Friday, September 07, 2007

Cinemastudies; Formalism in film

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Wow, it must be finals time at the U of Me film school (faculty = me, myself & I)! I'm cranking out these essays like there's no tomorrow! It's a nice way to study though - since I'm not enrolled in an actual school, and completely self-educated, I can post my essays and notes here rather than turning them in to be graded, and maybe get some feedback or discussion. I find just reading and thinking about this stuff isn't really enough - it's really necessary to write about it to make it sink in. (And hey, how cool to do an essay that includes film clips!??)

I'm still riding on a high that all started when I discovered Madame Tutli-Putli, which supercharged my Lighting obsession, and then led into von Sternberg studies, which has now led me, through Montage, back to the seminal Eisenstein and the Soviet Formalist filmmakers. Some time ago I had read Film Form and a few other books by/about Eisenstein, and have ever since been fascinated by his concepts of montage. But watching his films is a bit difficult, or rather unenjoyable for the most part. I think it's because he's such a complete Formalist - he treats filmmaking almost more like a science than an art, and eschews realism almost entirely in favor of a more synthetic approach where he creates a new reality through juxtaposition and opposition of shots in editing. He considers film a language, with individual shots the words, and he believes they can be linked together in an intelligible way to create sentences. To me this is going too far.... visual images, and especially moving images, are not the same as words or pure symbols (though they can certainly carry strong symbolism at times). His colleague Pudovkin was another of the Soviet Formalists, and also favored montage, though his wasn't so rigidly structured. He gave more focus to the actors and the stories, as opposed to Eisenstein, who's main character was usually "the populace" and for whom acting hardly factored in. Eisenstein believed in finding actors who look the part, using whatever makeup and costuming was necessary, and then treating them like chess pieces on a board. He would tell them exactly how to move, what shapes to make with their arms and bodies. Von Sternberg (a later Formalist and a student of Eisenstein's film theories) did much the same thing, though he (like Pudovkin) had main characters and told stories (however incoherent they might be on the surface). He (V. S.) did use montage at times, like that brilliant sequence I posted in the last entry, and used a sort of synthetic language of film, but in a much more enjoyable and natural way IMO.

Perhaps I should explain what formalism is.

Lately I've been reading a textbook called Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. It begins by describing in minute detail the elements that go into a film - THE FRAME, THE SHOT, and THE SCENE, and how they work together. It also discusses Mise-en-Scene (a fancy French film-critic term that takes a while to understand, but that is often abused by snobby critics and has become almost meaningless through misuse). These are some of the Formal elements of film, along with similarity/dissimilarity, unity/disunity, composition, etc. A formalist is basically a director who pays a lot of attention to these elements and how they can be manipulated, as opposed to a Realist, who makes films to be as realistic as possible - a realist will concentrate on accurate setting and portrayal, believable story, and continuity. Realism is the predominant technique in Hollywood filmmaking, while Formalism tends to hang out in the Indies, the foreign flicks, and arthouse films. Of course, there''s no clear and sharp demarcation between the two schools - each contains the other in some degree, but a film can generally be determined to be primarily one or the other.

Formalists in other artistic fields would include Picasso, The Beatles and Johan Sebastian Bach to mention just a few (and these guys are some of my favorites - well The Beatles and Bach anyway - not so much Picasso). They're people who pay attention to the Structure of art.

Now, (and here's the crux of this entry - the reason I'm writing it) - I don't consider myself in any way a complete formalist, but I am excited by the possibilities it offers, and to some extent I think it's the way I want to approach filmmaking. Some clues that led me to this deduction - I have always stuggled with narrative storytelling (a hallmark of realism) and tend instead to make short tests, each with its own focus on some technique or approach (in other words - scenes). I've always been excited about the possibilities of montage (though I don't believe it can be quite what Eisenstein envisioned). I tend toward a lot of editing (formalism) as opposed to deep space and long shots (realism). And I've often said that I think the path of my development lies, not in making complete films one after the other, but in learning about first the shot (tests and sketches), then the scene (how shots work together to become more than the sum of their parts) and finally I feel I'll understand how to put it all together to make a film. Little did I realize I was describing a very formalist approach!

