Printer Friendly

Film form: an argument for a functional theory of style in the individual film.

Part I: The Different Domains of Style

As with other artforms, the initial problem of talking about style or form in film is complicated by the fact that the concept of style can be applied to so many different kinds of things and at so many different levels of generality.(1) One might use "style" to refer to whole periods of filmmaking, speaking, for example, of the German Expressionist style, or Hollywood studio style in the thirties. Or one might apply the concept of style to the work of a particular filmmaker's oeuvre, referring, for instance, to the style of Stanley Donnen or Yvonne Rainer or Theo Angelopoulos. In these cases, the domain of the concept of style fluctuates. That is, what it refers to shifts in terms of the range of things to which it is applied. When investigating a period style, we look at a domain comprising all the relevant films made in a stipulated spatio-temporal region. When considering a directorial style, we look only to the films of the director in question, including, where relevant, films of different stylistic periods.

Moreover, the concept of style can be mobilized for different purposes and, therefore, can take different directions of analysis. When interrogating a period style, our purpose is to say how all or most of the relevant films are similar, and, therefore, we look for what all the filmmakers under examination have in common. But when analyzing a directorial style, we look to features that differentiate a given filmmaker from other filmmakers - we look for what makes the director appear distinctive. And these different projects, of course, can pull in different directions. In discussing the work of Fritz Lang as a German Expressionist director, we may point to certain features of his work he shares with other directors of the pertinent movement and period, but when speaking of Lang's directorial style, we may omit some of these features, since they do not differentiate Lang from other directors.

Because the domains, purposes and directions of stylistic or formal research often diverge, the possibility of confusion - of talking past each other - an easily arise when speaking of "film style." Thus, in order to avoid such confusion, it is useful to separate out some of the different usages of the concept of film style in order to be clear about that to which we intend to apply it. Though other, more fine-grained, distinctions can be made with respect to the concept of style, a provisional cartography of common usages includes what we can call general style, personal style, and the style or form of the individual film.(2) Both general style and personal style refer to groups of film; their domain is a body of work. The style or form of the individual film refers to a specific film, such as Kundun. General style refers to a group of films by more than one filmmaker as in the notion of the Classical Hollywood Cinema. Personal style refers to the films of a single filmmaker, such as Edward Yang.

The category of general style can be further divided into at least four subclasses: universal style, period style, genre style, and school or movement style.(3) If we call the balanced shot outside the planetarium in Nichols Ray's Rebel Without A Cause (Bordwell 244) "classical," we are using the concept of style in a universal sense, since we will call any such symmetrically poised composition, from any period in film history (and, perhaps in any visual artform), "classical" in this sense. The domain of the concept of style when used universally is at least all film. When we refer, however, to the tableau style or to the "clothes-line" style of composition of primitive film, though we are talking about a general style (and not the style of a specific filmmaker), our reference is restricted, with the exception of explicit references to atavisms, to films of the first two decades of this century. The universal concept of style applies to all films, whereas the concept of a period style applies only to some subset thereof governed by temporal/historical criteria and often by regional (sometimes national) considerations.

Generally, a filmmaker possesses a period style tacitly. She does not decide to work in that style explicitly. It is a prevailing style of norms and practices. Vincent Sherman did not decide to adopt a thirties studio style when he came to make his first film The Return of Dr. X. He found it, so to speak, ready-to-hand. School or movement style, in contrast, is more a matter of express policy. A structural filmmaker decides to work in that style, perhaps by expanding its strategies in new directions. Though both period style and school/movement style differ from universal style inasmuch as they obtain in a subset of films of specific provenance rather than potentially in any film whatsoever, school/movement style differs from period style insofar as it is more a matter of self-consciously adopting a project than of settling into things as they are. School/movement style, however, generally does have something in common with period style, since schools and movements most frequently flourish in discrete historical moments.

With reference to general styles, there is also genre style. Many films fall into certain categories with relatively fixed, though variable, purposes, whose implementation often involves certain reliable, recurring strategies for getting the job done. These stylistic strategies may evolve and mutate from period to period, so genre style overlaps at times with the notion of a period style. Thus we speak of a film in the style of a fifties musical. But as in the case of a school style, the filmmaker adopts a genre style rather self-consciously: she is at least fully aware, for instance, that she is making a mystery film. Moreover, in contrast to the universal concept of style, the concept of genre style can be applied only to certain films, not potentially to all films. For example, it only makes sense to apply literally the style or form descriptors "ratiocinative versus hard-boiled" to detection fictions, but not to landscape films.

Personal style can be distinguished from the several categories of general style, since it targets the work of a specific filmmaker. Though historically, the director has been the filmmaker of choice in analyses of personal style in film, there is no reason in principle why one must restrict one's attention to directors. One might explore the personal style of a scriptwriter, a cinematographer, a set designer and so on. The preoccupation with the personal style of directors is often called auteurism. Its influence since the 1950s has been enormous. As a result, perhaps the most recurrent form of stylistic analysis in film studies has been keyed to discriminating personal styles.

