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.
The language of cinema is composed of opposites. In Saussurian terms things are defined by negatives. The film Juno creates a sense of domesticity by positioning a house with a minimalist style as opposite. The domestic scenes of Juno’s family are opposed to the adopting parents’ more stylised and organised home. Conversely the adopting parents’ scenes are opposed by Juno’s family domestic space. The warm cluttered space is posited as not the colder organised space. The colder organised space is communicated as not the cluttered domestic space. These opposed spaces communicate the different lifestyles and characters of the two families. The two spaces seem to indicate the feeling of pre and post child rearing.
In this scene we see the composed organised nature. The fireplace creates a structure that is mirrored by the tables frame. The houses’ ordered and symmetrical nature is even mirrored in the body language of the central actors – the hands sit in a closed and defensive position. Every aspect of the mise-en-scene communicates the organised and ordered.
The domestic space of Juno’s house is shot with an orange tanned hint. This communicates warmth, as opposed to the cool bright light of the organised space of the adopting parents’ home. Even the shot position indicates a sense of disorganised – or at least something of a laissez-faire attitude – as we view over the shoulder with the head still popping in the scene occasionally. The sense of the domestic is further communicated by the collection of photographs sat in disorder, this is opposed to the ordered paintings and ornaments that fill the adoptive parents’ home.
There is a difference between the “natural” story time and narrative, plot or screen time. Essentially recording natural time would require filming every movement in real time. If a woman leaves her house after receiving a phone call. If this sequence was recorded in natural time it would require at least 30 minutes. This would include collecting her keys, her handbag, putting her shoes on, going to the toilet, walking to the door, opening it, locking it and walking to her destination. Instead of showing all this extended action in natural time the director can cut out all of the ‘unnecessary’ action and reduce 30 minutes into 1 minute. A simple cut, fade or dissolve [All indicating different amounts of time passes] can facilitate the movement in natural time. Instead of the long sequence we could be shown the end of the phone call, a cut to her placing her shoes on then a cut to her walking down a highstreet into a block of flats. Three simple cuts reduce the screen time but, one logically accepts, retains natural times’ affects on the temporal environment of the screen world and the characters’ involved- in essence if it was twelve at her leaving then it should be half twelve at her arrival at the flat. This simple and basic technique allows narratives to span large spatial and temporal distances without the need to follow dull action. This editing technique could transform a boring home movie of forty minutes length watching a whale performing tricks into a snappy interesting scene of a few minutes; the manipulation of time, through elliptical editing, is central to the movement of a narrative. Elliptical editing at its most extreme can be used to make two vastly different spatial and temporal arenas collide. This technique is famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968), in which the spatial temporal environment of the ape is linked, or matched to give its correct term, to a space station orbiting around earth. [ A match-cut is where two spatial environments and actions are linked by a cut, however I will explore that basic film technique in another post].