The GraMar of Film

As we get ready to transition from audio to video in ds106 for weeks 8, 9, and 10 I can’t help but start thinking about what examples from various films I can use to demonstrate the grammar of cinema. What elements powerfully demonstrate a mood, capture a particular idea, invoke a feeling, and/or work deeply on our emotions. Even beyond the specific kinds of shots, cuts, and technical frames—how does this medium mean and be beyond the simple notion of a talking head in his or her room we’ve become acquainted with through YouTube?

In previous semesters turning to early film for inspiration, examples, and a sense of the best elements of communicating sparsely and concisely with moving images that don’t overly depend on dialogue has proven useful. A favorite example that I got from a conversation with Mikhail Gershovich is the first eight minutes of Fritz Lange’s masterpiece M (1931), which may be one of the most brilliant opening film expositions ever. Watch the first eight minutes (to 8:03 od the video to be exact) below and think about how Lange uses the medium to communicate what’s happening without beating you over the head with a bat.

How does Lange create the tension in the opening scene? As opposed to spoon-feeding you with expository dialogue, how does he let you know what’s going on in the film? Where are the cuts? How is the tension mounted? How does he communicate the mother’s anxiety? And what do you make of that final montage the frames Elsie’s fate without ever revealing anything? Masterful.

And what’s more, the tale of the tape is there on YouTube for anyone to return to—it can be studied! You can get a sense of the pacing if you watch the timeline on Youtube, focus in on the cuts between Elsie walking home and her mother setting the table. You can pay close attention to all the non-verbal and atmospheric cues like the kids singing, the cuckoo clock, the ball, the balloon, the wanted poster, etc. There is so much more to happening in this film beyond the trap of talking head exposition that has become a staple of how we think of video today. Lange’s work in the silent film era becomes evident in this opening montage given how much is communicated so efficiently and effectively without extensive dialogue, and the dialogue and sound effects that are used—like the song and the cuckoo clock, an her mother screaming Elsie over the montage—heighten the tension and impact of the scene brilliantly.

When I was at UCLA in the mid-1990s, one of the film school professors, Fabian Wagmister, would have his undergraduate students create ten minute 16 MM films as their final project for the program without any dialogue whatsoever. The experiment was framed as a way of exploring and inhabiting the medium without depending on the crutch of dialogue.

So, if you were going to share a relatively short clip with a group of people to demonstrate how to use grammar of film to communicate efficiently an effectively, what would you recommend? I watched Terence Malik’s latest film Tree of Life (2011) an a few clips from that film come to mind—I may have to look into that.

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12 Responses to The GraMar of Film

  1. procsilas says:

    hi Reverend,

    I would recommend “A Torinoi Lo” (“The Turin Horse”), with almost no words the director, Bela Tarr, creates a dense and opressing atmosphere that sucks you into

    it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in years; how the director uses repetition to explain the same (but different) scene is brilliant

    a masterpiece and a must-see!

  2. Reverend says:


    You rock, and with a film from last year no less. I will find this one immediately and check it out for the coming weeks class—I appreciate the recommendation!

  3. paul says:

    I watched Speilberg’s Duel a while back. Particular clips don’t come to mind, but overall it struck me as a very effective and economical bit of visual storytelling.

    I think most people don’t look at film analytically, probably because most people have no idea what goes into it. As our audio projects have shown, there can be many hours of work that go into producing a few minutes of finished output. I would be very interested in finding out how Lang planned out that opening sequence, how it went from story to script to storyboard to photography to editing and the decisions made along the way.

    As a side note, I found Sidney Lumet’s book, Making Movies, to be pretty eye-opening as to what goes into filmmaking.

  4. Reverend says:


    I have to come clean an say I have never seen Duel, but I will have to rectify that. As for Lumet’s book Making Movies, that has been on my list since it came out in the mi 90s, I think I have to finally commit to it—which is a goo thing because I am in that frame of mind these days.

    Looking on YouTube for resources about Lang an M I found this 4 minute oc that talks about how M was the only film Lange ha full creative control over, and as a result was in his min his best. it also talks about what a bastard he was to the actors an actresses he worked with—but actors and actresses always whine about that 🙂 I am considering Peter Bogdanovich’s “Who the Devil Made It” for its conversations with some of the greats:

  5. Chris Stein says:

    The opening shot of Touch of Evil has an amazing, long crane shot and also sets up the movie with a minimal amount of dialog. Orson Welles at his best. At under 4min quick to watch.

  6. Mikhail says:

    I miss talking film with you, Jim. Looking forward to an opportunity soon.

    I am a believer in film as a fundamentally visual medium — while film can do and be much more, I find movies most interesting when they give us something to look at, to marvel at. The longer the better. This is why I love Malick. He’s the master of this kind of filmmaking — Polanski too — think The Pianist. And one of my most favorite scenes ever is the 30 min. virtually silent heist scene in Rififi (which I think you turned me on to.)

    That said, here is the montage in M that shows us that Elsie is missing. Masterful. This is from the last 90 or so sec of the film’s opening:

  7. Lisa M Lane says:

    I can think of so many, but they aren’t on YouTube (or at least I can’t find them).

    1. The crane shot in Gone with the Wind, where she’s walking through the wounded soldiers and it pulls up and there are hundreds of them and it’s overwhelming.

    2. The ending sequence of the Hot Rock with Robert Redford walking down the street having (finally) pulled off the robbery, unbuttoning his jacket and walking in an increasingly jaunty fashion as he dodges traffic and heads off.

    3. The scene at the funeral in To Catch a Thief, where everyone is looking at everyone else. (This one has words, but it’s background sound of the funeral service).

    4. The hysterically funny “pants” scene in Walk, Don’t Run.

    5. The chess game in The Thomas Crown Affair (the original with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway) — the only one I could find on YouTube

    And so many more….

  8. Reverend says:

    Yeah, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is a beautiful example of the camera doing all the work without you ever realizing it. That is another sparse, tight script that let’s the actors act, an what an awesome job Mia Farrow, Ruth Gordon, and Cassavettes do. Amazing. I am gonna have to revisit some Polanksi for sure for this one—I think The Tenant woul be another example of no real dialogue..

    Great additions, there are a number in your list Lisa that I have to go and see because they are new to me, so thank you doubly for that. What’s more, I just watched Three Days of the Condor again recently, and I want to do a video mashup of your sound mashup—working on that 😉

  9. Lisa M Lane says:

    Let me see what I can do about uploading some of the clips… 🙂

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