The Film Sequence
Too Many Frames a Second
One can often recognise great filmmaking in no more than a sequence even if unlike in literature it is harder to claim genius in the closest equivalent to a sentence, the frame. Now of course for years semioticians argued over what happened to be the smallest unit in film, but perhaps what is aesthetically useful is what is the smallest unit of complete meaning. A writer cannot use a singular phoneme brilliantly nor even a word. To say a or b or d, or even affluent, benevolent or deteriorate contains no aesthetic significance at all, but the closest equivalent in film just might. If the smallest unit in film may be an object within the frame, and the shot the closest equivalent to a word, then we can say the latter comes closest to the single frame, but what is a sentence in cinematic terms, and is the sequence closer to a paragraph? Can we propose that if the sentence is the smallest unit of creative meaningfulness in literature, then perhaps the shot can function similarly in film. After all, we have no problem regarding a photograph as meaningful: Robert Doisneau's famous shot of a couple kissing is as visually aphoristic as "love is like a red, red rose." We don't want to tread on any semiotic toes here, and would agree with Christian Metz and others that direct analogies between written language and cinematic language are troublesome. If written language has a double register and an arbitrary signification, cinema has no double register and is much more literal. In other words, written language has a strict number of phonemes that are offered in innumerable combinatory possibilities, and just by changing one phoneme in the morpheme cat we have a very different thing. Replace the c with an h and the cat suddenly turns into a hat: a conjuring trick so easy to do in language but can look quite cumbersome if so rapidly deployed in film. This is because language is an arbitrary system that has no direct relationship with the thing signified. The difference between a cat and a hat on the page is a phoneme; the difference in film is two things not at all alike.
But we might propose that if a writer's brilliance can often be registered in a sentence yet his or her genius needs at the very least a paragraph, by the same reckoning a director's brilliance cannot rest on a shot but must demand a sequence. This sequence may be manifest in manifold cuts, a single shot, or a mixture of longer and shorter takes, but what we wish to show is that a sequence can be a very good way of registering a filmmaker's masterful sensibility. Equally, the reverse is probably true too: a sequence can show up a director limitations. A filmmaker may frame very well but cannot quite shape that ostensible visual eye into an impressive aesthetic object of movement. To show this impressive aesthetic object of movement our examples will come from five films, two from New Hollywood (The Long Goodbye, Raging Bull) and European auteur cinema (Le Mepris, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Damnation). We can find no less brilliant sequences in films that are ostensibly less august: our argument could have been made using great popular films like Jaws, Casablanca, It's A Wonderful Life, North by Northwest and Once Upon a Time in the West.
We can start with Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, a film that plays with many a detective film trope, often appears dismissive of Hollywood convention, and at the same time pays homage to various key Hollywood films without merely replicating them or mocking them. Here we have the drunk, ageing writer, Roger Wade, asleep next door as Marlowe and the writer's wife Eileen Wade have a candlelit dinner in the dining room. The house is in Malibu and the sea can be seen out the window as Marlowe and the wife flirt a little in a scene whose full implications won't appear until later in the film. Yet we might wonder whether the wife is seducing Marlowe because she has secrets to hide and Marlowe is flirting with her because he wants to find out more about a case that involves his good friend Terry Lennox, who has disappeared. During the sequence, we see Wade walking out to sea. From inside the house, Marlowe and Mrs Wade see him and rush out to help but fail to save his life. The sequence (as we will see) contains the romantic, the inductive and the tragic within around five minutes as Altman shifts the register within one sequence. He manages to do this partly by suggesting nothing is fixed, everything is fluid, as if we shouldn't trust the situation we are in or the characters who speak. Even if Marlowe is trustworthy next to a very duplicitous wife indeed (as we discover), nevertheless we might wonder what his motives are in the sequence. He is the detective, determined to know more, but also the solicitous figure who wants to make the wife feel better after her drunken husband has slapped her, and, too, the prospective lover, who clearly would have designs on this woman in other circumstances.
