This is part 2 of the Synoptique Style Forum. Use the links to the left to visit parts 1 and 3.
You can view our gallery of style moments, as well as learn more about the project, by clicking on this address:http://style.synoptique.ca
Summary: moderator William Beard begins the second part of the Forum by returning to the Style Gallery and offering his ideas on what style ‘is’ (“ways of looking”) and suggests that the contributors to the Forum try to find examples of “unstylish style;” Beard and Colin Burnett then debate the value of notions of film technique and practice to the idea of style; in his personal anecdote on style, Brian Crane introduces a unique example of style in film from Star Wars and asks Burnett to give a ‘non-technique’ example of a film style sample; Adam Rosadiuk builds both on his idea of style as “wowza” moments and Beard’s notion of style as “ways-of-looking,” and also asks Burnett to offer a style sample that is not technologically-based; Burnett offers a number of ‘non-technique’ style samples.
William Beard (Feb 5th)
I am impressed by the density and concentration of the thinking on display and the fervor of the efforts to get to the bottom of a very complex question. Adam’s and Colin’s recent testaments to their powerful early encounters with film style are moving, and I always responded strongly to Brian’s initial emphasis on the crucial importance of object-love for film. This is an aspect too often missing from academic Film Studies—not the fact of it, but the willingness to admit it. Love is the true ruling principle of the Style Forum. It may also be one of its problems, because trying to be rational about love is always difficult.
I went back and looked at all the extracts in the Style Gallery, and I was forcibly struck by a few things. First of all, every example but one was taken from feature fiction films: no avant-garde, just one documentary and that a highly inflected and “un-neutral” one. All of the moments (possible exception: The Thing) are not only style, but high style. All are also stylish, and it was good to see Colin introducing this notion and asking what might be the relation between it and style. The style in all the extracts might be said to be marked by a principle of DEVIATION—deviation, that is, from some more quotidian or less stylish norm. Their tendency is not only to be stylish, but to stylize. I personally like the idea of deviation, because it accords with my sense that, in the filmic contexts we are discussing, something always precedes style. “Content” might not be the best word for this something. It might be “narrative” or it might be “conventional language that is always-already there” or it might (for a documentary) be “reality.” Style in this sense then deviates from some norm, or ADDS something, and if you look at all the Gallery examples, they all (exception: Solaris) represent moments in narrative that could have been handled differently, and whose handling strikes us as special: original, surprising, creative, poetic, emphatic in a particular way, whatever. For all of them (exception: Solaris), there is another version of those same scenes that is stylistically less interesting. This is also a notion that applies to every one of Brian’s usefully concrete typology-of-five.
But this IS to assume that style is not something that is everywhere all the time, and that is a hard notion to defend. There is a powerful argument that everything has style, just as everything has hue or duration or content. Films, or moments in films, that don’t appear to have style merely have a style that is so bland and ordinary that you don’t see it. And why don’t you see it as style? Because you have an idea that style is something that deviates from that norm. It has a style that we are evidently (by the evidence of the Gallery) not attracted by or interested in. A good exercise: think about each example in the Gallery in terms of how the stylish or object-love component of it adds to the basic requirements of narrative. Another good exercise: think about the style of a convenience store video surveillance tape. In fact I am a little disappointed that out of 18 Gallery examples every example (possible exception: The Thing) is what I would call loud—interventionist, calling attention to itself in some way. Where are the styles of a Paisa or a Rules of the Game, not to mention Lonely Boy or Basic Training? I suggest that they are not there because they are too recessive, too hard to distinguish from the white noise of norm, to spring quickly to mind as examples of style—not to mention too hard to capture in a clip. They have zero “wowza” element (unless you can recapture the historical moment in which Italian Neorealism looked shocking because of its absence of artificiality).
