Under the current restrictions of lockdown and quarantine, in which we are being asked not to leave our homes, “hands-on filmmaking” has become virtually impossible, at least in the sense of a group of people coming together on location, sharing equipment, and interacting in close physical proximity to each other. Like so many other things with this pandemic, it is a scenario that can forebode hopelessness and paralysis, but it can also be turned into a call for action. In the history of cinema, filmmakers have often faced seemingly insurmountable difficulties to produce meaningful films, and time and again they have turned those challenges into creative opportunities that have expanded the palette of cinematic language.
Take the case of Italian Neorealism in World War II. Amidst the Nazi invasion, Mussolini’s fascist repression, and the Allied bombings that ravaged their country, Italian filmmakers came up with an aesthetic of resistance that redefined how films could be made and set an example for filmmakers and independent movements all over the world. Films would focus on relatable characters and stories about the “here and now” more than on production values. Authenticity was achieved through casting non-actors, shooting on location, the critique of dehumanising social institutions, and moral ambivalence in the face of survival. The guiding idea was to show life as is, as opposed to how it ought to be.
Going back further, after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the newly formed Soviet Union found itself caught in two major conflicts: World War I and a devastating civil war. Lenin wanted films to be made partly as instructional tools to extoll the virtues of the socialist revolution, but due to the wars and the restrictions on imports there was a shortage of film stock that made physical shooting extremely challenging. A “think tank” was put together to deal with the problem: the Kuleshov Workshop came up with a series of discoveries and realisations that made it clear that in cinema new layers of meaning and emotion could be created through editing, regardless of the original intent of the images. Not that creative editing had not been done before (as in the innovative work of the Brighton School in England from 1896 to 1910), but the way it was articulated by Lev Kuleshov and his students was a breakthrough in the understanding of how cinematic language operates.
The daunting filmmaking limitations we are now facing under the quarantine induced by Covid-19, while enormously frustrating for those of us who relish being on set, may signify the reemergence of ideas put forth a century ago by the Kuleshov Workshop. In modest ways that still make cinematic expression viable, we are able to explore narrative possibilities via platforms like Zoom. These methods are also a fundamental springing board for larger scale productions with access to more resources. Through editing we can create connections between characters as well as to their surroundings, even when they do not share the same physical space at the same time. Remote Zoom sessions with actors who are miles apart can link them or bring them together into a shared cinematic time and space as long as filmmakers are mindful of basic concepts of film grammar: framing, directionality, lighting, and production design, to name the most obvious ones.
Kuleshov referred to this kind of linkage of shots across distances as “creative geography or artificial landscape”. For example, if we want to convey that two people are in the same room talking to each other at a near distance, we would shoot their singles so that one faces frame right and the other one frame left, while ensuring that the eyelines match and their clothes, lighting, and at least the colours of the walls behind them are compatible within the logic of the story. If this is done with enough care and attention to detail, the audience will recreate a unity of time and space even though the actors may actually be thousands of miles away. To pull it off convincingly, we would also use sound, such as background ambience and appropriate music, to unify the illusion of spatial-temporal relationship suggested by the cuts themselves. Whether the actors ask someone quarantined with them to help them frame the shot or do it themselves, the Zoom format will allow us to direct them every step of the way.
In the same way, we can shoot fragmented bodies and edit them so the audience believes the shots relate to a specific character we have established; for example, after showing the medium shot of an actress who does not know how to play the piano, we cut to a close up of female hands that do, obviously paying attention to matching issues (age, skin colour, fingernails) and the look of the instrument itself. Kuleshov referred to this as “creative anatomy”, often used in cinema for depictions of nudity and action scenes involving stunts. Suspension of disbelief comes in the form of an elegant Frankenstein effect where different shots of various body parts are used to create the sensation of watching a whole individual; or to paraphrase Plato, the relation of the many parts to the whole gives us a sense of identity.
One can hardly talk about Kuleshov without mentioning the “Kuleshov effect”, for which he is best known. When you edit a close up of a person with a neutral expression – a kind of “blank slate” – preceded by the object of that person’s point of view, the audience will project their own emotions into that person’s neutral expression. To visually demonstrate his hypothesis, Kuleshov alternated different images followed by the exact same shot of the “blank slate” man: a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, and an attractive woman.
These images elicited in the audience whatever emotions each viewer conjured up (eg, craving for soup, grief for the dead girl), who would in turn project them to the actor who was never anywhere near them. In the case of the attractive woman, it could well range from a viewer interpreting the man’s expression as admiring the woman’s beauty to someone else interpreting it as the man lusting for her… which probably says more about the viewer than the character in the film.
