November 28, 2012

On Wednesday, Professor Kahan invited Professor Diaz into our seminar class to give us a brief background on cinematography, and to analyze the Woody Allen film Manhattan. Professor Diaz started off discussing Mise-en-scène, and the different aspects that go into creating the great illusions on screen that we call a movie. When you think about it, a movie is really all smoke and mirrors. After all is said is done, it is only two people on a set having a conversation. If you take that scene, add some music, an awesome backdrop, cool camera angles, and the proper lighting, you have yourself a movie!

First, we started off discussing the different aspect ratios. Older films had an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which is what most square TV and computer monitors use. (That is why you see those messages in the beginning of movies saying, “This film has been formatted to fit your screen.”) In modern years, we moved into the widescreen ratio of 1.85:1, which is the common US widescreen cinema standard. However, Manhattan was not filmed in either of those aspects. It was filmed in 2.39:1, which gave an even wider picture, and enabled you to fit more into the frame. Allen wanted to give this wider view of Manhattan, and he just couldn’t do that with 1.85:1.

Next, we moved onto angles. There are several different types of angles, including an extreme long (most of the scenes in Manhattan were filmed using this angle,) long shots to display the entire body, medium or conversational, and finally close up and extreme close up. Most TV stations use wide shots to display the two anchors sitting at the news desk, and then cut to a close up when either one of them are discussing a specific story. One of the things that I found very interesting is the “180 degree rule.” This rule states that when filming, the camera must stay on the one side of this imaginary line called the “axis of action.”

Think about this scenario. Two people are sitting across from each other at a table. When we look at the face of character 1, we look over the left shoulder of character 2. When we move to look at character 2, you have to look over character 1’s right shoulder now. Why? If you don’t follow this rule, you will confuse the viewers in terms of their orientation to the characters. Now all of a sudden, it seems that the characters are inverted. When I got home last night, I was watching a re-run of a TNT show called “Leverage.” As two characters were having a conversation at a bar, the camera angles always stayed the same in terms of their placement, except for a wide shot. It is something that seems so logical to do, yet, it is actually a camera rule. Get that.

Finally, Professor Diaz started her analysis of Manhattan. She began with the opening scene. She explained that Isaac’s (Woody Allen) monologue over the scenes of Manhattan set up the rest of the movie in terms of its themes and plot. Two major themes are the decay of morals (40 year old man dating a 17 year old, adultery, etc.) and the upper class people losing their morality.

As I was listening to Professor Diaz and replaying the movie over in my head, a great analysis came to my mind. Allen’s purpose of Manhattan was to create a tribute to 1930’s culture in Manhattan, using the old music, the black and white film, etc. Yet, he wrote in characters that are foils to this whole concept. We have Yale cheating on his wife with Mary, Isaac dating a 17 year old and later Mary at the same time, and the list goes on. One of the things that I still don’t understand is why Allen created the juxtaposing of these two time period and morals.