Tuesday, March 04, 2014


David Bordwell has recently written:

In English, of course, the word has so many meanings that it should probably be retired. Sometimes it means studying “form” and neglecting “content”; that was part of what the Stalinist hacks meant when they insisted that Shklovsky & Co. weren’t advancing the class struggle by emphasizing ideology. Today, to use “formalism” as a slam is often to suggest something similar—that a formalist ignores “content” like race, class, gender, and nation. But the Formalists didn’t neglect content. What others considered content they treated as material that is shaped by the literary work.

In many ways I agree with Bordwell that attention to aesthetic form or style is often lacking in cultural criticism and scholarship, and this in turn blinds us to ways in which cultural objects mean ... which cuts us off from considering the richness of texts. (And as far as I am concerned that, in turn, is a way of ultimately disavowing social richness and difference.) I do think that Bordwell has mischaracterized some of the critique of formalism here, though. I am not so sure that critics of formalism view race, class, gender, and nation as "content" (meaning "the important stuff") exactly. Instead we could look to how Bordwell and many other formalists tend to describe style. It is almost always explicable in terms of narrative construction. (Or, in the absence or elision of narrative motivations, then some other kind of quasi-intentional coherence.) But does the whole domain of formal motivation boil down to a matter of logistics for an authorial or generic agency? I'm not convinced this is the case.

Another way to put this: what is structuring the structures? What forms the form? If the motivation of the plot is to put the blissful wedding last (for example), what motivates the motivation to code a marriage as "happily ever after"? We could even say that these dreaded ideology-seekers of Cultural Studies & Co. are the deeper proponents of the study of form. This leads back to the domain of one of my own pet theories, which is that so much of how we make sense of art and mediation is a matter of figure/ground distinctions.

The formalist might feel a temptation to respond, "Who has time to attend to all these points of overdetermination, though? We've got to focus on film itself and leave other stuff to other disciplines." Something close to this is suggested by Nicole Brenez in a recent interview:

First, there are the disciplines that are using cinema just as a material, like History, Sociology. There are very superficial ways of considering films. Usually they only see the surface, or the stories. Most of them are considering films as symptoms, but they never reach the illness, if I can say that. That part is very interesting, but not specific and not deep enough. Then there are the methodologies that are working in the cinema studies themselves: semiology, psychoanalysis, narratology etc. For me all these methods are interesting and valid, but in a way they are also not in the heart of what a film is. Any kind of attempt to go to the core of the film – the visual and the acoustic proposal of the film – is important and necessary, but they are very, very rare. In the very precise methodological field of film analysis – not theory or history – I don’t see a lot of good work being made, at least not in France. Maybe there are many things abroad.

Brenez is not someone who could be accused of brushing aside the sociopolitical dimensions of cinema, and furthermore, regular readers will know the high esteem I have for her work. So she, too, suggests that discussion of "the visual and the acoustic" properties of a film, its formal elements, bear a special and necessary place in the analysis of cinema. But Brenez's call is something different from - I believe - what many formalists or aesthetes would support. She goes on: 

But formalist, in the true sense of this adjective, the Russian term, like Chklovski or Balász, that in a way is now integrated in the introduction of cinematic studies, when you learn to study parameter by parameter, component by component. But it’s like when a doctor is learning anatomy, but not learning how to bring life again. When you do only this, when you are formalist in the didactical sense of the term, not in the inventing sense of formalism at the 1920′s, of course, you are just dissecting, you are just mutating the film into a corpse. But then what is interesting is: how is it breathing? How is it alive? For me you have to invent an ad hoc analysis for each film. If you are taking seriously the formalist analysis, each film or each body of work requires a singular analysis. It was like an intuition forever, and then progressively I discovered that the most beautiful accomplishment of such principle is – well, it’s always him, but… – Walter Benjamin, when he analyses, for example, the work of Baudelaire, and everything is invention. He takes a text and then submit it to many different questions – philosophical, sociological, iconographical etc. It’s not that you can read it and then apply it, of course, but I would say it’s a structural model. You can’t reproduce it, but you can reproduce the principle: each film is a laboratory, if you want to be faithful to it. You’re not obliged, you can take a superficial look, there are many things to do. But the most beautiful way to be formalist is to be benjaminian
For me, the next step in my thinking about methodology and film analysis would be to try to propose something a bit systematic about how to analyze les présupposés, the postulates of a film. How a film postulates what is it about? Not only the way it treats, for example, an animal, or a woman, or a garden, any motive, but what it postulates? Not what is in the film, but what a film has to think to exist? I’m not sure if I’m being clear. The présupposé is what you are thinking and considering before you make something. It’s the place of ideology, in a way. Everything that you are not explicitly saying, but what you think, what you believe before considering a phenomenon. Every film, radical or – of course – ideological, has its présupposés: the things that it doesn’t say, but that are working in the film. For example: what does a film postulate to represent a woman? What do you postulate about what is a war to represent a war? It’s amazing. It’s an enormous field of thinking. And it’s exactly where all the obviousness relies, and there is no obviousness in the world. Everything is a construction. But that’s something you can’t do if you haven’t made a true deep formal and structural analysis before of what is really in the film and what the film really is about. And only a deep analysis can decide that, understand that.

