Posts Tagged ‘editing’

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Editing to the Rhythms of Memory

01/30/2013

I have recently read two books that have given me much thought on the subject of film editing. The first is In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch, who was an editor for Francis Coppola on “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.” The second book is Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative Sculpting in Time.

They each pose two very different theories concerning the nature of editing and especially regarding the question of why cuts work in the first place, and when it is appropriate to employ them. Murch seems to come from the Soviet Montage camp, pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein and mastered by Alfred Hitchcock, where shots represents different pieces of information that the viewer must assemble imaginatively into a coherent whole. Whereas Tarkovsky explicitly describes his disagreement with that mentality, claiming that it is not true to the nature of what cinema is. Tarkovsky looks back to the original films of the Lumiere Brothers and reminds us of what was originally so fascinating about the cinema in the first place: that it was imprinted time.

At the beginning of his book, Walter Murch poses a question, “why do cuts work?” And by the end of his book he has given his answer. He recognizes that humans ought to be repelled by cuts, since our own personal experiences have no natural equivalent – something Tarkovsky also points out. But Murch noticed while editing “The Conversation” that his natural impulse for when to cut was directly correlated to Gene Hackman’s tendency to blink. Murch spends the rest of the book describing how he believes our blinking habits are the natural equivalent of cuts, because, in psychological terms, our eyes remain open when we are focused intently on something, and we blink when we are comfortable with our surroundings. In short, Murch believes that natural editing rhythm will always be similar to our natural blinking rhythm.

Tarkovsky extends out his metaphor of imprinted time in a few essays throughout his book. He compares the role of the artist to that of a prophet, saying that both find their purpose in the conveying of great truths. Tarkovsky believed that to interrupt time with an abrupt cut is to be dishonest to the medium, as the medium is the very record of time itself. Not a reenactment of time, as a play might be, but a genuine record of its passing. Tarkovsky strove always to stage his scenes in an unbroken way. He believed that to fracture temporal truth was to falsify it. Interstingly, many normal viewers think that Tarkovsky’s style feels decidedly unnatural because of his hesitancy to cut. It does seem to me that cutting into the scene (especially from wide shots to close ups) feels quite natural and normal, but maybe that’s why I have two essays on Eisenstein on this blog and none on Tarkovsky. Preference is not everything.

I do believe, however, that I have stumbled upon a deeper understanding of what cinema is and can be, at least as it pertains to the telling of a story. People that have heard me talk about film theory know that I tend to fall into the Eisenstein camp, and that I especially enjoy his famous quote that “language is much closer to the cinema than painting is.” But as much as I have enjoyed pondering the relationship between editing and grammar, I am now really considering the relationship between film editing and the priorities of human memory. This short essay is only a first draft of this theory, which I’m sure I will revise every few years. I suppose I should point out that while I have never heard the analogy of memory applied to film editing before, Robert McKee does use memory as an analogy for good screenwriting, so I’m not wholly original here.

Essentially my grand idea is this: suppose that edits in any film sequence work and feel natural to the viewer not because of some experience in our daily lives (such as blinking), but because of how we experience the world in our memory. Think about your day yesterday. What are the first few things that you recall? If you are like me, then the first priorities of your memory are based on two things: Geography and Will. When I think of the events of my life a day ago, the first image in my head is of my home, and specifically the room which I spent the most time in. This is what I call the “Geographical Priority”. The first thing my brain does when I reacquaint myself with yesterday is jump to the location I was most prominently in.

The second image in my head is of the documentary materials on my newly purchased Godfather Blu-Ray collection. That is what I call “Priority of the Will”. I made a unique choice to watch those documentaries, but I really don’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, as that was a mundane habit. It is more common for our memory to prioritize the choices we make than the habits we have. Conversely, we tend to have staggeringly good memories for times when we felt out of control, and incapable of making choices.
Have you ever been swimming underwater only to run out of air before you are anywhere near the surface? How clearly do you remember that feeling of suffocation? Now contrast that with how clearly you remember the mundane details that have nothing to do with your will, such as how many times your friend jumped off the diving board?

