In his essay 'Introduction to Film Studies' (Oxford Guide to Film Studies), Richard Dyer draws a distinction between two main approaches which have been developed: the 'formal aesthetic' and the 'social-ideological'. Explain in your own words what you understand by this distinction and then, using a film that has not been taught to you on the module, show how the two kinds of analysis could be applied. You should draw on wider reading from the module in support of your own account. How compatible do you feel the two approaches are?
Within this essay I intend to convey my understanding of Richard Dyers' knowledge regarding the 'social-ideological' and 'formal aesthetic' approaches to analyse 'K-PAX'1, my chosen film. To begin with, I will explain the 'Formal aesthetic' approach. One view that the formal aesthetic approach takes is that for a film to be classed as 'good' there must be something that stands out about the production that is a substantial enough reason for this to be reviewed positively. "... film is worth studying because art is itself is worth studying and film is art. (Dyer p. 5)
Film has its roots firmly placed within the world of art; by this I mean that art in itself is an expression of the artists' personal view on the image that is being created, for example, a painting. To differentiate the two (a painting or film), I liken the image of film to that of a 'moving photo-copy' of a given situation instead of a painting, which is similar, but is a more personalised creation; this makes the painting a lesser realistic image than that of film.
Instead of having been created by a singular artist as, for example a piece of art sculpture, film has many 'artists' collaborating many eclectic talents to envisage a piece of work and view it as a whole. The language of film has various codes of structure. These include sound, narrative, editing, lighting and mise-en-scene. There are two forms of sound that apply within film: Diagetic sound is coming from a source within the production i. e. a jukebox in a pub; Non-diagetic sound is placed over the top of the film during the editing period.
The sound and music is an important factor as these denote the mood of a film, whether this relates to the title track (intro), or simply a dramatic sequence of events within the narrative. This provokes the viewer into a subconscious feeling of either anxiety, happiness or other such feelings relating to the genre of music that is being used. As well as sound, lighting plays an influential part in creating a certain mood and it gives atmosphere.
For example, if a scene of extreme climatic tension within a horror film uses little light with inserts of flashing light this would invoke nervousness within the viewer; thus lighting creates the desired atmosphere within each given genre. The narrative of a production is initially in script form and has been carefully researched and articulated together to form the flowing structure over the pace of the film. This is widely known within the film community, but to the viewer the storyline seems natural as if it were a real circumstance.
Editing is another important aspect of the film process. The editing of a film can change the mood or feel of a scene due to the fact that if a scene of seven minutes was cut down to four minutes, a lot of the intimate details of character building, or plot points of the narrative would be lost. This knowledge of change would only be with the creators of the production and the unaware viewer would be none the wiser (except for the recent adage of the 'Home DVD' which, in some cases, gives the viewer the choice to examine the 'cutting room floor' of the edit suite).
The pace of the edit also goes hand in hand with the pace of the narrative, for example if the shot is of two characters calmly talking to each other then the pace of the editing would be much slower than that of a scene in which a murder was taking place for this would work well with many short and fast edits giving the impression of speed. Finally, we have mise-en-scene. This is the deconstruction of the films apparatus and its appearance; such as people, props, colours, clothes etc. The term 'Mise-en scene' literally means 'what we see on screen' and often helps to create mood and atmosphere as well as setting the scene.
I will now move on to discussing the 'Social-ideological' approach. This is the combination of two fundamentally different meanings. 'Social' comes from 'Sociology' which is the way in which we study human behaviour and 'Ideological' comes from 'Ideology' which examines the controlling influences on the structural development and beliefs within each culture. Therefore, Social-Ideological analysis of a film is a way to describe the ways in which society emotionally interacts with a production and also to ask what affect the film has on the culture and the relevance to each cultural belief system.
Political scrutiny is also included within this form of analysis, for film is an opportunists' dream. What better way to reach a mass audience than the power of film, even if the argument was to be biased? When seen in the film form, the audience is persuaded by the talented crew that what they are seeing, even if absurd at times, could actually be possible, factual or even truthfully historical. On talking politics, to quote 'Dyer': "... culture of all kinds and brows produces, reproduces, and/ or legitimizes forms of thought and feeling in society and that the well-being of people in society is crucially affected and shaped by this. (Dyer p. 8)
I will now use these two analytical approaches and apply them to my chosen film of study: K-PAX. "In order to be effective, some motion pictures... require their audiences to engage in behaviour which is often referred to as the 'willing suspension of disbelief'. " (Berardinelli)4 The film K-PAX has many insights into the human behavioural character and leaves it up to the audience to make up their mind as to who Prot really is. There are many underlying themes within the film with a strong emphasis on the importance for family contact and human closeness within a given society.
It shows the delicate nature of the human psyche by inviting the viewer to realise the problems that societal structure can create. The use of a psychiatric institute is itself an analogy for how fragile society can be; and that it takes an 'outsider' to create a balance in an unstable environment (ironically it is this 'outsider' that is considered unstable himself). On the planet K-PAX there are no families as we humans think of them and the children are raised not by their biological parents, or group, but by everyone as a whole unit, learning from every sequential individual.
There are no marriages, no societal structure and no laws. From this observation the doctor is disturbed by this and asks how Prote knows right from wrong. His reply is simple: "Every being in the universe knows right from wrong". (Spacey, 2001)5 Dr. Powell has problems of his own; his family are being pushed aside due to his work commitments and he has lost touch with his son from a previous marriage. When looked at this way it isn't so difficult for the viewer to empathise with Prots' upbringing on K-PAX.
