In light of the events of September 11th, many have grappled with the problem of creating meaning out of images – images that will never leave us. The horrors and, as Andrew Sullivan of the New York Times put it, the ‘conceptual innovation’, were complete when, “the hand-held video camera; the round-the-clock coverage on television stations across the world”1, informed us of the very event itself. Not only did the events actually occur in ‘reality’, but also for the first time, as a species, motion pictures brought us the information.
The act of hatred, mediated through the use of planes and men themselves, clashed with our electronic age in ways previously unimaginable to Western Man.
“The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis. The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses.”2 This is taken from Marshall McLuhan’s infamous Understanding Media – The Extensions of Man. The moving image, the motion picture, film and video are and were in this instance, horrific extensions, if not also examples of the new forms and power of the moving image.
Leaving the past for a moment, it leads naturally, should we desire to notice, that it is in these moments of “hybridizing”, that we might be best able to dissect the elements of Narrative3 as they Are and as they are ‘transforming’ based solely on our involvement in their evolution.
What does film and videotape, the moving image itself, communicate and how does the process work? This is a time when film itself – meaning the mechanical capture of an image onto light sensitive material, is not only being challenged as the ‘mainstay’ of narrative visual storytelling, but also coincides with the advent of digital capture and distribution platforms (television, internet and soon theaters4). The public audiences’ recent acceptance of video and digital images in places where film traditionally dominated as the only acceptable ‘reality’, and it is time that an analysis of narrative image grammar offer a pause – least we miss another chance at this time of intersection.
Steering ourselves far from any study of the anthropology of visual communication or visual anthropology, we can begin by assuming that narrative film is hereafter understood to be a signal received through our sense of sight (and sound), which we deal with as a message by inferring meaning.
If the film or video maker is to communicate their feelings, concerns or ideas, they must develop a story whose structural function is to embody that concern, idea or feeling. This may take the form of a script or the necessary pre-production before the encoding/capture/video/film-making process or simply remain as said idea, feeling or concern. Next – the collection of the images; and lastly the visual presentation of the communication.
Hopefully our viewer will infer the story from the sequenced images and develop an awareness of the belief system of the maker from the images, coming to a similar initial feeling towards the subject of the communication. Of course we can all reasonably assume that the realities of film and video make interference in the message common and indeed the primary hurdle (which I could argue, keeps the best senders as well as receivers coming back for more5). The creation often involves alterations and modifications, durations and limitations that sometimes steer intentions at a Dutch angle or the wrong-way-round.
Yet the receiver confronts only the arranged result of the prefabricated collective. It’s not a perfect science. Technology often gets in the way. If the printing press begat literacy then our mediating agents, film and videotape, themselves and their ‘language’.
Russian filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein named “the shot” as the basic element6. Others argued for the dramatic scene but “the single shot” seems to have won out as the basic unit of filmic communication. It is possible to sequence then these events or shots in ways that are determined by the individual creator, their needs, culture and knowledge of the ‘language’ of film.
Narrative conventions developed such as the Master scene format. The scene to be recreated is first photographed as a ‘master’, usually from a position that allows for the entire action to unfold. Next, the camera is positioned so as to capture a slightly closer ‘two-shot’ or medium shot of the same scene played over again. A close-up completes the Rule – the Hollywood Triad7. Also stay away from ‘jump cuts’ – meaning that an object in action should remain that way. Never cross the 180-degree axis. You get the idea. Do these apply today or has our palette been filled with more exotic colors?
A Sequence is an executed employment of images or shots that impart meaning to the relationship sets of information and is different from a Series or a Pattern. All three may exist separately or together but need be understood individually in keeping with our palette metaphor.
The goal should be to develop a methodology that will enable us to say with some certainty how it is and what are some of the rules that make filmic signs with the hope of transmitting and receiving similar inferences.
This exploration is to attempt to understand as an image-maker how to further impart meaning and is not primarily concerned, with how meaning is interpreted by the viewer.
The narrative motion picture is an inherently symbolic event and the viewer is likely to interpret it as intentionally communicative. We recognize the existence of the persons, objects, and events and make judgments based on our own knowledge of such things as they are or may be perceived to be in real life. There is an awareness of the elements and the organization of them.
All mediated events are to some degree symbolic. The mediating agent (the moving picture and maker respectively) always makes decisions about what to show, what not to show, duration, movements, stasis, angle, when, where, why, who and so on. Every culture provides it’s native speakers and practitioners a code for interpretation, the degree to which it gets exercise varying greatly. Who are the native speakers of the moving image? Has there been a shift?
In a relatively short amount of time, approximately one-hundred years, these native speakers or what de Saussure would call ‘language communities’8, have existed concurrently as well as in a coherent consecutivity. From the invention of the motion picture camera, through Hollywood, the ‘new wave’, documentary or verite movements, there has existed the discussion of competence but rarely would one practitioner refer to another’s work as ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’, rather debates have centered in quality, effectiveness, and intent.
Any attempt at a definite lexicon, akin to those we use with language, faces an uphill swim. That is not to say that there are not valid and understandable constraints woven into a culture which explain the usage, the way we interpret the same printed meaning from the written word. Over time these differences have become stylistic choices; inferences that clue us to the new rule(s). John Woo and Woody Allen could make a film using very different ‘rules’ to achieve similar inferences. As the group who accepts these rules and inferences grow, so do the assumptions regarding those rules, styles and choices.