Doesn’t it seem true that the human memory really prioritizes geography and will? We remember where we were, and what we chose to do, and especially whether some obstacle prevented us from achieving our immediate goals in the situation, but we struggle to remember things that never engaged our attention in the first place.
Editing to this rhythm has already been stumbled upon. Think about how commonplace it is for scenes to open with wide shots of a location, only to move closer and closer to the decisions of the characters, right down to the individual muscles used in the carrying out of that decision. The eyes are especially important, since it is through the eyes that we each empathize with each other.

I also read Francois Truffaut’s book on Alfred Hitchcock recently, in which they frequently talk about the clarity of simplicity. In any Hitchcock film, during any great action sequence or chase sequence, the editing is so specific that it takes on a near primal quality. The audience is never confused, and yet, his films are filled with intimate close ups instead of big wide shots. I want to demonstrate the primal sensation of memory editing with a little experiment.

First, think about a time when you have expected to meet someone, but they never showed up, or perhaps they were very late. You stood there and politely waited. As a car drove toward you, you watched it closely to see if it belonged to the person you were expecting. If you thought it was that person then you probably leaned forward a little and started to take your hand out of your pocket to greet them. But the car drove past. Or perhaps someone did get out of it, but it wasn’t the person you were looking for. You attempted to inconspicuously return to your place, but you knew that you probably looked ridiculous if someone was watching you.

Now take the famous scene of the crop duster plane from “North by Northwest.” (Here is the scene, albeit with added music: http://youtube.com/watch?v=jWRIOezFqYo)
Watch how it begins with a great wide shot of the field (i.e. the Geographic Priority) and watch how the movement of Grant’s eyes represent the character’s first conscious choice in the scene. We know that he’s expecting to meet someone here. We project ourselves into his life through the natural phenomenon of empathy. So really, it is we (the Audience) who are looking for someone, and Cary Grant is just an extension of the audience’s motivation in the scene. Contrary to what some directors say, the audience does not project itself into the place of the camera, the audience projects itself into the place of the character. And so the actions and choices of the character are the most relevant part of the scene to the audience.

Watch how Hitchcock cuts in closer to Cary Grant’s face as the car comes closer along the road. Did you notice in that scene how Grant begins to take his hands out of his pockets when he sees the man get out of the car? That little character detail is a completely natural action given that he really expected this man to be the one he was waiting for. The audience, too, would have impulsively moved forward to meet the man. You can see how there is a perfect link in the scene between what Grant does and what the Audience would do in the same situation.

But back to the concept of memory editing. In this sequence, Hitchcock has prioritized the same two things that human memory prioritizes: that is Geography and Will, the combination of these two things is a major contributing factor to literally every human sensation. For instance, the geography of being underwater affects the will to breathe.
It has long been recognized that wide shots make characters seem alone. But only now do I understand exactly why this is. The geography of a wide shot will demonstrate the physical aloneness of the character, and the choices the character makes will by necessity be unbacked by society. The combination of physical aloneness and social aloneness creates the sensation of loneliness.

The geography of the open plain presents Cary Grant with a physical aloneness, and the bearing down of the crop duster against him presents an obstacle to his will. Notice that throughout the bulk of the scene (but especially the final two minutes) all of the shots either feature Grant balanced toward the middle of the frame, or they show what he is looking at when he adjusts his gaze. For instance, there is a moment right after the plane first flies overhead that Grant – now laying on the ground – looks beyond the frame of the camera. There is an immediate cut to some corn stalks a dozen yards away. The very next shot is of him running into those corn stalks.

Do you catch the significance there? These three shots (choosing to look, recognizing the new geography, then choosing to run) are perfectly harmonious with the pattern of memory (will, geography, will). His choice to run into the corn stalks only makes sense to us the audience because we know that the corn stalks are there. It is clear that geography (especially the spatial relationship between characters – in this case Grant and the Plane) contextualizes choice. And as you watch that scene, you may feel completely absorbed by it, precisely because of how natural the editing feels.

