What ever happened to Hollywood?
In an engaging piece on the transformation of Hollywood cinema during the 1990s published in 2001, Wheeler Winston Dixon laid bare what were, for him, the "25 Reasons Why It's All Over." (1) His provocation included dismissals of contemporary Hollywood on the grounds that it now catered only to young teenagers; that it was guided almost exclusively by managers, media conglomerates and marketing; that the pace of editing had gotten hyper-ridiculous; that narrative had collapsed; and perhaps above all that, when watching a Hollywood film, there was no longer anything to believe in, that all had been reduced to fakery, games, special effects, and smash-ups.
We have some sympathy with Dixon's claims while also noting, as does Dixon, the hyperbolic nature of them. What those claims reveal, it seems to us, is an inherent difficulty in coming to terms with what has happened to Hollywood filmmaking since some time around the late 1980s. Some analyses of this period seem to have given up on the "stuff" of Hollywood films--their stories, techniques, compositions, and so on--in order to focus on the industry: high concepts, media industry theories, franchises, remakes, and the Jerry Bruckheimer-Michael Bay model of filmmaking. (2) Others have focused on the notion of contemporary special effects "attractions", celebrating the decline of narrative and the rise of spectacle-driven, corporeally engaging thrills and spills that have undermined and renegotiated classical Hollywood's relationship to storytelling. (3) Still others have concentrated on the new modes of distribution and exhibition--from TV to DVDs, Blu-rays, online streaming, and so on--that may have rendered cinematic specificity obsolete. (4) Still others have focused more closely on cultural histories, especially those relating to social and political issues in the United States--Ryan and Kellner's Camera Politica marks something of a watershed here (5)--a trend that has continued with a vengeance in the post-9/11 era. All in all, most writers seem to feel the need to identify a definitive break with classical Hollywood--"postclassical Hollywood" seems the preferred term--summed up nicely by Dixon's feeling that "What we are witnessing now is nothing more nor less than the dawn of a new grammar." (6)
While certainly admitting that a great deal has changed, and also admitting a certain reticence in figuring out when, or if, the current crop of special-effects driven action blockbusters and superhero comic strip films will ever begin to peter out (also noting that we do not wish to denigrate such films; rather, it's simply a matter of accepting that we have little idea of what to make of them), we want to stress that the supposed newness of the new cinematic grammar is not the be-all and end-all of contemporary Hollywood. Rather, and to the contrary, quite a lot of things have stayed the same. In particular, there remain people committed to making good and interesting films according to fairly traditional Hollywood models. There remain filmmakers who are not very much interested in since the mid-to-late 1980s: Nora Ephron, Ang Lee, and David Fincher. Why these three? They represent, to some extent, filmmakers who have been difficult to place in the overall context of post-1980s Hollywood: Ephron because she resurrected a typically conservative genre, the romantic comedy; Lee because his output is so diverse and his productions transnational; and Fincher because his aesthetic program flouts certain dominant trends in "postclassical" film style.
Ephron can be charged with being an entirely uninteresting filmmaker: her aesthetic seems more indebted to television the moving and shaking of the media conglomerates or in pitching high concepts. There are also filmmakers who don't believe that Hollywood filmmaking joins in a conservative-capitalist conspiracy that is dedicated to pulling the wool over the eyes of billions of worldwide passive consumers of media technology in order to ensure the maintenance of the neoliberal status quo. In short, what we want to emphasize here is that, while many things have changed in Hollywood, quite a few things have also stayed the same. And that means that there are still a lot of talented, dedicated filmmakers in Hollywood who want to make "good films" rather than "products".
Modestly, therefore, we wish to focus on three filmmakers who have been active in and around Hollywood than cinema; she was an industry insider pretty much from birth--the daughter of successful screenwriters; and her films are imbued with a return to traditional romantic values that are surely misplaced in a more knowing and ironic (what was once called "postmodern") universe. If Hollywood seemed to have grown up in the 1970s, then Ephron's films must strike refined audiences as a return to the naive illusions of childhood. To accept such criticisms would, however, necessitate overlooking Ephron's achievements, two of which we wish to note here: that, first of all, she offered a turn to romantic comedy that placed women at the centre; and that secondly, she utilized canny classical storytelling strategies that conveyed salient, efficient narrative information alongside compelling emotional attachments to (mostly female) characters.
