What about the moving image?

Noel Burch (again) in “Chance and its Functions” also considers the kind of relation between expected and unexpected I refer to.

For one thing he notes, about fiction films and especially about filming in studios,

“[The] overcoming, or rather banishing, of the accidental developed hand in hand with the progressive enthronement of that ‘zero point in cinematic style.’”

And for another thing, discussing Lumière setting his camera up on the station platform at La Ciotat and waiting for the train to pull in, Burch observes:

“The bulk of the film’s action consisted of unpredictable gestures and movements of passengers getting off the train and people waiting for them on the platform.”

In fact, in Burch’s view, when Lumière was cranking the camera, “chance remained in complete control of the mise en scène.” However, Burch puts forward a notion close to mine:

“Both literally and figuratively, [Lumière] thus established a frame, thereby delimiting the area in which the unpredictable remainder of the action would occur.”

Similarly, operating protocols of documentary filmmaking often consist of establishing a (physical, social, figurative) frame within which the unpredictable (albeit somehow relied upon) may occur. I shall demonstrate this with my next example. This clip comes from a ten-minute long still shot produced by a group of students as an exercise during a documentary workshop. I am presenting here only the relevant excerpts.

Two homeless men remain on the doorstep of a building in a district near the town centre, drinking beer with their dogs around them.

Cars and buses passing by in the foreground contrast with the men’s inactivity. Suddenly an attractive, hign fashion young woman comes by. The men follow her with their eyes as she walks across frame to the left side of the image.

A moment later, a second woman, also dressed fashionably, in miniskirt and high boots, steps across the frame in a similar way; again the woman is followed by the men’s eyes.

Then, after a while, the two women come back together from the off-screen space walking across from the left to the right of the frame, back to where they came from.

The effect is quite comical. But the shot also says a lot as well about social relations between genders and classes, between the well off and the underprivileged.

There is no doubt about the shot’s documentary value. The long-focus, candid-camera shooting style, evidently implies no mise en scène at all (I had advised the students to pretend not to be filming). Conversely, the setting off of a specific space was the most determining factor. Every other possible angle or framing would have attenuated or even destroyed the incident’s effect and meaning. Furthermore, the temporal cutting—a full ten-minute shot with no camera movement—allowed including the whole set of micro-events as well as the slack moments, which helped to build up the suspense pattern.

Using a constrained protocol for capturing spontaneous occurrences, framing a physical, social and figurative space, allows the documentarist to rely upon unforeseen events, which are unpredictable in their details but globally presumed to happen.

The method can be extended beyond such examples. Setting up a favourable stylistic device enables the cameraperson to grab occurances of the unexpected. Here the unexpected seems to respond adequately to a specific sort of preparation or preliminary intentions.

Continued: Encounters of the third kind

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