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On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

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Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

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Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

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How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

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A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

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Archive for the 'Hollywood: The business' Category

Could Hollywood possibly be in a box-office slump? Yet again?

Kristin here:

Speculative articles are presumably a lot cheaper for a news publication to run than are those pieces that involve travel, time-consuming research, and tracking down experts to weigh in on important events. The reporter need just sit at a computer, look at whatever evidence is at hand or a phone-call away, and opine on what one might expect to happen in the future. In part, of course, the opinion will be based on what happened in the past. The question is, what sort of information from the past would be most helpful in speculating with some likelihood of being right.

Not that it matters too much, since it’s pretty rare that months after events happen anyone goes back and checks on predictions made about them. That goes for prognosticators of award winners and of future hits and flops.

 

What might happen?

Facebook profile image for The Numbers research service

In this era of shrinking news media and burgeoning everything-else media, speculation has run rampant. It sustains the 24-hour news channels between breaking stories and a lot of print publications as well. Politics can generation all sorts of guesses and opinions, especially now, since there are so many players who can’t be expected to behave rationally. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter (both of which have advertising-supporting online versions) were once full of useful, hard-news articles that we film historians could snip and file away for, oh, say, cyclical revisions of a film-history textbook. Now David and I still subscribe to both and consider ourselves lucky if an issue has one or two truly informative pieces.

Not that these venerable publications are overwhelmingly full of speculative pieces. There’s the gossip, the real-estate section, the fashion section, the ten or twenty-five or one hundred most-powerful [fill in the blank] in show business, and so on.

But speculation seems to dominate in trade journals devoted to entertainment and film. There are obviously the predictions for Oscars and Emmys and other awards, which have become a year-round occupation. (The Oscars were given out in February, and almost ever since we’ve been getting lists of possible nominees for 2019, many for films not coming out for months.) Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and other trades indulge in awards-prediction coverage far more extensively than they used to, since it presumably extends the period during which film studios and distributors take out expensive “For your consideration” ads.

Box-office trends are often interesting and even useful to read after the fact, in the year-end analyses. They are, however, pretty vapid when presented piecemeal, month by month. There are a great many clichés that writers trying to fill page-inches with speculation can treat as if they are news. One particularly persistent and illogical one is that the industry must be in a slump when total grosses go down after a record-breaking year. We’re now at that stage in 2019 when enough films have come out to allow comparison with last year’s figures by this date.

Pamela McClintock recently wrote such an article for The Hollywood Reporter: “Will Red-Hot Avengers Blaze the Path to a Sizzling Summer?” in the April 30 print edition, and, with the strange habit that these trade papers have of changing articles’ titles for the online version, “‘Avengers: Endgame’ Will Need More Help to Save Summer Box Office”. Just after Avengers: Endgame opened, McClintock wrote that

North American revenue is still down 13.3 percent year-over-year during the January-to-April corridor, throwing cold water on predictions that 2019 could eclipse the best-ever $11.9 billion of 2018. (Before Disney’s Endgame unfurled April 26, revenue year-to-date was running nearly 17 percent behind last year, its lowest clip in at least six years.)

Nonetheless, analysts remain cautiously optimistic that Hollywood can at least match, if not best, 2018’s mark by Dec. 31, with predictions for the global haul settling a new benchmark of north of $41 billion.

These predictions are based on optimism about the plethora of upcoming sequel items and reboots: Aladdin, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, The Secret Life of Pets 2, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, Spider-Man, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Let me point out three things.

First, in virtually all cases of year-to-year comparison are based on dollars unadjusted for inflation. Inflation is different in different countries, so trying to achieve a total global figure for any given year would involve a separate calculation for every country where movies are shown—which is close to, if not totally, impossible to do. Adjusted figures are helpful for some purposes, especially for comparing domestic grosses within the USA. For example, virtually everyone was claiming that the three Hobbit films outgrossed the original three Lord of the Rings films. In adjusted dollars, though, LotR is still the champ.

Here’s a helpful hint. Box Office Mojo has an inflation adjuster in its upper-right corner. If someone were to want to compare the domestic gross of Avengers: Endgame to that of some older film, say, Avatar, it would be informative to use the figure shown below instead of, or at least alongside, its gross in 2009 dollars: $749,766,139. (All figures in this entry stated to be in adjusted dollars were done using this feature, and all charts are from BoxOffice Mojo as well.)

Seeing film grosses go up year after year can give the impression that the industry can go on expanding its earnings forever. Even after a record year like 2002 or 2009 or 2018, pundits seem to assume a slump if the following year sees lower box-office results. But every year can’t be a record year (except in movie executives’ dreams). The list at the left gives the total domestic gross of each year from 2001 to 2018 in millions of unadjusted dollars. Part of the rise is due to inflation. Part of it comes from ticket prices being raised beyond the inflation rate—which is part of inflation, especially from the ticket-buyer’s point of view. We all know, however, that the number of actual tickets sold is flat or declining, even if it spikes in a record year.

Second, usually a very few high-grossing films determine when there are record years. Avatar was the big film of 2009–but it had some help. More on this below.

Third, those high-grossing films are usually released in the summer and in the Thanksgiving-Christmas seasons. True, that cycle is breaking down in the current attempts by studios to avoid releasing the biggest films opposite or even near each other. Black Panther, the top grossing film of 2018, came out in February 16. The studio probably didn’t expect it to do as well as it did, but the very fact that a traditionally “summer”-type film came out that early and topped the charts will just reinforce the industry decision-makers’ believe that there can be big hits at any time of year.

