Forging a New Film Discourse

Film: the Step-Child of Academia’s Literature Departments

How does one begin to talk about film? To look at only its text—its language and suggested angles, maybe even accompanying commentary—and discuss it from that aspect alone would be to address a four-dimensional entity using a dialectic suited for only two dimensions. Presently, “film theory” can be studied as a legitimate discipline in many of the nation’s academic institutions. This illustrates just how far film has come in this last century, from its beginnings as novelty and spectacle, to its current status as a possible accepted form of art. Yet, that film is studied in the context of its text, by students trained not in the artfulness and framing of a shot, or the energy of motion within a shot, within the juxtaposition of shots, but instead, trained in the intricacies of language, of text and subtext, and of literary theory, illustrates that film has not yet come far enough.

Motion pictures can be thought of as the darling of the twentieth century. This last century has had speed and introspection as its watchwords. Speed, which is defined as a function of distance over time, can be illustrated in the number of celluloid frames which pass over a light source during a period of one second. And yet, each individual frame is an independent image, a film still, which can possess as legitimate an art value as a photograph (think of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” as a post-modern example). Prior to the development of the steam engine, a person could only move as fast as wind, water, or foot could carry him or her. Speed was relative and unwieldy (the time it takes the sun to pass over the hemisphere). We have since moved from steam engine to locomotive to bullet train, from telegraph to telephone to digital wireless phone. And with the advent of satellites, television, and the Internet, information is now nearly exact and instantaneous.

As the speed of the physical world geometrically increases, many have turned to arrest the time of the psychological world, of the conscious, the subconscious, and the unconscious, until time perception is nearly at a stand-still. Moments are frozen for our inspection and introspection as we analyze and re-analyze them. We look inward to those fleeting periods of between five and 25 minutes in which we are engaged in dream sleep, examining that narrow band of time for answers as we might obtain from study of a religious tract or obscure civil law. It was in 1829 that locomotives began running with frequency, increasing a person’s speed and the distance over which she or he could travel. In 1831, Louis Jacques Daguerre developed a method of making a moment last indefinitely. The Lumier brothers established in 1895 a method for setting Daguerre’s captured image in motion. Sigmund Freud published his Studies in Hysteria in 1893, and in 1905 Einstein released his Special Theory of Relativity. Each step to increase external speed might be coupled with an attempt to capture time, stop it, reverse it, even.

There is no art form that better illustrates our modern society’s growing ambivalence towards distance and time than film; it is the still moment, the moment put into motion, and the moment replayed ad infinitum. And the over all-image is composed of the shot itself, as well as how many shots are spliced together. Mise-en-scene can be said to be the interrelation of people in action. Sergei Eisenstein defines mise-en-cadre as “the pictorial composition of mutually independent cadres (shots) in a montage sequence (Film Form, 16).”

To Eisenstein, montage meant conflict:

    Conflict within a shot is potential montage, in the development of its intensity shattering the quadrilateral cage of the shot and exploding its conflict into montage impulses between the montage pieces. . . . If montage is to be compared with something, then a phalanx of montage pieces, of shots, should be compared to the series of explosions of an internal combustion engine, driving forward its automobile or tractor: for, similarity, the dynamics of montage serve as impulses driving forward the total film (ibid, 38).

Eisenstein sees film shots as playing out in a Hegelian mode of conflict. His language is dynamic, industrial, and full of energy. He goes so far as to draw up diagrams identifying shots as “thesis” and “antithesis”, and their coming together as “synthesis”. Vsevolod Pudovkin thought of the shots as building block, constructing new and stronger meanings with the introduction of each new shot. These two directors, both of whom studied under Kushelov, were focused on the juxtaposition of shots, the building, the collision, the movement forward. And both were interested as well on effects the juxtaposition might have within the viewer’s mind: the synthesis of thought.

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