Interestingly (revealingly?) many formalist directors are also film theorists and critics. Take into account how much theorizing and criticizing I tend to do.... and the picture becomes clear.

Here's what really inspired me to write this. As I was reading away the other night, deep into a long section on The Frame (the border of the movie screen, not an individual image) I began to get excited about the idea of the moving frame - the way simply by moving the camera through your set(s) (either by means of tracking/panning, or by cutting between isolated camera positions) you can create a sense of story in an otherwise static scene. You control what the viewer sees and when - and in that way you can set up a mystery, or answer questions, or make people think about elements outside the scene.... in other words you can create a lot of drama by this simple expedient. It made me start to think about the movie I'm supposed to be working on (the one that suffered so many depressing setbacks and made me lose my motivation) - and yes - I actually started to get excited about it once again! It's been a year since I felt that tingle when I thought about the film, but now it's back! Yes!!! My strategy seems to have worked - the plan was to spend some time doing other things and try to work up some inspiration and motivation again (hence the lighting and film studies). And suddenly, out of nowhere, while reading about something completely unrelated - whammo!! inspiration strikes like a lightning bolt!

Ok, now that I've got that out of my system, I plan to bust out the Radke puppets and start making some props for the film. Oh, I should also mention - the idea of moving the camera through the set also helped me to think about how the set needs to be designed. I haven't worked it out yet, but now I have an idea how to approach it (starting from Formal elements).

I also thought by posting this I might help some other people who wonder why they have such a hard time coming up with realistic narrative ideas and maybe like to think about filmmaking almost like a puzzle or a game or a cypher. If you fall into this camp, do a little websearching - look into the Soviet Formalist directors, or look into film theory. You might begin to find a new way to approach it that appeals to you more.


Shelley Noble said...

I couldn't be happier to hear this, Mike. I can already picture what you're going to do in that bar!! Go!

Sven Bonnichsen said...

Very interesting!

I know that I have a streak of the Formalist in myself -- remember those unwatchable clips I made of colors flashing, where I was experimenting with the idea of creating different rhythms with microcuts?

...Very formalist. (Grant, incidentally, strikes me as a hardcore formalist.)

Anyway... Only about a week ago I was wrestling with my own "why do I have such a hard time making myself create narratives?" quandary... What I figured out is that I'm torn between two impulses, creatively.

On the one hand, I'm a Social Constructionist at heart -- I view most of the social world we live in as being essentially artificial; you can trace the roots of most traditions back through history. The Social Constructionist in me is prone to dissect and analyze -- and when I try to generate a story using that part of my brain, nothing I come up with seems at all natural.

On the other hand, I'm also strongly attracted to improvisation. I'm good at noodling around on the piano; I can write up a storm if I'm letting myself write stream-of-consciousness (which I can rework later)...

Haven't figured out what the magic balance between the two tendencies is, yet, but I see a similarity to what you're talking about with having discovered that Formalism's part of your basic approach to filmmaking.

Darkstrider said...

Yep Sven, I think you git it too! And Grant definitely. I'd say we're in good company - I believe the formalist roster would include the Quays and Svankmajer, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and on and on.

I was reading more last night abut the mobile frame - apparently there's a film called Wavelength (hope I don't screw this up ~). It begins in a large room. The camera is fixed in position - it never actually moves throughout the film, but it does zoom in 4 times, each time changing the viewer's perspective on the scene. And as it's zooming (I'm guessing slow controlled zoom) there's an accompanying electronic hum that scales upward (musical wavelength). People move through the room, I don't know, talking or whatever, and at one point there's someone laying on the floor, and you never learn why or if they're alive or dead - and on the final zoom a small picture that was almost unnoticeable on the far wall now fills the frame - a picture of waves. Powerful demonstration of how much control camera position and movement (and zooming) has over the viewer. And if the caemra's journey ends with something satisfying, then it makes a little story for them.