But these are the plot and character details that are of less interest to us than the form the sequence takes. As in the rest of the film, the camera is never still, and though throughout The Long Goodbye everything is observed from Marlowe's perspective as he occupies pretty much every scene, at the same time it isn't a point of view film in the way that Rear Window or Vertigo happen to be. Even if Rear Window is ostensibly very voyeuristic at the same time it is also very focused: so many shots are based on the temporarily disabled Jefferies looking at others. The immobility of Jefferies is reflected in an aesthetic that is restricted as well. Altman's camera is the opposite so that even though Marlowe is our central character and always to be seen, he is also someone whose existence within the film and within the frame is much more tentative than Jefferies and Scottie in Vertigo. No one is in any doubt very quickly that Scottie falls for Madeline, but Marlowe's relationship with Eileen seems more ambiguous, as if attraction keeps giving way to induction, and induction giving way to attraction. The camera's movements suggest this ambiguity and fluidity as we witness Altman creating a very different type of voyeurism from that in Rear Window. As Altman says, "we would just put the camera on a dolly and everything would move or pan, but it didn't match the action; usually it was counter to it. It gave me that feeling that when the audience sees the film, they're kind of a voyeur." Altman adds, "You're looking at something you shouldn't be looking at. Not that what you're seeing is off-limits; just that you're not supposed to be there." (Altman on Altman)
There is a doorstepping quality to Altman's aesthetic quite distinct from Hitchcock's elegant scopophilic intrusions: Altman's camera makes the image almost tactile in its intrusiveness. In this sequence, Marlowe has insinuated himself into the house and apparently ingratiated himself with Mrs Wade but this is as much evident in Altman's camera as in the plot itself. At one moment after dinner Mrs Wade says why doesn't Marlowe call her Eileen and instead of taking advantage of the intimate offering Marlowe instead turns epistemologically aggressive, asking her a few tough questions about the case that involves Mrs Wade, her husband, his best friend and his best friend's late wife. As he does so, we start noticing in the bottom corner of the frame, tiny next to Marlowe and Mrs Wade standing at the window, Roger moving towards the ocean. The camera keeps zooming and panning in on Roger through the glass as Marlowe is soon outside the frame and in turn Eileen too. But as they disappear so the camera shows an out of focus Roger becoming clearer in the distance, before we get a reverse angle showing Marlowe and Eileen talking at the window, and noticing Wade going into the ocean. Or rather we see Eileen looking out the window but does she initially see Roger wading into the sea or is it only a moment later, after another cut and after he is in amongst the waves, where she screams and Eileen and Marlowe go out and try to save him? Does she know that this brief delay will be the death of Wade? That isn't easy to ascertain even if the film's conclusion tells us that his supposedly dead friend Terry (who is very much alive until Marlowe kills him) was having an affair with Mrs Wade: Roger told Terry's wife, Terry killed her and disappeared with $250,000 of a gangster's money, waiting in Mexico for Mrs Wade to join him. Yet Altman designs the shots in a manner that suggests an ambivalence that may be Eileen's or may be ours: we don't know whether she wants him to drown or not. Altman directs as though he doesn't quite know either. Another director determined to indicate motivation could have closed in on Mrs Wade's face, shown that she clearly sees straightaway Roger tumbling into the water and hoped that Marlowe wouldn't notice until it is too late. But in the distance, as she looks out of the window she doesn't seem to see Wade and looks properly horrified at what is happening. Altman seems to understand that people can have genuinely mixed motives, that a person might wish to save their husband's life and at the same time disappear to Mexico to be with Terry, even if the best way of guaranteeing the latter is to allow one's husband to die. If The Long Goodbye feels messier than many a film noir it rests partly on this aspect, as though Altman's roving camera wants to indicate the slipperiness of feelings rather than their categorical direction. Indeed the plot details hinge on such a combination: the gangster gets his money back partly because Terry no longer needs it after Roger's death: Terry and Eileen can live off Roger's cash. If Marlowe had saved Roger's life it would have cost him his own; Terry would have kept the gangster's money and the gangster would have killed or at least mutilated Marlowe.
The need to mix deliberation with contingency may also have been why Altman insisted on a realism again usually missing from a genre that was traditionally studio stylised rather than locationally specific. In The Long Goodbye, the waves Marlowe disappears into aren't studio generated; it is the Pacific ocean. Actor Elliott Gould said, "we did that at about three o'clock in the morning, to catch the high tide. My motivation was simple: I loved Sterling Hayden, and I wanted to save him. I was a pretty good athlete too, so I hit the water that first time, and I'm heading for those breakers... and it suddenly occurs to me that I'm not in a tank at some studio, this is the fucking Pacific Ocean!" Gould adds, "I'm fully dressed, I'm starting to breathe harder, I'm getting concerned; I'm starting to lose control! I looked to the shore, where the lights were, and the people looked so tiny. Then I'm in the breakers, and I couldn't feel the bottom, my legs started turning to jelly, and my inner voice said to mefor the very first time, I heard itit said, "You can't go down, Elliott. There's no one here to bring you back up." (CinephiliaBeyond) Yet Altman's interest in realism never countered his fascination with the formal as he opens with a shot of the waves before panning and tracking towards Marlowe and Eileen eating a candlelit meal. The sequence ends with us again watching the waves with Roger washed ashore on the beach, his dog carrying his cane looking for his master. But a moment before we have also seen Eileen and Marlowe washed ashore in an embrace that, while more survivalist than romantic after they have tried to go in and save him, nevertheless resembles the famous moment in From Here to Eternity with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. It is one of several homages in the film, including a variation on the coffee pot in The Big Sleep and an ending that is a nod to The Third Man. Wade's death itself will no doubt bring to mind Norman Maine's demise in A Star is Born a washed out drunk who takes a final dip. Altman makes clear that films are made objects carrying the echo of other made objects. But that doesn't mean we have merely a self-reflexive nod towards cinema; Altman shows too life itself by capturing very well a seventies bohemia in LA. The convoluted story isn't something we are determined to work out as we're more inclined to do in 1946's The Big Sleep (also written by Leigh Brackett), but absorb, seeing in the incidental details an accumulation of what Roland Barthes would call in the literary context 'the reality effect'.
