Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Thinking for the Screen, Homeric Period

Have been enjoying extended reflection on the screen as a pictorial communication system. Unlike pages (which can be controlled by a "user") or sets of comic panels (which may be manipulated into unequal segments by a composer), screens really are modular units, by iron decree of the technology.

Television sets (increasingly quaint, that term!) and movie houses (even more anachronistic) present a sequence of images in a set format, which cannot change.

This is not really a sacrifice, except to the most relentless avant-gardist. Who has ever sat in a theater and thought, "Gee, I wish that rectangle would change. I'm bored it." We take the screen format as a given; we watch what unfolds within it without much thought of the visual container. 

But the logic and grammar of screen sequences had to be worked out. A significant distinction must be drawn between cinematic versus theatrical storytelling. Sergei Eisenstein' theory of montage (image A plus image B equals associative leap C) isolated important narrative concepts.

 Sometimes, it can be extremely satisfying to watch cinematic sequence on more formal grounds. I don't watch much TV, but recently I caught an episode of Kenneth Branagh's Wallander, a BBC-produced detective series set in Sweden. The episode I saw, The Dogs of Riga, was extremely well directed by Esther Campbell. The shot selection was very smart and formally satisfying. I recall (for example) a particularly elegant solution to the narrative problem of "now our hero travels by plane to another location."

Several years ago (just checked: seven!) I saw an exhibition at the National Gallery tracing the career of Charles Sheeler, he of the grain elevator paintings and River Rouge photographs. I was astonished to discover an obscure film Sheeler created in association with Paul Rand, pioneering modernist photographer. The scarcely-narrative film shares a title with a Walt Whitman poem: Manhatta.

I don't have time at the moment to discuss it in the detail it deserves, but suffice to say it's a visual poem devoted to Manhattan. Both the film and city feel homeric, as in early, vital and somehow authoritative.

The film is available here for free streaming, courtesy of the Library of Congress, which appropriately identified it is as culturally significant. 

The film really knocked my socks off when I first saw it in 2005. It influenced my own experimental animation, Scenes from Starkdale, Ohio (2006). Shots from the film are sprinkled throughout this post.

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