Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A2 Film Studies Exam Practice: Spectatorship and Emotional Response

Would you agree that strong emotional effects are achieved in some films by the careful construction techniques and in others by the subject matter itself?

Films are carefully designed and produced to ensure that they cause the audience to feel something. Emotions towards a film can range from joy to anger and despair. The three films studied for this topic revolve around controversial subject matter such as racism and hatred and therefore cause most viewers to feel angry, sad, shocked and often a great deal of anticipation as to how they will end. These emotions are encouraged by the filmmakers through both their choice of subject matter and also the carefully constructed micro techniques used.

Nothing a director does is by accident and many techniques such as the use of a soundtrack and editing are there to encourage emotional responses in the audience. American History X, This is England and United 93 all feature non-diegetic soundtracks that increase the sadness of events depicted on screen. Typical instrumental music is added to the film in post-production and violins and pianos are commonly used for sad scenes. For example when Danny dies in AHX and Derek is running in slow motion, there are violins playing and when Shaun is all alone on the beach in TIE, there is acoustic guitar on the soundtrack. Shane Meadows even drowns out the sound of one character’s speech with piano music to emphasise how sad the scene is with Combo being racist in front of Milky. The editing also builds anticipation in these films with crosscutting between Derek and Danny as they part at the school gates, cutting between the passengers and the people on the ground in United 93 and cutting to close ups of character’s reactions as Combo tells his story. AHX also uses voiceover to make Danny more identifiable.



All three films are constructed to make the audience identify more with some characters than others. They have clear preferred readings created through their construction techniques in order to make the audience care for and side sympathise with certain characters. For example in AHX and TIE, there are young characters called Danny and Shaun. Danny’s voiceover tells the story of the film and as it is supposed to be him reading his essay, it even continues after his death. In essence, the audience hears his thoughts and perspective on events and therefore is more likely to identify with him. The cinematography aids this process with close ups and point of view shots and also the fact Danny is played by Edward Furlong who was a minor star after appearing in Terminator 2. Similarly TIE follows Shaun through his daily life. There is no voiceover but the camera sticks close to him, even when he is alone and we learn that both he and Danny have fathers who have died, instantly making them more sympathetic. When Danny dies and when Shaun starts to become a racist thug, there is music on the soundtrack to ensure that the audience feels sad. On the other hand United 93 uses no stars and reveals very little about the passengers’ back stories but through the cinematography and subject matter, still makes the victims easy to identify with.


Cinematography can be vital to creating an emotional response, as can be the mise-en-scene that is captured by the camerawork. In United 93, the camerawork is very often handheld and the view is often obstructed by framing that is not clear and feels improvised. This gives the film a great sense of realism, as if the viewer is watching a documentary caught be a camera operator on the plane with the passengers. This makes it more horrifying and saddening. The cinematography in AHX and TIE is much more composed and formal. Thought it may not have the same level of realism as U93, it still can create an emotional response. In both films, the spectator is put in the point of view of victims; Milky when he is physically attacked and Murray when he is verbally attacked. The camera is positioned in a high angle to look down on Derek after he has been raped and also on Shaun when he is all alone in TIE. Similarly, a low angle is used to make the house look imposing when Doris falls to her knees outside it after her fight in with Derek in AHX. The mise-en scene of AHX is particularly shocking with its use of swastika tattoos and Nazi memorabilia but it is also shocking and sad to see the appearance of the World Trade Centre still standing in U93.


On the other hand, it is certainly not only the construction techniques in any of these films that make them so sad. It is also the subject matter in all three films that is essential to creating the emotional response and one of the main reasons for this is their reference to real life events. U93 is a film based on the real life events of September 11th 2001 when a plane was hijacked and the passengers all died trying to take back control of the plane from terrorists. The real events are still very raw in the memories of many people who watch the film and the real life tragedy clearly makes the film far sadder than if the film was nothing but fiction. The phone calls that the characters make are based on actual transcripts which make the scenes where the passengers say goodbye to the loved ones extremely sad and difficult to watch.  AHX and TIE may not be based on true stories but they frequently refer to real life events, to make the films more poignant and sad. AHX has Derek ranting about Rodney King and the LA race riots but Derek also pushes hot button emotive issues such as immigration and unemployment to make his racist rants appeal to his audience of followers. Similarly Combo in TIE uses immigration and unemployment but also refers to the Falklands War and Margaret Thatcher to try and convince people of his cause. These real life references will undoubtedly mean more to those who remember them in real life but the use of real footage in TIE means the viewer will get the message that director Shane Meadows is trying to share.

All three films are about racism, hatred and violence. These are potent issues for creating emotional responses as many spectators will feel strongly about them. AHX deals with the issue of racism through the redemption of one Neo-Nazi skinhead who goes from brutally murdering an African American to being raped in prison by other Neo-Nazis to agreeing to help solve the problem or racism. TIE tells a coming of age story of a young boy who gets in with an older crowd before being influenced by a racist thug and finally turning against racism. U93 is about four men who want to kill a plane full of people because of their religious beliefs and their hatred of America. These are clearly emotive subjects where characters feel extremely strong hatred, say shocking, vile things and commit horrendous acts against each other.

In conclusion, it is not simply the subject matter or the construction techniques that create the strong emotional responses to these films. It is a marriage of both where the content is disturbing, challenging and often brutal while the music, editing and cinematography encourage the viewer to react with sadness, shock or horror. The script and the performances ensure that the audience care for the characters, even characters who they may have at first hated. The most emotional scenes of the films all occur towards the end where the subject of racial conflict comes to a head but also the music, performances, editing and cinematography add inexorably to the emotional impact.