Another formulation: style is a way-of-looking. A film’s way-of-looking attracts attention insofar as it is not a quasi-universal, merely functional way-of-looking. And a way-of-looking implies that there is something looked AT, that is, something distinct from the looker or the way-of-looking—in other words, that something that precedes style. The world is there before we look at it. In fact, styles that acknowledge this truth—and these would include Rossellini’s and Wiseman’s—are also the ones that are the hardest to see, whereas styles that think all there IS is the way-of-looking are very emphatic about their own looks and very easy to see.
Colin, when you adapt Bordwell’s distinction between scholarship and exegesis I can appreciate what you are doing, but in attaching “style” to scholarship and historical analysis and “form” to exegesis, you have removed the former from the centre of our debate. If we wanted to talk about technical innovation and application we would all have our noses stuck in trade journals or histories of lens speeds. To direct object-love towards these things is to reduce style to the level of “the making of” featurettes or the discussions of pre-university film fans who haven’t yet been able to put any other name to the “something more.” And we would have to rename the Style Forum the Form Forum. We are all exegetes here, I would suggest. Having said that, I think that your last post was heading (via a somewhat different path) towards a perspective similar to the one I’m advancing here, and I much appreciate the “intrinsic”/“extrinsic” distinction as a view that tries to link the powerful gestures of micro-style to the meaning of the whole work.
I hope this post has helped to clarify questions rather than just introducing a whole bunch of new things to try to sort out along with all the old things we weren’t making such triumphant progress at sorting out. For sure nothing I’ve said does anything to answer why we value style, or how we could defend the styles we value.
Maybe I could just end with a challenge for the group: come up with some examples of unstylish style.
Colin Burnett (Feb 5th)
I first would like to address Bill’s (deliberately provocative, I assume) assertion about trade journals and the subsequent connection he makes between the knowledge to be harvested from them on the one hand and “making of” featurettes and the habits of neophyte “pre-university film fans” on the other. This idea bears directly on my conception of style. Mildly put, this link requires making a huge, unreasonable leap, one that totally undermines the value of the “user’s knowledge” and accomplishments of filmmakers and technicians. This blind eye, incidentally, is one that I, not to mention said filmmakers and technicians—though I hardly take myself as their spokesperson—, associate with a sorry side of Film Studies. How is it that this massive collective of film people (academics) can talk, or claim to talk, authoritatively about an art for which they demonstrate so little understanding at the basic level? I am not implying that Film Studies at its advanced levels become the study of film techniques, but that knowledge of film techniques become a basic requirement for the advanced study of film (for a number or reasons that I can’t go into here). “Making of” featurettes are not (usually) on par with the articles in American Cinematographer or the French journal Cinéma Pratique or Cinefex; surely Bill doesn’t believe that they are. Moreover, I have doubts that Bill actually believes that the main readership of these periodicals is a collection of callow flick fans. There’s surely is a distinction to be made; I’m not suggesting that we read Fantasmagoria (or whatever it’s called) or any other fanzine. I’m talking about keeping up with technological developments that directly—I repeat, directly—impact what we see (and what we value) in films, and this includes—for better or for worse—style. So Bill, your attempt to slide this facet of style off the table is hasty, to be sure. One of Concordia’s faculty members studies American film style from the perspective of technical manuals and the changes made to those manuals as new techniques and new technology are made available. I find this to be the equivalent of those who study original manuscripts in ancient Greek scholarship. Are you suggesting that fine attention to detail like this is dispensable to a discussion on style simply because its importance is only marginal to those who take themselves to be exegetes?
Let’s leave this aside; I don’t want to hold things up here by hard-headedly defending film technology, partly because I have no interest (as my previous post demonstrates) in collapsing the history of style into the history of technological development. That would be tantamount to subjecting our responses to film to “technological determinism,” a position which cannot hold water. I leave this issue with a question for you all (assuming that you agree with Bill): if Bordwell’s On the History of Film Style or Barry Salt’s Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis or the discussion of the seemingly unlimited potentialities of moving camera due to the emergence of digital filmmaking in the latest Cinefex are not addressing what we are calling in this Forum “style,” then what are they addressing?
