The Kuleshov Effect

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What better way to start messing about with film than to go back to its technical and theoretical start, to parallel our own learning with film’s history? The editing work by Soviet filmmakers (Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Lev Kuleshov) opened up, I would argue, its true architectural space; it was only after film space was constructed through editing that its architecture became a distinct thing from the physical architecture on which the camera was trained.

Up to that point film was thought to have two potential expressions: as a thing to document the world’s reality (think those trains and factory workers in the films of the Lumière brothers) or as an alternate fantastical reality generated on a magician’s stage, but made more believable when projected (George Méliès). Editing changed all that—the heart of space making was in the assembly of the shots, not in the space that was filmed.

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, The Lumière Brothers, 1895.

And for more Lumière brothers’ work (50 seconds/17 meters):

The links above feature the prolific work of the Lumière brothers, but for a  more comprehensive introduction to the history of film, visit the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) in Astoria, Queens (also a super fun building by our very own Thomas Leeser):

A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune, Georges Méliès, 1902.

I have always thought that the point of commonality with architecture was editing and when the editor Sarah Flack (along with the writer/director Mark Gibson) visited this class one of the first semesters it was offered, over twelve years a go (Sarah Flack was editing Lost in Translation at the time) she told us that, for her, if not editing, then architecture. Much has changed in both film and architecture since this seminar began (out of a conversation with the then department chair Catherine Ingraham), but most relevant to our study of film as architects our increased tolerance, as viewers, for narrative discontinuity; as in dreams, we’ll make sense of just about anything that is strung together in a film.

We begin with the basics, those same editing techniques Soviet filmmakers devised in the 1910s and 1920s. But later, in our final films, we will challenge those conventions of narrative film continuity (not unlike Cézanne and company challenged the conventions of perspective).

The Kuleshov effect best exemplifies the tremendous storytelling power the Soviets discovered in the strips of film strewn on their floor (because initially film time was length of film strip, this much length = these many seconds at 24 frames per second). In Kuleshov’s experiment the same facial expression was juxtaposed against three different scenes, each resulting in a different emotion attributed to that one face. Your exercise for Wednesday is similar: 3 shots, printed at exactly the same size three times, and rearranged on the wall in 3 different sequences. Each sequence should be a kind of catalyst for three different stories. So, in the example above, the 3 different story catalysts could become 3 different narratives: (1) sleeping, waking to find it has snowed, going outside to experience it all; (2) outside in the snow, brr coming inside it’s cold cold cold, ah finally cozy in bed; (3) looking out oh oh, forget that going to bed, ah dreaming of snow.

You will likely have several ideas for this—resist the temptation to bring them all in and print/pin-up just one strong one. Also, no movies yet; for now we look at distinct frozen moments in space and time and speculate about the space-narrative that can be built around them.

To cover this important period of film history you will also need to look at the following:

Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, 1925 (The Odessa Steps Sequence): Before arriving at Odessa sailors aboard the Battleship Potemkin had revolted due to their poor working conditions; the people of Odessa side with the Potemkin sailors and join the revolution; Tsarist soldiers massacre the people of Odessa in an attempt to stop the revolution.

Sergei Eisenstein put his new theory of film down in writing, and particularly relevant this week is his essay “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form” (written in Moscow, April 1929) which can be found in his book Film Form, edited and translated by Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949).

Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, 1929: A day documented, from morning to night, in 1920s Soviet Union—think about James Joyce’s Ulysses, also the minute documentation of a day (in novel form in this case) and published around 1920.

Vertov’s film makes a fantastic template for a young filmmaker documenting the city and we’ll come back to it when the snow melts: he was showing us a day in the life of a 1920s Soviet modern city; you can use his fantastically framed montage as a starting point for your own documentation of New York City almost one hundred years later (this will be a group project in a couple of weeks: how to document NYC’s contemporaneity using Vertov’s film as a starting point—again in the spirit of learning, as beginning filmmakers, from the beginnings of film). You don’t need to watch the entire movie this week, just until the worm’s eye view of a smokestack spewing dark smoke (a few minutes into the film).

