Archive for the ‘International Cinema’ Category

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Film as Language: The Method and Form of Sergei Eisenstein

05/05/2011

[Editor’s Note: This is another really long end-of-the-semester type papers.  But its worth the time if you’re interested in Sergei Eisenstein.]

   “Now why should the cinema follow the forms of theater and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts of ideas to arise from the combination of two concrete denotations of two concrete objects? Language is much closer to film than painting is.” – Sergei Eisenstein, A Dialectic Approach to Film Form (1949)

            Sergei Eisenstein considered the communicative power of film as a combination of previously established art forms to be the highest expression of human emotion.   It was his understanding that all human expression is born out of conflict.  Not aggravated conflict (as in one man murdering another) but in passive conflict (as in disunity, or spatial/temporal/auditory distinction).  For instance, a prerequisite for the articulation of human emotion is a clear personal distinction between emotions.  This distinction is only possible through process, i.e. a person is happy, and then the person is sad.  (Dialectic)

Emotions are non-tangible and non-rational, and are therefore not bound by logical laws such as the law of non-contradiction.  It is possible for two emotions to be experienced simultaneously because, conversely from popular belief, no two emotions are in contradiction to each other.  However, as concerns the communicative art form of film, it is only relevant to view each human emotion as a singular piece to be tantalized at a specific point in the process of a total emotional experience.  When attempting to understand the Soviet Montage, we must recognize that the technique refers as much to a sequence of emotions as it does to a succession of individual frames within a scene. (The Filmic Fourth Dimension)

In his essay A Dialectic Approach to Film Form, Eisenstein posits that the implied motion produced through successive frames in a given shot is by its nature a foundational montage, and that his juxtaposition of spatially dissimilar shots is merely a continuation of the same idea.  The audience sees an image of a horse, updated twenty-four times a second by other images of the same horse, albeit differentiated temporally.  Eisenstein is careful to point out that our minds do not see these images as following one after another, but rather superimposed, one on top of – and overriding – the previous in the same sequence.  Our minds infer that because of the geographical contradictions between the images (the horse has one foot on the ground, then two, then one again) the contents of the image must be moving.  This builds a rhythm that may or may not represent comparable and familiar rhythms in reality.  (Dialectic)

Now that is merely a complicated description of how the mind perceives motion within a single shot, but to understand the Soviet Montage, we must understand its artistic and linguistic DNA.  The human mind is trained through natural experience to connect correlated occurrences, and attempts to make sense out of those connections.  For instance, a child may learn very early to connect the optical observance of lightning with the aural perception of thunder – producing a rational understanding and expectation of the two pieces producing a full-sensory whole.  It is this type of mental process that creates the possibility of coherent cinematic montage.

Several still images of a horse running placed in correct sequence can be juxtaposed with images of a crowd cheering to produce in the rational audience’s mind an idea of a horse running in front of the cheering crowd.  We need not see the two together to unquestionably connect their geographical presence in our imaginations.

This whole routine is unreservedly dependent upon the audience’s emotional perception.  Art is a sensory experience.   Eisenstein once wrote of this saying, “because the limit of organic form (the passive principle of being) is Nature. The limit of rational form (the active principle of production) is Industry. At the intersection of Nature and Industry stands Art.  The logic of organic form vs. the logic of rational form yields, in collision, the dialectic of the art-form.” (Dialectic)

Any art form ought to be understood as a communicative medium in which the thing being communicated is not an idea, but an emotion.  Language communicates intellect, whereas art communicates sensation.  The two are certainly compatible, as in poetry, but also just as certainly inimitably unique.  And as communication requires the process of a message being sent and received, we must acknowledge that distinct communication is impossible without the process of time.  Thus, as words in a sentence are given meaning through context of contiguous words in the same sentence, and sentences are given sub-textual meaning through context of other sentences within a conversation, given shots within a scene will conform to an over-tonal meaning intrinsically contextualized by other shots within the same scene, and in a broader sense, other scenes throughout the film.