Shelley, thanks for wading through all that - I know it's not your cup of tea!

Sven Bonnichsen said...

Scott McCloud's latest book, "Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels" has a chapter toward the end that discusses four camps among comic creators:

"The Classicists: excellence, hard work, mastery of craft, the quest for enduring beauty

The Animists: putting content first, creating life through art, trusting one's intuition

The Formalists: understanding of, experimentation with, and loyalty to the comics form

The Iconoclasts: honesty, vitality, authenticity and unpretentiousness, putting life first"

McCloud assembles these categories into a 2x2 grid, where you've got tradition/revolution on one axis, and art/life on the other.

(McCloud, if you don't know him already, is this generation's Great Explainer of comics, having been preceded pretty much only by Jack Kirby. A good chunk of McCloud's three books are applicable to stopmo... The most recent one, in particular, has the best analysis of creating facial emotion that I've ever seen.)

Darkstrider said...

I've seen Scott McCloud's books here and there, but never picked one up. I edumacated myself on Drawing Comics the Marvel Way (oldschool!) and on Hogarth's Dynamic Anatomy series followed by Robert Beverly Hale's incredible Masters series - the only advanced anatomy books I've been able to find that take you beyond Hogarth. Hmmm.... I suppose the very fact that I took such a keen interest in studying anatomy (form, structure) is a clue that I'm a formalist.

Very interesting breakdown - so I'm thinking

Classicist - Nick H

Animist (ironic name) - Shelley?

Formalist - well duh!

Iconoclast - don't know - not sure I understand that one.

Sven Bonnichsen said...

I've got at least a cursory interest in all the various fields that border stopmo: 2D cartoons, comics, puppets, doll-making, model trains, wargaming...

If you're interested in comics at all, Mike, then you gotta check out McCloud -- the formalist in you will be all over his stuff. His first book "Understanding Comics" and third book "Making Comics" will most appeal. The second one, "Reinventing Comics" is a bit more about the industry and taking comics onto the internet... It's good, but farther afield.


Yeah, I think you're on the mark with Nick and Shelley. Shells, in particular strikes me as the perfect exemplar for animist: creating by intuition, filling her world with life.

I don't think McCloud defines "iconoclast" as well as he could -- his meta-categories of art/life and tradition/revolution get in the way a bit. I think Svankmajer is probably the archetype (at least in his heyday, before a following of imitators turned his radical acts into just a style....

Animating meat... Putting life into something that is so viscerally dead... It shows a formalist thought process ("What is it to animate? It is to give life to an inanimate object.") -- but Svank uses that analysis to give the audience a poke in the eye, rather than simply expand upon the grammar of the artform. (E.g. by creating new ways to move the camera, ways to frame shots, unusual POV shots, etc.)

Shelley Noble said...

"I know it's not your cup of tea!"

--nope, but you are. :)

Halfland definitely, literally, attributes soul or supernatural power to all things in creation. So, in that sense, this project at least, qualifies as animism, I agree.

Don't know why I like expressing this type of thinking, other than it is how I live inside on some level.

Also, I feel art is more of an intuitive process than can be served via academics and codification, in general. I'm for getting messy in the moment and making things that surprise even ourselves. "Doing" over "understanding. If a broader comprehension only serves the mind and not the hand.

Darkstrider said...

"I know it's not your cup of tea!"

--nope, but you are. :)

... Would you like sugar with that? :7

Shelley Noble said...

and a crumpet!

Ubatuber said...

Its so very cool that you are inspired again, I cant wait to see what you cook up for the bar.

Its strange that you guys are talking Mccloud, I checked out Understanding Comics from the library a couple of weeks ago and have been reading it. One of my favorite passages so far:

"When two people interract, they usually look directly at one another, seeing their partners features in vivid detail.

Each one also sustains a constant awareness of his or her own face, but this mind picture is not nearly so vivid, just a sketchy arrangment, a sense of shape, a sense of general placement.

Something as simple and basic as a cartoon.

So when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another.

But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself."

grant said...

I really enjoyed reading the McCloud books too.