I think one of the most difficult things to balance in film is tone and mood. As audience members, we don’t much notice it while watching (unless it’s done poorly and even then we probably don’t understand why what we’re watching doesn’t ring true), but this balance is what really draws the viewer into the story. It’s how a writer and/or director decide both what they want to tell the viewer, and what they want the viewer to feel about that story. Technically mood and tone are separate things, but a truly genius director plays them off of each other so well, they become one compass pointing the viewer down his or her chosen path. When tone and mood are perfectly balanced and perfectly played, they allow the viewer to not only experience what the director wishes them to, but also to relate that to their own experience and pull something personal of their own from the film, perhaps even beyond what the director intends. The perfect execution of tone and mood in combination allows the message of the film to be delivered with razor sharp precision.
I think that this is an incredibly hard balance to achieve. A subtle message with an appropriate tone can be destroyed by too heavy of a mood, and the message will be lost in the emotion or will confuse the audience. At the same time, tone lacking appropriate mood will come off as wooden or disingenuous.
Let’s talk about District 9 since I mentioned it in my last post and I think the general audience this blog reaches will have seen it. In my opinion, the point of District 9 was to really make the viewer think about what humanity is and about what makes us human, as well as to consider some of the things that make us less human, like racism. Things are probably going to get pretty spoilerrific from this point on, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading and go rent it. (No really. It’s a great movie. Go.) Giving the film the guise of a documentary was a brilliant move by Blomkamp. It allowed the tone of the film to seem neutral and present what could have been a very preachy message in a way that allowed for the audience to decide what they felt for themselves. “Just the facts, ma’am.” It is the way that Blomkamp plays the mood of the film off of this tone that guides the viewer to see things in just the light he intends. I think because the documentary aspect makes the tone so very subtle, we can see Wikus as the completely flawed character that he is, but later still empathize with him instead of rooting for his downfall. And the reason we don’t root for his downfall is because of the way Blomkamp plays mood off of tone. We feel for Wikus, just as we feel for the prawn, Christopher. He makes both characters identifiable to us by using mood and gradually pulls us into the story. The documentary aspect gradually drops away, and the film becomes more intense as he, the writer/director, has more to say to us. Tone becomes stronger as the climax of the film descends on us and Christopher and his son escape. At the moment Wikus makes his choice to help them escape, he is presented through the use of tone as the most human he has been thus far, yet at this point he has physically become so alien that even alien technology recognizes him as such. As the climax of the film recedes, so does the tone. It goes back to more of a documentary feel, and again mood takes over as we see Wikus completely turned prawn as his wife speaks about him to the camera. It’s brilliant and it’s beautiful and it’s that perfect balance of tone and mood that makes it all possible.