Kirsten Strayer August 18 2019

The shape(s) of cinema


Math is an integral part of poetry. Haikus can be said to be based in addition, while villanelles are algebraic. In other words, the same concepts--unity, division, repetition--that make math work make poetry function beautifully. It's the same with film. Angles dominate point of view or create a sense of spatial dynamics. Geometric shapes have filled our cinematic world--literally, experimentally, thematically. From Oskar Fischinger’s dancing circles to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey spaceships to Annihilation'geometric psycho-trauma, the shapes of things have consistently helped meaning emerge from geometrical formations.  

Anniliation (Alex Garland. 2018) - A mutated forest creature, and its doppelgänger in Area X.

This Spotlight investigates how shapes can extend beyond aesthetics into plots, motifs, and other modes of meaning-making. Thematic geometry is common; as cinema follows along the lines of artistic modernism, from the cinema pur moment to high modernism, when animationreadily straddled the line between experimentation and representation. Beloved animator Chuck Jones, who drew many of the more mainstream cartoon characters of the twentieth century, created an animated, shape-filled love story (The Dot and the Line, 1965)  that highlights the relationship between language and shape. A line falls in love with a dot, but she is more attracted to the fun-loving squiggle. The line must force himself to change shape to make himself more exciting to her. In anthropomorphizing shapes and bringing the poetic language to the shapes’ personalities, Jones plays with the connections between the literature of a shape and the ambiguity of language.

The Dot and the Line (Norton Juster, 1965)

Contemporary short films that use shapes as meaning makers regularly move away from the linguistic and visual play of modernism, however, to think about the role of math and shapes in contemporary thinking on science, the future, and notions of spectatorship. In Persistence and Vision (Mahalia Lepage and Jeremiah Yarmie, 2017), the film likewise takes animated shapes and uses them to play with mathematical concepts. The short film makes mathematical and scientific concepts into fluid images, in essence making science into a narrative. Shapes become freeform expressions of the pleasure of discovery and the intricacies of scientific research.

Persistence and Vision (Mahalia Lepage and Jeremiah Yarmie, 2017)

In the more experimental 75000 Futures (Gunner Green, 2016), the short film explores the imagistic visualization of math in the real world. The short piece renders visual the computer algorithms that led to a radical collapse in the stock market. By juxtaposing the images with without explanation and only the poetic intertitles, the film dislocates the images from the source material--global financial tradition--to the visual algorithms and all of their beauty. 

75000 Futures (Gunner Green, 2016)

Matter Patterns (Olga Yakimenko, 2014) similarly shows how math can be an integral part of the beauty of nature and all life on earth. For the narrative, understanding the simplicities and complexities of nature through math is a crucial part of the sublime experience. Through high-resolution digital imagery, the narrator shows us how patterns emerge, patterns that connect deserts to humans, dogs to broccoli, and leaves to lightning. 

Matter Patterns (Olga Yakimenko, 2014)

Finally, the ultra abstract, stop-motion AANAATT (Max Haattler, 2008) shows the everyday can turn into strange, new experiences. Here, the familiar cubes, spheres, and triangles become organic and fluid, and like the line from the Chuck Jones’ film, strangely dynamic. Hattler’s piece is a return to modernist animation, making mundane objects strange, and strangely alive.  

AANAATT (Max Haattler, 2008)

About the author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.