Ephron cannot be credited with singlehandedly reclaiming the romantic comedy genre, for When Harry Met Sally (1989) (scripted by Ephron), Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You've Got Mail (1998) all belong to a group of films that emerged in the 1980s which are sometimes known as "new comedies". (7) Following the cynicism and iconoclasm of the 1960s and 1970s in which the romanticideals of monogamous, heterosexual, "true" love were unraveled and reconfigured in various ways, by the mid- to late-1980s the romantic comedy had once again found its feet. And yet Ephron was one of the few women making films in Hollywood at this point (Penny Marshall was also one of the few, and she too worked mostly in the romantic genre). What is most distinctive about Ephron's output was that she placed the burden of narrative development fairly and squarely on the shoulders of her female protagonists. This is less the case in When Harry Met Sally, and much more the case in the three most successful films Ephron directed: Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail and 2009's Julie & Julia, Ephron's final film. (The same is also true of her 1986 script, Heartburn, directed by Mike Nichols.) She either wrote or co-wrote the scripts for all of these films.
These films demonstrate their debt to classical Hollywood: Wheti Harry Met Sally is peppered with references to Casablanca (1942), Sleepless in Seattle does likewise with An Affair to Remember (1957), while You've Got Mail is a remake of Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940). But even more than these overt references, Ephron's debt is to the romantic comedy genre more generally, classics associated with the screwball genre like It Happened One Night (1934), The Lady Eve (1941) or The Awful Truth (1937) in which a couple come to realize their love for one another. It is no coincidence that we have drawn attention to three films which Stanley Cavell calls "comedies of remarriage", for in these films, he argues, it is the woman, typically, who must be educated by the man, and it is the woman who must come to an understanding of herself that is in one way or another in conformity with the man's wishes. (Cavell wants to believe that such a transformation amounts to "the creation of a new woman".) (8) The trend in those earlier films was to give equal time and weight to each member of the couple--Peter and Elbe in One Night-, Jean and Charles in Eve-, Lucy and Jerry in The Awful Truth--so that the couple would realize their destiny together.
By contrast, Ephron's narratives are focalized around the main female character, and the quest, at least for Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail is to demand that the man be transformed in order to conform to the wishes of the female protagonist: in the former, Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) must overcome his grief at the death of his first wife and his anxieties about finding another partner in order to satisfy the romantic wishes of Annie Reed (Meg Ryan), while in the latter, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks, again) must reconsider his aggressive business outlook and embrace a more human existence that answers Kathleen Kelly's (Meg Ryan, again) desires. In the context of other romantic comedy films of the period, especially Pretty Woman's, (1990) saved from-destitution-by-a-millionaire-financial-high-flyer Cinderella story, or Green Card's (1990) remarriage of mutual understanding, or Groundhog Day's (1993) time-loop love story that is very much focalized around the male character, Phil (Bill Murray), Ephron's centering on female characters and their desires deserves to be acknowledged. (9) To take Ephron's oeuvre even further away from the screwball or "comedies of remarriage" cycles of the 1930 and '40s, we can point out that the model for Ephron's romances seems to be the definitively female-centered novels of Jane Austen--Pride and Prejudice features prominently in You've Got Mail--whereas Cavell places the origins of remarriage in certain of Shakespeare's comedies (most pertinently, The Winter's Tale).
