I come to praise Bordwell, not to bury him. He is the greatest academic film critic writing in the English language and his latest brace of books, companion volumes really, leave us in no doubt of this – if there ever was. His achievement here is extraordinary. The first book, figures traced in light, is devoted to techniques of cinematic staging; specifically, the enduring, ever-creative power of the long take in the different forms throughout world cinema. The next, The Way Hollywood Tells It, does the opposite. It shows, in precise and lucid detail, how Hollywood has abandoned the long take in the age of digital technologies, sacrificing its rhythms and power to the interests of intensified continuity; that is, to accelerating the way it now tells its very traditional stories. Many years ago, André Bazin may have harboured the illusion that the technical powers of the movie camera would enable film to mimic human perception to a remarkable degree. Well, the studio movie of the 21st century nails this as a madman’s delusion and Bordwell gives us chapter and verse. In an age of single living, singles always outnumber two-shots. So goodbye medium shot, adieu plan-américain: long lens masters, extreme close-ups, blue screen mise en scène, quick-fire cutting and overkill multiple camera coverage mean that big-budget movies look nothing like what we see around us with the naked eye. And we are used to it. The pseudo-semiotic critique of the 1970s that spoke of Hollywood’s “studio realism” as an ideological master-plan for world domination by conning us that what we’re seeing is really real, is just as obsolete as Bazin’s perception-utopia.
Cinematic staging, or mise en scène, then becomes the lost art of our current century because it gives way to digital editing though the new quick-fire cutting of the Avid in a Hollywood film culture now drenched in television close-ups and MTV fast edits. Globally speaking, Bordwell’s long take masters of the moment are Hou Hsiao-hsien in Taiwan and Theo Angelopoulos in Greece, two heroic figures whose style-minutiae he explicates in figures traced in light with that impeccable formalist expertise we come to expect from him. In previous epochs, he chooses early Georges Feuillade for the age of silent cinema and Kenji Mizoguchi for the age of classical sound cinema. It’s a balancing act of sorts: two Asians, two Europeans confronting the American behemoth. Carl Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu could have been added without changing the balance, but one suspects that previous monographs ruled them out. On Bordwell’s scheme of things, the point of greatest convergence between Hollywood and art cinema (formally speaking) comes in the ’60s and ’70s. Melodrama slackens off and the ASL (average shot length) shows its greatest global convergence, he would argue, partly though the influence of the Europeans and the Japanese on New American Cinema. At the same time, as he points out, Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder also paved the way in the post-war classical period. Yet it is the loss at the end of the New American Wave that Bordwell really wants to nail down, giving us a thinly disguised lament in The Way Hollywood Tells It of What We Have Lost and even a chapter on current Hollywood titled “What’s Missing?”
Bordwell does not draw back from using crass trade-talk to highlight the current massacre of the image. In the edit suite, the fast digital cutting that celluloid cannot match, where frames are shaved down to their absolute minimum, is called “frame-fucking” (p. 155). As a result of gross excess coverage (now the norm), the growing practice on big-budget films of farming out footage for separate editors to each compose a single reel for the final cut is known as “gang-banging” (p. 156). Moreover, intensified continuity knows no limits in its rush to dress up feel-good movies in new costume. Bordwell proves the point with a smart shakedown of Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996), which does the business in resurrecting the feel-good romance for a whole generation of filmgoers that Hollywood assumes to be suffering from attention deficit disorder. In other words, the Tom Cruise vehicle accelerates through the image but delivers with some new variations the hoary old Hollywood Three-Acter – Set-Up, Development, Climax – complete now with its parallel plot (to Cruise and Renée Zellweger) of a loving black couple as its token nod to political correctness. Here Bordwell pulls out all the stops in scanning the screenwriting manuals that now make up Hollywood’s parallel story of pitching ambition: how to turn classical plots into hyperclassical movies like Jerry. The classic genres and storylines are still there, but now revved up into turbo-changed delirium. He perhaps omits to mention some of the fallout here. The burning pace of the new often leads to burnout and the fade-away that some note in current Hollywood third acts or, to convert it back into trade-talk crudity, the climax is often spoilt by premature ejaculation. Third act action, in fact, is often cranked up to a state of post-coital exhaustion.