The impulse to cut on an eyeline change is a common editing technique, and is a big part of what Walter Murch’s book is about. But his explanation has more to do with the audience’s pursuit of new information. He has no real explanation for why or when to change from a wide shot to a close up. Sam Peckinpah was of the opinion that close ups are the director’s Ace up the sleeve, and should be used sparingly. But even that doesn’t really tell us why or when a close up should be used.

This is also a case where Tarkovsky’s emphasis on imprinted time would be completely unhelpful. He would show us merely the geography, as if we are a spectator to the action, when the audience is looking for sensation and participation. Tarkovsky would focus on recording the entire physical effort of fleeing the plane, without demonstrating a bias for either character. He used wide shots and long takes to clearly portray the physical relationship between persons and objects.

It is thought by some that by keeping the edits rare and the camera on wide shots, filmmakers like Tarkovsky force the audience to be more active participants, as the filmmaker does not explicitly control their viewing experience. But I disagree. If you were to compare a football player with a fan in the stadium, which would you say has the greatest participation in the game? It is clearly not the spectator.

Tarkovsky would put the camera in the bleachers and record the entire game in one uninterrupted take. Hitchcock would do multiple set-ups on the field using fast edits to put you in the mindset of the player. The first is certainly a valid record of the facts, but the second is a more powerful analogy to the feelings.

I really believe that great narrative editing is based on the relationship between Geography and Will, since the first contextualizes the second, and the second is the venue by which the audience participates. Tarkovsky believed that a film is at its truest when it purely imprints time. But I think that Pure Cinema does a much better job of recreating how the world exists in our memory than recreating how the world exists physically.

Hitchcock had a rule: the largest object in the frame has the most emotional weight. Doesn’t that sound just like your memory’s version of the world?

Think about the last time something scared you. Doesn’t it seem that the very object which so affected your emotional state overcame everything else in the world? Are you scared of snakes or spiders? When you see a snake or a spider that terrifies you, doesn’t it always seem much larger than it really is?

Film editing has the ability to recreate the experience of memory by prioritizing close ups for objects of tremendous emotional weight. You don’t remember what was on the wall behind the snake, you only remember the snake itself. Nothing else even came into your senses. A well-employed close up will focus your attention on the snake, and just like your experience in memory, you won’t even see the wall.

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Editing in Memento

04/27/2012

Christopher Nolan’s sophomore film, Memento, is arguably a giant experiment in editing.   It re-invents the needs of montage editing for its own narrative purposes.  By opening the film in reverse, then playing subsequent scenes in not only the wrong order, but in the reverse order, Memento forces the viewer to reevaluate everything previously established in montage technique.

The editor of the film, Doty Dorn, has said in interviews that her first responsibility as editor was to read the script several times.  This is not normally the case with editors, who are more concerned with daily footage than over-arching plot.  It is up to the director to decide the plot, the editor just assembles the cuts . . . normally.  But in this film there is a special relationship between the editing and the story.  The editing, more than the camera even, is what puts the viewer inside the character.  There are aids, like Guy Pierce’s voice-over, but really it is in the pieces of information that are given at the beginning and end of each scene that helps us to find our footing.

Each scene opens on some clearly identifiable object, a memento, if you will, that we must immediately observe and interpret to acquaint ourselves with our surroundings.  It makes the viewer hyper-conscious of visual exposition.  Our brains focus on the seemingly mundane aspects of these characters lives – what sort of drinks they have, or how they’ve done their hair.  This creates an inner feeling of intensity, and contributes to an overall sense of paranoia.  Anyone could be a liar; anyone could be a friend or a foe.

Within each scene, there is a clear aim to direct the audience’s attention to specific things.  For instance, during the sequence where Guy Pierce’s character is burning his wife’s possessions, there are frequent close-ups specifically of these things.  Following the “Hitchcock Rule” that says the largest object in the frame is the most important, it cues the audience to place value on those otherwise insignificant objects.

What we can take from this is that Nolan has placed within us a sense of Persistent Reveal, where we are ever conscious of the revelations being given.  This expositional technique is also used in shows like Lost, and Nolan’s other film, Inception.  By opening on mystery and maintaining a progression of revelation, Nolan makes us feel as if we are detectives, investigating correctly and putting the pieces together based on new pieces of evidence.

