“I am an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility. I’m in constant movement. I approach and pull away from objects. I creep under them. I move alongside a running horse’s mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies. This is I, the machine, maneuvering in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations. Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be. My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world. Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.”
– Dziga Vertov
Any established cinefile will likely notice that the aesthetics of this blog are heavily influenced by Vertov’s landmark film The Man With the Movie Camera (see thumbnail and header). I first introduced to the theories of film that came out of the Moscow Film School by my high school English teacher, who also taught an elective on film studies. I’ll admit that the ideas that I came across in my recommended reading were at the time a bit over my head, but there was one quote from Vertov’s contemporary Sergei Eisenstein, that strongly resonated with me as I continued to immerse myself in the field of film studies. In reading his ground breaking essay “Word and Image” in The Film Sense, I came across two quotes that would later help shape my own humanistic views toward cinema:
A work of art, understood dynamically, is just this process of arranging images in the feelings and mind of the spectator.”
Eisenstein’s emphasis on the active role of the spectator to ultimately process the information received has done much to center my own interests in audience studies and my research on film exhibition and reception. Yet the underlying question that arises in areas of both film and cinema studies is in regards to what degree is the audience reaction a byproduct of the filmmaker’s own intervention or simply an empirical response to preexisting conditions? At least according to Eisenstein, the answer lies:
“in equal measure with the same vitalizing human qualities and determining factors that are inherent in every human being and every vital art.”
Which leads me to the two day lecture series I was fortunate enough to sit in on, hosted by UGent’s Digital Cinema Studies (DICIS) and the University of Antwerp’s Visual and Digital Cultures Research Center. The lecture series featured noted film historian Yuri Tsivian of the University of Chicago. He is the author of over one hundred publications in sixteen languages, Yuri Tsivian is also credited with launching two new fields in the studies of film and culture: carpalistics and cinemetrics. The former studies and compares different uses of gesture in theater, visual arts, literature and film; the latter uses digital tools to explore the art of film editing. The first day featured a special presentation to the UGent Communication Faculty titled, “What Makes Them Run, What Slows Them Down: Cinemetrics Looks at Film History and Culture,” where Tsivian introduced to established film scholars and students alike how cinemetrics came to be.
The public lecture was geared primarily toward film students with a beginner’s knowledge on film theory and in many ways reminded me of the classes I took back in high school. I can imagine that Tsivian’s overview of the Kuleshov Workshop, Vertov’s method of organizing shots, and Eisenstein’s self-depiction as a cinematic tailor will likely spark at least in some students the same excited interest that I was once exposed to. What ultimately sparked my interest came from his overview on the underlying theory of the purpose cinemetrics can play in underlying wider cultural and social trends within the field of film studies, simply by taking a closer look at the film as a text. Much of this perspective derives from D.W. Griffith’s development of the so-called “language of film” through his experiments with pacing in film. The formula that Griffith came up with had a substantial influence on the Moscow Film School. Lev Kuleshov intensively studied Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) obsessively. He spent a great deal of time swapping the film’s parts, then hanging its order, and afterward re-constituting its meaning and themes. Like a cinematic Doctor Frankenstein, Kuleshov poked and prodded, re-arranged and re-animated, and then did it all again. “Breakdown then re-assemble, breakdown then re-assemble.” It was this breathless experimentalism that yielded the Kuleshov Effect.
Cinemetrics is an methodology invented by the late Gunars Civjans in 2005. Civjans followed the mantra, “Quantify everything you cannot.” According to Tvisian, the underlying philosophy of Cinemetrics relies on a a method of understanding the rhythm of a film. “When you use Cinemetrics and measure, you are in the movie, but also able to get insights on the measurement process.” To demonstrate this idea better, he shows how by measuring the Average Shot Length (ASL) of a film, patterns can begin to emerge. In charting his analysis of the famous Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, certain inferences can be made about the content of the film without necessarily having to look at anything more than the number of seconds of each shot. Each shot on the chart looks like an icecile, the longer it is, the longer the take. The longer the shots, the slower the film, the faster the shots, the faster the film.