Of course, Hollywood does not abandon the long take, but gives it only two options: either it has to be an endless arcing shot for round-table talk or a walk-and-talk sequence, usually a Steadicam special where the characters appear to be training in long corridors for an Olympic walk and the prohibition on silence and stillness is absolute. The camera, the actors, the extras, everything must rush with cross-talking, distracting sounds, breathless phrasing and hyper-gesticulating. As Bordwell, following Kristin Thompson, points out, hyperclassical – not post-classical – is the mot juste for this new template. For impact aesthetics are everything, the reflective image nothing.
Here though, Bordwell overlooks the limits of his paradigm. He understates the case for variation in the American independents during the digital age. A roll call of top indies in the last 15 years – Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991), Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo, 1998), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), Fargo (Joel Coen, 1995), Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995), Julien Donkey-Boy (Harmony Korine, 1999), Limbo (John Sayles, 1999), Far From Heaven (Haynes, 2002), Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001), Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003) and Last Days (Van Sant, 2005) – possess only minor features of intensified continuity. Their rhythms, dialogue and mise en scène are all very different from those Bordwell outlines. Pulp Fiction, we could even say, is closer to Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) than it is to Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990) or Heat (Michael Mann, 1995). Moreover, Lynch is the figure who escapes Bordwell entirely because he is neither post-classical nor hyperclassical but, in terms of style, neo-classical: outwardly more conventional in his mise en scène than other independents and yet reframing Hollywood classicism with a vision that has an enduring aura of mystery and is uniquely his own.
Just as Bordwell fails to do justice to novel indie styles, he also reveals that his other bête noir is neo-noir, where the mysteries of plot and character often override the demands of his reductive soul. He does an excellent job of analysing the mix of the innovative and the conservative in the story and style of Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) but Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967), its clear predecessor, baffles him. Indeed he is forced to admit there is a zone of the “indeterminate” (p. 82) in neo-noir generally that stubbornly resists the invasion of the hyperclassical (or, if we read the subtext, the triumph of substandard enlightenment) and Lynch is deemed the chief culprit in Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. Better the final certainty of A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), where the Climax clears up the puzzles of the Development, than eccentric American genius, as Lynch is, taking us to the verge of the abyss and leaving us there.
Where Bordwell does triumph is in matching the demands of intensified continuity to the storyline attraction of what he calls “converging fates” (pp. 97-102). He does some smart mapping plot-wise of parallel tracks that appear to go on forever, only to merge – as in all good rail systems – on the verge of the horizon. Small world, or car accident, coincidence can be made to seem tragic, as in 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003), or just plain ridiculous, as in Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004) – take your pick. But the formula suits the rapid cutting and style eclecticism of the hyperclassical, spreading wide the opportunity for new forms of storytelling that are not linear and one-dimensional, but cross-cutting, back-and-forward flashing, here, there and everywhere on the road to a disguised unity. It is a kind of force-fed symbiosis that brings out the best or the worst in the hyperclassical and Bordwell examines its workings with great precision. What he omits to do is to ask wider questions about the hyperclassical beyond those of a novel formatting of the familiar Hollywood narrative that is both technical and market-driven. But converging fate stories do strike a chord with their audience that goes beyond smart puzzle-solving. They hit a raw nerve about a growing anxiety – the addled fragmentation of cultures in the so-called information age with its various forms of dysfunctional communication, or coeval disconnection. Car dependency, mobiles, electronic mail, surveillance cameras and text messaging are all the stuff of technological nightmares. Stories that invoke them are often mythic phenomenologies of fragmenting and re-uniting, narratives climaxing in solutions but only after spending time in the limbo of accelerating chaos. How far this can be linked to the complex flows of capital in the age of high-consumerism and global warming is anybody’s guess. One thing is for sure: as a formalist down to his fingertips, Bordwell won’t be supplying any answers.