If the story were told in chronological order, the movie would show its flaws quite readily.  For instance, played in order, there is no real character arc.  Guy Pierce’s character is just floating along on a vendetta that he’s barely invested in, having only assumptions based on tattoos.  If played chronologically, the film has no resolution in relationships between characters.  You would see Carrie Ann Moss be mean to Guy Pierce, then sleep with him, then help him, then nothing.  There is no real resolution.  In fact, and I’m sure this is deliberate, Carrie Ann Moss’ character only fits the “femme fatale” archetype when played in reverse, because if you play the film in order, she fits more the romantic interest type.

As a whole, the editing in Memento does a good job of taking you through the paces and energies of a traditional noir narrative, but the fact that it does so in reverse demonstrates an understanding of the relationship between structure and the audience rather than structure and the character arc.  In a traditional narrative of any genre, the character arc is directly tied to the structure.  As inner conflict increases, so does outer conflict.  But Memento plays these things against each other.  Guy Pierce’s character has very little growth from scene to scene, as he must identify himself anew, each time.  This allows him to explain his “memory problem” to characters at the end of the story, but at the beginning of the plot.

As the outer intensity increases (shootouts with drug dealers, etc) the editing gets faster and more intense.  But in the more meditative parts of the film, the cutting is slower.  This is a story where all the most intense parts happen toward the beginning, and the less intense parts happen at the end.  But with the plot showing this backwards, it creates the growing intensity we’re used to experiencing in these types of films.

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The Scorpion and the Ants – A Meditation on The Wild Bunch

04/25/2012

Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is a profound deconstruction of cinematic violence.  Sequences of impressionistic violence are punctuated by zooms, quick-cuts, slow-motion, POV shots, and 180 line breaks.  He uses the sort of techniques that can only exist in film.  His edit gives you the impression of violence, and has been borrowed by films like Hard Boiled, Bad Boys 2, and The Passion of the Christ.  It is what Alfred Hitchcock would call “pure cinema.”

The film’s opening title sequence is a montage of men in soldiers’ uniforms marching into town.  Along the way, they pass some children who are watching a scorpion fight what looks to be a million little ants.  It is a classic example of a superior power overwhelmed by a larger number of opponents.  The scene goes on in an all-too-regular sort of way.  We see the soldiers bump into an old lady, but politely pick up her things and walk her across the street.  It doesn’t take a cineast to see that something bad is about to happen.

Our first clue really is in the titles themselves.  They splash onto the screen with a noise and aggression that is unfounded in the relative calmness of the scene.  And sure enough, when they walk inside that railroad office, they get mean.  On the adjacent rooftops is a gang of bounty hunters, who have set an ambush for the robbers.  The only thing stopping them from cutting down the mock-soldiers is a parade of Church people, walking through the street after a morning service.  But when the ambushers are spotted, there is a blitzkrieg.

The following ten minutes are a nauseating compilation of violence.  The geography is confusing.  There appears to be no relation between shots of men firing weapons and shots of people dying.  To quote an old Monty Python film, “Let’s not worry about who killed who . . .”  After all, we are only a few minutes into the film, we don’t even know who to root for yet.  It is the sensory experience that matters, not the narrative experience, at least not yet.

The sequence is edited in such a way that prevents us from ever feeling comfortable.  Peckinpah clearly understood how quickly audiences adjust to what’s onscreen.  As long as there is some consistency, audiences will relax.  But Peckinpah used precise inconsistency to throw off this comfort.  This meant relying on many different film techniques, especially ones that are never intercut.

Slow-motion photography does not cut well with zoom-pans.  But that’s the point.  It hurts to watch.  A zoom-in is intercut with a zoom-out that is intercut with a stationary shot of a woman being trampled by a horse.  This aggressive editing is specifically designed to present you with the simultaneous awe and disgust of the violence onscreen.  Even the prolonged length of the scene is designed to rob you of your standard sense of relief.