The point, though, is that if really big films come out late in the year, their grosses earned after the New Year are counted for the following year’s total. So for example, Avatar came out on December 18, 2009, and well over half of its domestic earnings came in 2010: $466,141,929 out of the $749,766,139 total. As the list shows, total domestic earnings across the industry jumped by close to a billion dollars between 2008 and 2009, but there was almost no decline in 2010, partly because all but the first two weeks of Avatar’s run came then and partly because Toy Story 3 came out. As for 2009, it may have been the year of (two weeks of) Avatar, but it was also the year of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and The Twilight Saga: Full Moon.

Thus in talking about record BO years and why they happened, it helps to look at when the top earners of the previous year were released.

Take another example, 2002, which for years was considered the target to shoot for when it came to setting new records for grosses. That was the first year that the domestic gross was over $8 billion, and 2001 had been the first year over $7 billion.

The year 2002 was cited as the benchmark for the industry because it had four really major films come out–a relatively rare event, or at least it was then. Three of them were from some of the top franchises of all time, and one established what is now the top franchise of all time: Spider-Man, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

The last two titles were released on December 19 and November 15, so they helped make the 2003 total even slightly higher than the 2002 one—helped out by the top four of that year: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Finding Nemo (is Pixar itself a franchise?), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and The Matrix Reloaded.

In fact, no year between 2002 and 2009 went below the 2002 gross except 2005. In 2003, three films had grossed over $300 million domestically (below right), while in 2005 only one, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith did. The number two film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, led to two sequels (from a seven-book series) that fared significantly worse at the box office.

Beyond that, however, was the fact that there was relatively little continuing box-office income being generated by 2004 films in early 2005. The top three films had all been released early in 2004: Shrek (May 19), Spider-Man 2 (June 30), and The Passion of the Christ (Feb 25). The number four film, Meet the Fockers (Dec 22), contributed a healthy $103,501,600 to the 2005 grosses, but number five, The Incredibles (Nov 5) was largely played out by the end of 2004 and gave only $8,760,254 to the 2005 total.

 

Consider the calendar

I’m not going to say whether 2019’s gross domestic box office will surpass that of 2018, because it doesn’t matter that much. Annual figures fluctuate but have been remarkably steady over the years (adjusting for inflation). The industry will make a lot of money as a whole, and Disney will do extremely well. There will be the occasional modestly budgeted film that becomes a hit. Every year has its A Quiet Place or Crazy Rich Asians, numbers 16 and 17 among box-office leaders last year.

I can, however, point out some relevant contributing factors.

First, as in 2005, there’s an unusually small amount of money carried over from films released late last year and still playing early into 2019.

The top four films for 2018, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, and Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom all came out in the summer or earlier. The fifth, Aquaman, is the exception, released on December 21, it grossed $335,061,807, of which $196,040,927 was earned in 2019. The next “late” release in the top ten, Dr. Seuss’s Grinch (Nov 9) carried over a mere $2,167,215 into 2019, and Bohemian Rhapsody (Nov 7) a bit more with $25,026, 514 earned after the New Year. Thus 2019 has far less carry-over money contributed by 2018 releases than most years would. That’s presumably one reason–probably the main reason–why the first few months of the year have shown such a drop from the comparable period last year. That’s a little strike against 2019’s total that the pundits tend to ignore. Thus the early-2019 “slump” doesn’t necessarily mean that people are less interested in movie-going or that streaming services have suddenly made a huge impact. It just means that the biggest hits were released too early in the year to carry over much late income. It’s not necessarily a slump. It’s just that box-office income doesn’t really go by calendar years, even though we measure it that way.

Given this rare disadvantage, can this year’s blockbusters make up the difference and match or top 2018’s total grosses? Let’s do what Box Office Mojo does: look at what the last film of the franchises made. Let’s do that in adjusted 2019 dollars.

I should note that now more big tentpole films are grossing a very large amount of the total box-office. The three top films that helped create last year’s record made over $600 million domestically: Black Panther at $700.1 million, Avengers: Infinity War at $678.8 million, and Incredibles 2 at $608.6 million. Compare this to the 2003 chart above, where the top earners were making in the $300+ million range. That shift can’t be wholly accounted for by inflation, which isn’t that high.

How many films this year can do that, or at least get over $500 million? Even as I post this, Avengers: Endgame is hovering on the brink of passing $800 million. How about Toy Story 4 (which deserves to, if only for its incredibly clever and funny trailers)? Toy Story 3 made, in 2019 dollars, $480.6 million. Beauty and the Beast made $511.8 million, and The Jungle Book $375.8 million. Disney has two of these remakes coming out this year, Aladdin and especially The Lion King. These three seem the likeliest possibilities.

Beyond that, The Secret Life of Pets made $389.0 in 2019 dollars. On the lower side, The Fate of the Furious made $227.5 and Godzilla $217.2.

The weirdest thing about the current speculation is that the prognosticators aren’t even talking about the entire year. Despite McClintock’s mention of total grosses for 2019 at least matching those of 2018 by December 31, the latest film that she mentions is Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbes & Shaw, due out August 2. But why are we worrying about a slump when it’s plausible that just the films released up to that point could by themselves bring the total at least close to last year’s? We’re witnessing a film that will make as much as two ordinary blockbusters and possibly become the top grosser of all time (in unadjusted dollars, at least). We’ve already seen one low-budget film become a hit. Us grossed $174,580,800–oddly enough, very close to the total for Crazy Rich Asians, which did the same last year. As I’ve suggested, we could anticipate at least two or three summer blockbusters grossing in the $500-600 million range.

