Sunday, February 18, 2007

More on (Post-)Classicism

First, I should recommend Michael Newman's blog, zigzigger, which has excellent ruminations on film and media studies and media culture in general. Check out, for instance, his analysis of the new sitcom.

Michael raises in the comments of my post-classicism post an excellent question, which deserves a full post in response:
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.
I'm all for a more specific term to describe editing in contemporary commercial cinema, and David Bordwell's work in this regard is extremely useful to achieving that specificity. I have some reservations about the "intensified continuity" term: if continuity changes, it's toward relaxation, not intensification. What gets intensified instead is the narrative analysis. So if I had the sway in my power to coin and popularize a term (and I don't), I'd suggest "intensified analytical editing" instead.

But quibbles aside, there's a larger issue lurking: whether studio-era Hollywood actually possessed more unity or sub-quality of classicism than today's Hollywood. I maintain they did. Take, for instance, another scene from Only Angels Have Wings:

Here, though the camera pans to follow the characters, it reframes the action so that each paused moment in the blocking creates a balanced, ordered composition. In some ways, this reframing tendency was a signature style of Hawks, who used pans far more than tracking shots. On the other hand, David Bordwell's analysis of blocking and framing in Homocide and Mildred Pierce suggests that the principles of compositional balance and order were not unique to Hawks but in fact were a primary mode of classical Hollywood.

That balance and order, narrowly construed, is, to my eye, missing from contemporary cinema, which accepts a much more improvisational aesthetic (try pressing the pause button on a handheld shot) or at least a looser understanding of composition and space. Also, it is capable of violating the unity of time within a scene; jump cuts, flashback inserts, and other interruptions in time are now standard and fully readible in commercial, "invisible" cinema, even if they vary in frequency by genre. I don't know that any of this is a new observation - or controversial. It may simply be that we will have to weigh semantics of "unity," "balance," etc. against the critical emphasis we wish to assert. It might be worth just speaking in the most narrow sense of particular regimes of editing, narrative structure, and so forth. Yet classical Hollywood was more than continuity editing; it was a larger aesthetic mission of studio cinema, one that had implications for editing, narrative, etc., and which some have read against older art forms. Bordwell, Thompson and Staiger's volume lays out this mission, along with the particular means it was achieved, and connected it to the industrial "mode of production." It is not unreasonable to look for ways the changes in the industrial configuration changed in tandem with the underlying aesthetic mission of Hollywood. To me, that's the value of "post-classicism," even if all the conceptual moving parts to that definition don't line up neatly.

Finally, I'm a little wary of the notion that classical cinema was a storytelling system so powerful that it absorbed all challenges, its adaptation being proof of its penultimate strength. This may be the case, and we can certainly set the terms of analysis so that this thesis holds: Hollywood after all, has absorbed avant-garde, new-wave, and art-film language. Unless I'm mistaking this position, though, I'm not sure how it's different from saying that narrative analytical storytelling is the System that is flexible enough to absorb everything, including Ozu, Dreyer, or other non-classical directors. At the least, there's a danger of ascribing too much agency and power to systematicity.

UCLA Film/Television Archive Stipends

I just noticed posted on the SCMS bulletin board that the UCLA Film and Television Archive awards stipends to support research projects. Details here. The deadline is May 21, but there are only two grants, so I imagine the competition will be tough.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


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.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

More thoughts on Classicism

Having taught Only Angels Have Wings this week, one thing I couldn't help but remark on was the lighting. At times, it takes on an ethereal quality, which is aided by the not-quite-deep focus and Hawks' tendency to stage in depth. But beyond its overall texture, the lighting can be read more semiotically. Here, in an early scene, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) peeks in on a room of locals dancing to a Latin folk song:

The glamour photography conventions (with a very strong kicker) are not unusual in themselves, but here the pool of light on Jean Arthur and the dearth of light on the figures around her undoubtedly highlight, even construct, the difference of white femininity amid the ethnic Other. The white/ethnic distinction is only highlighted by the eyeline match (characteristically, a POV from a "native" is an impossibility):

Now, the lighting direction is reversed, with the strongest light coming from beneath and behind the figures. With potential narrative motivation (the light comes from a fire or hearth?) the effect is to romanticize the locals for the white American gaze.

