April 16, 2012
What is Cinema: Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Following the Story

I’m a beginning filmmaker and I don’t want anyone taking my opinion seriously. In fact, I don’t even have my own theory on what to do, how to cut, what is cinema, and what it means to be cinematic. But I do know of someone who knows all of that and more: Alfred Hitchcock.

The Hitchcock Cut

Here’s a video of Hitchcock himself describing what I call The Hitchcock Cut:

As you can tell Hitchcock is very interested in the assembly of pieces of film—the putting together of various shots to give the viewer an idea.

This is a very simple idea…too simple for me when I first started learning about film.

So I temporarily abandoned this idea and coveted the more complex camera moves—like Scorsese’s smooth camera moves in Goodfellas and Casino. I initially tried to pull off smooth camera moves in my animated short, The Boy and The Tree. 

But then I realized that Hitchcock uses the cut over and over throughout his career, and to great effect. Just watch Rear Window.

The YouTube clips don’t bring this scene justice and it cuts to a commercial for some website, so please, watch the entire movie. You’ll love it.

In my opinion what you just saw is the primary objective of cinema: the assembly of film to put an idea in your mind. In the case of Rear Window’s suspense scenes, Grace Kelly is in trouble as Jimmy Stewart watches helplessly from his apartment window.

Check out how Hitchcock cuts Rear Window. If you study the footage the entire film is based on Jimmy Stewart looking, cut, a shot of whatever he sees, cut, Jimmy Stewart’s reaction. Yes, it is that simple. Shot of your character, shot of what he/she see’s, shot of his/her reaction.

Rear Window is cut the right way, the cinematic way. That kind of cut shows a before and after of our character’s thought process, and puts the viewer in the perspective of the main character.

There’s a detached way of cutting that puts the viewer in the third person, which is to say, there’s a way of cutting film that makes the audience not care about the main character. Sometimes I think people do this intentionally as a knee-jerk reaction. Obviously if the story isn’t strong enough everyone’s subconscious reaction is to film it in a way so as to hide the weakness—the lack of story—so the cool cut, awesome lighting, or amazing special effects becomes the staple of the film. Bring out the steady cams and the Red Epics.

But no one can avoid the following: If you don’t take us inside the main character’s head so that we share his/her thought process, there is no way to extract empathy from the audience.

And the only way to share a character’s thought process is to see what he/she sees wedged in between the character’s before and after reaction. We as human beings are inherently wired to empathize with each other—so if the Hitchcock Cut is in your film then you are forcing us to view the situation from the main character’s perspective.

Following the Story

This is not to say Scorsese had the wrong idea—in fact now that I think about it I believe he was following Hitchcock cinema all along. Marty used the steady cam judiciously—when he wanted its effect—and not frivolously.

Marty’s steady cam shot of Henry Hill walking his date Karen into Copacabana has a very specific effect in the context of the film—it is meant to show how impressed Karen is with how influential and well connected Henry is. We are supposed to be impressed too.

Marty has a story reason to do this because that’s what the whole story is about. Goodfellas is a story about a man who is well-connected and trusted, but even that trust and connection breaks down when people’s necks are on the line.

To show the breakdown of trust in the end, Marty had to create a feeling of connection and trust in the beginning. That’s why he had to pull off the steady cam shot: it makes Henry seem like such a well-connected and impressive man to Karen and the audience.

In conclusion, follow the story and you will be fine. Cut like Hitchcock. If you need a steady cam shot, do it. But do it for the story and not for the lolz.

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