Thursday, February 15, 2007

Post-Classicism

Part of me really values contrarian claims that get to the heart of the unspoken assumpts scholars have in their historical periodizations or critical schema. Kristin Thompson's attack on 'post-classicism' as both term and concept may well be such a valuable contrarian claim:

I’m suspicious of the “post” terms, vague as they are. Usually stylistic labels describe what something is, not what it follows. Do we speak of “post-silent” or “post black-and-white” cinema?

Post-classical films supposedly jettison the old norms of style and storytelling. Frenetic editing, constant camera movement, product placement, juggled time-schemes—these and other tropes of recent cinema have replaced the continuity system, the carefully structured screenplay, and the character-based storytelling of the classical era. Computer-generated imagery has enabled filmmakers to create action scenes, spectacular settings, and fantastical creatures that hold our attention so thoroughly that the plot ceases to matter.

Or not. David and I have spent much of our professional careers studying the norms of classical filmmaking. We’ve swum against the stream by claiming that, despite many changes in style and technique, the fundamental norms of classical storytelling have remained intact. The classical cinema is with us still, precisely because it enables filmmakers to present us with absorbing plots and characters. It also is a flexible filmmaking approach that can absorb new technologies and new influences from other media and bend them to its own uses.

I don't disagree with this picture entirely. Indeed, I continue to learn about contemporary film style from Thompson and Bordwell. (Again, I'd recommend their Film History textbook, which covers some of the material developed more fully in Storytelling in the New Hollywood and Way Hollywood Tells It.)

However, I remain a bit confused. Is it true that "Those favoring the post-classical explanation obviously disagreed with [the continuity of classical filmmaking]"? Maybe some argued for a radical rupture; maybe many argued for it. But to my mind, the "post" in post-classicism has always signified in the way that it does in post-Marxism or post-feminism; some defining characteristics of the original continue on, while others are arbridged, modified, or applied selectively. In this view, the term post-classicism seems entirely appropriate, as the absorption of new cinematic vocabularies into the flexible storytelling system has changed the aesthetic qualities of that very system. In CHC, David Bordwell wrote, "For the purposes of this book, the label 'classicism' serves well because it swiftly conveys distinct aesthetic qualities (elegance, unity, rule-governed craftsmanship) and historical functions (Hollywood's role as the world's mainstream film style)"(4). We might disagree about how to define elegance or unity or balance or some other aesthetic trait underlying classicism, but one can reasonably make the case that contemporary commercial cinema moves away from classicism in key respects, while maintaining its precepts in others.

There may come a point at which we need to develop a term for contemporary style that's positive in its own right, just as someday we may need to think of a successor to post-modernism that does not compound yet another "post" to the term. And certainly we can continue to interrogate the concept, just as we continue to interrogate the idea of "classicism." But the post-classical rubric still seems useful for many purposes.

1 comment:

michael newman said...

There may come a point at which we need to develop a term for contemporary style that's positive in its own right

What about "intensified continuity," DB's term for the contemporary Hwd style? It has the virtue of being specific about what it is describing: framing, lenses, and editing. My big problem with post-classical is that it implies a difference in narrative causality/unity between old and new Hwd movies. I find the argument that new Hwd movies generally have less narrative unity/causality to be unconvincing, which is one big reason I find the term post-classical to be more confusing than useful.