Motifs are recurring structures that develop and communicate a film’s major themes [Motifs are the discrete images or sounds, like a coin, where as themes are more general concepts such as greed]. Motifs are therefore essential in the language of cinema. Motif’s are often used to communicate character and to indicate and remind the audience of essential and important facts. The study of narrative, and in particular film narrative formation, indicates that there are two central motif types; free and bound.
Bound motifs are those which, according to the Russian formalists, cannot be removed from the narrative without radically changing the chronological essence of a narrative. In essence a bound motif is a motif that is essential to the explaining or telling of a story. In the film Escape From New York (1981) the motif of the wristwatch is a bound motif as the movement of time is essential to the understanding of the plot. The motif of the wristwatch is essential in understanding and remembering that Snake has only twenty-two hours to find the president. As the time slips away the motif is also used to increase the tension. The narratives sequence and chronological essence is produced by the deadline of twenty-two hours; the motif of the wristwatch is bound by its essential nature in the formation of Escape From New York‘s narrative. In the film Speed (1994) the motif of the bus is a bound motif as without it the film wouldn’t make any sense; the story could not be told without it.
Free motifs are those which aren’t essential to the retelling or explaining of a narrative. This is not to say that they aren’t highly important, but the chronological make-up of a narrative wouldn’t be altered by a free motifs inclusion or exclusion. A free motif is a tool often used to communicate character and create aesthetic complexity. The use of colour to indicate a sense of past or nostalgia isn’t essential to the retelling of a story however it produces an aesthetic more inclined to communicating that lost past or beautiful regretful age a film wishes to portray. Free bound motifs tend to create deeper meaning and communicate conflicts without the need to thoroughly establish character though screen-time. A film can communicate an ordered and synchronised character by establishing a motif; John continuously looks at his timepiece. A rupture in his character and life could be communicated clearly by the breaking, dropping or stopping of his watch. And although the watch stopping has no relevance to the plot per say it could communicate the loss of order in John. This fictional man loses his structure; he becomes de-constructed through the symbolic act of his timepiece breaking. The symbolic act communicates a loss because it was previously posited as a motif that indicated his orderliness. Although not essential to the plot, the free motif of the timepiece helps communicate the more general theme of the film concerning the man’s change in character and life. In the film Juno (2007) the central character, also named Juno, buys kitsch tat such as a faulty burger phone. This motif isn’t essential to the film’s narrative however it does communicate character quickly and clearly.
Here is a short introductory excerpt on Lighting:
The manipulation of an image’s lighting controls much of its impact. In cinema, lighting is more than just illumination that permits us to see the action. Lighter and darker areas within the frame help create the overall composition of each shot and hence guide our eyes to certain objects and actions. A brightly illuminated patch may draw our attention and reveal a key gesture, [similar to the function of a close-up] while a shadow may conceal a detail and build up suspense about what [or who] may be present there. Lighting can also articulate textures: the soft curve of a face , the rough grain of a piece of wood… the sparkle of a faceted gem. (1.)
In the first few introductory scenes of Godard’s Alphaville we are not allowed to see the face of Lemmon until he lights a cigarette, and when he closes his lighter his face again disappears; Godard is using the brief glimpse of light that uncovers Lemmon’s face to make a point concerning intertextuality. The voice-over croaks that “reality is too complex for oral communication. But Legend embodies it in a form” this could be taken to refer back to the casting of Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution. Lemmy Caution was a popular character from what has been called ‘French pop thrillers’ and Eddie Constantine played the role in several of those pop thrillers. (2.) Robin Wood explains that you could ‘compare him [Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution] to a cut-out photograph inserted in a painting… no one [of the original French audience] would mistake this for a detailed portrait of a human being: rather, it is a reference’ essentially Wood is saying that Godard’s use of Eddie Constantine is a reference to pop-culture and a well-known, nearly worn-out character of cheap French detective Noir. (3.) Godard uses the brief glimpse of light because he knows too well that all the exposition the character needs is a few seconds on screen before the audience knows everything it needs to know about the character and the characters’ screen personality. The use of lighting further extenuates, and foregrounds Godard’s belief that Constatine is a “Legend” that embodies everything one could say about French Detective Noir just in his “Form”. This intertextual reference to the “Legend” of Eddie Constantine and Lemmy Caution is an ironic act as Lemmy Caution is, in this film, the only character who threatens the robotic, logical Alpha-60 [the machine who runs Alphaville] with his understanding of emotion and humanity. What Godard may therefore be implying is that the logical formalism of high art may be worse, or at the very least just as bad, than the flat but emotional pop-art of the Pulp-like Lemmy Caution.
1. David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 133.
2. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ in Ian Cameron, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, London: Studio Vista, (1969), pp. 83-93 p. 85.
3. Robin Wood ‘Alphaville’ p. 85.
Rocky contains several interesting formal features which attribute to the overall films’ communication of location, mainly an economically deprived Philadelphia. One scene that produces a sense of location is when Rocky approaches the “Lucky Seven Tavern”. The screen composition is interesting with the bar on the right and nothing on the left we are given several facts about Rocky and the people who live in this area of Philadelphia. The darkness on the left is pitch black, there are no stars, nothing to amaze or inspire. The lack of an alternative to the bar is also interesting because Rocky, and several bums on the floor, are offered either alcohol or pure darkness. The scene composition becomes a symbol of the darkness and uninspiring life of the protagonist Rocky, it also indicates that there is, at this time, nothing on the horizon to dream for. The character that represents this dreamless alcoholic life is Rocky’s friend Paulie Pennino. Another interesting formal feature is Rocky’s costume. He wears a dark leather jacket that reflects light slightly. As he walks down the dark road his jacket matches the tarmac exactly, producing an image which communicates that Rocky is at one with his surroundings; including its economic and social depression. Another indication of the economic situation of Rocky’s surrounding is the graphic match between the browns of the brick houses and the brown of the loan sharks’ car. The directing in Rocky is very sharp in creating both the sense of economic deprivation in Philadelphia but also in ensuring that Rocky is communicated as someone borne out of this deprivation.