Exploring the Artefacts #9: The Missing Links Part 1
Exploring The Artefacts is a series in which I examine some unique and significant components, or by-products, of cinema storytelling that are often under-appreciated.
The subject of this article is an editing technique that implies a hidden meaning specifically between two shots or scenes in a narrative. These transitions can draw a connection between story fragments in an obvious way or act as a subtle association between the instantly changing visuals. Even though this rather sophisticated device has been used sparingly in the past, it adds an intellectual depth to the stories that only motion pictures can so effectively convey.
We'll begin with one of the most famous and apparent transitions in the history of cinema. It contains the final images from the film's lengthy "Dawn of Man" opening segment. During these scenes, a group of primates representing early mankind learn how to better survive in the wilderness. At one point they are confronted by the shocking appearance of a giant monolith signifying an unfathomable but far advanced civilisation that stimulates both their curiosity and fear. Later, a bone learned to be used as a weapon, indicating the first of several leaps of human evolution inspired by the monolith, is thrown into the air as a celebration of supremacy. In a single "cut" the bone becomes a satellite orbiting Earth, achieving its power by bridging a vast, almost immeasurable amount of time and human achievement in the blink of an eye. This transition may cause some to ponder what leaps of advancement an alien race are capable of, represented by the monolith seen earlier, especially after the object makes several reappearances later in the film. Perhaps we are to them, still like the apes with the bone who try as we might, can never fully comprehend the giant object or realise our own potential no matter how far we “progress”.
2001: a Space Odyssey (1968)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
The next example from the same director, is a far more subtle way of drawing contrast between two scenes. This edit highlights the use of sounds to demonstrate the tragic disparity between the events depicted. In the first scene, the filmmakers conclude with a violent blast of gunfire used to execute three soldiers previously convicted of cowardice in the face of the enemy. Cut to the comforting sounds of breakfast enjoyed by the Generals who organised their execution.
Paths of Glory (1957)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
In my recent review of Vertigo, I described a scene where our protagonist (Scottie Ferguson) strongly objects to taking on an assignment for a friend (Gavin Elster) providing several justifiable reasons. Gavin persists in trying to convince the retired detective to follow his wife during the day while he's at work because of her strange behaviour, suggesting she's possessed by a deceased relative's spirit. Scottie finally agrees to find someone else for the job but Gavin wants him and insists on it. Finally Gavin asks Scottie to have a look at her before making up his mind and he agrees! Scottie's curiosity must have gotten the better of him since as a professional, her appearance should have nothing to do with whether or not he takes the case. The bridge of real fascination, however, occurs after Scottie sees Madeleine Elster at a popular restaurant. Then, in the very next scene, Scottie is in his car waiting for Gavin's wife to leave her apartment. No more discussion, thoughts or decision making processes are necessary. Scottie has had a look, and that's it: Viola, he's on the case! By connecting those two scenes in that way, there's nothing more to it: Madeleine's physical beauty (enhanced by the music and lighting) is the reason he's changed his mind; another "missing link" has been uncovered, one that's proven to be most effectively utilised.
Another famous link from Vertigo's director, this time one of humorous sexual innuendo, occurs at the very end of its story. The director said (if one takes him seriously) this was the only time he used symbolism in any of his films:
North by Northwest (1959)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Next Time in Part 2: More missing links are uncovered between scenes in The Asphalt Jungle, Planet of the Apes, The Wild Bunch and Love and Death.