As one author puts it, style is the “salient” use of film techniques. So, to answer Bill’s call for “unstylish” style examples, I need only point out that “salient” does not mean “stylish” in order to make way for the description of a few very simple examples (which could easily be captured in clips as “style moments”):
The unstylish use of (what appears to be) the zoom lens in the joust sequence in Bresson’s Lancelot du lac (a film I had seen perhaps 10 times before noticing the zoom);
The subtle use of rack-focus as the Countess peers at the picture of her dead son in Journal d’un curé de campagne (enhanced—and made even more subtle—by cinematographer Burel’s special lens diffusers);
Jurassic Park III’s tendency to use lenses that are of a wider angle than the previous two JP films, and its proliferation of close-ups (the “look” of this film differs drastically from the other two);
The use of zip or whip pans as segmental markers in Welles’ Mr. Arkadin;
The long-lens two-shots (used to compose dialogue scenes) in L.A. Confidential;
The wide-angle lens/handheld CGI shots in the first installment of Lord of the Rings (most notably when they encounter those massive ogres in that underground passageway)
I could actually come up with a few more, but my mind is drawing a blank right now. My point: all of these moments (or the moments that could be chosen to reflect the given characteristics) are designed to not be noticed—to go _un_noticed. But these choices, some of which have become or will become conventions, are stylistically significant nonetheless. Unstylish style. Not all style, then, is “false glitter,” or glitter at all, for that matter. Now, this would appear to fly in the face of my earlier claim that a stylistic feature “seduces” one with a “wink.” These unstylish features still wink but only do so at those who actively seek to discover that which is unusual about the usual—the norms and the commonly slight modifications perceptible in them in the history of film.
What about you guys? Any “unstylish” style moments? Mine surely betray a certain bias (that I am very consciously upholding here). Brian, if style is beautiful, then I guess the question for you is: can style be ugly, or would this then point to a lack of style? Is an unsuccessful style still “style”? Or better still, must we be able to derive a motivation for an apparently unsuccessful style in order to say “yes, this is style”? A final related question: what’s the difference between non-style (a lack of style) in a film and a “chaotic” style? Is it just a sense of authorial intention, which would act as a warm bosom from which we can begin to speak of beauty again?
WB (Feb 6th)
Just a reply to Colin’s last post. Having your nose in a trade journal or studying the history of lens speeds are not stupid or inadequate pursuits for film scholars, and I am sorry if what I said made it sound as though I felt that way. But what the contributors to Synoptique‘s style quest are primarily doing is trying to pinpoint what they love about film style. I stand by the comment that directing object-love to technical developments in themselves is – I don’t know, if not immature then at least somehow impoverished. One of the problems with broader film culture today is the relentless emphasis on technology and technical innovation, and the fetishization of technique for technique’s sake, and that’s why young film fans often simply don’t have any other ready-to-hand categories to direct object-love towards. History-of-technology (or even history-of-style) scholars are usually pretty careful not to betray any object-loves towards the techniques themselves, their developments or applications as historical phenomena. Bordwell doesn’t attribute any kind of value to long takes or camera movement, if my memory serves. Nowadays historians and historiographers mostly do historical fact, and if there’s any value attached its political value (e.g. the development of the classical apparatus served as a control mechanism to direct viewers towards attitudes more in keeping with hegemonic ideology). Knowing everything there is to know about technical developments doesn’t allow you in itself to pick out what is good in film style, because any technique can be used profoundly or superficially, it can even be used in an innovative way superficially as well as profoundly.
