This is part 3 of the Synoptique Style Forum. Use the links to the left to visit parts 1 and 2.
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: Adam Rosadiuk argues that the Forum’s discussion of style and “object-love” is veering toward a discussion of cinephilia; Brian Crane responds to a number of points that have caught his attention, including Colin Burnett’s non-technological examples of style samples, Burnett’s claim that he and Crane differ on the issue of the importance of “concrete details” in film, and Rosadiuk’s discussion of cinephilia; Burnett attempts to synthesize the various elements of the Forum; at the behest of moderator William Beard, each of the contributors (himself included) offers his take on the Les 400 coups Style Moment from the Style Gallery.
Adam Rosadiuk (Feb 6th)
We seem to be veering from style towards a discussion of cinephilia—that’s okay by me. It seems we can’t take the discussion of style far from object-love after all. I enjoyed your last post Colin and it helped me understand a little better where you’re coming from, and what the idea of ‘samples’ has to offer. Your division between ‘narrative’ guys and ‘painterly’ guys is apt, and I think influences a lot of the history of Film Studies—I ‘m definitely a ‘narrative’ guy, and see film, and have always seen film, as illustrated moving stories. Or dreams put on screen. For that reason, it always seemed odd to me that so much of the study of the ‘cinematic’ has been directed at counter posing cinema to painting and visual arts, when to me cinema is clearly a literary medium. Do you think style is easier to talk about in relation to painting? I would argue that that is the case with literature—I feel like ever since I was forced to memorize “The Cremation of Sam McGee” in grade one, I’ve been intimate with the idea of literary style. Maybe it’s because we deal with short stories and poems first, as kids, and then move on to novels. Maybe if we started with short films and music videos in film school, we’d have a different sense of film style altogether. Part of what makes film style hard to analyze may be trying to graft the literary and the visual mediums together (not to mention the other arts cinema apes, each with, arguably, their own relation to style: music, dance, architecture, performance, etcetera).
Your life as a wannabe painter, and as someone with a broad and keen interest in a variety of aesthetic spheres—costume, set design, photography, music—marks you as a type of polymath cinephile who may be in decline. To be honest, when I think of cinephiles I think of two types:
1. The human encyclopedias (like Synoptique‘s Dr. Vornoff).
2. And the Asia-philes who bliss out at Fantasia, who are sort of the next mutation on the kind of guys who work at Rep theatres (bless their cotton socks): guys who are very close to film, very earnest, very passionate, and reincarnate some of the radical 60s authenticity we got to bliss out on in The Dreamers.
But with the decline of the American intellectual, I’m not sure if the high-culture renaissance film fan still exists. Bill, if I may embarrass him, is that kind of film viewer: incredibly well cultured. But in my sphere? I think I see them in the dark, the francophone hipsters you see drifting from cafe to theatre and back again, but, generally it seems that the ‘fans’ have taken over. Do people really enjoy film anymore as high art? And by high art, I mean, with the kind of broad cultural sophistication that marks the best film criticism?
I don’t want to sound like I’m lamenting something that I’ve never really experienced, per se, and probably never really existed—I’m more curious in what it is we think about when we think about ‘cinephile’. I completely agree with Colin about what a real film education needs to include: sophisticated knowledge about several art forms: everything from makeup to music to rhythm. When I think about style in its simplest form, knowing style is to be simply well cultured enough to savor every detail, to let nothing get past. Pauline Kael always created the illusion of this, and I always found it convincing. When she said totally unreasonable things like “Ginger Rogers isn’t really a very good dancer”, I could call her bluff, but I had to admit, I don’t really know what a good dancer is, and at least she was clever enough to raise the issue.
A great student of style—and perhaps of film style too—like a wine connoisseur and their grapes, can savor a fine vintage film stock. But, of course, a cinephile of this type, like an honest oenologist, just enjoys a good drunk.
Brian Crane (Feb 6th)
(Post written without having read Adam’s last post.)
So Colin says that I’m the wannabe novelist and he’s the wannabe painter?!? Clearly we’re reaching the point in the evening when every ugly secret gets thrown out on the table. I’m going to call that progress and offer a brief, informal numbered reply to some more good posts.