It might be argued that Ephron achieves little in terms of purely cinematic innovation and that her innovations lie at the level of the screenplay. But her straightforward use of tried-and-tested techniques is remarkably adept at conveying story information and character emotion, and we don't believe such strategies should necessarily be denigrated. The parallel sequence in Sleepless in Seattle in which Sam relates by telephone to a talk-show radio DJ his responses to the loss of his wife, while, in the second line of the parallel action, Annie listens intently to his words on a car radio, offers a masterly example of what Carl Plantinga would call a "scene of empathy"." (10) While Sam speaks, he is captured in a medium-to-long-shot, never closer than from the knees up (and furthermore, he shares the screen with his son, Jonah [Ross Malinger]). By contrast the camera takes up a position very close to Annie's face, so that her responses are unambiguously conveyed to the viewer. When tears begin to fall down her cheeks, we are left in no uncertain terms that an emotional connection has been made, but also that it is Annie, rather than Sam, with whom our sympathies are aligned. We will also suspect that the trajectory of the film will involve the larger parallel narrative that will eventually see this couple brought together. The strategies go as far back as D. W. Griffith, with The Lonedale Operator (1911) or The Mothering Heart (1913) perhaps offering key telephonic precursors, each with a female protagonist's emotive concerns brought to the fore. (Other precursors might be Doris Day / Rock Hudson comedies such as Pillow Talk  or Lover Come Back ). These are unremarkable strategies, but they are achievements that have allowed Hollywood to tell stories of enduring emotional value.
Of course, nowadays, female-centered romance flicks are very much de rigueur: Bridget Jones (2001, 2004) or Sex and the City (2008; 2010), or several films orchestrated by Drew Barrymore, such as Never Been Kissed (1999) or Going the Distance (2010), but this was not the case in the late-1980s-1990s. Julie & Julia might be considered Ephron's response to the emergence of "post-feminist" narratives, for here Ephron departs from the romantic comedy in order to explore dual narratives of female transformation. Confronted by the care, but also the cynicism and apathy of their husbands, each of the women in this film, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and Julia Child (Meryl Streep), emerges so as to discover themselves and to balance personal and career aspirations along with commitments to a romantic partner. The parallelism of this film is again pronounced in a way that signals Griffith--this time, Intolerance's (1916) crossing between historical periods. Ephron's film certainly handles the parallel narratives--that of Julia Child's attempts to master the art of French cooking in 1940s and '50s France and America, alongside Julie Powell's attempts to master the cookbook that eventuated from Child's earlier journey-- with deft clarity and efficiency.
Such storytelling prowess comes to the fore early in the film when conveying, in a rapid-fire manner, the motivation behind Julie's decision to cook all 524 recipes from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the space of a year. The film takes us from an initial scene between Julie and her husband, Eric; then to Julie's workplace, an uninspiring but often harrowing call centre answering queries relating to the 9/11 events (Julie & Julia is based on the historical accounts of its main protagonists); then Julie is confronted by the financial successes of her old school girlfriends as they share a lunch, and thus we are given the sense of Julie's lack of self-esteem and sense of failure; then via a conversation with a faithful friend, Sarah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) we discover that Julie is a failed writer who had tried to write a novel; until finally, again in conversation with her husband, Julie decides to embark on her project: to cook the recipes from Julia Child's cookbook, and to additionally write a blog about her attempt. Again, we would stress that there is nothing remarkable about such storytelling maneuvers, except to say that Ephron carries them off with aplomb. She does so in a manner that renders overt stylistic operations subservient to narrative information and character motivation--one stylistic flourish might be found in a fairly elaborate tracking shot in Julie and Eric's new apartment--but such strategies certainly manage to deliver an enormous amount of story information with great ease and enable audiences to understand a character's desires and dreams without ambiguity. These are fine filmmaking achievements, and that they offer little in the way of stylistic innovation needn't render them uninteresting or unworthy of praise.
Ang Lee occupies a curious position in relation to Hollywood. Born and raised in Taiwan, then cinematically educated in New York, he was the director of three predominantly Taiwanese-funded films before finally being offered a "studio" picture. But even then, this "studio" picture was hardly out of central Hollywood. Rather, it was an adaptation of a traditional English novel, a period piece: Sense and Sensibility (1995). Subsequent worldwide success brought Lee closer to the heart of Hollywood as he pursued American themes in The Ice Storm (1997), set in Connecticut in 1973, and Ride with the Devil (1999), an American Civil War drama. This was then followed by a most peculiar success with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a Chinese-language Taiwanese-funded film that was nevertheless backed by a major studio (Columbia) and became the most successful foreign-language film in America to that date. High on the success of Crouching Tiger, Lee finally moved onto the central stages of Hollywood with Hulk (2003), but a $150 million budget and studio interference led to commercial and critical failure. Another Hollywood film, but with a smaller budget and a less mainstream theme nevertheless led to unprecedented success and a directorial Oscar for Brokeback Mountain (2005). After that there was a return to Taiwan with Lust, Caution (2007), another failed American adventure with Taking Woodstock (2009), then an extraordinary effort to master the arts of 3-D CGI with Life of Pi (2012).
