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Reading Noël Burch Theory of Film Practice - Ch 1

Gathering together examples referenced in Noël Burch's Theory of Film Practice, chapter 1

The most profound aspect of this chapter for me is near the end when Burch urges for filmmakers to:

"develop new "open" forms that will have more in common with the formal strategies of post-Debussyian music than with those of the pre-Joycean novel."

Burch discusses the potential for a third meaning (beyond shooting script and technical plan ) for découpage  

" no longer referring to a process taking place before filming or to a particular technical operation but, rather, to the underlying structure of the finished film.  Formally, a film consists of a succession of fragments excerpted from a spatial and temporal continuum.Découpage in its third French meaning refers to what results when the spatial fragments, or, more accurately, the succession of spatial fragments excerpted in the shooting process, converge with the temporal fragments whose duration may be roughly determined during the shooting, but whose final duration is established only on the editing table."

Burch classifies the possible ways of joining together spatial and temporal spaces and to join together two shots as  découpage where spatial and temporal join together "to create a single articulated formal texture"


1. Absolute temporal continuity -  absolutely continuous
2. Temporal ellipsis or time abridgement - presence of a gap between the two shots
3. Indefinite ellipsis 
4. Time reversal
5. Indefinite time reversal

"apart from, and independent of, temporal articulations, even though they have obvious analogies to them.

1. Spatial continuity
2. Spatial discontinuity - spatial orientation
3. Complete and radical spatial discontinuity.

This vocabulary dealing with spatial orientation brings us to a key term, one of some concern to us here: the "match" or "match-cut." 

1. Example of absolute temporal continuity
" the clearest example of this sort of temporal continuity is cut from a shot of someone speaking to a shot of someone listening with the dialogue continuing without a break in voice-over"
(also - straight match cut and reverse angle shot)

2. Example of temporal ellipsis
"a part of the action might be omitted when these two shots are joined together... In shot A someone might perhaps start up a flight of stairs, and in shot B he might already be on the second or even the fifth floor."

2 a - measurable time-span
"The occurrence and the extent of the omission are necessarily always indicated by a more or less noticeable break in either a visual or an auditory action that is potentially capable of being completely continuous."

"A continuous temporal-auditory action, verbal or otherwise, occurring in conjunction with a discontinuous temporal-visual action, as in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Louis Malle's Zazie dans le Metro."

Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless

 Louis Malle's Zazie dans le Metro

3 Example of indefinite temporal ellipsis 
(also second kind of time abridgment)
" It may cover an hour or a year, the exact extent of the temporal omission being measurable only through the aid of something "external"--a line of dialogue, a title, a clock, a calendar, a change in dress style, or the like."

4 Example of time reversal
"In the example of someone walking through a door, shot A might have included the entire action up to the moment of going through the door, with shot B going back to the moment when the door was opened, repeating part of the action in a deliberately artificial manner"
(can be called short time reversal or overlapping cut)

"What we are referring to now, however, no longer involves simple mental deception--that is to say, making an action that is not visually continuous convey a "spirit" of continuity--but the actual physical deception of the eye."

"The flashback is a more usual form of time reversal."

Examples of short time reversal and overlapping cuts in the following three films

"Overlapping cut, such as Sergei Eisenstein used so often and to such striking advantage--as in the bridge sequence in October (Ten Days That Shook the World)"

Sergei Eisenstein - October (Ten Days That Shook the World)

Time Reversal
François Truffaut's La Peau douce

Time Reversal
Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel

5 Example of Indefinite time reversal
"which is analogous to the indefinite time ellipsis (the exact extent of a flashback is as difficult to measure without outside clues as is the extent of a flashforward) and the opposite of a measurable time reversal."

"The reason why the flashback so often seems such a dated and essentially uncinematic technique today is that, aside from its use by Alain Resnais and in a few isolated films such as Marcel Carné's Le Jour se lève and Marcel Hanoun's Une Simple histoire, the formal function of the flashback and its precise relationship to other forms of temporal articulation have never been understood. Like the voice-over, the flashback has remained little more than a convenient narrative device borrowed from the novel, although both have recently begun to assume other functions."