Nevertheless, there is yet another project of stylistic analysis: the analysis of style or form in the individual film. The style of an individual film does not collapse, without remainder, into the personal style of its director. The reason for this is simple. Even a film by a director with a highly distinctive personal style may employ stylistic strategies not uniquely his or her own. A pronounced visual stylist like Brian DePalma may fall back on certain tried and true structures, common throughout the genre, for instilling suspense in order to solve his narrative problems. His use of these structures is not incidental, but integral to his film.

Thus, where the auteurist critic may overlook such choices - on the grounds that they do not differentiate a given film by DePalma from a mass of routine thrillers - if we are concerned with the style or form of the individual film, said structures are apt to loom large in our account. Because the analysis of personal style is concerned with taxonomy (and connoiseurship), it battens on those stylistic features that isolate the film in question as one by DePalma. But that is likely to leave a large number of a given film's stylistic features unaccounted for, since very few films are absolutely the product of uniquely personal strategies through and through.

For similar reasons, the analysis of the style of an individual film cannot be reduced to the analysis of its period, movement, or school style. Even if those are major ingredients in a given film, few, if any films, are merely unalloyed exemplars of their period, movement, or school. Each film will confront its own problems in achieving its point and/or purpose, even if those points and purposes are fairly generic ones. Each film will have its idiosyncratic formal solutions. And, in any case, no film will be a perfect exemplar of its period, movement, or school style insofar as it is highly unlikely that any film will employ every strategy of the general class to which it belongs. Thus, a concept of style or form in the individual film is unavoidable. My purpose in this essay is to suggest a framework for thinking about style in the individual film.

Part II. Approaching Film Form

In film studies, the examination of the style or form of the individual film is usually subordinated to frameworks that conceptualize the style or form of the individual film as exemplary of something else, usually the personal style of a director, or a period style, or the style of an influential movement or school. Interest in a given director, period, or movement leads the analyst to focus on certain formal features rather than others - obviously on the features that best exemplify what, for instance, is particularly Hawksian, thirty-ish, or Dadaist about the film under examination. While there is nothing wrong in calibrating research in this way, approaching an individual film in this manner is no guarantee that one will penetrate the form of the individual film, rather than possibly merely isolating at best a fragment of that form.

Consider Bazin's brilliant analysis of Citizen Kane. Because he was primarily interested in charting the evolution of a period style, he placed special emphasis on the deep-focus (or apparently deep-focus) shots in the film. This, too, is what most film instructors underline when teaching the film. But these shots, though immensely vivid and important to film, comprise only a small part of its formal organization. Accounting for them hardly amounts to a formal analysis of the film. For example, it pays scant attention to the recurring, probing camera movements that embody the investigative theme of the film. Bazin, of course, selected the elements of the film he did for emphasis because his concern was with what was emerging as a period style. But it would be a mistake to presume that an analysis of the period-relative formal elements of Citizen Kane suffices as an analysis of the form or style of Citizen Kane as an individual work of art.

Similar points can be made about formal analyses of films relative to the movements or schools to which they belong. One can discuss October as an illustrative specimen of the Soviet Montage school of the twenties, highlighting certain exemplary sequences and shot juxtapositions as paradigmatic of the movement. But inasmuch as the film also exhibits many formal choices that are not especially distinctive of the montage style, much of the film goes unanalyzed formally when it is treated as a stereotypical montage film.

Perhaps treating the style of the film as an expression of the filmmaker has a better claim than previous examples for isolating the form of the individual film. The concept of style has deep associations with the notion of personality. It is sometimes said that style is the man [the person]. People have personal styles, ways of being in the world that express their personality. There is some deep connection between style and expression; style is often taken to be what manifests or expresses personality. Thus, if we approach the style or form of the individual film as that which is expressive of its filmmaker's personality, as an auteurist does, then, it might be thought, we will gain our best insight into the style of that film.

The theoretical strength of auteurism is that it connects style with personal style or expressiveness. The auteurist explains the significance of Renoir's deeply-staged, multiplanar compositions in Rules of the Game in terms of his encompassing, compassionate, egalitarian vision - his open-hearted concern for all of his characters as well as his view of the world as bustling, full, complex, and alive.

However, in order to pinpoint the style that is the director, the auteurist's unit of analysis must be the director's oeuvre, or some significant subsegment of it. Otherwise the auteurist cannot be sure that the director hasn't merely donned a mask for a specific film and that what appears as personality isn't just a persona. Thus, the auteurist searches for formal features that recur in the filmmaker's oeuvre; indeed, the auteurist looks especially for those recurring features that differentiate the pertinent filmmaker from other filmmakers. Since what the auteurist hopes to identify is the unique personality of the filmmaker, what the auteurist searches for are the recurring stylistic features or formal mannerisms that make possible the manifest expression of the filmmaker's distinctive mode of being in the world.