A single image has no more inherent meaning than a single letter of the alphabet.  Also, the constant presence of all images has no meaning because it is impossible for the human mind to perceive multiple images simultaneously.  We require chronological juxtaposition for context, and as proven above, context is required for the receiver/audience to deduce meaning.  That is not to say that the audience is incapable of discerning multiple layers of information simultaneously, but rather that such information must exist free from superimposition between parts.  (Film Form)

In the essay The Filmic Fourth Dimension, Eisenstein compares film to music thusly, “There, along with the vibration of a basic dominant tone, comes a whole series of similar vibrations . . . Their impacts against each other . . . envelop the basic tone in a whole host of secondary vibrations . . . We find the same thing in optics, as well. All sorts of aberrations, distortions, and other defects, which can be remedied by systems of lenses, can also be taken into account compositionally, providing a whole series of definite compositional effects.”  To simplify, he is describing the methods by which musicians and filmmakers are capable of manipulating audience emotion.  The interesting thing about this analogy is that film is not only comparable to music, it can also incorporate music into its own being.  The overtones and undertones of an operatic motif compliment the visual overtones and undertones of the cinematography and editing.  This is the heart of Soviet Montage theory: a non-meaningful point is complimented, supplemented, and superimposed by a carefully crafted selection of spatially related points to create a full-sensory emotional experience.  (Dialectic, The Filmic Fourth Dimension, Methods of Montage)

Let’s look at this in practice.  The prime example of Eisenstein’s technique is the famous Odessa Steps sequence from the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.  The scene begins with a crowd of peasants celebrating the bravery and sacrifice of the crew of the Battleship Potemkin.  “And suddenly,” they are attacked by militarized evil manifest as faceless troops opposed to the ideals of the people.  Though these troops march in unison, they do not march to the beat of the music.  This creates a sense of contradiction.  Our mind tries to make sense of what happens onscreen with what the musical overtones tell us.  But the obvious connection (marching to a beat) is skewed by this audio/visual contradiction.

The people scatter from the gunfire in a chaotic and brazenly anti-uniform fashion.  It could be said that the disharmony of the peasants’ flight is a spatial counterpoint to the geographical consistency of the military troops.  The troops do not waver.  Their murderous march is the most dependably predictable element of the entire movie.  Thus, what the audience would normally take comfort in (regularity) has become inimitably destructive and evil.

Where this scene excels is in its progression of devastation.  At first the audience feels uplifted at the peasants’ security and celebration.  Eisenstein could have interrupted this by abruptly cutting to the soldiers firing upon the civilians.  But instead he chose to prepare the way for this dramatic interruption through the use of an inter-title: “And suddenly . . . “  Had Eisenstein truly wanted to abrupt the ecstatic experience, he may have left this card out.  But instead he builds anticipation by queuing us in to the fact that there will be some sort of terrible change.  By starting a sentence with the words, “and suddenly,” Eisenstein has put the audience into a position of expectation.  These two words do not bear any meaning in themselves. The statement requires clarification, thus, as the audience is looking for an answer to the question of, “and suddenly what?” the answer is presented as an antithesis to the previous emotion felt.

The journey of the audience here is not as simple as directly transitioning from happiness to shock and awe.  The emotional curve actually has that subtle middle step of the inter-title, which puts the audience in the position of wanting to know how next to feel, only to be sorely disappointed by the onslaught of violence portrayed.  The audience then regrets demanding that the film clarify the ambiguous two-word sentence in the inter-titles.  We do not want to see our beloved “comrades” suffer.  And as the scene progresses, we continue to see things that further offend our moral senses.

“Is it not bad enough,” we ask, “for these innocent men and women to die?  Must the children and handicapped also be slaughtered?”  The film’s antagonists are clearly apathetic toward this dilemma.  They march over the body of a young boy, paying as little attention to his presence as that of the nearest flea.  At this our mind screams.  We think surely the worst has come.  But Eisenstein knew how much lower the human spirits could go.  Over the next six minutes, we are subjected to images of mayhem that knows neither boundaries of age, class, or intelligence.  It is not enough for a baby to be murdered.  We are subjected to the tension of watching it fall down steps for over a minute of screen time, only to be slashed by a military officer.

