How two different filmmakers use cinematic techniques to express their ideas

How two different filmmakers use cinematic techniques to express their ideas
Cinema is one of the most successful inventions of the 20th century. It “presents us with a view of the action which is absolutely under the control of the director at every moment. When the camera moves we move, when it remains still we are still.” (Sontag 243) Various cinematic techniques can have a great influence upon the meaning and structure of any film. The unique and diverse combination of these techniques can make a film a real masterpiece or a mere failure. Two films will be observed in this essay: “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and “Alien” (1979). “The Silence of the Lambs” is a film directed by Jonathan Demme. His intention was to blur the boundaries of the genre, combining elements of serial killer horrors, women’s pictures and slasher films. “Alien” was created by Ridley Scott. It represents a vivid example how a horror film could become a real masterpiece. It also demonstrated how the filmmaking can produce an effective contrast. Being a horror film, “Alien” achieves its goal by blending different genres. First an unusual setting was chosen. The haunted-house horror film was taken into distant, empty, cols space. That fact made the film merge with the genre of science-fiction. Thus, the filmmakers invited the audience to compare the picture with other films performed in the genre of horror film before and to enjoy the new variation of a horror picture.

The director of “The Silence of the Lambs” uses the subjective narration. That is the one of the main features with which the audience is engaged in the thoughts and emotions of the characters. The filmmaker of “Alien” uses the third-point-of-view narration. That makes all the characters equal and the audience makes its own attitude towards the characters.

The central character of “The Silence of the Lambs” FBI trainee Clarice Starling enters the frame of the picture being in the dark forest. She is surrounded with sinister trees that make her appear even smaller than she is. It is a rather apt introducing of a female character, which seeks professional achievements and wants to make a career in FBI. That appears to be rather difficult, as she struggles to make a career in an institution dominated by men. Demme makes the audience feel that Clarice is in peril from the first scenes of the film. The camera lurks behind her. The same peril is felt when Clarice is depicted in the elevator surrounded by men. The masculine mass towers over her and this idea will be repeated several times in the following scenes. Demme uses the close-ups very often. He allows his actors address the camera directly. Thus they also directly address the audience as well. Demme really enjoys this technique as it concerns the uncertain identity of his central characters. When the direct angle is turned onto Starling, there appears a feeling that Clarice is being examined. The film is generally static, but there is a scene when Clarice is going down the basement to meet Dr. Lecter. Demme uses the kinetic sequence in this case. The camera weaves along with Clarice while she is descending and that disorients the viewer. Besides, the scene is made in the hellish red glow that makes the audience feel something terrible, even disgusting. Comparing with Dr. Lecter Clarice has less attention of the camera. During their conversations the main attention is attracted to Hannibal Lecter. Demme also prefers close-ups in this case. Hannibal gazes directly at the audience and his icy stare makes not only Clarice shudder, but the audience as well.

It is suffice to mention that Demme applies the fixed viewpoint, prefer routine angles. Close-ups are his trademark. They allow the unexpected movements to become more exciting. His color palette is muted and drab, composed mostly of grey stone and brown dirt. However, sometimes the director injects certain flourishes, such as flashes of color and flawless sound design. In the end of “The Silence of the Lambs” the atmosphere becomes very tense, even hysterical. Demme uses dark shadows, unpleasant noises (yelps, screams). Later the director eliminates all light thus making the atmosphere even more suffering.