This approach, nevertheless, carries with it certain obvious limitations. Inasmuch as significant formal choices in a film are frequently made to implement purposes not germane to other films by the director in question, they may not recur in other works of the filmmaker. For example, in Sunset Blvd., Billy Wilder opts for interior shots of Norma Desmond's mansion that emphasize not only that it is large, but empty, at least in the sense of being bereft of people. Its emptiness, of course, underscores that Norma is isolated, that she is alone, with almost no one around her. The world has passed Norma Desmond by.

Wilder's stylistic choice of this way of shooting the interior of the mansion, especially the downstairs environs, answers the problem of the way in which to reinforce a central theme of the film - that everyone has abandoned Norma Desmond - by means of a formal articulation that makes her desolation almost visceral. It is a major formal contribution to the film. But since this use of space does not recur in other films by Wilder, it is likely to be neglected by the auteurist. Furthermore, insofar as this use of space is not particularly distinctive of Wilder - other directors have used vast interior spaces to connote isolation and loneliness - the auteur critic has an additional inclination to overlook Wilder's use of space in Sunset Blvd. Instead, the auteurist will probably pay more attention to the structures of irony that Wilder employs in the film, since irony, especially of a cynical sort, is a recurring feature of Wilder's work.

Emphasizing Wilder's irony in Sunset Blvd., of course, is not so much wrong as it is incomplete. But exclusively using what one knows of Wilder's enduring concerns across his career as the filter for selecting the pertinent stylistic structures in Sunset Blvd. will draw attention away from many of the formal choices Wilder made in order to convey what he intended about Norma Desmond, her plight, and Hollywood culture in general. The project of Sunset Blvd. presented Wilder with various local problems that other stories and other films did not. The solutions to those problems, while determining the formal structures of Sunset Blvd., need not be part of the account of what makes Wilder Wilder. Still they are indispensable contributions to what makes Sunset Blvd. as effective a film as it is. So, if we expect a stylistic analysis of an individual film to help to explain how it works, then auteurism is not enough.

A leading aim of auteurism is to differentiate one body of films from others - to say what is unique about the work of a given filmmaker. In this way, auteurism is connected to connoisseurship. This is not to say that auteurism need lack an explanatory dimension; the auteurist may explain how certain recurring elements in a work - for instance, the recurrence of vistas in John Ford's westerns - are expressive of his point of view about American history. The auteurist project, however, in terms of its "bottom line," remains tied to differentiating one filmmaker's oeuvre from those of others. And this concern with differentiation skews the stylistic analyses that the auteurist is apt to render of individual films.

Differentiation is also an important motive behind analyses of period, genre, and school/movement style. In each case, we want to identify the stylistic features that set off one group of films from another. Undeniably, this identification is worthwhile. But when used as an optic for the style of an individual film, the categorizing impulse behind stylistic analyses in terms of period, genre, or school/movement will gerrymander the form of an individual film for the sake of situating it in a class. But what distinguishes a film as a member of a stylistic category may be less important to the formal choices in a film than the particular problems the filmmaker solves in achieving the point or purpose of the film at hand, since those not only may involve choices not widely shared in other films of the generic type under examination but also features that do not differentiate the film in question from films of other periods, genres, or schools/movements.

Stylistic analyses bent on revealing the personal style of the filmmaker, period style, genre style, and school/movement style are fundamentally taxonomic in nature. Analyses of these sorts may do other things. But they are ultimately committed to categorizing the film. Thus, they are category-relative in a way that guides selectivity. And they may miss the trees for the forest.

As methods, these strategies of stylistic analysis do not promise to account fully for the form of a particular film, given its specific aims and context. They enable us to place the film, and, though that is genuinely informative, they may not explain why the individual film qua individual film possesses the stylistic or formal attributes it does. For that we need a theoretical framework for discussing form in the individual film.

Part III: Two Attempts at Characterizing Film Form

Analyzing the style or form of each individual film in terms of personal style, period style, genre style, and school/movement style in turn supplies the analyst with a powerful heuristic for approaching an individual film. These approaches function as filters; they alert the analyst about what to look for. By saying, as I have, that they are not fully adequate to pithing the form of the individual film, I put us in a hard place. How are we to understand the form of an individual film, if not by placing it in stylistic categories like these? What is form in the individual film? How are we to conceptualize it? In order to answer these questions, let us look at alternative ways of clarifying the notion of film form in the hope of finding an adequate framework for talking about it.

One of the most common ways of thinking about artistic form in general and film form in particular is to conceive of form as one half of a couplet - the distinction between form and content. Many try to clarify this contrast by turning it into the distinction between meaning and mode of presentation. If part of the meaning of Metropolis is that factories turn workers into automatons, then the regimented blocking of the shots of the workers entering the factory is a formal device, a mode of presenting the meaning of the film. But, logically, this approach makes the concept of form wholly dependent upon the film's possession of something that we would be willing to countenance as a meaning. Therefore, if there are films without meanings, properly so called, as there seem to be, then this way of conceptualizing form entails that such films lack form altogether.

