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A narrative essay on what it means to watch a film
Illustrated by Sam Beck
First we see two logos, both in the garish style of those typically preceding films from Hong Kong. The background of one depicts space, while the logo itself rotates into view; it is neon green, with thin lines running through it, and reads Beautiful Curse. The second logo is that of a large, golden peacock appearing on a flat navy blue background; the text beneath the peacock reads JT Films.
The sound of an orchestra tuning its instruments opens the film and continues for approximately ten minutes, ending abruptly but naturally. For the first ten seconds or so all we see is a black screen. It is a widescreen film.
Our first image after the black leader is that of a huge field of pale yellow grass. It is close to magic hour: the sky above is a soft pink mixed with sharply glowing blue. In the distance are three apartment buildings, each of a different size, and beyond them is more grass. Some of the windows on the apartment buildings are lit with soft, gently glowing yellow. In the middleground, off to the left, is a multilevel cement parking lot. The parking lot has a lower, bottom and top level. Several cars are parked on top.
There is a sense that the area depicted in this shot is both wide-reaching and utterly inclusive, that it serves as a representation of the world itself. The film will move onto other areas, but for the first twenty minutes or so it focuses on this particular location, treating it as though it were the only place that matters.
This shot is held for five minutes, a beautiful eternity in the amber of film time. A girl in her early twenties will enter onto the middleground from the right of the frame at around the four minute mark; she will step into frame and, after several casual steps, stop. She will stand like this until the end of the shot.
Before we continue, it may be fruitful to consider the relationship between a film and its audience. Consider: a film, in order to exist – to be truly whole – must be watched. Meaning, no matter the intention of a filmmaker, all films are made for an audience; a film is not made simply to be a film, because an unwatched film does not exist.
Watching a film is a voyeuristic experience. An audience watches a film so as to witness unique events taking place in the lives of other people – through their own stumbling imagination, the audience gives into the world of the film and sees these characters as simultaneously fictional and real. The audience feels emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger and fear for these characters as though they were real people, but at the same time the audience is able to acknowledge them as constructs. The audience sits in a darkened room, watches other people live their lives and then quietly goes back to its own, content to have glimpsed the intimate moments of others so as to compare these moments to those of its own fractured narrative.
If the film is overly artificial – for example, any Hollywood action film – then the camera is the middleman, the partition separating the film from the audience. If the film is truly engrossing, the audience becomes the camera, watching and experiencing the events depicted as though they were happening directly before them. When the audience is the camera, the audience becomes the cause of the major events happening to the characters in the film – by watching a film, the audience is willing good and awful and interesting things to happen to the characters so that they, the audience, can enjoy what they are watching. This is because it is more interesting to spy on someone when they are doing something wrong than it is to spy on someone when they are doing something utterly inconsequential.
When the girl appears in frame, we feel relief, believing there is now a character to latch onto. From prior film experience the audience knows that by watching this character they will witness several interesting and entertaining situations and scenarios revolving around her. Perhaps the audience is right.
The title card appears: SOFTCORE WORLD, presented as huge white text on a yellow background. The title card remains onscreen for only a few seconds. It should be noted that the sound of an orchestra tuning its instruments is still being played on the soundtrack.
The film returns to the same shot as before, then cuts to a close-up of the girl’s profile: we see the gentle blue of her eyes, the texture of her black hair, the smattering of pale freckles on her face. The negative space around her consists of the pink of the sky.
She moves. She walks towards the cement parking complex. She is wearing a vibrant orange dress. Magic hour is coming sooner than expected – the petal pink of the sky is being swallowed by the shark teeth blue, swallowed into a glow that is as diaphanous as the world beneath it.
The girl’s body feels lighter in this atmosphere, her bones weary and hollow. She acknowledges it is a good kind of tired – the nostalgic tired of playing with her older cousins in a copse of trees between half-remembered apartment buildings, playing until the point right before the sky becomes black.
The apartment buildings of her memory are not the same as the apartment buildings in the scene. The memories of the character are to be remembered by the actress and are not to be shown to the audience.
The actress is a brunette; the black hair of her character is a wig. Her freckles have been painted on with the deft, delicate hand of an artist. Her blue eyes are coloured contacts. Everything is false other than the thoughts and actions of the actress.
When the actress is not remembering playing as a small child, she is considering her role as a character in a film. She is imagining the audiences that will be watching her. She considers she will be watched by people she will never meet. Who is she making this film for? Who are these invisible people from the future who will sit and judge her, as both a character and actress, from rows of seats in a darkened theatre or on a couch at home?
She is moving as written in the screenplay and as directed by the director. A camera and a small crew are sitting in the field and recording her motions. She will be paid for this. When her involvement with the film ends, she will think of it very rarely until it is forgotten altogether.
The sound of the orchestra ceases when the girl is a little over halfway to the parking lot. She reaches its cool wall in total silence. We see a shot of her pale hand caressing its pockmarks and cracks, and with this shot comes ambient sound: the sound of the grass and the sound of her breathing. Her hair flutters against her forehead.
She thinks of the time she had jumped from the top of a parking complex a lot like this one. She cannot remember how old she would have been. A couple of school friends had been with her and had been impressed by the feat of tomboyish agility and strength; it had been one of the few times she had displayed any sign of recklessness. Otherwise she had been as quiet as she is now.
She blushes scarlet whenever an attractive boy acknowledges her and still holds the hands of her female friends. She spends more time thinking up new names for clouds than she does thinking about wars.
A small, loose fist knocks twice on her head. The hand belongs to a blonde girl in her late teens with an enormous smile on her face. She arrives in the film unexpectedly, appearing beside the first girl as if by magic (in long shots, however, it is possible to make out indentations in the grass from where she had walked).
Her hair is of a richer yellow than anything seen thus far in the film. She is dressed in a black t-shirt and black shorts and is not wearing any shoes or socks. The two girls seem to know each other, their eyes flashing in recognition, but not a single word passes between them.
This is the end of the first scene.
Continued in Part 2: The Spirit Of The Commuter Train
Part 1: Softcore World
Part 2: The Spirit Of The Commuter Train
Part 3: On Ambience
Part 4: With the Sun