Essays (book reviews)

Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film
Eds. John Gibbs & Douglas Pye
(Manchester University Press, 2005)


Scouring books for a bibliographic reference, my eye fell upon the opening salvo in a 1981 Framework piece by Paul Willemen (1944-2012) on Anthony Mann. He drily dismissed (and was certainly not the only person to do so at the time) the species of auteurism that “always concentrated on thematic analysis, the challenge of deciphering an author’s so-called ‘world-view’.”

The thematic unity of Mann’s work in the Western genre was, according to Willemen, “glaringly coherent” (and hence, we must assume, pretty uninteresting to comment upon), while what got overlooked was the “visual aspect” of all his films (whatever their genre) “as opposed to the moral profundities about the human condition so dear to the auteurist critics of the 1960s”.

We do not need to rehash the disputes and debates, spanning at least 30 years, that this passage casually crystallises. Let us, in fact, simply accept the truth of Willemen’s critique, rather than subjecting it in turn to needle-point criticism: the classical complex of auteur-theme-genre-morality-style did indeed, with time and repetition and declining imagination, get a bit soggy and bland, despite the sterling efforts of its best practitioners.

Style and Meaning: Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film is a vigorous book which boots us well beyond the old impasse of warring classical-versus-modern schools/ sensibilities in cinema studies. It does by concentrating carefully on the methodology of stylistic analysis, providing a range of vivid demonstrations – and essentially leaving some of the baggage of the auteurist and thematic legacy at the door.

Naturally, as in much of the previous work of its editors John Gibbs and Doug Pye, we find respectful nods to the unified œuvre of a Josef von Sternberg or an Alfred Hitchcock. And we will re-meet that rich vein of 1950s Hollywood classicism which best expressed itself in the films of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray or Otto Preminger (as in the editors’ own terrific contribution, on Bonjour Tristesse [1958]), and which became a kind of canon (sometimes rigidly, myopically so) in publications like Movie or CineAction.

Equally, we encounter other test-cases: the convincing (and helpfully pedagogically-slanted) breakdown by Jim Hillier (1941-2014) of Su Friedrich’s avant-garde masterpiece Sink or Swim (1990); or Michael Walker (1942-2022) on Mike Figgis’ strange Leibestraum (1991) – a piece which, while making perfect argumentative sense at every turn, never quite convinced me that this terrible filmmaker had for once made a “rich and resonant” work.

And we will find some counter-moves against received critical opinion. For Ed Gallafent, for example, the spectre of Gaslight (1944), and presumably the entire Female Gothic genre, gets in the way of appreciating the social complex of “issues of display and aversion involved in shame, and those of concealment and challenge involved in guilt” in Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949); while Corin Willis, in an intriguing investigation, tries to find the aesthetic worth – not just the sociological import – of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), a non-auteurist object if there ever was one.

At the end of her illuminating discussion of Stephen Poliakoff’s “art television” mini-series Perfect Strangers (2001), Sarah Cardwell makes an observation that I believe speaks for the book as a whole: “There is still a widely held perception that the close analysis of films means negating or avoiding ‘theoretical questions’” (p. 193). I agree wholeheartedly with her view that close analysis and theoretical reflection are not separate entities … and why did we ever think they were, or could be?

So, what kind of theoretical questions does Style and Meaning address? It is a curious range. As might be expected, there are the ongoing arguments about refining the theories of narrative point-of-view that have come to us from Edward Branigan and others; and an investigation of under-theorised areas like tone and mood. George M. Wilson returns to Laura Mulvey’s ideas on the gaze in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” – 30 years old at this point! – in his searching piece on The Scarlet Empress (1934).

In terms of debate, David Bordwell (1947-2024) comes up for much critique – for his writings on classical cinema, narration in the fiction film, and his view of the interpretation process (only Steve Neale [1950-2021], in his piece on Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman [1948], takes Bordwell’s scepticism in Making Meaning seriously). Theorists who are positively mined include Wilson, Murray Smith (Engaging Characters, revised edition 2022), Andrew Britton (1952-1994), Stanley Cavell (a lot), and V. F. Perkins (1936-2016).

Indeed, that last-named steps up to the plate to deliver the tour de force of this book, a remarkable and far-reaching essay titled “Where is the World? The Horizon of Events in Movie Fiction” (later reprinted in his Collected Shorter Film Criticism book of 2020). It probes the concept of fictional worlds, their logic, and the way they provide a frame for narrative, mise en scène and gesture. Overlapping with Umberto Eco’s work on this topic (in Postscript to The Name of the Rose, 1984), Perkins nonetheless takes us beyond broad rules, structures and conventions into a much more intricate realm of analysis.

The only time when, as a reader, I found myself disengaged from the thrust of Style and Meaning which was during Neill Potts’ essay on “Character Interiority: Space, Point of View and Performance”. Here, I think the Cavellian line on “beings on film” leads the author into a peculiar polemic. He argues “for the importance of characters for an increased comprehension of narrative film” (p. 86) – as if the vast majority of film reviewing and criticism were in some danger of giving up its single-minded fixation on what characters “really” think and feel!