But more importantly, there are, after all, films to come after August 2. Big films. Most notably, Frozen 2 on November 22. Frozen made $441.8 in adjusted dollars. There’s the untitled Jumanji sequel; the previous Jumanji entry made $404,515,480. (The BoxOffice Mojo adjuster isn’t adjusting 2017 or 2018 to 2019 dollars yet.) There’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The last Star Wars movie, Solo, was an exception to the saga’s fortunes, making only $213,767,512; so let’s take the previous one, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which made $620,181,382 domestically.  Beyond these there is a bunch of somewhat more modest sequels (Terminator: Dark Fate, It Chapter Two), as well as some potentially big stand-alones (Cats, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Rocketman). I personally am rooting for Jojo Rabbit (below) to become an unexpected hit. We’ll see.

The lack of attention to films coming out late in the year does make some sense. Right now the industry is concerned to promote its summer films. That’s what marketing people want to talk about  with trade-media journalists. November is a long way off. Plenty of time to start speculating about holiday box-office and the awards season come August.

All in all, taking the factors that I’ve laid out into account, it looks like a pretty safe year for Hollywood. I can’t quite help feeling that the hand-wringing over this putative slump just makes for a more dramatic story than one declaring that the 2019 box office is doing fine, thanks. Of course, it’s especially fine for Disney. The heads of other studios might be doing some justifiable hand-wringing.


Update, July 3, 2019: Now we’re into the summer season, and the pundits are still worried because this year hasn’t caught up with last year, where the high-grossing films came earlier in the year than usual. That said, I tried watching The Secret Life of Pets 2 on a transatlantic flight and was so bored I turned it off after about half an hour. That part of Rebecca Rubin and Brent Lang’s Variety article I can believe.

David has written an entry about a related ongoing trope in trade-journal coverage of the movie business. The box-office coverage during “slumps,” real or imagined, often gets linked to the “death of cinema” notion, which David discusses here.

Jojo Rabbit.

The classical Hollywood whatzis

Black Panther.

DB here:

In the academic world, there are conferences and conventions. Conventions tend to be humongous jamborees associated with professional groups like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association. They feature panels, workshops, plenary events, book displays, hundreds of papers, and meetings of subgroups–boards, caucuses, and the like. Also sexual liaisons, I’m told. If you want to feel like you belong to a corporation, go to a convention.

Conferences tend to be smaller and focused on single topics. Sometimes speakers are solicited through a call for papers, and sometimes the speakers are invited (the result might be called symposia). I think conferences are more exciting, liaisons aside. Some of the best experiences of my life have been get-togethers like “Imagination and the Adapted Mind: The Prehistory and Future of Poetry, Fiction, and Related Arts” (1999, University of California–Santa Barbara).

Last month, Kat Spring and Philippa Gates of Wilfred Laurier University added another to my list of favorite conferences. “Classical Hollywood Studies in the 21st Century,” which I announced in the run-up to it, was a wonderful gathering of scholars working on American studio cinema from a variety of angles.

 

Waterloo mon amour

Scott Higgins talks Minnelli.

We heard about production, distribution, marketing and publicity practices, censorship, and fandoms. Mark Glancy analyzed the trade-paper and fan-mag positioning of the Cary Grant/ Randolph Scott household (♥ + ♥?), while Will Scheibel studied discourse around the sad fate of Gene Tierney. Through both close analysis and probing of primary documents, several papers treated racial and gender representation: Charlene Regester on Double Indemnity, Philippa on portrayals of Chinatown, Barry Grant on race in science fiction, Ryan Jay Friedman on African American musical numbers. There was consideration of style and narrative as well, as in Chris Cagle’s case for distinguishing baroque and mannered styles within “1940s Hollywood formalism” and in Stefan Brandt’s tracing of thematic affinities between Finding Dory and The Grapes of Wrath.

I was glad to see the industry and its affiliated institutions get so much attention. Paul Monticone proposed a cultural approach to the MPPDA, while Tom Schatz traced industry developments in the New Hollywood and after. At the level of reception, Peter Decherney traced how digital tools can measure fan engagement with Star Wars. And John Belton, pioneer of detailed technological history, shared a Bazinian take on digital cinema.

Little-appreciated creative workers got to share the spotlight, in Helen Hanson’s paper on Lela Simone (music supervisor for the Freed unit) and Cristina Lane’s study of the career of Joan Harrison, Hitchcock’s “work wife.” Kay Kalinak revealed how composers swiped from themselves, as Tiomkin did in his score for The Big Sky. And there were lots of surprises, as with Shelley Stamp’s revelation of how film noir was sold to female audiences, Adrienne McLean’s account of stars’ running, or at least signing, advice columns, and Kirsten Moana Thompson’s dissection of the unique paint mixtures used in Disney animation.

It wasn’t musty, either. Things were light and friendly, with serious topics treated without pomp. Blair Davis’s obsessive search for science-fiction elements in serials and B films of the 1930s and 1940s, Steven Cohan’s zesty admiration for the “backstudio” picture, Kyle Edwards taking Torchy Blaine (and her budgets) straight, Dan Goldmark’s affectionate dissection of Pixar’s use of memory, and Liz Clarke’s enthusiasm for heroines of World War I films–all showed that classical filmmaking can be studied with both admiration and rigor. Not to mention Richard Maltby’s patented wry wit. (“David, you know I’ve always been a vulgar Marxist.”)

