Style for its own sake

It is not always the case that style supports the narrative. Often style is presented as a substitute for a weak narrative or is, in the view of the director, a necessary overmodulation simulating the thematic extremes of the narrative. To be specific about style, we need only look to films such as Fellini Satyricon (1970) or Cornel Wilde's Beach Red (1967) to see style overwhelming the content. On the other hand, in each case, the style spoke to the director's view of ancient Rome or about war. In both cases, excess was too mild a term to describe the director's view. There are times when this can work, as in Fellini Satyricon, but there are other instances, such as Richard Lester's Petulia (1968), when the style totally overwhelms the content of the film.

A good example of a film with a feeble narrative, but a remarkable style, is Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), one of Welles's great works. The story of a murder and its investigation in a Texas border town is simply too trite for description. But beginning the film with a three-minute tracking shot of a bomb being planted in a car on the Mexican side of the border and ending with its explosion on the American side, the shot is simply a tour de force. In the course of the shot, Welles also introduces the main character, the Mexican investigator, Vargas (Charlton Heston). The murder of a Mexican drug lord (Akim Tamiroff) by the sheriff (Welles), the assault on Vargas's wife, the final recording of the guilty sheriff and his death, each of these sequences is a remarkable exercises in style. Using excessively the wide-angle lens, low camera placements, and a crowding of the foreground of the frame, Welles has created a style more appropriate to film noir than to a police story. It is a style that is garish, even corrupt. In its power it conveys something the narrative lacks—conviction.

An example of eclectic but extreme style is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971). The story of a futuristic England beset by violent youth and a mind-controling government, Kubrick's version of the Anthony Burgess novel is to use style as a counterpoint to the action. The camera pans gradually over an ongoing rape. Extreme close-ups of the assault on the man character's eyes forces sympathy as the victimizer becomes the victim. Kubrick tracks and zooms with an equanimity totally absent in the narrative. Eventually we are worn out by the violence and by the ironic style, left to consider our own world and its future.

A third example of style overwhelming the subject is the apocalyptic tale, Twelve Monkeys (1995). Terry Gilliam, better known for Brazil (1985), another highly stylized tale of the future, portrays the future and the present with a fish-eye lens view. Distortion is everywhere and a key to Gilliam's treatment of Chris Marker's La Jetee (1962). Can one prevent the future from happening? Are we all destined to be the future's victims? These are the central issues of Twelve Monkeys. Biological research, wealth, psychiatry, all form the nexus of man-made madness that pre-ordains the fate of the world—destruction. Few, if any, filmmakers, with the exception of John Frankenheimer in Seconds (1966), have relied so heavily on a distorting lens to filter their narrative. The result of using a lens that makes the world less natural, more distorted, is to distance us form the narrative and to position us for a strongly visual, highly unnaturalistic experience. The result is that we become less involved and possibly lose the apocalyptic message of Twelve Monkeys. This is the upshot of a surplus of style.

Film Making

Film Making

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