Thought On: Battleship Potemkin (1925) & Empire (1964)
The story of a battleship’s role during revolutionary times in Soviet Russia; an unbroken 8 hour shot of the Empire State Building.
As a screenwriter, you often ask yourself, what’s the difference between books and films? Is it the use of narrative voice? Perspective? Literary devices? Certainly, but, is there something more? In my view, yes, and this is what we’re going to explore today.
What distinguishes cinema from all other forms of storytelling is editing. And what the edit does is imbue cinema with speed and short-hand accuracy; a unique variation of visual language. There are few better examples of short-hand, expressive and accurate editing than in Soviet Montage movies like Battleship Potemkin.
Though it is a little difficult to get through, Battleship Potemkin is an undeniable masterpiece and one of the most influential films ever made. With radical camera work and editing, it uses pure cinema to its absolute extreme, mustering an immense amount of energy and intensity, emotionally engaging you in the action sequences like few films ever have. But, seeing Battleship Potemkin as a representative of Soviet Montage, you can identify the language of editing. Eisenstein himself defined 5 types of cut:
1. Tonal. This is the type of cut that has emotional weight and sets atmosphere.
2. Metric. A cut dictated by a numerical value, e.g. a specified stretch of seconds or an amount frames.
3. Rhythmic. A cut dictated by continuity within the frame so that you have a clear sense of things happening in a somewhat realistic realm.
4. Overtonal/Associational. This is a mixture of the above types of cut (tonal, metric, rhythmic).
5. Intellectual. A use of juxtaposition to create new meaning.
These 5 definitions are a way of expressing cinema’s short-hand visual language that cannot truly be replicated in any other medium of art. A novel is one of such mediums, which leaves films such as Battleship Potemkin as a relative antithesis. Whilst a book may describe montage, for example, rockets explode against the enemy gates; one lion lies down; one lion has its head raised; one stands gazing into the distance, this hasn’t the weight nor the linguistic dexterity as the scene from Battleship Potemkin that features this intellectual montage.
What we are then seeing defined by this cinematic approach to story telling is what we can call ‘short-hand montage’.
Keeping this idea at hand, if we now consider an entirely different film we’ll find further variations on the differences between a book and a film. Empire:
There’s not much you can say about this Andy Warhol picture. Seen as a film (even of the experimental and avant-garde class) this is an impossible watch and a pretentious attempt to discuss reality, time and its relationship with cinema. However, talking shit about Warhol’s films – which I’ve done plenty – is pretty easy. If you choose to see Warhol’s films as conceptual art pieces, they do become quite a bit more tolerable. In such, if you read the synopsis of Empire and spend two minutes looking at this film before walking away (as you might do in a gallery) you may feel like it’s worth something; like the commentary on reality and time are worth considering. Nonetheless, with Empire, we are seeing a demonstration of extreme realism. In such, there isn’t a story captured by this 8 hour shot of the Empire State Building, rather, space and time have been captured then left in tact; there is no sculpting in time.
Putting aside notions of photogénie and truth in documentary, we can grow to see this approach to, or away from, film as the closest you can get to capturing reality. And so, just like no other art form can capture the edit you find in cinema, no art form can capture reality like cinema can. What cinema then distinguishes itself as, by looking at a film such as Empire, is having the capability to transcend story telling and capture an ‘arduous reality’. You can argue against this by bringing back into the picture notions of photogénie, suggesting that a camera inherently manipulates reality, forcing a certain perspective. However, if you consider all other forms of art, let us stick with writing, cinema is much more adept at capturing reality. After all, how would you write Empire? How could you translate these 8 hours into a book? Maybe you could repeat ‘Empire State Building’ for hundreds of pages at a time and under different chapter headings that describe the light and time of day, but this is clearly far from Warhol’s movie and the reality it attempts to capture. What this allows us to then reiterate is that cinema has the capacity to capture an ‘arduous reality’ like no other form of art.
Taking a step back, let us ask again, why have I brought up these two films? It comes down to how writing and film are different. The most obvious differences come down to the manner in which you can use metaphors, similes, punctuation, meters, rhyme, such and so on in writing and not in film. The reverse can be said when we consider that cinema has lighting, framing, editing, colour composition, mise en scène, such and so on – which cannot be found in any other art form (it comes close in photography, but these are still images). With all this said, I think there is another much more subtle difference between cinema and novels, and that is the manner in which they handle the scope and detail of their stories; in short, how they handle their artistic spaces.
