David Bordwell wrote a brilliant article where he discusses narrative paintings of the late nineteenth century and their influence on early filmmakers. Here is one example from his article:
Two prosperous young women are sitting in a garden. One is reading from a sheet of paper. What’s going on?
The title, Her First Love Letter, helps us zero in on specific aspects of the action and fill in the situation. The girl on the left, bathed in light, leaning forward eagerly and wearing the pale frilly dress, can be seen as the more inexperienced of the pair, caught up in the anticipation of the young man’s ardor. The more worldly woman sits relaxed, perhaps a little skeptical but also tolerant of the ways of young love.
Narrative paintings like this were evidently one source of early cinema’s approach to staging and composition (among many other things, like acting or lighting).
I’m not arguing that these particular paintings influenced filmmakers, only that the principles that the painters employed were picked up by directors. The more general point is that in understanding film aesthetics, we can usefully compare movies to other movies, and movies to other arts. By doing this, we sharpen our sense of what various media can do. (1)
The painting above is by Marcus Stone and dates from 1889, I love it so much! I did a quick google image search and found another image by Marcus Stone, this one is called “In Love”:
These are just few of the adjectives appearing repeatedly in the Vimeo comments below the short film The Division of Gravity. Before you continue reading, watch the short. You won’t regret it, I promise!
Watching this short is like reading a book about cinematography. The visuals are gorgeous, but what makes them really powerful is their storytelling capabilities.
I will divide the story into 5 acts and tell it again, chronologically, using only a few selected still frames taken from the short.
Act 1 – Flourishing garden
This is the best part! Everything is great, you feel like nothing is impossible, you own the world, you are at the top!
You don’t know your partner that much, you know a lot already about him/her, but there is also a lot you don’t know yet. That leaves you with a huge space for your imagination to fill in the gaps. And obviously, your imagination is always far more better, than the harsh truth.
In any case, everything is great, everything feels balanced. And the word balanced is exactly the word to describe composition in the following images: They feel balanced and at ease.
(With a little bit of imagination, you’ll see the shape of ♥ if you look at the picture above – formed by their hands and heads.)
Act 2 – Storm is coming
Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever. Always, something has to go wrong. The initial balance is lost. You are getting to know the other person much better and slowly realizing, that maybe he/she is not the right one for you. But at least, there is a hope, that it may change for better in the future.
Now, look at the framings in the pictures below. They are not balanced, there is something missing – a visual counter balance to the character framed to the left. You kinda feel the emptiness and loneliness.
Act 3 – Alienation
There is a growing gap between you and your partner. It is a time of frequent fights, arguments and misunderstandings.
If you look at the pictures below, you’ll see that the characters are detached and separated not only mentally and emotionally, but also in the framing of the shots. There is always a visual element to separate them.
(I absolutely love the last shot. The character in the background is completely separated from her. The wooden bars create a new framing for him.)
Act 4 – Enter the void
It was inevitable, you broke up. From now on, everything goes down. You feel like there is nothing left. You are losing purpose and meaning of everything. What used to matter to you doesn’t matter anymore.
Now, look at the two pictures above: The characters are framed to the right, that creates a huge empty space behind them. Can you feel the void?
Second way of looking at this framing is that the characters won’t let anyone to get close to them for a long time. Framing characters like this makes them enclosed and inaccessible.
Act 5 – Life goes on?
This is a thinking period. You reflect on what you did, analyze and you’re trying to learn something from this painful experience.
“And you learn, and learn. With every goodbye, you learn.”
5 Aug, 2012
Most of us probably know, how painful it is to say goodbye to person who we used to love, but only few of us know, how much it hurts, when you don’t have the opportunity to say so … (it fucking hurts…).