Classical and Post-Classical Hollywood Cinema
Table of contents
Classical Gender Representation————————————–4
Classical Style, form and content————————————–5
GENRE TRANSFORMATION AND POST-CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD——————————-
During the course of this essay it is my intention to discuss the differences between Classical Hollywood and post-Classical Hollywood. Although these terms refer to theoretical movements of which they are not definitive it is my goal to show that they are applicable in a broad way to a cinema tradition that dominated Hollywood production between 1916 and 1960 and which also pervaded Western Mainstream Cinema (Classical Hollywood or Classic Narrative Cinema) and to the movement and changes that came about following this time period (Post-Classical or New Hollywood). I intend to do this by first analysing and defining aspects of Classical Hollywood and having done that, examining post classical at which time the relationship between them will become evident. It is my intention to reference films from both movements and also published texts relative to the subject matter. In order to illustrate the structures involved I will be writing about the subjects of genre and genre transformation, the representation of gender, postmodernism and the relationship between style, form and content.
Classical Hollywood is a tradition of methods and structures that were prominent American cinema between 1916 and 1960.Its heritage stems from earlier American cinema Melodrama and to theatrical melodrama before that. Its tradition lives on in mainstream Hollywood to this day. But what is it?
Classic narrative cinema is what Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson (The classic Hollywood Cinema, Columbia University press 1985) 1, calls “an excessively obvious cinema”1 in which cinematic style serves to explain and not to obscure the narrative. In this way it is made up of motivated events that lead the spectator to its inevitable conclusion. It causes the spectator to have an emotional investment in this conclusion coming to pass which in turn makes the predictable the most desirable outcome. The films are structured to create an atmosphere of verisimilitude, which is to give a perception of reality. On closer inspection it they are often far from realistic in a social sense but possibly portray a realism desired by the patriarchal and family value orientated society of the time. I feel that it is often the black and white representation of good and evil that creates such an atmosphere of predictability.
There are a number of aspects of Classical Hollywood which could be described as general characteristics. We have a white male heterosexual protagonist. Also a structure of order/disorder/order restored is one of the most fundamental. This structure is will proceed in a linear trajectory towards a high level of closure or resolution. Every question which is raised during the film must be answered. Within our linear trajectory we have a cause and effect pattern which means we will watch an action in one scene and proceed to see its effect or re-action on the following scene. In TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles, USA, 1958) we open with a honeymooning couple. Within moments there is an explosion and disorder is created almost instantly. Our central protagonist, in this case Charlton Heston, combats this disorder for the duration until he eventually finishes back in the arms of his wife. This example represents what David Bordwell (Narration of the fiction film, Madison: University of Wisconsin press, 1985) means when he says “usually the classical syuzhet presents a double causal structure”2. Two plot lines, one which involves a heterosexual romance and another which causes an external struggle (usually for the man and if for the woman inevitably solved by the man).
Classical Gender Representation:
In Classical Hollywood the representation of women is certainly quite clear cut, our main two definable types being that of the virgin and that of the whore. Our virgin represents the patriarchal ideals of family within which at the time a woman should represent innocence, purity and certainly deference to the male. Our whore figure shows contempt for family values through promiscuity or perceived selfishness. This woman will often be a lot more influential then a virgin figure. Our whore will inevitably be neutralised during the course of the film often through imprisonment or death. The classic often revisited scene of a man grasping a woman by the upper arms is a good visual metaphor for the dominance of man in classical Hollywood. Another good visual metaphor is that of the male gaze. Very often we will see a point of view shot from the male perspective and we see that the object of his gaze is a beautifully lit woman. She will not return his gaze as this would be a show of equality. This representation of gender is consistent through all classical genres for example we have our Femme Fatale in Noir and in westerns we have literal whores. Westerns also have what is known as “the tart with a heart” which is a female living by questionable morals but often for reason of necessity. She will also always be neutralised.
