Form, Formalism, Formality
Recently, cleaning up old, pre-computer, photocopied files, I found an obscure but beautiful diagram. Printed in an academic journal, but clearly drawn up and inked in by hand, it was an 8 page 'structural chart' of the narrative progression of Fritz Lang's M (1931). There are written indications of things labelled 'uncovering' or 'alternation'; dots that join echoed or symmetrical situations; little arrows everywhere.
It took me a while to identify it: it's the 'appendix' to Noël Burch's early 1970s analysis of Lang's German years, then translated into English in 1980 as part of Richard Roud's Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (a prime source of my personal cinephilia) — but without the diagram. And that is the best part!
Somebody should compile, in a surrealistic book, all the strange and wonderful tables that emerged, around the world, from the structuralist/semiotic years of film analysis in the 1960s and 70s. Of course, they are frustrating to grasp, because a diagram is only the static endpoint of a long, dynamic, often pedagogical process. This is something that the new age of digital, audiovisual film studies could, in fact, give us: resurrected, living, mobile, time-based diagrams. Bring back those structural charts!
For what is a diagram if not the magnificent (sometimes sadistic) will to condense, inscribe and transmit the form of a film? Film analysis today, in its overriding emphasis — often exciting and revealing — on details, fragments and moments, has somewhat lost sight of the total structure, the multi-levelled form of a work.
I am rewatching, on DVD, The Loyal 47 Ronin (1941) by Kenji Mizoguchi — another favoured director for Burch, and a fetish for film critics of almost every generation since the 1950s. It would be hard to find a more severely formed work than this film — on every level, from macro to micro. Individual shots are regulated by a severe geometry. Although we are deep into 'long take' mania in contemporary film culture, Mizoguchi, in his time, was reproached by Japan's industry-watchers for his penchant for choreographing complex shots over several minutes.
Indeed, 'Mizo' was an early target for what later became a familiar term of abuse: the play of form was said to have hardened into formalism, form for form's sake — apparently an unhealthy, elitist obsession. In fact, decades on, the counter-push against structural/semiotic analysis of cinema had a lot to do with a suspicious paranoia about formalism: in the 1980s, critics called for a celebration of open form, the unformed, loose-limbed form ...leading through John Cassavetes and Abel Ferrara to the nadir of Mumblecore.
I well remember a particular, pointed, historic moment of polemics: 1987, and the exact moment when Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket squared off against Jim McBride's The Big Easy. Kubrick was not coming out well in this contest: there was something rigid, repressive and constipated about all his straight lines and severe forms — in comparison to the post-Jean Renoir, post-Manny Farber explosion of life in McBride's sexy New Orleans.
This cinephile war rages on, with ever-renewed film-objects, back and forth: it helps to explain the fickle finger of fashion, how Akerman or Fassbinder, with their exquisite senses of form, can be revered in one decade, and downplayed in the next, in comparison with happily sloppy, expansive auteurs like Kusturica or Spike Lee. And then, occasionally, someone such as Miguel Gomes (Tabu) comes along to provisionally reconcile the opposites.
It is always salutary to revisit Mizoguchi. What The Loyal 47 Ronin taught me, on re-seeing it, was that form is not only an aesthetic issue in cinema: form can also be a very rich, full allegory for the entire social order depicted. When Mizo makes a staggering composition out of a sea of bowed backs; when the spatial tension of a frame or a tracking movement points out the unbearable split between private and public; or when the 'polite distance' of a camera position, in the face of moments of violence and death, shows us the incredible complexity of maintaining any 'code of honour' ...then form morphs into formality.