But this conclusion is mistaken. There are "meaningless" films, films that are dedicated to affording various perceptual and sensuous effects, including pleasurable ones. There are films that "say" nothing, but are simply beautiful or fascinating to look at. Some Structural Films are like this. They are films that we are often disposed to say are all form and no content, where content is understood as a matter of meaning. But on the view that form is the mode of presentation of content, where, in turn "content = meaning," one would have to say such films have no form whatsoever. And that seems just wrong.

This sort of objection suggests that we should attempt to find an alternative way of stating the contrast between form and content, one that does not rely upon the notion of meaning. One way of doing this is to propose that content is whatever makes up the film, and form is the way that whatever makes up the film is organized. Content is the matter; form is the manner. Form operates on whatever comprises the content of the film. Again, this makes our conception of the form of the film dependent on our conception of the content of the film. That is, one cannot determine the manner of its organization, until one knows what is being organized.

But there is an enormous problem here. What we are willing to call the form of a film depends upon our conception of the content of the work. But the notion of content, as just stated, is extremely ambiguous, and this ambiguity is apt to infect whatever we say about film form in such a way that the border between form and content becomes exceedingly shaky.

If we consider "content" to be "whatever makes up the film," think of all things that we could have in mind. Imagine a short, one shot film of an underprivileged child - the sort of advertisement that might be produced by a charitable organization. What makes up this film? In one sense, it is made up of - it consists in - photographic imprints subjected to light. At another level of description, it is made up of lines, colors, and closed shapes. These components then give rise to representational figures that refer to certain subjects or referents, namely the child and perhaps her empty bowl, which, in turn, may also be expressive of the human quality of pathos. Furthermore, the film may take a point of view toward the child, regarding her as worthy of concern and advancing that point of view as an implicit thesis. Indeed, the film may also promote an injunction about the child: that viewers should help her and other children in her condition.

An imagined film like this may be made up of many things: photographic emulsions, light, lines, colors, shapes, representations (and their subjects), points of view, expressive properties, theses, and injunctions. Moreover, this list could be even longer if our descriptions of the various dimensions of the film were more finely drawn. Which of all these sorts of things that can be said to make up the content of the film is the content of the film? The problem is that, at various times and in various contexts, any of these things or combinations thereof can be and have been identified as the content of films. But that renders the distinction between form and content unstable.

If we identify the content of a film with its lines, colors, and closed shapes, then not only is that at odds with the way in which we typically identify these elements in film, but it also leaves little else for film form to be. If the lines, colors, and closed shapes of the film do not constitute the formal elements of the film, then what does? Is there a way of handling the lines, colors, and closed shapes that is separable from these features? If shape and color are content elements in a film, and it is a nonrepresentational film, what is the form of the film? One might say that the form of the film is some emergent property of the colors and shapes - an expressive property, for example - but, then, expressive properties are usually taken to be part of the content of the work, not part of its form.

So, on the one hand, if one tries to deal with "contentless" films, by identifying their colors and shapes as the relevant content - to say that these films are about colors and shapes - then the film has no form. On the other hand, if one identifies the colors and shapes of such a film as its form, that identification is paradoxical, since on the view under consideration, there is no form without content. This is certainly an unsatisfying dilemma.

In fact, another reason that it is impossible to distinguish film form from film content (on the supposition that content is whatever makes up the film) is that speaking this broadly, form is undeniably one of the things that make up a film. Some might, of course, embrace the notion that there is no difference between form and content at this juncture, as the philosopher Croce did, but that scarcely helps in distinguishing the nature of film form.

In order to forestall difficulties like this, one might try to revert to ordinary language. In everyday speech, we frequently restrict content terminology to what the film represents. The content of the film is what it represents - its subject (for example, the impoverished child) and whatever its says about its subject. In this vein, we might say that the shapes and colors of the film are the formal elements that are deployed in a certain manner to articulate the content of the film - to represent the child and/or to represent her in a certain light or for a certain purpose.

But it is far from clear that the invocation of representation here will draw a reliable distinction between form and content. Think of point of view as a feature of films. It is a representational element of a film - one, for example, that is often connected to the theme of a work (what it says about its subject). Hatred of racism, for instance, might describe the point of view of a film. Since it is a representational feature of the work, it seems as though, according to ordinary language, it should count as a feature of the content of the film. And yet isn't it a formal feature as well? Isn't it a result of the way in which the representational material is being handled? Moreover, if we adopt the popular analogy that form is to content as a container is to the contained, isn't the point of view of a film that in which all the representational elements of the film are contained? Thus, invoking concept of representation won't determinately mark the boundary between form and content for us.