To be fair, Potts’ fine analysis of Vertigo (1958) shows perfectly what results a close attention to character interiority can provide. But interiority, as a theoretical concept, surely only matters when it is wielded on films that pursue such an idea, as in the rich classical films that the Movie tradition valorises; its general significance or applicability breaks down the moment we get to Frank Tashlin, Peter Greenaway, Raúl Ruiz … or, indeed, many routinely non-psychological genres in popular cinema.

Auteur-artists, too, have their own views about what character in cinema is: human behaviour in Robert Altman is radically different to what it is in Boris Barnet, Robert Aldrich or Wong Kar-wai. Here, we have a case of an insufficiently philosophical or theoretical thought: having broached human interiority, Cavell-style, one cannot turn back from the philosophic path of asking: so, what is a human, then?

For the Hobbesian human is not the Freudian human is not the human of Eastern religions is not the human of new-technological interfaces (see Sadie Plant’s book Zeros and Ones, 1997); in each case, the relation of exteriority to interiority, consciousness to unconsciousness, mind to body, individuality to commonality, animality to civility, and so on, is construed completely differently.

Potts manages to wipe away, in a single prefatory sentence, the vast array of important poststructuralist textual models generated over the previous three decades to describe the work and place of characters within cinema: as figure, as allegory, as body-too-much, as stereotype or cliché, as a recombinable voice-and-body apparatus, and so on. But such a glib dismissal will simply not suffice for genuine scholarship and criticism.

However, back to what is new and generative in Style and Meaning. Perkins wrote, back in 1990, that meanings are filmed within this art that shows us bodies, their gestures and movements, in space. This observational move in stylistic criticism was an embryonic moment, and only 15 years later is it truly bearing fruit in acts of analysis and writing. There is a theatre of the social, of lived social reality – of the profilmic, to use a sadly discarded term – which enters a number of these pieces in a way that is hitherto unfamiliar within the Movie/CineAction tradition.

It is an exciting development. Perkins attends to the possible gestures that a certain class of person might be expected to perform in a certain situation in a certain time and place; Mulvey recreates, via the opening scene of Imitation of Life (1959), how public space was organised for multi-racial citizens on an American beachfront; Deborah Thomas mines Erving Goffman’s rich sociological study Frame Analysis (1974) in order to understand the waves of embarrassment and transgression for the characters and spectators of Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (1995).

Although this is a book that wears its bibliographic references fairly lightly (can it truly be: a film book of the early 21st century without a single reference to Gilles Deleuze?), a connection could have been (still can be) made with the notion of social mise en scène that has been posited by critics including Jean-Louis Comolli and François Albera … not to mention myself!

The detailed analysis flagged in the book’s subtitle is not only close analysis – it is, also and crucially, an analysis of details. Style and Meaning picks up, with renewed energy, the challenge of what it means to pursue a critical discussion of moments, fragments, pieces of a film rather than its organic-coherent whole.

There’s no shortage of critics (or groups of critics) who have written passionately, to the point of fixation, about filmic detail: it was a Surrealist practice, a Termite Art practice, a poststructuralist practice, and today it is a techno-sampling practice … But the rendezvous which has remained lacking is that between the more classical critics and the complete event of the filmic moment. The film-buff fetishism that has surrounded the evocation of detail (of the “Chow Yun-fat smoking a cigarette” variety) can seem an excessive perversion, a foolish deviation, or an explosion of Camp theatrics to be avoided at all costs. Another path is, at least, possible.

In 2005, the situation seems different. As Mulvey eloquently argues in her essay “Repetition and Return: Textual Analysis and Douglas Sirk in the Twenty-first Century” (and more elaborately in her book Death 24x a Second), DVD has arrived as a technology which, in every home that can afford it (which is not, of course, every home!), allows the spectator-consumer to become a connoisseur, to naturally segment and fragment any film at hand. The cinematic scene is no longer (or not only) a link in the narrative chain, but a detachable tableau.

Cahiers du cinéma has fervently promoted a similar line in its extensive DVD coverage since the late ‘90s, and others have followed suit. Today, each new Godard movie seems made only secondarily for the big cinema screen, rather for DVD and the kind of exploratory viewing it allows – even if that exploration is never (not yet) the open ideal of total textual restructuring it could potentially be.

Jonathan Bignell, in his chapter on Badlands (1973), asks these questions in a meta-critical way, by choosing a film that seems to interpret itself in the very terms we are likely to bring to it; it is the only piece in the book to bring that kind of deconstructive protocol to bear. Andrew Klevan, in his superb contribution “Notes on Teaching Film Style”, arrives at the advent of the filmic moment not primarily via technological evolution or meta-critical reflection, but through an elegant nestling of ideas from (once again) Perkins and Cavell; he honours the moment like Cavell and weighs it like Perkins.

Style and Meaning is a finely edited book (despite the substitution of Baxendale for art historian Michael Baxandall, and the belief in Cathy Greenhalgh’s otherwise indispensable piece on the cinematography of Happy Together [1997] that Kar-wai is a surname). It began its life as the proceedings of a conference, and has come together as a varied but singularly forceful collection. Now all we need is for English-language publishers to take a cue from Léo Scheer in France and begin providing DVDs along with the written texts – so that detailed analysis can more quickly reach its next, exciting stage of evolution.


© Adrian Martin July 2005 (+ updates)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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