The term is used in a slightly derogatory fashion by Barthes it shows the ways in which a novelist can give us details within a work of prose that doesn't bear at all on the necessity of the story: as Barthes says, "such notations are scandalous (from the point of view of structure)" and perhaps especially so in a detective story that works strongly off cues and clues. By plonking a Chandler tale within the context of 70s California Bohemia, Altman allows the irrelevant details to accumulate and the clues to disintegrate. Anyone watching The Long Goodbye for the story more than for the texture of the telling will be disappointed, and many were. Charles Champlin reckoned "the troupe is that this Marlowe is an untidy, unshaven, semi-literate dimwit slob who could not locate a missing skyscraper and who would be refused service at a hot dog stand." (Los Angeles Times) Whether real-life private detectives were more inclined to resemble Gould than Bogart, certainly movie detectives were supposed to smarten up and keep their mind on the unfolding plot. Gould and Altman's Marlowe concerns himself more with soaking in the ambience of the places he occupies, whether it happens to be the Wades' beach house, the gangster's office, his own apartment, or when he crosses the border to Mexico.The cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond earlier shot McCabe and Mrs Miller for Altman and in both instances he shoots against the genre, finding ways to throw us into the milieu rather than the generic landscape. Part of this lies in the insistent zeroing in on details that have little to do with the plot and even make the scene inexplicable. In McCabe and Mrs Miller it might be the prostitute who kills a customer and which is hardly part of the plot, and here the dog holding Marlowe up when he visits Wade in the dry-out clinic. Marlowe is in no immediate hurry so the dog isn't a function of the narrative as it would be if someone were rushing their wife to hospital, and Altman uses plenty such details to create both a languorous sense of pace and a feeling that the milieu matters at least as much as the story he tells.
Perhaps we have cheated here by attending not only to the sequence but also by talking about other moments in the film, even other moments in Altman's work. But our purpose here is to indicate that this is part of the problem of film analysis: to do cinema justice proves extremely difficult if we are restricted in our approach. While it might be true that the unit of the frame seems to convey far more aesthetic meaning than a phoneme or a morpheme, this is the conundrum of film analysis. It would be absurd to make any claim about a literary work based on a single word let alone syllable, consonant or vowel. But in film, the frame grab is often used as a means by which to describe something that is not the film but a photograph within it. A photographer will need to put all their effort into the still frame to convey the necessary meaning but a filmmaker could be a master of the single-frame without at all conveying the rhythm of the shot. When for example David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson analyse Day of Wrath, they describe the first shot. "The heroine Anne is standing before a grillwork panel. He is not speaking, but since she is a major character in the film, the narrative already directs us to her." The writers add, "Setting, lighting, costume, and figure expression create pictorial cues that confirm our expectations. The setting yields a screen pattern of horizontal and vertical lines which intersect in the delicate curves of Anne's face and shoulder. The lighting yields a patch of brightness on the right half of the frame and a path of darkness on the left, creating pictorial balance." (Film Art: An Introduction, 5th edition) Is this cinema criticism or is it analysing the image just as one would a photograph? We needn't pretend Bordwell and Thompson don't often extend this analysis over a series of stills better to convey a film's existence in time but there is still the sense that still shots can convey the cinematic experience even if we might see in such an approach a variation of Zeno's famous paradox. Achilles can never catch up with the tortoise because time is segmented so that the best the hare can do is close the gap by 1/16, then 1/8th and so on but can never close it completely. It is an example picked up by Bergson and then utilised by Gilles Deleuze in his books on cinema and we might use it again as a means by which to question both the importance of stills in written film analysis, and also by extension their use in Powerpoint presentations in the classroom. That fractional aspect means one never quite closes the gap between the still no matter how many are piled into the text or the presentation: they lack, if you like, the phi phenomenon of perception the ability to convey the experience of the film created by still images running together at a specific speed (24 frames a second) and through certain technology (a projector), thus giving the impression of movement. The popularity of Bordwell and Thompson's books suggest that readers appreciate stills enough to pay handsomely for them: a 2019 edition of Film Art can easily fetch more than a 100.00. There is money to be made in the idea that stills replicate the film experience no matter if they are just as likely to create static criticism. Meanwhile, a Powerpoint presentation gives the impression of slickness and efficiency. In each instance, they might not convey the moving image but they will illustrate professional competence. The danger with the still image is that rather than showing us the film at work, they slow down the process of the critic's mind at work. If we talk about the importance of the sequence it rests on trying to find the necessary acknowledgement of the filmmaker's work and the freedom necessary for the writer writing on it. The still can be doubly transfixing: killing the film's rhythm and limiting the critic's thought.
