Your Stony Face Is Going To Hell: The Kuleshov Effect & Its Effect On You

by Ashley Naftule

Last Thursday I got to do a PowerPoint lecture on The Kuleshov Effect at Nerd Nite Phoenix. This blog is an abridged version of that talk. Huge thanks to Ty Fishkind, Serene Dominic, and Dan Stone for having me on at their nerdtastic event.

Pickpocket – Robert Bresson, 1959


I used to be a thief.

Petty stuff, really. I used to steal cash from my parents. We lived in Scottsdale when I was growing up. We were fairly well-off… well-off to the point that $20 could disappear from my Mom’s clutch every other week and she didn’t seem to notice or care. My adolescent thievery wasn’t to fuel a drug habit or to finance dates — it was so I had extra cash to buy CDs at Best Buy. I was coming of age when you could still actually get semi-obscure albums at a big box store. Many an afternoon was spent biking feverishly to the nearest Best Buy so I could spend an ill-gotten twenty on a Sonic Youth album.

I fancied myself a slick operator, creeping into the garage to nick a bill or two from my Mom’s car (she always left her clutch lying on the passenger side seat of her cherry red Mercedes). For months I snuck in, snagged my filthy lucre and got away scot-free. Until one day, she walked into the garage right when my hand was in her purse. A $20 bill was half out of her clutch and in my sweaty fingers. She looked at me with a mixture of rage and disappointment – I looked back with no expression at all.

All sorts of emotions and plans of actions swirled through my head when I got caught. Should I deny it? Make a lame excuse? “It’s not what it looks like, I swear!” Should I justify it? Beg forgiveness? Be defiant? Feel ashamed? Run? Play it off as a joke? Like a computer with a hundred open tabs, I was frozen by the weight of too many options. I was as stone-faced as Buster Keaton.

I’ve seen that scenario play out in countless movies since the day I got nicked. It never looked right to me: the actors always seemed to overplay the moment. And then one night, when I was 24, I watched my first Robert Bresson movie — “Pickpocket.” At one point in the film, Michel (played by non-actor Martin LaSalle) is on the Parisian subway. Using some sleight of hand with a newspaper, he smoothly lifts a wallet out of a passenger’s coat pocket. He steps off the train, about to make his escape, when a hand lashes out and grips his wrist. His mark, the man in the coat, has him dead to rights. Michel the pickpocket, caught in the clutches of his victim, freezes up. His face is perfectly blank, as blank as it has been for the entire film. But in that moment, I felt a shock of recognition: that was me in the garage! That’s what it really looks like, to get caught red-handed.

That moment has stuck with me. I wondered why a non-actor, someone who hardly emoted at all onscreen, could convey more truth in that scene than anything I’ve seen a “professional” actor do. And it was through reading about Bresson’s work that I stumbled across The Kuleshov Effect: the art of chiseling angels out of stony faces.

I. There’s Only Two Kinds of People in the World…

“Beatles people and Elvis people.” It’s the question that Mia poses to Vincent in “Pulp Fiction,” a character-defining question of taste and allegiance. Who’s team are you on? You can pose a similar question to fans of cinema: “Are you on Team Keaton or Team Chaplin?”

The twin pillars of the old world, more ink has been spilled about them by film theorists, film fans, and auteurs than damn near any other film figures alive. And for good reason: their best work still holds up, almost a century later.

On one hand, you’ve got The Tramp. Chaplin: a sentimental clown. Expressive, emotional, and possessing an almost aristocratic bearing, no matter how shabby he looked. On the other hand, Keaton: Old Stone Face. Flat, expressionless, a gag man/daredevil gifted with superhuman determination. Both men were master comedians and storytellers. But a key difference sets them apart: one lets you under his skin, and the other keeps you at a distance.

Aside from his gifts for precise comic timing and staging elaborate and dangerous looking stunts, Keaton’s calling card is his poker face. Nobody in cinema had a more perfectly calibrated stone face than Buster. No matter how preposterous or bizarre his circumstances, his face betrayed nothing. You could project all manners of emotions on him – his blank face left you room to color him in.

Chaplin, on the other hand, has the world’s worst poker face. Like the best clowns, his face contorts and pulls like taffy. He’s almost got too much personality. There’s no room to project yourself into Chaplin’s shoes: he’s too much of a presence, too much of a defined character to give you room to scribble in his margins. It’s probably why Keaton figures so prominently in avant-garde film writing circles: he is an empty page waiting to be filled up.

“In Soviet Russia, film cuts you!”