1. Colin, I think at the end of your last post you open up the sample beyond your particular interest in the use of technology. Your comments on set-design, screenwriting, performance, etc. suggest some of its potential; they also suggest the sample’s not as foreign as your (useful) discussion of Goodman might at first make it seem.
2. RE: not seeing the concrete to view films. Colin, I’m curious how much we disagree here. My point would be that to watch a film is to pay attention to its details (just like we can only read by looking at letters); but that viewing is also the synthesis (?) of these details, which inevitably entails letting the details combine to form a whole. We all do this all the time. Now it’s true that we are a bizarre kind of viewer who tries to undo that process and to see concrete details and make sense of them. But I don’t think we should confuse our special kind of viewing with typical—and in the case of most films, the expected and even correct—kind of viewing that forgets (or at least offers up) the details in the whole. Are we talking about different things?
3. Adam, I can’t speak for Bill but the “way of looking” reminds me of Vivian Sobcheck’s phenomenology of the film . . . but I hesitated to bring it up earlier because I’m not in a position right now to say what it would offer our discussion . . . and I don’t remember her talking much about style (but would we know style if we saw it???). My positive response to Bill’s comments convinces me I should look at it again.
4. RE: “wowza”—I won’t stand in judgment on the aesthetic or practical advantages of this “term.” (Forgive the scare quotes.) I will, however, say that I think it highlights an important point that shouldn’t be lost in this discussion: there is a difference between style as a norm or convention and style as (a sign of) distinction. It’s clear that without exception, when asked to consider style, contributors to the Gallery were drawn to distinctive rather than conventional style. What are we to make of this?
For me, it suggests that whatever Frederic Jameson may say on the subject, it’s important to have a space where you can choose not to historicize. Film Studies and scholarship is a profoundly historical discipline. There are identifiable reasons for this. But it seems to me that history is not everything, that there is (or must be) a place to examine trans-historical art relationships that raise questions of identity and value (what is a film? what constitute meaningful differences in film? what are we to make of these differences? etc.). The Gallery is a rudimentary form of this conceptual space. More importantly, given the chance to post one or two style moments into this space, contributors clearly tried to make their choices count. I could have posted my Johnny Mnemonic all-time-coolest tongue-kiss (yes it exists and it is only about style) but I didn’t, because I know the difference between this moment and the opening to Velvet Goldmine. The difference makes one a legitimate and useful component of a non-historical discussion of style and excludes the other. Viewing the Gallery and reading the commentaries, it’s clear that the other contributors made similar choices.
The result is a Gallery with a “high-art style.” But is this a failing? Or is it instead one of the key insights it offers into the question of style? I find myself wondering if this consistency doesn’t in fact offer the beginnings of an exploration of the cinematic equivalent of the literary. What would we call this non-historical quality? The “filmic”? Perhaps. But maybe we can call it “wowza.” (Insert informal poll here.)
Whatever the name, within the Gallery the open field of research possibilities we are normally faced with (open because anything is and must remain a possible object of research) was replaced by a limited field that forced contributors to make choices between competing moments in film. The stylistic congruities that resulted (and sharp talk among contributors about what congruities should have resulted) seem worth reflecting on in their own terms and as something other than a reflection of bias.
. . . we’re doing that here, but I realized after reading Adam’s post that it is worth stating it more directly than it has been until now.
BC (Feb 6th)
If I may offer a very, very quick and equally unconsidered response to “cinephilia”—I think that it is the lead weight that stops style analysis in its tracks. People interested in style are too technical for the cinephiles, but are accused by those not interested in style of all of cinephilia’s sins. (I feel like I’m sticking my hand in the bear trap here but nothing left to do but go on.)
Cinephilia is perhaps related to what I meant by object-love, but it seems to me more religious than whatever I was trying to defend. My objection does, however, raise the question of why I make a distinction between the two when they seem to be so similar on their face. I can’t answer that question without thinking about it, so I’ll get back to it tomorrow.
That all said, I’m friends with a few of those francophones and I suspect that running back and forth between the ciné and the café is just as much a pose for them as my quaint, down-home reference to mosquitoes are for me. That said, it’s perhaps clear that I didn’t bliss out over The Dreamers. It too was a pose; but a more embarrassing one.
