Style in film incorporates so many aspects that it might be useful to narrow our field of enquiry down to a few elements. One concerns framing, and the number of ways in which a character can enter the image; another is the difference between cutting within the frame and the rhythm of the shot. What is also worth noting is the emptiness or the fullness of the frame, and also the way filmmakers use colour.
First of all, though, it is useful to talk about how filmmakers utilise the frame, how they use it as a space that can maximise entrances and exits. In scenes from Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu we notice how the director sees it as a space with the maximum amount of entrance and exit points. When critics talk of the six ways in which a character can exit or enter the frame - from the top, the bottom, the left and the right, the front and the back - perhaps no filmmaker more than Renoir has utilised the frame as an entrance and exit point. Where most filmmakers start the scene with the character already in the frame and finish it as an actor leaves the shot, Renoir creates a frenetic sense of surprise through his compositional chaos. This lead many to question Renoir's filmmaking skill, but a critic like Andre Bazin resolutely defended him by arguing that Renoir was a filmmaker more interested in the shot than the edit. Thus where the great Soviet filmmaker and critic Sergei Eisenstein, alongside his fellow Russian Vladimir Pudovkin and such theorists as Rudolf Arnheim and Bela Belazs, believed that cinema's significance lay in editing (though Arnheim proposed the Soviet montage filmmakers exaggerated their case) Bazin argued the opposite and that it lay in the mise-en-scene, in the layout of the scene in long takes. Where such writers reckoned that the true value of cinema lay in its difference from reality, Bazin believed its importance lay in its similarity to the real. Thus Bazin's great admiration for Renoir lay in "a partial replacement of montage by frequent panning shots and entrances. It is based on a respect for the continuity of dramatic space and, of course, duration." By allowing his characters to exit and enter the shot, Renoir moved film beyond, in his own words, "the well behaved subjects posing for a still portrait" and gave to film a sense of living, breathing activity.
But as Bazin noticed, it isn't only the use of the frame that makes Renoir stylistically important, it is also his sense of duration in the shot. Time is not only in the components of narrative action as bits of film are edited together. It also lies 'in cutting within the frame', so that Renoir will pan or move the camera without cutting to give us a sense of the action that we need to attend to as viewers. This is cutting within the frame that nevertheless leaves us very actively occupied as viewers as we notice characters coming down stairs, coming through doors and talking over each other. This cutting within the frame will give us all the information we would expect from a screwball comedy (which in some ways it may resemble), but with more visual freedom.
This obviously doesn't mean the filmmaker says we can focus on what we like, and critics like David Bordwell and Lucy Fischer have questioned the Bazinian belief in the democratic image: isn't what is usually at the centre of the frame often more important than what is on the edge of it? Don't filmmakers often use certain colours to draw attention to an aspect of the frame? How democratic does the filmmaker really want the viewer to feel? The difference is often really between peripheral information that is unimportant and peripheral information that is less irrelevant. Think for example of the dwarf in Don't Look Now: her red coat is more important than where she is positioned in the frame, generally, but when she becomes significant to the action, she occupies the centre of the image.
Renoir was a great director of cutting within the frame partly because he did give us all the essential information in such a way that it usually didn't call into question the importance of what we were being shown. The Renoir tradition can still be noted in many a long take master, in Welles's Touch of Evil, in Robert Altman's The Player, in Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes, in Scorsese's Good Fellas, in P.T. Anderson's Boogie Nights. Here the cutting within the frame gives the viewer all the information they need without recourse to questioning, generally, what we are being shown. In the famous opening shot of Touch of Evil, Welles wonderfully covers two countries in an opening sequence that also sets his story in motion. As the camera loosely follows Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh over the US/Mexican border, so Welles films it in a virtuoso single take that makes the shot itself almost as breathtaking as what happens at the end of it as the bomb goes off.
