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Books

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

new! Chapter 6 | Film Futures pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

Video

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History added September 2014

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

Studying Cinema

Articles

Book Reports

[Introduction / 124kb pdf]

The Way Hollywood Tells It:
Story and Style in Modern Movies

In the 1970s, mostly under the influence of French film theory and analysis, film scholars began to talk about Hollywood studio filmmaking as a “classical” cinema. They assumed that films made in this system of production shared some standardized norms of construction. Janet Staiger, Kristin Thompson, and I began writing a book that would try to probe that assumption. If Hollywood films did indeed share aesthetic principles of construction, what were the norms in force? What circumstances led to their emergence? How did they become standardized, and what kept them stable across several decades? To what extent are these norms still in force today? The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production was published in 1985 and it remains a crux of discussion for people studying American cinema.

I hope to add some new thoughts about this book in a later website entry, but for the moment I want to pause on just one matter. Our story halted in 1960, when the studios were all but finished in their golden-age form, but we stressed that there wasn’t anything magical about the decade-based breakpoint. Classical filmmaking didn’t end, we suggested, at any neat moment. Indeed, it was in many, many respects still operative. But other researchers later suggested that there was indeed a break, and at some point—the 1960s, or the 1970s, or some later period—a “post-classical” American cinema emerged.

The Way Hollywood Tells It is, among other things, an effort to defend the idea that in many basic respects, American mass-market theatrical filmmaking continues traditions that emerged after 1917. The two essays making up the book try to show how many norms—of plotting, characterization, narration, and visual style—have persisted across the last fifty years. I argue that focusing on the blockbuster, as many adherents of the post-classical position tend to do, ignores the vast bulk of production, which remain as in the studio years, program pictures. And some notable films (Jerry Maguire is my main instance) are even more thoroughly norm-abiding than typical films of the studio era.

At the same time, I try to point out some aspects of the diversity that, we tend to think, has characterized recent decades. I consider alternative strategies of storytelling, such as “network narratives” or “puzzle films,” and some visual techniques (e.g., the spread of fast cutting). In many cases, these alternatives constitute explorations of options that existed in the studio period but that weren’t fully developed then. The tradition, on this account, harbors a range of choices. All of these options are part of traditional norms, but some are more prevalent at some points than at others. To a large extent, the novelty we detect in films like The Sixth Sense or Nashville are elaborations of possibilities that were only minority practices in the studio era.

In some cases, the changes in storytelling and visual style that we detect operate at the level of devices, not patterns or systems. Across Hollywood’s history, devices have constantly been introduced—everything from sound and color to flashbacks and slow-motion—but these have typically been inserted into patterns that fulfill traditional functions. This was a key argument in The Classical Hollywood Cinema (not always noticed by its critics). So the wipe-by cut, introduced at the end of the 1960s and still in use today, participates in a spatial system of spatial and temporal continuity, often achieving expressive or other effects. (The canonical case I consider is that of Brody at the beach in Jaws.) So too, uncertainties of subjective and objective narration, borrowed from European and other foreign traditions tend to become “classicized” when imported into Hollywood. Ambivalence on one front tends to be balanced by norm-driven redundancy on others. (I discuss how this works in JFK and Memento, among other films.) Hollywood welcomes innovation, but it also controls it, bending it to canonized purposes.

Some people believe they detect a contradiction between The Way and the 1985 book. The earlier book stressed the force of the norms, but the new book gives a lot of space to novelty and experimentation. To a large extent, this difference of emphasis stems from the slightly different questions that inform each project. The Classical Hollywood Cinema sought to describe and explain the stability of the system—how it became a tradition and how that tradition assimilated diverse inputs and persisted under varying conditions. The Way Hollywood Tells It also tries to show the underlying continuity of the system, but here I’m also interested in how contemporary films refine, elaborate, and rethink the tradition.