. . . I should perhaps also reiterate that many of my best friends are cinephiles … I hope I’m not coming off as too cheeky when saying all this about cinephilia …
CB (Feb 7th)
Notwithstanding your cheekiness Brian, I have to agree with you about the cinephilia thing; though I have to ask (in reference to my own posts): have I ever once used the term? Adam clearly believes that I have been talking about cinephilia (or not??), but I’m not sure; my aim was to discuss how I came to my approach to style—which I think explains why and how I love films and perhaps not “the cinema,” though we might just be splitting hairs here.
I must say, however, that I like Adam’s categorization of the two leading kinds of cinephiles—which perhaps goes a long way to explaining why style is not a topic of discussion as much it should be (among “cinephiles”). I’m not staking out territory here, just making an observation.
One final “off the cuff” observation: like Brian, I am not a “Dreamer;” though I’d say that my position can’t really be qualified as a pose, because it’s one of indifference (to the movie, that is). If I were to strike a pose (on 60s cinephilia now), I’d have to appeal to moderation in defense of a resolutely anti-60s stance—that of meticulous cinephilia rather than voracious cinephilia. Style, to me, only really matters to the former.
AR (Feb 7th)
Oh, I’m not accusing anyone of cinephilia (why is it that whenever I type that word I feel like I’m typing ‘necrophilia’?), it just struck me that we’ve been working to define an ideal viewer, and it seems like an ideal viewer is one who is highly sensitive to style. And what does that mean? And why is that person not a cinephile?
It just sort of dawned on me—and I really need to pick up Rosenbaum’s Movie Mutations book to see their angle—that when people talk about the death of cinephilia, they’re really talking about movies not mattering anymore. I never stopped to really consider the sins of cinephilia, and why it may be an obstacle to film appreciation, and how cinephiles have little to do with the mattering of movies. Something to consider more, and something to conisder more in terms of positioning oneself to an object, rather than in socio-cultural terms.
And I too consider some of my closest friends cinephiles. I probably tend that way myself, but I just don’t have the rep cred to back it up. I think we all tend to cinephilia, especially if we’ve ever picked a critic’s wing to hunker under. Another way to start thinking about film style is to think about critical style and its ability to create stylistic connections across multiple movies—across the critic’s canon—that we as inflected viewers, as apprentice viewers, make substantial. It sounds like I’m leaning towards ‘style as a community of discourse’ which of course I’m not, but analyzing this process of viewer education is definitely one way to get at the way we use ‘style’.
CB (Feb 8th)
At this late stage in the discussion, I will not try to answer any of the questions/comments on the table because it might lead us into a whole new area—an area which we just won’t have time to discuss. I do want, however, to sketch out my thoughts of “where” style is in an artwork in an effort to perhaps offer some synthesis to this discussion. I hope that that doesn’t sound too presumptuous.
A basic assumption of all of our positions is that a reader/spectator/viewer/listener can identify style in a work. We clearly all believe that “style” is not just a manner of talking, but that awareness of style means that a subject can point to an object or to parts of it and say “that is style,” or even “that is stylish.” It is the work’s “look.” I’ve therefore been wondering (both during this exchange and before, in conversations with Brian) about the best ways to talk about “where” style is to be found in a work. The ideas/questions expressed here are provisional, of course, and not designed to answer all possible objections or to be literally “applied” as a formula for encountering style in art. I think this sketch also has the virtue of reconciling the institutional practices of stylistic analysis and exegesis that I brought up earlier—because what I’m talking about here is the nature of art, and not how we choose or how institutions elect to talk about it. This a delicate issue of course, since few now believe that art objects have a nature apart from an institution’s interest in them. All I’m saying is this: defining art objects is one thing; demonstrating how artworks—which I take to have an innate potential for significance, even if that significance is fully realized only after we’ve named a thing “art”—point the subject to their significance, is something else again. Anyone who talks about style must think that they are talking about something and not nothing; what I’m trying to capture is our general sense of “where” style is, where its traces are usually felt to reside (in a non-historical sense).