There is often a virtuoso aspect to cutting with the frame that would appear to be absent from what Andrei Tarkovsky has called the rhythm of the shot. Though both rely on the long take, the former avoids cutting but, as we have proposed, cuts within the frame: the camera moves to give us all the vital information as if it were edited. But the rhythm of the shot leaves the viewer often much less sure about what they should concentrate on. For example, in Greek director Theo Angelopoulos's Alexander the Great, a character collapses and it takes the viewer a moment to work out what has happened. While many a filmmaker might rely on the camera tracking or zooming in on the person as they are about to fall, or show the character wearing a particularly bright colour to cue us to that aspect of the frame, the film asks us to be constantly vigilant about everything within the shot.
Just as sometimes the filmmaker will show a serious event but in such a way that we might miss it, often in the rhythm of the shot the filmmaker gives us very little at all, and we must enter not so much into the action of the shot but its rhythmic effect. Tarkovsky, as Angelopoulos, the Hungarian Bela Tarr and, in a rather different way, numerous Asian filmmakers including Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang and Hong Sang-soo utilise this type of shot. In Tarkovsky's Stalker, the scene where the characters go to the zone has a mesmeric pull, an image closer to looking at the flickering flames of a fire than at a visual narrative. Here the rhythm seems as important as the information conveyed in the sequence.
We also mentioned when we started these brief notes the empty and the full frame, and frequently filmmakers interested in the rhythm of the shot are more inclined to the saturated image, like Jean Renoir and Robert Altman, while often the rhythm of the shot filmmakers look for emptier framing, like Tarr and Angelopoulos. There is no hard and fast rule here, of course, and Michelangelo Antonioni is one of the great directors of the empty frame, yet one that isn't especially concerned with the rhythmic aspect though he often works in longer takes. In Blow Up, as in The Eclipse, L'Avventura and others, Antonioni sometimes creates an eerily unrecognizable space by the way in which he empties the frame. In Blow Up the city is swinging London, but Antonioni so deliberately dictates the mise-en scene that he creates a strangely empty universe. If Renoir wanted the image to teem with life, Antonioni often shows the opposite, and the difference resides in the saturated frame of Renoir; the empty frame of Antonioni.
This leaves us with the issue of colour, and Antonioni (who made his debut in 1950) has been called one of the great colourists in film even if he came late to it in 1964, and that its stylistic presence is only really there in three films: The Red Desert, Blow Up and Zabriskie Point. This is a filmmaker using colour as a palette, as Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli and Nicholas Ray did in the fifties; however not for melodramatic ends, but for a suggestive tone and mood. In Blow Up often the colours are muted rather than bright, as if Antonioni had washed out the colour rather than garishly saturated it, no matter if in one sequence he famously painted the grass darker green. This play with colour today has sometimes become more predictably presented. David Bordwell in The Way Hollywood Tells It talks about colour arcs in films like The Aviator and Requiem for a Dream, where the filmmaker colour codes the film in relation to its dramatic development, or to suggest a change in period or season. Sometimes this can be subtly expressive, however, as in Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven.
A brief final mention can be made for films that play with black and white and colour. From The Wizard of Oz to Stalker, A Matter of Life and Death to more radical usage where the arbitrary is hinted at in Lindsay Anderson's If...and Nagisa Oshima's The Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and Boy, films have created key shifts in mood, tone and narrative purpose by moving between monochrome and colour. Sometimes black and white can suggest the mundane - as in The Wizard of Oz - and sometimes the heavenly: A Matter of Life and Death. Sometimes, though, this clear signification is called into question, as we find in the Anderson and Oshima films. The switch hints at meaning but doesn't quite express it. In one scene in Boy, the film turns from colour to blue monochrome after the titular characters loses his hat. It could 'symbolize' his unhappiness, but it seems more likely to be used to undermine the audience's feelings of pity for the character rather than underscoring that pity. It's meaning isn't significant - as it is in classic cinema - but indeterminate and distancing.
What is important to keep in mind in relation to all the possibilities mentioned here - characters entering and exiting the frame, the rhythm of the shot and cutting within the frame, the empty and the full frame, the colour arc and the shift between colour and black and white - is that we are not looking to make categorical statements about their use, merely searching probes in relation to their possibilities.
© Tony McKibbin