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Formalist Theory



Very loosely, formalists are those who regard cinema as predominantly a manipulative medium. Out of inchoate reality the filmmaker needs to shape the material into a clearly cinematic form, and it is this shaping that allows film to be an art. Here are a few formalist statements to ground us. Bela Belázs says, for example, in The Theory of the Film, that “in order that out of the empirical fog of reality the truth…may emerge…such a maker must bring into play every means of expression available to the art of the film.” Sergei Eisenstein, meanwhile, believed, in The Film Sense, “that a work of art, understood dynamically, is just this process of arranging images in the feelings and mind of the spectator.” Another formalist critic, Rudolf Arnheim in Film as Art, mentions a scene from The Battleship Potemkin, showing “a stone lion rearing up and roaring. The scene is made from shots of three different statues of lions. First statue – a lion roaring. Second statue – a lion rising. Third statue – a lion standing with his jaws open to roar. The way the stone comes to life by the help of editing is remarkable.”

All emphasise the degree to which a film needs to be made, even though some formalists were more inclined to play down formal self-consciousness for the importance of the story to hand; others play it up. “In a good film every shot must be contributory to the action”, Arnheim believed, and went on to give an example where this wasn’t the case: where a filmmaker switches from two people in conversation taken at head height, before inexplicably switching to an overhead shot of the two characters. Meanwhile, though both V. I. Pudovkin and Eisenstein may have been Russian Formalists they disagreed on certain key points. Where Eisenstein saw cinema as dynamic and believed in Kino Fist – in a collision of images that would revolutionise the spectator; for Pudovkin, in Film Technique and Film Acting, the work of the film director was first and foremost narrative involvement: “the process of analysis, the dissection into elements, forms equally only a point of departure, that has to be followed by the assemblage of the whole from the discovered parts.” This is evident in an early fight scene in Pudovkin’s Mother, where he adds to the tension by utilising numerous close ups not just of faces, but also hands and objects, but very much for the purpose of telling the story dramatically.

The degree to which the filmmaker should manipulate reality depends then on the particular theorist, but none of them would have concurred with that most famous exponent of realism, André Bazin, when he said, in an article in What is Cinema? vol II, “There is nothing aesthetically retrogressive about simple cinematographic recording, on the contrary, there is progress in expression, a triumphant evolution of the language of cinema, an extension of its stylistics.”

That said, more recent formalists, like Noel Bürch, Paul Schrader, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, have drawn on Bazin to explain and explore their own interests. Schrader for example in, Transcendental Style in Film, was undeniably sympathetic to Bazin’s theological concerns, while in Figures Traced in Light, Bordwell explores the use of the long take through cinema history, a central tenet of Bazinian realism. This was however for different ends. If Bazin played up the openness of the form; Bordwell believes that “before directors wish to convey ideas or moods, evoke emotions or themes, transmit ideologies or cultural values, they must take care of some mundane business.” This mundane business is, he says in an article called ‘On Staging in Depth’, to “make their images intelligible”; in carefully directing the viewer’s attention.

What we want to look at today is the way formalist ideas can help make sense of the films under discussion, and also show how divergent formalism can be. Hiroshima mon amour was a film that signalled many of the editing innovations of the sixties, an editing schema that wanted to manipulate not on the basis of generating ideological certitude (as Eisenstein and even Pudovkin desired), but a certain perceptual confusion. After Resnais’ film came a series of works using montage in a relatively new way. Certainly there were earlier films interested in editing and subjectivity, from Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet in the twenties, to Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon in the forties, but Resnais deeply problematized subjectivity in films like Last Year at Marienbad, Muriel and Je t’aime, Je t’aime. Then there were numerous filmmakers who were influenced by Resnais’ style – including Joseph (Accident) Losey, John Boorman with Point Blank, and most especially Nic Roeg in Performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Bad Timing. This was an editing schema turning inside out the preoccupations of the early montage filmmakers who tended to undermine subjectivity.

For example, what interested Eisenstein were the masses, and he liked nothing better than ‘typage’, as we notice in Strike and The Battleship Potemkin for example. As James Monaco in How to Read a Film makes clear “…actors were to be cast not for their individual qualities but for the “types” they represented” In montage oriented films the opposite is the case, as Hiroshima mon amour, Accident, Bad Timing and even Point Blank are interested in how to capture somebody’s world from an intimate place. We can see this clearly in Hiroshima mon amour, where the flashbacks very much serve the central character’s thoughts and feelings. In one scene she starts to talk about her past to her Japanese lover, and Resnais moves steadily and sensitively into her personal history.

Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Resnais, Roeg etc. were all, if you like, montage formalists, directors who made their work formally innovative first and foremost through editing. But we can also talk of mise-en-scene formalists, directors who work with elaborate long takes, like Miklos Jancso, Theo Angelopoulos and Bela Tarr. In Jancso’s The Round-Up and Red Psalm, in Angeloupolos’ Ulysses’ Gaze, Eternity and a Day and The Weeping Meadow, Bela Tarr’s Damnation, Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies, the filmmaker manipulates through elaborate blocking, as the camera moves around the cinematic space to create an elaborate weave that mesmerises the viewer. In each instance we feel the weight of the cut. Such an approach gives back to the word cutting its sensuous dimension. This is the long take not necessarily to reveal reality better, as Bazin proposed; more to play up the nature of film form, even to suggest links to painting over reality. This is clearly evident in the scene where the villagers evacuate their flooded houses in Angelopoulos’s The Weeping Meadow, and it is present in the opening scene in Satantango, where a lateral track shows us a farm and animals in such a way that it dissolves as an establishing shot of an actual space, and takes on the features of abstraction as Tarr gives us a strong sense of the texture of the image in relation to what it shows us.  As Bordwell says in Figures Traced in Light: “in Angelopoulos the momentum of storytelling is invariably dissipated by dedramatization…” It is often in this dedramatization that the painterly comes through.

But a formalist dedramatization can serve a certain type of spiritually reflective cinema also. In fact both Angeloupolos and Bela Tarr might be part of this tradition, but major exponents would be Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer and more recently Bruno Dumont. In such spiritually inclined works, as Susan Sontag has noted in her sixties book Against Interpretation, “reflective art, the form of the work of art is present in an emphatic way,” and adds, “the effect of the spectator’s being aware of the form is to elongate or retard the emotions.” Paul Schrader, writing in the early seventies in Transcendental Style in Film, believed “in recent years film has developed a transcendental style which has been used by various artists in diverse cultures to express the holy”. A formal style can, taking into account Sontag’s claims, remove us from the day to day sense of time and the practical priorities of mainstream cinema, and locate us in another cinematic dimension where a form of renunciation takes place: we renounce the expectations we place on most films and engage in a sense of aesthetic otherness.

In Bresson’s case, though, this usually works not in the long-take form of Bela Tarr and Angelopolous but with short, illustrative shots that convey the narrative information in apparently as un-dramatic a way as possible. His actors he would describe as models: they illustrate the narrative; they don’t dramatically engage in the scene. We can see this in Pickpocket, where the central character’s interactions with others in the sequence seems so cold and unfeeling that we may be perplexed by the character’s declaration of love at the end, or, in The Diary of a Country Priest, where the priest in the middle of listening to someone talking of a doctor who has just died, retreats into his own thoughts as Bresson offers a voice-over. When Bresson says in Notes on the Cinematographer he has a problem with acting, saying “it is for the theatre, a bastard art”, it may lie partly in the sense that theatre is too social a medium, and acting too often focused on the drama of a scene over the steady accumulation of detail that allows Bresson to explore the soul of a character. This is the actor as Bressonian ‘model’, and has nothing to do with the Eisenstein ‘type’.

Bresson is a formalist who removes drama by contracting the scenes. Bruno Dumont, who has been clearly influenced by the master and who once sent him a letter of admiration, is a director who instead extends them, though still denies the actor conventional emotional responses. In a shot where central character Pharaon in L’Humanité looks at a painting, Dumont holds the shot long beyond its expected length, but again, like Bresson, refuses the scene a dramatic aspect: the actor is not allowed to ‘act’; it is more that the camera observes the inexplicable.

If Eisenstein and Pudovkin wanted a formalist perspective to heighten drama or to generate ideological belief, to create drama to the detriment of acting by using types, and expected the editing to dramatise the scene, formalism we notice can also incorporate a diametrically opposed view, like Bresson’s and Dumont’s. Here the minimalist acting serves neither society nor drama but the revelation of the soul. Formalism is indeed a broad church if it can incorporate the Communist Eisenstein and the Catholic Jansenist Bresson. The question we will pursue today will be what aspects of the human condition formalism can illuminate.


©Tony McKibbin