Movements and Gestures

One of the greatest realisations that occurred to me during film school was during the otherwise innocuous screening of a student’s assignment. It was contrasty, black-and-white, shot on 16mm, with no dialogue or sound, save for a temporary score via Carl Orff’s overture from Carmina Burana.

He had assembled a sequence of shots taken around an old country barn which had fallen apart due to age. There were shots of his pre-school niece playing in the field. Fairly pastoral, well-shot, stuff. However, just before the thunderous beat of the chorus, he did what is technically called a “swish-pan” (essentially swivelling the camera so that the movement from point A to point B in the frame passes by in a quick blur). It wasn’t huge – he couldn’t have turned the camera more than ten degrees to the right. But the impact was massive on me: I sat there and solidly understood, with the overture’s choir belting out the chorus, the acetic importance of a simple gesture.

When you’re full of inspiration and energy, your first instinct is to paint on as large a canvas as possible, in block letters, in red. And yet these grandiose movements, glorious though they may be in some works, are not the only – or necessarily the best – means of communication. I discovered how magically integral one simple gesture could be – through a simple adjustment of the camera, the student had intentionally or unintentionally done something that I felt was on-par with even the most flamboyant cinematic spectacles.

Today, on the streetcar, I’m reading Culture and Value, a collection of manuscript notes by Wittgenstein – and again, he makes the same point: the importance of the simplest gesture. You can hear this in music, you can see this in dance; it’s even evident in sport. The greatest performances are those which blend masterful movement with graceful gesture.


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