A Blind Date With Film Art

aes·thet·ics [:] the branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc., as applicable to the fine arts, with a view to establishing the meaning and validity of critical judgments concerning works of art, and the principles underlying or justifying such judgments. (Dictionary.com)

Cinematography happens to be one of my favourite words in the English language. I think it’s something about how clever I feel when I use it to comment on a movie, even though I have no idea what I’m talking about. Some films I remember because they were funny, or scary, or sad, and then there are other films I fall in love with because of the “great cinematography”. It also feels good on the tongue. If words could be tasted, I imagine it would taste like pistachio and amaretto gelato.

Either way, I’ve never read up on or learnt anything at all about cinematography. So when I – ahem – found out I had only six days left to give my first class presentation ever, as amazed as I was at how fast four weeks flew by, I had no idea what I was in for. The presentation title was “Media Aesthetics Elements: Sight, Sound and Motion”. I was like… Huh? But not to worry, I told myself; all I had to do was type the magic words into the magic finder of all knowledge, applying a little of ye old Boolean logic if necessary, and all would be well, right? It turned out that the presentation title was very similar to the title of a real life text book by the man many film studies geeks consider the “messiah” of aesthetic theory, Herbert Zettl. An article in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media described him as a “Teacher-Scholar”; one who

“… understands the subject matter deeply enough to structure, select, and organize it in order to effectively communicate to students and whose scholarship and service to the university and community demonstrate a commitment to creating new knowledge, to applying knowledge to solving problems, to synthesize various strands of knowledge, and to understand how students learn…”

I have much admiration for Zettl from what little I could learn about him and his tremendous academic input in film. But with less than a week to the deadline, I was not happy. Allow me to rant a little: In Biology, when a genius creates a scientific theory, however rigorously justifiable, more often than not there are a million different responses, a lot of bitter second guessing, and by the time the theory is accepted, it is rarely still the same, its authors have changed in number, gender, or some other form, and the original scientist’s recognition arrives posthumously. Finally, the science is generally simplified significantly so you can learn all about it starting from primary and secondary school. Conversely, even in my adulthood I can’t read “A Very Short Introduction” to Cinematography because nobody seems to have bothered to write one (or something equally accessible and “free”, online). Nor did I ever come across a textbook on film-making in the library back in my school days! This must be why some Kenyans I know look down on professions like photography and consider them unworthy of the time and money it would cost to study them. Maybe the arts are just more assenting, therefore leaving the theorizing to an intelligent, purely academic few. Or maybe most of the experts are too rich busy making films to write about how it’s done..? I don’t know.

What I did know is that it’s not possible for me to summarize the contents of an entire book in 6 days. But I kept the faith that someone out there must have done it at some point and all I had to do was keep fumbling across the www. Two days later, thanks to the inevitable power blackout at home, I couldn’t access the internet and I was forced to read an old-school version of Zettl’s book that I’d found. I’m a very, very slow reader, which for reasons beyond my capacity to explain was also why I had put off reading the book until the last minute. But along my reads, it dawned on me that “Applied Media Aesthetics” is just a fancy way of saying 

The visual and audio elements of cinematography and their effects on the audience’s perception and experience.

48 hours to go and Backward Baby Steps engaged, I decided to look up some scenes I’ll never forget from a few amazing films with “great cinematography“. Did I ever finish the presentation? Was it any good? See and judge for yourself here. [Very soon].


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