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Birth of a Nation (1915) [Remastered Edition]

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Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar

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Maybe you’re young enough to remember Blue’s Clues, or old enough to have a little one hanging on the mystery-solving adventures of Steve and Blue as you read this. If, by any chance, Blue’s Clues happens to be on in the background, try this experiment: watch and see how long the camera holds on a single shot.

You will, by design, be waiting a long time. The child psychologists who helped create Blue discovered that young viewers don’t know what to do with cuts and edits; they understand them as a new scene, not the same scene shot from a different angle, and they’re soon too confused to keep up. So the Blue’s Clues camera almost always holds steady, in a series of long and deliberate takes.

On the grown-up channels, the camera can do more—but only because we’ve already learned the complicated visual grammar that makes the camera make sense. Think of the long list of visual cues we take for granted. How do we know, without struggling to process the fact, that a scene shot from three angles by three cameras is the same scene? How can we tell the difference in emotional register between a series of rapid-fire cuts and a single, slow, agonizing take? Who says that a series of short shots often indicates the passage of time? As much as we may take these conventions for granted, as natural as their emotional associations might seem to us, they make sense largely because we’ve had “practice.”

Who invented this visual grammar? A film historian might look to pioneering pictures like Battleship Potemkin or Birth of a Nation; but before there was such a thing as a movie camera, it was a writer’s job to juxtapose and jump between images—from a battlefield to Mount Olympus, from medias res to the far past, with resources limited only by imagination and the price of ink.

In college, I was lucky enough to take an English class with the novelist Reynolds Price, before he died in January—and one of his most striking arguments was that John Milton, with his instant transitions from Hell to Earth to Heaven, was one of the inventors of the cinematic jump-cut. It was a throwaway comment, but it led me to think that we ought to pay more attention to writers’ tricks of “editing”: not in the usual sense of revision, but in the cinematic sense of transitions from image to image and from scene to scene. I’ve come to believe that writers, as much as filmmakers, are responsible for our visual grammar—that their imaginary jumps, and the thematic use they’ve made of those jumps, have laid the groundwork we take for granted today whenever we watch anything more demanding than Blue’s Clues. If the camera goes somewhere special, the chances are good that a writer’s imagined camera has gone there before—and shaped not just filmmakers’ sense of what’s possible, but the expectations we bring to the screen.

We can consider the influence of the writer’s “camera” by looking at one of the most dramatic edits available: zooming out. What can a writer accomplish by playing tricks with distance and scale, sometimes pulling away from the action, leaving the characters neglected in place as the viewpoint pulls back to take in the landscape, or even the whole planet? We’ve all seen dramatic zooms used for effect—but what exactly is the effect, and have writers helped shaped it? I want to start to answer those questions by examining three important—and moving—instances of literary zooming out. I don’t claim that these three authors are responsible cinematic zooming out, but I do think they helped create a lasting set of conventions that give it its power and its emotional meanings. Zooming out relies for that power on the tension between human smallness and human dignity—on the possibility that putting us in cold, “God’s-eye-view” perspective can, against expectations, make us more important.

Let’s start, naturally enough, with Milton: the blind poet who, perhaps because he was cut off from the visual world for so long, came up with some of the most inventive and unexpected edits in poetry. Among these, the most stunning—centuries before we had cameras to take the picture or satellites to send it back—is one of the earliest images of Earth seen from space.

The place is Book II of Paradise Lost, and the scene is Chaos: not exactly outer space in our sense, but certainly the great trackless void between worlds, “a dark / Illimitable Ocean without bound, without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth / And time and place are lost.” Satan has escaped the gates of Hell and traversed this blind wilderness on his mission to infect our world; and as he reaches the border between Chaos and the created world, he pauses to take stock by the first beams of visible light.

The “camera” turns and scans the distance, leaving Satan behind. “Farr off” is Heaven with its jeweled towers—but still so enormous that we can’t tell, from this distance, whether its border is a straight line or an arc. A little further on, the light by which we and Satan see passes on to Earth:
hanging in a golden Chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a Starr
Of smallest magnitude close by the Moon.
Later, Milton will catalogue this world’s creation in microscopic detail—but the first time he shows it to us in Paradise Lost, it is small enough to be blocked out by a finger. The sense of insignificance—next to the massive Heaven, next to Chaos—is overpowering. So is the sense of danger: the “pendant world” is literally hanging in the balance. It and all its life, which are set to be corrupted, look like a fragile toy from this distance.