We will also talk about about the Danish movement “Dogma 95.” The first and representative film from this movement is The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg, 1998, and to find more about the movement look at Richard Kelly’s book The Name of this Book is Dogme 95 (London: Faber and Faber, 2000). The “rules” of this movement are paraphrased here for our benefit: filming on location and only props found there, no soundtracks (use only music playing in the scene filmed—in this context we’ll talk about the very beginning of the film Eternity and a Day, by Theo Angelopoulos, a film that like Vinterberg’s was made in 1998), hand-held cameras, space of film matches space filmed and no temporal or geographic pretense (if the film depicts NYC, then it better be NYC and not Toronto), only lighting that occurs in the architecture being filmed (no additional lighting of the actors’ faces, for example), color film, no optical effects or filters, no actions scene added that are not inherent to the story being told, no genre films (nothing easily categorized as comedy, action, epic), 4:3 aspect ratio instead of widescreen, no directing credits. We’ll start our discussion about their goals and their means now, but we’ll come back to it when we talk about Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners & I. Also worthy of note in this Dogme 95 context is “After the Wedding” by Susanne Bier, 2006. You can listen to an interview with Susanne Bier here (after her 2010 film In a Better World):

And if we are talking about Dogme 95 we must also talk about Lars von Trier. In particular we will look at a film he did with his mentor Jørgen Leth The Five Obstructions, 2003. The trope here was this: the student asks the teacher to remake one of the his films according to 5 obstructions (for example, for the first obstruction, shots could last only half of a second—12 frames—and it must be made in Cuba).

Here is the “original” by Jørgen Leth, “The Perfect Human,” 1967:

And here is “obstruction #4: remake the original 1967 film as a cartoon:

You can read a film review by A.O. Scott here:

Here is an excerpt from the review:

“At stake are two divergent ideas about what art should be: Mr. Leth values control, formal balance and arm’s-length irony, while Mr. von Trier is interested in making a mess.”

Our focus is the study of film, but each week we will include some architectures in the conversation. This week, let’s remember the significance and wit of Bernard Tschumi’s Manhattan Transcripts:

“Architecture is not simply about space and form, but also about event, action, and what happens in space.”

Worthy of mention in this context is also Anthony Vidler’s “Architecture and the Filmic Imaginary” in Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000, pages 98-110). “Anthony Vidler is concerned with two forms of warped space. The first, a psychological space, is the repository of neuroses and phobias. This space is not empty but full of disturbing forms, including those of architecture and the city. The second kind of warping is produced when artists break the boundaries of genre to depict space in new ways.” [] Vidler also writes about the great early film by Robert Wiene, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919. We’ll refer back to this film when we talk about Julie Taymor’s work (her making of a Shakespeare film, Titus, 1999, as if on an empty stage). You can get a taste of this great example of German Expressionism here:

Lastly, from Vidler’s essay in Warped Space:

“I am kino-eye. I am builder. I have placed you, whom I’ve created today, in an extraordinary room which did not exist until just now when I also created it. In this room there are twelve walls shot by me in various parts of the world. In bringing together shots of walls and details, I’ve managed to arrange them in an order that is pleasing and to construct with intervals, correctly, a film-phrase which is the room.” [Dziga Vertov, 1923]

About Wednesday…

… let’s talk about Soderbergh’s “State of Cinema” in class. Here is the link (listen to the whole thing):

We’ll begin with a discussion of this rant on Wednesday—is there something about Soderbergh’s arguments that we can borrow as critical-practice-minded architects? How can we position our work within this–what’s the point, why do it, why architecture and not just building? What kind of filmmaking can we venture into as architects?

Next we’ll look at your work, your Kuleshov effect exercise (pin-up as soon as you get to class).

We’ll also discuss all the film work mentioned above. At a minimum, make sure you have seen Lumiére, Méliès, the Odessa Steps sequence, the Vertov film (until the smoke stack, first few minutes), the Jørgen Leth original “The Perfect Human,” Obstruction #4, and that you have reviewed what Bernard Tschumi’s “Manhattan Transcripts” were all about.

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