The Narrative and Structural Aspects of Structuralist Films
Structuralist films are motion pictures that focus on conveying meaning through conventions and codes, which are similar to the manner in which language generates meaning in communication. However, unlike language, structuralist films leverage codes that are more sequential and temporal aspect in nature. As such, when analyzing a structuralist film, the researcher must take into consideration its temporality (Potempski 7). Moreover, the analysis conducted must seek to develop an in-depth understanding of how shots are brought together to create an idea. For instance, the juxtaposition of a shot highlighting a blank expression on an actor’s face, an enticing meal, and then the back of the actor’s face, is likely to convey an idea of hunger to the audience, even though there is nothing in the sequence that literally expresses hunger. The ensuing discussion focuses on two structuralist films which are the Unsere Afrikareise by Peter Kubelka and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G by Paul Sharits. The discussions aim at exploring the various ways Kubelka and Sharits utilize lighting, shot duration, angle, and juxtaposition among other elements to bring out a sequence meaning in their films. The first section presents a background overview of the structuralist films, and their elements, while the subsequent ones critically compare and contrast their inherent structures.
This study explores experimental films and genres by taking into consideration their narrative and structural aspects. The two American independent films will be compared in terms of production innovation, design, as well as conceptual content. The researcher will primarily focus on the strategies of composition as meaning and structure as both content and marginal activism in correlation to the development of the producers’ personal voice rather than that of the industry. The researcher acknowledges that the formalist strategies of optical experimentation and provides the producers with an opportunity to create alternative duration and rhythms. Experimental films are considered as the mode of filmmaking that focuses on re-establishing the present cinematic conventions by exploring non-narrative forms. As such, these films leverage alternatives approaches to filmmaking and storytelling. While some experimental films have been produced and distributed through mainstream channels, the vast majority are often produced on low budgets or self-financed. Consequently, most experimental filmmakers start as amateurs using their films to catapult themselves into the commercial film making industry.
Comparing and Contrasting Kubelka’s and Sharits’ Structuralist Films
Unsere Afrikareise, which is German for ‘Our Trip to Africa’, is a 13 minutes Austrian experimental film, directed by Peter Kubelka. Although the film was initially commissioned as a travel diary to document a wild game hunt, Kubelka employed intricate editing strategies to highlight anti-colonialism in Africa, using four primary cinematic elements from the structural film movement. The elements include darkness, light, sound, and silence. Grissemann, acknowledges that Unsere Afrikareise utilizes a lyrical variations using the four basic elements of cinema. Kubelka’s film was released in 1966 to the people who had commissioned the film, together with their close family members, friends, and other artists. However, the owners were outraged by how Kubelka had portrayed them, and almost attacked him after the screening. Consequently, they hired lawyers who demanded that Kubelka turns over the film so that it could be destroyed. However, Kubelka refused to turn it over and instead, got into an agreement with them to not screen the film in their hometown (Habib, Pelletier, Bouchard, and Simon 12). The film is stored by the Anthology Film Archive as part of the Essential Cinema Repertory collection.
Unlike Unsere Afrikareise, which leverages complex editing to render a defined theme regarding colonial exploitation, the film T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G by Paul Sharits incorporates endless film loops, experimental soundtracks, and multiple projectors. Furthermore, it does not follow any particular sequence in its transformation. However, as is the case with Unsere Afrikareise, the film deploys multifaceted combinations of visual effects and audio in a manner that elicits psychological and emotional responses from its viewers. Both Unsere Afrikareise and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G have the same relative length of time, which is 13 and 12 minutes respectively (Habib, Pelletier, Bouchard, and Simon 15). Moreover, both films leverage strategies that are inherent with the structural film movement, such as continual visual and audio repetition, flicker effects, static frames, and flash frames. However, unlike Unsere Afrikareise, the soundtrack in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G consists exclusively of Sharits saying the word ‘destroy’. The filmmaker repeats the word over and over, until it creates an impression on the viewers that there are different combinations of words being spoken, thereby losing its meaning.
There are four main similarities between Kubelka’s and Sharits’ films, which include genre, frame, simple forms, and the structural decisions made by the directors. Firstly, both films move away from the condensed and complex cinematic practices, in favor of a more simplified and predetermined form of art known as the experimental or structuralist genre. One of the defining characteristics of structuralist films is that they emphasize more on the presentation than on tier content. As such, the form in both Kubelka’s and Sharits’ films was more crucial than their content (Lapsley and Michael 34). However, while both films employed structuralist elements, they were not similar. For example, Sharits’ film leveraged a fixed camera position, but in Kubelka’s work, the camera was mobile. Moreover, the flashing frames with flicker effects present in Sharits’ film were absent in Kubelka’s work.
Another notable difference in the film’s structuralist elements is that Sharits utilized visual and audio repetition, but Kubelka did not employ any form of audio mixing in his film. Instead, the sound on Unsere Afrikareise was recorded live on location. As such, Kubelka’s film incorporates dialogue, intermittent gunfire, as well as live music broadcasted on the radio. Unlike Sharits, Kubelka’s structuralist editing sought to create synch events that ensure image and sound were uniquely joined and aligned, which is a form of image and sound juxtaposition.
