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  • The Epic Frame
  • Juhani Pallasmaa (bio)

In thinking of the many films that have made a deep impact on me, a number of iconic frames immediately emerge:

  • • the horrified, bloodied, roundish face of a country woman wearing smashed eyeglasses in Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (SU, 1925);

  • • ants crawling from a wound in the palm of a man's hand in Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel's Un chien andalou/An Andalusian Dog (FR, 1929).

  • • treetops shot upwards through a tiny window in the top of the coffin in which the unconscious poet is being transported to his untimely grave in Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (DE, 1932);

  • • the balloon of the murdered child, caught in the telephone wires, in Fritz Lang's M (DE, 1931); and

  • • the street clock without hands in Ingmar Bergman's Smultronstället/Wild Strawberries (SE, 1957).

These images capture experiences of terror, nightmare, melancholy, compassion, and amnesia, respectively. Besides this, these singular frames condense entire cinematic narratives. The cinematic frame is not merely a visual image; it projects frozen action and suspended time.

The most magical cinematic frame that I can think of, however, occurs in the penultimate scene of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (US, 1975), which, in fact, is an extremely slow zoom through the protagonist's hotel room towards [End Page 85] a window that opens on to a village square. The cinematic image fuses wiThthe frame of the window.

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Figure 1.

Frame from The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni. A very observant viewer may see a faint reflection of the gunman in one of the black window panes. I have never read any reference to this barely distinguishable reflection, and it may well have escaped the attention of the film crew instead of being intentional.

When looking intensely at any picture, our eye zooms into the space and details of the image, and the two-dimensional depiction turns into experiential space. This closing sequence, though, is experienced as a single frame, wiThthe story running through it—or rather, parallel to it.

It is essentially a frame where the cameraman seems to have forgotten that he left his camera running. Earlier in the film, the camera has already often strayed absentmindedly from the focused action, as if it is uninterested in the story or has forgotten it. As we watch various seemingly arbitrary incidents taking place outside the window, we remain aware that the protagonist is being murdered off camera behind our backs.

Finally, the camera flies through the metal bars of the window, as a bird liberated from its cage, to view the village setting from above and to depart from the story of the film.

Aren't all great paintings, from Fra Angelico's biblical scenes to the human still lifes of Vermeer, magical pictures that convey an entire extended narrative, a legend, or an epic, rather than holding for the mere blink of an eye?

On the other hand, Giorgio Morandi's still lifes comprising a couple of profane objects on a tabletop are slowed-down zooms through the entire existential world and into the very metaphysical essence of being. [End Page 86]

The cinematic frame condenses the narrative while the painterly image projects it. In a masterful painting, the lens of the eye is left open indefinitely, whereas great films open the lens of our hearts. [End Page 87]

Juhani Pallasmaa

Juhani Pallasmaa (b. 1936) is a practicing architect and professor emeritus of the Helsinki University of Technology. He has held several visiting professorships, including Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (2011); University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (2010); Washington University in St. Louis (1999-2004); University of Virginia (2002); and Yale University (1993). He has also been director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture (1978-83) and rector of the Institute of Industrial Arts, Helsinki (1972-74). He teaches and lectures around the world. He has published over thirty books, including Encounters 1 (2005) and Encounters 2 (2012); The Embodied Image (2011); The Thinking Hand (2009); The Eyes of the Skin (1996, 2005, 2012); The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema (2001, 2007); and Animal Architecture (1995).


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