To understand something of this rhythm as narrative force we can move onto our second example, Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Early in the film, the various bourgeois characters (minus Alice's husband Henri (Jean-Pierre Cassel) pull up at a quiet, off-the-road restaurant and take a seat in the dining room. The door is initially locked and when opened the waitress says the management has changed but persuades the guests to enter. In one long take, Bunuel shows the five of them taking a seat as others are active around them. We might wonder what one waiter is doing exiting one door with a couple of long lit candles as he crosses the room. The bourgeois men (Fernando Rey's Don Raphael, Paul Frankel's Francois) are absorbed in the menu but we notice first Alice (Stephane Audran), then Simone (Delphine Seyrig) and Florence (Bulle Ogier) showing curiosity. The waiter turns as if noticing their glance and exits through another door. The film cuts as the men continue discussing the menu and pans across to the three women who start to hear sobbing. Within the shot they get up and start to cross the room and in the direction of the sound as the film cuts to show them moving towards the door the room the waiter entered. The film cuts again as the three women enter the room, standing on its threshold. Alice covers her mouth in surprise; Simone looks aghast and Florence's face shows itself somewhere between the curious and worried. The film then pans away from the women and towards two waiters, two women sitting crying, beside themselves, and to a body stretched out and at rest. It is a very simple and yet quite marvellous example of incremental curiosity. It is both perfectly logical and wonderfully surreal simultaneously as it sets up a series of questions that it then answers without denying us the mysteriousness that the scene contains. Turning up at a restaurant that really does seem in the middle of nowhere (and yet next to a busy main road) it is both closed and open: the door is locked but the waitress opens it and insists they must come in. There are and no other guests in the dining room and we see the waiter wandering through the restaurant with two lit candles. Surely nobody would light a candle in advance of placing it on a table, and who else would the candles be for since there are no other diners? Then we hear the sobbing from another room, and the guests discover that the proprietor died that afternoon. "In that suit?" Florence asks irrelevantly, or perhaps very pertinently. The head waiter says they are waiting for an undertaker, so no reason at all to close the restaurant the pragmatic might think. Ironically, or aptly, half the guests look like they are attired for a funeral: Simone is in a black dress and Don Rafael and Francois wear black suits (albeit with colourful ties). Suddenly Alice and Florence's clothing looks decidedly out of place even it is Simone who insists that they should leave.
What Bunuel offers here is a sequence that sets in place the logic of the rest of the film: a group of friends whose desire to eat is constantly thwarted by the surreal and the dogmatic, two ostensible contraries that Bunuel's cinema manages to make coherent. A character may wake up out of a dream after getting shot down by a terrorist organization, or another awaken after finding that their dinner has all taken place on a stage, but this surreal aspect is contained by a dogmatic bourgeois class for whom presentation is the thing. It makes sense that Henri would wake startled by the fact that he is someone who struggles to remember his lines as the good bourgeois because what matters isn't the quality of one's life but the appearance of it that matters. If the characters never get to finish a meal in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie it is that the meal is never the thing: the social conventions surround the eating are what matter. The dogmatic insistence that food is first and foremost a ritual rather than a culinary necessity meets with the director's surreal need to show that events keep conspiring against them. The film is a good example of Barthes' analysis in Mythologies when he says "semiology is a science of form, since it studies significations apart from their content." Partly what makes The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie both logical and surreal is that is what Bunuel does: he shows us the significance of the social gesture even as it seems to have little to do with the alimentary canal that would surely be the fundamental reason behind dinner. In the sequence we have utilised, the director doesn't allow for a freeplay of the imagination where no logic is applied. Each stage of our curiosity is met by a conclusion that is satisfactory. The restaurant is open and closed simultaneously. It is closed because the proprietor is dead but it is open because guests have arrived. A person wanders through the restaurant with lit candles but this isn't breaking with convention, as he lights them before placing them on the table, but because they are part of another convention: the candles to put either side the dead man. Barthes also notes in Mythologies that "the bourgeoisie is defined as the social class which does not want to be named" and this rests in part on a desire not be seen as promoting a political position but to be a natural formation. "...Today the bourgeois merges into the nation, even if it has, in order to do so, to exclude from it the element which it decides are allegros (the Communists). This planned syncretism allows the bourgeois to attract the numerical support of its temporary allies." Bunuel may have revolutionary groups on the edge of the film but what interests him much more is the revolutionary potential in the schism between the natural and the habitual: to show that the bourgeoisie is held together not by natural behaviour but by conventions that could easily be quite different. The sequence early in the film indicates less ravenous hunger (which Bunuel has shown on a few occasions in Los Olvidados, Nazarin and Viridiana) than colliding conventions; a Catholic death and a bourgeois meal. There is logic to each of them but surrealism in their collision as Bunuel manages to find the absurdity in both.