Examples of excellent use of Flashbacks
Marcel Carné's Le Jour se lève

more clips at:
link to description of flashbacks in film

Marcel Hanoun's Une Simple histoire

Alain Resnai and Last Year at Marienbad
"perhaps comes closer to the organic essence of film"

1. Example of spatial continuity
"Any change in angle or scale (matching shots, that is, taken from the same angle but closer or farther away) with relation to the same camera subject or within the same location or the same circumscribed space generally establishes a spatial continuity between two shots."

2. Example of spatial discontinuity
"This discontinuity, however, can be divided into two distinct subtypes bearing a rather curious resemblance to the two distinct subtypes of time ellipses and reversals."

2 a - spatial proximity -  whole range of spatial orientation 
"While showing a space different in every way from the space visible in shot A, shot B can show a space that is obviously in close proximity to the spatial fragment previously seen (it may, for instance, be within the same room or other closed or circumscribed space). "

3 Complete and radical spatial discontinuity
second kind of spatial discontinuity - not dealing with proximity

"This vocabulary dealing with spatial orientation brings us to a key term, one of some concern to us here: the "match" or "match-cut." "Match" refers to any element having to do with the preservation of continuity between two or more shots."
Examples of match-cut
1. "Props, for instance, can be "match" or "not match.""
2. ""Match" can also refer to space, as in eye-line matches, matches in screen direction, and matches in the position of people or objects on screen."
3. " There are also spatiotemporal matches, as in the door example, where the speed of movement in the two shots must "match," that is, must appear to be the same."

History of match-cut
Burch discusses the history of the match cut, starting with  "film-makers started bringing their cameras up close to the actors and fragmenting the "proscenium space"
Illusion of theatrical real space
"to maintain the illusion of theatrical space, a "real" space in which the viewer has an immediate and constant sense of orientation (and this was, and still remains, the essential aim for many directors), certain rules had to be respected if the viewer was not to lose his footing, to lose that instinctive sense of direction he always has in traditional theater and believes he has in life."

In order then to preserve viewers eye, sense of orientation and to avoid confusion for the viewer.  By breaking down the "action into shots and sequences" the following continuity rules were developed.
"their underlying aim, to make any transition between two shots that were spatially continuous or in close proximity imperceptible".

1. eye-line match
2. matching screen direction
3. matching screen position.

1. Eye-line match
Eye-line match and matching screen direction concern two shots that are spatially discontinuous but in close proximity."
Two people looking at each other
"person A must look screen right and person B screen left, or vice versa"

2. Matching screen direction

"film-makers also discovered the principle of matching screen direction: Someone or something exiting frame left must always enter a new frame showing a space that is supposedly close by or contiguous from the right."

3. Matching screen position
"that in any situation involving two shots preserving spatial continuity and showing two people seen from relatively close up, their respective screen positions as established in the first shot, with one of them perhaps to the right and the other to the left, must not be changed in succeeding shots."

However the zero point of cinema style meant some filmmakers use of cuts and matches not considered desirable, such as
"the overlapping cuts in October were viewed as "bad" matches, and the découpage of Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth was thought to be "obscure"".

Sergei Eisenstein's October

Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth

cuts not neccesary?

Luchino Visconti in La Terra trema

Alfred Hitchcock in Rope

Michelangelo Antonioni in Cronaca di un amore


Formal organisation of shot transitions and matches is the essential cinematic task.

15 basic ways of articulating shots - possible combinations of the 5 temporal and 3 spatial types of transitions

"The time has now come to change our attitude toward the function and nature of cinematic articulation, both between individual shots and in the film over all, as well as its relation to narrative structure. We are just beginning to realize that the formal organization of shot transitions and "matches" in the strict sense of the word is the essential cinematic task. Each articulation, as we have seen, is defined by two parameters, the first temporal, the second spatial. There are, therefore, fifteen basic ways of articulating two shots, that being the number of possible combinations of the five temporal types and the three spatial types of transitions."

