David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

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

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

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

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


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

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

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for February 2007

Classical cinema lives! New evidence for old norms



Kristin here—

Note: This entry was written for Jim Emerson’s Contrarian Blog-a-Thon (III).

When David and I got into film studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an era of Hollywood’s history was drawing to a close. Many of the great directors who had defined the classical studio era from the period of World War I to the early age of television were at or approaching retirement. Andrew Sarris’s pivotal book, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (1968) came out just in time to elevate their reputations by dubbing them with the fashionable French term auteur.

John Ford and Howard Hawks made their last films in this period (7 Women, 1966, and Rio Lobo, 1970). Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, and Vincente Minnelli kept driecting into the 1970s, though few would say their late films stacked up to their earlier ones. (Preminger did manage to struggle back after a string of turkeys to make a very creditable final film, The Human Factor, in 1980.) Sam Fuller kept working through the 1980s, but he had to go to France to do it. Billy Wilder’s last film came out in 1981, though most of us wish he had stopped with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in 1970.

The decline of these greats coincided with the rise of the New Hollywood generation, whose directors, originally dubbed “the movie brats,” have become the grand old men of the current cinema. It also coincided with the early rumblings of the blockbuster (Jaws, 1975) and franchise (Star Wars, 1977) age that we know today. Definitely a shift took place in the 1970s, but to what?

Many film historians have claimed that the films that have come out of Hollywood since roughly the end of the 1980s are radically different from those of the classical “Golden Age.” Factors like television, videogames, spectacular special effects, moviegoers with short attention spans, the internet, the acquisition of the old studios by multi-national corporations, and the resulting rise of franchises have all putatively given rise to a “post-classical” cinema. This phenomenon is sometimes also referred to as the “post-Hollywood” or “post-modern” era.

I’m suspicious of the “post” terms, vague as they are. Usually stylistic labels describe what something is, not what it follows. Do we speak of “post-silent” or “post black-and-white” cinema?

Post-classical films supposedly jettison the old norms of style and storytelling. Frenetic editing, constant camera movement, product placement, juggled time-schemes—these and other tropes of recent cinema have replaced the continuity system, the carefully structured screenplay, and the character-based storytelling of the classical era. Computer-generated imagery has enabled filmmakers to create action scenes, spectacular settings, and fantastical creatures that hold our attention so thoroughly that the plot ceases to matter.

Or not. David and I have spent much of our professional careers studying the norms of classical filmmaking. We’ve swum against the stream by claiming that, despite many changes in style and technique, the fundamental norms of classical storytelling have remained intact. The classical cinema is with us still, precisely because it enables filmmakers to present us with absorbing plots and characters. It also is a flexible filmmaking approach that can absorb new technologies and new influences from other media and bend them to its own uses.

It’s less seductive to proclaim a long-term stability in Hollywood than to trumpet revolutionary, transformational, epochal changes. Still, some things just work so well that people want to keep them going as is. American films have dominated world screens since 1915. Why tinker with an approach that works so well?

It’s amazing to think of it now, but back in the late 1970s, virtually no one had studied the traditional norms of Hollywood filmmaking. We all knew what the distinctive traits of the great auteurs were, but distinctive as opposed to what? Academics kept saying that someone should figure out just what the cinema of the classical studio era consisted of. What principles guided filmmakers? What assumptions did they share? Not realizing how much material was available on Hollywood cinema, we and our colleague Janet Staiger set out to document the norms of style, technology, and mode of production that composed the “classical Hollywood cinema.”

The result was a much larger tome than we had expected, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985). After finishing it, David and I dusted off our hands, figuring that we had dealt with that topic. We went back to studying non-classical directors like Ozu, Eisenstein, Tati, Godard, Bresson, and Hou, confident that we had the knowledge to show exactly how and why their work differed from standard filmmaking.

Then claims about post-classical filmmaking started to appear. In our book, we had limited our survey to pre-1960 cinema because the breakdown of the studio structure and the competition from television led to a different situation in Hollywood. We did not, however, say that classical filmmaking died then. Quite the contrary; we said that it had endured through those changes in the industry.