Some commentators have mentioned that the extensive violence seems out-of-keeping with the film’s story, which does not necessitate such extended sequences.  But it is squarely within the director’s purpose to extend and exaggerate the experience, to de-sanitize it.  The film is about violent men living violent lives that end violently.  The content is tied directly to this theme.  These characters choose this way of life.  They see something in it that we do not.

The film never really tells us what they enjoy about shooting each other to pieces, but I imagine it has something to do with the camaraderie they share.  There is a strong theme of loyalty that runs deep through the film, and counter to that is the theme of betrayal.  Our main character is Pike Bishop, the leader of the Wild Bunch.  He has a number of flashbacks to those he’s betrayed.  By his words, we see that he is either in deep regret of those instances, or he is a hypocrite who keeps the others around for his own protection.  Judging from the final scene, I’m inclined to say it’s the former.

The third act of the film concerns the group’s decision to abandon one of their own to the torturous intentions of a corrupt Mexican general.  At first they leave him.  Then they try and buy him back, to no avail.  Finally, after attempting (and failing) to relax with some prostitutes, they turn back with guns raised – ready to for the bloodbath to end them all.

There is tremendous significance to Pike’s decision here, and it speaks volumes about his character.  After the first heist turns out to be a bust, Pike laments that he wanted one final score before he retired from his criminal ways.  His friend rebukes him and reminds him that for men like them, there is no other life.  Thus, at the end of the film, Pike is faced with the decision to either accept a ton of gold and leave his friend to be killed, or abandon the money and finally step up to show the loyalty he always prized, but never demonstrated.

While attempting to relax with the Prostitute at the end, Pike is distracted by a crying baby.  He looks back and forth between the young woman and the child; they represent the family he might one day have, if only he abandons his friend, as he has several others before, he could settle down with his gold and grow old.  But here, at the end of his life, he chooses loyalty, and this choice gets him killed.

Like the scorpion at the beginning of the film, being eaten slowly by ants, Pike seems near invincible.  The final death toll is colossal, and is punctuated by frequent cut-aways to children and women, some of whom become collateral damage.  The children at the beginning of the film controlled the violence with the scorpion, even to the point of laying burning grass on top of it.  But in the real violence, the children have the least control.  If the fire on the scorpion symbolizes all-encompassing gunfire, then we may consider that perhaps the children symbolize The Wild Bunch.  They take joy in violence they control, but are vulnerable to violence that they do not.

So is Pike’s loyalty really to his friend?  Or is it to the violent lifestyle that he knows he can never leave?  Either way, he and his pals recognize that the two in this case will be synonymous.  And to show loyalty will mean a violent certainty.  But at least it is, if anything, certain.

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Point of View in Citizen Kane

02/16/2012

Of all the cinematic contributions made by Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, the narrative innovations are among the most significant.  Where most films would follow Aristotle’s tradition of telling stories that have a beginning, middle and end, Welles, chose to tell the story with roughly the same structure as a newspaper article.

It starts with the big news: Charles Foster Kane is dead.  It then proceeds through a series of interviews with those who knew him best.  The Macguffin here is Kane’s last word, “rosebud.”  The reporters ask everyone they see about it, but there is only one character who has the good sense to say, “I don’t think a man’s life can be summed up by a single word.”

In Eric Von Stroheim’s review of the film, he praises its directing and production design, but harshly criticizes the narratives inherently disruptive nature.  His frustration brings to mind the question of audience empathy.  Who is it that we are identifying with, exactly?  Many people consider Kane to be the protagonist of this story, or perhaps a simultaneous protagonist/antagonist type of character.  But this viewer projection is broken up through the use of interviews and flashbacks.

We cannot track with the life of Kane very well, because we never really get inside his head.  We don’t know what he looks like when he’s alone.  We don’t know what his motivations are.  All we know is what he did; that is, what are the facts of his life.  The essential issue in a narrative analysis of Citizen Kane then, is whom our protagonist actually is, and from what point of view the story is being told.

The only character that we track with chronologically throughout the film is that of Jerry Thompson, the reporter in charge of finding out who/what “rosebud” actually is.  He is primarily presented in shadow, or with his back to the camera, and we are given no biographical information about him.  He is the vessel through which we the audience pose our questions.