II. Back In The U.S.S.R.

Lev Kuleshov was probably on Team Keaton. A Johnny-On-The-Spot cameraman during the Russian Civil War, Kuleshov headed the very first Soviet film courses at Russia’s National Film School. If a good chunk of film theory has been devoted to critics and filmmakers like the French New Wave masturbating over the works of Chaplin and Keaton, another half of it has been devoted to them going (rightfully) gaga over the innovations of Soviet cinema. Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko… men whose experiments with montage, double exposure, agitprop symbolism, and rapid editing would give cinema the tools to evolve into a more sophisticated and hallucinatory artform.

Kuleshov would never make a fiction film as indelible and immortal as Dovhenko’s “Earth” or as oft-quoted as The Odessa Steps sequence in “Battleship Potemkin” (though Eisenstein was one of Kuleshov’s first students), nor would his own documentary work achieve the dizzying highs of Vertov’s “Man With A Movie Camera” (a film that is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink masterclass on film effects and editing). But he would produce a theory that would have a radical impact on how we perceive and edit films, and even changed the way actors and directors approached their craft.

Battleship Potemkin – Sergei Eisenstein, 1925

III. The Kuleshov Effect

Kuleshov shot and edited a short reel of shots with actor Ivan ilyich Mozzhukhin. He screened the sequence in front of audiences. The film featured repeating shots of Mozzhukhin with a neutral, muted expression on his face. Intercut between the shots of Mozzhukhin’s stone face was the image of a little girl in a coffin, dinner laid out on a table, and a comely woman on a reclining couch.

Ivan Illyich Mozzhukhin, coffin, bowl of soup, hey pretty lady

After screening the sequence, Kuleshov asked the audience to describe Mozzhukhin’s facial expressions. They said that he appeared sad during the coffin sequence, hungry during the bowl of soup, and lusty when the woman on the reclining couch showed up. Even though the three “reaction” shots of Mozzhukhin were identical, they read three very different reactions on his face.

It was through this test that Kuleshov demonstrated the power of montage. By juxtaposing two “objects” (the actor and a coffin) without any additional context (no dialogue, no narration, no intertitles), the audience filled in the blanks. They projected their own biases and storytelling instincts on what they were watching. He was sad looking at the little girl in the coffin because she was his daughter, they said. Even though there was nothing in the sequence to suggest that Mozzhukhin was actually looking at any of these other images or was even in the same room as them, the audience assumed that he HAD to be reacting to them.

What’s the difference between paternal Hitch and pervy Hitch? One single frame.

IV. Fire Truck, Where’s The Fire?

We fill in the blanks ALL THE TIME when we’re watching movies. That’s how montages work — they create space for us to make assumptions and associations so the film doesn’t have to waste precious narrative time spelling it all out for us.

Let’s say you see a house on fire on film. The next shot cuts to a fire truck barreling down the street. As a viewer, what conclusion are you drawing between the juxtaposition of these two shots? The fire truck is heading over to put out that flaming house. That makes the most sense. Why else show a flaming house next to a fire truck? It’s like watching an action film where a character fires a gun at a target offscreen and the next shot is a henchman mowed down by a gunshot. The conclusion we draw, without seeing the bullet hit the body, is that the henchman got nailed from the bullet fired in the preceding shot.

Soviet filmmakers like Eisenstein and Kuleshov were well-aware of this phenomenon. In some ways, it tied into their belief and interest in Hegelian dialectics – the idea that new movements and ideas form from the clashing and merging of opposing ideas. The Soviet filmmakers applied dialectical thinking to their film editing, smashing contrasting scenes and ideas together to create associations in the audience’s mind.

The Kuleshov Effect wasn’t Lev’s only contribution to film theory. He also created the concept of Creative Geography. It’s something that we see all the time when we’re watching TV: creating the illusion of a continuous location by cutting together footage shot from different locations. You could watch a sitcom with an exterior establishing shot of a house in the suburbs, have it cut in to an elaborate soundstage living room, cut to a bathroom shot inside a different house entirely, and end up outside on a lawn that exists on yet another property entirely. As the viewer, we’re not necessarily aware of the Frankenstein’s Monster nature of this stitched-together home – we accept all these disparate shots and different locations as one place and one time.

If you want to really understand Creative Geography, go on any film forum for a movie with a high-speed car chase sequence and you’re guaranteed to find several locals on there posting about how the route they took through “their” city was impossible. It’s also why TV crews can film entire seasons of shows in Montreal and make it look like they’re filming in L.A. All we need is an establishing shot of a well-known landmark and we can accept everything else on good faith.