As Adam and Brian know, my favorite metaphor for art is the image of the golden apple covered with a silver filigree that has small holes in it. I’m not going to regurgitate that image here and now, though I must admit that the one I will offer is similar in that it also deals with “surfaces.” Now in dealing with the surfaces or layers of the artwork we must be careful to choose the correct metaphor. (I must thank Brian for helping me think through this, since we recently had a discussion on the limits of these metaphors; this of course does not imply that he agrees with me.) If an artwork is like an onion, then peeling away the onion-skin layers leaves no core; all we have are the layers. I don’t think that anyone participating in this Forum thinks that artworks merely have layers and no core; talk of perceptible “wholes” implies a core.
Style in the etymological sense refers to a manner of expression, as opposed to the “matter” of the expression. (By implying that the matter is the core, by the way, I am not automatically implying that the surface is of no value. I’ll get to this in a second; for now, I’m just pointing to style as the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what,’ to use Adam’s words.) When we evaluate a work of art, we tend to think that if something fails in what we perceive to be the manner, then the artwork fails (or is said to fail). In other words, the manner has failed to express the matter, so the matter comes off as distorted, askew, off kilter (all this, naturally, is a matter of degree; some works fail “more” than others). The matter is therefore poorly presented. This therefore allots style or manner a great deal of importance; style may, in the case of a fruit or vegetable metaphor, reside on the surface, but its importance is hardly superficial. What we do when we encounter art, I believe, is decide just how deep that outer membrane of style goes (and therefore how important style is to the artwork in question).
Here are my questions, and they address the evaluation of a film’s style directly: if style is the surface of the work, when one is encountering an inspired or beautiful artwork, what is it that tells one that digging into the outer membrane will yield further layers of significance, of aesthetic gratification? Is the outer layer (or style) of Gladiator as deep as that of Persona? Is its manner as closely woven to its matter? Or is this, to use a further fruit metaphor, tantamount to comparing apples and oranges? Does whom the artwork appears to be addressing bear directly on how “deep” the style layer is, on how tightly knit style and content are? How impenetrable it is? Should we leave open the possibility that one work can manipulate a number of different stylistic layers in order to address a number of different audiences? And: is a work’s value first and foremost attached to the success of its “expressive” aspects? How do we determine what is appropriate for one film (i.e. how it expresses what it does for the audience it intends to reach) and not for another?
I suppose that none of these questions are important for those for whom a style as flesh or as surface metaphor is problematic. But don’t think of this as a human biology metaphor. My metaphor is not about physical dissection but about mining into the work’s core, about an ascent to awareness of a work’s value—an ascent which must consider and pass through the proverbial layers of the work that function to “express” the work itself.
In the end, I’m not sure these questions can be answered theoretically (which is to say, independent of practice); furthermore, I’m not certain that we can do away with metaphors entirely. Style may be slippery, but it is accessible, in theory and in practice, to knowledge if and only if we approach the question of style with the right frame of mind. If one tries to analyze style, to calculate its parameters as a concept, style may just dissipate into a puff of smoke. But this does not mean that style is nothing. When one comes to approach a work in practice one can’t help but be acutely aware of style, of “manner;” and yet it appears to me that on a case-to-case basis the relation of manner to matter seems to change. I think that this is what Brian was referring to in Part I with his emphasis not on a definition of style but on the “critic’s work.”
AR (Feb 8th)
Great post, Colin. I just wanted, on Brian’s behalf, to resurrect the quote Brian was mulling over way back in Synoptique 5:
“To define beauty, not in the abstract, but in the most concrete terms possible, to find, not a universal formula for it, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics.”
-Walter Pater, 1873
William Beard (Feb 8th)
First, just to clarify: the idea of style as a way-of-looking isn’t something I consciously took from anywhere else, though I’d be kind of surprised if I hadn’t encountered it somewhere before.
Second, I believe that we should all, in an effort to demonstrate our respective approaches to style in practice, analyze a Style Moment from the Gallery. The example from Les 400 coups is a good one, not only because the moment itself is beautiful, but because it offers beautiful opportunities for analysis. If you don’t mind, I’ll start us on the path:
CLICK HERE TO SEE THE CLIP
This is a great sequence for a whole bunch of reasons, and you could refine and extrapolate them for pages and pages, which obviously isn’t going to work here. But here’s my attempt at a kind of summary:
The brilliance of the whole sequence rests on its balancing of two contrary principles, which at the same time are the basis for the aesthetic principles of fiction filmmaking—1) a Bazinian recording of the world in all its detail and unfathomable quotidian uniqueness, what happens when you just let the camera run, and 2) a principle of aesthetic abstraction, where the ordinary world as recorded by the camera recedes and is stylized into something bigger and blanker that is also artificial and marked as artificial.