As Tsivian explains, “Out of meaning defines interplay, which defines the rhythm of a film.” In every case it is useful to know the cutting rate of a film. With the ASL you can start to compare the methodology of different filmmakers.” Moreover, you can chart the progression of film styles and movements throughout the history of film, both by period and region. One way to accomplish this is by looking at film history as a temporal map where each film is communicated by a dot. As the chart below demonstrates, the ASL of films produced in different countries across different time periods, can be quite indicative of the artistic and cultural preferences of a particular place and time. For example a very obvious increase in ASL can be found for all countries around the late 1920s. As can be deduced, the arrival of sound was severely constraining for filmmakers as they attempted to wrangle with new methods of cutting and composition, with the spatial limitation of the recording devices of the period.
Measuring the collective ASL of films does not only indicate major technological shifts in filmmaking, but also changes in approach based on cultural values in the period. This can be demonstrated through Soviet Union/Russia’s eventual shift from an especially fast ASL (Potemkin: 3 second ALS) toward a far longer ASL by the late 1960 and continuing into the early 1990s. The contrast in film philosophy is best signfied between the differing approaches of Eisenstein and Soviet (and later expatriate) filmmaker Andrei Tarchovsky. Where Eisenstein saw himself as a tailor, Tarchovsky approached his films as painter would, and placed a greater deal of emphasis on framing in the shot. In analyizing the progression of Tarchovsky’s cinemetric career, one can determine a purposeful slowing down of his films as he achieved more artistic freedom. This is best demonstrated in Nostalhgia (1983) his first film produced outside of the Soviet Union. In the film’s final scene, shown below, you will notice that the ASL is somewhere close to 60 seconds for the sequence.
So what can be deduced by examining the contrasts in a film’s Cinemetrics? What insights can ultimately be made from measuring shot length and where it fits within the wider framework of film and media studies? Tsivian answers by describing a especially exciting moment of discovery that came early in the development of Cinemetrics.
I once applied this method to compare the average shot length of Kuleshov’s films against the films made by his teacher Yevgenii Bauer, and when I put my data side by side with world-wide data collected by others, I felt my heart beat faster, for it turned out that between 1917 and 1918 the cutting tempo of Russian films had jumped from the slowest to the fastest in the world. Not that the difference could not be detected without all the timing and counting, but I felt proud and excited that now we could not only intuit but also demonstrate this.
For a more concise overview of the underlying measurement theory that Cinemetrics applies, I strongly recommend you visit the project homepage and refer to its suggested reading. The measuring of shot length is a method that goes back to nearly cinema’s beginnings. Famed psychologist Hugo Mustenberg applied a method in the early 1910s where he would measure a film “with a stop watch in one hand a yardstick in the other.” Whereas ASL was initially examined by censorship organizations and social theorists to determine the impact that successive images may have on the primarily working-class population of moviegoers at the turn of the twentieth century, today it is being used less as an agent of examining social control, and instead a method of examining wider social trends. Perhaps most pertinent to my own ongoing research on the reception of American films in Europe in the period after the First World War, is how audiences may responded to the cinemetric contrast between the fast pacing preferences of American and early Soviet filmmakers and the much slower pace of European cinema during the same period.
It is in examining this contrast, that once again the question of audience agency emerges. Fast-cutting and short ASL indicates a greater degree of passivity on the part of the audience, where the filmmaker sets out to control how an audience receives images. This is quite reflective of the Taylorized method of production abide to by the Hollywood Studio System, and ironically the heavily regulated state regulated Soviet film industry, which relied on strongly controlled propagandist messages, as presented in Potemkin. Meanwhile European cinema of the same period, through incorporating a slower ASL with an greater emphasis on framing, and a greater Average Shot Density (the number of actors in frame at any given time) relied on audiences to pick apart a scene and draw their own conclusions in a more varied manner. So what happened when these conflicting methods collided during the expansion of American and Soviet cinema during the 1920s and 1930s? Well, that will be something I will have to explore further quite soon.