And what about Satan? Though the camera seems to have pulled back from him, he’s still the closest object to our viewpoint. Next to Heaven, he is tiny, a nuisance, a perpetual underdog, but he towers over Earth—the theology of the whole poem summed up in an image. But we’ve also just seen Satan at his most courageous, a voyage through Chaos that sees Milton explicitly compare him to the Greek epic heroes. The image of him brooding over Earth from afar is one of our first introductions in the poem to Satanic glamour—a glamour that Milton will whittle down over the course of his epic, but one that reaches its seductive high point here. It’s no surprise that the image of a hovering hero watching over Earth would resurface much later in an entirely positive light—as the iconic image of Superman.

Between Earth and Satan, distance and closeness, where does Milton mean for our sympathies to lie? On one hand, “we” are “down there”: our home and (by the poem’s theology) our ancestors are on that shadowed speck, and surely we can be expected to feel some of its danger. On the other hand, “we” are also “here”: our viewpoint is not there on Earth, but alongside Satan’s, and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t share some of his exhilaration at this moment. That, too, is part of Milton’s point.

Either way, it’s a moment of high drama—but what happens when a writer uses a zoom to pull away from drama, at its climactic point? What’s the point of deliberately trading conflict for calm?

Toward the end of his huge novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens gives us a long and languid zoom out by night, over London, over the English countryside, and all the way to the sea. But it’s not an exercise in scene-setting, or in picturesqueness for its own sake. It’s a calculated, and almost infuriating, distraction from one of the novel’s turning-points: the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn, an attorney who has spent hundreds of pages building an elaborate scheme of blackmail, which he has almost seen through to success.

Tulkinghorn, coldly self-satisfied as usual, has just returned home after issuing a decisive ultimatum to his blackmail target. On the way in, he’s distracted by the sight of the moon—and so is the story itself, which leaves Earth and zooms into a lyrical passage tracing the progress of the moon across the sky and leaving Tulkinghorn almost forgotten below:
He looks up casually, thinking what a fine night, what a bright large moon, what multitudes of stars! A quiet night, too.

A very quiet night. When the moon shines very brilliantly, a solitude and stillness seem to proceed from her, that influence even crowded places full of life. Not only is it a still night on dusty high roads and on hill-summits, whence a wide expanse of country may be seen in repose, quieter and quieter as it spreads away into a fringe of trees against the sky, with the grey ghost of a bloom upon them; not only is it a still night in gardens and in woods, and on the river where the water-meadows are fresh and green, and the stream sparkles on among pleasant islands, murmuring weirs, and whispering rushes; not only does the stillness attend it as it flows where houses cluster thick, where many bridges are reflected in it, where wharves and shipping make it black and awful, where it winds from these disfigurements through marshes whose grim beacons stand like skeletons washed ashore, where it expands through the bolder region of rising grounds rich in corn-field, windmill and steeple, and where it mingles with the ever-heaving sea; not only is it a still night on the deep, and on the shore where the watcher stands to see the ship with her spread wings cross the path of light that appears to be presented to only him; but even on this stranger’s wilderness of London there is some rest….

What’s that? Who fired a gun or pistol? Where was it?
When the gun goes off in that staccato burst—“What’s that?”—we aren’t there with Tulkinghorn to take the bullet. We’re still in the folds of a lazily sweeping 206-word sentence that takes us from London to the coast and back, everything frozen and watching.

There’s far too much effort in those 206 words for them to be a plot contrivance. Yes, the identity of the murderer is supposed to be a mystery; but if that were the only consideration, Dickens only had to narrate the scene from Tulkinghorn’s perspective or keep the killer conveniently in the shadows. Dickens’s transition to the landscape is doing much more work here.

For one, it builds the shock of the murder. The long sentence takes us so far away from the action of the story, and is so full of motionless calm, that it almost lulls us into putting Tulkinghorn out of mind—until the shot, heard but not seen, snaps us instantly back. It’s a fitting end for a man who, like this impeccably controlled and cunning lawyer, considers himself untouchable. Instead, he is wrenched out of his reverie in the most violent way possible—and so, in a way, are we.

At the same time, is our surprise really as total as his? The long zoom out over the landscape is an investment in surprise, but it also seems designed to build suspense, even dread—based on a nagging sense that the landscape doesn’t belong here, is out of place for a reason we can’t identify until we hear the shots. It is, in other words, an early instance of “It’s quiet—too quiet.” In film, in fact, a long shot at a climactic moment is a cue to worry, not to relax; think of the fishing-boat murder of Fredo in The Godfather II, which is interspersed with lake scenery and shots of his brother watching the killing he ordered from a distance. Mr. Tulkinghorn’s sudden death seems like a distant ancestor of that scene.

