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The first major concept to understand is the notion of cinematic language.
Cinematic language is the name given to the conventions of filmmaking that have evolved over time to become something like an overall film grammar As we do with spoken language, we often take the conventions and structures of cinematic language for granted, allowing our brains to passively experience them without much, or any, conscious interpretation. The result is a sort of invisibility of the techniques and strategies employed by the filmmakers. For viewers seeking a few hours’ entertainment, this invisibility is not a problem—in fact, it’s probably what makes a movie entertaining, and one reason that movies have become the dominant art form of our time.
But if we hope to understand movies better, we need to be alert to the components of cinematic language that most viewers experience without a second thought. Just as the techniques of filmmaking can go unnoticed during a casual viewing of a movie, so too can the cultural mores and prejudices lurking under the surface of a movie. This cultural invisibility is especially difficult to perceive in a film made within one’s own time, place, and culture. But if we want to tackle the question of what a movie means, then we need to understand not only the meanings that the filmmakers themselves might say they were trying to convey but also the ones that the filmmakers may not be aware of—the ones that flow from a common reservoir of cultural values, ideas, and prejudices. As you try to be more alert to all the layers of meaning in a movie, keep in mind the distinction between explicit and implicit meaning. Explicit meaning is right there on the surface of things—it is the result of what we have been explicitly shown and told onscreen.
When we recount a movie’s explicit meanings to someone else, the result can sometimes sound like plot summary. Implicit meaning, by contrast, is more like our traditional notion of meaning; when we attempt to state a movie’s implicit meanings, we are attempting to convey something less obvious, something arguable about it that conveys a “message” or “point.” Our attempts to unveil the invisible layers of meaning in a movie are all forms of analysis—the process of breaking a “complex synthesis” into parts in order to understand it better. Formal analysis focuses on the elements of film form, such as cinematography, editing, sound, and design, which have been assembled to make the film. Cultural analysis focuses on the assumptions, mores, and prejudices that a movie conveys about gender, class, race, ethnicity, nationality, age, and many other social and cultural categories.