Bordwell’s kind of formalism, however, is perfectly suited to a world beyond Hollywood where, in figures traced in light, he zooms in on cinematic staging and the sheer variation in the stylisations of the long take in cinema history. Feuillade, Mizoguchi, Hou and Angelopoulos are all very disparate stylists and that is the point. For all of them, the long take is a key instrument of cinematic staging. To analyse it as such is to inaugurate a “cinepoetics”, a “study of how films work (narratively, stylistically) to shape the audience’s experience” (p. 10). Bordwell is smart enough to combine history with stylistics, looking at the culture of audience expectations in different decades and in different continents, showing how his chosen gang of four try to ring the changes on style with the technologies they have at their disposal. All four, he argues, have pushed staging techniques forward and made landmark contributions to the sequence-shot. At times, perhaps, Bordwell is also pushing the pragmatism of Yankee know-how too far in his assessment of style as an outcome of problem-solving. But he wants to show how each style he dissects overcomes difficulties of cinematic staging through its director’s ingenuity. Thus Hou becomes the master of the dinner table sequence in City of Sadness (1989) and of the brothel tea party in Flowers of Shanghai (1998) with his flanking profiles and horizontal layering, giving us a density of detail in the long take that has become his trademark. In like vein, Angelopoulos becomes the master of the distant long take, often using deep focus with slow forward tracks to layer recessive figures and landscapes. Hou takes from Ozu the objective aesthetics of static observation, and Angelopoulos from Antonioni the aesthetics of mobile contemplation.
So far, so good. Yet in this faultless dissection of shot-composition, there seems something missing. The urge, the impulse, the vision that guides it all. To be fair, Bordwell has a good stab at it. He points to the historic similarity of Hou’s history films emerging out of the period of KMT dictatorship in Taiwan and of Angelopoulos fast-tracking Greek cinema out of the realm of the Colonels’ Junta. Yet he fails to go the final furlong. The power and the vision of both directors surely come from the quandaries of their countries’ recent histories. Both countries suffered foreign occupation and the traumas of internal division that followed its collapse. Set in 1945, City of Sadness does much more than just figure out how to film characters sitting around the dinner table. The future at that point in Taiwanese history is uncertain, yet momentous. Bordwell then gives just two pages to Hou’s other great history film, A Time to Live and a Time to Die (1985), saying nothing of the freighted post-war history it shows of a country still struggling with its national identity, but embarking instead on a study of long-lens distance composition in a very specific sequence. Technically correct, perfectly illustrated on the page with successive frames, but somehow gutted of wider context. Anyway, this reviewer had better lay his cards on the table. He prefers Hou’s history films because they are more visionary and powerful, but also because they are usually closer to their protagonists in their framing: medium-long, as it were, as opposed to long-long. Hou, it seems to me, loses his way in his contemporary tales of youthful mayhem, such as Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) and Millennium Mambo (2001), because the action is often confused and cluttered. Too late to include in his book, Bordwell would surely have been flummoxed, by the faster cutting and daring close shots of Three Times (2005), especially the last breathtaking episode set in contemporary Taipei.
With Angelopoulos, the drawback in Bordwell’s critique is rather different. The complex emotions of loss, lament and mourning the Greek director evokes, which stem in part from his nation’s suffering, or conversely the ritual celebrations of dance and marriage that raise the spirits, hardly qualify as fodder for modernist clichés like melancholia and de-dramatisation that Bordwell is offering here. For sure, there is a lack of psychologising in his films and plenty of three-quarter dorsality– the trademark diagonal back view of his characters – but never any lack of emotion. The undercutting of melodrama, not de-dramatisation, and the refinement of feeling as pure spatial tension, not anomie, is what A. takes from his other A. (Antonioni). Conversely, Bordwell takes the brave step of rating The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) and Voyage to Cythera (1984) above The Travelling Players (1975) and Ulysses’ Gaze (1995). He may well be right and he states his case well. But there remains a shortfall in the general argument that becomes exasperating precisely of the brilliance of the formal argument. He points out rightly that the Angelopoulos sequence-shot has it own dramatic tension, its own forward movement that closes often with visual epiphany, not boring at all but simply breathtaking, an art Angelopoulos has mastered like no-one apart from Andrei Tarkovsky. And Bordwell can describe a perfect example of sequence-shot epiphany at the opening of Ulysses’ Gaze, where Maia Morgenstern suddenly disappears from the following gaze of Harvey Keitel as the street on which they stand fills with rival demonstrators who eat up the space between them. But he cannot describe this mythic loss of Penelope as an emotional moment for its protagonist, which it clearly is and which the audience is expected to share. Yet we do respond emotionally to the style because of what Angelopoulos shows us, the substance that merges with the style. Bordwell is well aware of this; but at times that elusive what simply eludes him.
figures traced in light: On Cinematic Staging, by David Bordwell, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005.
The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies, by David Bordwell, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2006.
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