Read: The great illusion of “The Apprentice”
About a century ago, the Soviet formalist filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted a series of experiments with filmic montage. In the most famous one, he edited a short film consisting of short clips of various subjects: an actor’s expressionless face, a bowl of soup, a woman on a couch, a girl in a coffin. The same clips edited into different sequences produced different interpretive results in the viewer. The deadpan face of the actor appeared to take on different emotions depending on which image preceded or followed it—he appeared dolorous, for example, when seeming to “look at” the dead girl in the coffin. This effect of filmic editing has been called the Kuleshov effect, and it’s had an enormous influence on filmmakers including Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Francis Ford Coppola. It also forms the backbone of reality television, in which meaning is almost entirely produced in the editing room.
From Sandmann’s statement to the Times’ walk-back, follow-up to the incident has focused on the larger circumstances, which are assumed to provide clarity. Sandmann claimed to offer a “factual account of what happened.” The Times admitted that the video excerpt had “obscured the larger context.” But there’s a problem: Understanding the larger context doesn’t really produce a factual account of what happened, as depicted in the original video.
Kuleshov’s disciple Sergei Eisenstein would eventually call editing, and montage in particular, the key formal property of cinema (the famous Odessa-steps sequence in his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin is the canonical example). These traits allow film to link together seemingly unrelated images, relying on the viewer’s brain to make connections that aren’t present in the source material, let alone the cinematic composition.
The power of editing comes from condensation, from film’s ability to compress events that unfold over a long period of time into one that takes place over mere moments. Today’s online video still relies on editing, of course, but even clips that appear uncut still participate in a version of the Soviet formalist project. Now the cameras inside the smartphones everyone carries produce a swarm of videos, many of which spread on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other venues. The result is a seemingly infinite set of possible perspectives, real or faked, truthful or manipulative, all clamoring to present their edited rendition of events in front of the eyes and minds that would gestalt meaning from them. Now the process of selection is collective—all those thousands and millions of video cameras in everyone’s pockets scrabbling for the first or best attention.
Watching the almost two-hour video of the Black Hebrew Israelites only drives the point home—there are piquant moments of conflict, but mostly expanses of empty time, marked by moments of incoherence or inaudible exchanges. If this counts as broader context, it certainly doesn’t explain the events of the Covington student and the Omaha elder. Instead, it just provides the raw material out of which that moment was forged.
It’s tempting to think that the short video at the Lincoln Memorial shows the truth, and then that the longer video revises or corrects that truth. But the truth on film is more complicated: Video can capture narratives that people take as truths, offering evidence that feels incontrovertible. But the fact that those visceral certainties can so easily be called into question offers a good reason to trust video less, rather than more. Good answers just don’t come this fast and this easily.