From The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje
M: There were many people in France writing realistic novels in the nineteenth century—Balzac comes to mind—but Flaubert was the most conscious of what he was doing, and agonized about it the most. Closely observed reality, for its own sake, had not really been a part of the tradition of literature in the eighteenth century. Flaubert will spend a whole page evoking tiny sounds and motes of dust in an empty room because he's getting at something. He's saying there's meaning to be got out of the very closely observed events of ordinary reality. In literary, scientific and photographic terms—the invention of photography happened when he was in his teens—the nineteenth century, to a much greater degree than the eighteenth, was concerned with the close observation of reality. All of science in the nineteenth century was about very close observation of small things. . . . The nineteenth century focused and greatly expanded these concepts. It made them central to the novel, to the symphony, to painting.
As often happens with revolutionary ideas, they were not easily accepted at first. To some readers realism must have seemed too ordinary to be literature: if the writer was just describing what the reader could see with his own eyes, why write at all? It probably seemed very drab.
And thirty years before Flaubert, composers like Beethoven exploited the idea of dynamics—that by aggressively expanding, contracting, and transforming the rhythmic and orchestral structure of music you could extract great emotional resonance and power.
Composers before Beethoven had, as a rule, composed in separate movements, but every movement both defined and then explored a unified musical space. If you listen to ten seconds of the first movement of any Haydn symphony and then to another ten seconds halfway through and another ten seconds later in the same movement, they resemble one another. When you listen to the whole piece, it's as if you were moving through different rooms of a palace, going in one room, looking around, and then, closing the door and, with the next movement, going into the next room.
Beethoven—I think because he was so enormously influenced by nature rather than architecture—threw that away. The space of each movement has tremendous variety. He will take a huge sound, one that involves all the instruments of the orchestra, and suddenly reduce it to a single instrument. Everything will come down to a single flute for a while, and then a rhythm you haven't heard before will creep up in the background, and then you go off on another tangent again--all within one movement.
Beethoven set the agenda for the entire nineteenth century, musically. By and large, the revolution he instigated was accepted quite quickly. He was deemed a genius of music in his own time. Young people got really excited about this, and old folks throught the world was coming to an end. Carl Maria von Weber said after listening to the Seventh Symphony, "If Beethoven wants his passport to the lunatic asylum, he's just written it!"
If you're used to the old form, this new form sounds like somebody who can't stick to a topic. It's as if a very excited person comes to sit by you while you're having a nice conversation, and then starts talking about ten different things one after another. But music for the rest of the nineteenth century followed that form, and it's a form that film is naturally suited to.
O: So even if Beethoven and film are separated by a century, the line of influence is there.
M: When you listen to Beethoven's music now, and hear those sudden shifts in tonality, rhythm, and musical focus, it's as though you can hear the grammar of film—cuts, dissolves, fades, superimposures, long shots, close shots—being worked out in musical terms. His music didn't stick to the previous century's more ordered architectural model of composition: it substituted an organic, wild, natural—sometimes supernatural—model.
In any case, by the end of the nineteenth century there had been almost a hundred years of Beethoven—this dynamic representation of form—and not quite a hundred years of Flaubert's closely observed reality. And the reason film blossomed into the form we know today—we didn't experiment very long with film, it evolved rapidly—is that it happened to be the right place for these two movements—realism and dynamism—to come together and find some sort of resolution. Given its photographic nature, film is very good at closely observing reality. Because you can move the camera and move the people—and because you can edit—it's very good at the dynamic representation of "reality." Much better than theatre, for instance, which is not very good at, say, fight scenes: when you have a big fight, you're looking at relatively small people onstage fighting each other, whereas a fight scene in a film can be simply overwhelming.
By the end of the nineteenth century these once revolutionary ideas of realism and dynamism had been thoroughly accepted into European culture. Generations of artists, writers, and composers—as well as society at large—had by 1889 completely internalized these ways of looking, thinking, listening. The whole nineteenth century was steeped in realism and dynamism!