V. Acting Is For Suckers

Slacker – Richard Linklater, 1991

Let’s go back to Bresson. For most of his career, Bresson took the lessons of The Kuleshov Effect to heart. He employed non-professional actors and “real” people for his productions. For films like “A Man Escaped,” he would put his cast through a grueling number of takes, sometimes having them repeat the same action for over 50 times at a stretch until all emotion and intentionality was drained from their movements. The characters in his films became blank slates the audiences could project themselves onto. It’s why I was so thunderstruck at Michel’s plight in “Pickpocket” — for that brief moment of time onscreen, I became him.

While directors like Bresson and Richard Linklater often fill their films with non-actors, the Kuleshov Effect is also employed by directors working with big name Hollywood talent to create naturalistic performances. Both Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher have garnered reputations for punishing retakes (Rooney Mara claimed that the opening scene in “The Social Network” took almost 100 takes before Fincher was satisfied with it). Fincher has even commented directly on this approach towards working with actors:

“When you cast actors, you try to find the quality you couldn’t beat out of them with a tire iron. That’s where you find the character.” -David Fincher

Rear Window – Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

Hitchcock essentially created an entire film using The Kuleshov Effect. “Rear Window” is a film that generates much of its suspense just from Jimmy Stewart’s reactions. We see him, like Mozzhukhin, stoic-faced and looking out his window. We see young couples cavorting, miserable single women preparing themselves for a date, and a sinister husband alone in his apartment and draw our conclusions on what’s happening based on Stewart’s reaction. It’s a chain of voyeurism — the viewer peeping on Stewart as he peeps on his neighbors. Stewart himself was flabbergasted watching himself in “Rear Window” for the first time, commenting that he hadn’t intended on playing the character the way he was portrayed onscreen. Hitchcock’s Creative Geography at work: Stewart the actor is looking and reacting to things that Stewart the character isn’t. Imagine a re-edited “Rear Window”, with Stewart leering with lust at Miss Lonely Hearts and casting a suspicious eye at Miss Torso instead. Just a few rearranged frames could radically change the world of that film.

Two Lane Blacktop – Monte Hellman, 1971

Another interesting example of The Kuleshov Effect was Monte Hellman’s classic road trip movie “Two-Lane Blacktop.” The film centers around the racing rival between Warren Oates’ sleazy middle-aged man and Dennis Wilson & James Taylor’s hipster car freaks. More than that, though, it’s a battle of acting styles. Both Wilson and Taylor play their characters as Bressonian ciphers — even when Sweet Baby James hauls off and calls someone a motherfucker, he says it with all the emotion of a man saying bless you to a stranger’s sneeze. They’re the drag car racing grandkids of Buster Keaton. Even though there’s a girl in the car with them, they seem totally disinterested in sex or love or anything that doesn’t involve motor oil.

Warren Oates, on the other hand, is acting his ass off. The veteran actor oozes oily charm and middle-aged “I’ve still got it!” desperation. He’s the Chaplin in this battle of actors — Oates is too charming, too PRESENT to allow you into his shoes. But you can project yourself easily into Wilson or Taylor, if you want. And the age differences between the characters turns the movie into a generational rorscharch test. You can either see the stone-faced young racers as countercultural heroes or as callow acid casualties. You can love them or hate them, because they don’t seem to love or hate anything at all. Hop in their driver’s seat: there’s no one buckled in to stop you.

VI. Resting Bitch Face Rides Again

It’s not often described in these terms, but odds are good that you’ve already been exposed to The Kuleshov Effect in meme form. Resting Bitch Face is the perfect example for this phenomenon. We take a look at someone like Aubrey Plaza and read stormy, bitter emotions in a face that’s actually placid and neutral.

We often talk about how “seeing is believing.” Lev Kuleshov’s experiments showed that the opposite may be true: our beliefs shape what we see. We see a crooked old man’s smile and see a kindly grandfather or a leering pervert. We watch a blank-faced youth get collared for theft and see our shame, our indecision in his smooth face. Buster Keaton falls off a roof and lands with a face as inexpressive as a sheet of tinfoil. What do we see on that stony face? Wounded pride? Weary dignity? Grim determination? Fatalistic indifference? A rattled man dazed and stunned with pain? The man’s face, like most of the cinema we consume, like the TV news that rushes past us in an never-ending stream, is a Choose Your Own Adventure.

The next time you watch a movie, ask yourself how much of what you’re seeing is what you want to see. The answer may surprise you.

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