CB (Feb 6th)
I absolutely agree with your last post, Bill. Knowing about film technique is certainly not enough to tell one when technique is accomplished, when it is impoverished. Moreover, I’d say that knowing when it is fitting to refer to a particular technique in the reading of a film or an historical study, knowing when a technique is “salient,” won’t come from a study of technical manuals. As I mentioned (and I think we all agree), the part is of no value at all when sundered from the perceived whole, apart from the broader context. I do think, however, that studying technique helps—no, can help—broaden our sense of that context, or if you will, introduce us to new ways of seeing. Is this not the problem of ‘theorizing’ style? Style cannot be this or that analytically air-tight concept which we then use as a grid to place on top of a film or series of film, because style itself is not the product of theoretical speculation; it is the product of the practice of film study, of what critics, scholars, interpreters do with films when they get their hands dirty, so to speak. We each want to see film, to love film, in a more complex and precise light, and developing a more complex notion of style (which will help us make sense of the variety of ways style can interact with content) is an integral part of this. What I’m suggesting here is that a theory of film style cannot just set practice aside and consider “style” as a systematic theoretical construct; “style” is a practice first and foremost. (I just want to state these things outright, even as I’m aware that you all possibly agree.) This, I think, may at least partially explain why it remains just out of reach when it is considered theoretically as a concept instead of during the practice of making sense of a film. I think we’re concerned with practical judgment in these matters (“what is style given what we talk about in the process of talking about a film?”), and that’s a tricky thing indeed.
My Goodman-Bordwell thing should be seen as a stab at a theory by way of a consideration of what we do as practicing seers and readers (with eye on smoothing out some of the less satisfying theoretical bumps in Bordwell’s theory).
There are enough questions and issues on the table, so I’ll just end with a quotation that I think you all agree with. It’s from old man Bresson and shows what style perhaps is from the perspective of the film director:
“Dig into your sensation. Look at what there is within. Don’t analyze it with words. Translate it into sister images, into equivalent sounds. The clearer it is, the more your style affirms itself.
(Style: all that is not technique.)”
Brian Crane (Feb 6th)
(I hope my story will be amusing enough to justify the long post and pull you through to my points, which respond to much of what has come before, but in a rather colloquial fashion.)
Adam, my first movie memory is only about style. I saw Star Wars in a drive-in in Florida in the late summer of its initial release. I was around four years old. I remember the windows were rolled up to keep the mosquitoes out, and me and my sisters were boiling in the backseat of the car, stinking of Off. (OK, clearly this movie memory is about more than style.) The movie started with me asking “what’s it say?” and Mom reading the scrolling text out-loud. (A spectacle movie that begins with reading?!!?) Then the opening battle. I remember three things from these opening scenes. Everything was white (clean, unlike me and my sweaty sisters, “stop leaning on me!”), the smoke (“what’s going on, Mom?” “we don’t know yet, wait and see.”), and blue circles of light. These last were, I know now, the film’s way of indicating that the gun seen in one shot was responsible for Princess Leia’s fall in the next. But for me at that time, they just seemed to be blue lines drawn on top of what was happening behind them: like the motion lines I saw in comic books or in certain sketches in The Electric Company. Which means I had no idea how to make sense of what I now know was Leia’s capture. (Incidentally, my mother claims the only thing I was worried about was whether the men in brown were dead when they fell down.)
I do remember one other thing from this opening scene, and it has a name. Darth Vader. When that towering . . . what?—was it a man? a robot? a monster? was it even real?—stepped through the smoke, I remember sitting back from where I had been hanging onto my parent’s seat and asking slowly and with four-year-old gravity, “who’s that?” Mom answered (a good reader training me to be a good one too): “we don’t know yet, you have to wait and see.”
But the thing is, I didn’t have to wait. That moment was complete in itself. It never dissolved into narrative even years later when I saw the film over and over as an adolescent. The story may involve or turn around or depend upon Darth Vader, but Darth Vader—from the moment he steps out of the smoke, cracks that guys neck, and begins to speak to people (from his shoulders and chest, not his mouth)—simply is. He is, that is, a moment of pure and powerfully meaningful style. (Incidentally, Darth Vader strikes me today as a figure of the relationship (in the first and the second films) between visual, sound and narrative style; the change in this relationship (and Vader) is one way to mark the departure of the later films from these earlier ones.)
