film studies

Exposition in films from the silent film era based on examples of “Modern Times” and “Metropolis”

What is the exposition? In narrative it means to expose the wider context of the story, introduce important background information, such as characters’ back stories, information about location, the setting, which shows how important it is for the audience to understand the film they are watching. After seeing Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”(1936) I have decided to compare it to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”(1927). “Modern Times” were Chaplin’s reaction to the Great Depression, even that it was a comedy he still talked about important social and economic issues. Lack of jobs and sufficient housing, no perspective of better tomorrow, clash of two ideologies, communism and capitalism, mechanisation of factory lines(this actually inspired him to write the “Modern Times”), the idea of a man being a clog in the wheel.  These are all very heavy and serious issues that we wouldn’t not expect to see in a modern comedy.

Even that technology was there Chaplin decided to use very little sound in his film, as he felt that a certain appeal to his character, Little Tramp, would be lost. He was very sceptical towards using the sound as he thought that it would not work in the type of comedy that he specialised in, pantomime. He felt he expressed himself better with actions than with words. The only voices we hear in this film were the voices of the factory owner, radio and spoken instruction manual for one of the machines and at the end Chaplin singing a song which was gibberish.

“Metropolis” is a slightly different story, it talks about important issues to us, humans, but it takes place in the future. It challenges the subject of segregation in the society, how is the society going to look in the future. The wealthy rich living in the beautiful high-rise tower complex while the poor, oppressed workers live underground where they work to provide power for the wealthy elites. The setting is overwhelming, especially underground, where the individual person doesn’t matter. The tower complex is also enormous but it’s more pompous, rather than depressing and terrifying. It’s all used to give the idea of what’s going on to the viewer straight away.  It’s all established at the beginning of the movie, first in the scene will workers walking in line like robots and going underground. Another plot is reviled straight away as well. Freder’s fascination with Maria, girl from a different social class. He’s so intrigued that he follows her to the workers city when he sees how less privileged than him are living. The story of Rotwang, the inventor and his love to Hel, a woman that married Fredersen and was a mother of Freder is all reviled by a use of a prop, a map, which helps Fredersen find out what’s Rotwang is hiding and them let them plot against Maria and Freder.

The exposition is not always done right, sometimes it’s forced, like in a character’s monologue when he or she tells us what exactly are they doing, or what are they planning to do. In film it’s referred to as “information dump” or “idiot lecture”. None of that happened in Chaplin’s film or in “Metropolis”. Something were present in a quiet obvious way, but in my opinion it’s just how the cinema worked back in that era. Both are examples of a great filmmaking and take upon important social issues.

 

Modern Times, 1936. [Film] Beverly Hills, California, United Artists Corporation.

Metropolis, 1927. [Film] Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany, Babelsberg Studio

David Robinson, 2004, Filming Modern Times [Online] Charlie Chaplin – Official Website, Available at: http://www.charliechaplin.com/en/biography/articles/6-Modern-Times [Accessed date:  03.12.2014]

Michael Schilf, Ten Great Film Exposition Scenes [Online] The Script Lab, Available at: http://thescriptlab.com/features/the-lists/859-ten-great-film-exposition-scenes# [Date accessed: 03.12.2014]

Chaplin Today: Modern Times, 2003 [TV documentary] France. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lp4EbfPAtI

 

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Nature of time in film based on examples of ”Rashomon”(1951), ”Interstellar”(2014) and “Memento”(2000)

As filmmakers we can present the time in any way we wish to and it can be used for the benefit of our film. For example in “Memento” Chris Nolan use starts with the ending of the story to then progress to the beginning, which in itself isn’t revolutionary, it was done in films such as “Pulp Fiction”, “American Beauty” or “Fight Club”, and later, after Nolan’s film it was used in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, which I think is a great example of this “technique”.

Time and its perception play a huge role in three of these films, even that in each of them they are used in a different way. What they all have in common is that they use it to tell a story in an unusual way. “Rashomon” uses flashbacks and different points of view, “Interstellar” talks about relativity of time and “Memento” uses a reverse chronology to tell the story.  Two of them tell the story in a nonlinear way.

