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.