The Kuleshov Effect

Let me start with some basic facts about film editing. Early in the history of motion pictures, directors invented a way to tell stories by editing film. For example, if the first cut showed a soldier shooting a gun, then the camera cut to a woman clutching her stomach in pain, the film will convey that a woman had been shot, even though the actual filming was several hours apart. This is a very basic form of movie story telling, but it was a revolutionary innovation when Battleship Potemkin was filmed in 1925. The Russian film maker Lev Kuleshov went one step further when he showed to an experimental audience a shot of man with a blank, expressionless face inter-spliced with a shot of a bowl of soup. The audience, when asked, said that he looked hungry. Then he showed another audience a film with the shot of the same man inter-spliced with a shot of a little girl in a coffin. The audience, this time, said he looked sad. This is known as the Kuleshov effect which you no doubt heard about at least once if you studied liberal arts or psychology in college. When you inter-splice one bland scene with another, the audience puts together a story in their minds. Put a lot of them together in a sequence and you have a montage, a story telling device that grew ever more elaborate through the history of film.

Experimental writers like Alfred Döblin are said to have incorporated the principles of the Kuleshov effect in the print media. You find associations of this kind in the lyrics of classic rock. Certainly some songs by the Rolling Stones qualify as a montage of gobbledygook. But a montage of loosely related words and images in literature actually predates motion pictures.

Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks—all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere. ― Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

This is nothing if not a montage. On the surface, it is a random string of things beautiful. But when taken together through the narrator’s point of view, it is the expression of the appreciation of life. The author sneaks in notions such as the sun having good temper (temper also refers to heat, so it is a kind of pun) and sound deflecting off of grass stalks, mixing sensations and emotion with sights until “beauty” is fused with “truth”.

He had to lower these gentlemen at the end of a rope out of a hole in the wall at the back, while the mob which, pouring out of the town, had spread itself all along the shore, howled and foamed at the foot of the building in front. He had to hurry them then the whole length of the jetty; it had been a desperate dash, neck or nothing—and again it was Nostromo, a fellow in a thousand, who, at the head, this time, of the Company’s body of lightermen, held the jetty against the rushes of the rabble, thus giving the fugitives time to reach the gig lying ready for them at the other end with the Company’s flag at the stern. Sticks, stones, shots flew; knives, too, were thrown. Captain Mitchell exhibited willingly the long cicatrice of a cut over his left ear and temple, made by a razor-blade fastened to a stick—a weapon, he explained, very much in favour with the “worst kind of nigger out here.” – Joseph Conrad, Nostromo

Here the confusion of escaping a riot is exposed frame by frame, the mechanics of the action displayed matter-of-fact-ly, with no description of the rushing of the heart or shortening of breath or the whitened faces of the fugitives, but the details are piled on without emotion until suddenly we take a step back from the action and Captain Mitchell is reminiscing on the past event showing his scar; and the razor-blade-on-a-stick is thrown into the sentence and the montage concludes with the sudden infusion of the N-word, summing up the sheer brutality of the incident.

Passages like these are not meant to be understood word for word like a paragraph from a biology textbook, but rather consumed in large gulps of imagery and sounds, a difficult task for someone who learned the English language from textbooks and written examinations. But it gets easier to visualize if one were told that these passages are montages with quick cuts between short snippets of film.

In both passages, we see the characters through the lens of the Kuleshov effect. You see the characters through the unrelated sights that are presented seemingly at random, or a series of events describing action.

How do you write this stuff?

Montage passages look breezy on the page. They seem as though the author was not thinking while writing, but was just letting it flow; grace without sweat, like Fred Astaire dancing. It is utterly deceptive, but writers should know better. There is no such thing as good prose written by accident.

Very much like a movie montage, each frame is shot with a different camera under different lighting from different angles. You open a notebook, pick up a pencil and randomly write down elements of a montage. You cut and splice, cut and splice your collected scenes and frames until the mosaic looks right. You draw pictures of the sights you see and try to list words that come close to describing it. You write down random vocabulary you found in a book, a magazine, or a billboard. You write the montage, delete it, and write it down again.

Pantsers, including myself, have a difficult time with this. We are so accustomed to the story that seems to flow by itself, then suddenly come to a brick wall, then start moving again, that we overlook those little post-it notes we compiled over the years. You need to dig them up and shuffle them around. And scribble down more post-it notes while you are at it. Most of the time, the writer is not the movie director. He is the assistant director filming those little supplementary scenes of the grass bowing in the wind, the workers in the cubicles, and the close ups of IV drips in hospital rooms. It is the collection of all those little scenes that make a compelling montage.

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