The time has now come to change our attitude toward the function and nature of cinematic articulation, both between individual shots and in the film over all, as well as its relation to narrative structure. We are just beginning to realize that the formal organization of shot transitions and "matches" in the strict sense of the word is the essential cinematic task. Each articulation, as we have seen, is defined by two parameters, the first temporal, the second spatial. There are, therefore, fifteen basic ways of articulating two shots, that being the number of possible combinations of the five temporal types and the three spatial types of transitions.

temporal 1 - spatial 1 - Absolute temporal continuity and spatial continuity
temporal 1 - spatial 2 - Absolute temporal continuity and spatial discontinuity
temporal 1 - spatial 3 - Absolute temporal continuity and radical spatial discontinuity

temporal 2 - spatial 1 - Temporal ellipsis or time abridgement and spatial continuity
temporal 2 - spatial 2 - Temporal ellipsis or time abridgement and spatial discontinuity
temporal 2 - spatial 3 - Temporal ellipsis or time abridgement and radical spatial discontinuity

temporal 3 - spatial 1 - Indefinite ellipsis and spatial continuity
temporal 3 - spatial 2 - Indefinite ellipsis  and spatial discontinuity
temporal 3 - spatial 3 - Indefinite ellipsis and radical spatial discontinuity

temporal 4 - spatial 1 - Time reversal and spatial continuity
temporal 4 - spatial 2 - Time reversal and spatial discontinuity
temporal 4 - spatial 3 - Time reversal and radical spatial discontinuity

temporal 5 - spatial 1 - Indefinite time reversal and spatial continuity
temporal 5 - spatial 2 - Indefinite time reversal and spatial discontinuity
temporal 5 - spatial 3 - Indefinite time reversal and radical spatial discontinuity

when you take the 15 possible temporal spatial articulations AND

changes in camera angle
changes in camera-subject distance
- deliberate discrepancies in eye-line angles or matching trajectories
camera and subject movement,
frame content 
frame composition

"Although film remains largely an imperfect means of communication, it is nonetheless possible to foresee a time when it will become a totally immanent object whose semantic function will be intimately joined with its plastic function to create a poetic function. Although camera movements, entrances into and exits from frame, composition, and so on can all function as devices aiding in the organization of the film object, I feel that the shot transition will remain the basic element in the infinitely more complex structures of the future."

Refers to 12 tone music
15 formal objects then capable of
rhythmic alternation
gradual elemination
cyclical repetition
serial variation

"I have just briefly outlined a set of formal "objects"--the fifteen different types of shot transitions and the parameters that define them--capable of rigorous development through such devices as rhythmic alternation, recapitulation, retrogression, gradual elimination, cyclical repetition, and serial variation, thus creating structures similar to those of twelve-tone music."

Fritz Lang M

"As early as 1931, Fritz Lang's masterpiece was entirely structured around a rigorous organization of the film's formal articulations, starting with sequences in which each shot is temporally and spatially autonomous, with time ellipses and changes in location playing the obviously predominant role, then gradually and systematically evolving toward the increasing use of the continuity cut, finally culminating in the famous trial sequence in which temporal and spatial continuity are strictly preserved for some ten minutes."

"The contemporary film narrative is gradually liberating itself from the constraints of the literary or pseudo-literary forms"
to free oneself from old narrative forms, a filmmaker needs to do a
"systematic and thorough exploration of the structural possibilities inherent in the cinematic parameters"

to explore an open form then filmmakers need to create

"a truly consistent relationship between a film's spatial and temporal articulations and its narrative content, formal structure determining narrative structure as much as vice versa. It also implies giving as important a place to the viewer's disorientation as to his orientation".

USEFUL LINK - summary of book 1. Spatial and Temporal Articulations


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Reading Noël Burch Theory of Film Practice - Ch 2

Chapter 2 - Nana, or the Two Kinds of Space

EXAMPLES  discussed by Burch in this chapter

Jean Renoir - Nana (1926) - excerpt

Ewald Andre Dupont - Variety (1925)
Extensive use of off-screen space
Excerpt below

Excellent video essay available on youtube by Kristin Thompson
Excellent article at:

Full film
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