This sort of experience progresses from slight feeling to intense feeling by continually contradicting audience expectations.  As established earlier, we humans are trained to connect everything rationally.  But when some of the peasants attempt to speak with the troops to appeal to their reason, they are shot.  Everything the audience thinks of, the peasants also think of.  But according to Eisenstein’s design, none of these methods (fleeing, rationalizing, fighting) are strong enough to defeat this evil.  That is, until the arrival of the hero ship, the Battleship Potemkin.

There can be no doubt that the emotion received is that which Eisenstein intended to communicate, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt the power of film as a communicative medium.  This type of exercise has been imitated in many movies since, notably in the church-burning scene from Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot.  As the British lock these people in the building and set it ablaze, the townspeople attempt everything the audience wants them to.  Open the doors?  They’re locked.  Break through the windows?  There are bars along them.  The connection between audience and victim works because the audience naturally projects itself into the position of the protagonists.  Thus, the hero’s failures become our failures.

The film’s job is to make the audience ‘help itself,’ not to ‘entertain’ it.  To grip, not to amuse,” wrote Eisenstein in the essay A Course in Treatment.  The discussion at hand was whether or not it was the role of the filmmaker to entertain the masses.  He took the position that any communicative medium must not be held down by any such obligation to communicate a specific thing.  Instead, films ought to harness the very things that make up the psycho/physiological core of every person going to the cinema.

The linguistic possibilities of art have been explored since the beginnings of Creation.  Time allows for Process, and Process allows for temporal art forms such as music and film to harness emotional expression through the means of story.  As audience needs will change over time, the methods by which foundational human emotions are articulated may change with them.  But the potential for human expression concerning spiritual/emotional/psycho/physiological experiences will only grow.

Works Cited

Eisenstein, Sergei. “A Course in Treatment.” Online.

Eisenstein, Sergei. “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form.” (1945).  Online.

Eisenstein, Sergei.  “Film Form.” Online.

Eisenstein, Sergei.  “The Filmic Fourth Dimension.” Online.

Eisenstein, Sergei.  “Methods of Montage.” Online.

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Day for Night (Truffaut)

04/26/2011

Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night is a cinematic love-letter to the pains of filmmaking.  It is a widely known fact that story cannot exist without conflict.  I think this is true for both the storytellers, and the characters within the story.  Day for Night glorifies this struggle to overcome the type of problems that are born out of societal inconvenience.  The movie the crew is trying to make, Pamela, deals with unexpected love and tragic vengeance.  And while there is no sense of vengeance on the set of Pamela there is truly a romantic desperation that nearly derails the film on multiple occasions.

This is far from the only film about a production that mirrors its own story.  But where I find Day for Night to be unique is in its complete lack of pretentiousness concerning the correlation.  Where other films might have touted this deconstructionist narrative within a narrative as being a matter of profundity, Day for Night practically ignores the parallels, opting instead for a humorous take on how life imitates art imitates life imitates art.

Truffaut’s film gives the impression of being highly autobiographical.  The types of problems that the filmmakers deal with (ranging from a cat that won’t drink milk to an accidental death that nearly halts production) make up the primary conflict in the film.  As in real life, there is no specific antagonist.  Crap happens.  We just have to deal with it.  The ability of the filmmakers to overcome these problems gives us our sense of narrative resolution.  Which brings me to the method of story.

In most films there is something called a “set-up/pay-off” system.  A given fact of the movie’s universe is described at the beginning of the film, and then brought up again at the end of the film.  It is a useful form of narrative audience involvement because it forces the audience to think back to what they learned at the beginning of the film.  This then makes the audience feel smart that they remember it, and they feel better because of it.  In the case of Day for Night, the sorts of things that are set up are things that seem to be utterly forgettable, but end up getting played back at the end with very interesting impact.  In particular, I’m referring to special candle prop that features a little light bulb inside of it.  One of the prop makers shows the candle to the director (played by Truffaut) and as far as the audience is concerned, this scene only exists to help de-mythologize the movies.  But toward the end of the movie, we see an actress holding a candle up to her face, and it is not until the prop is specifically pointed out that we remember there was a trick to it.  This type of discreet and under-exposited storytelling really makes this film a rewarding experience.