I have to signal my pride in witnessing how many of the participants were affiliated with our program. Tino Balio on MGM, Scott Higgins on Minnelli’s staging, Lisa Dombrowski on late Altman, Charlie Keil (with Denise McKenna) on Hollywood as a “social cluster,” Eric Hoyt (doyen of Lantern) on trade papers, Mary Huelsbeck on archival resources, Vince Bohlinger on US censorship of Soviet films, Maria Belodubrovskaya on Stalinist movie plots, Brad Schauer on Universal’s acting school, Kat Spring on how the trade papers conceived the musical, Patrick Keating on using the video-essay form to analyze lighting–all showed how you can pack a lot of ideas and information into 18 minutes. I was elated to see the learning and energy these several generations of Wisconsinites displayed.

The authors of The Classical Hollywood Cinema got in their licks. Janet Staiger talked about current screenwriting practices, highlighting the role of gatekeepers (agents, script analysts) and the need for vivid writing that can indulge in flourishes–“movies on the page.” Kristin drew on her Frodo Franchise project to show the problems, but also the advantages, of researching an event while it’s happening.

As for me, I got to give the keynote lecture. It was an intimidating situation, but it did allow me to make the case for analyzing films in relation to norms. Since the conference, I’ve thought more about the idea of Hollywood “classicism” and how we might analyze changes in it.

 

Not exactly classical, but sweet

Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, on a research trip to Washington DC 1979.

Now, some thirty-three years since we wrote The Classical Hollywood Cinema, we all know a lot more. There’s scarcely a paragraph of my chapters I wouldn’t change, and much of the research I and others have done since would correct, nuance, and deepen their claims. (I think Janet’s and Kristin’s contributions survive better than mine.)

What did we three do? I’d say we sought to provide a comprehensive description and explanation of narrative and cinematic techniques in the studio years. We traced ties between craft conditions and production decisions on the one hand and the resulting film on the other. We argued that studio division of labor allowed not only reliable production but a standard menu of artistic options. Going beyond the individual filmmaker, we traced how adjacent  institutions–not just the studio but professional associations, supply firms, trade papers, and the like–worked to define and maintain the style. We also suggested reading the professional literature rhetorically, seeing industry discourse as a way for individuals and organizations to set agendas and crystallize preferred solutions to problems. We tried to show how technological innovations like color and widescreen cinema took particular turns because of this matrix of activities. And we began the project of treating Hollywood filmmaking as a flexible but bounded set of norms of style and story.

The book received both praise and criticism. With the passage of time some issues have become clearer, and some critiques have, as far as I can tell, lost some force. For instance:

The term. Why call it “classical”? Humanists love to debate terminology. But we pointed out in the book that we inherited the term from French commentators, as far back as the 1920s, and from more recent academic circles. Nothing hangs on the name, actually. We could call it “standard” style or “mainstream” style or X style, and the descriptive claims we make about it will hold good. As I indicate in the book, the “classical” label suggests an effort toward coherent, unified storytelling–at least in comparison with the more episodic narratives we find in other traditions. (In Planet Hong Kong I reflect on more episodic approaches.)

The focus on production. Why not talk about distribution, exhibition, or reception? (A) It would require a much bigger book. (B) Production and its affiliated institutions are the most pertinent and proximate causal factors in shaping the films as we have them.  (C) It’s not clear that conditions further along the chain have many consequences for the way the movies behave. (D) You can’t talk about everything. (E) All of the above.

The term, again. By calling Hollywood storytelling and style “classical,” don’t you ignore its ties to modern culture? This view, advanced most fully by Miriam Hansen, suggests that the causal factors we trace aren’t broad enough; we don’t consider the rise of urban culture and its associated patterns of behavior and experience. The modern city purportedly alters people’s perception and rhythms of life, and these shape the way films are made. Hollywood’s aesthetic is better conceived as “vernacular modernism.” I’ve responded to this line of argument in On the History of Film Style, where I argue that the position has an equivocal conception of urban experience and how perception works. Moreover, these critics haven’t shown how the cultural forces they invoke have shaped the narrative strategies and fine-grained stylistic features we analyze. The urban experience would have to have a sort of feedback effect on the filmmakers (given the proximity of production, as above). What’s the causal story to be told here? There’s also a problem of delayed timing: the modern city, choked with traffic and distracting displays, antedates the 1910s, when the Hollywood style crystallizes. On the whole, the modernity position seems to me to rely on analogies, not causation.

A rage for disorder. How unified are these films, really? Critics sometimes point to musicals, action movies, noirs, comedies, and other films that seem narratively disjointed. We argued that classical construction was a goal, not always achieved, but even genres that seemed to favor loose plotting put their films together fairly tightly. In addition, principles of both surface structure (dialogue hooks, continuity cutting) and plot structure (goal orientation, deadlines, appointments, etc.) bind  the action in most feature-length pictures. In more recent years, analyses by Kristin in Storytelling in the New Hollywood and by me in The Way Hollywood Tells It and Reinventing Hollywood, along with some entries on this site, have, I think, convinced people just how carefully sculpted a classical film can be. Fights, chases, and escapes aren’t mere spectacle; they advance the story by creating new obstacles or revealing betrayals or killing off the hero’s best friend. I have, though, come to accept coincidence as being more important than screenwriting gurus have claimed. Yet even here, coincidence is absorbed into a pattern of cause-and-effect and motivation that isn’t willy-nilly. In short: Where you find planting and foreshadowing, you’ll find “classical” unity.

The neglect of auteurs. Why treat the output of hacks and mediocrities as on the same level as the work of the great filmmakers? Andrew Sarris promoted the idea of writing American film history as the accretion of the “personal visions” of directors. And historians of other arts routinely conceived of history as a succession of exemplary works produced by exceptional creators. But we were asking different questions. We sought to understand a tradition as a whole, and to explain its emergence and longevity. That’s an effort of value in its own right. Moreover, an auteurist could benefit from knowing relevant norms, because then one could pinpoint the distinctiveness of individual filmmakers. Throughout his work, Sarris occasionally signaled when a director made an uncommon choice of camera setup or cutting, and this gesture presupposes a norm in the background.

