In this article Charles Rees offers his personal insights about how image and sound can be re-‘read’ in such a way as to transcend current narrative constraints. He offers examples of films which have influenced and impressed him, and extrapolates on ways in which cinema might develop in the future.
My four views stretch over a long period. Each individual sees differently. The Camera Image sees differently from humans.
Second View: Story-Orientated Blindness
This second view of Cinema was analytical. I was a film-editor in British Cinema – a phrase which the young director Francois Truffaut considered to be a contradiction in terms. It was exciting to cut film. I developed an abstracted way of looking at film that insured me against taking a story-orientated attitude. I would concentrate on the surface rhythms of a film, however tenuous they might be, banishing understanding of its content to the back of my mind. I treasured the way of seeing I had experienced at L'eclisse and needed to exercise and strengthen it. I might need it one day for a visual film.
The film eventually came as a television documentary, Between Dreaming and Waking, about the Ruralist painter David Inshaw, directed by Geoffrey Haydon1. It brought the viewer towards nature through the sensibility of the painter, in a series of slow-tempo shots, mainly of the Wiltshire landscape, accompanied by natural atmospheres and a ‘soundscape’ composed by Mike Ratledge and Karl Jenkins. Occasional snatches of speech were ‘brushed across the frame’, in Haydon’s phrase. Here was contemplative material. Everything in the frame was deliberate, every colour, shape and texture. The natural sounds were clear and sometimes seemed definitive: we got from the BBC library ‘the best blackbird song’ that ended unusually emphatically to evoke the lure of women on the painter. My abstracted approach worked for the first time. I describe it in detail because it led to a discovery.
Through the act of editing this film I learned to ‘play’ the camera, as one might play a musical instrument. I felt that I was almost inside the camera operator’s mind, playing the instrument with him. The playing technique was an overall gaze, the way the camera sees. You stare at the centre of frame, the area of double or treble value. You abstract your gaze so that you no longer look at any one object but become aware of the whole frame. You are not thinking. You float on the surface of the frame. You see what you already saw but in a new spirit: hyperaware, the way a cow in a meadow might see. You have shed your own personal way of seeing and adopted a universal one. You are ‘in the moment’ like the camera image. The shots being visually organized, you sense their mysterious unity. You sense the director’s emotion – the way he sees, as if inside his eyes. You feel his motivation and, you hope, the care he feels towards what he sees.
Geoffrey Haydon showed the sound and movement cycle of trees in a breeze. A large tree may ‘dance’ for forty or so seconds. First, it shakes its windward top branches; then its centre rolls; its lower branches join in on one side and then the other, in a great balancing act. Then back to the top.
The discovery I made was when I tried to apply my new editing confidence to fiction films. I wanted to avoid the actors’ performances dictating the rhythm of the shots. The kind of film editing where actor rhythms dominate the visual aspect restricts the audience’s way of seeing. I looked for visual rhythm to set them free. I found that the actors were not of the world that I had contemplated and had become accustomed. The actors stood in front of that world, where everything visual had had meaning, every colour, every texture and shape. They interposed themselves between it and the camera and they trumped it. Natural sounds were muted, their principal job now to serve the actors’ expression.
The delicate fiction I had discovered juxtaposing compositions of nature vanished before this stronger version, a kind of essence of fiction. The actors took over the responsibility of storytelling. Actors make us see in a different way. Actors have roles or parts and these are not visual. Actors’ ‘parts’ are not the same as parts of the frame, such as colour, texture or depth-of-field. Actors’ parts are of something else: of a drama, a story.
The actors and their acting dominated the film, even if they could not visually dominate the frame. They took over the shots with their story-based rhythm – and once they start to do that you cannot get off that bandwagon. The audience sees the film primarily through the acting, discounting any surviving visual rhythms. The image had split in two. It was no longer a harmonious frame, but one that demanded simultaneously two different ways of seeing. In practice, one dominated.
In editing the film I had to give in to this rhythm – a different rhythm, ‘the rhythm of the acted scene’ not the rhythms of the frame. If I wanted to keep hold of a shot because I noticed something interesting in the background of an actor, I could not do so without seeming pretentious.
What had happened? When we are looking primarily in a story-orientated way we follow the actors and our visual imaginations are of secondary importance. We become used to spoon-feeding in this story-orientated state. We tend to interpret what we see by what we know already. This makes us expectant. We anticipate in a state of curiosity – and such anticipation can be deliciously entertaining. This is our ‘grip’ on the film, a grip between following and anticipating. It makes for a powerful involvement. It is also limited and shallow. Following and anticipating, by definition, is not in the instantaneous, where life and the camera image are. We do not venture with our whole being into the unknown instantaneous but rather look for a gratification that has already been set up. We find ourselves existing on a gossip-mongering level towards the characters and events. We identify with the characters – a coldly immature calculation – rather than empathize with them. To empathize we would have to be living in the moment, with story concerns relegated to the back of our minds. Here are two instances which demonstrate how story-orientated seeing restricts our vision.
1. The Invisible Gorilla
There was an experiment in perception at Harvard University. Several people viewed a video of a basketball game with the instruction to keep a tally of the passes between the players. Around half the subjects failed to spot a woman dressed in a gorilla-suit, who, in the middle of the game, walked across the court for nine seconds – even though the interloper had passed between the players, stopped in front of the camera and thumped her chest. However, when the subjects were asked to review the video, this time without the instruction to count the number of passes, they noticed the gorilla easily. The effect was so striking that some subjects refused to accept that it was the same tape and thought it was a different version edited to include the ape. In a repeat of the experiment in London only 40 out of the 400 people who saw the show managed to spot the gorilla.
2. An 'Unseen' Classic
Story-orientated blindness occurs in the way we see a film such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954). Hitchcock transformed a wordy stage melodrama into an intimate study of evil manipulation and the pride taken in it. Several visual effects in this great film still go unnoticed after almost sixty years. The audience attends primarily to the verbal content and only looks in a secondary way. They are preoccupied with the actors’ performances and the dialogue. Submerged in the drama, they fail to notice what is on the film’s surface.
One of the joys of Dial M for Murder is the high-angled shots, looking down on the characters and expressing the murderer Wendice’s (Ray Milland) pathological superiority. A retired tennis player, he intends to murder his wife (Grace Kelly) for her money. He gets an extraordinary boost from the ingenuity of his scheme.
The high-angled shots have been noticed and discussed, but has anyone noticed Wendice’s head being set against flowers encircling it like a laurel wreath or against the corner of the mantelpiece so that he seems to sprout a small, devilish horn? When Swann, his accomplice, enters, his confusion is expressed (more than by acting) by his check jacket being thrown subtly out of focus as Wendice pours him a drink. Later, as Swann begins to make sense of Wendice, his head seems to project inside an empty rectangular wall moulding.
Wendice leaves his wife behind for the evening for Swann to strangle and, as he kisses her, Wendice surreptitiously hides his wife’s latchkey under the stair-carpet in the outer hall for Swann to find. At this point, literally the ‘key’ to his plan, the pointed newel-post of the staircase seems to stab him in the small of the back – the fate which will befall the assassin. The first hour of this film (after the appearance of the detective the film becomes a matter of solving the murder) is crammed with visual delights. Decorative objects, such as the twin table-lamps in the sitting room, acquire a life of their own.
These visual moments greatly increase the audience’s enjoyment. The problem is that we tend to experience them unconsciously. If we could be less submerged in the story and more conscious of the surface of the film, we might be able to enjoy Wendice’s machinations more. The great characters of drama and literature live in our imaginations in the round, not just in the stories in which they appear – why not in cinema as well?