Many thanks to Matthew Lloyd for this fascinating post.
It’s 1992, and today’s episode of Fireman Sam is playing on television screens up and down the country. The episode begins with schoolboy Norman Price, sat in much the same position as many of the shows young viewers, glued to the front of his television set. The momentary peace is shattered by the sound of her mother- Dilys Price, storming into the room in a rage. “Norman!” “Norman!” she exclaims, dragging her son away from the set by his ear, “Turn that thing off, or your eyes will go square!”
Indeed, the English language is clear: books are read and television is watched. Reading television or film is an impossible act for anyone unless two, very distinct criteria are met: You have to be at university, and the film must be entirely shot in black and white.
Many people are, of course, upset that many other people don’t believe that films are actively read as much as they are watched. Fighting at the front-line of this debate are the academics who have devoted their lives to exploring the language of cinema.
What I want to do is talk about one train of thought developed in the excellent In The Blink Of An Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing by Walter Murch, which undercuts and undermines scores of academic articles about what certain shot sequences ‘mean’, by providing a fresh interrogation of the question at the very heart of cinema: Why do cuts between images even work? I want to share what fascinates me about the way television and films work, and hopefully encourage you to look a little differently at what you’re actually viewing.
First we must be clear on what we mean by a ‘cut’. In film it is all too easy to misrepresent this as a change in the image we see: the first thing to acknowledge is that moving images we see at the cinema or on television are in fact being cut at anything between 24 and a fraction under 60 times a second (depending on where you are in the world or where you are viewing it from.) This may seem like a very facetious point to make, but I think it helps explain something more fundamental about how we process moving images.
The string of still images we see presented to us, in order to create their movement, must each be spatially different to the last. This is how movement is generated. Each of these frames represents a spatial change. A ‘cut’ is not indicative of a certain level of subject movement, or camera movement, (a sports car may travel over a meter in-between frames) but instead identified when there is a major reestablishment of context.
This is something we didn’t see in art before the introduction of cinema. What’s so fascinating about it is that our response to it as a device is extremely varied. Cinema does not necessitate cuts (Hitchcock’s Rope for example) but the way we respond to them as an audience varies incredibly widely: from being so elegant and subtle they go completely unnoticed; to being so jarring and unpalatable that they can barely be stomached (Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc); to being a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quick sequence of extreme close–ups which are the bread and butter of most action films.
Not enough time is spent in the industry understanding this huge, powerful monster in the filmmaking processes. Indeed, I would also tentatively suggest that the arguments that hypothesise about the mechanics of cinema are at their most convincing when they place the cut as the basic building block of the form.
There are many unanswerable questions in cinema studies, and one of these is ‘What defines a genre?’ I don’t wish to simplify this argument, but I would guess that cutting patterns within edit suites play a large, defining, part in this process. The link below shows a video that is extremely entertaining, while also exposing the degree to which cutting rhythm and pace influences our conception of genre within a filmmaking syntax.
In one sense, this video represents a relatively modern obsession with audio-visual creoles that expose how the languages of these products work while simultaneously redefining them through open adaptation. What they also do is expose wonderfully the importance of the cutting process within the cinematic form.
So these rapid reestablishments are more than just about moving space- they are in a sense, the dominant vehicle for narrative in most films. But exactly the depth to the effect this can have is underexplored.
The effect of a cut/ Montage theory:
The effect of this re-establishment is that we assume a link between the shots that have been ‘cut’ together exists. This was first demonstrated by Kuleshov, who set out to create an experiment to show that when shots were cut together, the new context that was established was dependant in part on the contextual parameters of the shot before.
In an era dominated by reality TV, much of the intellectual challenge of this effect seems like old hat. We are well aware that the editing process can exploit this effect in order to mould our sense of on-screen reality. People are rightfully concerned about its dangerous potential – most notably the Queen.
The truly wondrous result of the Kuleshov experiment isn’t just that different juxtapositions create different characters of ‘the man’. It’s much more important than that.
The most important and overlooked result of the Kuleshov experiment is that the previous frame influences the nature to which we respond directly to the content of the current frame. It sounds like a minor distinction, but it isn’t.
Participants believed they were seeing a subtly different, and wonderfully acted, unique reaction to each stimulus. In essence, the image before it threads an emotional context through the proceeding shot, colouring the way we see it, so that we bring them to bear when we assimilate, not just the meaning of the following shot, but also what we are physically seeing. We physically read the shot differently, and uniquely each of the three times we are shown it.
If we extrapolate further, if a third shot is placed after the second, then the way in which we read that shot will be dictated in part by our memory of the second shot, which was dictated in part by the first. The fact that the first shot was a bowl of soup could have meaningful ramifications for our perception of the very content of the shots that occur far later in the sequence.
The effect of that is that within this experiment it shows that shots in sequences aren’t just like dominoes – each one pushed into meaning by the one before – but more like an entangled and chaotic web of teleconnections where the content of each shot is perceived by the huge and unwieldy chain of meaning created by the shots presented up to that point. This chain completely and utterly biases what you think you see (read as: actually do see) in the frames that follow.
Movies or television shows are very much read by an individual. It is just that, in my opinion, the sheer consumeability of the form, and its proximity to the way in which we see the world, means that it is a form that hides its own authorship extremely well.
I want to close with a wonderful extract from Walter Murch’s excellent In The Blink of an Eye that brilliantly demonstrates how viewing cinema as a language is eminently possible when we use the study of the structure of cutting, as a means by which to explore the medium.
“Visual Discontinuity- although not in the temporal sense- is the most striking feature of ancient Egyptian painting. Each part of the human body was represented by its most characteristic and revealing angle: head in profile, shoulders frontal, arms and legs in profile, torso frontal- and then all these different angles were combined in one figure. To us today, with our preference for the unifying laws of perspective, this gives an almost comic ‘twisted’ look to the people of Ancient Egypt- but it may be that in some remote future, our films, with their combination of many different angles (each being the most ‘revealing’ for its particular subject), will look just as comic and twisted.”
Murch, Walter, In The Blink Of An Eye, 2nd ed, Silman-James Press, 2001, pp. 8-9.
Matthew completed the Storying Sheffield course and graduated from the University of Sheffield in 2011. He now works as a freelancer in the UK television industry, where his broadcast credits include researcher positions on Great British Railway Journeys and Series 13 of Escape to the Country.