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September 2004
2 . årgang
nummer 8

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16:9 in English: Bordwell on Bordwell: Part II - Functions of Film Style


This is the second installment of an interview Jakob Isak Nielsen carried out with David Bordwell in May 2004. This portion of the interview concerns Bordwell's concept of style. Click here to read Part I of the interview first.

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One line of inquiry that you've mentioned here* and that seems central to your conception of what a poetics of film could be, calls for exceptionally close viewings of film style. You are in the process of publishing a book on film style and stylistics.

On staging mostly. The book is on staging and is book-ended. The four chapters in between are about one director each and then the beginning chapter lays out some assumptions and the last chapter responds to some criticisms. So those chapters are really about stylistics in general.

Bodies Traced in Light - is that going to be the title of the book?

Figures Traced in Light, right.

It will be in line with chapter 6 in your 1997-book On the History of Film Style but focused on the staging strategies of four specific directors: Louis Feuillade. Kenji Mizoguchi, Theo Angelopoulos and Hou Hsiou-Hsien?

Yes, it is an extension of that last chapter of the On the History of Film Style-book where I try to do a small-scale example of how one might write a stylistic history of depth-staging that avoided some of the difficulties of traditional stylistic histories.

In your new book you propose a framework for discussing the functions of film style in narrative films. You suggest that there are four ways in which we talk of style in films: the denotative function of style, the expressive, the decorative and the symbolic. Can we flesh out these categories?

Those are just an initial shot and they can probably stand some more refinement but just to get the issue on the table, I propose those four. Denotative I take to be very basic but also very important: The denotative function of style conveys things to us that we need to know in order to understand the ensuing dramatic action. "The character is walking into a room so we pan with the character into the room. The character is angry, we see the character's anger and so on."

So it is about comprehension and intelligibility?

To some degree, yes, it is about comprehension and intelligibility.

The second function I picked out was expressive which is - I would say - about comprehension as well but what we want to do here is to understand style as being used to magnify the expressive features within the scene or to add an expressive layer to the scene. Music is a prototypical example of the latter scenario: the camera work may be denoting it a certain way but the music is bringing out expressive values that are not present in the dramatic action as such. It may be ironic for instance.

The third function is what I call the decorative function. By that I mean that the style develops its own patterns independent of or not necessarily arising from the dramatic action. For instance we can imagine some camera movements that are purely functional denotatively. That is, they just follow the actors. There are other camera movements which are expressive such as when a character is running and we have the character's point-of-view and the bouncy camera is trying to convey something like the feeling of what it is like to run. A third function is when the camera - and this we find in certain kinds of films more than others - might start to weave its own patterns around the action. So the camera starts by following the action but then it assumes a high angle, goes down to a low angle, cranes back up to a high angle and you begin to realize "well, there is a kind of independent patterning here.This could've been filmed differently." And it is not necessarily providing us with a better view of the story, and it is not necessarily expressing any emotional quality of the story but the camera is creating a dynamic pattern of its own that we are to appreciate as simply a piece of cinematic technique.


David Bordwell.

*See Part I of Bordwell on Bordwell.


One of the reasons I was drawn to this idea of a decorative or ornamental use of style is from looking at Japanese cinema. Ozu will create a series of shots that do in a way perform the function of establishing the space of a new scene. So we might get a shot of a building and then a shot of a garden behind the building, and then a shot of the pool in the garden and then a shot of the veranda looking onto the pool and then we might go into - this is a hypothetical example - a room where people are. In a way he is telling us where we are. So at some level it has a purely denotative function. However, very often with Ozu we've been in that space before. We would only need to see the building or perhaps the people in the room and that would suffice. Yet he will use that pattern of introduction again but then of course it's not the same each time. He will vary it in terms of the time of day, in terms of the compositions, in terms of the color schemes and you begin to realize that he is building a kind of memory bank or data base of these possible configurations of space, which he can then use again and again in different patterns. It is still tied to the narrative space, it's not an abstract other world. It's in the diegesis but it is a poetic interlude where he can vary and manipulate these things so that we can become conscious of the stylistic operations in and of themselves.

  A famous example of this type of staging in Autumn Afternoon (1962) is described in Bordwell's book Ozu and The Poetics of Cinema.  

