Perhaps more than any other expressive medium, cinema epitomizes modernity and its primary setting, the city. Based on the montage of discrete images, the technological fundament of cinema suggestively embodies the fragmented sensorial experience characteristic of urban life. As Georg Simmel describes in his early 20th century essay, The Metropolis and Mental Life, the modern city occasions “the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.” Street life is both dangerous and exciting –rapturous and sublime. And it is the very act of looking that gives it identity. Just as images in motion create an illusion of movement in the movie theatre, life downtown enfolds as bits and pieces of reality rush before our eyes as if it was in a succession of loose snapshots. In the modern city, the ‘real’ has become a kind of representation—and representation as re-presentation of the ‘real’ marks the defining form of modernity— photography and its derivative, cinema.1
Suto-ri- (2008), the first video work by Dutch photographer Martine Stig (1972, Amsterdam) holds a sure relation to such assumptions. Whereas she has made a name for herself with photo series that look into the ideology of photography and its knowledge economy, with her first video work Suto-ri-, Stig turns now the language of cinema and its own semantic specificities. Shot in the streets of Tokyo, Suto-ri-, constitutes a 20 minute portrait of the Japanese metropolis and its inhabitants.
Mostly using a telescopiclens, Stig captures the minimal moves and unintentional gestures of passers-by in the mode of a candid photographer. In this way, it can be said that Suto-ri- displays an affinity with an aesthetic rooted in the romantic imaginary of the city, with its fleeting moments, fragmented vision and the essential role given to the city itself (which presence is felt not only as a motif but more so through choices of pointofview and framing). Yet, more even than the pace and the specificities of contemporary life in Tokyo, what lies at heart of Stig’s endeavour is the way cinema shares a similar audio-visual system of assemblage with the perception of things in a modern environment. Montage is, in the words of Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, “the basic means of cinema art, the specific and fundamental quality of the medium.”2 As he states: “every art has its own specific quality, which is what makes it an art. Painting cannot exist without colours; sculpture without plastic material. The cinema consists of fragments and the assembly of those fragments, of the assembly of elements, which in reality are distinct.”
Montage allows for new geographies to be created; it is the process thanks to which an illusion of space can successfully be achieved in filmmaking. Besides, montage has the general ability to induce ideas and feelings, as Kulsekov proved with his famous experiment. In mainstream cinema, editing techniques primarily aim to maintain “a sense of uninterrupted and continuous narrative action within each scene, maintaining the illusion of reality for the spectator.”3 And in order to maximize continuity, it has to become seamless and not call attention to itself. ‘Invisible editing’—as it is sometimes described—focuses on structuring dramatic emphasis and on controlling identification with characters. Within the jargon of film scholar, this latest endeavour is called ‘suture,’ a common term in medicine for the stitching of a wound, that here describes the way a spectator is being ‘stitched’ into the film text as a result of his or her successful identification with plot and characters. The spectator is allowed a sense of completeness of vision through a privileged sense of the whole space even when only part is being shown.4 The word ‘suture’ also coincidentally holds a suggestive relation to the title of Stig’s video, Suto-ri-, which happens to deal with matters of identification in film language and the creation of a space proper to cinema. Among other specific techniques of continuity editing, match cuts involving screen direction, eyeline match and shot/reaction shot are of primary importance. These are also those, among others, that Stig uses to edit Sutori-.
The video presents a series of actions typical in classic cinema such as a mysterious envelope being carried around and handed over; a middle-aged man smoking a cigarette or a young couple drinking together in a pub. Besides constituting an implicit reflection on classic narrative stereotypes, each of these scenes is created on the basis of materials taken at different moments and from different people. In other words, Stig purposefully sewed together into coherent scenes, different fragments that held in reality no relation to each other than that of portraying similar actions. In this way, through the creation of new situations, Stig reveals the constructed nature of space in narrative filmmaking, praising and undermining its illusion in the same token —allowing the process of identification to take place while also revealing its artificial nature. Besides, unlike classic films in which each sequence plays a specific function in its overall narrative scheme, Suto-ri- offers no sense of closure. The different sequences do not sum up to form a coherent narrative and the viewer is left wondering about the fate of characters and the outcome of their actions. Just as in reality, we are lead to cross the path of passersby, getting of their lives only a glimpse and a number of conjectures.
The quasi-magic potential of film language to invent things also once lead Kuleshov to create a woman “who had never existed.” As he explained, Kuleshov had “shot the scene of a woman at her toilette: she did her hair, made up, put on her stockings and shoes and dress.” He had filmed “the face, the head, the hear, the hands, the legs, the feet of different women, but […] edited them as if it was all one woman.” Thanks to the montage, he had succeeded in creating “a woman who did not exist in reality, but only in the cinema.”5 Likewise, Stig creates characters performing actions that never occurred in reality, but which take birth as our eyes and mind reconstruct the space of actions from a succession of chosen fragments. In this way, it can be said that if Suto-ri- does indeed constitute a portrait of the city of Tokyo, it is one thoroughly imagined—one, which puts emphasis on our viewing habits in the movie theatre and on the streets.
- 1 Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, (Berkley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1995) 7.
- 2 Lev Kuleshov, ‘The Origin of Montage’ (1965) in Luda and Jean Schnitzer and Marcel Martin, Cinema in Revolution: The Heroic Era of the Soviet Film, (New York: A Da Capo Press, 1973) 71.
- 3 Steve Blandford, Barry Keith Grant and Jim Hiller, ‘Continuity editing’ in The Film Studies Dictionary, (New York: Arnold Publishers, 2001) 56.
- 4 Blandford, Grant and Hiller, ‘Suture,’ op. cit., 234.
- 5 Kuleshov, op. cit., 70.