What then are the capabilities of human beings to receive information and to make inferences from motion pictures presented in ways mentioned earlier? Without retracing popular film theory in its’ entirety, we can briefly mention Eisenstein and his A juxtaposed with B equals C approach while Andre Bazin focused on not breaking up or rearranging the event in an unnatural way.
With research into our capacity to understand the coding of film signs barely in it’s infancy, there is no argument about the increasing complexity of motion picture structures along the line of temporal, spatial, positional or sequential order. It is technology and driven media makers whose only role is as McLuhan called it, is to act as,” “make happen agents”9, and it is only through the compounding of these agents that we are afforded an especially favorable opportunity to notice their… properties.”
As video technologies, the Internet and film stock merge into the field of the moving image, the possibility of the media obscuring the content and vice versa increases – along with a change in sense ratios, not only individually, but also in how they interact and react with one another. With instanity commonplace and the Earth itself physically enveloped in an electronic web of shared experiences, the ultimate aim of the narrative motion picture auteur should not be to change the definition of the language itself as much as to develop a methodology that will enable us with some degree of reliability, to know exactly how it is that we best can create these filmic signs with the relative guarantee of similar inference, and minimal interference.
Do sequence and image themselves refer to signs or is it more to do with angle, lighting? What manipulations make a difference in inference and to whom? We make judgments in verbal communication such as social class, education, experience, context, and nationality. The moving picture allows us a freedom away from the lexical meaning associated with human cognition and language communities, providing the capability for the production of and perception by, almost all people. With image capturing cameras the processes by which cognition and perception are dealt with become processes of sign creation perfectly available and wonderfully exposed to scrutiny.
With these images and events organized into a sequence we infer content. It would seem to follow that in an ideal situation the communication between the audience and that of the artist, the image becomes the pivot point for both sender and receiver. We don’t actual ‘communicate’ with film or video, remembering it instead as an extension of our ability to communicate and as outlined previously, a less than ‘perfect’ media. After all, the first films were simple recorded actions captured, unbroken and active in their entirety. Editing theory followed when it was realized that meaning and narrative can be inferred across time. A man walks down the street. He then enters a bar. He did not fly to the bar, or walk there instantly. We fill in the gap – temporally.
In 1960, Kracauer attempted to formulate some structural and rule-governed units. He listed numerous sub-units merging into five distinct units: “the unstaged,” “the fortuitous,” “endlessness,” “the indeterminate,” and “flow of life”10. Slavko Vorkapitch, in a series of unpublished lectures on film held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, defined the film elements by saying that film can be understood to be composed of kinesthetic, ineffable, and transcendental units11.
We however, are not engaged in the art debate; rather we recognize its validity and seek to further understand the creation of the seemingly unstaged, fortuitous, endless, unspecific and meaningful.
Image Capture is to image Presentation as Thought is to Speech – there are available choices, within a context, with which the creator of the message may choose to utilize or not depending on the intended inference desired. Just like our language abilities, our abilities to capture and create/infer/receive meaning, so to, on a biological level are we able to extract meaning visually. Technology, psychology, perception and cognition play roles far too large to tackle in this piece, but we instead focus on the manipulation of these agents.
There are innumerable ways of connecting the images from straight cuts to fades and dissolves that make up the backbone of the textual analysis of film. An image is in motion over time in some space played out in a sequence. Although we use film to communicate, studying it alongside language seems to this Fellow, a fruitless endeavor. If the letters became acceptable lexicons for human sounds that then found place in a sequence, creating a word, whose meaning, would become relatively pervasive, it would seem for more profitable to excavate Signs, Semiotics and their creation than Linguistics. Spend an hour ‘talking’ with a blind photographer.
The nature of signs and their universal recognition is founded in biology, and comes hardwired and inherent in all human beings. Charles Pierce in The Principles of Phenomenology (the collective total of all that is in any way or in any sense present to the mind) also divided by three, creating the categories of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness, belonging to the quality, actuality, and prediction of the thing respectively. Look familiar Hollywood?12
We assign truth-values to what we visually take in. When we are open to the moving image, in the sense that we recognize it as an unnatural symbolic event, we assign truth-values based on the structure and not the truth or falseness of the image itself. In our increasing electronic culture we are less and less likely to ask if it is real or not and more likely to ask what it means and probably over the course of a particular narrative communication you will receive the answer. The quality of the signs and their meaning, will be determined by the observer, and mirrored as the choices made during capture.
Using contiguity or familiarity; ordered meaning; sequential or argumentative we assign value based on what we know, not what the sender does and because a picture is symbolic and not a natural event, it is capable as in the case of September 11th, of leaving social artifacts. Strung together in a sequence an intentionally coded narrative develops – in the receiver.
Painting has been studied but rarely pictures. The time has come to turn our attention from cinema, film or video to moving pictures. Through this shift we might uncover more of their visual structure. Awareness of the demands of the audience helps the creator employ the proper strategy for the communication. It is when the strategies of the creator are unclear or attempt to confuse us that we cry out, noticing the falseness of the image. We must as an audience and as creators know the representations and demand a clear separation between the “real” and the “performance”.
Pictures do not actual replicate reality they represent it. Forever trapped as recognition’s glorious and elusive reflection. With an approach balanced on one half by concern, intention and understanding and on the other with receptivity, knowledge and trust, the motion picture artist has a rare moment of freedom – there exists an opportunity not only to understand the media, but to be understood through it as well.