Ryan Gosling has two expressions in Drive: blank, and almost-blank – but everyone agrees he’s brilliant. Why? Because of early Soviet cinema.
Lev Kuleshov was an early 20th century Soviet filmaker, the first aesthetic theorist of film, the man behind the montage. He held workshops devoted to exploring the effects and effectiveness of editing, faithfully attended by all the big names in Soviet film in the 1910s and ’20s. Forget Sergei Eisenstein – Kuleshov taught him everything he knew.
Kuleshov’s famous experiment intercut a close-up of a famous actor of the time, Ivan Mozzhukhin, with shots of a bowl of soup, a child playing with a toy (or possibly in a coffin, recollections vary) and a beautiful woman reclining on a sofa/reclining in a coffin.
Original footage of the experiment is one of the most lamented lost treasures of filmic history, but according to legend, when Kuleshov showed the clips to an audience, people would faint near away with amazement and admiration at Mozzhukhin’s dramatic skill, despite the fact that his expression was blank.
The Russian master deduced that the audience perceived the gestalt meaning of the film through the editing: the Kuleshov Effect. See a re-enactment type-of-thing here.
Kuleshov’s analysis of cinema was heavily influenced by Russian Formalism, where form, rather than content, revealed the value of a work of art. He was trying to prove that the essence of a film was not the shot – which was a feature shared with photography – but the montage.
According to Kuleshov, the power of the montage made film different from all other artistic media, and captured the essential filminess of film. (Everything’s better with a montage.)
It was partly because acting in films at the time was so dire that Kuleshov had such an aversion to letting the actor take hold of the film:
He also had some personal trauma. In 1916, when Kuleshov was just 17, he starred in Evgeni Bauer’s After Happiness, and was horrified by how artificial his ‘naturalistic’ performance seemed when he saw it on screen.
Kuleshov insisted that when it was left to an actor to show the audience the drama of a situation, the result was ‘unbearable, false and artificial’. In the Principles of Montage (1935), he equated actors as cogs in a machine, emphasising that ‘apart from montage, nothing exists in cinema … the work of the actor is absolutely irrelevant.’
We could argue that acting nowadays is just as dire as it was back then:
But not in Drive. Gosling’s performance is probably everything Kuleshov would have wanted, understated, restrained, and precise.
Despite the fact that Gosling (is it just me or is that name starting to sound TOO ADORABLE?) does so little in the film at first, we still like him. Is that because of subtleties in his performance, or is it the cuteness of his face and his limpid eyes? Or is it … the Kuleshov Effect.
You know that scene where Driver goes to Irene’s apartment for the first time, carrying in her groceries for her, when he stands there, and she offers him a glass of water, and it’s just SO AWKWARD, but at the same time you just know they like each other, even though he’s being a little bit creepy, and you just know it’s going to work out? That’s got to be the Kuleshov Effect. Gosling is just standing there, with the slightest suggestion of a leer on his face, but the editing, and the intercuts with Irene’s bashful ardour, make us tense, and we create the meaning we want (or, as Nicolas Winding Refn would argue, the meaning the director wants us to want).
But Driver’s likeability and the film’s cool atmosphere make bursts of violence all the more frightening. Nobody’s going to forget that head-stomping scene for a while, just like you can’t mention American History X without remembering that guy biting the curb, or Reservoir Dogs and the ear incident (Clown to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am … *singing*).
The understatement in Drive also means that the elevator scene, the best scene in the film, stands out as if it’s in 3D (good 3D, not Avatar 3D). Although that’s also the lighting.
In the 1930s, under political pressure, Kuleshov had this crazy idea that he could take Lenin’s deification of the machine and apply it to filmaking. He began to recommend that his actors aim for perfect precision, and even timed, measured and notated their movements, with the idea that if acting could be scientifically formulated to serve the needs of montage, the result would be as pleasing to behold as an assembly line in a factory. (He really loved assembly lines.)
Understated it may be, but Drive doesn’t go that far. However, when Driver puts a mask on towards the end of the film, and chases down the bad guy, the vacant latex expression is not that different from Gosling’s usual impassive countenance. We don’t need to see his expression, we know how to feel from the context.
Ultimately, Drive is one of those movies where the audience does a lot of the work for the actors, sitting there in the dark, cringing and wincing through the akward romance or one-step-too-far violence.
But even though I felt compelled to point out that Gosling’s much-lauded acting in Drive would have been much less interesting if it wasn’t for the good editing, there’s a whole lot of stuff I obviously haven’t bothered to consider – like the music.
Kuleshov was working with silent movies, and of course sound plays a big role in Drive. Not only is there a killer Cliff Martinez score, but also a memorable squishy noise as the elevator assailant gets his just desserts.
So, in the spirit of the elevator scene, I bashed out an example of just how effective the Kuleshov Effect could have been, if supported by College’s A Real Hero (feat., apparently, Electric Youth) and The Gos’s loveable little cheeks. (Let me know if the video has been removed by those lovely and conscientiousness people at YouTube.) Oh, and spoiler alert! Watch Drive first.