Those favoring the post-classical explanation obviously disagreed with that. Bypassing our claims for the endurance of classical filmmaking, they borrowed our cut-off date of 1960, as if we had intended that year to signal the end of all aspects of the classical cinema—style, storytelling, mode of production, technology, the whole thing.

During the 1990s it became apparent that claims about post-classical cinema were becoming one very common way of dealing with modern Hollywood films. We decided to move well beyond 1960 and show that classical norms still prevail in American mainstream cinema. I wrote Storytelling in the New Hollywood (1999), which analyzes ten successful films of the 1980s and 1990s to show that they use narrative principles that are virtually the same as those that were standard in the 1930s and 1940s. Goal-oriented characters, dangling causes, appointments, double plot-lines, carefully timed turning points, redundancy—all these classical devices are still very much with us. The claim was not that every single film coming out of Hollywood adhered to classical norms, only that the vast majority did.

David went on to make a similar argument in The Way Hollywood Tells It (2006), though he deals with visual style as well as narrative. There he examines some of the new norms of storytelling, showing how they are variants of the older classical system. He discusses, for example, “intensified continuity,” where tighter framings on actors, faster cutting, and prowling camera movements have modified but not replaced the standard continuity approach to presenting a conversation scene.

One of the most persistent claims by proponents of a post-classical era is the spectacle made possible by CGI. With the thrilling fight sequences of The Matrix, the vast battles of The Lord of the Rings, the extensive recreation of historical places of Gladiator, and the fantastical creatures and places of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the individual scene supposedly becomes more spellbinding than the story in which it is embedded.

David and I have tried to refute this claim to some extent. I talk about Terminator 2 in the first chapter of Storytelling, showing that it has a tightly constructed, character-based narrative. David has a chapter section called “A Certain Amount of Plot: Tentpoles, Locomotives, Blockbusters, Megapictures, and the Action Movie,” where he examines films like Judge Dredd and The Rock. He demonstrates that they, too, have plots that adhere to traditional Hollywood norms. He puts forth a more detailed analysis in this online essay.

digital-storytelling-cover-240.jpgWe’ve never really dealt much, however, with the issue of how CGI may or may not have elevated spectacle over narrative interest. Luckily now a new book does that and does it very well. Shilo T. McClean, in her Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film (MIT Press, 2007), agrees with much of what we have claimed about the survival of classical filmmaking (though The Way Hollywood Tells It came out too late for her to have seen it). She builds upon our case by examining systematically and imaginatively the question of whether digital special effects support narrative interest. McClean convincingly demonstrates that DVFx (digital visual effects), as she terms them, are used in an enormous variety of ways, and most of these help to tell classically constructed stories.

McClean’s basic points are two. First, DVFx are not used just in the more obvious ways, for big action scenes or elaborate fantasy and science fiction settings. They are applied for a wide range of purposes, from dustbusting (removing dust and other minor flaws from frames) to spectacular scenes. Far from being inevitably spectacular, DVFx are often invisible. (1)

Second, McClean claims that whether modest or spectacular, DVFx usually serve the narrative in some way—and she points out that practitioners in the industry invariably make that same claim.

Digital Storytelling started out as McClean’s dissertation at the University of Technology Sydney. It betrays its origins in a survey of the literature that takes up the first two chapters. There the author is somewhat too conciliatory, for my taste anyway, to a number of theorists’ claims about the breakdown of narrative in the digital-effects age. She tries to find something useful in each writer’s position, even though some of those positions are irreconcilable with the general standpoint she adopts.

Chapter 3 sketches the history of computer graphics and how they came to be used in films. McClean points out that DVFx are perfectly suited to the three criteria for the adoption of new technology that David and Janet formulated in their sections of The Classical Hollywood Cinema: greater efficiency, product differentiation, and support for achieving standards of quality. Like sound and color, DVFx have marked a major technological shift for the film industry, but like them, DVFx have been readily integrated into the existing division of labor. A modern digital studio, as she says, functions in much the same way as a physical one does. Indeed, in watching the credits of a modern film, we see lighting, matte paintings, and so on listed as the specialties for the digital craftspeople.