But Jerry has no character arc.  And the bulk of the movie is hardly from his point of view anyway.  Rather, he is the connective tissue between collections of memories about the legendary Charles Foster Kane.  The bulk of the film is told through flashbacks, visually represented in the third-person according to which character is telling the story.

Flashbacks in real life will always be in the first person, that is, we do not see ourselves from the outside, and therefore cannot remember what our bodies would have looked like from a third-person vantage point.  But when we are watching a movie, and a character thinks back to his past, we zip through his brain into the past as he saw it, albeit with one key difference, its being in the third-person point of view.

This dichotomy between first and third-person points of view is something that many critics have acknowledged in many films.  There is an interesting preference here, however.  In the Nicholas Cage film, Snake Eyes, flashbacks are shown in the first-person, but interestingly, this technique is considered more distracting, because we are accustomed to project ourselves into characters from the outside in.

As to the question of point of view, it is relevant that these flashbacks do not belong to our reporter.  The audience’s point of view really does shift between characters, making the protagonist a vaporous one.  At the basic level, the foundation for viewer projection is in the reporter, but as soon as the interviews start, we are drawn toward the interviewees.  After all, it is their minds that we are now interacting with.  But in their memories, Charles Foster Kane is this great and terrible man.  We want to get inside his head, so we nearly identify with him.  But as Von Stroheim points out, the fractured sense of narrative completely prevents us tracking with his decisions or motivations.  Thus, when Kane dies at the beginning of the film, we don’t have enough information to care.   It carries no weight.  Kane is not a sufficient vessel for the audience’s emotions.

There is one point of view in the film that I have not yet described, and that is the brief omniscient camera.  It occurs only in the first and last shots of the film.  The first is Kane’s death, where he whispers, “Rosebud.”  The last shot is the reveal of what Rosebud is.  While it is mentioned in the film that someone heard Kane speak the word, we the audience are not seeing this scene through their eyes.  And while there are characters that are involved in the final scene, we are not seeing it from their point of view.  We are seeing it from an omniscient point of view, rolling around telling us what the characters do not know.  Rosebud has its own point of view, that we are briefly privy to.

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Climbing the Tree: A Thematic Analysis of The Tree of Life

02/05/2012

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  . . . when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”

The film opens with this passage from Job 38.  This is Malick’s “thesis,” and the rest of the film is his supporting argument.  The juxtaposition between Jupiter, Seaweed, and Jump Cuts is not arbitrary.  It’s an impressionistic portrayal of how God sees and experiences His creation.  The cosmos are not unrelated to the planting of a tree, or the wounding of an animal.  But like the branches of a tree, all life finds its roots in the Earth.

Malick’s films are significant because of how unashamedly they embrace thematic editing, rather than causal narrative editing.  In traditional causal editing, one shot directly causes the next shot, which directly causes the next shot after that and so on until the end credits.  But the films of Terrence Malick do not emphasize narrative.  They emphasize theme, truth, and self.  As such, Malick’s preferred editing style is very impressionistic and thematic.  When shots of trees are juxtaposed with shots of children growing up, we aren’t meant to understand them as being “causally” related.  But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t related.

Mainstream audiences expect narrative in their cinema.  They expect a protagonist and an antagonist.  Films that do not have a strong emphasis on this type of story are considered to be shoddy and poorly made.   This expectation is largely due to the lack of film education in our culture.  Film did not start out as a storytelling medium.  It started as a record of life.

When shots were first assembled together in sequence, there were many experiments with what could be accomplished through cutting.  The speed of the cuts and the order of the cuts were found to produce different effects in the audience’s experience.  It was Sergei Eisenstein who said, “Language is much closer to film than painting is.”  Each shot is like a word that represents a given association in the receiver’s sub-conscious.  When specific words are placed together, they give a certain meaning.  Thus, traditional narrative grammar in film might sound like this: The Dog ran away from the pound.

But Malick uses different pieces of information to produce a different idea in the audience’s mind.  His grammar may sound more like this: Dog, barking in the wind, the pound behind, the World ahead.  It isn’t wrong.  It’s just different.  I call it “Linguistic Impressionism.”  It represents the experience of life, rather than recording the facts of it.  Terrence Malick is a poet who all but ignores words.  The images are enough.