Perhaps the effort of Life of Pi is worth noting as a starting point. Why would anyone make such a film and, additionally, why would one have made it in the way Ang Lee did; that is, utilizing cutting-edge digital special effects and 3-D, much of which required time-consuming (and costly) adaptations of new technologies? If we are to believe filmmaking in Hollywood is relentlessly profit-driven, then surely such a film would never have been made: costs spiraled out of control, production and post-production faced constant delays, and emergency funds had to be sought from the Taiwanese government in order to get the film finished. All told, the film took four full years to make. There can be no conclusion other than that Lee made this film because he wanted to make a "good film" and to extend the range of what it was possible to depict--or evoke--on film, and to do so at the very limits of what contemporary technology could offer.
Lee can be placed along with a number of foreign-born and foreign-language filmmakers who have made their mark in Hollywood over the last twenty years or more: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron, Wayne Wang, John Woo, Paul Verhoeven, Roland Emmerich, Werner Herzog, Wolfgang Petersen, Guillermo del Toro, and others. But this has pretty much always been the case in Hollywood anyway: Douglas Sirk, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Jean Renoir, F. W. Murnau, Michael Curtiz, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Otto Preminger, and so on ... Hollywood has never simply meant "American."
One way in which Lee is characterized is to at once call him an auteur, and yet at the same time declare that what is distinctive about his direction is that he disappears, that he leaves no particular mark or signature in his films. (11) He has worked across a number of genres: the heritage film (Sense and Sensibility), a realist melodrama (The Ice Storm), a historical fiction (which is also a revisionist Western) in Ride with the Devil, the wuxia pian tradition (Crouching Tiger), a comic/superhero film (Hulk), a "gay Western" (Brokeback Mountain), a romantic political thriller (Lust, Caution) and a historical fantasy (Life of Pi). Several issues resurface, among them Lee's penchant for adapting previously published novels or short stories; a stylistic preference for longer takes than are typical in contemporary Hollywood cinema; and a tendency to rely on the specific acting talents of his casts.
On the latter in particular, Lee has noted that "If you have good actors, great actors, they hold onto the screen" and he continues by stating that "I do believe good actors act with their whole body." (12) Such a tendency to allow actors to use their whole bodies is a trait reminiscent of classical Hollywood, and something that has faded with the rise of intensified continuity and rapid "singles". Lee was commenting on a particular scene in Sense and Sensibility featuring Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood and Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars, a scene lasting more that two and a half minutes in which the two characters, in a classically repressed British manner, talk around their love for each other without ever stating their true feelings. The awkward distance between them is emphasized by the long take and the static, inwardly turned poses of Thompson and Grant. By way of contrast, this scene shows us a reversal of the two earlier scenes that had featured this couple, scenes that were very straightforward over-the-shoulder shot / reverse shot sequences. Perhaps such observations do little to foreground anything that might be innovative in Lee's style. Rather, they emphasize a clear indebtedness to classical Hollywood forms that were very much reliant upon a combination of middle distance long takes that would often display characters conversing in profile, together with the kinds of shot / reverse shot conversation patterns that are absolutely central to the classical style. (13) The fact that Lee can still have faith in a long take from a considerable distance at a time when so few other big budget directors would, is something worth noting.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Lee's filmmaking--it is there in Sense and Sensibility--is his ability to incorporate a large number of characters and narrative strands into his films. It is a trait we are tempted to call layering: Lee opens up the different layers of a character, as well as prizing open a series of different frameworks of relations between characters in complicated ways. The only theoretical precedent we can find is Gilles Deleuze's conception of the crystal-image: an image or layering of images that brings into play a range of facets of a situation or series of relationships among characters over time. (14) And this kind of approach can be found in Sense and Sensibility: Lee's uses of windows, door frames, passages from inside to outside, as well as mirrors, all to bring out the webs of relationships between characters.