Finally, my last and most bizarre memory from this viewing: I was four, up past my bedtime and probably slept through most of the movie. But I was awake for the light saber battle between Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi. From this scene, I remember only one shot: Darth Vader’s shiny, reptilian thigh sliding out from behind his skirts to tap, rather daintily, with the toe of his boot Ben’s empty robes. What (and here I state concretely what I remember being at four only a strong unease provoked by something profoundly odd), what was the bad-ass from the opening scene doing flashing thigh like a call-girl? This shot is certainly intended to be invisible; seeing it now, I know it is a classic example of a shot doing narrative work; it prepares us for Ben’s “rebirth” in the final sequence. The fact that it remains vividly in my mind—so much so that it remained profoundly disturbing even when I saw the film as an adult—suggests that in my inexperience, I read the wrong elements of the “invisible” style of this image and constructed an aberrant perception of this moment in the film that has had lasting consequences on me as a viewer.
So my points, because I promised some:
1. This experience of a film is emblematic of the way our viewing is always mediated by the concrete details of the images and sounds. You have to forget this to view films, just like you must forget to look at the shapes of the letters to read a printed page. But all four of us are clearly interested in making sense of this (in practical terms) invisible mediation: which we are calling loosely style. But I think it shows that any distinction between parts of style have to be actively provisional because the aspects of style demand attention precisely through their messy interpenetration.
2. I think Colin’s model of sample offers a good tool for beginning to make the invisible visible. I think that this model doesn’t operate in vacuum though. Models like the sample have tended to emphasize technology to a fault. Bill points out as much. So, Colin, recognizing that your own responses have fallen into this bias toward technology (you’ve seen this enough to offer a few statements clarifying that this doesn’t have to be the case), it might help this discussion if we could to see a non-technical example of a sample. Can you offer us one so we know what it would look like and what it would be looking at? (Of if you’ve given us one, can you remind us?)
3. Bill, does Darth Vader’s Dietrich moment count as unstylish, invisible style? And if so, is it significant to this discussion that it became so disruptively visible to me? (Or do we pass that off to something we might call “reception”?) I’m curious to what extent our efforts to see the invisible should be seen as “breaking” the film (and to what extent that should influence our assessments of conclusions we arrive at).
4. I don’t think any of what I’ve described here is beautiful in a typical sense of the word. But everything here is beautiful in the sense I used the term in my piece: i.e. conscious and coherent (even if not narratively coherent, remember I missed the narrative completely in this first viewing!). I’m talking about the kind of beauty you see in an obviously ugly painting by Francis Bacon, beauty that might be synonymous with the pleasure people experience in the perception of a well-made thing. This is what I like about Adam’s question about memory (we have to start with our perceptions of beauty to begin to see style) and with Bill’s introduction of the concept of the film as a “way of looking”. Exactly! Adam’s design seems to be striking out at a similar concept (in the sense of a film as looking at and solving a problem). I’d only add that film is also a “way of looking” that is looked at.
BC (Feb 6th)
I’ve mixed too much of my later thoughts about the Vader thigh-shot in with my story of that first viewing. So to be clear: I remember this shot from the movie as a discreet shot (and I remember nothing else from the scene). Within that shot I remember the thigh, the dainty boot tap and the robes. Add a dash of “what’s that?” and that’s the memory. Everything else I write comes later. . . . probably not important, but I’m committed to the integrity of my story!