Powell is constantly opposing these new ideas from his patient and although intrigued, tries desperately to control the situation that is being imposed on him, to believe the unbelievable. As a society we are constantly trying to control our own survival, be it socially, economically, politically, or even through religion and yet change is inevitable; but we strive to retain our own individual and cultural beliefs to the point where we are blinded by our ignorance, that we know all there is to know and this is not a positive attitude to have within any given society or culture.
During the middle section of the film the patients all look to Prot as a guide, a teacher that they could listen to and understand, unlike the disbelieving society that the staff have provided; they individually become 'disciple-like' in terms of a religious view point - Prot is their 'Jesus' and on his words, they act out their belief in him by completing various tasks on their own journey towards enlightenment. This is a good example of how easily people can conform to ideas within small groups of social structure.
At the round up of discovering Prot's real past the psychiatrist finds turbulence within his patient's family history, his wife and child being raped and murdered, thus the doctor surmises it was this terrible act that lead to Prots' breakdown with reality; this violence shows just how fragile stability is in a society and the chaos and indecency people can be exposed to in everyday life. There are many aesthetic aspects to analyse within 'K-PAX'. The non-diagetic music within the introduction is simply a piano with an accompanying beat and is expressing the 'thoughtful' tone of the film.
Even though the viewer is unaware of any images of trains we can denote the opening shot is set in a train or bus station, thus denoting the arrival of something or someone. We can conclude this due to the high angle shot that gives us a much larger perspective and shows us many people walking with a purpose; also the diagetic overtone of a speaker relaying arrival times. The use of light is a crucial element within K-PAX, not only as set lighting but light as imagery also, because Prot travels within light as a transport itself.
This is why on the light rays pointing through the large bay window the viewer sees a feather highlighted in the suns rays slowly floating to the ground. The next shot is a of a bemused onlooker trying to see through the passing crowd, a quick edit, back to the rays of light and there is Prote. The jump in edits between the feather then the onlooker then Protes' arrival is tantalisingly fast thus giving the impression of faster than light travel. There is a constant use of light imagery throughout the entire film.
Light reflecting off a glass paperweight in Powells' office for example was used both as a reminder to the audience of the unnatural nature of Prot himself and also in the context that Powell is constantly wondering about this new patient of his and that everywhere he looks there is a link back to Prot. The use of subdued lighting within Powells' office is a good way to emphasise the bonding of the main characters. Prot sees easier under twilight conditions and the doctor has chosen to give in a little to this whim of a fantasy (trying to build trust); it also adds a relaxing atmosphere to a situation that is anything but.
This idea that Prots' eyes are biologically and optically different from our own eyes is directly linked to the films' theme of light; it shows that Prot would have a different perspective on the natural world and it becomes a metaphor for looking at the world from a different standpoint and also for understanding other peoples' points of view. Light is also the films metaphor for understanding the complications of change and of understanding oneself.
For example, during every emotional scene light is being conveyed as an image one way or the other, as either rays of light in a slight breeze, or ripples of light like the flowing of water during the scene of Prots' regression hypnotherapy session (a relaxant for both the audience and the character, lulling both into the calm state of mind that is needed within regression). The reflections of light in the film are also there for artistic impression for this creates an ambient atmosphere (another reflection of Prot) and I believe this to be quite beautiful imagery.
One can see the use of image reflection during the point were the doctor can see Prot through the two-way mirrored glass. As the viewer wonders whether Prot can actually also see the doctor looking back at him their faces merge together beautifully in the glass giving the illusion of them becoming one and whole. We have a visual metaphor here that probes the idea that although we are all individuals with different agendas we are also part of a larger society striving to work together to overcome adversity.
This mirror imagery also hints at the idea that these two characters must overcome their differences and work together. The mise-en-scene within the film has its layers; for example the clothing of Powell is retrospective of what a psychiatrist (in film) would tend to look like. The audience would expect a man in a tailored suit who rarely, if ever, dresses in a more casual outfit. This is exactly what the viewer gets and shows conformity within film genre society.
There is only one scene in the whole film when Dr. Powell is dressed in a relaxed outfit, during a family gathering, but even then he shows no sign of relaxing as he continues to question his patients' validity. This is another example of the deep involvement in his work and the lack of interest in social life. Prots' clothing is very normal, comprising of a shirt, jacket and plain trousers, all of which are a dark colour. This emphasises that underneath the surreal claims he could really be a human; all apart from his sunglasses, which he always wears, showing us that he isn't quite normal at all.
The colours in the film are sharp and defined as to say that they agree with the context of the hospital with the clean and clinical feel of white and greys. These are also a major indication that this is not a film set in an open or realistic world environment but in the confined spaces of a psychiatric ward and shows again the need for the patients to escape to a better place on K-PAX. These two approaches, Social-Ideological and Formal Aesthetic, are essentially compatible because to choose to do an ideological analysis of any given film is making it necessary to deal with the aesthetic approach also.
This is due to the constant reactions that happen, unintentionally between the two. For example, to look at the lighting of a set (aesthetic), not only is it there for a defining picture but also to create mood due to the circumstances of the film and this atmosphere has an ideological affect on the tone of the film and the audiences' own mood. Therefore the question of how we should study film is answered by using a convergence of both the aesthetic and ideological analysing approaches to reach a suitable conclusion of study on any piece of film.