No still image could convey such absurdity but anybody watching the sequence would have a very strong sense of the Bunuelian capacity to generate immense curiosity within the context of a retained bafflement. If Bunuel's films are so often very easy to follow and yet very difficult to comprehend it rests on these contraries that a sequence can well capture. Here we have well-heeled diners who want to eat and mourners who want to honour the dead. Why can't both be compatible since if the diners are hungry then food will satisfy their needs. However, Bunuel shows that food isn't the question; bourgeois mores are and they can't tolerate grieving next door. One might say this is simply good taste, and so it may be, but the director shows that curiosity in this instance doesn't kill the cat but the appetite, as the scene ends with them leaving without culinary sustenance. It isn't that such an absurd juxtaposition couldn't be expressed in an image, yet that would require the skills of a painter or perhaps a photographer, and we can think of course of some of Magritte's work to understand the surreal combination of clarity and obfuscation simultaneously. For example, The Empire of Light, which suggests night and day simultaneously, is a very fine example of capturing something of the surrealist contrary in one fixed image. Filmmakers have indeed drawn from it, with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro acknowledging the importance of the painting on his films. "[Bernardo] Bertolucci has always showed me paintings. When we were making The Spider's Stratagem he showed me some of Magritte's work." (Guardian) There is no doubt when we look at Bertolucci films like The Spider's Stratagem, The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris that we see the influence of painting. Storaro is more than happy to acknowledge influences, and indeed Last Tango in Paris opens on a couple of Francis Bacon paintings. But where the artist's work finishes, for the filmmaker it starts. A faithful rendition of a famous painting is of little consequence except as a wink to a knowing audience which knows their fine art as well as their cinema. The painter works with one frame, a filmmaker twenty-four frames a second multiplied by a hundred minutes or so. That makes about 144,000 frames. The point is that movement is the key and generating incremental curiosity out of those frames. The curiosity in Magritte's great painting is spatial not temporal and so we take it in at one go even if we will no doubt spend minutes scanning that one image. Now films can, of course, slow the image down as the images pass through the projector, giving the impression that there is no movement at all even if there obviously happens to be. Films by Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr and Sokurov play up their stillness within movement, but even so painterly a filmmaker as Tarkovsky generates strong temporality out of the Bruegel reference in Mirror, where we then see the boy who plays in the snow caught in a suspenseful sequence concerning a grenade possibly going off. To have in mind the history of painting seems important to many great filmmakers but if they recognise too much the art and too little their own sense of movement they arrive at the problem of the static image that bedevils film criticism based on stills. Tarkovsky's work may show the influence of Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow and Rembrandt's The Prodigal Son Returns in Solaris, for example, but few filmmakers have talked about the importance of the rhythm of the shot how movement is the art of cinema. "It is above all through sense of time, through rhythm, that the director reveals his individuality." (Sculpting in Time) It is that cinema relies on movement not fixity. Vital to that movement in even ostensibly non-narratively motivated filmmakers is the incremental curiosity generated out of those frames per second.
Few films may seem slower than Godard's Le Mepris. Following the collapsing marriage of Paul, a writer making a living as a put-upon scriptwriter, and his beautiful wife, Camille, Godard's film nevertheless generates some of the same incremental curiosity we find in Bunuel's work, evident in a sequence near the end of the film where we first see Paul standing on a clump of rock in Capri. The shot is held for several second before we hear the voice of the film-within-the film's director (played by Fritz Lang) saying that producer Prokosch isn't really a producer but a dictator. The film doesn't immediately cut to the director talking but holds on Paul before panning to the left as Paul starts descending the rock. Where is this conversation coming from we might wonder? Is he talking to Paul; is Paul remembering a conversation? But then we notice this isn't a recollection or voice-over Paul keeps walking down the cliff and the director enters the frame. He has been speaking to Paul while the screenwriter was on the rock. They continue talking about the film as it echoes Paul's own situation: Paul talks about Ulysses, Penelope and the suitors that he had to kill to regain Penelope's respect as the two men walk through the forest. As they keep walking the camera leaves them behind, panning to show in the distance Casa Malaparte, where they are staying. We can just about see a couple of bodies standing on the roof terrace, moving away from each other but cannot quite make out who they are. A man hurries down the steps, while the woman moves to the edge of the terrace. The film then cuts to Camille as she stands on the edge of the roof terrace and we can assume the man has been the very producer Paul and the director have been discussing who has indeed become Camille's suitor. The film shows her cross the frame, turning in the direction of where the camera has been and starts waving. Is she waving at Paul or just hoping he may see her waving? Camille then exits the frame and several seconds later Paul enters it looking for her. Where has she gone we may wonder as the camera follows Paul around the rooftop, sometimes allowing him all but to exit the frame. Then the film shows us where she is: in the house by the window sharing a kiss with Prokosch.
