Film Genre Analysis

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Casablanca & Dear John

Genre: Drama, War, Romance

Throughout reading the novel “Dear John,” I had to resort to my own imagination to create a visual of the books’ events. Though words can be powerful, images captured by artistic producers through creative elements can evoke many emotions that words simply cannot. I found this to be especially true when I followed up the completion of reading the book with viewing the Dear John film.  I found myself laughing, crying, and smiling throughout the entire movie, having five times the amount of emotions being produced during the movie because of the visuals presented.

What interested me in Dear John was the fact that the story line was inspired by a current ongoing event, the war. This allowed me to view the war from a different point of view, with a romance story along side it. Upon completing the viewing of the movie, I came across a review by Nicholas Sparks, the writer of the story, referring to Dear John as an  updated version of the 1942 movie Casablanca. Described as a parallel to the movie Dear John, that had my heart, I was automatically dedicated to watching the film Casablanca.

After enjoyably watching those two movies belonging to the same genre combination: drama, romance, and war – the “requisite gooey ingredients”, (Rainer) I followed up on viewing the two movies once again. However, this time with an analytical eye, evaluating the creative elements used by the directors in attempt to tell the story visually. These creative elements, shown through composition, camera, editing, perspective, and lighting techniques, generate a well-illustrated story. In regards to the two films of the same genre, there are many common cinematic techniques that are shared. Nonetheless, along with comparisons of the two similar genre movies come contrasting points, especially with a seventy-year production debute gap.

In the films’ Dear John opening scene, John Tyree is lying on the battlefield wounded. At that point, the story flashes back to a situation when John is on leave from military duty in 2000. During this time, John meets and falls in love with Savannah who is on spring break. In a short period of two weeks the two get remarkably close, fall in love and agree to exchange letters while John goes back his military for the next several years. Once the historical events of September 11 occur John decides to re-enlist, prolonging his term.  At this point, the movie begins to escalate and drama begins to unfold.

Though John and Savannah keep in contact by hand-written, heart-felt letters, over time the two are separated by distance. Eventually, Savannah sends the prominent “Dear John” letter informing John that she is engaged to a man. When John returns from war, to his surprise he finds out that Savannah is engaged to her life long best friend Tim who is terminally ill with cancer. Anonymously, John trades in the symbolic coins that John and his father collected and connected through for a lump sum. John donates this money to Tim’s treatment which kept him alive long enough to reconnect with his family. After Tim passes away, Savannah is extremely appreciative when she learns that John was the one who donated the money. The movie ends there with the suspense of what happens to the two of them.

Casablanca, the classic version of Dear John “listed in the top ten” of all movies is an appreciable 1942 black and white dramatic romance film set during a wartime (IMDB). Named after the location of a nightclub ran by Rick Blaine an ex-freedom fighter, the movie takes account of the events of World War Two. Despite pressure from Captain Renault and the local authorities, Rick’s café has become a haven for refuges looking to purchase illicit letters of transit. These letters are of especial value due to their permit of granting people to escape to America.

One day, Rick is surprised when a famous rebel, Victor Laszlo, and his wife Ilsa approach him. The irony is that Ilsa is Rick’s true love who deserted him when the Nazis invaded Paris. This is when her plan to escape to America changes. However, she still wants Victor to escape to America, she wants to stay behind in Casablanca, for her love for Rick is renewed. Rick says he did the thinking for both of them and decided that Victor needs Ilsa by his side. Rick tells Laszlo that Ilsa visited him last night and pretended to still love him to get the letters. However, Rick knew she was lying because it was over a long time ago. After goodbyes, the couple boards the plane and depart.

In the one-minute clip named “two weeks” from the film Dear John, the scene consists of many shots spliced up together resulting in a montage scene. The scenery starts out with the couple talking outside put together by a “match cut” technique that involves the seamless transition from one image to another, changing the distance and angle for each cut (Vineyard). Match cut helps to establish a “strong continuity of action’ (Maxima). Alternating between frames focusing on them individually as they speak as well frames with the couple together, walking away. Done less frequently, but nonetheless seen throughout the “Play It, Sam” clip from Casablanca, the same spliced up, match cut transition techniques are used. This technique is often times overlooked by the general public due its smooth transition as well establishment of a “strong continuity of action” (Hayward). However, that is the intention of the producer.