The schlock of the new. By stopping your survey in 1960, don’t you assume that a post-classical cinema came next–one less concerned with goal-directed plots and “invisible” style? We argued that the industrial conditions for the studios faltered around 1960, but the creative and labor practices (division of labor, hierarchy of control, etc.) continued into the present. We thought that classically constructed films dominated output afterward (Jaws, The Godfather, The Exorcist). Not that there aren’t changes. We suggested that many of the changes detectable in the more unusual “New Hollywood” films of the 197os are traceable to the influence of European art cinema; those principles of construction were blended with genres and stylistic patterns characteristic of the studio tradition. (Since then, other researchers have found this to be the case.) In addition, there are many post-1960 films which are “hyperclassical.” Back to the Future, Jerry Maguire, Die Hard, Hannah and Her Sisters, and others are “more classical than they have to be,” with intricate patterns of motifs and plotting–packed, we might say, with classical features. The same goes for many films we’ve discussed in our blog entries since 2006.

The monolith (no, not 2001). So the classical style never changes, is always in force, can’t go away? Ridiculously monolithic! Actually, we argued that classical filmmaking does change, but within boundaries. I invoked Leonard Meyer’s notion of “trended change,” in which

change takes place within a limiting set of preconditions, but the potential inherent in the established relationships may be realized in a number of different ways and the order of the realization may be variable. Change is successive and gradual, but not necessarily sequential; and its rate and extent are variable, depending more upon external circumstances than upon internal preconditions.

This seems to me to capture change in the studio tradition. Hollywood films can have 400 or 2000 shots, they can be told chronologically or not, they can have single protagonists or multiple protagonists, and there will be a lot of variety at any moment. But they will still tend to obey canons of classical staging, camerawork, cutting, sound work, and dramaturgy. And those changes are, as Meyer suggests, not generated from within the style, as a necessary unfolding like the growth of an organism. The variations are created by external circumstances such as budget constraints, production trends, influential models, new tools, fashion, competition among filmmakers, and the like. I’d make the analogy to the well-made play, which has survived as a model of plotting for nearly two centuries, but has allowed for a huge variety of manifestations, from Ibsen to Doubt and beyond. Perhaps perspective painting and Western tonal music, both robust traditions, would also exhibit trended change within history.

In the book, I tried to analyze levels of change by a three-tier model that still seems valid, though perhaps too abstract. Coming back from Waterloo, I began to see a way to specify a little more the kinds of change we can track, at least in terms of narrative construction. Maybe this effort will also help us understand why we think the “classical” system changes more than it does.

 

Black Panther in three dimensions

Narrative theorists often distinguish between “story” and “discourse.” There’s the causal-chronological string of events, and there’s the way they’re presented in the text we have. There are other terms for the distinction (story/plot, fabula/syuzhet), and they aren’t completely congruent. In an essay reprinted here I propose that we can better think of narratives as having three dimensions: the story world, the structure of the plot, and the narration.

Start with narration. Why? Because it’s the flow of information we encounter moment by moment, given to us through all the resources of the medium. Black Panther begins with a visual representation of how vibranium created the nation of Wakanda, while we hear on the soundtrack a father recounting the tale to his son. (Here the film’s narration is given as both pictorial and voice-over.)

In an earlier version of this entry, I said that it was T’Chaka speaking to T’Challa. But Fiona Pleasance wrote to point out that the voice is actually that of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu telling his son N’Jadaka, who will grow up to be Killmonger. They’re living in exile, which motivates the need to rehearse the nation’s origins.

The narration isn’t only giving exposition about Wakanda’s history. It’s establishing a hierarchy of knowledge, in which the father is presented as knowing more than his son. This is important for a later revelation of what aspects of the past are suppressed. And flashbacks and other narrational choices will further channel the flow of information. Soon after the prologue, we jump back to 1992, when T’Chaka learned of N’Jobu’s affiliation with arms dealer Klaue.

With or without voice-over, the regulated flow of story information will continue throughout the movie. Out of this narration we build a story world. We’re cued to construct characters, to register their roles and attitudes and feelings, to sense their hopes and fears. We also construct the story’s physical world, with its geography and furnishings and rules. Very quickly, for instance, we understand that Wakanda is a land of utopian technology but ruled by ancient tribal lore and rites. Through redundant information we learn of T’Challa’s family and friends, past conflicts among characters, and the threats to Wakanda.

Okay, so we have narration that coaxes us into co-creating a story world. What’s left for my third dimension, plot structure? Kristin convinced me that it’s another level of construction, one that organizes the story world into a comprehensible pattern that can in turn be transmitted via narration. She argues that classical films often have four large-scale parts (not three acts), each typically running about half an hour. Those parts focus the action in the story world around the characters’ goals.

In the Setup, running about half an hour, we meet the main characters and learn their goals. In the Complicating Action, another half hour more or less, the goals get redefined as a result of new obstacles. Then comes the Development, which is largely a holding pattern. Here we get backstory, character portrayal, fantasies and flashbacks, the upgrading of secondary characters, and elaboration of motifs. At the end of the Development, a crisis develops; at this point we know nearly everything we need to know and can concentrate on the outcome. Now comes the Climax, usually with a deadline pressing on the action. At the end, with the action largely resolved, there’s an epilogue (or “tag”) that celebrates the final state of things.

