Sadly, the average action scene in a contemporary film leaves me confused. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting old or getting cynical, but watching chase scenes in, say, The Bourne Identity make me feel like I’m falling down a flight of stairs backwards. My gut feeling is: too many close-ups, inadequate use of space, and too many damn edits.
I wonder how Russian director Sergei Eisenstein would feel about the state of editing in contemporary cinema. He’s legendary for his use of montage—editing images to create a cumulative effect (his most famous sequence being the “Odessa Steps” in Battleship Potemkin )—but his editing was by no means gratuitous. Excessive to make a point, perhaps, but not editing as a way of cutting corners.
In fact, in the early 30s, when Eisenstein taught film direction at the Moscow State Cinema Institute, he challenged his class to stage an entire murder scene from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in a single static shot.1 His idea was simple: through a combination of camera placement, lenses and blocking, the dramatic impact of the scene can be accomplished without editing. He didn’t think editing is a crutch, per se, but that a filmmaker must exhaust all possibilities within the shot before resorting to an edit.
To be clear: Eisenstein wasn’t simply teaching a theater workshop where you stage the action for a proscenium. No, he points out that the camera’s ability to be set at varying heights and a lens’s ability to distort depth are crucial distinctions between theater and cinema. In other words, a scene doesn’t have to have an edit in it to be cinematic.
So, using that notion as a starting point, I’m doing a handful of posts about moments in films when a director chose to not edit, instances when he let a static shot tell his story, dramatically and/or emotionally.
I’ll begin with Laurel & Hardy’s silent short The Finishing Touch (1928) directed by Clyde Bruckman and Leo McCarey. Stan and Oliver are attempting to build a house and a policeman stops by. Here’s the shot, with Stan Laurel and Edgar Kennedy as the cop:
It doesn’t get much more basic than this, does it? I’ve seen this with an audience and noticed this shot generates two kinds of laughter: the expectant laughter while the board is floating across the screen (in both directions), and the outright laughter when Stan enters the frame (both times). Much of its humor is based on the duration of the shot: the longer the shot, the longer the laugh.
The creative forces behind the camera are formidable. The Supervising Director is Leo McCarey, who went on to direct the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup, The Awful Truth with Cary Grant, and Going My Way. The Director is Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton’s collaborator on such films as Sherlock, Jr. and The General. And the Cameraman is George Stevens, future director of Shane and Giant. In other words, these guys know what they’re doing. And they know to play this scene any other way would kill the joke. If, for example, there had been a close up of the cop’s face, looking confused, then the tension would have been broken. And no tension equals less laughs.
Likewise, the framing of the shot is as important as the length of it, since the timing of the punchlines is determined by when Stan enters and leaves the frame. In fact, if the camera moved at all in any direction, the impact of the jokes would have been minimized.
In future posts I’ll dissect other examples of this kind of restraint, when directors used this kind of foresight, from Ozu to Oz, from Browning to Coppola. If you have any favorite shots of your own, shots that fit the criteria I’ve described, let me know. I’d love to hear about them.
Add’l posts in this series:
BACK TO POST 1 These classes were transcribed by Vladimir Nizhny, a pupil of Eisenstein’s, as the book Lessons with Eisenstein. I’m referencing Chapter Four “Mise-en-Shot.” I think this is Eisenstein at his most readable since his theories are spelled out through discussion with his students. Fascinating stuff. Long out of print, it can be found easily through Alibris.com.