In other words, both books weigh continuity and change, but in different ratios. The first book studies how the principles informing tradition govern change. The recent book focuses more on how change reveals, somewhat surprisingly, a continuity of tradition. The books are complementary, both substantively and methodologically.

All of which isn’t to say that I haven’t rethought a lot of matters broached in the earlier book. I hope I’ve learned something across the last twenty years! A later entry on this site will try to take up some of the criticisms of The Classical Hollywood Cinema while also laying out some of my recent thinking about it.

Corrections (updated 5 February 2007)

These errata, and any others that fate has in store for me, will be corrected in future printings.

[p. 4] : There’s an error in the sentence beginning, “In 2004 the major studios’ theatrical releases grossed $9.5 billion worldwide…” The figures cited are for domestic (U.S. and Canada) theatrical grosses, not worldwide ones.

[p. 54] : First full paragraph, eight lines from end: Warren Beatty, not Barry Levinson, directed Dick Tracy.

[p. 187] : For Fig. 2.123, the director’s name is incorrect. It should be Bong Joon-ho. Thanks to Chuck Stephens and Tony Rayns for pointing this out, and my apologies to Mr. Bong, who also made the charming Barking Dogs Never Bite. His latest film, The Host, is sweeping South Korea and will be shown in several other countries soon.

[p. 229] : A River Runs through It didn’t win the Academy Award for best Adapted Screenplay. That honor went to Howards End and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Thanks to Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics for correcting this.

[p. 230] : Disney did not acquire Merchant-Ivory but rather arranged for a first-look deal with them. Thanks again to Michael Barker.

More on One-Shot Woody

When I set up W. S. Van Dyke, Jr. as a counterpoint to Brett Ratner in Part 2 (pp. 117-118), I was unaware of Rudy Behlmer’s fine collection W. S. Van Dyke’s Journal: White Shadows in the South Seas (1927-1928) and Other Van Dyke on Van Dyke (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1996).The material on his 1930s work confirms that he sacrificed all to speed—in setting up the camera, in shooting (only the first take), in dialogue delivery, in movement around the set. He also believed that master shots could be dispatched quickly in order to get to the real meat, close-ups, principally of glamorous women. Hence the advice Orson Welles recalls receiving from him: “Keep it close and keep it moving.” Although Myrna Loy recalls that Van Dyke eventually became too fast (“it became an obsession,” 104), his best films, especially The Thin Man (1936), indicate that he understood pacing better than many more prestigious directors.  

Down in the Valleys (4 September 2006)

Is the blockbuster film—the locomotive, the tentpole, the megapicture—the defining phenomenon of contemporary moviemaking? Both the film industry and film scholars have usually presumed that it is. For the suits, this notion has been a convenient way to concentrate everyone’s attention on the films that can’t afford to fail. Scholars have tended to agree, seeing in the blockbuster a convenient way to characterize “post-classical” Hollywood.

Although blockbusters are an important phenomenon, The Way Hollywood Tells It argues that they don’t entail core changes at the level of film form and style. The Da Vinci Code appeals to the principles of storytelling and stylistic patterning we find in traditional Hollywood films, although some of the devices it uses (e.g., the CGI historical montages) flaunt new technologies. Moreover, if we take a fuller measure of the industry’s output, we’ll find that the mid-range picture—today’s equivalent of the studio programmer—tends to sustain the aesthetics of classical construction. (So do most of the low-budget genre pictures and independent films.) The Way tries to show this consistency of construction across a range of examples, from JFK to Jerry Maguire, Mystic Pizza, Memento, and action movies. Classical storytelling is thriving in the valleys as well as on the peaks—that is, in the 400 to 500 films released each year that don’t even try to be blockbusters.

It now seems that this summer [2006] the midrange picture is rescuing the domestic theatrical market. Ben Fritz writes in Variety today that summer business is up 6% over that of 2005. You might attribute this to one film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Today, that stunningly popular vehicle is poised to hit a billion dollars in worldwide grosses. Certainly the Pirates franchise proves that megapictures can still win big, and three other tentpole films (Cars, Da Vinci, and X‑Men: The Last Stand) did deliver. But Poseidon, Lady in the Water, Mission: Impossible 3, and Superman Returns either failed or disappointed.