This anatomy of plot structure echoes the classic screenplay manuals up to a point. The Setup corresponds to Act I, the Climax to Act III. The Complicating Action and the Development in effect split the second act. But Kristin’s layout is more precise, I think, because she shows that goals and obstacles change between the first and second part. She also points up the more or less arbitrary delays and detours that prolong the action in her third part, the Development. This “desert of the Second Act,” as screenwriters call it, can now be seen as doing its own distinctive narrative work, not least prolonging suspense.

This structure didn’t have to have such sharply defined segments. Why can’t the setup be an hour, dawdling over introducing the protagonist’s goals? Why not cut out the Development, if it’s mostly delay? The Hollywood tradition has created this distinctive, tight form as one solution to the problem of organizing an appealing narrative at feature length.

Take Black Panther again. The Setup charges T’Challa, newly made king, with responding to Klaue’s theft of a precious Wakandian tool made of vibranium. (Screenplay gurus sometimes call this the “inciting incident.”) At the 35-minute mark T’Challa, Okole, and Nakia set out on a mission to retrieve the artifact. At sixty-one minutes, the midpoint, the goals need revising. Klaue is dead, the Wakandans’ ally Ross is severely wounded, and the real antagonist is revealed: the fierce fighter Erik, aka Killmonger.

The Development provides important backstory involving T’Challa’s uncle’s child N’Jadaka (more flashbacks, including replays of the 1992 scene presented in the Setup–revealing the child Erik as on the scene).  T’Challa’s allies flee from Killmonger, who prepares to use the precious vibranium to make weapons for world insurrection. T’Challa, near death, has been rescued by his rival the Jabari chieftain Baku. All pretty typical Development, moving the hero toward his “darkest moment” and facing him with a deadline.

The Climax, which tends to be the shortest section in most films, starts at about 99:00. It’s a gigantic battle scene, involving air combat, ground fighting, and the confrontation of T’Challa and Killmonger–all crosscut for maximum suspense. After the resolution, we get a tag showing a montage of life returning to normal, T’Challa kissing Nakia, and another visit to the 1992 world when T’Challa comes calling in a space ship.

The film has the characteristic double plotline, a romance line of action (will T’Challa and Nakia reunite?) and one centering on a project (keeping vibranium out of the wrong hands). Major developments are carefully foreshadowed. The paternal voice-over establishes the Jabari tribe’s isolation, and Baku’s crucial role is planted when he challenges T’Challa to mortal combat. Later Baku will save the young king. Kristin also points out the importance of motifs in tightening classical structure. Here we get recurring lines (“”I never freeze”/ “Did he freeze?”), the lip that identifies a Wakandan, the importance of border patrols, and the ring that reveals Erik as kin to T’Challa. Parallel scenes–two waterfall fights, two burial ceremonies with attendant ephiphanies, two street strolls of T’Challa and Nakia–measure significant dramatic differences.

Despite being an installment in a much bigger saga, Black Panther is a solid example of classical construction. (I don’t have to explain how it obeys the rules of continuity staging and editing, do I?) A hundred years after the Hollywood storytelling system settled in, it’s still shaping the movies coming out each Friday.

 

Main attraction: Worldmaking

Why have so many smart people thought that studio storytelling changed drastically after 1960, or 1945, or 1977? I think it was because trended change was happening along two of these three dimensions.

Narrationally, there were trends toward innovation. I argue in Reinventing Hollywood that 1940s filmmakers consolidated narrative devices that had appeared piecemeal in the silent and early sound eras. Those strategies–flashbacks, voice-overs, subjective sequences, self-conscious artifice, mystery plotting–gained a new prominence and were explored with unprecedented ingenuity. The 1990s was another period of experimentation, reworking all those techniques and more, such as network narratives and forking-path plotting. These suggested to sensitive critics that something new was up. For me, they show the versatility of the classical system, its ability to explore what Meyer calls its “preconditions.”

One broad narrational change I’d now emphasize is the tendency to be more elliptical. The opening of Black Panther doesn’t show us N’Jobu speaking to his son. This misled me, and perhaps some others. Executive producer Nate Moore explained:

“We landed on N’Jobu telling the story to his son, which wasn’t our first choice, but ultimately felt really satisfying,” said Moore. “Hopefully on repeat viewings you go, ‘Oh that’s who I was listening to, OK that’s cool.'”

A film in earlier periods would have shown us the speaker and listener, but we’ve so “overlearned” the convention of a tale told by an elder to a child that we need only one set of cues, on the soundtrack. Still, the uncertainty about the speakers–we haven’t met any of the characters yet–offers less redundancy than is traditional. I’m reminded of the old man’s voice-over that opens The Road Warrior; only at the very end do we learn his identity.

The elliptical prologue exemplifies what’s perhaps the most common change in narrational strategies across history. A lot of new practices, such as the substitution of straight cuts for dissolves and fades between scenes, involve this sort of reduction in redundancy. It’s possible because Hollywood films are traditionally quite repetitious in doling out story information, as is indicated by the infamous Rule of Three. (Once for the smart people, once for the average people, and once for Slow Joe in the Back Row.) Still, as is typical of trended change, not every film must adopt an elliptical technique. Black Panther‘s beginning could easily have shown us father and son talking, without any sense of being old-fashioned.

The suppression of the prologue’s speakers not only puts the emphasis on the tale but adds a bonus for repeat viewings. This is the sort of “thickening” of classical style I analyzed in The Way Hollywood Tells It. I proposed there that making the films available on video formats enabled fans to hunt for fine points and Easter Eggs. Nate Moore’s comments seem to presuppose this sort of fan-driven recidivism. Such sneaky bits for insiders weren’t unknown in earlier periods (I talk about some here and here and here), but the ability to scan and pause DVDs made such games more common.

