fWhy we like or dislike a film may rarely be in step with our conscious rationale of why.
Art is an odd spell and few of us know which of its words make us fall into a slumber and which snap us back to reality. The tiniest things can make all the difference - even a pink sweater instead of red...
We talk about liking the plot, the ideas, the look, the atmosphere, the music, the characters, the acting and all the combinations of the above. It is easier to quantify, understand and communicate these bigger and more obvious components of a film, and much harder to pin down the smaller parts that give each film its unique fingerprint.
We must struggle, too, with the idea that films may be made out of different components but that they categorically do not work on us in that way. These components cannot be fully separated once they have been put together.
One of the elements least (consciously) acknowledged when we look over our experience of a film is what we could call the work's 'musicality'. Yes, we may talk about a film being too long or too short, or about it moving too slowly or too quickly, but little else besides.
So what are we discussing when it comes to tempo, rhythm, length and timing?
Shot length / Placement of Cut
Is the shot too short or too long? In a film that sets its heartbeat at 40 a shot that lasts for a few minutes may be perfect. One such is a mesmerising journey on a train at the beginning of Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks.
One shouldn't underestimate the difference that a fraction of a second can make. Intrigue can flip to boredom at a moment's notice.
Is the movement of the camera or movement within the frame demanding a cut? Is the action inappropriately truncated? Has an emotional arc, or a developing ambience been betrayed?
Is the scene too short or too long? There will come a point where a scene will outstay its welcome or, on the other hand, stop when we wish it hadn't. This may only be felt as a barely perceptible twinge.
The pace/build of action and plot progression
Is the story being served properly? Is it being allowed to breathe the right air? Is it ahead of itself or behind? Is too much said too early or too late? Is there enough in the film to sustain the time given to it?
What is the mix of quickness and slowness? Is it too programmatic, episodic or set to one particular rhythm?
Time spent on each part of the story or each geographical location
Is too much emphasis placed on certain plot strands?
Let the Right One In, having established the core of the story as the relationship between the two youngsters and courted our interest with its flourishing, wastes a surfeit of time on Eli's quest for blood.
Timing of reactions to actions / Timing of Edits
We must bear in mind that actors aren't actually 'reacting' to what is news to the characters.
Let us take Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as an example. On multiple occasions people act and react a split second too early or too late, whether through the fault of the acting or of the editing. We are instinctively alarmed by the unnatural.
These are only brief thoughts, a polite pointing in the direction of something camouflaged. The right thing at the right time can produce magic; the right thing at the wrong time, discordance; wrong thing at the wrong time, ruin.
All of these elements form part of an overarching mother rhythm and length. Have we spent enough time extracting the juice of the story - exploring implications, feeling emotions, sensing surroundings...?
It is a mistake to think of a film as having one body with one unchanging rhythm. It changes itself and it changes as we change in response. It is constantly adapting itself to serve the story. You cannot think of a film as being in four-four time or six-eight.
This is not pro the metrics of cinema, which are intriguing as tools to map cinema's mechanical evolution, but of limited use in explaining our idiosyncratic thoughts or sensations. Such-and-such a technique can never guarantee such-and-such an effect. We can say that something made us feel in a certain way but there are no universal conclusions to be drawn.
It is for each of us to feel and, in any way we can, explain our individual responses.
It is useful, nevertheless, to be aware of what may have an influence on the viewer. We should try and engage with the musical in film, that which flits between the scientific, the personal and the philosophical
This musical nature will make or break a film in spite, often, of everything else within it.