The development of formalist film theory was deeply connected with the formation of cinematograph as the autonomous art. The specific character of this theory, hence, should be understood in terms of theoretical and practical elaboration of film production instruments and thorny path of mastering various means for delivering cinematographic ideas and content to spectators. It should be noted that the basic elements of formalist film theory, such as montage, lighting, scoring, shooting etc.
became generally accepted technical means in cinematograph, which were used irrespectively of theoretical approaches preached by a given director. However, it should be noted, that notwithstanding universal spread of major theoretical and technical findings of formalist theory, it has its own unique historical features, represented by the work of such notable contributors as S. Eisenstein and R. Arnheim. Generally speaking, formalist film theory may be described as the totality of views, which claim the centrality of technical and formal means of film production to maintaining its inherently artistic and cultural nature.
Eisenstein, the pioneer of formalist theory, in his major works Film Form and Film Sense Shot claimed that montage is the central practice to film-making, because it covers its both technical and artistic aspects (Beyond the Shot, p. 13). The utilization of technical approaches to montage and shooting is essentially linked with general objectives of film production, as it is understood in formalist film theory, that is, creating meanings and artistic ideas through copulation/combination of images, shots and sound elements. Basic features and premises of the formalist film theory
Formalist film theory is premised on the dialectical understanding of relations between form and content in film production. Technical means, including montage, shooting, lighting, sound are not neutral vis-a-vis artistic content of a given film. In contrast, their collision or sequence, help realize artistic ideas. Based on this theoretical underpinnings Eisenstein developed several approaches to montage, which should be utilized depending on specific goals director pursues. Eisenstein defines five basic approaches to montage such as metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal and intellectual (Eisenstein 1949 72-79).
All these approaches are premised on the complexity of artistic ideas, which director delivers to spectators. The dialectical relations between shots in these types of montage are based on conflicts between volume, rhythm, scale, speed etc. Metric montage may be described as the control of time sequence of different episodes and images, irrespectively of their intellectual content. These include various formal transitions and interruptions in the visual sequence of shots. Rhythmic montage includes metric elements, but pays specific attention to the visual composition and content of shots, which is made to deliver complex meaning.
One of the notable examples of this type of montage, developed by Eisenstein and practiced by his colleagues such L. Kuleshov and D. Vertov, is a famous scene from Eisenstein’s masterpiece Battleship Potemkin, often referred to as ‘Odessa Steps’. This scene portrays the massacre of protesters (including women and children) in Odessa by Imperial Cossack Forces. Metric and rhythmic approaches to montage are extensively used to portray the ugliness and brutality of Tsarist regime and its servants and the sufferings of ordinary people.
To achieve this effect, Eisenstein ‘copulates’ shots of soldiers’ boots, marching down the steps with shots of baby carriage with a child in it, moving downstairs. Besides this, Eisenstein uses close images of people, who were killed and massive flight, caused by the gunfire. Temporal metric transitions, hence, are copulated with rhythmic elements, delivering emotional content (Eisenstein 1925). Tonal montage ranks the next stage in complexity of emotional appeal. It uses entire image to create certain emotional effects in spectator.
Using specific lighting, sound techniques or special effects, a director creates certain aesthetic atmosphere, which communicates new artistic meanings to visual dimension of the episode. The next type of montage, which Eisenstein calls overtonal, represents combination of tonal, metric and rhythmic elements to produce complex psychological impact on the viewers. The characteristic features of each type of the montage are used in complex to capitalize on the volume, rhythm, scale and speed. And, finally, the most complex type of montage is intellectual montage, which does not only affect feelings, but imbues thinking and reflection.
Objectives of formalist film theory Hence, the main objective of formalist film theory, as Eisenstein constantly repeats, is creating artistic effects and meanings, which are communicated to spectators. Eisenstein vividly showed this opportunity, provided by montage, referring to Japanese hieroglyphs, which create new meanings by adding new elements to already existing (Eisenstein, Beyond the Shot 14). Formalist theory’s basic objective may be described as creating conditions for artistic representation of reality in film production.
According to Eisenstein and Arnheim, using technical means is not neutral vis-a-vis objective representation of reality. Inability to master technical means results in negative implications for films artistic content and precludes ‘intellectual’ perception of reality. Therefore, formalist film theory, seeks to overcome mere reproduction of reality, peculiar to commercial movie projects. Besides this, representatives of formalist theory hold that spectators should be influenced emotionally and intellectually in order to give them proper understanding of director’s ideas and subjective goals.
This goal has its real historical reasons, because the formalist theory developed within a tradition of revolutionary propaganda films, such as Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky by S. Eisenstein. Arnheim, who is another important representative of the formalist film theory, showed that representation of reality peculiar to cinema, essentially differs from physical contours of reality. Hence, according to Arnheim, formal elements of film-making have great significance for creating emotional and intellectual effects (Arnheim 323). Arnheim gives vivid examples of unique modes of reality perception, generated by films.
As he states, film images can not be reduced to physical dimensions. Neither a position of shooting, nor its objects can not be defined mathematically, because they are premised on artistic taste and understanding of reality. Moreover, as Arnheim states, film and visual realities significantly differ in depth, as films are ‘neither absolutely two-dimensional, nor three-dimensional, but something in between”(Arnheim 324) For instance, in Ruttmann’s film Berlin, the director creates interesting juxtaposition of two physical dimensions, depicting trains moving in the opposite directions (Arnheim 324).