There are frames within the sequence that are beautiful in themselves: Paul standing on the rock, with other rocks in the distance, the shot of Casa Malaparte in long shot; the shot of Camille on the edge of the terrace. Yet the incremental curiosity exists in the movement, so that even if we accept that Le Mepris is a film possessing very little plot, Godard is well aware that as a moving image he needs to keep generating fresh questions about that image. Had Godard cut to a medium close-up from the hilltop where the director and Paul talk, to Camille and Prokosch on the terrace, he would have removed some of that curiosity. Had he shown us Camille going down to meet Prokosch and then shown Paul looking for her, again curiosity would have been curtailed. This isn't at all about pushing the story, where almost all the meaning is forced into the narration and where the shots illustrate the plot. It is instead audio-visual curiosity asking that we pay attention to how a situation is developed cinematically. The sequence is the means by which the critic can convey that curiosity. The story is one thing and can be easily synopsised; the frame is another and can be easily reproduced. But a description of the plot and the screen grab don't convey to us the moving image at all, even if they are probably the most commonly accepted means of reproducing an aspect of the film. Many reviewers focus on the plot with usually a still from the film accompanying it. By contrast, Bordwellian style analysis uses lots of stills from the film and details how the image is constructed to generate meaning. But again we are in fixity, with the still image asked to do a contrary amount of work, rather like trying to register a song's appeal by a series of separated out notes.
Of course, our analogy doesn't hold: one reason why we might assume music critic wouldn't be inclined to show a note in isolation is because it would be like showing one letter or a word in isolation. It wouldn't convey any meaning, while the screen-grab can. Thus the problem rests much more on thinking the reproduced frame of a film can convey an aspect of it when we are saying this assumption makes it very difficult to differentiate what makes one film of value and another not. We won't deny that Godard's film is gorgeous to look at: coming across the stills in the middle of Ulysse Dutoit and Leo Bersani's fine book on Le Mepris (and All About My Mother and The Thin Red Line), Forms of Being, we can marvel at the beauty of Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard's images and the quality of the reproductions in the volume. And how can we invoke Tarkovsky on the one hand and ignore that he uses numerous stills in the Faber edition of Sculpting in Time? Yet all the stills reproduced in Tarkovsky's book are in black and white, and even in Forms of Being most of them are still in monochrome even though the films under discussion are in colour. Only the plates in the middle of the latter book even begin to capture an aspect of Le Mepris' beauty. There will always be a problem when it comes to the reproductions of one art form into another one. Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New very diligently reproduces most of the paintings in colour but what about the size; how can one look at a Rothko on the page even if Hughes has been faithful to its sense of colour? Here we mustn't be too absolutist about things: a still can a still conjure up very usefully an experience of the film and a reproduced painting on the page can do a great deal of justice to the image under discussion When Hughes discusses the similarities between an earlier Clyfford Still's painting and Barnett Newman's 'Vir Heroicus Sublimis' it would have been great to show the paintings side by side; instead the page across from the text is devoted to just the Newman that takes up the top half of the page; the bottom half is left blank. The layout does justice to the painting but less so to the idea, but in film this problem is greatly exacerbated. We can admire the quality of books that reproduce stills as well as the Bersani book or for example Robert B. Pippin's book The Philosophical Hitchcock, on Vertigo. They are beautiful examples of book production, a publisher's loving care applied to the design of a critical work. Yet they seem extraneous to the critical itself.