The bigger changes across Hollywood history, and the ones that constantly impress observers, spring from the movies’ story worlds. The popularity of fantasy and science fiction is, from this standpoint, an extreme instance of the most common way that the tradition refreshes itself. Most of the novelty of Hollywood, I think now, involves worldmaking, big or small. Find new milieus, new characters, new situations. Create conflicted protagonists–fallible, vulnerable, torn by indecision. Turn the heterosexual romance into a gay one. Build your plot around an ensemble (Grand HotelNashville). Take the heist formula and feminize it (Ocean’s 8). And on and on.

Repopulating the story world has another advantage: it yields a new range of thematic implications and thus invites interpretation. Get Out, a film we discussed a bit at the conference, calls on both specific horror-film conventions (the mad scientist, the innocent victim lured to a corrupt community) and broader classical conventions (a double plotline, a restricted viewpoint for suspense and surprise, 1940s dream states, a last-minute rescue). What made the film intriguing and controversial was turning the white bourgeoisie into modern plantation seigneurs re-enslaving African Americans. This refashioning introduces thematic material that can provoke public discussion.

You can call this endless remaking of story worlds unimaginative. But the variorum impulse, this combinatorial cascade of materials and techniques, seems typical of popular art. Art makers take familiar schemas and rework them in novel ways. I’m not exactly saying that everything is a remix, but everything does start from a point of departure in some tradition. Even Cubist painters needed the work of Cézanne and the genre of the still life in order to contrive their innovations.

Moreover, we’re far more sensitive to the story world than the other dimensions of narrative. We’re interested in other persons (or person-like agents, such as Dory), so naturally we’re quick to register the new people, places, and things that a movie prompts us to co-create. Narration and plot structure, although they have immense impact on us, are far less visible. So it’s not surprising that the most imaginatively gripping novelty in mainstream narrative film involves the creation of fresh agents and arenas for story action.

Compared with the story worlds, Kristin’s four-part-plus-epilogue template is far less noticeable. Yet it is a stable and enduring dimension of Hollywood storytelling. Given characters with goals, the narrative structure squeezes those into a sturdy and quietly familiar mold of rising action, delayed action, and culminating action. The strictness of the form, with its well-timed turning points and echoing motifs, seems as reliable as the conventions of narration. It’s a stubborn, persistent feature that testifies to the continuing power of the classical model of narrative.

 

I can’t claim to have fathomed all the principles of classical storytelling and style. Still, I think we’ve made progress in understanding the engineering, so to speak, of one major cinematic tradition. And it doesn’t exist in splendid isolation. Hollywood’s continuity editing system provided a lingua franca of popular cinema worldwide, and Hollywood narrative structure and narration has been borrowed, wholesale or piecemeal, in other national traditions. Filmmakers, having found a bundle of principles that are understandable and pleasurable to wide audiences, have clung to them for a very long time. Call it classicism or whatever, it’s real and strong and it works pretty well and I bet it’s not going away any time soon.


Thanks to Kat and Philippa for inviting us to their splendid conference. I believe that a book will collect the papers given there; when that happens, we’ll alert you.

More thoughts on our book can be found at The Classical Hollywood Cinema twenty-five years along.”

The ideas in this entry stem from the books mentioned above, from Poetics of Cinema, and from several other items on our site. If you’re curious, you can look at Kristin’s explanation of the four-part structure and two pieces where I develop her template in relation to the action movie and in relation to traditional act structure. For application to some recent films, see this entry from 2016 , this one from 2017, and this one from last January. An analysis of The Wolf of Wall Street illustrates the three dimensions of film narrative.

P.S. 15 June: Fiona Pleasance, who corrected my attribution of the prologue’s voice-over, helpfully adds:

It could therefore be argued that not seeing the speakers is a weakness of the film, leading as it does to such confusion.
Personally I believe that, narratively, it does make more sense for the speaker to be N’Jobu. Growing up in Wakanda, as T’Challa does, we can assume he would learn about his country’s past by osmosis, without the need for his father to reiterate it. Such stories become much more important for exiles like N’Jobu and his son.

I believe this does not negate the idea of the father knowing more than the son, which is also addressed in Killmonger’s vision after taking the heart-shaped herb, when he confronts the image of his father, just as T’Challa has done. Also, Killmonger at one point refers to hearing his father tell “fairy stories” about Wakanda, which he came to believe were just that. (Or words to that effect. I’m working entirely from memory; I can’t check as the DVD hasn’t been released in Germany yet!).

Thanks to Fiona for writing! If other readers have further thoughts, they should correspond.

Some of the Badger brigade: Brad Schauer, Vince Bohlinger, Masha Belodubrovskaya, Lisa Dombrowski, Patrick Keating, and Lisa Jasinski.

Hollywood now and then: A conference at Wilfrid Laurier University

DB here:

An extraordinary event is shaping up for next weekend. Katherine Spring and her colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier University are hosting a conference, Classical Hollywood Studies in the 21st Century.

It features talks by scholars young, youngish, oldish, and just plain old. All are continuing to make striking contributions to understanding American studio cinema. The team is really staggering, a who’s who of expert researchers. There are also screenings of A Letter to Three Wives (1948) and Carmen Jones (1955).

The array of research questions and arguments is exhilarating. It shows just how many fruitful ways there are to explore Hollywood’s history, aesthetics, and cultural functions.

I will be giving a keynote talk. Yes, it’s intimidating to be facing such a stellar assembly. I will try to beguile them with Jedi mind tricks, tortuous and subtle arguments laced with distracting examples and Wildean wit. What could go wrong?