While some critics have noted that this film ignores its characters in favor of anecdotes, I find it to be more an example of characters becoming anecdotes, and vice versa.  There is a certain charm to seeing a director calmly reassure an outrageously distressed actor, or seeing the same director have to make important decisions in the moment about whether or not a crew member’s car can be wrecked for a scene.

For a person like Truffaut, making a movie is synonymous with living out life.  There is no distinction between relationships and anecdotes, or between memories and stories.   To live is to experience, and the cinema describes a cumulative type of experience that condenses the amount of emotions a person might feel over the course of their entire life into a single two-hour experience.  You could almost say that film is storytelling but life is story-living.  For Truffaut, and certainly the characters within the world of Day for Night, there is no difference between the two.

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Farewell, My Concubine

04/16/2011

The film Farewell My Concubine is one of the few intimate epics to come out of Chinese cinema.  Its primary narrative focus is on the character of Dieyi, a feminine boy who plays the role of the concubine in a famous Chinese play.  In traditional filmmaking, it is typical to tell the story in as close to real time as possible, without getting boring or overlong.  That way, the audience gets to experience close to the same thing that the character does.  But in the case of Farewell My Concubine, there are long passages of time that go on in between scenes in the film.  The character experiences these, but the audience does not, making the film feel almost more like a series of sequential short films, rather than a long, singular narrative.  As the years fly by off-screen, the audience is left with the task of mentally producing the connective tissue that binds all the scenes together.  This, combined with the very weighty subject matter, produces what can be described as an exhausting effect on many audience members.

What the film gains through this type of macro-storytelling is a grand sense of scale.  The characters are of tremendous significance to each other and their local environment, but the larger world has no need of them.  Governments rise and fall, but the Peking Opera remains.  Is this because the opera is more significant than government?  Or is it because it is less significant?  I think it is because Opera (and the arts in general) symbolizes the collective emotional identity of the culture that produced it.  It is so closely tied to personal cultural identity, that all else can be cast aside before the arts are given over to decadence.

The movie is technically non-linear, since it opens with two older performers trying to remember lines that they once epitomized.  It then flashes back to nearly seventy years prior, when they were both young boys given out of poor families into a local acting troupe.  When it cuts back, we see a noticeable absence of color in the frame.  It is slowly re-saturated throughout the course of the film, giving us a sense of how the past has merged into the present.  There is no attempt to make the scenes in the past feel “up-to-date” or contemporary.  Instead they are treated as being something distant, memorable and important maybe, but it’s the type of importance that can be understood as “narrative fossilization.”  Something preserved for study, but no longer directly applicable to the world of today.

Our chief scale through which to measure this shift in relevance comes unsurprisingly from the people’s reaction to our main characters’ play.  In the earliest scenes, their play is held in incredibly high regard, and their portrayals are considered to be among the greatest.  But as time marches on, there appears to be a growing doubt on the part of the people as to whether the opera has any true relevance to the modern life.  The opera of course outlasts these doubts and continues on, but the whole scenario begs the question, is art so closely tied to culture that it is incapable of transcending time and place?  The film certainly addresses the question, but makes no attempt to answer it.

I do think that my experience watching the film gives something close to an answer, however.  Not since my viewing of Tai Guk Gi have I felt so distant from the story I’m being told.  Much of this film is dependent upon the audience’s connection with the historical events portrayed.  But I do not know anyone who has been directly affected by the events portrayed onscreen.  To me, these are distant events that happened to others, whose experiences I cannot know.  There are certain issues that the film skirts around, assuming that the audience does not need any reminder of the events being portrayed.  Thus, the ending feels like the sum of not only the events shown onscreen, but also those implied to have happened off-screen.  When I said the character experiences things that the audience does not, I did not note that those experiences have real-world equivalents that the original Chinese audience would identify with.  But with out this sense of shared history, the film loses much of its intended punch.  And by the very fact that I am not Chinese, I felt that the dramatic closing of the film was unearned and uninteresting.  I simply did not care.