Tensions and Contradictions within Formalist Film Theory Notwithstanding positive elements, inherent in the formalist film theory, it has certain contradictions and inner tensions, which are often mentioned by the representatives of opposing film theories. For instance, Andre Bazin, one of the most prominent representatives of realist film theory, claimed that formalist understanding of form and technique of film production is manipulative and precludes genuine communication between spectators and artistic subjects (Bazin 48).
Besides this, it should be noted that heavy emphasis of formalist film theory on formal and technical means prevents directors from focusing on objective cognition of reality and its representation, making it (reality) a hostage of subjective manipulation with it. However formalist film theory claims that it provides the tools for objective representation of reality, in fact, it is one of the most subjective approaches, even more subjective than auteurship film theory. According to Bazin, formalist film theory breaks world into many small separate pieces, which are then linked to produce structured, but subjective worldview (Bazin 48).
Advantages of formalist film theory and its relation to other film theories Formalist film theory has its unique advantages, which are proved by the widespread utilization of its theoretical findings and innovations by film currents, which theoretically contradict its main premises. The importance of montage and other technical procedures was recognized by the majority of directors, who worked after S. Eisenstein. Today, we can not imagine any film, which does not use montage to produce certain artistic affects.
Even documentary films, which represent a separate genre, essentially focus on montage. Besides this, deep connections are obvious between formalist film theory and auteur theory, which both put significant emphasis on the role of subjective artistic appeals and aims, which are necessary to maintain cinematograph as a genuine form of art. Both auteur and formalist film theories oppose neutral and quasiobjective film production, which is prone to standardization of techniques and approaches to achieve certain commercial results.
In such kind of film production standard genre elements, ideological prejudices and common sense significantly erode the instance of auteurship, transforming films into faceless (without auteur) products of cinema conveyer. It should be noted, however, that formalist film theory is characterized by excessive emphasis on such elements of film production, which often have negative effect on the quality and artistic value. The parasitizing on formal elements and conscious manipulation, as it was noted, is harshly criticized by representatives of realist film theory.
It seems that this critique has proper theoretical grounds. Realist film theory, represented by Bazin, calls upon to following the continuity of real images and events and finding artistic meanings in their mere existence. In this view artistic truths should be found in difficult relations between time and space, which entails montage, having subordinate function. Moreover, unlike realist film theory, formalism leaves practically no room for the freedom of interpretation and understanding, aggressively imposing already designed meanings and interpretations on spectators.
Such important elements used in realist film theory as deep shot and focus, which help meet its theoretic goals, are ignored in formalist film theory. Failing to master these tools leads to losing visual integrity of reality, which is, according to Bazin, is even more important than montage (Bazin 49). Formalism in Hitchcock’s Spellbound We have already mentioned the use of formalist theory of montage in Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin. However, it should be noted that crucial aspects of formalist film theory may be found in films, directed by people, who are not openly associated with this tradition.
This is, for instance, the case with Hitchcock, who based his techniques of film production on Expressionist approach. Hitchcock’s film is based on psychoanalytic and surrealist subjects, which may be proved by its plot and extensive use of Dali’s designs in the Brown’s mysterious dream. One of the major characteristics of Spellbound, which links it with formalist film theory, is that it distorts normal physical perception of time and space in reality.
As we remember, Arnheim’s main requirement for film production referred to its creative approach to time and space, designed to break false continuity and present artistic sequence. Hitchcock pays primarily attention to the characterization of different protagonists and objects, but not on their appearances and actions, which is so characteristic of mainstream thrillers. The characters of Constance, false Dr. Edwards, Dr. Murchison are developed in a coherent way, following strict formal structure of plot development.
Besides this, Hitchcock utilizes other techniques of formalist film theory, such as fragmentary editing, psychological collision of shots, various lighting effects, and extreme angles. Moreover, Hitchcock uses different approaches to montage, elaborated by Eisenstein. Rhythmic and tonal types of montage are extensively used in scenes, designed to produce strong emotional effects on the spectators. Rhythmic montage is used in the scene depicting Ballantine/Brown/false Edwards phobia of seeing black lines on white things, when these objects are juxtaposed with protagonists’ scared look.
Another example includes Constance reading false Edward’s book on the guilt complex and notices that Dr. Edward’s signature differs from that of the man who is the author of the book (real Dr. Edwards). Intellectual type of montage, developed by Eisenstein is evident in surrealist dream scene, when false Dr. Edwards looks at the wall covered with eyes. The same episode includes rhythmic juxtaposition of the close-up shots of Constance and Brown, looking at each other, as well as purely technical tool of shots’ imposition, which creates flexible and vague atmosphere of surrealist dream.
Another episode including this type of montage is when Constance, while recollecting Brown’s dream, realizes that the real murderer is Dr. Murchison. In this scene, her recollection of the dream is juxtaposed with her thinking process and eventual discovery. To sum it up, we have analyzed basic characteristics of formalist film theory, its objectives, positive and negative aspects and relation to other film theories. Practical realization of formalist film theory was researched based on the examples of Eisenstein’s Battleship of Potemkin and Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
Works Cited Arnheim, Rudolf. Film as Art. University of California Press,1957. Bazin, Andre. What is cinema? Vol. 1 & 2 (Hugh Gray, Trans. , Ed. ). Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967-71. Eisenstein, Sergei, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, New York, Hartcourt. Trans. Jay Leyda, 1949. Eisenstein, Sergei. dir. Battleship Potemkin, 1925, USSR. Hitchcock, Alfred. dir. Spellbound. 1945, USA, Vanguard Films. а
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