Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Using a case study in an essay

An audience watching Christian Marclay's The Clock

When looking at writing about certain aspects of film or game it is often useful to use case studies. Particular films or games can be examined and you can make your points with precision as well as be able to direct your reader towards the original material. In an essay it can be a way of being able to use your specific interest in a particular film and use it to illustrate a more general concept. In this case the relationship between editing and our experience of ‘time’ in film.

Pulp Fiction: Quentin Tarantino Miramax Films 1994
Watch the clip at:

In the drug overdose scene at the movie’s midpoint, Vincent (John Travolta) attempts to revive Mia (Uma Thurman) by stabbing her in the heart with a hypodermic needle filled with adrenaline. The scripted scene fills us with tension. We hold our breath hoping that Mia is going to make it. The reason we hold our breath is because the script is written already “edited” for suspense.

How does Tarantino do this? By writing overlapping action. Tarantino’s script includes cuts to the needle, the red dot and the faces of the characters. These cuts lengthen the time needed for the real-time-event of the stabbing to occur.

Time in film is perhaps one of its most interesting aspects. A film runs for a specific length of time and we watch it in real time. However a film is rarely cut to reflect the actual time an action, narrative or event takes. One of the few that does this is High Noon a 1952 American Western that tells in real time the story of a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself.

Because time is so important to our understanding of the world, a film director can shape our experience of it to heighten tension, confuse or disorientate us or suggest we are ourselves aging as a film develops. Christian Marclay's The Clock is perhaps the best example of a meditation on time in film. This 24 hour long film collects together thousands of clips from films, each clip referring to a specific moment of the day, these being edited together to make one complete day which if you want to experience it means sitting in the cinema for 24 hours and watching it in real time.

In Pulp Fiction, although Vincent counts out three seconds on the dialogue track, it takes three quarters of a page for the moment to take place—or 45 seconds of screen time. That means that we are holding our breath 15 times longer than Vincent’s three-second countdown suggests. Through purposeful use of editing, Tarantino’s script is guiding the reader’s emotional experience, and delivering a scene that itself can be imagined as a mini-movie.

The red spot

About to drive the needle in

Tarantino doesn’t write in descriptive sentences or paragraphs like novelists, but builds his scenes in shots. Each of his sentences implies a specific camera angle. “Implies” being the operative word here, as camera angles and lenses are not called out, but understood from his description.
The script’s pacing mimics what will later be seen on screen. Paragraph and sentence length suggests how long a shot will play on the screen. For example, a single one-sentence paragraph implies one shot. The implication is that it should play out longer on screen than would, say, multiple shots implied in a four-line paragraph. The white space buys the single shot time. Adding an editorial aside like “Mia is fading fast. Nothing can save her now” is like saying “hold on the shot.” It again gains the shot more screen time.
This excerpt (below) from the original script is taken from mid-scene.
The top line is from Tarantino’s script, where no camera information is given. The text below each line written in brackets in capitals relates to the camera shot actually used in the film.

Vincent lifts the needle up above his head in a stabbing motion. He looks down on Mia.
Mia is fading fast. Soon nothing will help her.
Vincent’s eyes narrow, ready to do this.
Count to three.
Lance, on his knees right beside Vincent, does not know what to expect.
RED DOT on Mia’s body.
Needle poised ready to strike.
Jody’s face is alive in anticipation.
NEEDLE in the air, poised like a rattler ready to strike.
The needle leaves the frame, THRUSTING down hard.
Vincent brings the needle down hard, STABBING Mia in the chest.
Mia’s head is JOLTED from the impact.
The syringe plunger is pushed down, PUMPING the adrenaline out through the needle.
Mia’s eyes POP WIDE OPEN and she lets out a HELLISH cry of the banshee.
She BOLTS UP in a sitting position, needle stuck in her chest---SCREAMING

Writing cinematically requires understanding the language of film, knowing how to use it creatively and translating it into script form. Editing is just one of many film techniques. Lighting, sound effects, camera angles, camera positions, transitions, space, framing and so on are other tools available to the essay writer.

Although edited and added to by my own reflections most of this text is taken straight from ‘Cinematic Story Telling’ by Jennifer Van Sijll Published September 3, 2007
Find the original at: screenwriting/article/cinematic_storytelling_20080722/

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