This is not the fault of the film, or even the filmmakers.  But it is merely a statement of situational viewing experience.  I cannot fully grasp what it means to view a film that is so closely tied to Chinese identity, because I cannot know what it means to be Chinese.  So how does a film like this stand against the criticism of non-experience?  Reasonably well, actually.

There is so much going on in the frame, and the opposition to the characters is always naturally positioned – rather than forced by Plot Power – so much that it can be worth it for the audience to go the extra mile and invest themselves a story that may feel very foreign.  Of this opposition to character goals, is a key relational subtlety concerning the power of romantic love, and its absence.  The character of Dieyi is in love with his friend Xiaolou, but Xiaolou is in love with a woman named Juxian.  Thus, Xiaolou’s romance is in opposition to the romantic goals of Dieyi, and vice-versa.  This creates a context in which conflict arises out of love, and from love jealousy.

The theme of the film is difficult to articulate succinctly.  If it has a single theme throughout, I’d say it is one of longing for something out of reach.  The only goal that the characters truly accomplish is that of becoming great actors. All their others goals, romantic ones included, seem hindered by various obstacles.  They seem to be never given any rest.  Their lives are lived in high stress, but their art is an alleviant to the stresses of the nation.  The world rages around them, and they seek refuge in each other’s friendship.  But ultimately, it is in their play itself that Dieyi finds the closest answer to the longings of his heart.  He ends his own life as he lived it – theatrically.

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Life: Reset, Themes of Escape in Run, Lola, Run

04/13/2011

Tom Tykwer’s film Run, Lola Run marks an important contradiction to traditional cinema, and especially traditional crime cinema.  In most films, an attempt is made on the filmmaker’s part to create a cinematic mythology that closely mirrors reality.  Typically, most films assume a naturalistic point of view of the world, only changing laws of nature that directly conflict with the filmmaker’s ability to tell the story they want to tell.  For instance, in reality, police can trace a phone call in a matter of seconds, but in every cop movie ever, the bad guy calls up the good guy only to hang up the phone right before a trace is made.  The directors of those films change the facts of the universe in order to create a stronger experience.  And in a film like Star Wars, separate sets of rules are created from the ground up for an entirely different universe.  But in Run, Lola Run, director Tom Tykwer presents us with a world that looks very much like reality, but feels and plays out like something else entirely.

For many, the closest approximation is a videogame, a story that is controlled in part by the person/character on whose focus the story is about.  This is not a world where the principle character is subject to the rules of the universe.  This is a world where the rules of the universe are subject to the desires of the principle character.  It is a prime example of film’s ability to embrace non-reality as a means of coming upon truth.  It proves beyond any doubt that the rules of a cinematic mythology are only the same as that of reality to the extent of the filmmaker’s desires.

While there are some filmmakers (Lars Von Trier, I’m thinking of you) who desire to create a cinematic experience that closely approximates the experience of reality, there is nothing non-cinematic about a film embracing fantasy, in place of reality.  There is nothing about Run, Lola Run that necessarily disconnects the viewer from feeling an emotional experience.  Therefore, there is nothing in a realistic approach to film that is entirely superior to a non-real approach.  And one quick look at storytelling history tells us that many people all over the world are more comfortable with an experience that is simultaneously escaping and escapable.

In the movie, Lola escapes her problems by taking control of her situation.  If we understand the main character of a film as being a stand-in for the audience, then Run, Lola Run builds its own story based on the above-mentioned principle of story’s being simultaneously an escape, and escapable.  I choose to escape from real world problems by entertaining myself with film, but if the film takes me through an experience I don’t desire to have, then I have the power to escape that experience as well.  When Lola is shot 20 minutes into the film, she thinks back to what she loves about her life, namely her relationship with her boyfriend.  And when she notices her dilemma of being near death, she chooses to escape and try again.  For her, reality is escapable.  But it is not without effort, and certainly not without process.

