In doing some prep for a future presentation (this is almost historic in my modus operendi of procastination, as it is almost 2 months away from now), I revisited a seminal 2008 Roger Ebert post on How to Read a Movie. He shares a number of ideas I am thinking might have potential for ds106, and I am doing nothing but taking his ideas and trying to put a cherry on the top.

There are a few things here I am resonating with, but it comes out of a lesson Ebert got from a colleague. It is even instructive how the ideas shared- it has a metaphor, and a suggestion, but was a germ of an idea left to Ebert to carry out:

This all began for me in about 1969, when I started teaching a film class in the University of Chicago’s Fine Arts program. I knew a Chicago film critic, teacher and booker named John West, who lived in a wondrous apartment filled with film prints, projectors, books, posters and stills. “You know how football coaches use a stop-action 16mm projector to study game films?” he asked me. “You can use that approach to study films. Just pause the film and think about what you see. You ought to try it with your film class.”

I did. The results were beyond my imagination. I wasn’t the teacher and my students weren’t the audience, we were all in this together.

I especially like that last sentence as a kicker, one more time for emphasis – I wasn’t the teacher and my students weren’t the audience, we were all in this together. This is to a T how Jim Groom runs his ds106 classes!

What Ebert is talking about is a group activity of deconstructing/analyzing a movie where anyone in the room has the option to yell out “STOP” and start a conversation about what is going on in a scene. A colleague even coined it “Cinema Interruptus”.

But in an online class how might this work? The literalist approach might suggest running a synchronous session, and play the movie, and conduct the affair the same way. In practice, this would never work, as when people watch a video stream, although the video may be started at the same, time, with network latency and birds sitting on wires, people are not really watching it at the same time.

On the other hand, that bit of watching a clip, and stopping it at a key moment might be do-able as an individual activity where the results are shared. Let’s say the course leaders define a clip that is to be watched. Participants could then pick their own stop point, and use the YouTube URl to perhaps write a blog post with that as its set starting point. Or they could add an annotation to a posted clip. It is not quite the shared group experience Ebert describes, but that practice of stopping a scene down to a frame to analyze the composition, lighting, framing, is very powerful. And then sharing your ideas with the other participants.

Where some real meaty part of Ebert’s post comes in is where he shares some of the visual strategies or rules of thumb a film maker deliberately chooses to suggest the dynamics of a scene beyond just the dialogue:

In simplistic terms: Right is more positive, left more negative. Movement to the right seems more favorable; to the left, less so. The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left. The top is dominant over the bottom. The foreground is stronger than the background. Symmetrical compositions seem at rest. Diagonals in a composition seem to “move” in the direction of the sharpest angle they form, even though of course they may not move at all. Therefore, a composition could lead us into a background that becomes dominant over a foreground. Tilt shots of course put everything on a diagonal, implying the world is out of balance. I have the impression that more tilts are down to the right than to the left, perhaps suggesting the characters are sliding perilously into their futures. Left tilts to me suggest helplessness, sadness, resignation. Few tilts feel positive. Movement is dominant over things that are still. A POV above a character’s eyeline reduces him; below the eyeline, enhances him. Extreme high angle shots make characters into pawns; low angles make them into gods. Brighter areas tend to be dominant over darker areas, but far from always: Within the context, you can seek the “dominant contrast,” which is the area we are drawn toward. Sometimes it will be darker, further back, lower, and so on. It can be as effective to go against intrinsic weightings as to follow them.

So one way to use this is an assignment to analyze these relationships in a clip. Ebert then provides the way this might work in his analysis of a scene with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman from the Hitchcook classic, Notorious:

In the Rio office of U.S. intelligence, Grant’s chief is positioned on the strong axis. Grant enters and talks to him, standing on the right (positive). Bergman enters, and begins to discuss her relationship with Rains. As she speaks, Grant walks to the left of the composition. She continues. He turns his back to us. We all instinctively read this as negative/rejecting/angry. Bergman goes into still more detail. Grant walks into the background. Wow. Now the picture has the intelligence chief as the stable presence on the strong axis, Bergman in the positive right foreground, Grant in the negative left background, and the “movement” from right front to left back, underlining the central emotional reality of the film, which will inform all of Grant’s behavior.

You can find the entire movie in 10 minute chunks on YouTube, but almost any of them can be broken down by a similar analysis- in this scene, notice the starting position of Cary Grant, back to the screen, right side, and how he circles around behind Claud Rains and Bergman:

Another approach might be a photo assignment, where the same two subjects are used to shoot the scene in all these ways, and to test if the placement produces the suggested effect of favorable/not, out of balance, power, etc.

That last sentence in Ebert’s description of the visual rules is also a huge dangling idea he just left there — “It can be as effective to go against intrinsic weightings as to follow them.” — can you find or create an example that works by breaking the rule? That one would be hard, but interesting.

This same idea could be taken to looking at animation, photos, etc. There is a lot more to creating a visual image that just what is literally displayed- location, placement, angle, lighting, all suggest meaning. Ebert has a gold mine here that is just a starting point….

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. A good book to inform this kind of analysis is “Cinematic Storytelling”, by Jennifer Van Sijll – lots of examples, accompanied by just enough text to trigger discussion.

    I agree with Ebert that “Notorious” is a great example film for this approach to analyzing cinema – it would be fun to pair it with Hitchcock’s earlier “Suspicion”, and focus on the counterpoint between the framing of Cary Grant’s character in each of the films.

  2. Fascinating. The bit where he talks about right being more “positive” and left being more “negative” caught me in particular.

    At one point when I was younger I remember always making a mental note when watching sit-coms of whether or not the front door of the house was on the left-hand side of the screen or the right-hand side. Family Ties was right (which meant people were walking into the left). Cosby Show was right. Cheers was left. Of course, these were just the front doors. Invariably, sitcoms needed two entrances (and usually two staircases) to facilitate the flow of characters and stories.

    But the positioning of the main entrance in the sitcom genre has always, inexplicably, fascinated me. Maybe I was picking up on a more subtle message. Maybe I was just weird.

  3. The right/left dynamic may be culturally informed. Do Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, Farsi etc speakers & readers read a frame the same way? Or does the left represent future in those textual/linguistic cultural milieux? What of East Asian cultures where text moves in other directions? Worth experimenting where we have access to students of those backgrounds.

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