“Cinema is less an art of origination than it is of magnification… It’s the only art I know of where more comes out than goes in” Andrew Sarris
The power of a good quote is to be found in the notion that despite brevity and succinctness in expression there is density and breadth in ramification. The above quote, taken from Andrew Sarris in his book The Primal Screen, serves as a dense and broad observation of the cinema effect and, in particular presents conjoined implications for both production and reception of cinematic content. The idea is of course akin to the old adage of the ‘whole being greater than the sum of its parts’ but Sarris’ observation holds greater and more poignant specificity than that.
On one level it is an observation concerning the engagement of the viewer; that what they experience is not just performance, design, sound and composition but a gestalt of affect brought on by all that combined.
Looked at from the other side is the idea that the choices in staging, shooting, performance, sound and edit do not wholly account for what the viewer experiences - the emotional resonances of the viewer cannot be directly measured by each of these. Nor can a director really account for or reconcile the effect of their creation by the choices they make - what they have wrought will be magnified beyond their intent by the apparatus itself. Evidence of this is apparent every time you see a close-up on screen. A subtle raised eyebrow in such a shot has the gravity of earthquake on screen. The eyebrow was just a tiny expression, the camera was just a framing position - but the result is one of magnification where the holistic apparatus of cinema magnifies the effect beyond the production choices made. Likewise, the process of editing is the purest example of cinematic magnification where the placement of two shots together in sequence manifests a 3rd meaning that is both more than and beyond anything presented by the 2 shots independently. For the editor certainly more comes out than goes in.
Recently I have sat in audiences with my students viewing open discussions and Q+A sessions with prominent and both artistically and financially successful filmmakers. One of the fundamental aims of the courses I teach is to counter the culture of anti-intellectualism that pervades much filmmaking practice (particularly in Australia) and invest young creators with a deeper body of knowledge, and knowledge tools, by which they may articulate their cinematic visions.
Thus it was that I found myself often disheartened when questions were posed to these prominent filmmakers about their work and their responses were all to often glib, dismissive and self-effacing; concerned it seemed with presenting themselves as fuelled by filmmaking instinct rather than underpinned by rich knowledge and articulate understandings.
As I sat amid my students I felt all my good work to elevate their conceptual thinking being unravelled by throw-away one-liners. But in pondering further and discussing with colleagues I have come to some reconciled perspectives.
My first conjecture is that filmmakers who are dismissive of knowledge, declare openly how much they “don’t over analyse things” and expound their instinct over their expertise are displaying a kind of artistic bluster, playing to a persona of the artist they are expected to present. Eminent French filmmaker Jean Pierre Junet (City of lost children, Amelie) was a recent case in point. His light-hearted and dismissive scoffing when questioned about the themes and intents expressed in his highly stylised films was belied by the evidently vast body of knowledge that was apparent the more he spoke. So whilst he seemed to want to present the exterior of the instinctual, non-intellectual, autodidactic artist; the manner, detail and richness of his knowledge base was clearly apparent the longer he spoke (and of course in his films themselves). A colleague suggested to me that what so many good artists attempt to pass of as Instinct is really Intuition. The difference being that Intuition is the ability to react instinctively because the artist is fundamentally steeped in a rich body of knowledge, articulations and experience. Filmmakers with instinct make one or two good works; filmmakers with intuition make great works for a lifetime. Intuition is what happens when the knowledge, experience and conceptual understandings are so intuitive to, and inside of, the artist that they become instinctual and intutive.
In this vein, we come full-circle to the idea of cinema as “less and art of origination than it is of magnification”. The notion that partly because of this it is quite possible a director cannot articulate their intent or seem not understand the effect of their work in an articulate way because the cinema apparatus of experience magnifies their choices beyond their intent. Cinema is the art where more comes out than goes in.