A book has to construct and manage a perceptual space in the reader’s imagination, one that is linked to the thoughts that an author’s words conjure. Cinema merely has to construct a cinematic space, one that is almost tangible and trapped beyond a screen. Because cinema has this distance from the subjective perception and simply is imagery whilst words can only mean to imply it, it has the ability to provide details and scope that a book simply cannot. In other words, I could spend hours writing paragraph after paragraph describing a Blue Whale, or I could just show you this picture:
There would be qualitative differences between these two descriptions under two different, and already mentioned, classes: detail and scope. The type of detail will get from a book will range from an objective description to sensory exposition; what colour the whale is, what it feels like to touch, maybe how the whale itself feels to be an organic being. The same thing can be said of a film about this whale. Through imagery and cinematic language, you could provide an objective description of the whale in its many parts, and possible imply what it means to swim in the ocean like a whale does – as well as other subjective details. However, the clear difference between books and films in this respect is that cinema is much better at the capturing of objective details whilst books are better with subjective sensory and emotional details. Whilst you could use POV to describe to an audience what it is like to be a whale, it’d be much more difficult to relay what it feels like when that whale comes soaring out of the ocean before bombing back down into it – something that’d be far easier to describe in a novel. This becomes a little less abstract when you think about telling stories about what it means to be a person who feels certain emotions. And in such, a book can say something as simple as “Jeff feels betrayed” and be more articulate than many movies. This is because films couldn’t just show you one image to tell you Jeff feels betrayed, but would have to show you an entire scene so you can visually understand all that lead to Jeff’s sour expression. So, again, books are better at describing the subjective details of a story whilst cinema handles the objective details better.
Considering the second class of description, we come to scope. The same ideas that were raised in the previous assessment of detail can be used here. Through writing, you can provide a much better subjective picture of scope – for example, what an ocean feels like or reminds a character of.
However, by simply showing an image of an ocean, you can translate to an audience a much richer depiction on a wider, more objective, scale. This all leads to the conclusion that books can handle the smaller scales whilst cinema, the larger scales. In such, books can provide more complex details of specific small things; a single artifact and what it means to an individual or just an emotion. On the other hand, films can convey a much stronger and cohesive picture of something larger – like a town or a battle. This isn’t to say that neither medium can do what the other is doing in our examples, just that books are more adept at describe subjective small details, whilst films are readily able to capture rich objective scope.
It’s at this point that we reach a cross-roads where it seems like I’ve described something very banal and pretty useless. However, understanding the relationship books and films have with detail and scope, we can better understand how to construct artistic spaces. For instance, if you are making a film about our blue whale in an ocean, you could consider how a book would provide details that a film may not even try to. For instance, you may attempt to provide the subjective view of a whale through cinematic language. Likewise, if you are writing a book about the very same thing, you may choose to consider how cinema would capture the scope of the ocean that this whale lives in.
What I’m thus suggesting is that, once you understand the differences between books and films, you can begin to see a continuum. On one end we seem to have cinema with its objectivity and scope and on the other, books with their subjectivity and details. However, what about the space in between that? This is a question I’m always asking myself as I write screenplays. After all, is there a better place to consider the difference between books and films when you’re trying to somehow write cinema?
When I look at the page (knowing that I write my screenplays to be read on places like this blog) I recognise that I need to somehow capture the scope of a scene, but also the subjective views of characters within without saying “Jim feels…”. This is what I find to be one of the hardest things to juggle when writing; how do I translate something like Battleship Potemkin into a script?
Simultaneously, how to I translate something like Empire into a script?
What I’m really asking myself when I raise questions like this is, how do I inject both Short-Hand Montage as well as some Arduous Reality into this story? Because I am writing, I can’t use editing. I can imply certain types of it, like an intellectual montage, but I can’t come close to implying a metric montage as I don’t have ‘time’ as a writing device. This leaves me in a place that’s not really on the writing end of the scale, nor on the cinematic end of the scale either – all in terms of subjectivity, detail, objectivity and scope. What is then daunting is that writing some scenes can feel like I’m trying to write Empire, like I’m trying to write some transcript of reality – I certainly find this to be the case in action scenes. However, I’ve found a way of rationalising screenwriting, seeing as a form of Short-Hand Arduous storytelling.
Short-Hand Arduous storytelling simply is the meeting of Battleship Potemkin and Empire on a page. To achieve this, you simply have to know that you are manipulating The Infinite Story in a specific way. For those who are not familiar with term, The Infinite Story is a concept I use to describe the fact that no stories have a beginning or an end until you give them one. In such, if we were to tell the story of a blue whale, would we start at its birth? Maybe we should show a little about the parents’ past? Maybe the history of blue whales? What about the species around it? What about the history of the ocean? As you could tell this could stretch on infinitely into the past – just as it could the future. But, it is your job as a writer to select an in point and an outpoint of this ‘arduous reality’ and then delve into that to pick up all the interesting bits. However, in considering the difference between books and films, coming up with the idea of Short-Hand Arduous storytelling, I’ve come to see that The Infinite Story isn’t just about past and present, but details and scope. In such, you can zoom infinitely inward into a story, describing the sub-atomic particles that make up a person’s left foot. Simultaneously, you could zoom all the way out until you see the entirety of the universe itself. With these 4 infinite variables, back and fourth on the time scale and inward and outwards on the size scale, knowing what The Infinite Story is will allow you to frame at the right magnitude. And so, if you decide you want to tell the life story of a whale from birth to death, you not only have to think of your plot (the small pieces of time that capture significant events in the whale’s life), but the perspectives at which you will show it; how far into the psyche of a whale will you delve, how far out will you zoom to describe its surroundings.
In conclusions, this is Short-Hand Arduous storytelling in the realm of screenwriting; you need to find the images that imply montage, but then also have the ability to describe arduous stretches of reality. So, whilst this won’t tell you how to finish the next scene in your script, maybe it will help you frame it in cinematic terms.
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