Dancers without Portfolio: Towards a Theory of Motion in Motion Pictures (*)

Article excerpt

My general subject is Kinetics. I'll be talking about everything that moves at the movies: animals, people, machinery. And everything that inscribes, and often embodies, motion: the camera, the editing--the tools of the film-making process. There will be a little theory--because finally to talk about motion is to talk about the ontology of film itself--and a lot of examples. Some of these examples I'll try to put into words, and some we'll look at on the screen (and then try to put into words).

The subject is both all-inclusive and definitive. In other words, it's a subject too big for one lecture--or perhaps even very many lectures. If we're lucky, maybe we can begin to appreciate the fact that such a subject exists, and maybe get a hint of just how big it is.

But first--before I get to all that-I want to start by talking about the way this topic recently impressed itself upon me.

Not so long ago, the satellite people came and hooked my television to a dish and all at once I stopped going out to the movies. Instead, I found myself logging in a lot of long, serious, fairly relentless hours supine at the box. I downed just about everything, most of it for the first time, including a lot of regular network stuff that, with hardly any effort, I could have learned about locally without buying the whole global village to find it. In a few months, as one might imagine, the novelty wore off: going from a few channels to a few hundred being not that much different from replacing one's private garbage disposal with a public dump. But not before I discovered something many millions of television regulars must have known for years: and that is, that some of the most fascinating movies in the world--the most informative and poetically satisfying--are being made exclusively for television. The theater-screen may dwarf the home-screen in just about every way, but movie-house loyalists never get to s ee the best of those beautiful science and wildlife films aired regularly by the National Geographic Society, and just about weekly by the PBS Networks, and just about daily on the Discovery Channel. Here you can see an infinity of marvels with a camera and a special lens that you could never see for yourself--not with your human eye, and not if you camped for a lifetime on the Etosha plains, or set up house in a diving bell at the bottom of the Adriatic.

It isn't hard to lower the volume on the shallow universalism and humanist bromides of the spoken commentary--or even to ignore the not infrequent and degrading anthropomorphism of boxing seals, wrestling monkeys, or the mickey-moused antics of pogo-sticking kangaroos. Much of the time, these animals go at their own gait and evoke their own form of regal and impersonal emotion that cannot be represented by literal-minded musicians and beggars any form of clinical description. At their best, these television wildlife films, along with the educational rap and informational displays, restore the kinds of aesthetic pleasure that one usually found in the most imaginative and concentrated forms of film fiction. Here you see how the whole natural kingdom looks when it's on the move, and that means the most powerful and lyrical forms of locomotion to be seen anywhere.

I recall one thrilling sequence from a documentary about the animal life on the Etosha Plains that literally took me out of my seat. In a single shot above the thronged backs of a herd of watering gazelles, in the upper third of the frame, we see a pack of cheetahs loping over the rim of the horizon line--a raggedy, straggling bunch, spread out in casual disarray, some glancing back over their shoulders, a couple scuttering down the slope in sideways advance; all of them looking scrawny and disreputable, moonfaced and faintly comical; none of them so much as sneaking a peek at the gazelles, just as the gazelles never seemed to acknowledge the presence of the cheetahs. This one shot, cheetah and gazelles caught in single frame, is held for a long two or three seconds; and for at least one of those seconds, these two groups seem so blissfully unaware of each other that you think maybe the gazelles will keep watering and the cheetahs trot on by. …