Adam Rosadiuk (Feb 6th)
I’ll start with Star Wars: Brian’s discussion of Darth Vader fits with the way I tend to think about style: that is, you can suss out the most powerful element in a film, like Darth Vader, and discover how that figure maps out the entirety of the film. Part of what I love about film is the way so many elements outside of language can work together so well—and that any one element can summon so powerfully the whole. Darth Vader is the aesthetic emblem for the film, and in all of his accoutrements we can suss out the film: the music makes sense, the sound makes sense, the acting makes sense, the visuals make sense…all in terms of his image. Of course, it is another hermeneutic circle—all of Star Wars is contained in Darth Vader, but you cannot really understand Darth Vader until you’ve seen Star Wars. I like the way so much of Star Wars is embodied in the ‘logo’. There are so many reasons why these sorts of systems work—and Star Wars is a very dangerous example since so much of my early imagination is bound up in it—but, nonetheless, it’s that kind of formal analysis that I find the most rewarding: looking for conceptual similarities in the parts, and recognizing why they work so well together. For me, this is emblematized in design: what is the relation of Saul Bass’ very distinctive style to the entire film when it is applied to the design problem of summarizing said film in a credit sequence? This idea of the part summarizing the whole is also how I tend to want to understand “style as sample”, though I recognize key differences.
1. I want to make sure I’ve defined a ‘wowza’ moment (in case Colin and Brian think it’s a useful term): when I’m talking about a ‘wowza’ moment (and I think I can also speak for Bill here) I’m not talking about special effects that just look cool, or documentary nudity of a famous actor. I’m talking about another type of ‘movie cool’, the one we experience when we see an astonishing use of technique: the fade to yellow in Age of Innocence, or the appearance of a perfectly ‘designed’ element (like Darth Vader). These kinds of experiences are something other than just spectacle and something other than just decoration. So this is one phenomenon of films that make films something worth falling in love with. But is it style? I think it’s like style—it’s enough like style to let us know something about style when we find it. It’s a hint of something more than spectacle—maybe it’s called the ‘sublime’, but beauty (the way ‘beauty’ is misused) doesn’t quite do it justice. Maybe.
2. I think Bill’s “style as way-of-looking” is a great addition: namely because, as he says, it refers to the unique condition of art where what the art looks at changes the way the art looks (appears). And, as Brian pointed out, the same may hold true for us: when we look at a work of art, it changes the way we look (but in this case not literally how we appear, well, at least not always). So the artwork, chameleon like, adapts the way it looks to accommodate what it is looking at. This sort of adaptation may be on a different order than the mutual relationship of form and content. I see form and content in a tug of war over certain problems of design (and as I said in my piece, problems of design can include the problems posed by pre-existing styles). Form and content then get bound up in style, in the ‘way the artwork looks’. The question of an artwork’s style, or its ‘way of looking’, seems closer to its ‘philosophy’. To put it another way: what it is that an artwork is looking at is not its theme or its ‘meaning’, but its ‘purpose’. Is a film looking at something or would it rather not? What a film is looking at is also partially the admission of the third set of looking—the audience’s. And when we look at the artwork do we become a spectator or a critic? Or an academic? What sort of spectator do you have to be to be able to look at what the film is looking at? For me, this sort of analysis frees us from the sort of interpretative work we do on texts as the be all and end all of Film Studies—‘reading’ is useful, but only useful to a point. I completely agree with Colin that research into film technology is not only useful in making arguments about certain moments in film, but also makes us more sensitive viewers, but I also think that it’s only useful to a point. I think this idea about the third ‘way of looking’ accommodates very nicely Colin’s emphasis on the relationship of the concept of film style to the practice of doing ‘work’ on films. But as a film student I don’t feel like I have a strategy to really suss out the ‘way a film looks’. What’s the next step?
(I feel that this is dangerously close to the work of another theorist/philosopher. Bill, where’d you get this ‘way of looking’ stuff?)
Obviously, I have more to say about this, but I thought I’d leave off with three specific things:
1. Can we talk about style as something different than (but dependent on) form and content? I’d tend to call form and content ‘design’.