The sequence begins with a tracking shot, Antoine running down a path past houses and fences and yards. Here the Bazinian world is present in the location and its infinite details, and in this one particular boy running along. The aesthetic abstraction lies in the utter smoothness of the camera movement, something that is not natural but artificial and that contrasts with Antoine’s choppy strides and the ordinary-world background. The abstract realm is identified here, as through the whole sequence, with the interventionist apparatus of cinema: moving camera, dissolves, music, and finally freeze-frame and zoom.
Then comes a dissolve, a dissolve that links two camera movements, a dissolve that is emblematic of the way the sequence is mixing and dissolving the ordinary and the sublime.
The shot that follows is astonishing. The camera, still moving, leaves Antoine running now down the hill and moves serenely off onto the image of the beach and the sky—an image of sublime emptiness, sublime abstraction. Of course it isn’t really empty or abstract, it is flat beach and the flat sea an open sky. But it has the effect of a liberation or rising above the world of the ordinary and into some more spiritual realm, a realm that now also takes on the symbolic role of representing the vast open future of the character emerging from childhood into the rest of his life. The shot just continues to travel along the beach, and the longer it continues the more amazing it is, because it is holding in balance those two worlds of everyday-space and abstract-space, which in turn mirrors the balance between the two worlds of the story-with-its-characters and the film-as-film.
At the end of this tracking shot across liberating and beautiful emptiness the action of the sequence so far is reversed, as the shot continues back into the vegetative world (not the sand-and-sea-and-sky world) and we pick up Antoine again. So previously we had ordinary-world moving into sublime-abstraction, and now we have sublime-abstraction moving into ordinary-world.
Then the union of realms is enacted one more time, more forcefully than ever, as Antoine runs out of the vegetative world out onto the beach and we now have the character physically placed in the space of emptiness. But the emptiness is, again, not just emptiness, but also sand and sea, and Antoine’s choppy, living-and-breathing jogging now traverses the sublime space. After another amazingly protracted sojourn in emptiness, he finally reaches the sea, which carries also all the age-old overtones of reaching the ocean, the mother, the earth, the infinite. What he then does is to get his feet wet, another removal from this uplifting moment into a moment of the ordinary—and we can see once more that the film has succeeded in effecting the union of lived experience and spiritual aspiration, in finding “heaven in a grain of sand.”
Last comes the character’s turn back and movement towards the camera, a movement that is shockingly and thrillingly halted in the freeze frame and zoom in—the last intervention of the interventionist, abstracting cinematic apparatus. Here Truffaut has made the maximum gesture of revealing the artist at the expense of the realism of the story by brazenly manipulating the cinematic medium away from recording and towards visible artifice. But what has been captured in that freeze-and-zoom is the irreducibly human and real face of his protagonist.
The whole sequence embodies what I take to be the very best traditions of style operating in a narrative environment—namely, to use the creative interventions of the artist to illuminate and amplify and articulate the meaning of the story and the characters. As a pure moment of cinematic technique this sequence is impressive; what makes it great is the way it becomes a vehicle for the expression of feelings attached to the emotional life of the character and the meaning of the story.
CB (Feb 9th)
This post, in an effort to avoid polemics (for once), was written without my first having read Bill’s response.
Not all of the submissions to the Synoptique Style Gallery can be said to belong to a recognizable style, either as a norm or a response to a norm; this is not to say that they have no style, but simply that the story of their styles have yet to be integrated into the larger (pardon the caps) Story of Film Style.
This is not the case for the clip from Les 400 coups. In fact, one need not be a specialist in the history of French film style in order to place this clip and to demonstrate its importance. One need only be responsive to the nuances of the film’s look to zero in on its period style and how it exemplifies it. (One could have approached this question from the perspective of individual style, i.e. that of Truffaut, but I have chosen not to so in order to consider the clip’s greater historical significance.) The self-evident particulars are sufficient to carry us half-way to our goal.