As Stefano Ghislotti said in his article about “Memento”, “The film is interesting because it reflects the absence of the past in its narrative structure. As an effect of composition, the main character’s memory disease is directly perceptible to the viewers.”(2003). In the beginning of “Memento” we can see that a Polaroid photograph that fades to white, which should already give us an idea that there is something different about the timeline and the narrative of this film. In that scene we actually see the ending of the movie. Then the scene fades to a black and white and we see the protagonist in a completely different place. We learn that this will be common pattern in this movie, colour scene will be alternated by black and white scenes. Now we have two narrative timelines, one in colour which shows the events in reverse and one in black and white which for most of the film seems to show the action in a chronological way. Because of its unusual structure the movie keeps the viewer guessing and thinking what’s coming next, and viewers have an advantage over Leonard, who’s condition stopped him from making new memories. Nolan creates tension and suspense by adding new photographs, or situations to the story, which then explain some previous mysteries(e.g. broken window in the Jaguar, bullets in the pick-up). We see Leonard being used and taken advantage of by two characters, Teddy and Natalie. At the end of the movie, which actually could be a beginning of the story, we realise how hopeless he is, he has no one to turn to. He’s most likely going to continue his  quest of finding the killer of his wife(even that we know that he has already done it) and the only way he is going to keep going is by his the habits he developed, such as remembering to make notes and keeping a pen around him. That’s something that differentiates him from Sammy Jankins, another recruiting theme of this story, who were also an important part of the film.

“Rashamon” uses a different approach to time, the story is told in a usual, linear way, however we hear four different versions of the same incident. It’s pretty much impossible by the viewer to tell who was telling the truth and what actually happened on that day in the forest. The technique of using flashbacks and presenting different points of view were somehow new to the cinema when Kurosawa made that film. He explores the topic of perception in this movie. Some might say that it talks about how truth is relative and subjective, such as an American film critic, Rogert Ebert. On the contrary, Error Morris, who’s a director, claims that truth can only be objective and that “Rashamon” is a “movie about how everybody sees the world differently. But the claim that everybody sees the world differently, is not a claim that there’s no reality”.

The role of time in “Interstellar” is different in comparison to those two movies. Perception of time and its relativity is very real in this film. While in “Memento” and “Rashamon” it was used as a tool to tell a story in a different way, in this case the narrative is pretty normal. In this film time is important because of a few aspects. Humanity is running out of it – in “Interstellar’s” universe Earth is no longer a sufficient place to live for humans, it’s not as welcoming as it used to be, the backstory and reasons behind it aren’t explained, but we know that because of a mysterious virus that is destroying crops and dust streams humanity needs to find a new place to live and needs to do it fast. So because of that lack of time we have our first struggle – struggle of a man with the nature. To save humanity our protagonists have to make a huge decision and go and look for a new planet for humanity. As space is a vast place we know that travelling in it take years. And that’s when the aspect of time comes in again. The crew that goes on that mission is sacrificing their lives on Earth(even that some of them don’t know it yet) for a greater good, to save humanity. But in the process of doing that some of them won’t be able to see their children grow older, or spend last years with their parents. Relativity of time and time dilation comes into play again when they have to land on a first planet. As it turns out one hour over there was equivalent to 7 years on Earth. It had a huge impact on characters that realised that even if they had a chance of coming back to Earth it could be a completely different place. That planet was also another representation of a struggle of a man vs. nature. As they’ve spent more time on there that they’re assumed they initial plan had to change as well. One of the most emotional scenes in the movie happened just after they come back from that planet to their ship. The idea of them watching 23 years’ worth of messages from home, seeing his son growing up, getting married and having kids, while he couldn’t be there or even send a message back home had to be heart breaking. After they plan changed they moved to Mann’s planet which was a literal and figurative struggle of man vs. man. At the end of the movie we’ve learnt how old Cooper is and that his daughter is close to the death. This was one of the last examples of time dilation coming into play in the movie.

All three examples show how time could be used in film and what talented filmmakers can do to make their films better with the smart use of it. It can be used as one of plotlines and an obstacle, like in “Interstellar”, but it can also be used in a narrative way to present a story from a different point of view, using a different chronology.

 

Memento, 2000. [Film] Directed by Christopher Nolan. Universal City, California: Summit Entertainment
Rashomon, 1950. [Film] Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Tokyo, Japan: Daiei Film Co. Ltd.
Interstellar, 2014. [Film] Directed by Christopher Nolan. London, England: Syncopy Inc. Los Angeles, California: Lynda Obst Productions
Stefano Ghislotti , 2003. Backwards: Memory and Fabula Construction in Memento by Christopher Nolan [online]. Available at: http://dinamico2.unibg.it/fa/fa_mem01.html [Date accessed: 25.11.2014]
Roger Ebert, 2002, Rashomon [online] Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-rashomon-1950 [Date accessed: 26.11.2014)
Errol Morris, 2004, Interview with The Believer [online] Available at: http://www.errolmorris.com/content/interview/believer0404.html [Date accessed: 26.11.2014)