At one level it can just be seen as making patterns. He is interested in patterns but if you look at it from the spectator's point-of-view this almost purely stylistic game of anticipation and recall is part of what makes Ozu-films such rich experiences. And that made me think about how - even within a narrative film - stylistic patterning across the whole film can pull it itself slightly away from the denoted function of style and take on its own meaning.

The forth function is the symbolic - which I think is the most rare - where we actually ascribe abstract significance to these things: a large-scale thematic or conceptual point. Classic examples would be actors' positioning with respect to figures in the space. So for instance someone assuming a cruciform position stretching out like Jesus. That is a clear sign that it is a piece of iconography where we are to lock an abstract meaning: "Okay, we are to think of this character in relationship to Christ in one way or another."

I would say a couple of things. First, the presupposition here is that the denotative level is the most imported because all the other functions build upon that. The second presupposition is that any single instance of a technique, be it performance or staging or cutting or whatever, could be performing several of these functions simultaneously, or in quick succession. Although the decorative is the hardest one, I think, because it depends on a bit of divergence from the narrative functionality but in a way, any given stretch of a cinema can be fulfilling these different functions in different ways.

I would like for us to look at a scene from Day of Wrath [1943] that I think illustrates the difference between denotative and expressive functions of style. Shot/reverse shot editing is often seen as a relatively neutral device and you have discussed it in denotative terms as a type of stylistic patterning that is simply very adequate for conveying conversation scenes.


The following scene from Day of Wrath illustrates how shot/reverse shot editing can be given an expressive twist. It is the scene in which Absolom's mother Meret interrupts Anne and Herlufs Marte and enters the living room just after Anne has managed to sneak Herlufs Marte out of the room.

Let me just say a couple of things. That's exactly right I think. And one of the things filmmakers have long known about shot/shot reverse shot is that a couple of features are really crucial: one is camera placement - exactly where we are in terms of the placement of the camera - and the second is the timing of the cuts. Hitchcock for instance often gives us a shot / reverse shot-pattern where we concentrate much more on listeners than on speakers. The default value is the speaker gets seen on-screen and just before the speaker ends we cut reverse to the listener but Hitchcock, of course, is famous for starting with the speaker, then immediately cutting to the listener and letting us either imagine what the speaker's expression or purpose is or letting us realize the import of the words on the listener and maybe eliciting a growing sense of apprehension or suspense when we realize that the listener is taking this a certain way. So the timing of the cut and then the position of the camera become very critical variables in short / reverse shot editing.

Exactly these variables are being brought into play in the Anne/Meret encounter in Day of Wrath. What I want to get at is that this particular shot/reverse shot structure takes on an expressive function in that it is expressive of Maret's animosity towards Anne. I guess what many scholars within the humanities would say is that "context defines our reading of this encounter" because by this time we already know that Meret dislikes the new young wife of the house. But actually there are more proximate explanations that you can flesh out when looking at the way it's shot and staged. First, there is the brevity of the shots. Day of Wrath has a relatively high average shot length of about 13 seconds.

Yeah, it's a rather long take film.

Now the encounter between Anne and Meret is actually cut rather rapidly.

Compared to the other conversation scenes.


Yes, particularly when compared to the first encounter between Anne and Martin. But the timing of cuts is also significant. We see Meret enter the room (fig.1), Dreyer then cuts to Anne (fig.2) but notice where Maret is placed when he cuts back to her (fig.3). He has actually cut out a small slice of time.

Yes, it's an elliptical cut.

And by doing that he makes her jump forward in the frame.

Yeah, yeah I agree, I completely agree. It is almost like an Eisenstein-cut out of Ivan [the Terrible]

Another thing that Dreyer does with this encounter is that he - on a couple of occasions - cuts Anne's shots off while she is in motion and hence enhances the abruptness of the cut to the static Meret. The cuts become much more abrupt as opposed to for instance the Martin/Anne encounter that has Martin's voice carry over into the shots of Anne.