Kristin will be presenting as well. So will many of our Wisconsin colleagues and alumni: Tino Balio, Maria Belodubrovskaya, Vince Bohlinger, Lisa Dombrowski, Scott Higgins, Eric Hoyt, Mary Huelsbeck, Patrick Keating, Charlie Keil, Brad Schauer, Kat Spring, and of course Janet Staiger, our collaborator on The Classical Hollywood Cinema. I look forward to reuniting with these Badgers,  to reconnecting with old friends from elsewhere, and to making new friends laboring on the same territory.

One outstanding feature of this get-together: No competing sessions. This allows us all to follow the same papers and build a sense of community, with discussion developing organically and continuing across three days. This is the best conference format, I think.

There are plans to publish the papers. We may be able to blog a little during the event.

Thanks very much to Kat and her colleagues for inviting us. I predict a hell of a time will be had by all.


Some background on our book, and thoughts about it twenty-five years later, can be found here.

Carmen Jones (1955).

Geoffrey O’Brien reviews REINVENTING HOLLYWOOD in NYRB

Backfire (1950).

DB here:

The New York Review of Books has just published a review by Geoffrey O’Brien of Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. This is a big deal for me.

I never thought my work would be reviewed in a publication I’ve subscribed to since my college days. And to be reviewed by O’Brien is a special honor. He’s one of those wide-ranging intellectuals who are rare today. He writes fiction and poetry, and offers criticism of film, literature, music, painting, and theatre. He’s ideally equipped to appraise my arguments about how 40s cinema drew on narrative conventions in adjacent arts. He’s also a connoisseur of the obscure and marginal in classic studio cinema.

I especially admire his writings on noir film and literature, on popular music, and his study of American cinema as a sort of popular hallucination. The Phantom Empire makes this case memorably, but the opening of his review catches the flavor too.

One night not long ago I found myself once again drawn into a movie from the tail end of the 1940s. This one, with the thoroughly generic title Backfire (not to be confused with Crossfire or Criss Cross or Backlash ), did not come with a high pedigree. It had sat on the shelf for two years after it was filmed in 1948, and afterward seems to have faded quickly from recollection. But movies of that time, when they emerge decades later, have devious ways of holding the attention: beguiling hooks and feints lead deeper into a maze whose inner reaches remain tantalizing no matter how many times those well-worn pathways have been explored, and no matter how many times the interior of the maze has led only to an empty space.

In a state of suspended fascination only just distinguishable from the preliminary stages of dreaming, I remained absorbed as documentary-style scenes of wounded war veterans recuperating at a hospital in Van Nuys, California, gave way to progressively more disjointed and often barely comprehensible episodes: an unidentified woman creeping in the dark into a patient’s room with a message about a missing war buddy, a murder investigation, a cleaning woman peering through a keyhole in a fleabag Los Angeles hotel, a winding path from mortuary to boxing arena to gambling den to the office of a particularly corrupt doctor, a plaintive piano theme playing over and over accompanied by reminiscences of its origin in a far-off Austrian village. The story splintered into flashbacks, spiraling into deepening confusions of identity and chronology, punctuated, as if to keep the spectator awake, by a series of point-blank shootings.

All the while, the dialogue was evoking the trauma of wartime injury, questioning the difference between memory and hallucination, talking about nightclub rackets, tax evasion, gambling debts, obsessive love, as the narrative coiled in its final swerve toward a strangling, silhouetted on a bedroom wall while Christmas carols were sung in the background. And then, abruptly, the nightmare was over, we were back in the veterans’ hospital after a second and successful round of rehabilitation, and the three surviving principal characters were even managing to laugh as they took off in their jeep for Happy Valley Ranch. By then I could hardly have said what the movie was about or even if it was especially good—few viewers have ever thought so—yet could not deny that something had caught me in its grip and stirred up troubling associations, like partially retrieved memories of a parallel life.

Apart from wishing I could write like this, I find myself agreeing. Popular culture does offer us a phantasmagoric alternative world that we can drift through in an almost somnambulistic way. I don’t see this argument as the sort of Zeitgeisty criticism I’ve complained about elsewhere. Rather, I think it’s in the spirit of Parker Tyler, who saw Hollywood not as reflecting a collective psyche but as building occasionally rickety story worlds out of cultural flotsam scavenged from wherever. Not a mirror but a mirage.

That hallucination demands that conventions and schemas, norms and forms, bring order to an occasionally demotic array of materials. Given this orientation, the sort of analysis I float in Reinventing Hollywood might seem to be overthought and flat-footed. But O’Brien gets into both the book’s research assumptions and its ambitions. He sees that I was trying to figure out how the dépaysment of Forties cinema stems from the frantic pressures of the industry, ambitious filmmakers itching to explore unusual narrative strategies, and the jolts that occur when time schemes collide, motives get muddled, and story premises wriggle out of control. To savor eccentricities, you need the sense of a center, and that’s where my inquiry starts.

It’s a generous review. O’Brien makes my arguments crisp and cogent, and he adds ideas of his own. It’s a review that both fans and nonspecialists can learn from, as I did. It’s also good to know that some of my jokes didn’t fall flat. (I can hear readers asking: Wait, there were jokes?)


For more on Reinventing Hollywood, go to the tag 1940s Hollywood. The book is available from the University of Chicago Press website and the mighty Amazon. As ever, I owe thanks to the University of Chicago Press staff, particularly Rodney Powell, Kelly Finefrock-Creed, Levi Stahl, and Melinda Kennedy.

I discuss Parker Tyler’s conception of the Hollywood Hallucination in The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture.

David Bordwell
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