Any experience that humans can possibly have requires the process of time.  When I tell a joke, the punch line is only funny if it has been properly set-up.  Something as simple as humor is based on the need for process.  In the case of film, the director is in complete control of the process through which the story is told.  And in Run, Lola Run, Tykwer shows us a process through which the main character is ultimately dissatisfied with where her experience has taken her.  The character challenges the experience and takes control.  This gives us an inclination that perhaps the story is not dictated by the filmmaker but by the character.  Which is the god of film?  The character cannot perform any action that is not dictated by the filmmaker, but the character of Lola shows a very real drive to challenge the established “roller-coaster” experience.

In deconstructing this film, one must acknowledge that the process of film is more important than the finale.  Audiences have a love-hate relationship with the end credits of a film.  Because on the one hand it offers a form of closure, distinguishing on their behalf between reality and cinema-fantasy; but on the other hand it brings them back into the very reality they chose to escape by walking into a movie theater.  Thus, while Tom Tykwer and Lola share the ability to control the world of the film Run, Lola Run, that power cannot be passed on to the audience.  It is only in the realm of fantasy that character transcends nature.  But that does not mean that real-world audiences cannot be inspired by fantastical experience.  It is in our acknowledgments of fantasy’s inherent truth, that we embrace non-reality, for the sake of the process of experience that it offers us.

 

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Ran: Analyzing Violence in Kurasawa’s Films.

04/13/2011

A soldier holds something in his hand, wrapped up in cloths.  He begins unwrapping it, and gasps in horror.  We cut to the headless body of one of our female leads and think, “Awww maaaan,” because unlike most other filmmakers, Kurasawa’s violence is something to be regretted.  In the average war movie, the audience will often look forward to battle scenes, thinking these to be the most exciting.  But in the cinema of Akira Kurasawa, violence is rarely condoned, and just as rarely shied away from.

There are several things that set this apart from the earlier Kurasawa films that I’ve seen.  The first I will discuss is the unique use of musical score, as being either totally absent from a scene, or overpowering.  I did not notice a single musical queue until midway point of the film where the Old King’s castle was being burned down.  And then, it was nearly a ten-minute battle sequence with no sound besides music.  This created a much more powerful emotional connection to the scene at hand, because up until this point we have been satisfied to observe the film as if a play, carried by actors, and not by editing, effects, or music.  There is much sadness in this battle scene.  No glory, little excitement.  This isn’t the type of action sequence where you’re rooting for the violence.  Instead, we regret its occurrence.  We want it to end.  This would have been a shockingly gory film for 1985.  I’m reminded of the “infamous blood explosion” at the end of Sanjuro where the effects team apparently packed far too much fake blood and squibs under an actor’s shirt.  (search for “Sanjuro Slaughter Scene” in YouTube, you won’t regret it)

But what is truly significant about this film is how it builds upon the stories told previously by this director.  He often addresses issues of greed that leads to violence and manipulation that leads to corruption.  This story encapsulates all that, and brings it to a larger scale and production value than anything Japan had seen before. In Seven Samurai, there is a clear distinction between good guys and bad guys.  The bad guys are the bandits who use violence to serve their greed.  The heroes are the Samurai who stand up for the peasants.  They use violence as a necessity to counter-act the violence of the bandits.  In Yojimbo, the lead character allows the more greedy characters to live violently with each other, while he stays relatively free from taint.  In Ran, we see violence as the necessary tool for achieving worldly desire.  Greed creates desire (and vice-versa) in such an extreme way that greatly contradicts the Buddhist ideals of humility.  The victims in Ran shout the same as those in Seven Samurai, “There are no gods, no buddhas!”  This is because of the expectation that “everything under Heaven is just.”  But worldly experience contradicts this Chinese ideal.