Dreyer's cuts are very strange and I don't think I've done justice to them, perhaps Edvin has [Edvin Kau, author of Dreyers Filmkunst (1988), forthcoming in English translation]. I do agree that in this case they have a very strict expressive function catching people on partial gestures but I think that in terms of what he would consider the main impression of the work which is light, space, performance, text and things like that, these would be working at a much more subtle level. It also becomes clearer and clearer as he goes through his career that he thinks he can do more things with camera movements and do them more smoothly than he can with cuts. He wants to sustain a scene as long as possible and the cuts interrupt that. This is one of the common strategies of long take directors. Somehow they develop a kind of fear that the cut is interrupting or is disjunctive. It's not smooth, it's not soft and they want that, that rhythm. By the end, of course - in Gertrud - he'll only cut in very specific scenes and for very particular purposes.

You know, Dreyer's a peculiar director. By the late teens and early twenties he obviously knew the right way to make a movie by Hollywood standards. If you look at a film like Mikaël [1924] it is completely like an American or German film of the period. The decoupage is just perfect in Mikaël. But I think at some level he got bored with it or thought it was secondary. Performance of course was crucial, delivery of the text was crucial and in a way he didn't mind things that we might even consider clumsy cuts. The way his eye-lines work for instance. It's almost as if he begins to rethink the scene at every cut. Instead of adhering to the 180 degree line or a notion of the overall space, there's a way in which Dreyer developed the idea of the ubiquitous camera -most of course in The Passion of Joan of Arc [1928/9] but he continues it well into films like Two People [1945] - where he is less concerned with academic rules of matching and, when he does cut, more concerned with treating each figure as a solitary sculpture which he can film from the most advantageous angle and assume that the audience will understand. In a way that is connected to the long take camera movement aesthetic too because if you take a single figure it is a piece of space that I can handle in any way. Well, a long take ensemble is just another piece of space, there just happens to be more space [laughs]. But I can still handle in that way: I can put the camera there, make it go around this way or that way or whatever. So I do think it has to do with a more general aesthetic concern for a flexibility or fluidity of how you represent space. But I agree that there are the expressive values that you talk about at work here also, absolutely.

Any particular example is very likely. the first two anyway, the denotative and the expressive, are often closely welded together. So for instance performance is a borderline case. If we count the actor's performance as part of the style of the film - and it seems to me that we should - there are expressive values there from the very beginning because acting or performance is letting us know what feelingful qualities are at stake in the scene.

We only notice that they can be detached when we have inexpressive performance like in Bresson's films where we only have a very thin wedge of denotative information to go by. We don't know the characters' mental states and the film's style is not enhancing them. He is not giving us camera angles or lighting or music that would let us in on the expressive state-of-mind of the characters. It's not that his films are inexpressive; it's just that his means of expression are very delicate and minimalized. So the expressive function of style in Bresson has to be studied as a series of very brief moments where we look and say "someone looks a certain way or closes their eyes at a particular point in time or looks down." Those become far more expressive than they would in a normal film.

In relation to the expressive function, you put a great deal of emphasis on the term feelingful qualities.[see also Figures Traced in Light, forthcoming]

In English that's an awkward phrase but it's the one that philosophers tend to use to describe expression. You can think of the expressive function in two ways. One, you can think of it in terms of the representation of emotional or expressive states or you can think of .

Producing them.

Correct, of creating them in the spectator. The second is of interest and importance - I'm not denying it - but in terms of style we want to be able to pick them out. We want to be able to say of the musical score "that sounds melancholy." Now it may not make me feel melancholy - it may make me feel something else - but nevertheless we ought to be able to detect these feelingful qualities in the artwork. This is a fairly common way in which philosophers have talked about art. In fact, many of them put expression at the center of their conception of art and see expressive qualities as the main reasons why art exists. That is, to put into formal design the expressive emotional states. To me it's not the only goal of art but it is certainly a very important one. The language we use to describe expressive states is somewhat limited but at the same time it is important to recognize that those expressive qualities are significant and attached to interesting questions. For instance, are those qualities detectable by people who don't know certain traditions of art? Or are they immediately communicative?

