A glimpse of the language of film in the 20th century

A brief timeline of the evolution of film as a medium in the Western world in the twentieth century

The evolution of film language in the twentieth century began with the arrival of Edwin Porter who established the shot as the building block of cinematic language unlike the ‘scene’ that was used by George Méliès. Méliès had already seen film as a narrative medium and had innovated several devices like the fade-in, fade-out, overlapping, superimposing shots and dissolves. In his films A Trip to the Moon, he creatively portrayed the smiling face of the moon carved in shaving cream. As a magician, he had discovered that film need not obey the laws of empirical reality, and exploited film to ‘astonish’ viewers. But he nevertheless stayed within the conventions of the theatre and conceived films in terms of dramatic scenes which contained the logical unfolding of an action played out to its end; he even designed and painted backgrounds as was done in a stage backdrop. The film was narrated from a single perspective, the eagle-eye view of the theatre- going spectator, with the shots taken from a motionless camera. The only editing that occurred was between scenes rather than within them.

With all these technical devices at his disposal, Porter experimented with point of view and the way action was portrayed. He realised that he could cut in the middle of action without causing confusion in the viewer and thus laid the foundations of continuity editing in The Great Train Robbery (1903). With inter-cutting between scenes, Porter managed to create the illusion of simultaneous or parallel action accessible to the viewer from simultaneous points of view. Yet the cut was used only to advance the story and not within the shot itself for dramatic effect. But in the Great Train Robbery, Porter for the first time experimented with camera angles- in one of the scenes he shows the action by placing the camera on a moving engine. He also attempted camera moves like panning in the scene where the robbers are fleeing to the woods, yet he nevertheless left shot sizes unexplored as all his scenes are in the long shot. The only transition that he uses is the cut. But his most important contribution to the cinematic language is that film has its own aesthetic, distinct from that of the theatre, which depends not upon the arranged of objects in a scene, but on the interaction of shots with one another.

Griffith, “the Shakespeare of the Screen”, took up the discoveries of Porter and developed the cinematic language to a greater extent. He established cinema as a narrative form with its own set of aesthetics and laws. Through the rise of multi-shot films, he realised the need for shot consistency and a different kind of direction than stage direction. Griffith was a master story teller, thus all his experimentation was driven towards the perfection of dramatic effect. He employed the ‘cut in’ to heighten drama in films like The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908) and broke down the distance between the audience and the action. By 1908 he had made parallel editing more sophisticated and had stumbled upon the beginnings of montage. Various techniques like the ‘object of attentions’ or the motivated point of view shot and functions like the flashback or the ‘switch back’ that interrupted the narrative had also been devised.

Even in other parts of the world cinematic language and the new medium of film were being explored. In Man with the Movie Camera, film was being examined as a distinct and independent entity from theatre or literature. The film sought to establish the aesthetics unique to the medium and form itself as a separate and self-sufficient art, questions about which were to be later taken up by Arnheim and the others.

But in America itself, one of Griffith’s major contributions in an area that remained largely unexplored in the age of Porter and Méliès, was the variations of shot sizes. The close –up was important for providing detail to the viewer and giving him sudden access to a character or an object, while the long shot estranged him and gave him a panoramic view of the action. In 1909, Griffith attempted multiple parallel actions in The Lonely Villa and explored multiple point of views. He devised another technique of increasing the tempo of inter-cutting between parallel action so that the dramatic climax coincided with the cinematic climax and the way of the telling the story and the story itself became one. The technique of the alternation of simultaneous action as well as the alternation of temporally converging action, known as ‘Griffith’s last minute rescue’, formed the basis for montage; Griffith was aware of the length of a shot and the particular psychological effect that it produced.

Aware of the camera’s exaggerating possibilities, Griffith also trained his actors in naturalness and subtlety of expression unlike theatrical customs. He explored lighting, camera moves and angles and noted the effect that each produced on the audience. The horizontal sweep gave the audience the entire action, while the track involved the viewer. The depth of field broke down the action onto several planes so that the director could create visual metaphors through a combination of all these devices. Even transitions were perfected as dissolves could be carried out within the lens diaphragm itself.

In Germany during the war years, Oskar Messeter, ignorant of Griffith’s inventions, contributed his share to the cinematic language by improving the Maltese cross system for projection; at a time when all films operated within the conventions of the theatre, he used artificial lights on the sets and made short films and actualiteés. The cinematic language sprang to life through the contributions of filmmakers around the world, but it was only through Griffith’s techniques and innovations that it attained its zenith.


  1. Andrew, J. Dudley. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  2. Cook, Pam. The Cinema Book. California: Pantheon Books, 1986

The Realism Debate in Film Theory: The contributions of Andre Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer

A short note on the formalist and realist strands of filmmaking, taking the case of Alfred Bazin & Siegfried Kracauer, that marked the evolution of film history in the West in the 20th century

The fundamental difference between the realist tradition and the formalist tradition arises from the fact that while one believed in “the naked power of the mechanically recorded image”, the other relied on the “learned power of artistic control over images.” Throughout the history of film, these twin currents have remained inextricably intertwined since their momentous inception in the age of Mélies and the Lumière brothers. Although the formative tradition had initially prevailed as the dominant tradition, realism in film gained importance only when it was tied up with a social function to provide “an absolute alternative [to entertainment films], a cinema with a conscience true both to everyday perception of life and to the social situation.” Thus documentaries and fly-on the wall kind of films came to perpetrate the notion that the real was the visible and that the camera was able to capture that reality. It was thus that the camera established the norms of the ruling ideology. Even though later realism came to be associated with a sense of spontaneity, of life as it is in a moment of contemplation of the world, before such a formulation, it was nevertheless preceded by people like Vertov, Rotha and Vigo who “shriek with a sense of political aspiration.” (Andrew, 104)

