by Matthew Ari Elfenbein
A close-up of a person, tears streaming down or a smirk wiped across, this face emanates emotions and cognitive clues. On the other hand, there are hundreds of eyes staring back at this image, scrutinizing or empathizing with the character. The picture continually changes to associated objects and different perspectives, creating the processes of expressing meaning. This allusion creates a platform to explore an essential aspect of cinema, which is to convey emotions or display reality through photographs in motion, which is the apex of this art. In this response to the conventions of cinema, I will be exploring the writing of Béla Balázs and Lev Kuleshov, in order to better understand how the close-up and editing both convey meaning and identification crucial to cinema’s narrative quality.
In order to grasp the connections of these theories, let us explore their impact on cinema individually. In Béla Balázs essay, “The Close-Up”, he begins by explaining the breakdown of cinematic elements that together create meaning. In film, the image constantly shifts perspective on an object, allowing multiple interpretations within the congruous space, which are called shots. According to Balázs, these individual shots do not create meaning on their own, but rather the conjunction of these shots through editing heightens continuity and connotation. When discussing the relationship between shot, Balázs forces the importance of the materializing of a cinematic space and time, similar enough so audiences are able to believe of the image as reality. Within the confines of this space, continuous movements that correlate with each other, which will eventually be further discussed in his essay, “The Face of Man”. Balázs seems to focus on the importance of the space, which has him neglect the time aspect, proportionately in the text. When he discusses sound, as maintaining the spatial area of a scene, he does not seem to mention how it also creates a temporal linkage between images. Sound is pivotal in continuity editing because it sonically bridges the cuts together, thus making them “invisible”; however, Balázs merely focuses on the spatial orientation of the object, which shows his aversion for the talkie cinema and the future of spectatorship; although, he was not as outspoken on this topic as were a number of his colleagues at the time.
The main argument that Balázs develops concerns the close-up, or the ability to capture detailed fragments of the object or situation. This ability to highlight and single out objects becomes his main reasoning of expression, being able to reinterpret and reinforce meaning by focusing on minuscule detail. All of this theory derived from the very short essay has achieved longevity, with many of the ideas still evident in classical Hollywood cinema today. To provide additional evidence on the importance of the close-up and editing in the conveyance of meaning, Lev Kuleshov’s essay “The Principles of Montage” begins to show how cinema allows spectators to “observe the world” (Kuleshov 137). Where Balázs begins to formulate the ideology of continuity editing and close-up to induce connotation, Kuleshov interprets editing and meaning to arise from montage, the juxtaposition of shots to produce implication of society. He focuses his argument on the idea that Soviet stories engage with the collective working people, rather than in the capitalist system that is character-driven (Soviet montage vs. Hollywood continuity). Kuleshov, like Balázs, is concerned with the spatial configuration within the filmic image, as well as among the spectators, looking at their role in interpreting the messages of the film. Through the organization of the juxtaposed images, spectators are supposed to be positioned in a way that would cause them to rebel against the system, not merely sit back and escape into the narrative.
The point where these two theories intersect and mingle appears when Kuleshov insists that montage is created through the mechanism of close-up. Not only does this reinforce the idea of Soviet montage being mainly a cinematic phenomena, but also we see how the cinematic apparatus’ capturing is not inert, but capable of revolutionary ideas. Here the detail of image in the close-up connected with juxtaposed editing can create meaning based on the object alone, because of its removal within its space. To better articulate this concept we should place attention to the example of the film Battleship Potemkin  wherein this idea is discernable from the lion statuettes or the famous woman getting stabbed with the sword sequences. By placing these objects in close-up, the image is removed from its surroundings, allowing it to function as a singular entity, which Balázs would attribute to cinema’s relief of our human “short-sightedness and superficiality” (Balázs 129). Within the aforementioned sequences, the close-up removes the subjects from the collective mass of people, thus focusing in on a singular spatial-temporal moment to evoke a strong emotion from the audience. Another aspect of the close-up that compliments the montage theory is how the attention to detail is played along with the tempo of the editing, in that images are instilled with momentum. For instance, the lion statuettes are positioned in a way that create the illusion of them waking up in alarm, all by manipulating the tempo of the edits. Modifying the tempo, either quicker or slower, and attaching an image to it allows the film to juxtapose meaning, and create an ideological purpose throughout the images. While this example focuses on the revolutionary style of Soviet montage, regular classical examples can be attributed; for example, in The Godfather  during the Baptism scene, the close-up Michael Corleone is edited with multiple murders, along with fast editing tempo the montage correlates more along with Balázs’ idea of meaning through editing.