Three characteristics in particular mark this segment as that of a nouvelle vague picture. It was during this period that shooting on location became a matter of regular practice in French film production. In this clip a character runs along an actual country road; we then dissolve and then cut to find the character running along a real-life sea shore. Apart from this, we perceive two other salient characteristics: lighting and camera movement. Location shooting offered new challenges for cinematographers in that it give them (in conjunction with new technology) the option to use lighter lighting and camera equipment in order to investigate a given character’s relation to the non-studio spaces. The camera here tracks parallel to the character as he jogs through the rural/seaside setting; these shots could not have been accomplished without the less cumbersome equipment new to the period. The lighting is rather dim and appears to consist almost uniquely of available light (supplemented perhaps by reflected sources). Research would most likely reveal that cinematographer Henri Decaë used fast film stock to capture the images.
Several questions then emerge as it relates to narration. As is well-known, New Wave films loosened up cause and effect in the plot construction. This means that a character’s actions may have a fluctuating degree of determinable motivation. Without the benefit of being able to consider this clip in the context of the whole, the viewer can still point to the ambiguity of the character’s last act: his movement toward, and look into, the camera. As he completes this act, the action itself is slightly reframed (with a pan to the left); a freeze frame then captures the character the moment he stares directly into the camera (followed by a zoom made with the optical printer). Without hastily and recklessly subscribing to the view that this motion automatically bursts the film’s illusion, one would have to consider the issue of motivation. Why does the character address the camera? Is this the only time he does this? Are other characters permitted so-called “Brechtian” moments of this kind? If so, when and where do they occur in the film—in what context? Do these contexts allow us to process this moment as a plot or character-motivated act? If there are no such contexts, must we then read this as an instance of anti-illusionism?
These questions may appear odd to those who’ve seen the film in its entirety; but in all fairness, rarely do we see a film’s final shot before we’ve seen all that comes before. Notwithstanding the possibility that this shot may bear the traces either of complete motivation or of sheer obliteration of cause and effect, the attentive viewer should not forget that shots of this kind, of this style, need not always function in the same way, need not always adhere to this either/or formulation. The attentive viewer should always remain critical and never rule out the possibility of subtle variation.
BC (Feb 12th)
My response will be short and is written without reading Bill or Colin’s. It is also fairly specific.
I love tracking shots. This example tells me why: the character and the action aren’t going anywhere. I can watch what is around them, behind them, without wondering if I’m losing the action that I should be paying attention to. And so—even when they track someone running down the sidewalk in an action film—tracking shots are incredibly restful and invite the kind of contemplation of the image that we’ve learned to say is impossible in film.
Set-up in stages, this sequence, which I know very little about, seems like a study in periphery: the crunching footsteps in the first shot; the sweeping, melodramatic music of the second and the pan across the landscape (a restful pan because even the first time I saw it, I knew I would catch up with Antoine, he wasn’t going anywhere without me); and the lyrical music of the third as he crosses the beach free of all but two lines of footprints.
But then he—and the film—does escape us; they simply end. All films do, all stories do. We’re used to credits beginning to roll and turning a last page. The freeze frame and the zoom here emphasize how necessary but also arbitrary that end is. The optical zoom seems a gesture toward our desire to know more, to see more, but also emphasizes (before “fin” even appears on the screen) that Antoine, whose certain presence invited contemplation only moments before, is already gone. The contrast between the tracking shots and this abrupt but lingering end—a stylistic contrast—thus invites melancholy while, oddly and unexpectedly, reenergizing rather than resolving our narrative investment. It thus encourages reviewing.
AR (Feb 12th)
Where is style here? The scene is of a young boy, alone, running to the sea. It’s beautiful even on the page.
Is film style apprehended in the ‘how’ of the translation of that scene from the written word to the screen, or is it somewhere else? What is the ‘how’ here? 3 shots instead of 30. Black and white and widescreen rather than colour and full screen. A tracking camera, a panning camera, and another tracking camera rather than a handheld camera or a stationary camera. Instead of a dissolve and a straight cut, it could’ve been two wipes. What is important, I’d argue, is that alternative choices, of course, would all communicate something different—but not something radically different. To say that a film is resistant to style is to say a lot about its ‘way of looking’. But I’m not arguing that what we see on the screen (that historical thing-in-the-world that must have some status as a complete object we can study without fear of historical revision) is made up of arbitrary techniques. Let’s say the film had switched to colour at the end; let’s say that instead of tracking along with Antoine, the camera had stayed at the bottom of the steps, and watched him from a distance for the minute it took for the little boy on his little legs to make it all the way across the beach. Why not these alternatives? Two reasons: design, and style.
