Empty and Full, Thick and Thin
"What I refer to is the fluid architecture of bodies with blood in their veins moving through mobile space; the interplay of lines rising, falling, disappearing; the encounter of surfaces, stimulation and its opposite, calm; construction and collapse; the formation and destruction of a hitherto unsuspected life; all of this adds up to a symphony made up of the harmony of bodies and the rhythm of space; the play of pure movements, vigorous and abundant." — F.W. Murnau
Recently rewatching Chantal Akerman's small but magnificent Portrait of a Young Girl in Brussels at the End of the 60s (1994), I was transfixed by something that this director loves to do, as often as possible: to fill the cinematic frame, and then to empty it. Think of the train commuters approaching the platform exit at the start of Les Rendez-vous d'Anna (1978), then disappearing down the stairs — leaving just one figure (Aurore Clément as Anna), who breaks from the pack to make a phone call.
And how often Akerman has used the almost Chaplinesque pathos of the slow walk of a main character away from the camera, deep into the static frame until they are a tiny dot or totally invisible, as the atmosphere seems to 'thin out', and the film itself vanishes in a cut to black — as in the finale of Portrait of a Young Girl.
What is the absolute essence of mise en scène, of film style or aesthetics? It is not the human body per se, or the face, or landscape, or the moving camera, or temporality, or any of the specific things often taken to constitute this essence. It is — Murnau suggested as much — the dynamic modulation of elements, the filling and emptying of the frame and the soundtrack, the thinning and thickening of the atmosphere. All good directors know it: Michael Mann, Michael Powell, Brian De Palma, Raúl Ruiz, Kenji Mizoguchi.
They know, too, that the emotion of the spectator can be aroused, channelled and controlled through such intricate, multi-levelled procedures. It is a difficult process to describe and explain, because it is not necessarily tied to — although it interacts powerfully with — specific filmic characters and what they do in the story.
It is an aesthetic ideal — purely plastic emotions, feelings aroused through the shapes, structures and patterns of form — that attracts many filmmakers, because (as philosopher Suzanne Langer discussed in her crucial 1953 book Feeling and Form) it lines up all art forms under the umbrella of music, the most abstract yet also most emotional art.
Jerry Lewis uses such emotion explosively, for comedic ends, in The Bellboy (1960), in a scene where Jerry is set an impossible, menial task: to lay out all the chairs in a vast Miami Beach hotel ballroom. Thanks to the magic of montage — and a perfectly static camera — we transit from emptiness to fullness in the blink of a few cuts.
Federico Fellini took the thin/thick game further than anyone else, ever. Almost every scene he devised featured a crowd, a mass, a swarm of bodies and objects — like the outdoor wedding feast that concludes his autobiographical fantasia Amarcord (1973) — that slowly enters and then slowly exits, as voices, noises and music rise and fade, leaving finally just the bark of a dog or a horizon line...
Jean-Luc Godard once evoked his film Pierrot le fou (1965): "Life fills the screen the way a faucet fills a bathtub which is drained of the same amount of water at the same time". He immediately added: "Life passes, and the memory it leaves us with is in its image...". It all sounds very Bazinian, but it's really a careful matter of cinematic form, choreography, modulation — and transformation.