The Kuleshov effect and the principles of creative anatomy and geography are all resources that can inform and inspire our approach to producing a scene in the Zoom format these days. Actors will have to use their imaginations, as they always do, and rely on the director / cinematographer / script supervisor to guide their behaviour and eyelines. As with on-ground filmmaking, working remotely can only gain from thorough preparation and the aid of floor plans and storyboards that allow for improvisation and incorporating accidents that enrich the scene. However, the most important thing to bear in mind is Kuleshov’s mantra when it came to the art of montage: In order for an edit to maximise its potential, it must operate at three different levels – narrative, intellectual, and emotional. This means that every time we make an edit we should ensure that the cut helps tell the story, conveys meaning, and perhaps most importantly, that it affects the audience. Every edit should give us a little jolt, just like every sentence is a building block in effective prose.
A fascinating aspect of linking characters to one another and their surroundings through edits is that we can open up narrative possibilities by expanding the perception of time and space in cinema. One of my favourite examples is the opening scene of Zemlya (Earth, Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930). An old man is lying out in the fields in his beloved homeland of Ukraine, peacefully awaiting death. Nature surrounds him in the form of clouds, blades of grass swaying in the wind, sunflowers, and pears as sensual as those in Paul Cézanne’s still lifes or Edward Weston’s photographs. All of these manifestations of never-ending life, further immortalised by film, will continue long after he is gone. In his sensitivity for nature and his lyrical use of imagery, Dovzhenko’s cinematic poetry shares a branch in the genealogical tree of film history with directors like Victor Sjöström (The Wind, 1928), Akira Kurosawa (Dersu Uzala, 1975), and Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, 1978), who metamorphose nature into characters imbued with a lingering metaphysical presence.
At a first glance, the dying old man in Earth, Semyon, is surrounded by family members, but since Dovzhenko quite deliberately chose to film everyone in singles, the editing allows for additional layers of interpretation supported by film grammar. Indeed, Semyon may very well be surrounded by those he holds dearest, but it is impossible to define precisely their spatial and temporal relationship to one another since there isn’t an establishing shot that links the characters within the same frame – except for two toddlers shown next to each other, who also appear in singles, and a shot where a pair of female arms holding a tray comes into frame to hand Semyon a pear he wants to taste as his last act on Earth before willing his own death.
This editing technique also makes it possible to interpret the scene as if Semyon is imagining being surrounded by people who are present in his mind but not physically there (except for the woman who gives him the pear, the only one who actually shares the frame with him). In other words, they are there but not there, a duality that cinema can show as these characters accompany Semyon in body and spirit.
And there is yet another possibility whereby what we are seeing could be different stages in Semyon’s life, or any other human’s life for that matter, ranging from babyhood to childhood, adolescence, maturity, a nurturing mother-earth figure, and Semyon’s present state as he lies a dying old man unfazed by the threshold of the unknown. The scene seems to imply that after his death he will become a part of the Ukrainian soil in a process that warrants the continuity and renewal of nature in a way that necessarily outlasts human life.
In essence montage enables the multiple layers of narrative to exist concurrently and feed on one another: Semyon is accompanied by other people and is alone imagining them, and on another level, the last moments of his life are being intertwined into a visual poem. Time and space have become cinematic, free from the constraints of reality, much like when we feel that certain things can be best expressed figuratively rather than explicitly, in the form of a poem rather than in prose. In that sense, structuring a scene through montage can be the equivalent of poetry or music in that shots can be purposefully layered and have different levels of meaning that elevate the scene to pure cinematic expression.
And then came along Sergei Eisenstein, a disciple of Kuleshov who built on his teacher’s ideas by introducing dialectical montage. So now, in addition to making sure that an edit helps tell the story, says something, and makes us feel things, Eisenstein proposes that the cut will gain in meaning and be more dynamically charged if we create some kind of collision or conflict between the shots. The engaged viewer will react by making something out of that opposition: a new idea or emotion that is a synthesis of the two forces that engendered it in the first place. Philosophers like Hegel and Marx believed this process could help explain history and the human experience as the result of forces that are in perpetual conflict. Anything that happens in the world will sooner or later encounter its opposition, and from that friction will result a new phenomenon; thesis and antithesis produce a synthesis that is not only a combination of both but also more complex, and this synthesis inherently becomes a thesis in itself that will be opposed by a new antithesis, and so forth. Combustible forces create a new reality out of their clash. In modern cinema this kind of editing can be seen in films that rise above their own ideological trappings – think JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991) – or even action scenes that hurtle images together, indistinctly cutting from one opponent to another in order to create a frenetic but unified whole, as in the muddy Battle of Agincourt in The King (David Michôd, 2019). At its best, the opposition elicits a synthesis that becomes a powerful metaphor, as in this example from the New Zealand film Once Were Warriors (Lee Tamahori, 1994).