In these early chapters, McClean points out that in many ways DVFx simply replaces the traditional special effects of the pre-digital age. Most of Citizen Kane’s many effects are not supposed to be noticeable, and indeed for years historians were unaware of just how many it contained. In cases where DVFx create a flashy effect, as in the virtual camera movements through walls in Panic Room, the function is to inform the viewer of the locations of various characters and create suspense. Probably the most vital lesson one could take away from this book is that techniques can serve multiple purposes in a film. Spectacularity, as McClean calls it, and storytelling can co-exist in the same digital images.

The author also explains that, unlike what many writers say about DVFx, they are not simply a post-production technique used to ramp up the visual appeal of a film. Computer imagery is used from the pre-production stages onward, and the mise-en-scene and camera movements must be planned around them.

After this setup, the author systematically explores the factors that might influence the storytelling—or merely spectacular—use of DVFx. As we did in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, McClean samples a large number of films, 500 including shorts. Any film using DVFx, however unobtrusively, qualified.

On this basis, the author has distinguished eight types of DVFx usage. Documentary is one, as in films where computer reconstructions of ancient buildings are shown. Such usage comes into films when information is presented as part of the mise-en-scene, as with the educational film that is screened in Jurassic Park. The second type of DVFx usage, Invisible, is fairly self-explanatory. We are not supposed to notice when buildings are extended, clouds are added to skies, or smudges on actors’ faces disappear.

Seamless DVFx are those we know must be faked, even though the results look photorealistic. The recreation of ancient cities, as with Rome in Gladiator or giant storms, as in Master and Commander, are of this type. Exaggerated effects involves actions or things posited to be real but created in a stylized fashion. McClean cites the comic effects in Steven Chow comedies, and puts wire-erasure for stunts into this category. I assume The Hudsucker Proxy would be another instance.

Fantastical DVXs obviously involve impossible beings like dragons, cave trolls, and a wide variety of X-Men. McClean also finds them in non-fantasy, non-sci fic films like Forrest Gump, Big Fish, and Hero. Surrealist uses of effects can include mental representations, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and American Beauty, or a bizarre but objective world, as in Amélie.

Finally, there are New Traditionalist uses of DVFx, exemplified by Pixar’s films, and HypeRealist ones, like Final Fantasy.

Armed with this typology, McClean studies various approaches to film studies, testing what each one reveals about the use of DVFx. Since classical Hollywood cinema is based on character traits and goals, she begins by showing convincingly how DVFx can “establish, realize, and enhance” character. For example, films often use effects to put the protagonist in greater danger than would be safe to do in reality. The staged fights in Gladiator, the author argues, create a greater emotional engagement with the main character and make plausible the heroism that allows him to defeat his enemy in the end.

Next McClean tests how DVFx can change the impact of a film by analyzing a pre-digital film and its remake in the computer age. (As a method, this is similar to what David does in The Way Hollywood Tells It when he examines framing, editing, and other techniques in the two versions of The Thomas Crown Affair.) The case study chosen is the 1963 Robert Wise version of The Haunting and the Jan De Bont remake (1999). McClean presents considerable evidence that the inferiority of the later film has nothing to do with its expensive DVFx supernatural effects. Instead, she locates the problem partly in the removal of all the creepy ambiguity of the earlier version. De Bont also changes the heroine from a guilt-ridden, virtually suicidal woman (too wimpy in this politically-correct age?) to a strong, determined savior. The result is a conventional super-woman versus evil monster film where the digital effects stand out simply because the original story was stripped of its most intriguing elements.

McClean moves on to genre, an important subject given the apparent concentration of DVFx (the ones we notice, that is) in fantasy and sci-fi films. She rightly points out, “For all the many assertions that special effects are an emerging narrative form, no one has proposed the narrative structure that this new form demonstrates.” The author makes up for that lack herself, concocting an outline of a film based around a string of effects-laden action scenes. Her outline fits the descriptions of films as given by proponents of post-classicism. The result, however, doesn’t resemble any film I’ve ever seen.

In the genre chapter McClean uses an obvious research resource, but one that the post-classicists largely ignore. She has gone through the entire run of the special-effects journal Cinefex, on the assumption that the films it covers are those assumed to be most significant in terms of their DVFx. McClean lists the 291 films by genre, showing that sci-fi films and horror do not have a monopoly on DVFx. For example, thirty-three period and dramatic movies feature in her list.