And then along came film: a medium ideally suited to the dynamic representation of closely observed reality. And so these two great rivers of nineteenth-century culture—realism from literature and painting, and dynamism from music—surged together within the physical framework of film to emerge, within a few decades, in the new artistic form of cinema.
Within fourteen years of its invention, film grammar is being determined in The Great Train Robbery--the cut, the close-up, parallel action—even while social and economic changes are helping integrate cinema into the pattern of people's daily lives, and making the whole thing pay for itself. Within another dozen years, the feature film was almost as we know it today, thanks to D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation. And then synchronous sound was added twelve years later virtually completing the revolution.
In film school, I was always amazed at how few teachers taught their subject matter as the history or canon of a living art form. Instead of discussing film in school as an evolving social art form, we were constantly prone to turn conversations toward the "lost art," the "golden age," and various "waves" of film making, all of which we were already decades beyond.
Film is widely accepted as the ultimate art media—it combines the visual and the aural experiences, and when executed well, possesses the subtlety required for the viewer's suspension of disbelief and withdrawal from the immediate surroundings. Film, like theatre, was conceived as a social media—that is, it was only consumed en masse. These days though, it seems like Hollywood is pumping out more and more formulaic and uninspired works, many of which skip the theaters and go straight to the home (read: "private")-viewing formats (DVD, iTunes, etc). And viewing films alone only serves to supersede any conversation or social response to them.
These approaches to study only seem to distance prospective artists from the idea that they might be able to undertake either film making or criticism with both a knowledge of the history of cinema and a fresh take on its potential. The same problem exists to a certain extent in the American conservatory system and especially in our nation's approach to educating adolescent musicians that show particular promise (although we're generally lucky if our young musicians reach the point where their only challenge is a view of "new" western music as entirely disconnected from its own lineage—indeed, much of it is; moreover, most of our talented young musicians have to clear the hurdles of public education, hackneyed teachers, and oblivious or non-existent parenting. This is not to say that we never see young, intelligent, well-adjusted and capable instrumentalists, coming from a tight family circle with support abounding, possessing a knowledge of both the history of western music and modern performance practice, and not only able to play major and minor scales in three octaves, but also seeming to have a point of view about melody, phrasing and interpretation. It's just extremely rare. But I digress.)
Murch's above take on the links between film and Beethoven bring us closer to understanding (at some considerable distance) how we came so quickly to accept the "language" of film, but he leaves us with (his) impression (read: resignation) that the language of film within three decades of its invention somehow became so steeped in convention as to have been fully defined and incapable of evolution, not only for the film makers of the 1930's, but for the film makers of all of the films that would ever be.
We cannot accept film language as "dead." Wagner wrote about the Gesamtkunstwerke, first in reference to the Greek tragedies that combined music, dance and poetry, and then in reference to his own operas. His notion of the ultimate art form should have made a simple transition to film, the only medium that could surpass the technical aspects of the Grand Opera he despised so much, while still incorporating the drama of the stage play. Unfortunately, the body and artistry of filmed opera to date is nothing short of disappointing.
The answer may lie in new stagings of old opera. In increasing number, opera companies are putting on productions that incorporate not only images projected on stage, but images projected in the hall. In the form of individual screens on the backs of comfortable new seating in the orchesra and widescreens designed for viewing by entire balcony sections, opera companies are providing us with new ways of absorbing art. Just as sitcoms are regularly filmed in front of a live audience and broadcast, movie theaters and stadiums throughout the world are once again filling their seats by simulcasting opera that is being performed live somewhere else. The experience in the hall is that of the movie theater and the live audience—the opera-goer is able to see the singers (and in some cases the projected scenery!) in close-ups on the back of the seat in front of him. Should he care to look away from the screen for a moment, he might see the rest of the "picture" on the stage in front of him. The possibilities are staggering, and one can only assume that cameras will soon be seen onstage in the near future, integrated not only into the staging, but the story itself, when one of the enlightened composers of our time (Dear John Adams:) writes an opera for this new medium.
At the San Francisco Opera, this new convention is called "OperaVision." A schedule of next season's dates can be found here.