2. When we talk about unstylish style we’re talking about things we don’t notice (like the zoom in Lancelot du lac) and the things we can’t really see (the oddness of the shot of Darth Vader’s leg (I agree with you Brian, that shot is significant for me too, though maybe not for the same reasons)). Obviously the latter seems much too subjective to debate, but I do think it points to the whole realm of Farber-esque criticism where by just ‘playing’ with a film, each of us turn up surprisingly similar ‘oddities’ that provide the most substantial clues to getting really close to a film’s style.
3. Colin: I too would definitely like to see another more non-technical example of “style as sample”.
CB (Feb 6th)
I guess if there’s a pattern to my posts, a method to my madness, it’s that I take an idea I perceive to be either active or dormant in the other posts (including my own) and I reflect on that idea, riding the wave wherever it takes me. This means that at times I am led perhaps a little (or a lot) astray, but I see value in this process nonetheless. Kind of like intellectual sketch-work.
I’m going to do it again. This time I reflect briefly on my bias—which, I should say, is not as much a bias for technology as it’s a bias for technique, which is the use of technology. After all, in film practice, technique and style cross paths because both are concerned with the manner of expression of the film being made. I don’t know how, but my reflection on my bias led me not to a reflection on technology and style, but to thinking about why I started taking interest in technique to begin with.
Once again, it all begins with the critics, or in this case, with an art historian. One of the first articles I ever read about film—serious articles—was Panofsky’s “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures.” In his attempt to dig up the root of the art, he postulates (quite convincingly, I still believe) that the essence of film can be distilled down into two fundamental functions: “the dynamization of space” (or “time-charged space”) and the “spatialization of time” (or “space-bound time). This is as close as anyone has come in my view to “speaking the being” of film. Why do I mention Panofsky? Because his approach to art, to film, led me (in conjunction with the influence of an art history professor) to take interest in how different visual arts use space. Now, in the case of film, I was attracted immediately to Manny Farber, who says, in the introduction to Negative Space that “[s]pace is the most dramatic stylistic entity.” He also says that “if there were a textbook on film space, it would read: ‘There are several types of movie space, the three most important being: (1) the field of the screen, (2) the psychological space of the actor, and (3) the area of experience and geography that the film covers.’”
A few general observations about Farber and Panofsky. I think that it is no coincidence that their interests in visual arts aside from film (Panofsky: mosaics, engravings, painting; Farber: painting) influenced their approaches to the study of film. I too am something of a painter, albeit of the “Sunday” variety, and so I undoubtedly saw some affinities between their sensibilities and my own.
A few specific observations. Panofsky’s two-fold ontology of film consists of co-dependent elements. We might say “space” and “time” but, as his wording demonstrates, it’s a little more complicated than this. Time and space are not separable objects of contemplation; they each intermingle in two important ways (see above). Farber’s criticism might be taken as an extension of Panofsky’s ontology in the sense that his study of style as space unavoidably leads (in his best work) to a consideration of time, which might also be taken here as “narrative.” This is what he means when he refers to space as the most “dramatic” stylistic entity.
I’ve always found Manny Farber’s treatment of the stylistic possibilities of space in film to be mesmerizing. Take this quotation from his piece on Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles:
“There is a definite respect for surfaces: a lot of this is Babette Mangolte, whose dead-straight cinematography, impeccably framed, is responsive to the cool hardness of a tile wall, the flat light cast by one ceiling fixture, the crisp whiteness of bed linen, light changing on a casement window.”
Such a level of descriptive poetry gives me goose pimples. This then motivated me in my own work to look for less poetic means for describing space in film, for more precise ways of scrutinizing the images that pass before my eyes (and the sounds that pull my eyes over the space).