To gauge the impact of the rise of franchises in modern Hollywood, McClean surveys the four Alien films, which begin in the pre-digital and move into the digital era. As with remakes, the author demonstrates through analysis that the decline in the series after its two first films had to do with a thematic shift and a change in the character of Ripley.

McClean does not overlook the auteur theory, tracing the work of Steven Spielberg during that same transition from pre-digital to digital cinema. Unlike the other effects-oriented giants of Hollywood, George Lucas and James Cameron, Spielberg has worked in many genres. As soon as DVFx became available, he used them in nearly all the ways listed in McClean’s typology, from the Invisible creation of the swooping airplanes in Empire of the Sun to the Exaggerated in the Flesh Fair setting in A.I. to the Fantastical Martians in War of the Worlds. Always in the service of the narrative.

Along the way McClean offers a number of astute observations. One of these is a novel argument against the “DVFx equals non-narrative spectacle” position. She points out that “In many instances technically weak DVFx will be forgiven if they are narratively congruent; it is the strength of the narrative that will carry them, rather than the other way round.” This claim is plausible when we consider how in the pre-digital age we tried to overlook the obvious back-projections and matte-work in Hitchcock films like The Birds and Marnie.

She also suggests some plausible reasons why bad films might be heavy with DVFx. In some cases the effects create a publicity hook that makes up for the lack of other production values. In others, an inexperienced director, carried away with the “cool” possibilities of DVFx, uses them to excess.

And finally someone has come out strongly against the use of the term “cinema of attractions” to describe modern films. Historian Tom Gunning originally coined this phrase in describing very early cinema, where magic acts with stop-motion disappearances and elaborately hand-colored dances were as common as narrative films. For that period, the label worked and was useful. Applying it to later eras just because films have spectacular sequences has rendered the term much less meaningful.

One thing that I particularly like about McClean’s book is that she shows respect for the films she discusses. She actually seems to enjoy both watching and writing about them. McClean asks questions of aesthetic import, and she treats films as artworks—some good, some bad, but all to be taken seriously as evidence for her case.

Her final chapter provides an excellent conclusion: “While DVFx have completely reequipped the storyteller’s toolbox, they have not rewritten the storyteller’s rulebook entirely.” Yes, classical cinema lives, and Digital Storytelling provides vital new evidence to bolster that claim.

(1) In Film Art, we have touched on this range in the section “From Monsters to the Mundane: Computer-Generated Imagery in The Lord of the Rings” (pp.249-251 in the 7th edition, pp. 179-181 in the 8th). McLean treats the topic in far more depth.

Walk the talk


The Magnificent Ambersons.

“It’s only history,” Jack Valenti is reported to have said when allowing scholars access to MPAA files. (1) After studying Hollywood for over thirty years, I should be used to the ways in which trade journalists (and some critics) forget or ignore historical precedents in moviemaking. But I still get bug-eyed when I encounter something like the Variety piece on TV director Tommy Schlamme (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip).

The subhead tells us that this DGA nominee is known for his “hallway shots.” That gets my interest.

I lose interest fast. The writer tells us that Schlamme

developed the “walk and talk” on Sports Night and then mastered it on The West Wing.

The shot—which features two or more actors moving from one location to another on the set, often from one office to another via a hallway—has become a Schlamme signature.

The first sentence could be read as saying that Schlamme invented the walk-and-talk. Since I spent a little time studying this technique in The Way Hollywood Tells It, my inner film historian cries out, Aarrgh. Long before Sports Night (aired 1998-2000) and The West Wing (1999-2006), movies were developing such bravura shots.


The oblique view

In the prototypical walk-and-talk, two or more characters advance, and the camera tracks along, keeping them centered as they move through the environment. Such shots are quite uncommon in the silent cinema, but they emerge in 1930s films from many countries.

They were truly “signature shots” for Max Ophuls and the lesser-known Erik Charell. In Charell’s captivating The Congress Dances (1931) Lillian Harvey sings while a carriage takes her through an entire town and into the country, all in flowing tracking shots. Call it a ride-and-sing.