Dialectical montage is significant because it incorporates the viewer as part of the creative process. The film is recreated, and the ultimate repository of the film is whatever happens inside the viewer’s mind. This makes sense because, not unlike music or a book, a film only comes alive when it is experienced by someone. It also helps explain to a certain degree why people interpret films differently, sometimes to an astonishing degree. In music there is an analogous psychoacoustic phenomenon, Tartini’s “third sound”, an additional tone that is artificially perceived when two real tones are sounded at the same time, much like the synthesis that happens in our minds as a result of opposing shots creatively.
Contrasting elements in the shots ideally manifest themselves in both form and content: for example, conflicts in screen directionality (going down vs. going up), rhythm (slow motion vs. regular speed), tonality (day vs. night), and texture (bone vs. metal) in the unforgettable elliptical cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). These all but make us wonder if, in the four million years that have elapsed in 1/48th of a second, mankind has actually “progressed” or not, since the Australopithecus bone and space nuclear missiles are intended for the same destructive purpose.
Other examples are conflicts of emotion (a brutal fight vs. an inert body), camera angle (high vs. low), focal length (telephoto compression vs. wide-angle deep focus), framing (close up vs. long shot), bulk or number (the individual as representative of the whole), etc.; and clearly the more innovative one in the evolution of film grammar: conflict in time, aka discontinuous editing or jump cuts. This last one is defined as an action that can be deconstructed and shown in a spatial-temporal order that would be impossible to achieve in the real world due to the laws of physics. Interestingly, discontinuous editing appeared at the same time in France in the work of Dimitri Kirsanoff, a Russian émigré who achieved mind-boggling results (narratively, intellectually, and emotionally) in his masterpiece Ménilmontant (1926), and eventually jump cuts would become firmly integrated into classical film grammar by the French New Wave in the 1960s.
A great example of conflict of time, courtesy of Eisenstein himself, is the end of the Odessa Steps massacre in The Battleship Potemkin (1925), where we see jump cuts in quick succession of a Cossack wielding his sword at what we assume must be the baby in the pram, only to realise that it is also the old woman with the shattered eyeglasses, thus serving as a metaphor for the indiscriminate killing of the young, the old, and everyone in between.
So even though the old woman might have not been within physical arm’s reach when the Cossack struck the baby, she was well within the metaphysical reach of what the Tsar’s killing machinery did to everyone on 15 June 1905. Yet again, the old woman was there but was not there. Montage allows for this sort of ontological paradox, bending time and closing distances within the spectator’s mind.
As a side note, it should come as no surprise that historically the massacre itself did not happen as depicted by Eisenstein, but documentary accuracy was certainly not his intention. It is a stylised account that uses figurative language, cinematic geography, and psychological duration to distill the essence of the citywide demonstrations, retaliations, and consequent revolutionary spirit that arose from the arrival of the Potemkin in Odessa Harbour.
As to being there but not being there at the same time, it is something that montage can do in a believable way while keeping the tone both serious and within the boundaries of realism (as opposed to the supernatural). Montage creates links for the viewer to recreate a cinematic geography and time that bring things together beyond the nature and physical limitations of the shots themselves; eg, the old man’s death in Earth. Linking characters within the frame, rather than through edits, inherently confines them to the same place and time. Filmmakers like Kenji Mizoguchi (The Life of Oharu, 1952) and Larisa Shepitko (The Ascent, 1977) tend to preserve the spatial-temporal unity through long takes that can create in cinema the illusion that the frame is a mirror of reality… an illusion because the moment we “frame” reality by excluding certain elements from the rectangle, we inevitably reinterpret what lies in front of the camera.