But it is with The Ice Storm that Lee truly finds something that will be repeated in subsequent works: the crystal in a state of disintegration or decomposition. (15) One does not have to look very hard to discover a crystalline regime in this film: there is the famous 1973 ice storm itself, but that storm is also refracted by the myriad close-ups of ice trays that recur throughout the film. Narratively, the film builds up a sophisticated number of layers: the intrigues between characters, the hidden motives, the secret rendezvous, the deceptions between children and parents, between parents, friends and work colleagues, and between children and their friends. The film spends a good deal of time building up these relationships; they crisscross and intertwine in intriguing ways. Yet this web of deceptions eventually collapses in a manner that will become central to Lee's narrative patterns: the son, Paul (Tobey Maguire), abandons his attempts to woo his classmate; the neighbor's son dies in a freak electrocution at the height of the storm; the wife, Elena (Joan Allen), fails in her attempt at a vengeful sexual escapade, while the husband, Ben (Kevin Kline) breaks down at the shame and fraudulence of his infidelity and self-absorption. In short, the crystalline narrative structure Lee has assembled comes crashing down.
The same tendency can be found in Ride with the Devil: a range of hard-to-follow relationships are established between the various renegade Missouri bushwhackers determined to defend their territory at any cost. Their skirmishes are disorganized, their hiding places scattered, their resources scarce. As the film progresses, the layers the rebel soldiers have established are slowly and surely eroded: one of the band members is shot clear through the head, another has to have his arm amputated only to die soon after, while another turns against his fellow comrades. Eventually, the rebel force is entirely disintegrated and only a few characters remain: Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), Sue Lee Shelley (Jewel Kilcher), and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) are left only to wander further west in search of a new life. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Di-agon impresses too with its range of plots, sub-plots and entwined relationships, with the film's dazzling martial arts choreography and color schemes all adding to the mix. But this structure slowly unravels, so that by the end of the film each of the main protagonists' goals remain unfulfilled, both Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei) and Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) are killed, and Jen (Zhang Ziyi) leaps to her eternal destiny at Mount Wudang.
Similar structures are found in Hulk--primarily the mixture of layers of images by way of digital editing and an attempted comic book style, but also in the layers of the film's narrative: deceptions hidden between father (Nick Nolte) and son (Eric Bana)--the father's accidental murder of the mother many years ago--that have spiraled into the experimental DNA biotechnologies the father has used on his son that cause the latter to morph into the "Hulk". In Brokeback Mountain it is once again the range of deceptions, double meanings and hidden feelings that are emphasized: much like the repressed romances of Sense and Sensibility, here it is mirrors, doorways, cars, windows, telephones, rodeos, fireworks displays and the mise en scene more generally that clutter both the characters' and our access to the "true" nature of things. And once again this multi-layered structure slowly disintegrates so that Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is murdered and Ennis (Heath Ledger) abandoned to a life of loneliness and detachment.
Finally, Life of Pi manages to amplify Lee's layered approach. For a film based for the most part around a single character, the layers developed are impressive: from the doubling of the main character, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) in the imagined figure of the tiger (and Richard Parker carries other layers of literary and historical association), through the duplicated stories--the animal story and the human story--as well as the framing story of a novelist in search of a narrative, the mysterious floating island, all the way to the historical conflict (the 1974-5 democratic crisis in India and the long shadow of French colonialism in Pondicherry), not to mention the multiplied characters on the ship and boat: the cook becomes a hyena, a sailor becomes a zebra, and Pi's mother an orangutan. These narrative elements are then in themselves duplicated by Life of Pi's extraordinary special effects, layered, dissolving and mixed and intertwined in intricate ways. And again this world slowly rots and devours itself until we are left with only the main character and the stories that have helped him to survive.
All of this has allowed Lee to carve out a quite singular existence in and around Hollywood. Lee's distinctiveness extends to the sheer range of genres and genre hybrids he has attempted. His achievements strike us as ones worth championing in the context of the art and craft of filmmaking.