Of course, this sort of reading - while perhaps continually needed - is hardly new and may even seem banal to film scholars conditioned to similar readings. The film strikes me as a fascinating hermeneutic circle... a repository for all the thematic seriousness of auteurist readings (such as Robin Wood's analysis)... a case study in the formal elegance of classicism (Bellour may have written his "Obvious and the Code" about The Big Sleep, but almost every scene in Only Angels Have Wings seems to me to share the same symmetry of construction)... an example of ethnic othering (the thematics are less self-aware than the border crossing Stephen Heath locates in Touch of Evil, but are structuring nonetheless)... to the history of style questions Bordwell and Thompson have been discussing at length in their blog (the reframing in the film, in particular, is careful and composed).

There is such a tendency critically to think we already know all there is to be known about Hollywood in its classical period and pedagogically to treat the studio films as either bad object or unapproachable "classics" frozen statically in a receding past. I do wonder if with some effort we can continue to rethink the American cinema of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and to inhabit the previous layers of scholarship while moving forward in our understanding. I'll try to reflect more on what I mean in further entries here, but Only Angels seems as good a placeholder for any for my developing thoughts on the matter.

The Transitional Era

It's rare that I find an edited volume so useful as Charlie Keil and Shelley Stamp's American Cinema's Transitional Era. Part of the strength is simply the dynamism of the subfield itself. The rush of critical energy and enthusiasm that scholars brought to reevaluating early cinema a few years ago now seems apparent in the scholarship on what this volume considers the "transitional era," the period between the "cinema of attractions" that Tom Gunning diagnosed and the fully institutionalized cinema of diegetic absorption that scholars have called classicism.

I've mentioned before the methodological self-confidence and maturity I see in the field today, and this volume is a good example: sharp, concise methodological reflection in the historiographic essays (Keil, Brewster, et al.); more tailored readings of textual moments (Rabinowitz on Coney Island films; Richard Abel on the Western; Jaqueline Stewart on racial representation); and a useful range of industrial and legal histories (Ben Singer, J.A. Lindstrom, Lee Grieveson, Scott Curtis) all make this a well-rounded volume, as good an introduction to the period (better, even) than a monograph such as Eileen Bowser's Tranformation of Cinema. In fact, for all the value in a straight-forward historical account, American Cinema's Transitional Era demonstrates the potential of an edited volume to show history as the contested terrain of diverging, overlapping, or complementary explanations of cinema's past.

Friday, February 09, 2007

More on (Post-)Classicism

I've been struggling to carve out time to post here, so it's especially humbling to see David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson pump out post after post of insights that are not merely interesting but incredibly valuable. I'd mentioned, I think, Bordwell's post on Soderberg's retro-classicism, but his followup of sorts (on the walking-and-talking shot) I like even more: it succinctly illuminates the transformation in film style between the studio days and the unit-package days - and secondarily between film and television. In brief, wow.

As an aside, I'm curious whether they are going to continue to find questionable trade press coverage a springboard for their own points... at the very least it's making me reflect on how I understand and treat historical trade press writing as evidence in my own work.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Gunning comes to PCMS

This upcoming Thursday, at 6:30 PM in Gladfelter Hall 914, Tom Gunning is giving a talk for the Philadelphia Cinema and Media Studies seminar. His topic is "What's the Point of an Index? Or, Faking Photographs" From the abstract, he notes,
The practice of "faking" photographs has a long history and I will question what it is that the digital process adds to this tradition. However, I will also question the use of the term index as a way of describing the effect of photographs generally, especially the widely accepted use of this concept as an adequate way of explaining André Bazin's theory of realism.

Noel Carroll will serve as respondent. Full details at the PCMS website.