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By Andrew M. Butler
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2008 Andrew M Butler
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Some Early Film Theorists
In The Beginning ...
There was a moment in 1896 when the Russian Maxim Gorky described the experience of watching a film for the first time. It was a haunted world of soundless grey: a frozen picture of a train shuddering into life, complete with passengers and porters going about their voiceless lives. Fascinated though he was by it, Gorky could not see what purpose this new form had apart from being a money-making novelty. It was possible, he thought, that it may have some scientific purpose, for education, but it seemed all too likely that it was going to have something to do with sex.
Whilst Gorky's attendance at a film show was right at the dawn of cinema – Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas Lumière (1862–1954) and Louis Jean Lumière (1864–1948) patented a combined camera/projector in February 1895 and started showing short films in March – the medium had a long prehistory. Magic lanterns had been used for entertainment and education, but the fact that these were usually developed on glass plates limited the possibilities for a projection speed rapid enough to give the illusion of movement. Eadweard Muybridge had taken pictures of a horse in movement which could be strung together to show a brief sequence, and devices such as the zoetrope and the kinetoscope used principles akin to flicker books and optical illusions to show (but not project) movement. Thomas Edison, Louis Le Prince, William Friese Greene and Wordsworth Donisthorpe were among those trying to crack the problem – and Donisthorpe may have used a newly developed celluloid filmstock to film Trafalgar Square as early as 1890. According to Stephen Herbert, Donisthorpe, a libertarian, had anti-socialist views, and Trafalgar Square was a frequent point of civil protest; it is possible he wanted to use the film as part of a political lecture. It is clear that the technology of film was an idea whose time had come – what was less clear, for Gorky at least, was what it was for.
According to Tom Gunning, cinema up to about 1904 was a series of fairground attractions and spectacles: a man drinking a pint of beer, a wall being demolished and even Gorky's train arriving at a station. The films could be shown in reverse; a man spitting out a pint of beer, a wall being restored, a train reversing out of a station. On the one hand, film might be a depiction of reality – such as the films that Lumière made in the streets around their workshops. On the other, film might attempt to create its own reality, as seen in the trick films made by the French magician George Méliès. The distinction in film between art and reality – to some extent a false one – is a continuing thread in the debate about the nature and aesthetics of film as film.
Hugo Münsterberg (1863–1916)
Across in America, the Danzig-born Hugo Münsterberg was starting work as a professor at Harvard. His background was in psychology, with a particular interest in the perception of time and space, as well as reaction times and the concept of the persistence of vision. He had studied with a number of academics who were developing what became known as Gestalt psychology – the idea that the mind locates patterns in the colours, smells, tastes, sounds and feelings it perceives and organises the individual's sense of the world. Münsterberg's books on psychology made him one of the best-known academics in the United States, although his nationalistic support for German culture and his criticism of American society began to turn public opinion against him, especially after the outbreak of the First World War. So it was that, in 1914, he saw his first film, Neptune's Daughter.
Having previously thought that it was not fitting for a respected professor to indulge in such a common activity as going to the movies, he gave himself wholeheartedly to the phenomenon, interviewing industry figures, visiting film studios and even trying to make his own examples. The result of his researches was an article for Cosmopolitan and the book, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, published just six months before he died in 1916. However, the book went out of print and was largely forgotten until 1970.
Münsterberg compared film to theatre, and noted that film stood at a greater distance from physical reality than a play did, and thus was closer to the mental processes of the individual. The drawbacks of early film – lack of sound, lack of colour (aside from some tinting processes) – kept the depiction in a realm of fantasy rather than being accepted as real. The dumbshow performances meant that the essence of emotions had to be communicated without words to the audience.
He was also interested in the way that film could distort space and time. On the one hand, the medium was literally two-dimensional, with flat images projected onto a flat screen, but on the other there was an illusion of space. Not only that, but the film could take the viewer to a limitless number of locations. More importantly, flashbacks, flashforwards, dreams and memories could represent the non-linear nature of our thoughts. In Darren Aronofsky's Pi (1997) the main character Max's descent into mania and madness is depicted in camerawork, as we view the world from his point of view. The cutting between him and a subway passenger whose newspaper he had borrowed creates the paranoid illusion that Max is being followed, when in fact the two are simply walking in the same direction. Our consciousness to some extent begins and ends with Max's.
