An exploration of “Photograph and Screen” in Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed, and “Nana, or the Two Kinds of Space” in Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Practice

Catherine Hessling as Nana

By Nick Nowicki

We will first focus on “Photograph and Screen” in which Stanley Cavell discusses the different “realities” and “worlds” that viewers are presented in paintings, photographs, and films. The painter chooses a world to show his audience: one that may not exist in reality and is limited by what is present on the canvas. Photographs, on the other hand, are strictly images of the world. So, any question the viewer might have about what is obstructed in the frame or what lies outside the frame have definite answers. Cavell claims that the “implied presence of the rest of the world and its explicit rejection, are as essential in the experience of a photograph as what it explicitly presents,” (Cavell, 24). What do you make of this claim?

Moving images and films are presented to their viewers through a screen. According to Cavell, the screen upon which a film is displayed acts as a literal screen, a barrier between the viewer and a reality that occurred in the past. Cavell makes the following claim: “That the projected world does not exist (now) is its only difference from reality. (There is no feature, or set of features, in which it differs. Existence is not a predicate),” (Cavell, 24). Can the same be said about photography?

In the Burch piece that we read for today, he begins by stating that there are two kinds of space in a film: the space inside the frame, and space outside the frame. The off-screen space can then be partitioned into six segments. The following image is my attempt at sketching what Burch wants us to see:


Burch poses the question of what role these segments might play in the formal development of a film. He uses Jean Renoir’s 1926 film Nana as a model for the use of off-screen space in constructing a film. Burch notes that Renoir’s primary method of establishing action occurring off screen is through the entrance and exit of characters. In particular, exits that are followed by an empty screen occur frequently in the film and highlight the action occurring off screen in the direction of the character’s exit.

The second method of establishing off-screen space is through on-screen characters gesturing to off screen ones. In the following clip from Nana, we see Renoir using character exits and gestures to establish action in the fifth and sixth segments of off-screen space:

It is only when Nana’s aide exits the set diagonally, crossing the camera, do we pay attention to the fact that the action of the scene is taking place to the right of the camera. Although the screen is not entirely empty here, as Nana continues to look into her mirror, there is no significant change in what is occurring on-screen. So, the viewer is called to focus on what her aide could possibly be attending to outside the frame. We then briefly see her aide gesture off into the sixth segment of off-screen space at the very end of the clip, calling somebody else to enter the room. Our attention is drawn directly to the doorway in the middle of the screen, and without her gesture behind the door frame, the viewer probably would not suspect that anything interesting was going on off-screen.

The third method used to define off screen space is by having a character’s body protrude into or out of the frame. The following clip is the opening scene to Nana, which contains a few moments where this method presenting off-screen action is used:

Burch then divides off-screen space into two categories: imaginary and concrete. Imaginary off-screen space is never explicitly presented to the viewer, leaving the viewer to imagine what the contents of that space might look like. Concrete off-screen space is assertive. It is emphasized, but not explicitly shown in one shot, only to be revealed in another shot.

The next big claim that Burch makes about Nana is that although it may not have been the first film to utilize off-screen space in storytelling, it was the first structural use of off-screen space in film. Before Nana, the purpose of off-screen space was to suggest the occurrence of events that the director did not want to show directly on the screen. He focuses in on Yasujiro Ozu’s use of the empty screen in Duckweed Story and The Only Son as an example of a structural use of off-screen space. By varying the amount of time he leaves the screen empty, he is able to vary the amount of tension between on-screen and off-screen action. Here is one clip from The Only Son that shows Ozu’s use of this tension:

A filmmaker is also able to establish off-screen space as well as the extent of that off-screen space by using sound. Although the direction of this off-screen sound is not always clear, the volume can indicate how far away the source of the sound is, and thus the extent of off-screen space in one or several of the six segments. Burch also suggests that varying the amount of time the empty screen is displayed is also another mechanism of showing the extent of off-screen space. How might a long stretch of empty screen indicate the approximate distance at which an action occurs outside the frame? Do you think that this mechanism is as effective as using sound? A combination of the two?

The final element in Burch’s discussion of off-screen space is space revealed by camera movement. Any time the camera moves in a scene, there is area that was once invisible that now becomes visible to the audience. To use Burch’s previous language, the camera might make retrospectively concrete an area off-screen that was at first only illusory. He then makes a final claim that I want to discuss:

“I feel that, if a rigorously dialectical relationship between off-screen space and screen space is to be created, camera movements should par­ticipate in it in the manner suggested by the early Russians. Not that camera movements need always be as rare as they are in Earth (or in Nana), nor need they always participate in the spatial dialectic­ thus suggesting yet another possible dialectic, that between camera movements that actually participate in the creation of some rela­tionship between the two kinds of space and those that do not,” (Burch, 30)

What do you take Burch to be saying about the necessity and/or utility of camera movement in the relationship between the two types of space?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s