If that’s not as pure an instance as you’d like, we can find nice ones during a street scene of The Thin Man (1934). A more somber example occurs in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), with the camera in a river bed angled upward at the couple it follows.

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Usually such traveling shots from the 1930s and 1940s are shot obliquely to the actors. That is, the performers are seen in a ¾ view, and they walk along a diagonal path with respect to the frame edges; the camera moves on a similar trajectory. Sound cameras were mounted on dollies that usually ran on tracks. Framing the actors head-on raised problems with this gear. Performers couldn’t walk smoothly if they were stepping within rails, and there was a risk that the rails in the distance might appear in the frame. It was simpler to set the camera at an oblique angle so that actors could walk unimpeded and the tracks wouldn’t be seen. Directors continued to use this framing into the 1950s, as in Welles’ Othello (1952) and Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957). Both are unusually long takes; in the second, poor Gene Barry seems to be panting to keep up with the other men.




Back off

Today’s walk-and-talk is more likely to be a head-on framing, with the camera retreating from the actors. (More rarely, it dogs them from behind.) With a retreating Steadicam, you don’t have to worry about glimpsing the ground or floor behind the actors, in the distance, since there are no track rails to be exposed. Again, though, we have some precedents, most famously the splendid camera movements, evidently executed with a crane, in the ball sequences of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), when George and Lucy stroll through the party.

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When location shooting became more common in the 1940s and 1950s, cameras could be supported on more versatile dollies that didn’t require track rails, and these reverse-tracking shots become a bit more common. Kubrick, highly influenced by Welles and Ophuls, captured his officers striding through the trenches of Paths of Glory (1957). Vincent LoBrutto’s information-packed book (2) tells us that Kubrick’s dolly rolled backward on the planks that the actors walked on (authentic details, as boards were indeed used in the muddy trenches). Godard’s long traveling through the office lobby in Breathless (1960) was shot from a wheelchair.

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Such head-on (and tails-on) shots can be found in several films well into the 1970s, as in Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital (1970). In fact, hospitals, police stations, and other sprawling institutional spaces seem to invite this approach.

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By the 1980s, these shots proliferate in American films largely because the Steadicam makes them easy. One famous example is De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), which follows the drunken Peter Fallow through a hotel as he picks up and drops off many other characters.

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Today such shots are very common in both high- and low-budget films. Schlamme’s “signature” device seems to be in pretty wide circulation. At best it’s a convention, at worst a cliché.


They’re called actors; let them perform action

I argue in The Way Hollywood Tells It that walk-and-talk is one of two principal staging techniques of contemporary Hollywood. The other, usually called stand-and-deliver, plants the characters facing one another and simply cuts from one to the other. The scene is built primarily out of singles (shots of only one actor) or over-the-shoulder framings. Here’s a typically static dialogue scene from The Matrix Revolutions (2003).

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Both stand-and-deliver and walk-and-talk began in the studio era, decades ago, but then there were other options as well. Directors cultivated smooth, unobtrusive blocking tactics that moved characters in ways that reflected the developing scene. The actors had to perform with their whole bodies, and bits of business motivated them to circulate through the setting and turn toward or away from the camera. One example given earlier on this blog is from Mildred Pierce; here’s another, from the program picture Homicide (1949).

Detective Michael Landers has a hunch that the purported suicide of a former sailor is really murder. He has to persuade Captain Mooney to let him pursue some leads out of his jurisdiction. Today this might be played out in a stand-and-deliver session, with both men seated and shot/ reverse-shot cutting carrying the scene. But the director Felix Jacoves decides to let his actors earn their money through ensemble staging, not merely line readings. Here are just three shots from the middle of the scene that illustrate my point.

Landers stands at Mooney’s desk and gets a refusal. As he turns away to the left, Mooney walks to the rear files to put the papers away.

homicide-1.jpg homicide-2.jpg

As they’re retreating to the opposite ends of the screen, Landers’ partner Boylan, who’s been offscreen for this phase of the scene, strides into the center and pauses at the door. The result of this choreography is both a balanced three-point composition and a chance to let us observe Boylan’s skeptical reaction to Landers’ next plea.

homicide-3.jpg homicide-5.jpg

The camera tracks in as Landers approaches Mooney. Boylan shifts closer as well. What seems somewhat stagy as we analyze it doesn’t look obtrusive on the screen, because we’re following Landers’ arguments and watching the older men’s reactions. The closer framing and the position of the men, now face to face rather than separated by a desk, raises the dramatic pressure. As Landers pauses, Mooney folds his arms—a simple piece of body language that lets us know he’s still resisting.

homicide-6.jpg homicide-7.jpg

Now a cut to Mooney, in an OTS framing, stresses his continued resistance as he tells Landers off, and a reverse shot gives Landers’ angry reaction.

