Movie-watching is far from a passive activity; movies are images in sequence that engage viewers in inferring causation between individual elements.
One of the most important principles in filmmaking is the Kuleshov effect. Filmmaker Lev Kuleshov once edited a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of man was alternated with various other shots, including a girl in a coffin, a bowl of soup, and a woman on a divan. Although the audience believed that the man’s expression was different each time, the footage of the man was the same each time.
Kuleshov used the experiment to indicate the effectiveness of film editing: not only did viewers impose their own emotional reactions onto this sequence of images, but they also imposed those reactions to the man in the footage. Today, I’d like to explain how this “Kuleshov effect” has not only manifested in the movies I watch, but also in my daily life. To do so, I’d like to tell you a story about flying from Stockholm to Budapest with a desperately stretched bladder.
With one final heave, I lug my stubborn luggage to the edge of the airstairs. As I trudged up the stairs to the plane, I started to regret chugging a liter of water at security. Getting through to Sweden’s Skavsta airport had been tough; my boarding pass proved that I had checked in a week in advance, but the airport computer systems couldn’t recognize my boarding pass, so I suffered the shaky wifi to redownload the WizzAir app in hopes that I’d find my updated boarding pass. When I finally had my boarding card in hand, I sprinted to the security line, pulled out my liter-bottle of water, and, seeing that the line was quite short and that I did not have time to finish drinking the water, I started dumping the remaining water into the trashcan. As soon as the first drops of water splashed into the trashcan, everyone in line turned to stare at me, this rude, ignorant, and tactless American. I was way too exhausted to figure out where I could properly dispose of my water, so to the horror of everyone (my bladder included), I chugged the entire liter. I stumbled through security victoriously, but felt dizzy and desperate to board the plane and use the lavatory ASAP.
Aboard the plane, with my bladder stretched to its limits, I had to face yet another set of challenges: finding my seat, freeing my arm of my luggage, and then maneuvering to the back of the plane to use the lavatory. To my relief, because I was one of the last to board the plane, everyone was already seated, and I was close to the back of the airplane. As I asked the couple in my row to help me shove my luggage into the overhead bin, I eyed the back of the plane. No line. Success was imminent.
I turned to the couple, who stood between me and the lavatory to help me put my luggage in the overhead cabin, and I quickly sputtered “thank you for helping me put up my luggage; I’m going to the lavatory really quickly so it’s up to you whether you want to sit down now or stay in the aisle so you don’t have to sit down and then get up again after 2 minutes.”
The woman was well-dressed, and her piercing blue eyes glared judgmentally at me as she slowly but curtly insisted — no, you can’t go there. Sit down.
As this unbudging barrier blocked my way to the lavatory, my bladder died a little more. I had no idea why this was such a big deal to her — why this inconvenience was such a big ask, why she didn’t even want to consider it. I concealed my frustration as I sat down facing my window, not wanting to make eye contact with the pretentious lady who would be the cause of my suffering throughout the flight. And given my pride, I would surely rather suffer a screaming bladder than to ask again to use the lavatory.
As my bladder literally seeped itself in anger, I tried to do work and sleep a little. However, all I could think about was the liter of water that begged to be released, and wasn’t released. Because of her.
Sometime during my half-hearted nap, I awoke because the couple was stirring and the man got up to use the lavatory. I immediately followed suit. But when I returned to my seat and scuffled back into my window seat, the well-dressed woman, whose piercing blue eyes once glared judgmentally at me, reached out her hand and said: “So sorry about earlier, my English no good, and this my first time on airplane, didn’t know somebody could be outside of their seat.”
“My English no good. First time on airplane. Didn’t know somebody could be outside their seat.” As I heard these words, my anger melted. She proceeded to chatter about how these plane tickets were a Christmas gift from her parents, about how she’s anxious to leave her darling children at home for the first time, about how she finally has an opportunity to wear her favorite coat… all while being completely oblivious to how paradigm-shifting this moment was for me. Still stunned about all the uncharitable and untenable qualities I had so briskly projected onto her, I smiled at this well-dressed woman, whose glimmering blue eyes expressed all the excitement I’ve ever seen about traveling.
If my experience of the flight was like a film, the shot of her refusing to let me go to the bathroom was now placed beside the shot in which I learned that it was her first time traveling. This new sequence of images completely changed my interpretation of her refusal: instead of interpreting her refusal as rude, I understood it to be an honest mistake; instead of attributing haughty impatience to her brief reply, I understood that it could much more generously and accurately be attributed to her nervousness in speaking English.
Travelling places you side by side with people whose life situations and perspectives you may never otherwise encounter. Travel thus helps you nurture empathy: it edits the film of your internal reactions to incorporate and be influenced by different ways of seeing the world.