And, of course, a related problem, which we have already encountered in this context, is that many films have no representational content. On the face of it, this entails that they have no form, since form is understood as correlative to content - as that upon which form must operate. But there are many nonrepresentational films that have form, such as Diagonal symphonie. Moreover, if it is stipulated that such a film, and films like it, have content - for example, lines and shapes - then again we are left with no way to speak of their form. Either such works have content or they do not; but on either supposition, they appear to lack form on the view under consideration. Thus, either way, the view is not helpful. That is, the alleged distinction between form and content does not provide us with a comprehensive way of conceptualizing form in the individual film.

So far the problem has lain in trying to characterize film form in tandem with content. This characterization requires a way of drawing a line between the two. This, however, we have seen, appears to be extremely difficult. Consequently, an alternative approach that naturally recommends itself to us is to attempt to define film form without reference to content. This, at least, will halve our perplexity.

If we reflect upon the way in which we describe film form, we note that often we refer to it as unified or complex.(4) These are two frequently recurring comments about film form. They also provide us with a clue to the nature of film form. In order to be unified or complex, a film must be composed of parts. If, for example, a film's parts are related in such a way they appear co-ordinated, or, if certain relations between a film's parts are iterated - as when an opening composition is echoed in its concluding shots - we call those unity-making features of the film. If there are many different kinds of relations between the parts of the film, as there are in Zorns Lemma, or, if the relations between the parts are variegated and diverse, as they are in Man with the Movie Camera, we refer to the film as complex. The common threads that run through these formal descriptions are parts and relations.

Parts and relations, then, are basic ingredients of film form. When we make statements about the form of a film, we are speaking of relations between parts of the film. When we say that the figures on one side of a shot balance off the figures on the other side of the shot, we are talking about parts of the film in relation to each other. It seems reasonable to conjecture that whenever we make statements about the form of an individual film, we are making statements about some relation or relations between its parts. Form-statements, ex hypothesi, are always ultimately translatable as instances of the statement"x bears such and such a relation to y." Even where x and y are not mentioned, genuine form-statements can always be cashed-in by reference to parts and their relations. To say that a film narrative is unified is often supported by reference to recurring motifs - parts of the narrative that resemble or echo each other.

Films have many elements, and these can be related in many ways. Sounds may repeat, functioning as leitmotifs. Characters may stand in adversarial relations to each other. This is dramatic conflict, which is a standard formal feature of narrative films. It is a relation between parts of the film - the characters - and what they represent (good versus evil, the Allies versus the Nazis, intellect versus might, and so on). Volumes in particular shots can be in equilibrium or disequilibrium. Scenes may alternate between being fast and slow paced. These too are formal relations. A film may be complex because it has a wealth of different and contrasting characters. The quantity of characters and their clashing qualities are also formal properties of an artwork on the account under consideration.

Film form, then, it may be suggested, consists of relations between parts of an individual film. Films may have different parts that are related in different ways. Some of these ways may be co-ordinated, such as the way in which characters are related to the plot in most narrative films. Or they may be relatively uncoordinated. The color elements of a studio set, though related to each other, may or may not have any relation to the dramatic conflict in the narrative. But regardless whether the sets of relations in a film are hierarchically organized, all the relations are formal relations. Thus, it may be hypothesized, when we speak of the form of an individual film, then, we may take that to refer to all the webs of relations that obtain between the elements of the work.

This is a very democratic view of film form. Any relation between elements of an individual film counts as an instance of film form. This characterization of film form is very comprehensive. It obviously can apply to any film that has discriminable parts. They will all have form, though not necessarily commendable form. This conception of film form will count relations between representational elements of a film - such as the contrast between good and bad characters - as a contribution to the form of the film. But this is not an unfortunate result. Contrasting characters contribute both to the coherence and complexity of the films that have them.

We can call this approach to film form the descriptive account. According to the descriptive account, any instance of a relation among elements of an individual film is an instance of film form. On this view, in order to provide a full account of the form of a given film, one would list or summarize all the relations among the parts of the work. We label this approach the descriptive account because it classifies any relation among elements of a film as an instance of film form, irrespective of any principle of selection. On this conception of film form, the ideal analysis of the form of an individual film would be a long description of all the relations among the elements of a given film. Indeed, some proposed strategies for cinematic analysis, notably Raymond Bellour's notion of segmentation ("Obvious"; "To Analyze") have actually converged on the descriptive account.(5)

In favor of the descriptive account is its comprehensiveness. It doesn't appear to leave anything out. Arguably it can home-in on everything that one is likely to regard as an instance of film form. Nevertheless, the descriptive account does not seem to accord with what we usually are talking about when we discuss the form of an individual film. We rarely, if ever, encounter such exhaustive accounts of film form as one would expect if the descriptive account crystallized our ruling conception of film form. Nor is it clear that we even desire such descriptive accounts. The accounts of film form that mesh with our expectations are always more selective. Nor are they more selective simply because few would have the energy to read or to write up such exhaustive descriptions. They are more selective because typically we think of film form as comprised of only a subset of the relations among the elements of a film. But this raises the question "which ones?" If we can answer that question we may be on our way to clarifying the concept of form or style in the individual film.