Blood is the essence of life in these films.  When we see blood splash against a wall, we see the character’s life force leaving them.  Its not simply there for the shock value – its there as exposition.  Characters don’t seem to bleed, unless they are dying.  When characters do bleed, it comes out in mass quantities, but also in relation the death scene’s importance to the story.   In a Kurasawa film, the main characters will bleed significantly more than the supporting characters.  This draws special attention to their demise.  We feel more that something has been lost in the story when we can witness the literal effect of the character’s death on the local surrounding.

Much can be learned from Kurasawa’s use of violence in contrast to traditional American portrayals.  And it is a shame that with exception of the original Star Wars film, few American directors seem to have been inspired by Kurasawa’s sense of cinema-violence.

 

 

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Chess, Death, Insanity, and Eternity: Examining Existential Questions From Seventh Seal and Ordet

04/12/2011

A knight wakes up on a beach and does his morning prayers, seeking God, but is greeted instead by Death, a grim hooded figure with a pale white face.  The knight – later referred to as Antonius – immediately recognizes Death as an acquaintance, or almost a friend of a friend.  The purposes of this meeting are one-sided.  Death is here to claim a soul, but the knight has no desire to be claimed.  Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess, a game that parallels the life-or-death circumstances of their situation.  Interesting even that Antonius relies on the combined efforts of the Knight and Bishop pieces; also reflective of his real-world strategy as he – a knight – seeks out aid from the Church to defeat the devil.  But in both these attempts, Antonius is bested by Death.  It is a well-established maxim that you can’t cheat death, but no one ever considered that Death could cheat you.

But is Death an absolute end?  Ordet would challenge that assertion.  The one thing that Antonius truly struggles with – faith – is taken for granted by the families in Ordet.  And it is this faith that conquers death and brings one character back into the realm of the living.  Each of these films focuses on the attitudes of those people left behind, alive, striving to comprehend the need for life to end.  I do not think these films regret that death exists at all, but that such an event as the ceasing of life can occur without any explanation or apology.

Neither of these films would ever succeed in color.  But especially The Seventh Seal. The bleak look of the world and default paleness of the characters’ faces adds a mythic quality to the allegory.  The chess pieces have two colors: white and black.  These are the same two colors that the world of The Seventh Seal exists in.  Because its appearance is so different from our own, it makes those familiar elements seem all the more truthful: specifically the Knight’s search for meaning.  His common questions of eternal existence are met with silence; either deliberate or accidental, the film makes no statement.

It is the mystery that frightens our Knight.  He begs for answers from anyone who may offer knowledge of such things.  He stares into the eyes of a young girl while she burns at the stake, and asks, “What is it that she sees?”  Is it Heaven?  Hell?  The Devil?  Or possibly the absence of all of those things; an emptiness that is more awful to behold than any post-mortem torture.  Even as Antonius doubts the meaning of his own life, he still finds some reason to wrestle with Death for authority over his own soul.

The question of existential emptiness is something that all characters in these films must deal with.  In Ordet, the Atheist brother must find a new meaning to his own life after his wife dies.  In Seventh Seal, mobs of people punish themselves in an effort to throw God’s punishment off of them.  The Knight’s minstrel scorns their actions, but Antonius himself offers no mockery.  He admires that they believe in something, when he struggles to have any conclusions of faith.  He does not admire what they believe, but that they believe.  The same relationship is pointed at in a conversation between the Minstrel and a wood-cutter named Plog, in which the Minstrel gives some unrehearsed advice about life and women, to which Plog replies, “I admire you.  You believe your own drivel.”  The Minstrel counters by saying, “no I just like giving advice.”

Does the Minstrel express an attitude unfound in the rest of the world’s wisdom?  Or is this a statement that precisely describes the nature of worldly wisdom – unconfirmed answers given because the advisor enjoys giving advice?  Until the final 5 minutes of Ordet, we may have associated that attitude with the seemingly insane Johannes, or even the old religious men, Peter and Mikkel.  Those characters that should know the answers that everyone else pretends to know, are either keeping their secrets (Death) or mistaken for having none (Johannes).

