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Formalist film theory

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Formalist film theory

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Formalist film theory is a theory of film study that is focused on the formal, or technical, elements of a film: i.e., the lighting, scoring, sound and set design, use of colour, shot composition, and editing. It is the most dominant theory of film study in the world today.

Formalism, at its most general, considers the synthesis (or lack of synthesis) of the multiple elements of film production, and the effects, emotional and intellectual, of that synthesis and of the individual elements. For example, let's take the single element of editing. A formalist might study how standard Hollywood "continuity editing" creates a more comforting effect and non-continuity or jump-cut editing might become more disconcerting or volatile.

Or, one might consider the synthesis of several elements, such as editing, shot composition, and music. The shoot-out that ends Leone's monumental "Dollars" trilogy is a prime example of how these elements work together to produce an effect: the shot selection goes from very wide to very close and tense; the length of shots decreases as the sequence progresses towards its end; the music builds.

Formalism is unique in that it embraces both ideological and auteurist branches of criticism.

The common denominator for both of these branches is style: ideologues focus on how socio-economic pressures create a particular style, and auteurists on how auteurs puts their own stamp on the material. Since formalism is primarily concerned with style and how it communicates the ideas, emotions, and themes (rather than, as critics of formalism point out, concentrating on the themes of a work itself).

Two examples of ideological interpretations that are related to formalism:

The classical Hollywood cinema has a very distinct style, sometimes called the Institutional Mode of Representation: continuity editing, massive coverage, three-point lighting, "mood" music, dissolves, all designed to make the experience as pleasant as possible. The socio-economic ideological explanation for this is, quite crassly, that Hollywood wants to make as much money and appeal to as many ticket-buyers as possible.

Film noir, which was given its name by the Cahiers du cinema crowd, is marked by lower production values, darker images, underlighting, location shooting, and general nihilism: this is because, we are told, during the war and post-war years filmmakers were generally more pessimistic (as well as filmgoers). Also, the German Expressionists (including Fritz Lang, who was not technically an expressionist as popularly believed) emigrated to America and brought their crazy lighting effects (and disillusionment due to the war) to American soil.

By this approach, it can be argued that the style or language of these films are directly effected not by the individuals responsible, but by social, economic, and political pressures that the filmmakers themselves might be aware of. It is this branch of criticism that gives us such categories as the classical Hollywood cinema, the American independent movement, the New American independent movement, the new queer cinema, and the French, German, and Czech new waves. Some of these categories are discussed in David Bordwell's "Film Art: an introduction", universally accepted as THE text book for formalists, by the man considered at the forefront of its practice.

If the ideological approach is concerned with broad movements and the effects of the world around the filmmaker, then the auteur theory is dialectically opposed to it, celebrating the individual, usually in the person of the filmmaker, and how his personal decisions, thoughts, and style manifest themselves in the material. To be brief, this branch of criticism, began by Francois Truffaut and the other young film critics writing for Cahiers du cinema, was created for two reasons.

First, it was created to redeem the art of film itself: by arguing that films had auteurs, or authors, Truffaut sought to make films (and their directors) at least as important as the more widely-accepted art forms, such as literature, music, and painting. Each of these art forms, and the criticism thereof, are primarily concerned with a sole creative force: the author of a novel (not, for example, his editor or type-setter), the composer of a piece of music (though sometimes the performers are given credence, akin to actors in film today), or the painter of a fresco (not his assistants who mix the colours or often do some of the painting themselves). By elevating the director, and not the screenwriter, to the same importance as novelists, composers, or painters, it sought to free the cinema from its popular conception as a bastard art, somewhere between theater and literature.

Secondly, it sought to redeem those filmmakers who were looked down upon by the important and snooty critics. It argued that genre filmmakers and low-budget B-movies were just as important, if not more, than the prestige pictures commonly given more press, and legitimacy in France and America. An auteur took material that was beneath their talents-- a thriller, a pulpy action film, a romance-- and, through their style, put their own personal stamp on it. It is this style that concerns formalism, and brings us back to the topic at hand.

A perfect example would be the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock made primarily thrillers, which were popular with the public but snorted at by the critics and the award ceremonies (with a few notable exceptions, such as Rebecca, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards). Truffaut and his colleagues argued that Hitchcock had a style as distinct as that of Flaubert or Van Gogh: the virtuoso editing, the lyrical camera movements, the droll humour. He also had "Hitchcockian" themes: the wrong man falsely accused, violence erupting at the times it was least expected, the cool blonde. Now, Hitchcock is more-or-less universally lauded, his films dissected shot-by-shot, his work celebrated as being that of a master. And the study of this style, his variations, and obsessions all falls quite neatly under the umbrella of formalist film theory.


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Movies, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.


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