a Song. I know this is shapin' up to be REALLY sappy here. But, I promise we didn't hold hands and look googley eyed at each other all the way through (I was driving!). Actually, we laughed at the song and sang to it in funny voices and then laughed and joked about how funny it would be if she walked down the aisle to that song.
Guess what song she walked down the aisle to?
Love is a Song.

So, there you go. A memory. Boring parts cut out (at least I hope so for your sake!), associations with music, everything. I mean, that's a movie scene right there pretty much. Picture a montage of us dating, getting engaged, and Kerri walking down the aisle all set to that song.

Any significant part of my life plays like a movie in my memory. When I came out to California to go to college. It was the first time I had ever been to California at all. I came out by myself, driving all the way from East Texas. I was excited, I felt independent and like my life was finally starting. When I look back, I remember listening to particular songs by the Supertones and Five Iron Frenzy as I drove. I don't remember the long, boring hours of the drive, I remember cruising down the interstate through the desert with my music blaring and having a great time! Then, in a flurry of awesomeness, arriving at Biola. Again, kinda like a movie scene.

I think our brains accept jump cuts, montages, music and other "unnatural" things in movies because that is how our memory usually ends up playing things back for us. I think it is why sometimes it is hard to articulate what makes the pacing of a scene good or bad. I also think this is something significant to think about because, in the past, breakthroughs in cinema (with editing, cinematography, etc) usually come through studying people and how they interact with movies. Memories are what I am currently considering.

To make me look smart, I end with a quote:

"He [the magician] gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion... The play is memory...
In memory everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings."
- Tom, The Glass Menagerie




  1. “A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”
    -Stanley Kubrick

  2. You said:

    "when we're walking and experiencing drama and excitement, we typically don't hear music burst forth from unknown origins, timed perfectly to our actions and emotional state(s)."

    Actually, this did happen to me once. I was walking into a starbucks, and as I entered two things happened simultaneously. First, a ray of sunlight landed perfectly on a beautiful girl -- a girl that was pretty much my type. Second, over the Starbucks sound system a song immediately began to play:

    "At Laaaaaast! My love has come along!"

    I thought to myself, "so that's what it would be like to have a soundtrack to your life!" But boy, it sure would be awful if others could hear it as well.

  3. AWESOME thoughts about movies, man. I totally see it.

  4. And incidentally, if there's a soundtrack to my life, it's either the theme from Indiana Jones ('cause it's always stuck in my head) or some cheesy cell phone ringtone. Like, a REALLY lo-fi obnoxious one.