In other words, the activity of true formal analysis is never divorced from ideology, it doesn't actually ever leave the intertwined overdeterminacy of these other disciplines, nor is it ultimately a matter of storytelling logistics, but instead is something like the aorta in the beating heart of our social world.


Anonymous said...

This would be much easier to read if you proofread your work before posting. There are several subject-verb disagreements and ambiguities in key sentences, other sentences in which one clause seems to contradict the other, etc. I'm also not sure you've understood Bordwell any better than you've claimed he understands critiques of formalism, but I'm not sure because this essay is a grammatical mess.

Anonymous said...

Also, you might consider this famous comment from Roland Barthes: " a little formalism turns one away from History, but that a lot brings one back to it."

So what you and Brenez (in her characteristically meandering and imprecise way) might be diagnosing is not a problem with formalism as such, but a problem with the practice of formalism.

To see what Barthes means, I would point you to two director studies, both OTOH: Bordwell's "Ozu and the Poetics Cinema" and Warren Buckland's "Directed by Steven Spielberg." Bordwell's book includes several chapters discussing how the art and politics of the shōwa period in Japan (and the meiji before it) shaped the references, meanings, and the form of Ozu's films (and Japanese popular cinema in general). The book is, in fact, unusually attentive to the various meanings of Ozu's works, but chooses to demonstrate how these are constructed of very fine and idiosyncratic materials. By contrast, Buckland's book partakes of a much coarser and oversimplified formalist in trying to make a case for Spielberg having a pathbreaking style. He has very little to say about the various industrial and cultural factors that contributed to the rise of the modern-day "blockbuster," and what he says about Spielberg's visions of family, etc. is banal and does not really find anchor in the rather arid formal analyses of key features.

In other words, you can do "formalism" badly or do "formalism" well.

It would behoove you to point to some EXAMPLES of the alleged faults of formalism in this piece rather than simply asserting them. Your complaints are sure to find an appreciative audience among the many film scholars for whom "formalism" is a four-letter word, and "Bordwell" something to say when spitting out your food. But you're unlikely to convince anyone else of anything lest you actually demonstrate that you know of what you critique.

Anonymous said...

Finally (phew!), there are a million books and essays that do precisely what Brenez is calling for in her quote: analyze the ideological underpinnings (the "presupposed") of an individual film, a body of films, even an entire mode of film practice. I trust I do not need to cite any.

There is nothing about "formalism" that seeks to invalidate such projects. Sure, Bordwell (and many others) have taken issue with a lot of the assumptions of film critics and theorists have made. They've made the point that many such ideological critiques have become routinized and lazy.

But film studies, like other disciplines or fields, can afford to be pluralistic. There is room for multiple methods, multiple approaches. Even if you posit a formalism that is naïve of the workings of ideology, which is only true in some cases, one can easily see different approaches complementing one another.

OK, I'm out.

Anonymous said...

No, no I can't resist, because you've walked right into it: the "lucidity" of your blog is indeed "elusive."

Anonymous said...

Just leaving a comment to distance my infrequent anonymous posts from the person above.

Ok, I'm out.

Anonymous said...

No, no I can't resist, because you walked right into it: the douchiness of your comment is indeed douchey.

la troisième anonyme said...

au fait, <> ne signifie pas plus en français qu'en anglais. mais il vous fait paraître ridicule.

la troisième anonyme said...

je voulais dire "presupposé"

Anonymous said...

btw here's the lucidity you've been looking for:


ZC said...

