gAs technology has advanced, we as a society have constantly found new ways to visually capture the world around us. In class, we have been looking at photography as a medium that revolutionized visual culture. More recently, the advent of film and film culture at the end of the 19th century has instigated a similar revolution, changing the way we think of the world around us visually and narratively. It is this medium and its impact that I hope to explore with this blog post. What began as a technological gimmick in the 19th century has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry that has a massive effect on how we interpret the things we perceive in our everyday life. We have developed something of a cultural obsession with film, allowing it to seep into our consciousness in such a way that, at some level, we all seem to be under the impression that our lives in some way resemble the events of a film. This raises a number of questions. What separates film from other visual mediums of artistic expression? Perhaps more importantly, why do we see as a society view film as more accessible or stimulating in some way?
Before I take a stab at answering these questions, a brief disclaimer: I am not a film student, and have only a rudimentary understanding of the medium (thus, please take everything I write here with a grain of salt). I do, however, love going to the movies, and do so about once a week. Big studio or independent, domestic or foreign, old or new, regardless of subject or genre, I will watch just about anything as long as it can hold my interest. One thing that fascinates me about this medium is how it takes pieces of something very familiar (visual art), and places it in a sequence, forming something altogether new that is somehow more than the sum of its parts.
The secret to this lies in the editing process. In the 1920s, Soviet filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein developed his famous theory of film as “montage”. Eisenstein argues, in his essay Film Form, that the effect film has on its audience is the result of two or more images being placed in opposition to one another. Each time a film cuts from one shot to another, the second shot is defined by its contrast to the shot immediately preceding it. Each shot that follows continues this trend, so that the audience’s opinion of the film and its accompanying narrative continues to change as each cut occurs.
When we look at a photograph, we are looking at one image representing one moment in time. Each shot in a film similarly shows us one thing over a particular period of time (the length of which depends on the length of the shot and the speed at which the events are being filmed). When the camera cuts, we see something else, and the first thing that stands out to us is the difference between the thing we are watching now and the thing we saw last. We also use both images to make assumptions about everything that occurs in between, both temporally and spatially. A photograph, on the other hand, is only one “shot” of a film. Thus, there is no “in between”. The main similarity between the two mediums is that in both cases, the viewer’s imagination supplies the majority of the narrative. Film, however, is unique in that it uses opposing images to place a limit on how far the imagination is allowed to go. No matter what we assume about an image, in film we are always expected to “arrive” at the next shot, all the way until the end.
Let’s look at two examples of film editing at work. The first one that comes to mind to me is the following scene from Lawrence of Arabia:
A brief recap of the scene: Lawrence is being assigned his mission (to contact a group of Bedouins to see how they fare in their war against the Turks), by Mr. Dryden, which will take him to the desert. Prior to this, most of the scenes are shot either in interior locations, or fairly close up, as if to emphasize the constricting, claustrophobic nature of life in the British military, a lifestyle that promotes the oppression and subjugation of foreign cultures (like that of the Arabs, as shown later in the film), and the suppression of the individualism of its members, such as Lawrence, whose homosexuality, desire for adventure, and admiration for the Bedouins is not allowed to surface until he ventures into the desert (in the case of his queerness, it is never fully able to surface at all). All of this is pre-empted in the conversation that Lawrence has with Dryden, with Lawrence insisting that “It’s going to be fun”, while Dryden remarks that “only two kinds of creatures have fun in the desert: Bedouins, and Gods, and you’re neither”, also saying that “It is well known that you have a funny sense of fun” (again highlighting Lawrence’s status as an outsider). Lawrence’s response is to hold up a match and blow it out. Immediately as he does this, the film cuts to a wide shot of a desert landscape, transporting us to the middle of Lawrence’s journey across its sands.
This simple transition tells us nearly everything we need to know about Lawrence as a character without showing us anything that happens in between the two scenes. Nearly everything about the shot of the desert, which up to this point has only ever been talked about, is strikingly different from the profile shot of Lawrence blowing out the match. Whereas before, a light is being extinguished, now a greater one (the sun) is showing itself. Before, the shot is close up and cramped. Now, Lawrence is a speck on the horizon, a small fish in a big pond. We see all of Lawrence’s hopes and aspirations expressed wordlessly, and are shown how insignificant he and all other “heroes” of this war are compared to the ancient deity that the desert becomes in this film. We also finally know why he romanticizes the desert so much, as it allows him to lose himself in it and rebuild himself with the obscurity that it provides him. Finally, we are shown some of the more problematic elements of the narrative (namely how the film’s sympathy for the victims of colonialism is expressed through a member of a colonial power’s relationship with the land). Here the desert becomes a character whose interactions with Lawrence will eventually define and consume him as an individual (as it is later shown that he does not belong in Arabia any more than he belongs in the British army). All of this is accomplished entirely with visuals. We are never told any of this, but are allowed to make these assumptions based off of the opposition between the two shots. The chaining together of these two images produces a much larger and complex narrative than either of them do individually.
The scene is remarkable for its simplicity, but what happens when two entire scenes are woven together in this way? This brings me to my second example, from The Godfather:
In the scene, Michael Corleone is attending the baptism of his new nephew and godson. He is repeatedly asked questions like “Do you renounce Satan?”, “And all his works?”, “And All His Promises?”, and “Will you be baptized?”. He replies in the affirmative to all of these questions, which are asked and answered while we look at either a close-up of Michael’s face or a shot of the child being baptized. After each question is answered, we cut to various scenes of Michael’s subordinates, acting on his orders, killing his enemies by means that are as gruesome as they are underhanded (none of the victims see the assassinations coming, and they die in increasingly visceral ways).
Once again, this scene is defined by contrast. We do not need much context, nor do we need to know exactly who Michael is killing and why (though anyone watching the film knows that they are the killers of his older brother, Sonny). If we saw the baptism on its own, we might believe that Michael is rejecting his family’s violent history, based on his solemn expression and the innocence of the image of the child. However, when we see the disturbing images of death that accompany the scene, we see it in a whole new light. Michael is not rejecting Satan, he is becoming him. The child is not being baptized; he is, and the contrast between the baptismal water and the blood of Michael’s enemies only serves to emphasize this. As before, we do not need to see every detail of the murders or of the baptism, nor do we need to be told that Michael has become corrupted. We are shown a series of images, with little dialogue in between, and forced to connect the disparate words and images, plug in the gaps, and arrive at this conclusion on our own.
There are plenty of other examples, but these two in particular have always stuck with me. What works about them both is how minimalistic they are. They use the technology of film to tell stories within the larger story that is the film’s narrative. We also see some of the limitations of photography revealed here. When viewing a photograph, the viewer must make assumptions about everything that is not explicitly shown in one image that depicts a fragment of a single event. Film, on the other hand, shows us several larger fragments of moments and allows the artist to manipulate the order in which these moving images are delivered to us. Everything that is shown to us we accept as factual (at least according to the world of the film), while everything in between the shots is what the viewer’s imagination controls. By bookending these portions “between the shots” (in other words, by showing us the before and after of what we imagine to take place), the filmmaker can guide the viewer throughout the film, manipulating our thoughts as we go. Every shot of the film thus functions as a “waypoint”, each of which yanks us back into the reality of the film and forces us to accept it as truth. This does not imply that either medium is “better” than the other, but that they have different ways of exercising control over their viewers.
These ideas ultimately only raise more questions. Is there a way in which photography performs the same function? What is it about this restriction of narrative control that makes film so appealing to us? I’m not sure I can answer these, but I would welcome any ideas that anyone else might have on the subject.