‘Style’ is what we use to describe the essence and esque-ness of a film—the comprehensive means and mien. We could call this film “Truffaut-esque” after its director, and we could go through the film and show all the elements a film must have to be considered “Truffaut-esque”. But what cues us to the “Truffaut-esque” in this scene? (and I’d argue that if you can’t ultimately name the style, you’re not really talking about style, even though someone might want to argue for a more appropriate name for what we have here). Let’s look at the two most substantial ‘oddities’ in this sequence, its defining characteristics: the way Antoine passes behind the camera in the second shot, and the celebrated freeze frame at the end (I’m not even going to begin to talk about the music, which while consistent with the film, is very strange on its own). Are these interesting devices in the history of film technique? Absolutely. Could these techniques be described independent of this film? Yes these could. Could the film’s style be discussed independent of the film? No. So where is the style in this scene?
When Antoine passes behind the camera as the camera turns to pan across our first view of the sea, our point of view becomes linked to Antoine’s: the time it takes for us to scan the horizon, is the time it takes for Antoine to run to the top of the stairs and the edge of the beach. But we have no evidence that Antoine actually saw the sea at this point. He seems much too intent on running. In fact, the filmmakers seem to be delaying his reaction until he’s actually at the water. There is no cut away to the boy contemplating his first sight of the water, and then a sprint. What did he expect to find when he got there? When he gets to the beach, we are tracking laterally with him—he is looking at the water, and we can’t really see what he sees. When he gets to the water, the camera pivots so we can see what he saw (open water), but he turns back, and is caught—we see, in freeze frame, what we wanted to see: the boy in close up, the boy in a moment. We scan his face to see what he saw. Naturally, we don’t know, not for sure. We can offer suggestions. But, substantially, we do know how much ‘looking’ took place. And now we begin to make some order from what seemed aleatory, some purpose out of what seemed natural, now we recognize the cumulative evidence of a boy searching. It’s a powerful ending that works very well in ‘solving’ the film. I remember, on my first viewing, my little smile when we discover what Antoine finally finds at the sea (a literary gimmick, and anticipated by the film early on)—this freeze-frame was more than a gimmick, more than an easy way out. I felt relieved that the film had kept up with me, and then had taken me where I didn’t know I wanted to go.
All I can say is that this ‘read’ of the end of the film ‘feels’ appropriate. Is there style in this scene? The acting, music, cinematography? Costuming? CRITERION got at someting fundamental about the film in the cover art for their 400 BLOWS release:
How does Jean-Pierre Leaud’s physiognomy contribute to style, how do the boats in the harbour, how do all the pro filmic events that cannot be accounted for through artistic intention contribute to our overall sense of the naturalness of this stylistic ‘identity’? At this point, I would suggest that on its own this sequence cannot communicate a definitive style (though if it were, indeed, a short film, I might be convinced otherwise). We can suss out dimensions of a style. Of course, I’ve seen the whole film and I’d argue that 400 BLOW’s style is elusive, and nearly ungraspable without the final moments we see in this clip. And I would argue that we can’t make sense of the film if we don’t form a concept of the film’s style. This sequence is indispensable in forming that concept.
But, simply, I would end by saying I still feel very far from making categorical statements about the film’s style. I still feel like I’m talking around style. I’d argue that to talk about style is to pinpoint design elements (elements that influence one another) that prove to be essential in creating a working definition of the film. A definition of the film’s style. But the next question I think is the more important one, the guiding one: what ‘name’ does this definition describe? What is an appropriate name for this film’s style? I am far from understanding ‘name theory’. But I will say that identifying style rests in our same ability to look at a baby and dismiss some names over others. And then read back, at the end of a life, the significance of that name. Understanding style is somewhere in that phenomenon, and it’s not nearly as subjective as it seems. These are the constellation of thoughts that I’m betting will get me to a true concept and methodology. But, I admit, there are other very promising approaches.