According to Kuleshov, the rhythm of a shot can be due to the character’s acting within the close-up, not exclusively with editing. This idea brings up moments of the film The Passion of Joan of Arc , where long take close-ups fill the screen radiating meanings and emotions through the microscopic facial movements that allows for identification. Not only does Joan of Arc’s stare permeate the screen and audience, but also there is a reversal with the spectator gazing back. The spectators are in a position to identify with the characters, as well as project their own preconceptions of the situation, making the character a victim of appropriation. Through the spectator’s gaze, in combination with editing, a film is able to project meaning and emotion through associations of events or situations. This can be also seen within the film Queen Christina  in that the ending of the film tracks into a close-up of Greta Garbo’s face. Many interpretations of the face can be surmised due to the long take’s lack of editing, demonstrating how Balázs’ idea of the face being able to convey meanings through expression come into play. Without context from the remainder of the film, spectators are left to take other cues to associate with her emotions; therefore, while Kuleshov would probably not find this revolutionary, he was more sympathetic towards acting as deriving meaning than some of his peers. This scene of Garbo’s face would lend to his idea that the apparatus’ capture of this image brings into question the societal position of the character, since he was concerned with power struggles of the different classes, and in a sense this scene achieves this through her gamut of expressions in order to project her emotional journey. He also believes the idea that actors/actresses are able to derive meaning from their physical being, which can be viewed as early ideas of the star system. By combining Kuleshov and Balázs, the star persona is able to portray emotions and meaning with close-up and this association to the audience allows them to identify with the film.
So far, this analysis has examined how these theories are in conjunction with the cinematic arts, but I want to turn the picture and look at an example that complicates these matters. In the Agnes Varda film, Le Bonheur , we are introduced to a very strong masculine gaze, which overpowers the women and introduces an odd story line of infidelity. One of the conventions that the film employs is color-washing the screen as transitions between major scenes. By following this practice, a couple things occur that would disturb Balázs and Kuleshov, in that editing tempo and meaning from the close-up gaze become unstable. When Balázs discusses the idea that altering shots very minutely would not destroy continuity, he was establishing the idea that scenes would be connected to secure a film’s meaning; however, what the color transitions do is reorient the spectator – disturbing their gaze – and reconfigures what corresponding scenes mean to one another. The transitions also separate the sound of each scene, impairing the continuity of the narrative and positioning the spectators to consider the temporality of the film’s construction. On the other hand, Kuleshov’s theory of montage becomes heightened because if montage depends on the linking of scenes through juxtaposition, then by placing bright primary colors between the scenes it would illicit a sort of reaction. In this occurrence, the colors do not create the revolutionary mass-collection momentum that Kuleshov strides for; however, the colors act as a pallet cleanser, resetting the spectators’ continual and engrossed gaze on the subject. The power of color’s influence on spectators is another whole other set of theories, but in this case I feel that its main goal is to reimagine the connection of scenes and how meaning arises – or is squandered – with interruptions of editing conventions.
By examining the theories of Béla Balázs and Lev Kuleshov, we discover the importance of editing, the filmic image, and performance in both of their works. These two works also begin to look at some of the conventions that are specific to cinema, such as close-ups and their connection with other shots to create meaning, as well as ideological changes in the manipulation of emotional filmic moments. There are a variety of interpretations to consider when it comes to these theorists’ other works, but for now this combination shines light on the basic cinematic conventions that seem to span across the conventional art, and attacked by avant-garde filmmakers; therefore, showing that there are concrete conventions in these two ideologies, which others want to tamper with, thus changing the theories of film.
Balázs, Béla. “The Close-Up.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary
Readings. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St.
Martin’s, 2011. 127-30. Print.
The Battleship Potemkin. Dir. Sergei Eisenstein. Goskino, 1925.
The Godfather. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Al Pacino. Paramount Pictures, 1972.
Kuleshov, Lev. “The Principles of Montage.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and
Contemporary Readings. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta
Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 137-44. Print.
Le Bonheur. Dir. Agnès Varda. Perf. Jean-Claude Drouot and Marie-France Boyer.
The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Perf. Renee Falconetti. Société
Génerale De Films, 1928.
Queen Christina. Dir. Rouben Mamoulian. Perf. Greta Garbo. Loew’s Inc., 1933.