Reading Noël Burch Theory of Film Practice - Ch 2

Chapter 2 - Nana, or the Two Kinds of Space

EXAMPLES  discussed by Burch in this chapter

Jean Renoir - Nana (1926) - excerpt

Ewald Andre Dupont - Variety (1925)

Extensive use of off-screen space

Excerpt below

Excellent video essay available on youtube by Kristin Thompson

Excellent article at:

Full film

(at around 67 minutes the fight and knife scene)

The film is famous for its extensive use of off-screen space.  Burch discusses the particular scene.


Because during a fight scene that soon became famous, Emil Jannings and his rival roll on the ground, leaving the screen momentarily empty. A hand with a knife in it then enters the frame from below and immediately plunges out of frame again to deliver the fatal blow. Jannings then rises up and into frame all by himself . . . and several generations of film historians applauded this "magnificent understatement.""(p24)

Nicholas Ray - They Live by Night


off-screen space came to be used almost exclusively as a way of 


events when directors felt that simply showing them directly would be too facile...

In this gangster movie, all violence systematically occurred off screen or was simply "elided," thus creating what was undeniably a very odd sort of "intense understatement."(p24)

Yasujiro Ozu - The Only Son (1936)


understood how important the existence of two distinct kinds of space is. He was also perhaps the first director to have really understood the value of the empty screen and the tensions that result from leaving it empty." (p24)


Ozu was doubtless the first to vary the 

relative length of time

in which the screen was left empty, sometimes leaving it empty before an entrance, but more frequently after an exit...


The Only Son, 

the empty screen is used as a means of creating a whole maze of off-screen spaces, often made concrete in an entirely original way by showing some purely decorative, almost abstract, nonlocalized detail within the set or location, these shots generally occurring just after someone has exited from a shot or before a character enters the next shot.

" (p24-25)


The longer the screen remains empty, the greater the resulting tension between screen space and off-screen space and the greater the attention concentrated on off-screen space as against screen space...


The Only Son

and his other films immediately following it, Ozu uses this tension as a variable parameter, the duration of empty screen shots varying from several twenty-fourths of a second to quite a few seconds. The variations in tension thus created provide him with a formal means of structuring his

découpage." (p25)

Excellent overview and stills from the film

Robert Bresson - A Man Escaped (1956)

This trailer near the end of the excerpt shows the particular scene discussed by Burch


The shot in A 

Man Escaped

 in which Fontaine kills the sentry is a quite striking example. A rather tight shot shows Fontaine in three-quarter profile hugging the wall just short of the corner, on the other side of which the sentry is standing. Mustering all his courage, Fontaine moves forward, exits frame right, immediately circles around and re-enters, crosses the frame again, and re-exits to the left just beyond the corner of the wall. The screen now remains empty and quite neutral as the sentry is presumably killed (there is no sound from off screen, however), and then Fontaine enters once again." (p26)

off-screen space is brought into play, "but in a complex and "syncopated" manner"

See also:

Robert Bresson - Pickpocket




the empty screen plays a much broader role. Here, Bresson achieves what might be called an orchestration of space rigorously controlling the moments when the screen is left empty and the duration of these moments and establishing the precise extent of the surrounding off-screen space through his use of sound (the shots in which the pickpocket leaves his room, then exits from frame, with the sound of his footsteps then being heard as he makes his way down the stairs come particularly to mind )." (p26)

Burgh notes,


Off-screen sound, however, 


brings off-screen space into play"

Michelangelo Antonioni - 

Cronaca di un amore


Michelangelo Antonioni is another great orchestrator of movements into and out of frame, particularly in his first film, which remains his masterpiece, 

Cronaca di un amore. 

It has often been noted that there are only two hundred or so separate shots in the entire film; most of them are very long, and all of them give proof of an absolutely unprecedented degree of visual organization. The principal structural factor in the film is movements into and out of frame, used mainly for rhythmic effect but also serving to bring into play, in an extremely complex manner, the spatial segments immediately adjacent to the frame lines, particularly those on the right and left. " (p27)


The bridge party sequence comprising two or three shots and running for some three minutes is built around Clara's repeated entries and exits, on the one hand, and those of a plump, ludicrous-looking woman with her dog cuddled in her arms, on the other. Because of the camera movements and the characters' movements off screen, these entrances and exits always occur at unexpected places and unexpected moments."

youtube playlist of scenes from film

Michelangelo Antonioni - La Notte (1961)


In his later films, Antonioni uses the empty frame quite extensively, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Bresson. In 

La Notte

, however, he introduces on several occasions a totally novel technique, whereby the "real" dimensions of whatever is visible on the empty screen are impossible to determine until the appearance of a human figure makes the scale obvious."


Later, lying stretched out on a couch waiting for his wife to return, Marcello Mastroianni raises his eyes and looks out of the window (off screen). A shot of some sort of rectangular surface follows. His previous eye movements suggest that this surface, of as yet undetermined scale, is something he is looking at through the window, but when Jeanne Moreau walks into this new shot at the very bottom of the frame she looks very tiny. We then realize that the rectangular surface is actually the huge facade of some windowless multistoried building.

" (p28)


One other problem we must consider is camera movement, deliberately left for the last here, because it is much more resistant to analysis in terms of "two kinds of space" than are static shots.

" (p29)

Marcel L'Herbier - L'Argent (1928)


This film, made in 1927, was the first to systematically use camera movement to establish the basic rhythm of the film's 


Enormous stylized sets designed by Lazare Meerson invite L'Herbier's camera to dolly around frequently, unfolding new vistas of off-screen space at every turn. Spatially, the film is in a constant state of flux, this plus the fact that the editing of the film is fully as rigorous as the camera handling, gives it an altogether original dynamic dimension.

 " (p30)



As we have seen, the possibilities of articulating the relationships between screen space and off-screen space in an orderly fashion, of organizing them structurally above and beyond the simple orchestration of movements into and out of frame (which in itself is very seldom attempted), are even more complex than were the possibilities implicit in the structuring of the spatiotemporal articulations between shots. These possibilities become even more complex when we consider that the articulations of imaginary and concrete space described above also have a part to play.