The Kuleshov Effect and Political Stage Management

5 August 2011 | By Michael
The Kuleshov Effect

In the early twentieth century, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, pioneer of the montage technique, carried out an experiment that a hundred years on serves to illuminate an elementary aspect of human psychology – and now, inevitably, of brand identity.

Kuleshov made a short film featuring matinee idol Ivan Mozzhukhin in which Mozzhukhin’s expressionless face was intercut with various pieces of unrelated footage, including a bowl of soup, a woman, and a little girl in a coffin. When the film was shown to an audience, they reported feeling that the man was reacting with ‘hunger’ (when shown along with the soup), ‘desire’ (when shown with the woman) and ‘grief’ (when shown with the little girl). In fact, the footage of Mozzhukhin’s face was the same piece repeated over and over. Kuleshov’s collaborator Vsevolod Pudovkin described in 1929 how the audience “raved about the acting… the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.”

The Kuleshov Effect extract

The so-called Kuleshov Effect has been used in film studies ever since to point up the crucial role of editing, since it demonstrates that the human mind will often instinctively construct a relationship between two disparate images even when none exists – especially when a human agent is portrayed. So the precise order that film segments are arranged in the timeline is critical in how the meaning of the story will be perceived by the viewer.

Brand identity relies on this associationist tendency in people’s minds. Ed Miliband’s now infamous ‘looped’ responses to several very different questions put by ITN’s Damon Green in July 2011 was not the only piece of artifice at play that day. According to Green, Miliband’s PR handlers insisted he be shot “in front of his bookcase, with his family photos over his left shoulder”. Green also notes that Prime Minister David Cameron’s handlers “never let him be filmed in front of anything expensive, ornate, or strikingly Etonian”.

Miliband and Cameron

These behind-the-scenes organisers understand how subtle cues can unconsciously colour public perception of their man. Both show the principle of unconscious conflation that can be made between person and object, virtually regardless of the actual relationship.

Another instance of the same principle, this time more consciously apprehended by audience members, is the now routine staging of presidential announcements in the US. Jon Huntsman, announcing his bid in June 2011 for the Republican nomination, stood with the Stars and Stripes and the Statue of Liberty in plain view.

Jon Huntsman

Whether such a rightwing political figure really stands for universal liberty and for (all) the people of the United States is open to debate, but the intention is clear: Huntsman and ‘America’ have an intimate relationship with one another.

One can only imagine the effect to brand Huntsman if an art terrorist had managed to stick an image of an alluring woman on the front of the lectern during the speech, or mounted a sculpture of a bowl of soup in the right hand of Libertas.

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