Should any of this change our thoughts for the victim? In one sense, no: Tulkinghorn was a manipulative and double-dealing man in life—and while no one deserves a pistol-shot between the eyes, few readers have shed a tear for him. But Dickens could also deal out far more grisly and humiliating deaths: one minor character in Bleak House spontaneously combusts. Here, instead, zooming out turns the end elegiac, and if we can’t be moved to feel any injustice over a bad man’s death, maybe we can feel the injustice of a beautiful scene cut off too soon. The stillness “attends”; woods and steeples and ship seem to be waiting for something, and though they cannot possibly know what is about to happen in a London courtyard, Dickens makes us feel that they can—that the local death of a single lawyer, placed in such a wide setting, has much more than a local significance. Finally, remember that we begin the scene by following Tulkinghorn’s gaze up to the sky; his eyes don’t sweep as far as the camera, but at the moment he dies, he is looking at the same moon as we are. For us, the wide world of that 206-word sentence is cut off by a line break; for him, it is cut off permanently. Entirely hateable characters rarely die with that kind of pathos. As much as a death with dignity is possible, Dickens gives one to Tulkinghorn—and he dignifies him by zooming out.

It’s this tension between dignity and dwarfing scale that is tackled most directly by the last example I want to look at: the novel Star Maker, by the British writer Olaf Stapledon. Written in 1937, it’s not as well-known as the two other works I’ve looked at, but its influence has arguably been just as strong. It was a landmark work of serious science fiction and held up as an inspiration by writers like H.G. Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, and Arthur C. Clarke, and even physicists like Freeman Dyson; it is an ancestor of science fiction movies and literature that play out across star systems and galaxies. It is, in effect, one book-length, cosmic-scale zooming out: it is the story of a Londoner who finds himself leaving his body, and then floating above the Earth, and then in interstellar space. Throughout this strange novel, our narrator does nothing but observe, searching out traces of intelligence wherever he can find it; slowly he comes across and joins forces with alien minds that have become disembodied in the same way, and as this snowball of consciousness accumulates and rolls through galaxies, the book comes to be narrated by “we,” not “I.”

Immaterial and unfixed in time, they watch the histories of entire planets unfold: some are Earth-like, some utterly alien; some pass whole through the stage of “world crisis,” while some destroy themselves. Ultimately planets and galaxies build collective consciousnesses and absorb our narrator; as the end of history approaches, the universe itself becomes self-conscious and takes over the narration—“I” again. Finally, the universe comes face-to-face with the Creator—only to find that its maker is not a loving God, but something of an uncompromising artist, who discards the universe as imperfect and begins again. Across the universe, intelligence winks out, cold and entropy set in, and our original narrator wakes up on Earth again, lying on a hill.

And this is, to my mind, the most interesting part of the book. How can you go on after a vision like that—not a vision of warm, mystical comfort, but a vision of unimaginable smallness and rejection? What could the point possibly be, when you have literally seen Earth die?

The narrator gathers himself up and zooms out again—but only in imagination this time, and only as far as the circuit of his own planet. He can look at Earth now with the otherworldly objectivity of a man who has lived many lives on many alien worlds, and yet at each stop he is jarred by human suffering, by events that ought to seem trivial, but cannot: “In the stars’ view, no doubt, these creatures were mere vermin; but each to itself, and sometimes one to another, was more real than all the stars.”

His view sweeps past England to Europe, where “the Spanish night was ablaze with the murder of cities,” to Germany and its “young men ranked together in thousands, exalted, possessed, saluting the flood-lit Führer,” on to Siberia, where “the iron-hard Arctic oppressed the exiles in their camps,” east to Japan, which “spilled over Asia a flood of armies and trade,” south to Africa, “where Dutch and English profit by the Negro millions…and then the Americas, where the descendants of Europe long ago mastered the descendants of Asia, through priority in the use of guns, and the arrogance that guns breed….”

Even though he has learned to think of his home with an alien’s detachment, the features that capture his attention are more than those that can be seen from space. They are the tiny events that pass across the landscape: war, trade, politics. And as the story ends, he believes, or chooses to believe, that he is watching the same crisis through which every world has to struggle, the universal story in miniature—and that everything he sees on Earth is dignified in that light. He looks down the hill to the light from his home, and up to the light from the stars, and concludes:
Two lights for guidance. The first, our little glowing atom of community, with all that it signifies. The second, the cold light of the stars…with its crystal ecstasy. Strange that in this light, in which even the dearest love is frostily assessed, and even the possible defeat of our half-waking world is contemplated without remission of praise, the human crisis does not lose but gains significance. Strange, that it seems more, not less urgent to play some part in this struggle, this brief effort of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness.
C.S. Lewis—who would go on to write his own series of science fiction novels as a rebuttal, in part, to Stapledon—was shocked enough by Star Maker’s unorthodoxies to call it “sheer devil worship.” But its conclusion, as an attempt to hold in one thought our smallness and our importance, reminds me of nothing so much as some lines Lewis would have immediately recognized, which cut between the human and the galactic scale as effortlessly as any of the passages I’ve considered here:
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
Image Credit: Pexels/Juan.

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