What is the strategy of Death?  And are his deeds nefarious?  Would he ever have agreed to a game of chess, had he not been confident of his ability to win?  And if Antonius had won, would Death have left him forever, making his already unsatisfying life an eternal journey to answer’s end?  Bergman as a filmmaker has chosen to withhold these answers, representing the pursuit of answers as being all that life has to offer us.  Dryer offers the surprising affirmation that miracles can happen, but when underscored with quotations from scripture, we are given a condition: miracles are dependent upon human faith, and therefore, we can participate in God’s work within our own lives.

This is what the Knight Antonius lacks, a willingness to submit to the Eternal Unknown, thereby allowing its super-natural affect on his own, known, natural life.  Seventh Seal concludes with a dance of death, celebrating the end of life.  Ordet ends with a funeral, pointed with the announcement of a marriage, and ended with the dead being brought to life.  In each of these is resolution.  But it is only in the experience the characters’ have by discovering themselves at the end of their lives, that they can feel at peace with their own cosmic insignificance.

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The Odessa Steps and the use of Montage (Battleship Potemkin)

04/12/2011

Of the many pioneers of modern editing theory, one of the most important is Sergei Eisenstein.  Known for his use of montage, Eisenstein was capable of directing audience emotions through juxtaposition of images that would collectively bear a given meaning.  Much of this theory would later be pursued by Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, ultimately finding its most extreme form in the medium of Music Videos.  Eisenstein’s famous “Odessa Steps” sequence from The Battleship Potemkin is one of the most influential montages in film history, with references to it finding their way into The Untouchables and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

What makes this sequence so memorable?  Is it the content?  Or the cinematography?  Can editing alone be given credit for the end result?  I think it is all these things and more that makes this sequence work as it does.  The fact that the sequence takes place toward the end of the film, after we’ve already been introduced to a number of peasants that get murdered in the scene, helps give us a narrative context for how to feel.  The fact that the soldiers are on top of the stairs walking down imbues them with a sense of authority and power, making their slaughter of the poor masses seem that much more unnecessary.  The soldiers’ actions could have been portrayed as acceptable, or even heroic, had the civilians not been portrayed in such a miserable and sympathetic light.  Typically audiences are much more accepting of battles between equal opponents, and much less accepting of any powerful figure beating down a weaker one.  The only context in which we enjoy watching a stronger force defeat a weaker one is if it comes at the defense of weaker characters that we identify with, as is the case when the Potemkin comes to the rescue of the peasants.

In respect to the meaning and purpose of something being edited this way, it was Eisenstein’s belief that two images juxtaposed together would create a mental image greater than the individual parts.  By extension, this means that eighty shots put together will call for a uniquely strong response within the audience.  This is the heart of Eisenstein’s use of Montage.  To him, film is a language that communicates emotion, and having proper editing is the equivalent to having proper grammar.

In his essay, Film Form, Eisenstein describes the Odessa Steps sequence as a “Rhythmic Montage” where the film is cut to certain beat, giving a methodical impression of the scene.  But as the director points out, the marching of the soldiers and the beat of the drum consistently come in off-beat, creating a sensation that something is amiss, things are not as they ought to be.  The rhythm of the scene is transferred over from the soldiers marching to the baby in the carriage, garnering methodical sympathy from the audience.   This whole sequence causes something in the viewer to cry out at the tragedy.  We naturally try to make sense of the world and the things in it.  But there is no rationality here.  Just meaningless violence.  There is no rational response to this.  We only feel.  And what we feel is technically contrived, by the many tools at the filmmaker’s hand.

It is no surprise that this film (and the Odessa Steps sequence in particular) has gone on to influence a wealth of filmmakers around the world.  In some cases the homage is deliberate, as in The Untouchables or Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.  In other cases, it is implicitly felt, as in the various training montages in every movie ever made about an underground fighter going for the gold.  Is the montage an artistic tool, or a linguistic discover?  Or perhaps the real question is, is there a difference?