The legacy of dialectical montage is that by ensuring that there is something between the shots that creates friction or gives off sparks when we do an edit, we are prompting the engaged viewer to evoke something intangible that enriches cinematic language. Subtext replaces literalness and the hidden meaning surfaces. Could it be that Eisenstein came up with this creative breakthrough in cinematic language as a response to Stalin’s autocratic demands? If so, that would help make the case that his cinema transcends political propaganda, from The Battleship Potemkin all the way to Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958), in which he met his fate with a masterpiece that was banned and shelved away as “culturally unacceptable” in the Soviet Union, not to be seen publicly until a decade after the director’s death.
Some filmmakers have found equally imaginative ways of creating dialectic tension or conflict of opposites as part of the mise-en-scène within the shot itself. The final shot of Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952) comes to mind. Umberto and his dog, Flike, have reconciled after Umberto unilaterally considered stepping in front of a train while clutching his rather reluctant companion. They now seem playful as they recede into the distance, but the future holds, at best, utter ambiguity and uncertainty. To make the point, De Sica suddenly has a group of enthusiastic children enter frame and run in the opposite direction, towards camera, their laughter underscored by unsettling music. In this case the synthesis morphs into a question: What will the future bring for these postwar children, who are now, in 2020, roughly Umberto’s age? Will they have it any better than him?
As to the paradox of being there without being there, it takes no less than a cinematic minotaur to achieve it by means other than montage, through a combination of ingenuity and boldness. Consider the delightful, self-contained tableau of the missing girl in the free-spirited The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Buñuel, 1974), a wonderful and intriguing example of (a) showing what is there but is not really there; (b) by linking within the frame rather than through montage; and (c) steering clear of the comedic or supernatural.
A married couple has been informed that their daughter is gone missing from her elementary school. They arrive to confirm that, indeed, she is not there… except she is, in plain sight. Everyone sees Aliette, the missing girl, and they even interact with her whenever is needed – for instance, to check on the clothes and shoes she was wearing when she disappeared. All along the adult world acknowledges her absent presence and behaves as if she is not there. Buñuel makes all these connections within the frame, not through montage. The girl is inhabiting the scene’s spatial-temporal unity, but her being is doubted not only by the other characters but even by the audience. There is no supernatural element to it, and the tone is serious, though of course there is a tinge of inherent absurdity to the whole situation. Buñuel exerts great control and restraint in his directorial choices so that it never turns into what could have been a Monty Python skit. For lack of a better term, many critics label this approach as Buñuel’s “surrealism”, but the Spanish-Mexican director himself was the first to dismiss that term, arguing that he was showing reality “as is”, for how many times do we not treat our children exactly like that, as if they were invisible and their opinions did not matter at all? In a way what Buñuel is doing here is what our dreams do more often than not: show an implausible situation in a perfectly naturalistic way. The legacy of Buñuel can be seen in some of the best moments of directors like David Lynch (Lost Highway, 1997) and Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009) when they keep the irrational a serious and meaningful part of our daily lives that should be further delved into through cinema.
What we are experiencing right now with the pandemic feels like a scenario straight out of a Buñuel movie, from shunning others as if they literally “have the plague”, to the Manchurian-candidate notion that it is all a conspiracy devised by those who would implant chips in us. We find ourselves much like the characters in the Mexican film El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, Luis Buñuel, 1962), the perfect metaphor for our times, trapped and also free to cross an invisible threshold and risk extermination. It is a time for self-reflection in which cinema, as always, offers us the possibility of making connections, and as filmmakers we have to continue making films no matter what.
The discreet charm of editing can help get us through the challenges, limitations, and reassessment of our spatial-temporal relationships in our approach to filmmaking. Aside from being a film director, I am the head of film production at Santa Monica College (SMC) in California, a program with a mission to offer a high level of education at the lowest possible cost. During quarantine I’ve had to confront the challenge of teaching “hands-on filmmaking” remotely. At first this sounded like an oxymoron, but it led me to think about all of the above and, more importantly, to act on it. Case in point, in preparation for a short film entitled “Leaving the Factory” that we are planning on shooting whenever the pandemic allows, my SMC students recently produced some scenes via Zoom which earned them a recognition from the Next Generation Indie Film Awards in Canada. They collaborated with actresses quarantined in different countries (Italy and the U.S.), who graciously recorded themselves at home using their smartphones. The experiment was incredibly helpful in terms of drilling these scenes and exploring their dramatic and aesthetic possibilities; plus it had a total cost of zero dollars.
In a simple and straightforward way, we were able to combine elements of creative geography and anatomy, dialectical montage, and linking characters both through edits and even within the same frame in what felt like a fitting response to the quarantine – a committed example of being there without being there.