Filmed in 1970, Serene Velocity is one of the most important films in structuralist film theory. Structuralist theory focuses on how film conveys meaning to the audience, arguing that it is not dissimilar to the way that language works. This theory translates to a specific form of film making, emphasizing how the structure of the film (lighting, editing, focus) emotion and meaning, even without any narrative elements.
Most people have heard of the Kuleshov Effect. Named after a Soviet structuralist film maker, the Kuleshov Effect was demonstrated by having an actor stare at the camera with a blank face and then having random images intercut between the shot of the blank stare. When showed to people, they mentally projected emotions on the actor’s face based on what the image cut into the shot was. For example, if the film cut to a bowl of soup, audiences believed that the actor was feeling hunger. If it cut to a dead baby, they thought that actor was feeling grief. All the while the static shot did not change.
Serene Velocity is another important film experiment in structuralism. Director Ernie Gehr shot the movie in a long hallway. For shooting he would take a few shots with a static camera using a specific lens. Then he would switch out the lens for one of a different focal length and take more pictures. When strung together, the pictures create a pulsating shot of the hallway, alternating rapidly between focal lengths. Gradually the differences become bigger, eventually ending (SPOILERS?!) with a series of super close shots alternating between super wide shots.
It’s a beautiful piece of work that displays important structuralist ideas. If the viewer allows themselves to get carried away in the short film, they fill find their emotions rapidly changing as the shots alternate. As the differences between shots become more intense, the viewer will begin to feel anxiety or even fear. What makes Serene Velocity amazing is that those emotions come naturally without any narrative structure. It is just a single shot of a long hallway, but attentive viewers will find their emotions toyed with.
Where does the unsettling feeling come from?
Possibly it is something deep in our brain that does not respond well to rapidly flashing and changing images. For some people Serene Velocity makes them nauseous, for others it can even trigger seizures (seriously, don’t watch this if you are prone to seizures.)
But the structuralist approach would say that it has to do with the way the images are spliced together. At first, we see a hallway. We are comfortable with hallways and know exactly what we are looking at. But as the film runs the hallway gradually morphs into something strange and unusual, a place that we have never been. Yet, in the back of our minds we know that this is just a shot of hallway with photographic tricks. Nothing more.
Taking the familiar and making it strange and unsettling is one of the key aspects of many films, specifically in the horror genre. Serene Velocity accomplishes the same emotions without the narrative elements. In this way, the short film is what I would consider an avant-garde horror film, a horror film in the truest sense of the word, able to create unease without any other film tricks besides different focal lengths of lenses. Forty-six years after it’s filming, Serene Velocity is still an art-house treat waiting for rediscovery by a new generation of avant-garde fans.
Full movie here.