Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Artist, Hugo and the Kuleshov Effect

I've been pretty hush hush about my thoughts on the best picture nominees this year. It's hard to contain my excitement with how many great films came out and how many were recognized for that.

Perhaps it's my unquenchable thirst for anything nostalgic and pertaining to the craft of filmmaking but Hugo and The Artist were my top picks this year.

Hugo was a wonderfully woven story drawing comparison to the early days of the magic of cinema and the limitless potential with which the newer medium of stereographic 3D beholds (despite dissenting opinion of its true place in filmmaking from many critics). Any filmmaker who disliked the film is in the industry for the wrong reasons. I read reviews of critics picking apart every detail of the film. This blog isn't for you if you were a member of that camp.

This is for those who were inspired by it and rejuvenated by the majesty of film, and the alchemy side of the craft. The draw of a continuous piece of celluloid flickering against a wall in a dark room. Two hundred mouths agape, all sharing the same emotion; sharing the same laugh, the same tear. It's the magic of movies and the whole emotional side of the craft that matters.

I believe aside from Hugo, The Artist explored this beautifully. From the moment I saw the trailer a year before the film was actually released, I had high hopes for it.

Both showed such a strong understanding of the craft to tell two very different stories, but each capable of soliciting the same wonderment you experienced as a child seeing some of your very first films.

I'm truly captivated by that emotional draw of film, and the mechanics of that process and just how putting the most elemental principals together can completely put an audience in a state of wonderment. It's a difficult feeling to achieve as an adult, as most of us are jaded and often forget what it means to appreciate the things we did as children, but the truly successful moments in film often draw back to very elemental and primal experiences with which we all shared growing up.

I have the utmost respect for Mr. Hazanavicius, and felt privileged to tell him that in a short little back-and-forth email between he and I several months ago. It takes true mastery to tell a story with sound and picture, but to limit yourself to just picture is a true accomplishment. After leaving the theater, I found myself inspired and it left me considering just how important the rudimentary mechanics are in filmmaking and just how important it is to know them.

Flashforward a few months and this little spotlight piece by Joe LaMattina rolls out on Michel Hazanavicius, who discusses the challenges in directing The Artist. In it, he mentions among other things the 'Kuleshov Effect'.

I must have been asleep the day we talked about this in my film theory classes at Purdue; I was shocked I hadn't heard of this yet. The Kuleshov Effect exhibits the most basic functions of storytelling in film I've stumbled upon. It shows the direct relationship of human and subject, and from that, the audience is capable of filling in the blank.

You show a man with an expressionless face looking at something off-camera, followed by a shot of steaming spaghetti and meatballs, and cut back to him with the same void expression. The audience reads his emotion as 'hungry'. You show the same shot of the man's face and then a shot of a coffin and back to the expressionless face, the audience perceives it as sadness. You show the SAME shot of a man, followed by the shot of a beautiful woman walking with another man, and back again, and it conveys jealousy. It's fascinating mechanics, and I feel like the principal is rarely used anymore, even though it's often more entertaining and effective than just a spelling out of the emotions through overly-complex editing sequences. This should honestly be one of the first lessons in film school over anything else. It teaches not only the importance of simplicity, but also the importance of all departments, performance, cinematography and editing. A story can be told at the most basic level this way, and it's truly sad that this basic mechanism for storytelling is often looked over and viewed as archaic. Thank you Mr. Hazanavicius and Mr. Scorsese for reminding the whole new emerging crop of filmmakers how to tell a story.

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