Throughout the Dear John clip, the basic cinematic technique “pan” is evident multiple times (Vineyard). The panning technique is used as they walk from the car towards the house, at the dinner table, and again when the window is used as a natural frame and pans Savannah driving away. This technique involves the camera moving along a horizontal axis, going from left to right or vice versa, giving a sense of a panoramic view. This technique is executed by a slow movement, orienting the viewer with the surroundings and the orientation, as well as evoking a broad range of emotions.  This is a point where the creative element techniques differ between the two films, as Casablanca, produced 70 years earlier, did not incorporate this type of technique.

As Savannah drives away from John, we are put into the perspective of looking out from the back of her car using the “pull back retraction” technique (Vineyard). The camera faces John standing there as the car and camera pulls away. This evokes a heart throbbing emotion in the audience from the action occurring in the scene, Savannah and John parting ways. This heart-wrenching emotion is also evoked in the Casablanca scene, however using different creative elements.

When Rick enters the café, our point of view as the audience is shifted to his point of view. Being placed in his position, we see exactly what he sees, Ilsas’ eyes meeting his. The producer incorporates this technique to create an additional creative element, creating tension as Ilsas’ eyes meet the with camera. Not only was the intense emotion brought out by the point of view of the camera shot, but additionally because Ilsa was “shot mainly from her preferred left side” (Elbert).  Along with that, a softening “gauze filter” was often used with catch lights to make her eyes sparkle (Elbert). The entire effect was designed to make her face seem ineffably “sad, tender, and nostalgic” (Elbert). To the audience, this effect comes off as natural, however it is persistently and tastefully done with intention by the producer.

Furthermore, Casablanca differs from Dear John due its black and white cinematography. This absence of color is known as film noir; creating a mood, style and tone through expressionistic lighting, deep-focus, and depth of field camera work. Watching the Casablanca scene, and taking notice of the effect black and white film creates with the ominous shadows, circling cigarette smoke, lighting, and gloomy appearances, it adds a more dramatic and suspenseful feel to the movie. Overall, black and white film intensifies the movie.

The Dear John scene ends using the “searching crane-up” technique, revealing John on the floor of the other side of the bed, reading the letter with a flashlight (Vineyard). This leads up to the creative reveal that not only was it Savannahs voice over narrating the scene but also it was the actual words from the letter that John is reading in the dark using a flashlight. This reveals the movies’ center on the Dear John letter, but taking a few unexpected paths.

Equally, these films have a genre of romance and war, evoking the same feeling of drama through similar as well as differing creative element techniques brought on by the producers. Both of the films use great composition, visual elements and principles to set a frame that is aesthetically interesting, attention holding, and consistent with overall continuity. All of this is executed carefully with the thought out placement of the shapes within the frame that enhance the film reality or “mise en scene”.

Both, Casablanca and Dear John communicate specific ideas and emotions to the audience. This communication occurs unconsciously as a person views the film. While the general public watches films and only passively enjoys them, to greatly enhance ones ability to learn from films, one much actively watch films. To bring out emotions in the viewer, a producer must be creative with their visual technique. With motion pictures, producers have the ability to create this ‘invisible’ art through a film that is not obtainable by reading a book. This is because a producer’s goal is to tell the story visually through cinematic techniques and elements such as lighting, sequence, motion, composition, and image.

References:

Maxima, . “Match Cut Editing Technique.” Xomba. N.p., 13 Oct 2007. Web. 16 Nov             2010.

Hayward, Susan. “Cut,” “Editing,” “Jumpcut” and “Matchcutting.” Cinema Studies:             The Key Concepts (2nd edition.

Vineyard, Jeremy. Setting Up Your Shots, second edition.  Michael Wiese Productions,             ISBN 978-1-932907-42-1

Ebert, Roger. Commentary to Casablanca (Two-Disc Special Edition DVD).

http://www.imdb.com/

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