An Essay on Film Form & Existentialism

Film, as a medium, has only existed for around a century, and as with any form of applied art, has undergone many transitions in method, purpose and structure. The elements that form part of a films structure, and the principles applied in the making is key to the essence of a film (Bordwell and Thompson 2012:50-57). Although the way they are understood is ever changing these aspects make up some of the most prominent processes any filmmaker will use during the production of a film. When considered collectively, they can be referred to as ‘film form’.

Over the years, film has played a significant role in many areas, for example in how the modern human thinks and views life. Yet if not for film form, film would not have had the same impact, directed by conventions that understand how to reach a human audience. But does film form function separately from the human whose experience is affected by its suggestion, and above a filmmaker using it in achieving an intended result? Or does the very essence of film form depend on subjective human experience and understanding, without which film form may be rendered impotent.

Humans existed long before the invention of film, and the application of film form. Together with the development of humanity, ancient cultures and ways of thinking were established. There have been direct influences by these ideas and traditions that have influenced the way humans reason and understand. Over time, these experiences has contributed to shaping human subjectivity as we know it, forming the understanding of the individual.

According to Bordwell and Thompson (2012:51-52), the mind of the individual enjoys finding patterns in things. Patterns help to promote viewer expectations, urging the viewer to sustain interest, and steering them towards a deliberately expected or surprising conclusion. These patterns are subconsciously recognised by the audience, which is one of the reasons they are effective in their purpose. The human subconscious is however, filled with past experience, knowledge of traditional narrative structures, the results of all the films an individual might have seen, and many other elements that were set there intentionally, or not, guiding the individual to their rational and emotional conclusions, as well as their expectations, of the film.

Bordwell and Thompson (2012:56-57) also emphasizes that feeling, or emotion plays a significant role in viewer experience of film form. Films that pursue ready-made emotions, emotions that have, for the most cases, simple and expected turnouts, bring the viewer’s emotional references into query, suggesting previous personal or viewing experiences to find an appropriate response. This makes it very important for a film maker to understand the audience, and how to influence them, whilst using emotional triggers to support other elements in film form.

In conjunction, creating expectations, and delivering on them, is integral in a filmmaker’s quest to obtain audience involvement, and emotional investment in their film. The use of posters, theatrical trailers or promotions help create broader, less specific expectations. However expectations formed during the runtime of a film coaxes viewers to actively participate in their viewing experience. Delaying or changing expectations create tension, allowing for a more potent payback when it is finally delivered upon. Bordwell and Thompson (2012:54-55) explain that expectations are guided by experience of the world and other films, helping viewers understand formal cues, and their implications. Emotional triggers as well as narrative, stylistic, and structural elements are used to coax a viewers expectations in a certain direction. Things that can only be understood if the viewer has past experience or knowledge to refer to.

Every film has meaning at some level. It can be straightforward or intricate, but meaning, to an extent, is what sets film apart from simple footage. Bordwell and Thompson (2012:57-60) suggest that a film contains four levels of meaning. The first is known as the referential meaning, in other words, simply what we see and hear on screen. This is straightforward, and the viewer can be from almost any background to understand it. However, in the next two levels of meaning, a viewer might need deeper understanding of the context.

Bordwell and Thompson (2012:58-60) state that explicit, and implicit meaning, reaches deeper into the message the filmmaker is communicating. It may comment on religion, society, and an individual’s beliefs may be questioned, thus commenting on social factors beyond the obvious. Not everyone in the world can link the topics contained in a film, to real life situations. This is where the intended meaning, and the viewers understanding thereof might not agree, once again showing an aspect where film form depends on the interpretation of the individual.

When looking at the final level of meaning, symptomatic meaning, it is also clear that it depends on the viewer’s references. Posing questions in social values and ideology, symptomatic meaning applies to society as a whole, and what it means to everyone.  This is the level of meaning that associates the viewers with those around them, allowing for inter-subjective interpretation of the film, and its message. Yet even though symptomatic meaning delves into the understanding of others, it still depends on the individuals perspective and framework of reference, and how they understand the world around them (Bordwell and Thompson 2012:57-60).

Film conventions play a significant role in the way films are made, and thus, seen. Bordwell and Thompson (2012:56) suggest that conventions relate films to each other, pulling from the viewers previous experiences, and using them to contribute to their film. Bordwell and Thompson (2012:56) clearly state that conventions, like methods for exposition and sustaining genre, build on each other, and change over time. However, where conventions depend on development in the medium itself, film form, in some areas, depend on elements that are not exclusively linked to film. Traditional narrative, natural human response to emotion, reason, and other elements of society and the human psyche are all of importance in the functioning of film form.

To a filmmaker, the mind of the audience is the client, a client that needs to be understood when planning the function, structure and development of a production. Even when evaluating a film with objective criteria, it is still the mind, the subjective mind, that finally decides on a stance. A good example being what Bordwell and Thompson (2012:61) references as the ‘guilty pleasures’ that some people find in films generally considered to be bad. Further establishing that every individual is influenced by a lifetimes history of experiences, perhaps even subconsciously guiding their opinions.

This important factor, the subjective factor, has influenced film form in many ways. But seeing the role that it has on film form, it may not be as removed, or controlling as it might seem. Maybe the very essence of film form does not depend adversely on human experience, but it is the very expression thereof. This perhaps explains why essence of film form has after all proven itself to be rather potent in its function to help shape the human individuals, cinematic experience.


Bordwell, D & Thompson, K. 2012. The significance of film form, in Bordwell, D & Thompson, K. Film art: an introduction. 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill: 50-68.

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