The second similarity between the films involves their use of simple forms. Both films are a good example of how filmmakers can leverage simple forms to grab their viewers’ attention. Unsere Afrikareise relies on simple compositions that could be easily recognized by the audience. For example, it does not take long for the audience to realize that the film’s representation of whites in Africa reinforces colonial exploitation. For instance, in a scene that shows a hunter killing a Zebra, there is depiction of violent behaviour; and mixed with various similar footage, there is strong suggestion of violence against other subjects within the frame. Moreover, there is scene showing a white man mounting a camel, while a black man leads the camel, which depicts a strong master-and-slave colonial theme. As such, in Unsere Afrikareise, simple representations and forms ensure the audience gives their complete attention to the thought of how they view hunting wild game and colonialism, without questioning the illusion presented to them.
T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G also produces a similar effect, especially in its use of sound. For example, if Sharits had used the word ‘destroy’ only once in a sentence, it would have most likely gone unnoticed by the audience. However, by constantly repeating the word over and over again, Sharits successfully leads his audience to question the certainty of what the word actually is. Although both films utilize simple forms to grab their viewers’ attention, they do it for different reasons. In Unsere Afrikareise, the simple forms are meant to reinforce the theme of colonial exploitation, but in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, they are meant to subvert the viewers’ consciousness. Sharits’ repetition of the word ‘destroy’ is very destabilizing, especially because audiences are used to understanding words that have context and make sense to the film. Therefore, while the only world repeated is ‘destroy’, the audience is more likely to hear different phrases or words, most of them being ferocious in nature.
Besides, the abstract and violent words assumed by the audience are directly related to the vicious content of the flicking images on the screen (Bordwell 34). On the contrary, the simple forms in Unsere Afrikareise are intended to educate and inform the audience in a thought-provoking manner. The simple form in which the native man is portrayed is meant to highlight the unequal relationship between ethnographers and their study subjects. Consequently, the audience not only interprets structuralist films based on what they hear, but also on what they see. Similarly, the audience in Sharits’ work is more likely to interpret the flashing images based on what they hear, which is proof that the simplicity in structuralist films can be leveraged to manipulate the audience’s perception.
Finally, the structural decisions made by both directors are similar because they both comprehend that they do not require a lot of technical knowledge, but a deep understanding of how the human brain reacts to sound and images. For example, both directors leverage simple forms of sound and images, with the primary objective of provoking their audience’s thought-process in a way that incites them to engage in profound and philosophical brainstorming. As such, it is up to the viewers to discern the structuralist content in the films, as well as their meaning.
The directors’ approach suggests that the only content in their films is in the simple forms used to represent real human interactions and emotions. The only narrative worth telling is of how people process the information they see and hear from the films (Bordwell 204). Consequently, the structural decisions made by the directors suggest that there is a clear beginning, development, as well as an end in both films; but they cannot be identified by simply looking at the film, as is the case with other genres. For instance, in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, the audiences’ first reaction of vagueness on whether Sharits’ work is abstract or representational in nature is the introduction, while the development is their realization that Sharits’ cinematic approach actually represents one way of reality in a genuine manner. Finally, the audiences’ understanding that their perception is nothing more than a representation of the actual reality is the conclusion.
Both structural filmmakers succeed in going beyond exploring the limitations of the medium available to them at the time (Kerner 82). For example, by creating sound illusions through reputation, Sharits uses film as a metaphor for the perception of reality. Similarly, Kubelka leverages cinema as a metaphor for the manner in which the audience’s mind perceives the different ways of representation, by creating a rendering of colonial exploitation using different images and sounds.
The analysis conducted shows that both Unsere Afrikareise and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G are structuralist films that seek to convey concealed meanings. Shots in both films are brought together in a manner that elicits the audience to think and create their own meaning. Both films share numerous similarities, such as length of time, genre, frame, simple forms, the directors’ structural decisions, and cinematic elements such as darkness, light, sound, and silence, among others. However, despite the many similarities, the films are also dissimilar in some ways. For example, unlike Unsere Afrikareise which edits frames to create a theme about colonial exploitation, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G integrates endless film loops and experimental soundtracks in a manner that does not follow any particular sequence, especially in its transformation.
Bordwell, David. “Neo-Structuralist Narratology and the Functions of Filmic Storytelling.” Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, 2004, pp. 203-219.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Routledge, 2013. http://www.hi.zpok.hu/filmtext/Egyeb/Bordwell-Mimetic.pdf
Grissemann, Stefan. “FRAME BY FRAME.” Film Comment, 48.5, 2012 pp. 73. (Attached)
Habib, Andre, Pelletier, Fredrick, Bouchard, Vincent, and Simon, Galiero. An Interview with Peter KuBelka. Diss. Rhodes University, 2005. (Attached)
Kerner, Aaron. Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films. A&C Black, 2011. https://link.aps.org/pdf/10.1103/PhysRevLett.108.245501
Lapsley, Robert, and Michael Westlake. Film Theory: An Introduction. Manchester University Press, 2006. http://leerpdfenlinea.info/theories-of-authorship-a-reader-registrate-ahora-john-caughie.pdf
Potempski, Jacob. “Revisiting Michael Snow’s Wavelength, after Deleuze’s Time-Image.” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies, 6, 2013, pp. 7-17. (Attached).
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