I should say that all of those functions are also tied to a conception of norms. There are norms for the representation of information - for denotation in cinema. There are historical norms for expressive representation, historical norms of decorative representation and there are certainly historical norms for symbolic functions of style. You can argue that those will vary by time and place. For instance the way in which story was denoted in 1903 in cinema is going to be - in many respects, maybe not all respects - different from the way the denotative function will be fulfilled in 1950s or 1960s cinema. And the same might go for expressive qualities. As you know, one of the things that I've been interested in lately is the idea of whether there are universals of artistic communication. I would like to think that you can take a moderate position and say "well, there are some denotative manifestations, some expressive manifestations, some decorative manifestations, some symbolic representations which are quasi-universal." And there are others that are local and require specific cultural knowledge. I don't think it has to be an all or nothing situation. So for instance, there are very few musical universals but one of them seems to be that increased energy is represented by faster rhythms. No culture seems - from what I've been able to read - to identify slow rhythms with greater energy. In a sense it is almost a tautology. There may be very few musical universals but there are plainly a lot of pictorial universals. Artists present human beings across cultures and times in pretty much the same way. They all have two eyes, they all have mouths, a nose and so forth. At the denotative level there is a great deal of cross-over.

Which is perhaps why you are most interested in the denotative level?

Well, a lot of my thinking tries to be counter-current. A lot of reckless claims have been made about representational systems being wholly arbitrary, wholly culture-bound, "socially constructed" - though I regard myself as a moderate constructivist. It is important always to say the other thing: "Yes, but!" There are a great many conventions of art, which are cross-cultural and art really couldn't communicate if there weren't cross-cultural conventions of uptake. We have very good empirical evidence that everyone experiences the phi phenomenon; everyone in all cultures sees movement on the screen. People recognize people on the screen. Furthermore, the dissemination of audio-visual media across huge variety of cultures suggests to us that there is a very broad, basic and robust level at which cinematic communication can take place.

There is a more contested terrain about things like continuity cutting. Has continuity cutting become prevalent in the world's popular cinemas because it somehow mimics natural perception or is continuity cutting actually a learned code that just happens to have been imposed on the world cinemas by the strength of Hollywood cinema? My view is that there is a continuum where continuity cutting is perhaps not a perfect optimum but what Herbert Simon calls "satisficing." That is, it satisfies enough conditions of communication and of narrative to be a flexible tool in a wide variety of traditions. Whether it is the maximally useful tool is another story. For certain purposes of cinematic communication and of practical filmmaking it seems to be a very strong compromise. It allows you a great deal more flexibility in production than a single-take scene would have in 1910 or so; it allows for things to be adjusted in post-production; it allows for certain kinds of audience effects that are very hard to generate otherwise: rhythmic effects, certain kinds of suspense, certain kinds of withholding of information, and it allows you to time things very exactly in a way that even the most finely orchestrated ensemble performances have a trouble doing. So it has many practical advantages for filmmaking independent of its ability just to be understood. But whether people had to learn it ab initio.? I'd say "probably not." My argument is that it does piggyback on some features of perception, which can then be generalized to text. I am not prepared to say that this is somehow the perfect, maximally effective way of communicating story information. It just happens to be a dominant norm, though not a perfectly arbitrary one.

One of the questions you might ask is "well, if this is just one style among many, how come it's lasted so long and according to you it is going to last a long time?" I guess I would now - thinking about it - say that classical continuity is not a stylistic school the way Soviet montage or French impressionism or neorealism is because all of those depend upon classical continuity. Though not exactly parallel, it would be somewhat like perspective as a system in painting. There is a dominant tradition historically that makes use of classical continuity much the same way that the dominant tradition of mainstream painting - academic painting - has used perspective. And that's why it can last for centuries. I mean academic perspective has lasted for 3-400 years. That would be, I guess, my comparison with continuity stylistics. And just like perspective, it is not an absolutely veridical representation of how we see the world but it captures enough of the relevant regularities about our seeing the world that it becomes a very effective and flexible artistic system.

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Part III of the interview discusses Bordwell's own strategies for writing about film and how he encourages others to do so. He also fleshes out how to link stylistic inquiry to the construction of meaning and he considers consequences of the DVD-format, Turner Classic Movies and the Internet on film scholarship.





The Anne/Meret encounter - starting with the shot of Meret's entrance - is covered in 11 shots and only takes up approximately 40 seconds of screen time whereas the first encounter between Anne and Martin (Anne's son-in-law) - also presented in shot/reverse shot - takes up 75 seconds of screen time and is covered in only 8 shots.

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