Closed vs Open Film Forms

Leo Braudy discusses the terms that he could use when considering open and closed films, and first states that he could simply call open and closed, “realistic and expressionistic” film styles (44). He also tells us that it’s important to not just look at one element of the film that we find promising or important, but to consider the overall effect of the film and the way it impacts our thoughts and impressions. Braudy also considers diegesis (or narrative) and states, “such a story becomes a film only because film is a prevalent medium of our time, not because any essence of the story is best conveyed by a film” (45). By presenting a diegesis in film form, the story becomes much more “realistic” and the world presented is exponentially more revealing and applicable to our own lives and narratives (Braudy 45). As a viewer of film, Braudy’s understanding of film is especially important because it illuminates the way that film is situated within constructed or realistic worlds so that the audience can best understand the narrative and present it in a way and medium that is relatable and understandable to us as contemporary viewers.

Braudy ultimately informed the way I watched the film (and clips) for this week. He explains in The Open and the Closed that “closed film” and that it can be defined as, “the world of the film is the only thing that exists; everything within it has its place in the plot of the film—every object, every character, every gesture, every action” (Braudy 46). The diegesis that is occurring within the film is only in that screen frame, “the screen totally defines the world inside as the picture does” (Braudy 48). We could think of the film, Beauty and the Beast (1991) as a closed film style because we don’t have any indication that there is anything happening before or after the events within the film occur. Beauty and the Beast (1991) only occurs within a small town and only within that town does a beast exist that has been turned from a man into a beast through the use of magic. It is also only within this reality that Belle is able to save him from his beastly destruction and turn him back into a human. This could problematize the way that we think about Braudy’s understanding of the closed film, in that it could be the beginning of an exploration within our class to discuss this idea as well. I would put forth the assertion that because Beauty and the Beast (1991) is animated, it does complicate Braudy’s closed film style definition because it extends our understanding of the world within the frame and the viewer has to first believe that an animated world is feasible in the first place and understand the context of that constructed world through animation.

Beauty and the Beast (1991) Taken from

Beauty and the Beast (1991) Taken from

While watching The Movies Begin, Vol. 1, I was struck by the way that the characters were partaking in, what Braudy coins as, an “open film” style (2.05-6:30) (Braudy 47). Braudy explains that open film is conveys the way that “the world of the film is a momentary frame around an ongoing reality. The objects and the characters in the film existed before the camera focused on them and they will exist after the film is over” (47). In The Movies Begin, Vol. 1, the series first shows a kiss, then serpentine dances, the Sandow strongman, boxing, cockfighting, a barber shops, and lastly, seminary girls moving about their common room. Furthermore, the reason that these particular sets of clips are open is due to their ability to show you a flash of action and then cut to another scene of action. (In this case, I would argue that they are all centered around different types of dancing and movement in some ways, but I digress.) Each individual clip shows the lives of people that are in different venues and life situations, but it shows them at a particular moment in time, reminding us of “open film” style, because we know that life is going on before these moments and their lives will continue after these moments, as well (Braudy 47). Braudy furthers the idea of the “open film” style, and pushes us to think about the ways that some films that use open film style are able to not present a happy ending, but an ending that is, in some ways, more realistic and more like our own world and our own reality. He asserts that “it is the open film that considers the truth of a world outside the self. The truth of the closed film is the truth of subjectivity” (51). We are threatened by the idea that we cannot know what will happen in open film styles, and he gives some examples, such as Lang and Hitchcock, which worry and scare us as film-goers. How might we categorize the clips we saw this week? Are they open film or closed film styles? Why does it matter if a film is a closed or open style? Are there ever ways in which films are both closed and open styles? Might these types of discursive terms limit film styles?

An Open-and-Closed Case for Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”

The scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days where Otilia discovers Gabita’s aborted fetus (1:38:23 to 1:39:07) is, in the basest sense, the moment to which the whole film has been building—the pay-off, as it were, grotesque though it may be. Here, the camera is positioned in such a way that it assumes our role as spectator; the tableau presented—a frontal image of the fetus itself, curled in a blood-stained white towel on the bathroom floor—is the centerpiece of the shot, even as Otilia busies herself with the task of wrapping it up and placing it in her purse.

