cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

Concentrating on Kieslowski: An essay on narrative by Jacek Ostaszeweski




A paper/essay : Comprehension of Film Narrative, by Jacek Ostaszewski examines film narrative through the study of film student exam papers.

Ostaszewski was the pavement flautist in Three Colours: Blue.

My main interest is the section on Three Colours:White beginning:

In the case of the third film – Kieslowski’s Three Colours: White (1993), one of the most characteristic and at the same time, most frequent biases was overinterpretation (in Umberto Eco’s understanding) According to Eco, overinterpretation is seeking in a film the elements of minimal meaning and assigning them with maximal consequences so that they match a prior premise (or premises). The viewer’s initiative in the top-down processes is aimed at seeking confirmations for his/her hypothesis. Overinterpretation is, therefore, not the excess of interpretation, but actually, “underinterpretatation.”  Thus, we might suggest that overinterpretation is reading a film in a paranoid and obsessive pursuit that the viewer takes up.

What is symptomatic of the examined papers is the viewers’ relatively poor interest in the actual contents of the film. On the other hand, their attention is focused on the figure of Krzysztof Kieslowski as the representative of a quality art cinema. Although the viewers understand the story itself, they quickly abandon analysis in favour of judgment (valuation). As a result, they often fail to see the interesting aspects of the story itself. Few of them have noticed that the film deals with such issues as struggle for love and understanding, or that it is extremely packed with action in comparison with other films made by Kieslowski.”


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It seems a weakness of the cognitive approach to film not to take account of the unreliability of the witness.

Eyewitness testimony research in psychology is well-established.

wiki: eyewitness testimony

Eyewitness testimony

Eyewitness testimony and memory

Eyewitness testimony from Simple psychology for A level

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The trouble with films like Kieslowski’s is there is no way of knowing if white dresses, white chickens, white pigeon droppings or white milk have great symbolic importance in the film or are quotidian images and sounds used as aesthetic props, linking devices, homages or jokes.  This is not made easier for students of Kieslowski’s films when they realise milk appeared in Dekalog 1 (left out overnight to freeze), Decalog 6 and A Short Film about Love (delivered/collected/ spilt), Camera Buff (poured down sink) and Three Colours:White.

The Double Life of Véronique: Through the Looking Glass by Jonathan Romney:

Kieslowski denied that there were any metaphors in his films: “For me, a bottle of milk is simply a bottle of milk; when it spills, it means milk’s been spilled. Nothing more.”

This surely is the joy, excitement,  puzzle, and burden of film over prose: by their very nature images (still or moving) are both arresting, distracting and often prone to ambiguity.

The other element in film, sound, evokes Bresson’s, “A locomotive’s whistle imprints in us a whole railroad.”

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The  limits of film are simply yet clearly put in Requiem for Kieslowski by David Winner:

In one of his last interviews, Kieslowski told the English critic Geoff Andrew about the frustrations of exploring the spiritual: Film is very materialistic. All you can photograph, most of the time, is things. You can describe a soul, but you can’t photograph it; you have to find an equivalent. But there isn’t really an equivalent. Film is helpless when it comes to describing the soul, just as it is in describing many other things, like a state of consciousness. You have to find methods, tricks, which may be more or less successful in making it understood that this is what your film is about.

Kieslowski became progessively more frustrated with what he felt was film’s inability to completely express what the filmmaker intends.

If I make a film, I can obtain maybe 30 or 40 per cent of what I tried to achieve.

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Photographs have a high level of correspondence to the reality they record, so we tend to trust them.  For example we may know the person who has been photographed.  That is not to say a photograph reliably tells a story: a photograph of a real-life object or event can obfuscate as much as clarify, lie as effectively as tell the truth. One of the fascinations of photographs, any photographs, is the recognition that the surface  may bear no relation to the depths.  The smiling lady in a family group may not be happy, but mortified by the knowledge of her impending death from cancer which she alone knows about.

Debate goes on about whether indexicality is applicable any more with digital photo-manipulation.  It all gets a bit complicated. Is film indexical in the way a photograph is said to be? The basis of our ‘trust’ in a photograph is our belief we can draw many imaginery lines between fixed points on a photograph to their source on the object.  We don’t have to have seen the Pavilion in Brighton in person to feel confident that the photograph of it in front of us represents the building itself.  It doesn’t matter if the lens used was wide angle, created a large depth of field or was fish-eye, or whether a red filter was used to highlight the clouds and sky behind it.

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The technical argument that film is a trick of the eye and therefore not to be ‘trusted’, is not helpful. Film is made up of frames or frame equivalents in digital video. We can trust the indexicality of individual frames in a strip of celluloid as much as we can a photograph.  It is often only when, during editing, we examine individual frames in celluloid film or the virtual frames of digital film, truths are exposed. When the footage is watched in slow motion the miniscule  movements of body or face of the person walking towards the camera can be seen clearly for the first time.  How long did the face turn to the right?  was this looking at something off-screen or aversion  of the gaze? When did the smile appear?  What was the reaction of the other person when the bottle was snatched of of his hand? Did he look at the person doing the snatching or at the cameraman doing the filming?

The strangeness of all this is that when the final cut of a film is presented at normal speed (24 fps or its digital equivalent) – which is usually all the viewer gets to see unless the editor decides to slow sequences down or use stills – the very things missing are those the director and editor have seen and found intriguing and beguiling !

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Dan Schnieder slams Truffaut’s Day for Night because it fails in narrative terms. A poor script told poorly.  But part of the point of a film about film is to play tricks with the audience. One of those tricks is to be asking whether how the film was made overpowers the story. When the crane soars over the set, exposing the workings of the set, after repeated showings of failed shoots that we seen only in frame, nobody cares about story!  Truffaut has achieved his objective, we love film more than we love the story (or life) at that moment, as he does, but it doesn’t last. The story then takes over again and we forget the cinematography. If  it’s a good script well filmed.



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January 18, 2009 - Posted by | film analysis, film directors, film narrative, film theory, film [its techniques], Kieslowski, Krzysztof Kieślowski | ,

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