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The Poetic Language of Cinema

Final Part
Meshes Of the Afternoon
This film was produced in 1943 by Maya Deren and Alexander Hamid in Hollywood. It was described as trance film, with both subjective and dreamlike qualities. Unlike The Sky Over Berlin, it seems difficult to provide a short summary about the film, since it has no standard story line to be told. However, we can identify some patterns and movements in the film that are based on small fragmented tales. One is that of a young woman, played by Deren herself, who is looking from a window at a figure in dark dress with its face replaced by a mirror. The young woman, however, can see also herself following the figure, and once more herself following the two! The second fragment is of a man who opens the door of the same flat, finds the young woman and takes her up the stairs.These two fragmented pieces of minimal story elements are broken with similar sub-fragments. All these pieces seem to evolve around each other while the identity of each actor and tale is dissolved into the other. At the end of the film there seems to be a resolution to the confusion of identities when all the acts and actions of the dark figure are replaced with, and replayed by, the young man; and the three different versions of the young woman meet around a table. In the last scene the young man opens the door to find the young woman lying dead in the same chair.
There are also patterns of circular repetitiveness to most of the actions. We see them again and again with minor changes every time. These patterns are not arbitrary in the way they accrue; they do convey certain messages. 
From the outset we are obviously confronted with many difficulties for any effort to understand and decipher the complex filmic text in hand. Here, we have a film that denies us the many recognisable elements of narrative, which can readily be approached. Our difficulties are hardly surprising since most familiar critical analysis tools in film studies rely on narrative analysis.
Two elements can be looked at here to understand the dynamic of the filmic language in use. 
 () How does the film moves from one shot to the other?
This indeed constitutes the area of montage, but also includes other techniques such as camera movement e.g. tilting and panning. In some scenes (young woman looking at herself from the window) we have a seemingly narrative feature which is built around a familiar technique: 
  • Character A is looking. 
  • Cut. 
  • Character B is seen. 
  • Cut. 
What breaks this convention is the fact that A is looking at  A (i.e. looking at itself) and not into a mirror. The convention here, which is based around the centering of a gaze and a gazed-at, is convincingly narrative yet it defies narrativity by a simple move to alienate the gaze and its function in the storytelling device.  This simple technique is used so frequently in the Meshes that at the end it becomes an acceptable device that the viewer understands and accepts as part of the vocabulary of the filmmaker. In any text, filmic or otherwise, conventions get established between the reader and producer of the text in the realm of denoting and interpretation. Both parts play their part in giving meaning to the elements of the language of the text.

Another example of the same device of moving from one shot to the other is the segment where we see the young woman’s footsteps walking in one seemingly continuous shot: one step on land, the second on stone the third on sand in a desert. The shot is edited so it gives the impression of somebody walking on different surfaces at the same moment. The logic which derives the shot (shots?) is based on the meaning the filmmaker is trying to express rather than a story she wants to tell. The viewer, we suggest, will be forced to read into the meaning of the sequence outside the realms of narrativity. A question such as where is the character going or how can she walks on all these surfaces at the same time would be inappropriate and out of context. The context of the reading is suggested in the text itself and it is outside these narratively motivated questions. The reader is ready to grasp the new way of looking at the sequence because a mode and a frame of reading have been established already. The filmmaker has established from the beginning of the film that narrative devices are to be ignored here and that the only logic on which transitions are based is the meaning of the sequence, i.e. what it tries to convey.
() The composition of the Frame and the centrality of the Gaze.
One main feature in narrative cinema in Hollywood at the time of making this film is visible in frame-structuring techniques. With many actors in one frame and the need of narrative clarity the actor gained a center place both in the overall film and the composition of the frame.
Andre Bazin discusses the composition of the frame in a scene from The Best Year of Our Lives by William Wyler noticing that:
“Since the audience is constantly confronted on the screen by the whole cast of actors against the setting, it is essential that the space they occupy in relation to one another bring clearly into relief the dramatic arrangement of the scene.”
He considers the direction of the gazes produced by the actors in the scene as being the skeleton of the mise-en-scene. In other words it is the relations between characters in the narrative context which determine the composition of the frame.
In the Meshes the gaze of the character is directed towards objects that are not relevant to tale. The gaze here distracts, rather than attracts, from the center of the action. In the scene with the three women around the table they exchange gazes toward two objects: a key and a knife. These objects are part of another tale in the film. The key is used by young woman (and her two other-selves) to enter the flat in different occasions. It acquires a meaning in itself as it is seen in the same place without regard to the fact that it has been previously moved. We are obliged to understand its meaning outside the boundaries of narrativity.
The gaze in Meshes of the Afternoon is centered against the centrality of the character; even when a gaze is center to the frame its subject seems to be a stray object that can only be accommodated in the frame of meaning rather than the skeleton of the story.  

Although Meshes is indeed a challenging piece of work, it still suffers from major problems in terms of its ambitious take on the language of film. In the table scene, for example, the filmmakers aim to portray the three-selves of the young woman, a fragmentation of ones’ self, in a visual solution based on a metaphor. The metaphor seems to lack the clarity you find in spoken or written metaphors, where the similarities between the two ends are easily grasped.
Nonetheless, The film is a clear example of a poetic cinema that do no rely on the conventions of narrative and seems to challenge the fundamentals of storytelling by adopting a rather open technique of signification. In such an approach the only role governing the filmmaker is her/his creativity and what the film is trying to convey in as its message.      


For cinema to get closer to establishing its own poetry, its own mode of signification which is unique to it as a medium, it must break and disconnect from the grammar of natural language, and other established linguistic systems. Cinema, as this study had demonstrated, can not break entirely from the influence of these other systems; therefore, it’s a matter of degree, and how far a given film can go in the process of this break and discontinuity.

The Sky Over Berlin, a film with distinct lyrical qualities, could not break away from the traditions of Narrativity although the style employed by the filmmaker, with its mixture of poetic features has indeed given its filmic language a poetic edge. The immigration of verbal signifier, from writing to the filmic text, does not constitute an establishing of a new signifier that is unique to cinema. In the contrary, it affirms the narrative features of such a signifier, making even the most cinematic features of film conform to Narrativity

While Meshes of the Afternoon introduces new ways of constructing the sequence, and challenges the conventions of the narrative frame, it still runs short of producing a cinematic expression that substitutes convincingly the long established conventions of narrative tools and techniques.        
We argue that the degree of discontinuity can be measured by looking into how much a film is reliant on narrative techniques and narrativity (and their essentially verbal qualities.) This can only be achieved through a major break with narrative traditions.
Both those who define the essence of cinema as hinted in the expression “moving images,” and those who consider cinema as an integration of image and sound, do agree that each should be looked at as a separate entity. In his article Cinematic Discourse: The Problem of Inner Speech Paul Willemen looks into the problem of interdependence of the verbal and the visual in the cinema.  He asserts that “Language is the symbolic expression par excellence and all other systems of communication are derived from it and presume its existence.”
However, while we agree with this statement it should no follow that it is impossible for cinema, and other modes of communication, to develop its own system of signification; a mode that, although reliant on other systems, has its distinct grammar and body of reference. Furthermore, a grammar for cinema would not be a rigid system of rules and codes. On the contrary, such system is fluid, dynamic and ever changing as it develops by the inputs of each individual film. The filmmakers’ place in this can be compared to that of poets, whose discoveries and inventions in the language of cinema enrich and assert its developing vocabulary as well as contradict it. From this duality of contradictions and assertions the new confident language can be born, a language that is unique to cinema. H.K.
End of Essay


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