The director of “Alien” uses some other techniques to create the dreadful atmosphere of fear in his picture. Ridley Scott rejects clear vibrant visuals and appears to be more interested in minimalism. Simplicity that he strives to achieve is best of all seen in the explorations of space. The opening scenes present the venture inside the “Nostromo” spaceship. The camera moves very slowly as if intended to demonstrate all rooms and corridors that are too big and too numerous for the crew consisting of several people. An inhuman, eerie, cold atmosphere is created by this way of shooting. Besides, there are no many dialogues, conversation and communication among the members of the crew. Thus, the tension can be felt from the very first moments of the film. The wind-instruments of Jerry Goldsmith add to these chilly feelings. However the cold and slow atmosphere is broken in the end of “Alien”. Ridley Scott let sound and light enter his picture. They are so intensive that it almost offends the audience after the sleepy and motionless major part. In cinematography lightning can influence the shot, particularly the meaning of it. Thus, the alien is portrayed being heavily shadowed. In order to make the character more frightful and mysterious the director prefers to obscure the alien, limits its depiction to shadows. Mainly its silhouette is shown. However in the end of the picture the director applies strobe lights, irritation voices, flashing color and deafening noise. Ridley Scott actually balances and opposes these techniques throughout the whole picture. That means that sound plays a very important role in the film. Sound is used in filmmaking to enhance presentation. There are two major types of sound: diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic sound is also called literal sound (voices of characters, source music, sound effects). The non-diegetic sound is not supposed to be present in the action (narrator’s commentary, mood music, film score). These both types of sound are skillfully used in the picture. This makes “Alien” differ from other horror films and puts the film on a higher rank that many other pictures of the same genre.

Both films, “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Alien” have some common ideas no matter how different both pictures seem to be on the first sight. The theme of gender and gender roles is one of the leading in these two films.

Gender roles play a very important part in “The Silence of the Lambs”. Femininity appears to be under constant attack through the narrative. Clarice Starling has to suffer spending almost all her time in the male society. She cannot use her feminine beauty, as her intention is to make a career in the severe male world. There is some sexual tension between Hannibal and Clarice that is perceived through the close-ups of hand connecting. Male attention is unwanted for Clarice, however she successfully uses her charms persuading Dr. Chilton to give her private access to Hannibal Lecter. Another character of the film Buffalo Bill desires physical transformation. He is a man, however he wants to be a woman; he actually feels like a woman. He rejects physical surgery and realizes his perverse desires in making a costume from the skin of his victims. The interest of Buffalo Bill in butterflies can be also explained by his distorted view of his masculinity. These insects also suffer transformation, so utterly desired by the character.

In “Alien” gender roles are also of great importance. Thus, the monster that kills the crew of Nostromo appears to be androgynous. Its classification is based mainly on the features of its appearance – excessively large scull. He enormous head of the monster possesses the phallic shape. The mouth of the creature resembles vaginal shapes with clear wet slime. The close-ups show the audience a terrifying picture. While being found on the asteroid the beast chooses to impregnate the male member of the crew Kane. Thus, Kane actually is made a monster’s mother. The mixture of gender roles is vivid in this case. This mixture of gender roles in the picture is also vividly shown by the female characters. While Ripley is strong, self-restrained and even aggressive sometimes (that is actually proper features for a woman on a spaceship), another character Lambert is weak and miserable. She is inferior not only to the strong men, but to Ripley also. She is too hysteric when it is necessary to be strong and self-possessed. The wrong behavior does not let her escape from death when it is possible. Ripley seems to be too aggressive sometimes; however this very feature is the manifestation of her desire to survive. The naked parts of her body shown in the last scenes of the picture add to her femininity and the audience realizes that she is a beautiful woman even it could not be seen first.

Cinematography is the art of making pictures; in other words it is “from the Greek roots meaning, ‘writing with motion.’” (Brown 23) Even almost twenty years of its production “The Silence of the Lambs” made by Jonathan Demme does not fail to excite and amaze the audience. It still remains the rare example of the film production that represents a crafted film in which the artistic advantages of the individual components create a unique and unexpected union. Being made in 1978 “Alien” produced almost the same striking effect upon the audience. Nowadays with all the special effects possible this picture does not fail to scare, frighten and bewitch everyone who watches it.

Works cited:

Brown, Blain. Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers, Directors, and Videographers. Boston: Focal Press, 2002.
Sontag, Susan. Against interpretation. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.

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