To date, David Fincher has signed ten highly distinctive and frequently controversial features. Unlike Ephron and Lee, he belongs to a cadre of Hollywood directors reared on 1970s New Hollywood cinema. Just as the seventies cinema splintered into two broadly discriminable strands--the classical studio style updated by Spielberg, De Palma, Lucas, and Bogdanovich, and the European-influenced countercultural impulse of Pakula, Altman, and Ashby--Fincher's peers tend to pursue one or other of these aesthetic programs. Some, like M. Night Shyamalan, preserve the Movie Brats' "intensified" studio style; others, such as Alexander Payne, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Richard Linklater favor Altmanesque irreverence, distressing the norms of classical storytelling. Fincher's fascination with seventies cinema, by contrast, is uniquely polytheistic--his cinema puts in tension both poles of New Hollywood filmmaking. Even his most iconoclastic, anarchic films--Fight Club (1999), say, or Se7en (1995)--obey the principles of classical narration, even as they push traditional schemas in fresh directions. The result is not only an unassailably auteurist cinema shot through with signature traits, but a cinema that in its narrational complexity counters Dixon's totalizing charge of Hollywood juvenilism.
The complexity of Fincher's narratives partly stems from this clash of classicism and iconoclasm. Unlike Thomas Elsaesser's "unmotivated hero" of 1970s cinema, (16) Fincher's protagonists are determinedly goal-oriented, moving with purpose through an investigation (Zodiac, 2007; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2011; Se7en), a diabolical charade (The Game, 1997), a rite of self-discovery (Fight Club), a cat-and-mouse situation (Panic Room, 2002), an extraterrestrial invasion (Alien 3, 1992), or a bitter litigation (The Social Network, 2010). Not that every New Hollywood protagonist evinces Elsaesser's "crisis of motivation," either--like the investigators in Zodiac, the intrepid heroes of Chinatown (1974) and The Parallax View (1974) are cynical but not apathetic. They are tenaciously goal-directed. Nevertheless, their goals are conclusively thwarted somehow. True to New Hollywood tradition, Fincher's protagonists in Zodiac watch their primary goal fizzle out: the identity of the serial murderer is never discovered.
Yet Zodiac's climax does not embody the despair, pessimism, and "pathos of failure" that Elsaesser finds in New Hollywood's open-ended plots. Rather, Fincher's film furnishes a kind of quasi-closure by allowing subsidiary character goals to reach fruition, as when Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) attains a degree of personal satisfaction by confronting his favorite suspect in the murder case, or when his published account of the killings tops the bestseller list. To this partial closure Fincher adds formal symmetry, rhyming the climactic and opening scenes. In effect, Fincher's classical instincts come to the fore. Whereas certain New Hollywood films tolerate a high degree of open-endedness and thereby risk anticlimax (as in Five Easy Pieces, 1970), Fincher is less prepared to leave plotlines dangling or to wholly embrace irresolution. Likewise he repudiates the aleatory architecture of the "liberal" New Hollywood films in favor of solidly-built, classical dramaturgy. From Se7en to Gone Girl--and even including the ostensibly digressive Zodiac--Fincher's narratives construct a robust chain of cause and effect.