This section interests me for a few reasons, but in particular it’s a useful shot to examine through Braudy’s theory of “open” and “closed” cinema. I will admit to having some difficulty distinguishing between these two proposed “types”—though Braudy himself spares me some embarrassment when he says that open and closed films “are…often in practice intertwined” (44). To me, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days feels in some ways open, for “[t]he objects and characters in the film existed before the camera focused on them and will exist after the film is over” (46-7); this is emphasized by the chyron at the start informing us we are in 1987 Romania—reminding us explicitly of both a “then” and a “now,” an inside world and an outside world—and the abrupt way in which the film ends with Otilia and Gabita in the middle of an unappetizing meal, highlighting what Braudy might call the characters’ failure to “[escape] the conflicts that [the film] has helped to articulate” (50).

But, ultimately, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days feels like a closed film. The camerawork, especially as the film nears its end—with Otilia running through the nighttime streets, the camera jostling in time with her panicked footsteps in what Braudy might call a Lang-like move—seems designed to promote “a claustrophobic identification of our point of view with that of the character” (48). The aforementioned bathroom scene is similarly claustrophobic, but even more than this sense of confinement, I am interested in Braudy’s concept of “[v]oyeurism…[as] the proper mixture of freedom and compulsion: free[dom] to see something dangerous and forbidden, conscious that one wants to see and cannot look away” (49).

Braudy associates closed cinema strongly with Hitchcock, and consequently—albeit, perhaps unintentionally—with the horror and suspense genres. The shot of Gabita’s aborted fetus—though presented by the camera matter-of-factly, and without any dramatic musical sting typical of a Hitchcock-style film—is arguably the single most explicit image in the movie. I hesitate to call it a gross-out image, as Mungiu’s intentions never feel exploitative or even particularly lurid, but suffice it to say that seeing a bloodied fetus is not entirely dissimilar from witnessing the bodily horrors that befall a character in, say, a Cronenberg movie.

As I said at the start, this bloodied fetus is also a foregone conclusion: Gabita is told earlier to go to the bathroom when she feels the fetus dislodging, and its disposal is essential to the success of the women’s plan. We know, even if only dimly, that the abortion will have to reach its logical end; what we don’t know, until that moment in the bathroom, is how complicit the filmmaker, the camera itself, will make us in the proceedings—and such “implicat[ion]” of the viewer is essential to Braudy’s definition of closed filmmaking (50).

Mungiu spares us, at first, from the actual discovery, providing instead a medium shot of Otilia in the bathroom doorway, looking in on what we can only assume is the fetus. The camera then moves to its spectator position, the fourth-wall facing out of the bathroom; however, it stays in Otilia’s line of sight. It is not until Otilia rises and leaves the doorway that the camera pans down to show the fetus itself—leaving us, the viewers, as the only ones present in this moment. I think here that Mungiu means neither to castigate us for viewing this image or abiding the abortion itself, nor to appall us with the undeniably humanoid features of a second-trimester fetus; in other words, the film does not seem to want us to make a moral judgment about when life begins or whether the Romanian government is right to have criminalized abortion.

Rather, because we have been asked to identify so strongly with Otilia throughout the film—indeed, Mungiu seems more interested in the emotional toll of loyal friendship on Otilia than that of terminating a pregnancy on Gabita—in this moment we are meant to feel what she feels: horror, disgust, a sort of reckoning with the reality of the situation she’s found herself in. We are implicated in the events, per Braudy’s definition, but we are not asked to sympathize with the fetus. For important sociopolitical reasons outside the realm of this particular analysis, not to mention the film itself—that is, the distinctly American, evangelistic tendency to personify aborted fetuses—I hesitate to compare the fetus in this instance to, for example, the dead body in a horror movie; however, in the latter instance it is surely typical to feel both shock and sorrow at the loss of life.

And while there is something inherently shocking about the sight of an aborted fetus wrapped in a dirty towel in a cramped hotel bathroom—the incongruity between the medical and the domestic is surprising—the sorrow we are meant to feel at this moment in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is for Otilia. This is reinforced by the camera’s emphasis on Otilia’s hands as she covers the fetus, the rushed improvisation of emptying her purse to create a vessel to transport it; we do not see her face again until the fetus has been placed inside the purse—until the immediate cause of her anguish is once again out of sight, if not out of mind. Also given emphasis in this moment are Otilia’s rapid, shallow breaths—an intimate detail, perhaps more telling than her facial expression itself (which we see earlier in the scene, before the initial reveal of the fetus).

The moment is tactile, visceral—an entrée for us as viewers into Otilia’s physical and emotional reality—and entirely in-keeping with Braudy’s belief that closed cinema “teaches us about ourselves” (50) through the example set by the characters upon whom the director focuses his or her attention. Mungiu’s focal point, both figuratively and oftentimes literally, is Otilia: even in a scene like this one, where she is located in the physical background of the shot, she remains always in the emotional foreground.