NOTES ON FILM by Ana Čavić

1. Be away, The Age of Innocence, 1993, directed by Martin Scorsese



Film is not a medium where you would naturally expect to find notes let alone be asked to read them while watching a film. Notes appeared on film more often when film was in its infancy. Initially, speech in the form of notes was used in silent film as a substitute for sound. Once the technology of black and white film was sophisticated enough for camera lenses to capture detail, notes were enthusiastically embraced by directors such as Orson Welles. As film matured as a medium it distanced itself from notes and other forms of writing e.g. novels, plays, manuscripts etc. from which it originates. The earliest narrative, feature-lenght film was in fact a novel adaptation, though too literal and faithful the written form, it has gone down in film history as a complete failure, a 'flop'. However, throughout film history, notes have made it on film to great effect, especially where the directors intended them to be read by the viewer.


A note might replace the narrator in a film e.g. you might see a character reading a letter silently and then you might hear their mental 'inner' voice read the letter out aloud. In the case of the note Madam Olenska sent her lover Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence1, you see him reading her note, then hear his voice 'reading' her words, then hear her voice 'writing' the words as it were, and finally hear his voice again reading the note up to the end.

A note might also replace dialogue between two characters as the clandestine letters exchanged between Sam and Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom5, their plot to escape the adults appears flat against the frame in big, honest childish handwriting. In Bright Star6, the poet John Donne and his love interest Fanny Browne exchange not only love letters but poems in place of dialogue.

5. Suzy reads Sam's letter & Sam's letter, Moonrise Kingdom, 2012, directed by Wes Anderson

2. Dr. Emmett Brown reads a time travelling note, Back to the Future, 1985, directed by Robert Zemeckis

A note can establish time or tense in a film. A note might be from the past or the future, allowing the character (and the viewer) to reminisce about the past or indeed to imagine the future. The 'future-past' and 'past-future' note in Back to the Future2 presented the viewer with nothing less than a time paradox–and this was the 1980s! Time-travelling films might also employ 'dated' notes or notes from another time as proof of the existence another time, thus authenticating the internal logic of 'film time'. In Memento3, the polaroids belonging to the main character Leonard, who suffers from memory loss, appear in the correct chronological sequence while the film and the character themselves do not, to mind-blowing effect.

6. Fanny Brawne seeks out the scent of the poet John Keats, Bright Star, 2009, directed by Jane Campion

And of course, the director might use a note as a device to propel the plot, a note then becomes a replacement for an action.


Other directors have used notes literally on their films, rather than in them. Other than experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brackhage who physically scratched into film to produce abstract notations, more mainstream directors Peter Greenaway and Bernardo Bertolucci have used notes as a fabric of the film itself. In Prospero's Books7, Greenaway layers notes within the frame through composing frames within frames as well as applying transparencies so that notes blend in and out of other notes. In one of the most interesting uses of notes on film Bertolucci layers his heroine's hand-written poetry on top of the film so that her words leap directly form her pen and appear one after the other, on the screen itself, framing her in.


Notes on film are a fascinating manifestation of the note form, all the more for appearing in a medium that at first glance might not seem naturally compatible. And it isn't. Nevertheless certain directors–through the magic of film–have managed to make notes an integral, interesting part of the film, giving them a whole other life, on film. There is definitely something to be said for 'notes on film'.

3. Annotated polaroids, Memento, 2000, directed by Christopher Nolan

7.Prospero's Books, 1991, directed by Peter Greenaway

A note might also function as a film equivalent of what in theatre is called an 'aside', allowing a character to show something to the viewer without the other characters knowing. Robbie Turner, a soldier dying on the front line in Atonement4, shares his unwritten letter to his lover Cecillia Tallis with the viewer alone, moments before his film death and the intended recipient of course remains none the wiser.

To bring the truth outside, Stealing Beauty, 1996, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

4. Atonement, 2007, directed by Joe Wright