Fincher embraces complex plotting but never at the expense of narrative intelligibility. Though he inclines toward tail-chasing puzzle plots (Fight Club-, Se7en; The Game-, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), jumbled chronologies (The Social Network-, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008), coups-de-theatre (Gone Girl, 2014), unreliable narrators (Fight Club-, Gone Girl), and densely-packed exposition (Zodiac), his proclivity for both classical storytelling and the Spielbergian strand of the New Hollywood leads him, ultimately, to prioritize narrative logic and dramatic clarity. It is Fincher's classical perspicuity that keeps his films from convolutedness. The intricate plot of Zodiac, for instance, remains lucid throughout, never plunging the viewer into the kind of arcane fog besetting Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice (2014)--another neo-noir inspired by the 1970s New Hollywood. Needless to say, Fincher's deftly-plotted cinema is far removed from the putative infantilism, spoon-feeding simplicity, and radical "collapse of narrative" forecast by Dixon at the start of the century. (17)
Like other directors recruited from MTV and video advertising, Fincher has been denigrated as a purveyor of empty style--a technical virtuoso, certainly, hut also a mere aesthete bereft of substance. (Dixon perceives this emptiness in Spielberg and Lucas too, lamenting both their elevation of "visuals over content" and their "malign influence" on younger filmmakers. (18)) Fincher is indeed a proficient technician, and he can be virtuosic. But important to note here is that his pictorial style is representative neither of the "shakicam" trend that currently dominates Hollywood mainstream cinema, nor of the "hyperedited" MTV-style aesthetic decried by Dixon. (19) Instead, Fincher's compositional style is defiantly classical in its reliance on intricate staging, balanced framing, and spatial coherence. Fie employs handheld shots sparingly. He delineates spatial exposition economically and cogently. Each shot exhibits a kind of formal discipline, a precision of staging and shooting absent from shakicam movies. In its cleanly composed, spacious mise en scene, Fincher's shot design recalls not only the pictorial clarity of Spielberg but also that of Hitchcock and Preminger--all of whom, incidentally, have been disparaged as facile stylists, and who, like Fincher, are masters of depicting procedural actions through the discourse of "pure cinema." (20)
Fincher himself has suggested that this visual style confers a level of detachment upon the action; indeed, such an effect is apposite to the chilling worlds of Selen and Zodiac, where the protagonists' destinies seem to be inexorably governed by a larger force. Just as important, Fincher's stable camera endows every shot with authority, a decisive authorial vision. It is precisely this certainty of authorial point of view that is sacrificed in Hollywood's shakicam cinema. In the hands of Paul Greengrass or Tony Scott, the shakicam device--by virtue of its pseudo-documentary rhetoric--is intended to appear ad hoc, spontaneous, accidental. If, as Bordwell argues, Scott's "framing is often restless, as if groping for the right composition," (21) Fincher's stable framing never seems hesitant or tentative. As in Hitchcock, Preminger, and Spielberg, Fincher's meticulous composition always seems to be the "right composition", the only perspective from which to view the action. (Several other Generation X directors, such as M. Night Shyamalan and Steven Soderbergh, share Fincher's facility with pictorial design.) The incessantly reframing camera has hardened into a visual schema across all Hollywood genres--apparently even dialogue-laden romantic comedies and domestic dramas must display visual "energy"--but Fincher rejects this device even in scenes of physical spectacle. (Compare the eerily sober presentation of Zodiac's brutal executions with the spatially incoherent, almost illegible skirmishes in the same year's The Bourne Ultimatum .) Dixon argues that modern movies furnish "a barrage of flat, uninvolving visuals," (22) since they are now custom-fit less for theatrical exhibition than for television consumption. But Fincher's films confirm that the art of cinematic staging is alive and well in Hollywood cinema.
None of this is to deny Fincher's penchant for artifice. He takes a Wellesian delight in the bold pictorial flourish, and the surface of his films can be self-conscious. Zodiac, for instance, contains overt visual references to Pakula's All the President's Men (1976) and Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), thereby acknowledging its twin New Hollywood influences. (Like Ben Affleck's Argo , Zodiac is prefaced by vintage studio logos from the 1970s.) Zodiac's high-definition digital format, moreover, yields a distinctive, slightly otherworldly visual texture. Adrian Martin suggests that, in Zodiac, the line between 35mm and "a top-of-the-line digital camera" is vanishingly thin. (23) But the film's HD cinematography casts a kind of twilight pall over the action, producing a hallucinatory visual surface unavailable to 35mm celluloid; not least, it confers a haunting, off-kilter atmosphere upon the film's San Francisco locale. Then there are Fincher's outre flourishes--an extended tracking shot through the levels of Jodie Foster's sprawling brownstone in Panic Room-, the virtual tour of Edward Norton's brain in the opening titles of Fight Club--which are grist for the mill for Hollywood doomsayers. Such flamboyant set-pieces, critics argue, amount to attention-grabbing gambits, desperate attempts by contemporary filmmakers to seize "the ever-diminishing attention spans of image-saturated viewers." (24) Hollywood cinema, however, has always absorbed virtuosity into its broadly "transparent" continuity system. Virtuosity, in itself, is evidence of a decline neither in audience attention levels nor in Hollywood's narrative prowess.