Münsterberg also applied his interest in optical illusions to film, in the problem of distinguishing foreground from background, especially when the only colours are black and white. Repeatedly in Pi there are shots of white square tiles, which are echoed in the white foreground squares of the Go board. Alternately, this might be perceived as a black grid pattern on a white background. Looking at images, the mind decides that part of it – squares or grid – is in the foreground and the rest is background – black or white surfaces. Once you perceive the illusion, you can decide which to watch.
Münsterberg, borrowing a term from the German psychologists Max Wertheimer and A. Korte, suggested that the brain has a phi-phenomenon, in which the mind controls what it perceives, and fills in the gaps between perceptions. The outside world is shaped by our perceptions of it. The stockmarket numbers shown in Pi appear to move along the display boards, when actually the lights stay still and just turn on and off in sequence. Just as music was the art form of the ear and painting the art form of the eye, so film was the art form of the mind. The right pictures could bring a sense of emotional and mental harmony to the minds of the contemporary audience, something desperately important to Münsterberg in the era of mass production, moral relativism and industrialised warfare.
Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893–1953)
Back in Russia, actor, writer and director Pudovkin combined the rôles of theorist and practitioner. Like Münsterberg, he drew on psychology, but in his case it was Russian. At the start of the twentieth century, Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) had been experimenting with the idea of conditioning responses. In his classic experiment, Pavlov rang a bell whenever he fed a dog. The dog, associating the bell with food, would begin to salivate, even if food was not offered. Pudovkin reasoned that something similar would happen with human beings: if we perceive a particular gesture as associated with a given emotion, then the filmed gesture would indicate that emotion.
The rôle of the director was as a technician, who would guide the perception and response of a viewer through the linear structure of a film; the shift from, say, a long shot to a close up, was not something that jarred as other filmmakers feared, but represented the way that you suddenly focus on a detail in any situation. Of course Pudovkin assumes that audience reaction is predictable.
Pudovkin described a number of different editing techniques, which had different effects. Firstly, the impact of an image could be heightened by juxtaposing it with its opposite – poverty can be demonstrated in relation to wealth. In parallel editing, different events can be linked by a thread of continuity – perhaps best seen in the illusion of real time in the tv series 24. Equally, an abstract theme or symbolism could link two elements – like the Kabbala and the stockmarket are by mathematics in Pi. Two narratives can be linked together by editing to make them appear simultaneous – such as showing both sides in a chase sequence. It's not that we see the different scenes simultaneously, but that we hold them in our minds simultaneously. Finally, there is editing which depends on a recurring visual leitmotif, an object, shape or style of lighting recurring through a film, such as the circles, squares and spirals of Pi.
The film is built frame by frame, shot by shot, scene by scene, sequence by sequence, as if the filmmaker is a bricklayer building a wall. The viewer's reactions are shaped and marshalled, with a slow increase of tension throughout the film's duration – the sensible director being careful not to exhaust the audience by peaking too early. It is in editing that the meaning of the film actually lies.
Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948)
The filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein also felt the meaning of film lay in the editing, but sought discontinuity rather than continuity. He was influenced partly by the work of Lev Kuleshov (1899–1970), who had shown the same picture of a baby followed by a series of different images, discovering that the baby was perceived differently in each case. The meaning lay in the relation between the pictures rather than in the images themselves. Eisenstein exaggerated such contrasts with a technique known as dialectical montage.
He drew on the idea of dialectics as outlined by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) and Karl Marx (1818–1883). For Hegel dialectics is the way that concepts or ideas develop, in the process shaping the world. A thesis produces an antithesis, and the conflict between the two is resolved in a new synthesis. For Marx, there is no synthesis – the conflict, being irreconcilable, produces a further antithesis. Marx suggests that the history of the world is a history of irreconcilable struggles between classes – master and slave in Greek, feudal and capitalist societies. Through continual revolution, a better society can be created.
As edited by Eisenstein, one image – one cell – is juxtaposed with another, and the conflict between the two produces an emotion, helping the viewer towards a revolutionary (ideally Marxist) consciousness. On the one hand, the impact of film was to be a fairground attraction, with the excitement of a roller coaster; on the other it was a revolution in intellect.
In one sequence of Battleship Potemkin (1925) soldiers march down the seemingly endless Odessa Steps, massacring all that go before them. High angles are contrasted with low angles, close-ups with long shots, small objects with large, and so forth; sometimes we focus briefly on the fate of an individual, other times it is the mass of bodies that concerns us. After a while it becomes unclear where on the steps we are – near the top, near the bottom, halfway down the stairs ... the helplessness and panic of the people on the steps and the power of the army is created by the contrasts in angles and heights of the camera work.