Imagine if someone were to try and draw similarities and differences between Rossellini's Voyage to Italy and Godard's Le Mepris, which still from each film would show that influence? It seems a discursive claim would be much more useful, one that notices the two film are interested less in solving the problem of the couple as we find in numerous Hollywood films that create a difficulty beyond the couple themselves (as we see in masterpieces like His Girl Friday, very fine films like Adam's Rib, and quite average ones like Twister and both versions of Mr and Mrs Smith), but focus on the very collapse itself: on the torpid, listless difficulty of generating energy out of the nothingness the relationship has become. A still from each is unlikely to capture that shared comprehension of temporality; a sense of time atrophying. This sense of atrophied time is a necessary component of Bela Tarr's oeuvre. If stills do an injustice to a work, maybe they do all the more so when a film is slow. One may see it as paradoxical: that surely any screen grab is no more than one frame but in a typically paced film that frame will offer precisely 1/24th of the information the film provides. But in a film that works at about a sixth of the pace of a more mainstream work how much can that frame offer? By our maths, 1/144th. To explain, we can think of the incremental curiosity at work in Damnation, quite different from the incrementalism evident in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Bela Tarr's film opens on some mining buckets passing along wires. It seems like an establishing shot held longer than we might expect: it lasts a minute. Near the end of this gaze, the camera all but imperceptibly moves before retreating and showing us that what we were looking at was a view from the window. More than a minute passes. We then discover that someone is looking out of the window as the camera goes behind the person's back as he becomes a silhouette in the frame. We notice he is smoking as we see the smoke billowing out around his head. 3 1/2 minutes have passed without a cut, and we still don't know what the man looks like and who he happens to be. Can a still capture an aspect of the temporality of the work in the way that for example a screen grab from Bullitt or The French Connection might? We can think of a still from the former film where Steve McQueen is driving his Highland green Ford Mustang as we see dust around the wheel. The still captures the pace of the film as well as can be expected, perhaps adopting a narrative mathematics we can say it represents a ratio of 24/1 versus Damnation's 144/1. It seems to provide, relatively speaking, a lot of information that we could extrapolate upon. In contrast, imagine if we fixed on a frame of the next shot in Damnation, where the camera passes along a wall before arriving at the central character (the man we have seen from behind) shaving in a mirror. All we would have in the still is the grain of the wall, a common enough image in the director's work as he often tracks or pans along walls before picking up a character, an animal, an open space. Now obviously readers may be thinking wouldn't it be great if the article had a still from Bullitt and Damnation to illustrate the point but that would be to miss it. Our purpose isn't chiefly to show the difference but to make a more general remark about visual economy versus visual expansiveness, and the difficulty in which to express this broader point through stills: it is a discursive rather than a visual one that needs to be made.
Yet if we are wary of using stills for film analysis we might also question from this point of view the important work done by critics in Screen magazine in the seventies, by Raymond Bellour, Stephen Heath and others on the sequence in cinema: including Bellour pieces on The Big Sleep and The Birds. Such an approach was based on breaking down the sequence, to try and moment by moment understand how the sequence functions and how it adopts certain semiotic codes, evident when Bellour claims in The Big Sleep, "the most direct oppositions of the segment emerge between shots 1 and 2. Shot 1 is the only moving shot; it tracks in to frame the front right window of the car and (from medium shot to medium-close shot) delimits two frames which are to have no equivalent in the remainder of the segment." (Screen) The analysis is close throughout and stills are utilised to illustrate the specifics of Bellour's claims, yet we still feel at play is Zeno's paradox: the movement of the film defeats the analytic energy that goes into understanding it. Bellour himself has more recently often wondered about the impossibility of the still capturing the moving image. Speaking of film images he says, "one has to find words with which to translate them, express them in a different language and integrate them with elements that are more theoretical...in sum there is no good descriptive method for doing this." (Raymond Bellour: Cinema and the Moving Image) When Bellour started a magazine with Serge Daney, Traffic, the editors decided they would have no images at all. He saw that this prohibition "ended up being invaluable for the purpose of critical writing."
Some might claim that the video essay (or audio-visual essay) solves the problem, a now-popular form practised by enough people for Sight and Sound to offer a poll each year for the best practitioners of it. There will no longer be the issue of trying to capture movement in words and still images: the words can go over the top of the moving image; perfect we might think for sequence-shot criticism. But the danger here is that it isn't really criticism at all but an audio augmentation. The critic tells us what the filmmaker is doing rather than discursively arguing for what they have seen. Sometimes these essays can be brilliant in their simplicity. Two that come to mind are Kubrick in Colour by Marc Anthony Figueras and also Petrick's on the numerous moments in The Revenant that borrow from Tarkovsky's work, allowing the work to speak for itself in carefully edited footage that eschews any commentary. We can also think of the Website, Every Frame a Painting with commentary over the top and various shots and scenes illustrating the points made. Watching the visual essay on Kurosawa one can see very precisely why his films are greats works of cinema. However, these videos solve one problem but generate another. The issue of movement is solved but the problem of discursiveness replaces it, even if in fairness the video essays on Every Frame a Painting can be very astute when practising comparative criticism: the way they show Kurosawa's constant visual invention next ti the predictability of The Avengers. What they do very well is illustrate a point and do so by cinematic means: montage allows the images to segue into each other as we see how precise is Kubrick's use of colour; how impressively plagiaristic The Revenant happens to be. But they might not quite add up to a remark on Stanley Cavell's terms, or perhaps only add up to a different type of remark. "So many remarks one has endured about the kind and number of feet in a line of verse, or about a superb modulation, or about a beautiful diagonal in a painting, or about a wonderful camera angle, have not been readings of a passage at all but something like items in a tabulation..." (Pursuits of Happiness) This remark would be audiovisual and can incorporate anything from Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema to Thom Andersen's LA Plays Itself, brilliant essays that are first and foremost works of film. They add up very much to remarks but rely on the cinematic means of sound and image with the aid of montage to achieve their purpose. They gain a great deal of their meaning by playing against the film's themselves evident so often in Godard's work when he juxtaposes two images (for example A Place in the Sun and the Nazi camps) to produce a dissonant effect that nevertheless contains meaning: Georges Stevens filmed the camps and directed the Montgomery Clift film.