And this is one of the most significant reasons that contemporary audiences might not “get it.”  In most narrative film, we’re used to being told through dialogue what the story is about, who the good guys are, and what’s at stake.  We often listen to movies, rather than watch them.  But in Malick’s films, he cuts away from the dialogue.  He focuses on the moments and the memories.  The impression of what life is like.  And as this film demonstrates, life is like a tree.

All life is interconnected.  Like leaves that stem from branches, which grow out of a single trunk whose roots are in the earth.  As new branches grow, the other branches move to accommodate it.  A part of the tree may fall off or die, while the rest of it grows and moves on.  The tree grows with time; it changes shape, and suffers through the elements.  But it survives.

There are frequent shots of trees interspersed throughout the film.  We are often positioned to be looking up at it them, as if with childlike wonder, as the Sun is seen through the branches.  The scope of life is awe-inspiring.  But it is not the size that makes it grand.  It’s the details, interwoven, telling a story.

The Tree is not the only piece of significant symbolism in this movie.  Some of the less disputed symbols are Grace (the mother, also possibly water), Nature (the father), and God (the Light).  In the case of God, the real representation of Him appears to be the recurring orange light.  But there are anticipations of him in images such as the sun, the lamps, and the various candles seen throughout the film.  When we are granted images of the sun shining down onto the trees, it symbolizes God gazing down upon creation.

When Jack says, “Mother . . . Father . . . always you wrestle inside me.”  He is referring to his innate spiritual conflict between Nature and Grace.  The mother describes the difference at the start of the film when she says, “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.   Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Before Jack is born, we see a woman in white leading small children toward a gate, and then we see one of them in a submerged bedroom, swimming toward the surface.  The woman is an angel leading young souls to their births, and the underwater bedroom is the womb.

The second to final image of the film is of a bridge standing over water, leading into the sunset.  It is very telling symbolically, and punctuates the film quite well.  We are led over Grace to meet God, the Light Source out of which the Tree of Life is grown.  It takes water and sunlight to make a plant grow.  It takes Grace and God for life to grow.  As a dying branch falls to the ground, it is returned to its roots.  Eventually, the whole tree will be returned to the earth, one piece at a time.

In Jack’s vision of Heaven, all people have come together on a beach to celebrate life.  They are reunited.  They are happy.  They are reconciled.  The Mother says a prayer, offering her son to God.  It recalls one of her first lines in the film; “he was in His hands the whole time.”

As the film jumps through space and time, exploring the light years and the eons, it seems patently obvious that this film is not from any human’s point of view.  Rather, it is from the point of view of God, who experiences all of creation at once.  The Mother asks, “Where were You?” and God responds by taking us back to the Creation of the universe.

The evolutionary process begins in water; Life begins by Grace.  God is everywhere.  He is with the newborn as it rests on its mother’s chest.  He is with the wounded dinosaur as it lays stranded on the beach.  He is with Jack as he chooses to do wrong.  And He is with the Cosmos, as they begin and end.  God has seen such struggles of the universe that any human pain (like being shot with a BB gun) should be inconsequential to him.  And yet He is there, suffering with it, despite its cosmic insignificance.

The juxtaposition between human pain and Divine presence plays out like an eternal dialogue, with each asking the other, “Where were you?”  God responds to Job with evidence from the foundations of the earth.  Mrs. O’Brien asks of God the same question that Job had asked, and receives the same answer.  Whenever this question rises in the film, Malick presents us with images of nature, or in some cases, glimpses of Heaven.

Malick frequently employs voice-overs as a means of demonstrating to us the heart of the characters.  The voice-overs are in present tense.  They are often prayers; they are the characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings.  They are notches on the Tree of Life.  The Tree is raised up out of the earth by God, and in its prime seasons will continue to produce more life around it.  Mr. O’Brien is a gardener, but his plants are dying.  Even the grass in his yard is weak, because he does not grow with love.  What the Mother says, “The only way to be happy is to love.  Unless you love, your life will flash by . . . Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” the Father echoes in disappointment when he says, “Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.

