I’ve just finished a book. Its the first non-degree book I’ve finished since, well, I can’t actually remember but its certainly the first non-fiction I’ve read properly since January*. The perks of an English Degree, eh.
Its a good book, though. Stanley Kubrick, that reasonably talented and influential writer, director, producer, cinematographer and editor, called it “my bible”, and it became “the greatest influence of any single written work on the evolution of Kubrick’s private aesthetics” (Thomas Nelson, 2000)
Written in 1929, Film Technique focuses on the “plastic art” of film, and the concept of editing. Pudovkin is often regarded as one of the masters of early cinema, alongside DW Giffiths and Sergei Eisenstein, and you can credit between the three of them the language of cinema as we know it.
One perk of an English degree (I’m a second year undergrad at Durham University) is the theoretical element. As dull as this sounds, and most students dread it to start, it’s been one of the best parts of the degree. It’s important! People dismiss it as the pontificating of secluded old farts who see the world through one, dogmatic eye, but that’s because those people are reading it as a how-to guide for life, the universe and everything. We bounce our ideas and opinions off those big and bold enough to put theirs in a book, and by that we come to understand our take on the world a little bit better.
So that’s the way to approach theory, and with this in mind Pudovkin becomes amazingly illuminating. His theory of editing is one of the major turning points in cinema, and that means much more than just the process of cutting and pasting strips of celluloid. The filmmaker takes the vastness of imagination and cuts it, ruthlessly. The best films have the simplest ideas are their base. They can be as technically or intellectually demanding as you like, but a good film is lean, purposeful and precise. It achieves what it sets out to achieve.
Pudovkin is all over this. The book appears limited, at first, by its place in history. This is bare-bones cinema, before recorded sound, colour, or effects beyond the charisma of the actor. In many ways, that’s why its so important and so helpful; If you want to succeed in this industry you need to understand the language with which you communicate. With nothing to colour your experience (pardon the pun), the grammar of the camera becomes plain for all to see.
Spurred on by this, I went back and watched two of the films Pudovkin cites throughout the book; Griffiths’ “Intolerance” and Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”. Personally, I much preferred Eisenstein to Griffiths, but both are startling and compelling to watch. They belong to an age where the messages of film were starker, and in many ways more important; when cinema was art before entertainment, and as a result, you can read these films like books- as long as you have the background reading.
Film’s strength lies in its limitations. As Pudovkin writes, the director is confined by the aperture of his camera and the stern walls of the cinema screen. The world and all its emotion must be compressed onto a canvas that never sits still long enough for us to make sense of it.
Kubrick got this. He understood it better than almost anybody and that’s why his films are so compelling. People can, and have, filled pages of film-criticism with far denser and more insightful analysis than me, so I’ll just draw your attention to one, amazing example.
The opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey encapsulates everything Pudovkin teaches, everything that is powerful about film. It is so simple, so elegant, so memorable; from the immortal Also sprach Zarathustra as the soundtrack, to possibly the most inventive cut in film-history. Bone to spaceship, the entirety of mankind’s brutal and brilliant history cut to the the most minimal, powerful image.
There’s the “plastic art of film” in a nutshell. Time, space, emotional evolution and plot development segue into one song-and-dance number. Flimmakers compress time and space, and more so than any other medium, they make you believe in it. The best directors make it very difficult to comprehend where reality ends and fantasy begins; the truth is, reality jumped ship when you bought the cinema ticket.
* I should point out that I do actually read for my degree, but the art of academic reading is reading selectively- which means reading lots of individual chapters of criticism, novels, etc., very fast and with the sole intention of tearing them apart in the name of analysis. Whoever mentioned “reading for pleasure” has obviously not done an English Degree.