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Interrupting the sustained take, the shot/ reverse shot cuts have gained more emphasis than if they were part of a string of OTS shots. Jacoves has saved his cuts and closer views for a moment that raises the stakes visually as well as dramatically.

I’m not claiming that this is a brilliant stretch of cinema. (But you have to like a plot in which the hero defeats the killer by denying him access to insulin.) It’s just that the sequence activates, in a way that directors once took for granted, aspects of film art that we don’t find too often nowadays. Once you didn’t have to choose between Steadicam logistics and static dialogue; there is a very wide middle ground if you’re willing to move actors around the set and give them some body language and prop work. No need for a walk-and-talk here.


Schema and revision

The Variety article explains that Schlamme utilizes his long walk-and-talks to save time and money. But directors in the studio era shot their fully elaborated scenes like that in Homicide to be economical as well. If actors know their lines and hit their marks, playing out pages of dialogue in a few sustained setups can be very efficient; the Homicide full shot consumes 45 seconds. I’d argue that most contemporary directors have never learned to stage scenes this way. It’s a lost skill set. I make the case in more detail in Figures Traced in Light and The Way Hollywood Tells It.

To some extent, however, another skill set has emerged. Some walk-and-talks in The West Wing and other programs have an extra feature that the Variety writer and I haven’t mentioned. Often character A and B are walking toward us down the corridor, then B drifts off and C catches up with A. A and C walk for a while, then A peels off and C picks up somebody else, and so on. This approach is suited to multiple-protagonist dramas. You can show the plotlines crossing and separating.

I’m no TV historian, but I think that this technique showed up on St. Elsewhere (1982-1988), and it’s definitely on display in ER (1994-). Hospitals again. I think we also find this mingling/ separating choreography in contemporary film, but I can’t recall many examples in earlier eras. You could argue that one of the shots in the Ambersons’ ballroom does this, though I don’t think it’s a pure instance. (The principle of overlapping character actions is at work in many Renoir films, most famously in the final party melee in Rules of the Game, but Renoir doesn’t employ what we’re calling a walk-and-talk.) Did movies pick up this intertwined walk-and-talk from TV or vice-versa? I don’t know. If you do, drop me a line!

In On the History of Film Style and Figures Traced in Light, I argue that stylistic change in filmmaking often follows a logic of what art historian E. H. Gombrich calls schema and revision. (3) A pattern or practice becomes standardized, but then creators extend it to new situations or find new possibilities in it, and they modify it.

Camera movements have long been used to link characters. For instance, when Nick Charles circulates drinks in The Thin Man, Van Dyke tracks leftward to follow him from guest to guest.

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So maybe in the 1980s and 1990s, when ensemble stories had to balance attention among several major characters, directors blended the multiple-interaction aspect of lateral camera movements with the schema of the advancing walk-and-talk. The result makes characters move in and out of each others’ orbits along a single trajectory. Whoever came up with this device, I’d speculate that it arose from the realization that the backing-up walk-and-talk could be repurposed for dramas following the fates of several protagonists.

It’s only history, but it matters if we want to understand stylistic continuity and change.


(1) Thanks to Richard Maltby for passing this along.

(2) Vincent LoBrutto, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Fine, 1997), 141-142.

(3) E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Princeton, N. J. Princeton University Press, 1960), especially Chapter III.

The Danes once more


After the Wedding.

Can’t stop bloggin’ about those blonde, smørrebrød-loving Nordics. Why?

Well, there’s news. First, two Danish films have been nominated for Academy Awards. Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding (I talk a bit about it here) is up for best foreign-language film, and Søren Pilmark’s Helmer and Son is nominated for best short. You can read more at the Danish Film Institute site, and stock up on Carlsberg or Tuborg to cheer them on Oscar night.

