Formalist film theory

Formalist film theory

Formalist film theory is a theory of film study that is focused on the formal, or technical, elements of a film: i.e., the lighting, scoring, sound and set design, use of color, shot composition, and editing. It is a major theory of film study today.

Basic Theory

Formalism, at its most general, considers the synthesis (or lack of synthesis) of the multiple elements of film production, and the effects, emotional and intellectual, of that synthesis and of the individual elements. For example, let's take the single element of editing. A formalist might study how standard Hollywood "continuity editing" creates a more comforting effect and non-continuity or jump-cut editing might become more disconcerting or volatile.

Or one might consider the synthesis of several elements, such as editing, shot composition, and music. The shoot-out that ends Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western "Dollars" trilogy is a valid example of how these elements work together to produce an effect: The shot selection goes from very wide to very close and tense; the length of shots decreases as the sequence progresses towards its end; the music builds. All of these elements, in combination rather than individually, create tension.

Formalism is unique in that it embraces both ideological and auteurist branches of criticism. In both these cases, the common denominator for Formalist criticism is style.

Ideological Formalism

Ideologues focus on how socio-economic pressures create a particular style, and auteurists on how auteurs put their own stamp on the material. Since formalism is primarily concerned with style and how it communicates the ideas, emotions, and themes (rather than, as critics of formalism point out, concentrating on the themes of a work itself).

Two examples of ideological interpretations that are related to formalism:

The classical Hollywood cinema has a very distinct style, sometimes called the Institutional Mode of Representation: continuity editing, massive coverage, three-point lighting, "mood" music, dissolves, all designed to make the experience as pleasant as possible. The socio-economic ideological explanation for this is, quite crassly, that Hollywood wants to make as much money and appeal to as many ticket-buyers as possible.

Film noir, which was given its name by the Cahiers du cinema crowd, is marked by lower production values, darker images, underlighting, location shooting, and general nihilism: this is because, we are told, during the war and post-war years filmmakers were generally more pessimistic (as well as filmgoers). Also, the German Expressionists (including Fritz Lang, who was not technically an expressionist as popularly believed) emigrated to America and brought their stylized lighting effects (and disillusionment due to the war) to American soil.

It can be argued that, by this approach, the style or 'language' of these films is directly affected not by the individuals responsible, but by social, economic, and political pressures, of which the filmmakers themselves may be aware or not. It is this branch of criticism that gives us such categories as the classical Hollywood cinema, the American independent movement, the New American independent movement, the new queer cinema, and the French, German, and Czech new waves.

Formalism in Auteur Theory

If the ideological approach is concerned with broad movements and the effects of the world around the filmmaker, then the auteur theory is diametrically opposed to it, celebrating the individual, usually in the person of the filmmaker, and how his personal decisions, thoughts, and style manifest themselves in the material.

This branch of criticism, begun by François Truffaut and the other young film critics writing for "Cahiers du cinema", was created for two reasons.

First, it was created to redeem the art of film itself. By arguing that films had auteurs, or authors, Truffaut sought to make films (and their directors) at least as important as the more widely-accepted art forms, such as literature, music, and painting. Each of these art forms, and the criticism thereof, is primarily concerned with a sole creative force: the author of a novel (not, for example, his editor or type-setter), the composer of a piece of music (though sometimes the performers are given credence, akin to actors in film today), or the painter of a fresco (not his assistants who mix the colours or often do some of the painting themselves). By elevating the director, and not the screenwriter, to the same importance as novelists, composers, or painters, it sought to free the cinema from its popular conception as a bastard art, somewhere between theater and literature.

Secondly, it sought to redeem many filmmakers who were looked down upon by mainstream film critics. It argued that genre filmmakers and low-budget B-movies were just as important, if not more, than the prestige pictures commonly given more press and legitimacy in France and the United States. According to Truffaut's theory, auteurs took material that was beneath their talents—a thriller, a pulpy action film, a romance—and, through their style, put their own personal stamp on it.

It is this auteur style that concerns formalism.

A perfect example of formalist criticism of auteur style would be the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock primarily made thrillers, which, according to this the Cahiers du cinema crowd, were popular with the public but dismissed by the critics and the award ceremonies (though it should be noted that Hitchcock's "Rebecca" won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 1940 Academy Awards, and though he never won the Oscar for directing, he was nominated five times in the category). Truffaut and his colleagues argued that Hitchcock had a style as distinct as that of Flaubert or Van Gogh: the virtuoso editing, the lyrical camera movements, the droll humour. He also had "Hitchcockian" themes: the wrong man falsely accused, violence erupting at the times it was least expected, the cool blonde. Now, Hitchcock is more or less universally lauded, his films dissected shot-by-shot, his work celebrated as being that of a master. And the study of this style, his variations, and obsessions all fall quite neatly under the umbrella of formalist film theory.


* Bordwell, David, "Film Art: An Introduction"; McGraw-Hill; 7th edition (June, 2003).
* Braudy, Leo, ed., "Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings"; Oxford University Press; 6th edition (March, 2004).
* Gianetti, Leo, "Understanding Movies"; Prentice Hall; 10th edition (March, 2004)

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