Part IV: Film Form and Function

The descriptive account of film form is very encompassing. It regards any relation among the elements of a film as an instance of its form. This is a plausible and coherent view of film form. But it does not seem to square with what we generally have in mind when we refer to the form of an individual film. In such situations, we only focus on some standard relations among the elements of a film, not all of them. The relations that concern us are the ones that contribute to the realization of the point of the film. On the descriptive account, a formal or stylistic element of a film is anything that stands in some relation to another element. But on our ordinary conception of film form, an element is a formal element if it contributes to the film's point or purpose.

That is, our ordinary conception of film form is explanatory rather than descriptive. It does not aim at listing every relation in the total web of relations discoverable in a film. Such a list, of course, could be indeterminately long. Rather, when we speak of film form we expect only a selection of just those elements and relations that promote the point or purpose of the film. The ordinary concept of film form seems to be functional. The form of the film is whatever functions to advance or to realize whatever the film is designed to bring about. The form of the individual film is what enables it to realize its point or purpose.

Louis Sullivan said "Form follows function." What he had in mind, for example, is that the form of the front doorway of a house - its dimensions - is a certain way in order to discharge its function (to permit people of average height and girth to pass through it with ease). The form of the doorway is related to what the doorway is intended to do. Similarly, the form of a film is ideally determined by what it is supposed to do - to achieve its point or purpose.

This approach, of course, assumes that films have purposes. But this assumption seems hardly controversial, once we realize how diverse such purposes may be. In some cases, the purpose of a film may be to propose a theme or a point of view, or the purpose may be to foreground an expressive property, or it may be to arouse feelings, including feelings of visual pleasure, in audiences. A film may be about communicating ideas - ideas about the world or ideas about the nature of film - or it may have no ideas or meanings, but simply be dedicated to engendering a certain sort of experience, such as repose, excitement, suspense or perceptual delight. Films may make points, or they may merely have points - to encourage viewers, for instance, to use their discriminatory faculties keenly and perceptively. It should not be difficult to concede that all or nearly all films have points or purposes - probably, in most cases, more than one - once we think of points and purposes in this broad way. The form of the individual film is that which enables it to realize its purposes. A formal element is an element that contributes to or serves as a means of securing the point or the purpose of the individual film. Film structure follows function.

One of the points or purposes of Wilder's Sunset Blvd. is to portray Norma Desmond as horrific. To this end, he makes a number a choices, including, among others, the use of the organ in Norma's mansion in a way that is reminiscent of horror films (like the Phantom of the Opera), the corpse of the dead monkey and its funeral, the iconography of the seemingly deserted old house (ruins "haunted" by Norma), Norma's attempted transformation of herself in preparation for her "new" film (which transformation cinematically resembles nothing so much as a mad scientist's experiment), the narration of the film through the voice of a dead man (a "ghost"), and Norma's final close-up, which is performed in a highly grotesque manner suggesting an unnatural, unearthly being slithering toward the camera (as if to devour it and her audience as well).

The point of these choices is to project the sense that Norma is monstrous, that she is "undead" (as a zombie film might put it), that her mode of being is analogous to that of a denizen of a horror film - that there is something horrible and not quite human about her, and that this monstrosity tells us something about the nature of stardom. Indeed, perhaps the metaphorical implication is that stardom creates monsters. The ensemble of choices enumerated above (along with others not enumerated) function to enable Wilder to realize one of the points of Sunset Blvd. - that stardom breeds monstrosity - in a way that hits home at the level of both the intellect and the emotions.

A film is designed to perform some purpose (or set of purposes, co-ordinated or otherwise) and/or to make some point. Formal choices are elements and relations in the film that are the intended means to secure those points and purposes, in the way that the aforementioned ensemble of choices enables Wilder to make his point both cognitively and emotively. A formal choice in a film is such that it has the design function to bring about or to facilitate a/the point or purpose of the film. A formal choice has the intended function to advance the point or purpose of the individual film under analysis.

The form of the individual film comprises the collection of formal choices that enable the realization of its points or purposes. Films, of course, may have more than one point and/or purpose, and these may be co-ordinated, as may be the subtending systems of formal articulations designed to realize them. But in other films, formal choices may not be interconnected or mutually reinforcing where they still nevertheless enable different purposes. Yet whether co-ordinated or not, formal choices are always functional contributions to the purposes of the film. And the form of the individual film is made up of all its formal choices - fall the formal articulations in the film that function to realize its purposes (its overall purposes, or the purposes of a particular part, such as a sequence of the film).

For obvious reasons, I call this the functional account of film form. According to the functional account of film form,the form of an individual film is the ensemble of choices intended to realize the point or the purpose of the film. This approach to film form is different from the descriptive account. The descriptive account Says that the form of the film is the sum total of all the relations between the elements of the film. The functional account says that film form comprises only the elements and relations intended to serve as the means to the end of the film.