Second, the new English-language issue of the Danish Film Institute’s magazine Film is online here, as a pdf. It’s a must for von Trier fanatics, with lots on The Boss of It All. I also have an essay in it (pp. 16-19).

Third, Thomas Christensen, a Boss of It All at the Danish Film Archive and a graduate of our UW film program, alerted me to YouTube video from a Danish band, Phonovectra. It swipes—sorry, appropriates—Dreyer’s classic short film They Caught the Ferry.

Running on almost empty


Three Kings (1999).

DB here:

Why, asks Sharon Waxman in the New York Times, have the much-touted directors of the 1990s slowed their output so drastically? Kimberly Peirce released Boys Don’t Cry in 1999; her second film, Stop-Loss, will come out this spring. Darren Aronofsky followed Requiem for a Dream (2000) with The Fountain, which hit screens last fall. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love is over four years old. David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Baz Luhrmann, and several others of their generation have, Waxman points out, “taken long hiatuses before stepping back up to the plate.”

Immediately, exceptions spring to mind. Some filmmakers who built their careers in the 90s are pretty prolific. Soderbergh is the prime instance; he sometimes releases two movies a year. Christopher Nolan has given us several one-two punches: Memento in 2000 and Insomnia in 2002, Batman Begins in 2005 and The Prestige in 2006. James Mangold is now doing postproduction on 3:10 to Yuma, his seventh movie since 1995. Kent Jones reminds me that Richard Linklater has finished twelve features in under 16 years!

Still, the slow pace of some heralded filmmakers is noteworthy. Waxman’s explanations, culled from interviews with Hollywood cognoscenti, intrigue me. Probably no one explanation will provide the answer, but it’s worth thinking about the many forces at work. I’ll run through Waxman’s five main points, commenting on each. Then I’ll toss in a few of my own.

1. Filmmakers undergo closer scrutiny and quicker judgments than at earlier times. Critics, audiences, and studios pounce on every failure, and with investments becoming more precarious, a single weak showing can push the director down the list.

Seems plausible to me, given the dumping of Shyamalan after Lady in the Water. Shyamalan is ambitious in his storytelling aims, trying to turn genre movies into art movies/ event movies à la Kubrick. Unlike Kubrick, he’s not winning a secure place as a person you want to be in business with. Strange as it sounds, a director who has earned over a billion dollars at the global box office is making the rounds trying to sell his newest idea.

2. Filmmakers are pressured to write lucrative scripts rather than direct questionable projects, or to direct sure-fire franchise hits (e.g., Bryan Singer and Superman and X-Men).

Partly true. But a producer friend commented to me that a lot of indie filmmakers whom he meets sincerely want to direct big films. Bryan Singer, who admires Spielberg, hasn’t made a secret of his desire to be a mainstream filmmaker. Aronofsky was long involved with Frank Miller on a new Batman, and Karyn Kusama moved from Girlfight (2000) to Aeon Flux (2005).

3. An overindulgent studio culture lacks strong executives who would challenge precocious filmmakers to extend themselves.

Put aside the fact that this explanation is somewhat opposite to the previous one. It’s hard to claim that today’s executives are too complaisant; surely one reason for the delays in output is resistance from the studios’ to directors’ ideas. If executives might be reluctant to derail a project, certainly stars are willing to do so. Once a picture enters production, however, it is more difficult for today’s executives to curtail the pricey directors to the extent that classic studio-era moguls could. The director’s demand for final cut, for instance, is still a powerful chip in the game.

4. The 90s directors might not be capable of dealing with the big issues of a post-9/11 world. Waxman writes: “Perhaps Quentin Tarantino, child of the video culture, feels at a loss when faced with the war in Iraq and global terrorism.”

It might be too early, though, for filmmakers to come to an initial understanding of this ongoing crisis. The major films treating Vietnam appeared some years after we pulled out: Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and so on. Moreover, not all films need to deal with big issues, at least directly. What aspects of American politics did Pulp Fiction and Memento address?

5. There’s no shared creative community, in which filmmakers help and compete with one another. Three currently successful directors from Mexico, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuaron exemplify how a cadre of friends can offer frank criticism and spur one another on.