The opening and closing images are the same: a glowing orange light.  This is God, at the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, holding the Tree of Life between His hands.  It is a Tree that He planted, and that He has lovingly cultivated, despite its natural tendency to oppose Him.  This presence in creation is how God answers Job’s question.  “Where was I?  I am HERE.  Where I’ve always been.

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Linguistic Propaganda in The Birth of a Nation

02/05/2012

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece of racist propaganda.  It slowly and meticulously builds its story in such a way that you identify with the most hateful of American citizenry.  The core elements of propagandistic filmmaking are here, and they are groundbreaking.

The film is a brilliant example of linguistic cinema.  At every frame, there is no doubt what emotion is communicated.  Each image precisely distinguishes the heroes from the villains.  The great irony is that the movie’s heroes are history’s villains.  They are painted here as the victims of evil Carpetbaggers and their rising Black Empire.  Oh the poor white minority.

Aside from the overt racism, the film offers a very compelling example of how the edited assembly of shots can produce a given affect.  During one of the films most famous scenes, the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue of a family that holed up in a cabin while being attacked by an angry black mob.  The intercutting here is some of the first of its kind, and shows a marvelous understanding of the language of film.

We are shown the cabin in danger.  Our minds immediately empathize and begin to look for ways to help these people.  “Isn’t someone going to save them?” our collective subconscious cries out.  And then we are shown an image of the White Knights, riding on horseback, here to save the day.  From that point on, our imagination tries to fill in the rest of the scene.  Griffith juxtaposes shots of the family in danger with shots the Ku Klux Klan, giving us a deadline.  Now instead of asking, “who will save them?” we ask, “will they get there in time?”

This type of crosscutting is interactive for the audience.  Our imagination tries to complete the scene with the information given.  But as each new shot is laid before us, our imagined outcome changes to incorporate the new piece of information.  This essentially happens with all films everywhere, but was only in its early stages here.

The very principle of editing is based on knowing what the audience is anticipating.  In all story, the audience empathizes with the characters by projecting itself into them.  So if a film has a story (not all films do) then it will give certain pieces of information to the audience to make this projection as seamless as possible.  The sequencing of scenes, then, is all about continually providing the audience with new information.  The audience will live and breathe that information and allow it to transform their emotions during the film’s runtime.

The individual edits within a scene provide smaller pieces of information that the audience receives more subconsciously.  For instance, if a character says or does something offensive, we (the audience) naturally anticipate some character in the scene to represent our objection to the matter.  If no such character appears, the audience will feel devastated.  Thus, the rushing cavalry comes not only to save the poor family in the cabin, but also to save the audience.

This basic linguistic technique of cinema is used to put the audience in a position that is sympathetic to whites, and antagonistic toward blacks.  Griffith’s use of Intertitles that set the scenes in a (supposedly) historically accurate South, frame the audience’s opinion of the characters from the outset.  We have to hate the black people in the film, because that’s what the film tells us to feel.  What makes this an uncomfortable experience for the non-racist member of the audience, is that it fundamentally plunges our mental projection into a situation that we have no desire to be in.  It breaks the immersion that is necessary for empathy.  I do not want to be a racist.  But if I am to enjoy my experience with The Birth of a Nation, then I must, at least for the three-hour duration of the film, take on a racist worldview.

There is one scene in the film where the state congress has been taken over by the rising Black Empire, and they swiftly begin to abuse their power by oppressing the poor white minority.  Here the Black leaders are portrayed as being animal-like.  They rest their bare feet on the tables and eat KFC.  They are not presented with any positive attributes whatsoever.  Thus, Griffith destroys any possibility of the audience respecting the Black leaders.  We make judgments about the characters based on the information that we have been given, and in this case, the information is scathing.

Propaganda cannot work if it is fair and balanced.  In order for a normal non-racist audience to be in a position that we are comfortable with the Ku Klux Klan, there must be some villain that is considered worse than our image of the KKK.  In this movie, that villain is black people.

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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.