The techniques of montage have now been absorbed into Hollywood and other cinemas. One example is the tour of Washington DC in Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939), which crossfades between locations and monuments, and signatures from the American Constitution. In a few minutes the viewer is given a potted military history of the United States from the War of Independence to the aftermath of the First World War, the musical accompaniment (including the British and American national anthems) adding to the emotions. Clearly Smith didn't go around Washington in chronological order, so an ideological or emotional reason must be sought for the choice to portray his tour in that order – a glorious past to be contrasted with a corrupt present, perhaps, but with the little boy and his grandfather at the Lincoln Memorial (for once not looking like a monkey) there is hope for the future.
The Capra-esque The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) has recourse to montage in its portrayal of the fall and rise of the hula-hoop – Norville Barnes's early demonstration of his invention gives way to a Kafka-esque sequence of accountants and designers, working on figures and stamping their approval. In silhouette we see the creative department devising names, whilst a secretary reads War and Peace; by the time they have decided she's well through Anna Karenina; meanwhile it is tested and manufactured and finally delivered to a shop. Cut to a toy shop window and the $3.99 price, soon slapped over with a lower price, a whole series of lower prices, then a sticker saying one is free with any purchase, and the disposal of the unwanted hoops. One hoop rolls across several streets to the feet of a waiting boy, who instinctively knows what to do, and then the kids want them, so the price goes back up.
Several months' of story time are compressed into a few minutes of screen time, as the narrative of the whole film is more concerned with his success or failure rather than the product itself. In the montage you lose sight of individual characters – we don't know the secretary, the creatives, the shopkeeper or any of the children by name, and Norville is sidelined as he anxiously watches the stock prices of Hudsucker Industries. The camera work draws attention to itself; when the hoop finds the kid, we move to an overhead shot, emphasising the move as the boy steps into the ring, the circle echoing Barnes's coffee ring on a newspaper, his hand-drawn design and even the clock at the top of the Hudsucker building.
Eisenstein argued that conflict is central to art in general and film in particular, because of its social mission, its nature and its methodology. Art should aim to expose and represent the complexities of the real world and to create correct political thinking in the viewer. There is then a conflict between the organic nature of the real world and the rational attempt to represent a portion of it. To maintain these contradictions, and to avoid too great an identification with the narrative, a dialectical style is necessary, with the relationship between two shots being more important than any single shot.
Whilst Eisenstein and Pudovkin disagreed on editing, they saw eye to eye on the coming of sound and the importance of unsynchronised sound, issuing a joint statement on the subject in 1928. Simply adding sound to pictures would lead to a greater sense of continuity between them (remember how music is used to link disparate locations in Mr Smith Goes To Washington), and thought may well give way to emotion and thus melodrama, especially with the introduction of theatrical-style dialogue. Whereas silent cinema was an international language (aside from intertitles), the introduction of sound would anchor each film in its native language. Instead, sound should be used to contrast with the images and add to the montage. Whilst their call went unheeded, there is no doubt that in the wake of synchronised sound, the expense of converting first studios and then cinemas to the new standard system allowed the bankers and the money-men to begin to call the shots in the film industry. Whilst India now makes more films than any other country, English is the orthodox language of film.
Rudolf Arnheim (b.1904)
Arnheim, a film theorist, again from a psychological background, also distrusted synchronised sound. He argued that no one would expect a painting to have a soundtrack, and that the same should be expected of film. Dialogue paralyses action and prevents the essence of emotions being portrayed through posture and facial expressions. However, he sees no need for film to replicate the colour palette of nature, like realist painting, preferring the aesthetics of black, white and grey. Black shows up as a shape against a white background and vice versa – this is particularly true in the dark blacks and bright whites of Pi, which always threaten to flip into a negative image in the mind's eye.
Just as the lack of sound and colour from early film is seen as a positive aspect of film art, so the two-dimensionality of film is also crucial; this is another way of distinguishing the form from theatre. In theatre, there are hundreds of different vantage points from which to view the action, whereas in a film the director has chosen the viewpoint and places the camera in a given spot. Through careful choice of camera position, what is seen may be manipulated.
Excerpted from Film Studies by Andrew M. Butler. Copyright © 2008 Andrew M Butler. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents
1. Some Early Film Theorists,
2. The Nuts And Bolts Of Film: Editing And Mise En Scène,
3. Auteur Theories,
5. Semiotics And Structuralism,
8. Queer Theory,
11. National Cinema,
12. Film Movements And Genres,