Classical Style, Form and Content:
In Bordwell And Thompsons Film Art, An Introduction ,7th ed (Mcgraw Hill, 2004)3 they show a diagram that can give some explanation of the use of form and style in film:
Formal system——————Stylistic system
Narrative Significant use of techniques:
Susan Hayward says of classical Hollywood Cinema Studies The Key Concepts(Susan Hayward, Routledge, 2) that “in this cinema, style is subordinate to narrative: shots, lighting, colour must not draw attention to themselves any more then the editing, the mise-en-scene or sound. All must function to manufacture realism.” Three point lighting is predominant and also lends itself to verisimilitude, as does the use of continuity editing in Classical Hollywood. There are some editing techniques utilised which on the face of it one might assume would make a spectator aware of the camera position such as cross cutting (where we cut over and back between two sets of action happening simultaneously) and reverse angles (utilised during dialogue normally). However as we have been acclimatised to being an omnipotent spectator these techniques do not trigger any diminution of the established realism. Colour must suit the emotional or psychological mood of each scene if not the entire film and music will always only be used to reinforce the current on screen action such as romance or danger. In film studies form and content are inextricably linked. In classical Hollywood an example of this would be the flashback. If the content necessitates a characters memory they will be given form through a flashback which in turn is formally signalled by a fade or a dissolve.
GENRE TRANSFORMATION AND POST CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD
In Jill Nelmes (ed) An introduction to film studies 3rd edition (Routeledge, 2003)4 it is said that “At a general level work on genre seeks to understand film as a specific form of commodity and at a more refined level attempts to disentangle different instances of that commodity. In other words genre is addressed as a system for organising production as well as groupings of individual films which have a collective and singular significance.”
Genres, as we know them, primarily developed during the reign of classical Hollywood. However they could not remain the same for a number of reasons. Political and social change is of course a major influence in the transformation of genres. We see great evidence of this in the Horror genre. During the early 20th century horrors most dominant representation in America was that of the Gothic variety. This was a very distancing horror that took place in remote and far away lands. Examples of this are Dracula (Tod Browning, Universal, US, 1931) and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, Paramount, US, 1931). In the fifties there was strong anti-communist feeling in America which led to films of invasion from a foreign entity. This entity would lack moral fibre and could often even hail from the red planet. Examples of this sentiment can be found in The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, Paramount, US, 1953) and Invasion of the body snatchers (Don Siegel, Allied Artists, US, 1955. In 1960 we meet the man next door with the knife. Slasher movies appear with the most memorable being Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, Shamley, US, 1960}. With a reduction of fear from foreign lands, fear found a new home in each other. Following the cultural revolution of the 60’s modern America grew more aware and suspicious of the powers that be and so saw the emergence of paranoid conspiracy films. These were partly stemmed from the atmosphere of mistrust since the death of Kennedy and the transparent corruption of Nixon. They contained themes of heightened anxiety surrounding the family unit. Films like Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, Image Ten, US 1968) expresses metaphorically attitudes that are difficult for society to cope with such as comparing capitalism/consumerism with cannibalism. They also revel in trashes the family values shown in other films (people regularly have to kill members of their own family). Are they saying, you can’t choose your family and its not your fault if they are a Zombie or a more realistic negatively charged type of person. We see more films with themes of warped sexuality and voyeurism. In The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, Warner, US 1980), we see the father, the patriarchal figure of a nuclear family turn on his family with an evil murderous rage}. This Horror film has some exemplary post classical traits. It is a psychological Horror which is rampant with un-naturalistic performance. In this way it can be seen as side stepping verisimilitude in favour of allowing spectators to consider themselves outside the world in which the action is taking place. His camera positions are again presenting the film in a way which discourages audience identification. Again unlike classic Hollywood the Shining leads viewers down emotional dead ends. It offers questions without answers. In one scene a door is opened to reveal the butler engaged in a sexual act with a man dressed as a marsupial. This is a scene that grabs the attention. It is done casually and appears inconsequential yet it won’t fail to peak curiosity. Where classic Hollywood isolates and recommends the family unit, the Shining Isolates and destroys. We can also say that the shining is reflexive. It examines itself and the genre of horror. In the bathroom scene we see a reversed reference to psycho where Jack Nicholson’s character is the victim of an attack from a woman.
However being reflexive is an aspect shared by many post-classical films and not just of the horror genre.In fact doing the opposite of something classical is a common method of reflexivity. In Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, United Artists, US, 69) we see a film being reflexive of the western genre by reversing its structures. Instead of the destination of our hero being the unexplored western frontier, the destination is to the east and that of a over-populated New York. Instead of his goals being masculine and morally acceptable, he is striving to make it selling his body. Again the family unit is dysfunctional. Formally this film uses editing techniques such as cuts into the imagination of John Voights character which are not introduced with fades or dissolves. Flashbacks are also treated in this way giving us entry into the characters psyche. We see that his experiences and his imagination are the sum of his whole.
Another example of form representing content is the opening sequence of Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, Columbia, US, 1976) which our view is first obscured by steam from a grate and then by out of focus shots. We are then guided by the camera work to experience the story through the eyes of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), hence we see that his view of the world is skewed. Again strong classical reflexivity with representation of women, we have a literal virgin figure played by Jodie Foster and our virginal innocent figure played by Cybil Shepherd who in one scene leaves a pornographic theatre in disgust.
Post Modernism plays a part in many post-classical films. Blue velvet (David Lynch, De Laurentis, US, 1986) for example is set in an undefined time and displays eclectic styles and genres. One minute we are in a pastiche of a ninety fifties Diner repreasentation only to emerge and see some characters dressed from the eighties. We see Noir like investigative work followed by horror scenes of rape and torture. The artistic influences of Edward Hopper are visible in the Diners and streetscapes. Classical Hollywood is clearly Parodied with the oh so happy final scenes but as can be said for Lynch in general there is certainly not a high level of closure.
Despite this, it can be said that the predominant and more commercially driven side of Hollywood still to this day embrace the many conventions and Genres of classic Hollywood which are still consumed by the masses. In Pam Cooke’s(ed) The Cinema Book,1st ed (BFI, 1990)5 we read “contrary to all trendy journalism about the New Hollywood’ and the imagined rise of artistic freedom in American films, the New Hollywood’ remains as crass and commercial as the old”
1.Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson The classic Hollywood Cinema, Columbia University press 1985) “an excessively obvious cinema”
2.Susan Hayward Cinema Studies The Key Concepts(, Routledge, 1999) “in this cinema, style is subordinate to narrative: shots, lighting, colour must not draw attention to themselves any more then the editing, the mise-en-scene or sound. All must function to manufacture realism.”
3. Bordwell, Thompson Film Art, An Introduction ,7th ed (Mcgraw Hill, 2004) Film
Formal system;#61663;——————Stylistic system
Narrative Significant use of techniques:
4. Jill Nelmes (ed) An introduction to film studies 3rd edition (Routeledge,
5. Pam Cooke(ed) The Cinema Book,1st ed (BFI, 1990) we read “contrary to all trendy journalism about the New Hollywood’ and the imagined rise of artistic freedom in American films, the New Hollywood’ remains as crass and commercial as the old”
1.Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson (The classic Hollywood Cinema, Columbia University press 1985)
2.Bordwell, Thompson Film Art, An Introduction ,7th ed (Mcgraw Hill, 2004)
3.Pam Cooke(ed) The Cinema Book,1st ed (BFI, 1990)
4.Susan Hayward Cinema Studies The Key Concepts(, Routledge, 1999)
5. Jill Nelmes (ed) An introduction to film studies 3rd edition (Routeledge,
TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles, USA, 1958)
Dracula (Tod Browning, Universal, US, 1931)
Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, Paramount, US, 1931)
The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, Paramount, US, 1953)
Invasion of the body snatchers (Don Siegel, Allied Artists, US, 1955)
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, Shamley, US, 1960)
Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, Image Ten, US 1968)
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, Warner, US 1980)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, Columbia, US, 1976)
Blue velvet (David Lynch, De Laurentis, US, 1986)