One could easily object that there is already enough precision in Farber’s work without jettisoning the so-called “poetry,” that looking for more exact, which may simply mean, more technical, ways of describing the effects and significance and (what Brian terms) the coherence of the image leads to tedium—that it is precisely the fine wording that make these descriptions valuable. I agree, to an extent. But I guess what I’ve been doing in tutoring myself about technique is trying to understand the thing before I come back to developing fine wording for describing it. That may be a wrong-headed notion, but I like where it has taken me in my film education.
Why this massive detour? Well, to show that, while I am certainly sympathetic to Brian’s analogy between “concrete details of the images and sounds” and “the shapes of the letters” on the printed page, I think that the analogy itself is faulty. It therefore follows that I have certain reservations about his conclusion that one must forget concrete details to view films. Brian and I have had disagreements in conversation before about this kind of thing—he’s a “narrative” guy and I’m a (forgive me if this is not the right word) “space” guy. (As I’ve told him privately, directing my attention to narrative has required a conscious effort on my part.) He goes to movies for the stories; I’m there for the images. I’m the wannabe painter; he’s the wannabe novelist. I don’t know if Brian agrees with how I’ve described our difference on this matter, but I think that if he does agree then he might also concur that this difference perhaps explains a great deal about how we each approach the problem of style.
So much for further details about the origins of my bias. I now want to try to begin to answer Brian’s and Adam’s question about style features or samples that are not related to film practice. I listed a few examples in my piece, and I will be honest: I really had to strain myself to come up with those. It just seemed to me that it logically followed from Goodman’s sample metaphor that one need not narrow one’s conception of film style to film-specific technique. If a sample is something that allows us to point to aspects of the sample in such a way that we are able to identify that sample as belonging to a given historical era, then we could, hypothetically, point to any feature that a film exemplifies. But wait: the problem with film is that it is an “amorphous” (Otis Ferguson’s term) “pan-art” (Sontag’s term); it borrows and steals and feeds off and pilfers and adapts and whatever else from all the other arts. So, a question: is a shot of a painting in Sokurov’s Russian Ark a sample of the film or of the painting that is being shot? Is a line of dialogue from the latest Merchant of Venice adaptation a sample from the film or from the play? Is a gesture used by an actor in a film performance of a role that he/she also performed on stage a sample of a film or of the theatre piece? Are Grace Kelly’s extravagant dresses in Rear Window a sample of the film or of the oeuvre of the designer who created them? Is a detail of a poster shown in a Godard film a sample of the film or of the poster? Is a dance move from the performance at the end of Altman’s The Company a sample of the film or of the performance? The issue is that while all these things stand as examples or samples of style that are not samples of film technique (though they might be shaped into that), the works or objects from which they are taken exist (or potentially exist) independently of the films in which they are shown.
To answer the question, then, any of these things could be historical samples of the films in question if a tradition in film scholarship arose that took upon itself the task of identifying films by way of the sampled features. Performance (film) style has been taken up this way. We don’t even need a clip of a performance style from the silent period in order to date it; all we need is a written description in order to say “that’s pantomime, which belongs to X period of film.” Now, this becomes more complicated when a modern actor pays tribute to pantomime, in which case it’d be the task of the scholar to identify the characteristics in the performance that reveal it to be a tribute (assuming that there is evidence in the performance itself).
I picture this working with set design, screenwriting, costume design and so on, each of which are, now that I think about it, aspects of film practice—but ones that are independent of consideration for technology. I actually would find that quite interesting: histories of set design style, screenwriting style, etc.—wouldn’t you guys? I’m sure they already exist, somewhere.
I realize that people can use the same objections for the discussion in this post as they used elsewhere—“why would we want to stick our noses in set or costume design trade magazines?” Since I view the style as sample thing as something particular and since I was asked about it, I felt compelled to answer in this way, which does not mean that I deny that we’ve made some progress here in showing certain limitations to the sample metaphor. In the end, though, perhaps the reason people have not taken up film style from the point of view of costume design is that, as Farber put it, “space is the most dramatic stylistic entity.”
The forum is continued in Part 3.