This account could include all the relations in a film, if they were all intended to serve the purposes of the film, but that occurs at most rarely, if ever, despite flowery critical language that sometimes commends films for being totalized organic wholes. Thus, almost (if not all) of the time, analyses of the form of an individual film that accord with the functional account will be far less exhaustive than the ideal that the descriptive account of film form encourages. And this approach, of course, conforms better to the way in which we usually discuss film form than does the descriptive account. The descriptive account is much broader than the functional account, and the former, logically speaking, includes the latter. But the descriptive account is far too broad to provide a useful framework for discussing film form.

The functional account also differs from attempts to approach film form through the contrast between form and content. That way of speaking restricts film form solely to films with specifiable content. But by speaking of the point or purpose of the film, rather than solely in terms of content, the functional account is broader than the form/content account. Of course, where the point of a film is to advance something typically thought of as content (a theme, for example), the functional account will attend to the same formal features as does the form/content account. However, the functional account can also accommodate "contentless" films, which is one of the sticking points of the form/content approach.

That is, the functional account is a richer approach than the form/content approach, since it will be capable of tracking film form where there is a point to a film, but nothing that we standardly refer to as content. For example, films whose purpose is to provoke a perceptual state in the audience will still possess form according to the functional account - the form will involve whatever configurations promote the intended effect - while the form/content approach has no way of speaking of film form where the correlative category of content is inoperative. Thus, logically the functional account of film form accommodates everything that the form/content approach covers, while not being so restrictive. In this respect, the functional account lies conceptually somewhere between the descriptive account and the form/content account, being less inclusive than the former and less exclusive than the latter.

The functional account regards film form as generative. Film form is that which is designed to bring about the point or the purposes of the film. This account uses the notion of a function to explain why the individual film is the way it is. It enables us to say why the film has the shape and structure it has. The form serves a function. It is designed to serve a film's purpose (or purposes), a means to securing its point or points. It is that which makes manifest the point or purpose of the film. The functionalist account explains why the film is the way it appears by showing that a formal element has been selected because that element realizes the film's point and that the choice occurs in the work in order to realize its point.

In William Wyler's Little Foxes, for instance, there is a recurrence of arresting, sharply deep-focussed, high and low angle shots of the main stairway. These shots cinematically reinforce and accentuate the film's abiding concern with power relationships. They make manifest the intensity of the power straggles in the film in a way that is visually accessible and emotionally forceful. According to the functionalist approach to film form, the film looks the way it does - has the form it does - in the relevant scenes because these angulated, strikingly aggressive deep-focus shots realize one of the purposes of the film (underlining the intense confrontations over power), and the choice of these shots occurs precisely for the purpose of realizing that point.

The formal elements of a film are referred to as choices, for when an artist contemplates the best way to articulate her point, she has an array of options before her. In Little Foxes, Wyler might have used a flatter style of image composition. He had to consider which of the compositional options available to him, given the norms, practices, technologies, and possibilities open to him, best suited his purposes. Creating a film involves electing the forms that the artist believes will function optimally to realize the point or purpose of the film. Forms are formal choices because they are elected from arrays of options.

Of course, in determining what options are historically available to a filmmaker, the analyst will have to consider the norms, practices, and technological possibilities open to the filmmaker in the pertinent situation. Moreover, in this respect, in order to appreciate the options that confronted the filmmaker, the analyst of a film's individual style will have to think about the period, genre, and school or movement to which the film may belong. But this does not reduce the analysis of the form of the individual film to one of these other categories of stylistic analysis, since its aim is not to classify the film or the techniques in question, but to clarify and explain the logic of the filmmaker's creative situation in terms of the formal resources available to him or her.

Forms are selected because they are intended or designed to perform certain functions. The notion of an intention is included in our characterization of film form in order to allow for the possibility of failure. Though its form may be defective, even a botched film still has form. A filmmaker may intend certain choices to have certain consequences, but those choices may not achieve their intended results. The point of a film may be to engender mystery, but it may fail to do so. A formal analysis of it will pick out the elements that were intended to inspire mystery and then go on to explain how they were compromised either by other elements in the work or by being put in place incorrectly. That is, the formal analysis of even a failed film will be functional.

In order to analyze the form of a film functionally, it is necessary to have some conception of the film's point. Often the point can be isolated rather easily in our experience of the film. But also quite frequently, the form may be elusive. This is why formal analysis of a film usually comes hand-in-hand with interpretations or explications of it. An interpretation identifies the theme as its point and uses the function of advancing the theme as a guide to the relevant formal Choices. For example, if we interpret the divisiveness of the African-American community to be a major theme of Spike Lee's School Daze, then we remark upon all the devices in the film that accentuate the sense of division. These include the competition dances, the studied contrast in the juxtaposed scenes of the light black students versus the dark black students, and even the unusually abrupt scene transitions, marked sometimes by intertitles and sometimes by the salient horizontal wipes employing the Mission College pennant.