Dixon is likely to find Fincher's visual brio and digitally-upholstered self-consciousness further proof that it is "all over" for Hollywood cinema. Denouncing the "utterly synthetic images" of Titanic (1997) and The Matrix (1999), Dixon asserts that "All is predetermined; nothing natural remains" (25)--a hyperbolic statement, even when applied to effects-laden movies such as Alien 3 and Life of Pi. For Dixon, moreover, as we have already noted, the rise of digital production heralds nothing less than "the dawn of a new grammar," (26) contention that chimes with notions of a "postclassical" Hollywood aesthetic. Yet, as Bordwell has argued, Hollywood cinema routinely adapts new technologies--including high-definition video--to traditional functions. (27) He reminds us, for instance, that classical movies often employ the newspaper-headline montage as a (narrationally overt) device for conveying narrative information. For Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles employed an optical printer to superimpose a series of newspaper headlines upon one another, creating an elaborate juxtaposition of shots. This montage sequence isn't simply flashy but rather an economical strategy by which to impart and condense story action. Fincher revives the newspaper montage in Zodiac but using digital techniques. As the film's protagonists continue to investigate the Bay Area slayings, a flurry of digitally-generated words and symbols--culled from newspaper headlines and encrypted missives composed by the killer--are writ large across the screen, superimposed upon the diegetic action. This is certainly a highly virtuosic sequence, and made possible only by contemporary digital resources. But rather than reinventing film grammar, the new technology is put to classical purposes. Fincher assimilates digital techniques to Hollywood cinema's traditional narrative system, in this case, by resurrecting the newspaper-montage schema as a means to compress story events. Though the technology has changed, the narrative principles that Dixon elegizes remain intact. Far from being "all over," then, Hollywood's tradition of classical storytelling endures into the modern era.
(1) Wheeler Winston Dixon, "Twenty-five Reasons Why It's All Over," The End of Cinema As We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, edited by Jon Lewis, London: Pluto Press, 2001, 356-366.
(2) Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003; Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland, Studying Contemporary American Film. London: Arnold, 2002.
(3) See Wanda Strauven (ed.), The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
(4) Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York & London: New York University Press, 2008.
(5) Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
(6) Dixon, 366.
(7) Steve Neale, "The Big Romance or Something Wild?: The Romantic Comedy Today", Screen 33: 3, 1992, 284-99.
(8) Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1981, 16.
(9) See Roberta Garrett, "Female Fantasy and Post-Feminist Politics in Nora Ephron's Screenplays," Journal of Screenwriting 3: 2, 2012, 177-96.
(10) Carl Plantinga, Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator's Experience, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, p. 127; "The scene of empathy and the human face on film" in C. Plantinga and G. M. Smith (eds.), Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, 239-55.
(11) See Whitney Crothers Dilley, The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen, New York: Wallflower, 2007, 13.
(12) Lee makes these claims on the DVD commentary to Sense and Sensibility, Sony Pictures (2002).
(13) On these points see David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006, 129-31.
(14) Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. H. Tomlinson and R. Galeta, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, 68-97.
(15) See Deleuze, Cinema 2, 94-7.
(16) Thomas Elsaesser, "The Pathos of Failure: American Films in the 70's-Notes on the Unmotivated Hero." Monogram 6 (October 1975), 13-19.
(17) Dixon, 356-366.
(18) Dixon, 361.
(19) Dixon, 360.
(20) It is not incidental that Fincher appears on the blu-ray audio commentary for Chinatown, extolling this New Hollywood noir's classical mise en scene and scenic design. No less than the finest work of Hitchcock and Preminger, Roman Polanski's thriller is a model of procedural narrative and pure cinema.
(21) David Bordwell, "Unsteadicam Chronicles." Observations on Film Art: David Bordwell's Website on Cinema (August 17, 2007). http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2007/08/17/unsteadicam-chronicles/ Retrieved 25 May 2015.
(22) Dixon, 359.
(23) Adrian Martin, Mise en scene and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 156.
(24) Dixon, 363.
(25) Dixon, 366.
(26) Dixon, 358-9.
(27) Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It.
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|Author:||Rushton, Richard; Bettinson, Gary|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2016|
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