The history of film style

Conventional film histories (such as Rotha 1930; Jacobs 1939; Sadoul 1949) chronicle technical achievements, and establish a canon of classic films from various national cinemas that manifest these achievements. In addition, a number of historians and film theorists interpret these technical achievements within a modernist framework, and valorize films that seem to them to exploit film's 'essential', or 'distinctive' aesthetic qualities.

These conventional film histories are organized according to a linear, organic model of birth-growth-maturity-decline. They propose that cinema's inherent capabilities as an artistic means of expression is to be found, not in its recording capacity, but in its formal innovations such as cross-cutting, high and low camera angles, scene dissection, and montage sequences. They viewed early cinema, based on the tableau format, as primitive - as naive, simple, and unsophisticated. And they considered innovations in the early part of the twentieth century (breaking the tableau into shots, maintaining screen direction across cuts, and so on) to be moments of growth, which led to a stage of maturity in the 1920s where, they believed, cinema completed its stylistic development. Conventional film history is therefore constructed around the assumptions of linearity and essentialism, for these are the underlying principles of pioneer film-makers progressively searching for film's inherent capabilities which, when exploited, transform cinema into an art.

Conventional film historians and classical film theorists such as Rudolf Arnheim (1957) established an inverse relationship between recording capacity and art, for they assumed that cinema could only become a distinct art form by working against its photographic recording capacity. Conventional film history is therefore a history that perceives the growth of cinema in terms of its gradual marginalization of its recording capacity in favour of formal techniques that identify film as a distinct means of artistic expression. The coming of sound led to the decline of cinema, it is argued, because it emphasizes cinema's recording capacity. They believed that this decline was further exacerbated by the development in the late 1930s of deep-focus and long-take cinematography because these techniques return cinema to its primitive stage of development.

André Bazin questioned and contested this conventional history and theory of film. He accepted some of its premises - its essentialism - but challenged its linearity, and its definition of what is essentially filmic. For Bazin, film's inherent capabilities, or essence, is precisely its recording capacity, which he finds fully realized in the sound-track, and in long take and deep-focus techniques of the late 1930s and 1940s. Bazin replaced the modernist ontology of the day with a realist ontology.

In 'The Evolution of the Language of the Cinema', Bazin wrote a brief history of cinema up to 1950 and divided it, not only into silent film and sound film but, more crucially, into 'those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality' (1967b: 24). With this criterion in place, Bazin identified four stages in film's historical development:

1. Silent film's faith in the image, in which the formal (or 'plastic') dimensions of the image, plus montage, are exploited. The emphasis of this style of film-making is to be expressionistic, to impose symbolic and metaphorical meanings onto the content of the image, rather than faithfully reproducing the meaning of the content or maintaining spatial-temporal unity. Bazin mentioned parallel montage, accelerated montage, and Eisenstein's montage of attractions as typical formal devices of silent film's faith in the image.

2. Silent film's faith in reality, in which film's recording capacity is exploited: 'the image is evaluated not according to what it adds to reality but what it reveals of it' (p. 28). Although faith in the image is the dominant trend in silent cinema, Bazin argued that this second trend (represented by Stroheim, Murnau, and Flaherty) is just as important. By identifying these two opposing trends, Bazin challenged the linearity of conventional film history.

3. Development of editing (découpage) in sound film (1930-39): Bazin argued that the coming of sound (plus new story matter) created a synthesis between the two opposing styles in silent film-making. In particular, he emphasized the shift in silent film's faith in the image towards realism: 'It is understandable, as a matter of fact, that the sound image, far less flexible than the visual image, would carry montage in the direction of realism, increasingly eliminating both plastic expressionism and the symbolic relation between images' (p. 33). In place of silent film's reliance on montage, Bazin argued that sound film relies on editing, or découpage. The difference is that editing (unlike montage) is analytic, dramatic, and descriptive, that is, analyses and describes the filmed event according to its inner dramatic logic. Unlike montage, editing does not attempt to impose expressionistic meanings or distort the logic or spatiotemporal unity of an event; it serves simply to alter emphasis and viewpoint: '[In an edited scene,] changes of point of view provided by the camera would add nothing. They would present the reality a little more forcefully, first by allowing a better view and then by putting the emphasis where it belongs' (p. 32): In other words, the editing is subordinated to 'the geography of the action or the shifting emphasis of dramatic interest' (p. 24). Moreover, silent film's faith in reality also changed, because one of the dominant characteristics of these edited sound shots is that they were usually in shallow focus. 4. Development of deep focus cinematography (or depth of field) in sound film (1940-50): deep focus cinematography stages several planes of action and keeps them all in focus in the same shot. For this reason, deep focus is usually combined with the long take and/or camera movement. Bazin argued that deep focus is not a passive recording of events, nor simply a return to silent film's faith in reality (as a number of conventional film historians such as George Sadoul argued). Instead, for Bazin, 'depth of field is... a dialectical step forward in the history of film language' (p. 35). By this he means that deep focus does not simply represent a linear development in film style, but is a synthesis of stages 2 and 3 of film history: in other words, deep focus integrates or combines editing into the unified space and time of the single shot. Bazin identified this new trend with Renoir, Wyler, Welles, and the Italian neorealists. In relation to Welles, he argued:

Far from being ... a return to the 'static shot' employed in the early days of cinema by Méliès, Zecca and Feuillade, or else some rediscovery of filmed theatre, Welles' sequence shot is a decisive stage in the evolution of film language, which after having passed through the montage of the silent period and the découpage of the talkies, is now tending to revert to the static shot, but by a dialectical progress which incorporates all the discoveries of découpage into he realism of the sequence shot.

From this dialectical history of film, Bazin established a typography of three styles of film-making: (1) montage (and the plastics of the image); (2) editing (découpage); and (3) deep focus. We shall return to this typology in section 7.2.

Film Making

Film Making

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