In this respect, explication is broader than interpretation. It may identify the point or the purpose in terms of some effect (rather than some thematic communication) that the film aims to bring about - for instance, raising a certain feeling, such as awe - and then explication goes on to isolate the elements of the film that conspire to bring about this result. In this regard, the functional account of film form is explanatory. Unraveling the form of a film explains how it is capable (or, in some cases, incapable) of making its intended points and actualizing its purposes. Undeniably knowledge of film history, including knowledge of the genre and/or the school of the film, and even knowledge of previous works by the filmmaker often contribute crucially to elucidating a film's point or purpose. But, again, history here serves the purposes of explaining the way in which the film works, not in categorizing it.

We have already granted that the descriptive account of film form is plausible and coherent. If there is nothing more to be said for the functional account than that it too is plausible and coherent, what reason is there to prefer the functional account over the descriptive account? Perhaps it is that the functional account is better suited to doing what we expect our concept of film form to do. Generally when we talk about film form or the formal analysis of a film, we expect that learning about the form of the film will contribute to our understanding of it. If we are mystified by a film, we think that concentrating on its form may illuminate it.

But this intuition seems to fit better with the functional account of film form than it does with the descriptive account. If the film as a whole is already confusing, our enumerating the undifferentiated totality of its internal relations will not leave us any better off. If, however, we approach the elements and the relations in the film by asking what they are designed to do, we are far more likely to grasp the rationale behind the work.

Similarly, when we speak of the form of a film, this has overtones of the systematic - of there being some formula(e), or rule(s), or guiding principle(s) in operation. This connotation of systematicity is entirely lost in the descriptive account of film form, for it deals in the totality of relations of the film with no principle of selection. The functional account, by contrast, does connect film form to underlying motivations. In that sense, it preserves the intuition of systematicity, especially in cases where forms are co-ordinated hierarchically to secure overarching purposes.

Earlier we noted that a strength of auteurism is that it acknowledges the deep association between style and expression. This acknowledgment is equally a strength of the functional account, since displaying expressive properties or expressive content is a widely recognized point or purpose of films. Thus, formal analysis is often dedicated to disclosing the choices that make the manifestation or communication of expression possible in the individual film. At the same time, however, since not all films make expression their point or purpose, the functional account, as outlined above, is more comprehensive in its reach than analytic frameworks that would make form and expression necessarily co-relative terms.

The functional account of film form is dynamic in that it ties form to the motive force - the points and purposes - that explain a film's constellations of choices. In this sense, the functional account contrasts with the descriptive account, which might also be called the structural account, of the individual film. Because such accounts provide no inkling of the impulse behind the form of the film, they are static. Admittedly, the functional account is teleological. But it is not strange to treat objects of human design teleologically. We assemble such objects in order to fulfill certain purposes. In film analysis, the functional approach is sensitive to this feature; it assumes from the outset that films are the way they are as the result of human design. But this, it is seems to me, is not a problem. For there is no more reasonable nor powerful assumption with which to approach the question of the form of the individual film.(6)


1 Throughout this essay, I will be using the idea of form in the individual film and style in the individual film interchangeably.

2 The categories on this list and what follows are not intended to be exhaustive, nor are they mutually exclusive; sometimes some of them may overlap in various ways.

3 The concepts of universal style, period style, school style, and personal style are derived from Richard Wollheim's extremely useful essay "Pictorial Style: Two Views." I have added the concepts of genre style and style in the individual film to the list.

4 The alternative way of discussing film form, which is called the descriptive account in this portion of this essay, is extrapolated from Monroe Beardsley, chapter 4.

5 It is important to note, however, that even Bellour's methodology is less strenuous than the descriptive account, as I have stated it, since he advocates primarily tracking repetitions, whereas a full-blooded proponent of the descriptive account would call for an enumeration of all the relations between the parts of the film, not just repetitions (and differences), but more fine-grained ones such as relations of reinforcement, causation, and so on.

6 This article is an application to film of the theory of artistic form advanced in the chapter on form in my Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction.

Works Cited

Beardsley, Monroe. Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism. 1958, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981.

Bellour, Raymond. "The Obvious and the Code."Screen 15.4 (Winter 1974/1975): 7-17.

-----. "To Analyze, To Segment." Quarterly Review of Film Studies 1.3 (August 1976): 331-53.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. 1998. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Carroll, Noel. Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction. London: Routledge, 1999.

Lang, Berel, ed. The Concept of Style. 1979. Ithaca: Cornell UP. 1987.

Wollheim, Richard. "Pictorial Style: Two Views." Lang, 183-202.

Noel Carroll is the Monroe C. Beardsely Professor of the Philosophy of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also the President of the American Society for Aesthetics. His most recent book is A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford UP, 1998). His forthcoming book is Philosophy of Art: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge, expected 1999).
COPYRIGHT 1998 Northern Illinois University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Style in Cinema
Author:Carroll, Noel
Date:Sep 22, 1998
Previous Article:Introduction.
Next Article:Keeping up with Hawks.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |