Friday, June 15, 2007

Palpant Dilley on Eisenstein

Film & Diction
Andrea Palpant Dilley

Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein is famous for his theory of filmic montage, the idea that meaning is made through the collision of images, through juxtaposition, and is therefore dialectical in how it “talks” to an audience. He tested his theory by editing together a number of sequences with the same neutral face and then showing it to a test audience: sequence number one showed the neutral face cut next to a bowl of hot oatmeal, and the audience interpreted the scene as expressing hunger; sequence number two showed the neutral face cut next to a crying baby and the scene was interpreted as frustration, etcetera. In other words—meaning came not just from one image, but from the particular syntax of a sequence. The way things were put together changed everything.

Eisenstein’s theory of montage applies more to writing than I ever understand early on. I’ve always had this terrible propensity to over-write, as all my writer-friends can attest. The very first poem I wrote in seventh grade is almost physically painful to read, five lines about a weeping willow tree as a metaphor for suicide composed with totally excessive, over-the-top language. I loved words. Big words. Polysyllabic words. Dramatic, hand-across-the-forehead-with-woe words.

What I have learned since seventh grade, by the simple refining power of time, editing and frank feedback, is that the non-diction aspects of writing are every bit as important as what words I choose to use. The way I put words together carries meaning, the medium is message, the nonverbal nod that means more sometimes than the word “yes.” And simplicity matters: the juxtaposition of two, plain monosyllabic words can be more thrilling to read than the most ornate word, just as well-framed, juxtaposing film images mean more than the most decorated set. As such my understanding of film editing has informed my literary editing. Now when I edit something I’ve written, I read for pacing and sequence and simplicity, I stand back and stare at the dialectical tension of ideas and moods and images all galloping across the page. I have learned to look at the big picture.

My seventh grade teacher managed somehow to look at the big picture, too. She wrote at the top of my weeping willow suicide poem, with the mad kindness of a creative writing teacher, “Great job, you have a knack for writing. Keep at it.” And so I did.

No comments: