Oni Magazine

The Fallacy of Formalism In Film Criticism by Chelsea Phillips-Carr

Oni Magazine
The Fallacy of Formalism In Film Criticism by Chelsea Phillips-Carr

It is encouraged in cinema, to look at films from a formalistic perspective.  Emphasis is placed upon looking at films as films and not discussing them in the way one might discuss a novel or a play (so, for instance, an analysis of story is seen as less relevant to film than analyses of formal elements such as editing, cinematography, or other things that only appear in moving visual media).  It is this standpoint that champions the use of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), a film supporting the Ku Klux Klan and propagating the criminalization of Black people during the American Civil War era through violent stereotypes and blackface, as a masterpiece of film form for its use of what was then a fairly innovative style of editing and shot composition without discussing its racism.  Regardless of the racial content of the film, the important thing is the way it was made.   Formalism is, at its base, a very selective mode of film analysis, where politics can be taken up or cast aside as needed, which impacts the ways that films can be viewed.  

The connection between politics and form is a deeply rooted one in cinema.  Formalism creates a situation where,  Birth of a Nation can be praised for its cinematic achievement while ignoring its incredibly racist politics.  This is an ignorant mode of viewing, as, despite formalism’s need to separate the two, the film’s form is tied to its function as propaganda.  Part of the film is how it communicates a white supremacist fantasy through a visual medium in what was, at the time, a relatively new and innovative manner.  It is not simply the way the film was made, but the way it was made to depict specific stories, and how this combination, form and politics, relates to viewing practices and reception (its immense popularity and longevity, as well as its criticism).  Part of what is important to a reading of Birth of a Nation is not simply what it meant to filmmaking, but what it meant to filmmaking within its context, upon its release up until today.  

The need to separate form and politics is what informs the selectiveness of formalism.  If it is necessary to discuss the influence of Birth of a Nation upon future directors and general filmmaking standards, is it not then equally important to discuss its influence upon Black American filmmakers, like Oscar Micheaux, and their refutations of it?  This is commonplace, where texts made by certain groups (such as white directors) are rendered apolitical, while works by marginalized filmmakers are removed from art and relegated to politics.  For instance, we discuss at great length Classic, and New, Hollywood, while reactions to it, like the L.A. Rebellion, are special interest.  While Birth of a Nation is an extremely political text, we ignore its politics to examine its form.  We then ignore works we deem to be solely political, such as these reactions to film racism, and make them niche, inaccessible, and irrelevant to the broader cinema culture.  To look at Birth of a Nation and ignore its politics may be the norm, but it is irresponsible--no better than looking at Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary Soviet film Battleship Potemkin (1925) and deciding that his politics are irrelevant to his general use of line, frame, and editing.  

There is a general selectiveness in what extratextual influences are acceptable in discussions of film.  While it is commonplace to discuss the Hollywood studio system, or the impact of World War II, upon film and filmmaking, discussions of social politics are strained and seen as irrelevant.   War, capitalism, production codes, McCarthyism, and the like, are seen as more “cinematic” criticisms of film, while examinations of racism, misogyny, homophobia are not quite so.  This, of course, is false, and social politics has just as much weight in what makes a film.  For instance, if one is to discuss the star system, one must note who was allowed to become a star, or how they had to mold themselves.  Rita Hayworth could not have become what she represented to wartime American cinema had she not had her skin bleached, her hair dyed, and her name changed from Margerita Cansino, for example.  If we look at this from another angle, an auteurist perspective, perhaps, what types of films are being made and what are they saying?  Can one discuss the western without a discussion of its ties to colonialism and slavery?  Can one discuss film noir without looking at the place of gender and sexuality in how women are depicted?  Though formalist critiques will attempt to separate form from content, it is through form, editing, cinematography, and mise-en-scène that we shape what is depicted.  A film’s content will be impacted by how it is represented cinematically, but also impact the way a filmmaker may choose to create: content and form will always be tied.   

This selectiveness also leaves little room to discuss who gets to make films and its impact on cinema.  We would not have the American careers of German-Jewish directors such as Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder, and the influence of German avant-garde upon Hollywood filmmaking, had they and many other directors not left Germany upon the advent of the Nazi regime.  We don’t question the continuing lack of women filmmakers, and what this means for both form and content, as well as how a feminist perspective informs a work’s formal quality in avant-garde films, such as the personal surrealism of Maya Deren, or re-assertion of the importance of the domestic in the work of Chantal Akerman.  If one is capable of looking at films from theoretical frameworks that examine directors, stars, studios, audiences, and styles (that is to say, that which is deemed the norm in cinema, and so “apolitical,” despite the fact that nothing is outside of politics), then one is capable of looking to how these elements and individuals are informed by society, history, and politics.

There is an issue in film criticism in dealing with emotions and reception.  In Birth of a Nation, one spectator can view it and find it simply inspiring for the way it cuts between shots.  Another spectator can find it repulsive for its racial politics, to the point where it is impossible to appreciate the form at all.   Film cannot always be separated from the emotional response it elicits, and there should be no attempt to separate the two.  The validity of the latter response is as important as the former.  It would be absurd to imagine a discussion of the heartbreaking melodramatic works of Douglas Sirk without mention of the way his films make one cry--we can talk about how the use of colour, props, setting, and lighting are effective in All That Heaven Allows (1955) while simultaneously expressing how moving the film is, how certain scenes or characters made you cry.  We can discuss how Buster Keaton’s sound films were not as funny or enjoyable as his silent comedies, and comment on how he was better at using the silent form and unable to bring his style into a sound medium.  In these situations, we discuss the way that a film uses and elicits emotions through form.  A Sirk melodrama would not be a Sirk melodrama without its technical style; it also would not be a Sirk melodrama if it no longer placed importance on emotion and and using tragic plots and characters to make a spectator weep.  One can look at politics in the same manner.  Birth of a Nation would not be Birth of a Nation without its formal qualities, nor would it be Birth of a Nation without its racial politics--so why must we “protect” the film from the label of “racist”?  We must look to how film elicits emotions, and from whom, to discuss what it means as a whole, as films are not singular objects of pure technique but complex convergences of narrative, form, ideas, politics, and aesthetics, packaged to appeal to certain people.  

A formalist slant in film criticism is not simply detrimental to a complete analysis of films and cinemas.  It also relegates films made by people of colour to being solely political with little discussion of form, or they are forced to do films centered around white people.  While white filmmakers are often deemed apolitical by default via formalism, films by ethnically marginalized people do not have the luxury of being outside of politics and so they either have the burden of depicting political perfection on top of formal excellence, or become works outside of cinema, seen for only their discourse, and their art neglected.  This impacts how we view films.  Formalism in film criticism places emphasis on the film above politics, and when a film is seen as a work of politics, racial, post-colonial, or otherwise, it as seen as lesser for its distance to what a purer cinema should be, it is deemed  niche and  do not achieve the acclaim “apolitical” films can gain, producing a cycle where attention, and so availability, is then limited, and these films are further relegated to niche interests.  Certain directors who appeal to western arthouse sensibilities become stand-ins for national cinemas: Satyajit Ray is all one needs to know about Indian cinema, or Jia Zhangke becomes representative of Chinese cinema, for instance, when each director takes on a style (high-brow art) which is at odds with films more consistently consumed and enjoyed in those countries (such as popular Bollywood musicals).  The long traditions of popular cinemas are excluded, thought of as unsophisticated, silly, frivolous, and unworthy of serious critical attention, and so rarely receiving critical attention outside of local channels.  This arguably leads to issues of international accessibility.  Looking at the Criterion Collection, for instance, there are 330 titles of American films available for purchase.  By contrast, there are only 3 films from Africa as a whole available.  Without films being made available on a popular catalogue, in high quality, and with subtitles, it becomes more difficult to learn about or view films, which leads to international obscurity and a narrow definition of what belongs to the cinematic canon.

Then there is more selectiveness: the political works of Jean-Luc Godard such as Weekend (1967) or Tout va bien (1972) are widely available thanks to his initial acclaim, which was based on largely “apolitical” films.  As a filmmaker, Godard becomes privileged in his ability to look at just form, or to look at politics; this privilege is not afforded to filmmakers who are politicized before their films are even seen.  The political works of filmmakers who involve intersecting ideologies, such as race or criticizing colonial histories and neo-colonial presents, are given less emphasis within film culture thus furthering a lack of education and limiting the possibilities of broadening cinema to encompass all works beyond those of select American and European nations and movements.  Despite formalism being seen as an objective and complete method of film analysis, it ignores its own political blind spots and paints an unfinished picture of the films it criticizes while furthering cinematic hierarchies, and overshadowing works too political to be pure form.

Films are not by essence apolitical works, and it would be naive to say so.  They are always informed by a number of elements, including form and aesthetics.    Equally, they are informed by social politics.  Social politics dictate who makes what films for whom, when, where, and how.  They can dictate style, can dictate genre, and can dictate reception.  Politics and form are interconnected and inextricable, and though discussions of form can be purely “cinematic,” focusing on things that will not appear in other media, they cannot be separated from the politics which aid in shaping them.  The place of politics in film criticism is an important one which expands on the meaning of film, and a necessary one which has been neglected in favour of stoic formalism.  When form and politics can be read together to examine films, we have a more constructive method of film criticism, and a better way of analyzing and understanding meaning.  

photo cr. Alejandro Obregon, Laguna De Saturno, 1961