So, compared to last year, a smaller number of summer films surpassed $150 million. What propelled the surge in box-office receipts, Fritz proposes, were movies in the middle, such as The Break‑Up, The Devil Wears Prada, and Talledega Nights. By Labor Day eight films had grossed between $70 million and $150 million, adding over $600 million to the box office. Take those midrange successes out of the equation, and even Pirates’ superb showing would not have offset a drop from last year. The result was the third biggest summer ever, after 2004 and 2003. “Both those years,” writes Fritz, “had about as many mega-hits as this year, but they had even more mid-sized successes.” You can read the analysis here.

This isn’t to deny that even a weak tentpole can earn a lot in ancillaries. M:I 3 will probably do solidly on DVD, and Cars and X‑Men will generate vast merchandising income. There are unlikely to be Break-Up action figures. But some mid-range pictures, like Ice Age: The Meltdown and Over the Hedge benefit from ancillaries too. And great as the side benefits provided by blockbusters can be, the mid-range picture shouldn’t be ignored, either by the industry or the academy. Not only can they be good movies, or hit movies; but they are also likely to be quite classically constructed.

The Devil Wears Prada is Exhibit A. It adheres to the classic four-part structure, telling of a goal-oriented protagonist who refocuses her goals in formulaic fashion. She resists falling into the world of haute couture, then overdoes it before finding the right balance between personal style and moral integrity. Fashion porn it may be, but the cinematic treatment of this milieu, built out of lots of singles and reaction shots, is typical of intensified continuity. (Average shot length is 3.7 seconds.) The montage sequences, of which there are plenty, compress action and add zip in the traditional manner. My favorite sequence shows Miranda swanning into her office morning after morning and flinging her coat and bag at her assistant’s desk while whispering a barrage of orders. Gorgeous fabrics, patterns, and textures are hurled at the camera in bursts of color that would have done 1940s Fox proud, and we understand completely. A post-classical aesthetic seems very far away.  

More evidence for belatedness (16 October 2006)

The obvious things you think of, after the fact….

One of my claims in The Way is that since the 1960s filmmakers have been self-consciously aware of coming late to a tradition, that of Hollywood studio filmmaking. By and large, I think, they don’t try to puncture it but rather to sustain it—extending it, amplifying it, revising it, or burrowing deeper into it.

The book pursues several lines of evidence for these claims, but one that I overlooked is this. It’s now common in the prep phase of production for the creators to study old films that are somehow keyed to the project in hand. Directors ask cinematographers and other craft professionals to watch films in the same genre, or on the same topic, or set in the same era, as the one they’re preparing.

Sometimes the team will watch a film for stylistic ideas as well. For All the King’s Men, Steven Zaillian asked his DP Pawel Edelman to watch not the original film but rather In Cold Blood, because of its noirish lighting, and the Leacock/Maysles documentary Primary, for its rough realism. (See Jay Holben, “Man of the People,” American Cinematographer 87, 10 (October 2006), 53-54.)

You might argue that the fact that the cast and crew need tutoring in the classics suggests ignorance rather than awareness. But the person initiating this task, usually the director or cinematographer, is the controlling force. She or he is seeking to link the film to tradition, through imitation, borrowing, revision, or whatever. There’s a self-conscious sense of belatedness, but also an urge for grounding the project in tradition as a point of departure.

Backstory 4There’s some evidence that that this practice goes back at least to the 1970s. In Pat McGilligan’s fascinating new book, Backstory 4: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), Robert Benton talks about preparing Bad Company (1972) by screening My Darling Clementine (1946) for his creative team. He recalls that his assistant director Howard Koch, Jr. asked, “Why is it I’ve worked with three first-time directors and every one of them has shown me this movie?”  

 
   
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