But for Kracauer and Bazin, the two giants in the realist tradition, cinema “exists beyond practical political action”. It very much includes politics but is not dominated by it. Even though both bore their allegiance to reality, Bazin unlike Kracauer, tried to define what he meant by reality. While Kracauer simply equated film and reality, with reality as a raw material, Bazin specified the dependence of film on reality and also its distinctness from it. His notion of the tracings of reality on celluloid showed that he recognized a fundamental difference between the object and it representation in a photograph which was then ‘second removed’ from it. These tracings of reality, which were for Bazin the raw material for cinema, were then ‘genetically linked’ to the reality they showed. Also, as they were already comprehensible, they also duplicated the way we see objects in the world or our visual reality. It is this idea that seems to have led Bazin to his notion of cinema as an asymptote of reality, ‘moving closer to it yet forever dependent on it. Cinema ‘stands outside the world and looks just like the world.’ It is this position that allows the cinema then to act as a “sesame” to universes unknown. Yet, even though Kracauer didn’t specify what he meant by reality, except that “empirical reality contains correspondences and interrelationships that the camera can find”, he and Bazin seem to agree on the function that cinema at its highest should turn back to the reality it began with unlike the other arts that transcend their work into a new world of meaning. Thus while Kracauer says that cinema could never be an art, Bazin postulates cinema’s goal in a realm outside the conception of art.

Traditional realist theory and the views of Kracauer advocated that realist techniques or means were indispensable to make a realistic film, but Bazin without dictating the type of technique that a film is best suited to, simply stops at saying that like in a photograph, reality is inescapable from the raw material but does not dictate it. This notion is again more complex than Kracauer’s simplistic notion in which realist film is the outcome of realist technique. Through various observations and case studies of films of his time, Bazin notices that although the raw material is inherently realistic, the form and means of a film are causally linked in a way that the raw material is made “to signify” through its means and achieves “signification” through its proper form. “Signification is the result of style; significance of form.” Defining realism then as that which is opposed to abstraction, Bazin postulates a means of no style or ‘neutral style’ in realist film as that would mean minimum signification and thus a reduced role of the director in the film project and his tendency to abstraction. Even for cinematic adaptations of plays, he advocated filming the artificiality of the play rather than interpreting it cinematically through stylized décor (while Kracauer supported documentaries on painting and painters). He assigns the filmmaker’s task to “seek the significance of a scene within the unadorned image” so that the style and form result from a balance of the artist’s realist and abstract abilities. “The artist’s vision should be ascertained from the selection he makes of reality, not from his transformation of reality.” Kracauer on the other hand, says that man’s basic tendency is to be realist and that the filmmaker’s goal is to record reality through the camera’s basic property and reveal it to the spectators through its technical properties. Although he admits creative intervention on the part of the filmmaker to optimize the use of the film medium, he nevertheless believes that the camera records some aspects of reality better and that some aspects are better suited to the camera than others so that some transformations of these recorded aspects support the photographic effort and provide insights. It is again for the filmmaker to find this balance.

In his discussion of film language, in the face of “atmospheric” montage and “psychological” montage, both of which were the norms of classical narrative editing in all their manipulative and abstract tendencies and the telling the events, Bazin called for the technique of depth of field which, remaining at the level of recording, “permits an action to develop over a long period of time and on several spatial planes.” While montage creates a mental continuity in the audience’s mind at the expense of perceptual continuity, for Bazin a realist style is that which essentially maintains spatial reality as do the long take and the depth of field technique. On an external level, the realist film follows the criteria of shooting on location, having a script which conforms to its material rather than a prior dramatic logic which shapes the material and finally, an editing style brought by the filmmaker’s attitude of “investigation” rather than of “presentation”. Kracauer saw the realist film not only as a balance between the realist and formalist tendencies in the filmmaker, but also as a balance between the documentary film and the story film which he saw exploited the medium’s potential optimally. The story then, which ideally was the found story, was bound to nature and was “discovered rather than contrived” and served to reveal the visual world to the spectator. Thus while montage and realist techniques like the depth of field and the long take were finally ways of rendering an event, Bazin realised the countless possibilities of film language which had, in the past been reduced to only a few selected techniques that had been institutionalized as the ‘cinema.’

Inherent to the realist tradition, whether it is with Bazin or Kracauer, is a deep wonder for the ambiguity and the mystery of nature and life and a belief in the harmony of man with the world. While classical editing operated with a logic prior to its representation, it nevertheless bound its spectators in an illusion of homogeneous reality, all the while actually fragmenting reality. But through realist cinema, Bazin saw the possibility to preserve the freedom of the spectator to choose his own interpretation of the object of event. As Andrew puts it, “cinema more than any other art is naturally able to capture and suggest the sense of a world which flows around and beyond us.” Bazin, seeing cinema as having come into existence to “serve man’s curiosity” believes in its ability to make man experience greater self-revelations. Even in the existential condition of the thrownness of man in the universe, the realist tradition in Bazin seeks for hope and the “self-creation as the purpose and excitement of existence.” Thus the purpose of cinema in the realist tradition is to cast away signification in order to” recover the sense of the world.”


Andrew, J. Dudley. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1976