So many anonymous commenters! Well, thank you all for sharing your thoughts, despite not one of you bothering to leave even a fake name to make things easier. I'll do my best, since I'll be responding primarily to the first commenter.

Anonymous #1. I appreciate your criticisms. Yes, I should probably proofread - in particular I identified a couple of missing verbs that, in my haste, I rushed over.

Allow me to say a few more words in my defense. Most generally, I think you are misunderstanding the spirit of my post. It is not an essay nor do I conclude "against" formalism per se. You have misinterpreted my post as an attack on formalism, when I meant it more as a way to demonstrate that, as you yourself succintly put it, "In other words, you can do "formalism" badly or do "formalism" well." I agree with you on this point! This is the point I wanted to use Brenez to make!

I wasn't taking issue with Bordwell's own practices. (I am familiar with his Ozu book, by the way, as well as Buckland's.) I was responding more specifically to with the way that Bordwell, and many of a particular formalist bent, tend to characterize cultural studies & ideology "in passing." I think a lot of it has the residue of 1970s-80s film studies (or humanities) bad blood, just as the other side of that residual feeling sees some people indeed treat “form” or “formalism” as four-letter words.

The Bordwell/Brenez juxtaposition was occasioned by the recent appearance of these two interesting pieces rather than imagined as a steel cage match (with Brenez the winner). Both things I linked to had been jostling in the back of my head. Since you are (seemingly) not familiar with my blog, let me say you that my approach to EL is to treat it all as a public notebook. (To the commenter who says I “walked right into” the Elusive Lucidity joke; no – I chose that on purpose for this blog! For that very reason! I'm a scatterbrain sometimes but I'm not such an idiot that the significance is lost on me.) Most of the things here are deliberately sketchy, evocative, and yes, often, not even proofread. This is meant as my safe space for thoughts that are partial, impulsive, hazy. A lot of what I post is really for me to work through a tiny outlying point for a project that has no other presence on EL. This doesn't mean you are not free to make comments and criticisms, and to point out when something I write in haste is unclear. I welcome these observations: that's what the comment section is for. It allows But I am free to say, simply, that with this blog I can, do, and will continue to post sketchy and fragmentary material.

Indeed, the thought crossed my mind to go into some more detail about specific practices. You are correct that, were I trying to persuade readers here, I would need to point to both some examples of faulty formalism as well as instances of good formalism. If I had no other writing projects to work on, and if EL were my primary venue for discussing anything, then I would have put in the time to do such work. But I had other commitments. I just wanted to clarify something for my own purposes. So I posted this as is: partial, not a polished argument but simply a way of connecting a couple thoughts.

Perhaps I could have just erased the whole thing and used the Barthes quote. That much is true.

Anonymous #3. Are you telling me I look ridiculous because I have reproduced verbatim an English conversation from Cinética that does not translate the word "presupposé" into “presupposition”? Or are the original sources – who are not here to speak for themselves – ridiculous? (This interview was conducted in English between Brazilian and French speakers.)

ZC said...

(As you can see, I don't even necessarily proofread my comments. Mea culpa.)

ZC said...

Hmmm. No responses? Nobody here?

It's a bit strange that a few people could find time to submit several of these comments overnight after I first posted this - all of them bypassing the good manners to simply provide a name, even a fake one! - and now nobody will say anything after I've responded in good faith. Are you not interested in discussion of any form?

Anonymous said...

I'd also want to know what the frenchman was referring to.

I can't imagine you'll get a response from OP though.

Just remove the anonymous post option...I remember some time ago you defended it...but I bet it takes the edge off of some of these comments in future, and helps steer comments toward conversation, and not just attempted drive-bys.

ZC said...

I'm considering removing the option. I hesitant because I don't mind it in principle, but these days, when a humble blog like mine (and so many other blogosphere nodes) gets relatively little traffic and even less in the way of comments ... it has seemed to invite mainly spam and a bit of trolling.

Andrew Gilbert said...

I know I'm late to the party but I wanted to say that I think these are interesting ideas that you are bringing into conversation with each other.

I think the framework of examining how a film makes sense of its own themes and not just the embedded ideologies is a fruitful avenue that I haven't considered. This may be an unfounded assumption, but it seems like it could provide more common ground that could bring diverse interpretations/analysis into dialogue with each other. In my experience this seems to be a major obstacle to a pluralistic film studies approach.