Our final sequence comes from Raging Bull, a rhyming shot that opens as it ends, with Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) closing the bathroom door that at the beginning of the sequence his wife had opened. At the start of the sequence, in medium-long-shot, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) opens the bathroom door and holding it slightly ajar waits while Jake asks her to come over to him as he lies on the bed. All we see of him are his crossed feet on the bed initially as Vickie comes out of the bathroom and start to make love despite Jake's insistence that she "never touch him before a fight." Working now mainly in close up as Jake simultaneously succumbs and resists, eventually Jake gets up off the bed and goes to the bathroom to calm down his swollen member with ice and water. Vickie comes through to the bathroom and teases him a little more before leaving, taking the place on the bed that at the beginning of the scene Jake occupied, with only her feet in view, as Jake closes the door as she had opened it, in medium-long-shot.
It is a great example of cinematic antimetabole, giving a scene an internal shape through opening and ending it almost identically, but showing a basic change has taken place in that now it is Vickie keen to pull Jake towards him rather than the other way round. The film mimics its characters' 'psychology', or more specifically physiology, with a mise en scene to match it. A couple of stills might help: one showing Jake lying on the bed and then later Vickie there instead, but we would be aware that as soon as we decided to do that wouldn't it be a good idea if we then showed the other shots too that lead from one position to the next? And wouldn't the images seem flat and distinct, without movement, and even if we could add movement wouldn't we then need to add sound? Just as Borges was fascinated by Zeno's paradox, exploring the conundrum in the story/essay 'Avators of the Tortoise', we might also keep in mind the one paragraph tale 'On Exactitude in Science'. ...In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it." Borges goes on: "The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography." What we have here is a brilliant and much-quoted example of a certain Positivitist limitation. At what point do we feel we have done justice to the thing we are trying to describe? If our purpose is to recreate an aspect of the thing itself then where does this stop; and would we not be better to ignore the thing altogether; musing over it instead of replicating it? On the one hand, we have noted that the still has the advantage over the letter or the word in that this single unit of information contains information: it is a meaningful unit after all, doesn't it contain a thousand words? And we have noted too that photography is an art in itself hardly requiring further frames and movement. And yet out of this understandable assumption that a film frame can offer meaning, so such confidence in it may have a detrimental effect on criticism. Whether it is Powerpoint presentations using many stills or critical articles like Bordwell's utilising many screen-grabs, we may wonder if there is a wish to replicate the experience or make a point. When many of the very best books on cinema (including Deleuze's Cinema books, Cavell's The World Viewed and Bazin's What is Cinema? Vol 12) have no stills in them it clearly shows that commenting on cinema can be done without visual images themselves; it is the critic's job to conjure up the necessary ones required for analytic ends. Obviously, there are marvellous books that have stills in them: we have already mentioned Forms of Being and Sculpting in Time for example. We might also think of Gilberto Perez's The Material Ghost and Jean-Louis Schefer's The Ordinary Man of Cinema. Yet none of these books rely on stills; they are an addition that wouldn't suffer horribly from their extraction. We shouldn't ignore however some great books that utilise the skilful prose of many film critics accompanied by numerous stills that invoke an era, as we find in the excellent film books published by Orbis in the eighties: moving from the silent period to the seventies Movies of the Thirties, Movies of the Seventies etc. But there are others, Bordwellian-like tomes that describe the film sequences in immense detail to the point that Borges' 'On Exactitude in Science' comes to mind, that would look emaciated indeed without the images giving bulk and weight to the material. Film, the art of moving images, must be met by another art: that of the moving mind, the critic or theorist who can turn the images on the screen into ideas on the page. Anything less seems a dereliction of duty and evidence of an iconophilia that perhaps is best shown in sublimated form lest it manifests itself as Positivist madness.
© Tony McKibbin