Oddly enough, James Mottram’s book The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood maintains that just this sort of community exists among several 90s directors. The book opens with a meeting of the Pizza Knights, a cadre of young filmmakers who gather every month to watch 70s classics. The group includes Fincher, Jonze, Anderson, Peirce, and Payne (p. xv)—the very directors whom Waxman lists as surprisingly unproductive. They may not bond with older directors, but according to Mottram they constitute a pretty tight group.

Some other possibilities strike me.

*Maybe this particular batch of directors is just an easygoing demographic. Tarantino took his time moving from Jackie Brown (1997) to Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003). The Virgin Suicides came out in 1999; does Lost in Translation (2003) look like a movie it took four years to make? They don’t call it Gen X for nothing.

*We should consider the possibility of burnout. Dwight Macdonald once remarked that the stress of making one film is much more intense than painting a picture or even writing a novel. It’s deeply exhausting on many levels. MacDonald speculated that across their careers filmmakers are likely to slow down or burn out or just make weaker films. We can all think of exceptions (Manoel de Oliveira is still turning out extraordinary films at age 98), but filmmaking does require a lot of energy. This might be especially the case if a director achieves early success, because the demands of each new project can escalate before the director finds her or his comfort level.

*Making just one film takes a long time. Aronofsky’s years of effort to produce The Fountain are well-known, as are Luhrmann’s problems with a life of Alexander the Great. Even a midrange project might be years in preparation before it finds backing. Once the project is approved, there can be months of preproduction, several months of shooting, and over a year of editing. To launch any big film, the director and stars will be meeting the press, traveling to foreign markets for promotional events, and preparing the DVD supplements. A lot of this will be happening just before or soon after the film’s release, slowing progress on the next project. The avalanche of such demands can only increase your respect for the stamina and multitasking abilities of Spielberg and Soderbergh.

Hong Kong and Japanese directors can be more prolific because the industry is more small-scale and there isn’t the same demand to promote the film afterward. Johnnie To turns out two films a year, Miike Takeshi more than that. They get to develop a body of work that, despite its ups and downs, has a texture lacking in one- or two- or three-shot wonders.

*The market has consolidated. An earlier wave of indie directors like John Sayles, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant, Oliver Stone, and the Coens faced a fairly diverse marketplace. Their films benefited from the emergence of home video, overseas television outlets, mini-majors, and small but fairly well-funded distributors. They quickly built up individual identities–brands, if you like–that still give them some clout with studios and make them more productive than the group Waxman profiles. Although there are many distributors on today’s landscape, most are tiny. The younger indie auteurs, I think, face a more homogeneous system, with studios and their boutique divisions controlling a larger share of funding and more distribution outlets. There are fewer cozy niches for small, quick projects.

*Finally, there’s critics’ hype. Perhaps too much was expected of these rather untried directors. If you’re called a genius on your first or second outing, how can you top that? Consider these heroic descriptions:

With their films, the rebels of the 1990s shattered the status quo, set new boundaries in the art of moviemaking, and managed to bend the risk-averse studio structure to their will. They created a new cinematic language, recast audience expectations, and surprised us—and one another.

Quentin Tarantino, the rabble-rousing writer-director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction . . . very early in the decade broke every rule in moviedom.

The movies of the new rebel auteurs . . . played with structure, wreaked havoc with traditional narrative form, fiddled with the film stock, and ushered in the whiplash editing style true to a generation of video game children.

In the perspective of film history, these claims are sheer nonsense. (I try to show why in The Way Hollywood Tells It.) They aren’t good prophecy either. I ♥ Huckabees and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou didn’t exactly bend the studios to their directors’ will. In any event, such guff overheats the creative climate. Filmmakers aren’t granted a more gradual and modest exploration of their strengths and limits. When they fail, they may fail spectacularly.

By the way: the author of the souped-up passages I just quoted? None other than Sharon Waxman. (1)

(1) Sharon Waxman, Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), x-xi.

PS Monday: Based on some intriguing box-office data, Karina Longworth gives a sharper-tongued rebuke to Waxman in her lively post here.

David Bordwell
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