Anatomy of an Image: Formal Vs Political

In this day and age, the meaning of an image is more often being put under scrutiny, while also being interpreted with many more perspectives than ever before. This exposé, for the lack of a better word, of the politics in an image – or a media piece to be more inclusive – is much quicker today with the advent of internet and social media. Media is a very broad umbrella, so to make my investigation easier and comprehensive, I will stick with the works in moving images which reach most consumers, prominently the narrative-based fiction films and TV shows. It is not exactly an orthodox or a cynical stand towards communal liberation, to say that in popular or commercial media, there is now an additional pressure of considering various political implications of the final work. Intentionally rejecting this kind of politicization of moving images will take us back to the bare essentials of film as an art form, the founding elements of the medium and the universal meaning of a moving image.

So, what constitutes the widely comprehensible meaning of a moving image in a typical narrative fiction film or TV show? Is it always tied in closely with the spectator’s ability to associate all the objects in the frame with their respective nature, as their own understanding of each object stands at that moment? Or, as Gestalt psychologists argue that human mind has an innate disposition to perceive patterns in the stimulus based on certain rules, does it depend on the constructed composition of these objects? Could it be the camera angle which manipulates the perspective in a certain manner? Is it the musical composition accompanying visuals that creates a sense of a particular emotion or the diegetic texture of sound that invites spectator in the pseudo-real world of the work? Is it the relation of the shot in question with a shot preceding or succeeding it? Or, is it a combination of all the aforementioned elements, working together to convey a singular, complex meaning?

The formal elements of such a work can be broadly separated as Mise-en-scène, Cinematography, Editing and Sound. For the sake of keeping things conclusive by the end of this short essay, I will focus only on the visual aspect of film, thereby ignoring the Sound component of it, since Sound is a relatively abstract element. It not only works directly on the subconscious of the spectator, but is also a rather intangible entity in reality. We cannot see or touch it, rendering it extremely subjective.

Let us try to distill, which elements in the visual aspect of a film, invite politicization of themselves or the entire work. Politics is inherently a human act and relates in most cases, if not all, to humans or the objects made by humans. For example, an image of a tree, of the kind which is found everywhere in the world, cannot be as easily politicized as a building. Because, with a building, the spectator gets an insight of the culture as well as economical status of the society that it represents. For racial politics, skin color becomes a gateway. For gender politics, body parts give an entrance. For class politics, material objects in daily routine form an opening.

Like most arts, usually, a critical analysis of a film is approached by separating elements of the work into ‘form’ and ‘content’. However, a certain formalist film theory suggests that the typical elements of ‘content’ – the narrative, subject matter, etc. – are also formal elements of the film because those inspire other formal elements and respective choices.[1] So, for the kind of films we are discussing, it becomes clearer that their political elements may originate from or are densely situated inside their narrative or their subject matter.

It is with this conclusion in mind, and the inspiration gathered from Germaine Dulac’s two essays – The Essence of the Cinema: The Visual Idea[2] and The Avant-Garde Cinema[3] – which try to strip film as an art form, from most other art forms that make up its bones and limbs, that I came up with the idea of rejecting depiction of any human or human-made object in my short experimental film. Like Dulac suggested, it became a better ground for orchestrating the artwork in the manner of composing a musical symphony, where my focus was more on aforementioned four formal elements of the film.

Alas, completely rejecting any human-made structure or object did not feel like a plausible thing to do, so theoretically, there is still scope for politicization of the said short film. Yet, with these decisions, my film became a very different kind of work than the films that I began this essay with. During this same process, I also felt that Kristin Thompson’s Neoformalist Film Analysis[4] approach underlines what Dulac’s writings were inclining towards. Thompson’s idea of treating every film as a separate work of art, not just helps in a clearer analysis of formal elements of the film but can also be a guide from the other side, that is the process of constructing the film. Her emphasis upon ‘every component of film functioning as part of a bigger pattern’ might pave the way for making films which stand the test of time. Because, at the end, it is the formal elements that last longer than the political ones.

Politics of the film is most relevant during its time, again, which is changing rapidly now. I am aware of the exceptions to this, such as Sidney Lumet’s NETWORK which feels very relevant today, however, it is more of a coincidental occurrence if not humanity’s inherent nature of repeating mistakes or our inability of propagating substantial learnings across generations. The world could have gone in a completely different way as there are innumerable events that shape our future. The example of this is D. W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION, whose problematic content inspired a student protest at Chapman University, leading to removal of its posters from their building. Thus, the political elements of the film, based on the time when that film is made, are bound to lose its significance to the present moment and will become as much a historical account as an artistic one.

That is not to say that formal elements always remain timeless. One of the major observations over Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW was that it had many ‘weird’ things in it, compared to the kind of films that were being made at that time. “However, after 40 years, today those elements don’t seem that weird”. Like Dulac, Coppola suggests that today’s avant-garde creates a foundation for tomorrow’s popular art and that is why he feels that APOCALYPSE NOW feels more contemporary today and there could be a new cut of it. Still, formal evolution is not as fast as political changes.

This brings me to the question of whether we can avoid politicization of the image in a narrative fiction film or separate the political and formal elements of the work. Film, especially, is an art form of an infinite canvas – rightly so, being able to imitate our life very closely – which encourages scrutinization in very diverse areas. And of course, its experience is different for every viewer, thus changing that politics for each one of them. However, I still believe we can discuss the separation of politics & formal elements of a film, by assuming degrees of its suggested inclination to politics.

Let’s compare these political degrees in films, specifically in ensemble films which have more scope of politicization of image, being more populated with humans. Let us take Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for example. It is prominently concentrated on one family from a certain social stratum that it sets these boundaries to its world, lessening the scope for class politics. The main type of politics that this film focuses on is the interpersonal one, between its different characters, and has a lesser degree of social provocation than say Jean Renoir’s RULES OF THE GAME or family films of Yasujiro Ozu like THERE WAS A FATHER or FLAVOUR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE, perhaps for different elements of the narrative. With RULES OF THE GAME, Renoir emphasizes greatly upon the immorality beneath the sophisticated front that members of higher social strata put up. The classism too, in between characters, is more apparent and recurrent here than in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Ozu’s family films are highly vulnerable to politicization with their inherent moralistic modern fable nature, although in a different way. The moral part of those films, entangled in social conditions of its times, can easily be put under criticism from different ideologies. THERE WAS A FATHER can be challenged by critics of patriarchal society, FLAVOUR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE can be criticized by orthodox communities. Another problem with such film elements is that the film ends up limiting its accessibility to global audiences. A viewer in Central Europe, where family structure is not that tightly bound together, may not feel the significance of the values endorsed in THERE WAS A FATHER.

I agree that early Hollywood films, even the ones termed classics or timeless which focused upon ‘universal themes’, had a strong, inseparable political aspect to them. And being the earliest works, those also led the conditioning of masses about which aesthetics are good and which are bad. That is why French New Wave was so significant and most talked about among cinema movements. Filmmakers that were part of that movement consciously waged a war against the conventions on most of the conspicuous formal elements of the film. Although, some of the political elements, like misogyny or hyper masculinity, remained untouched. Arguably, these political elements are ephemeral, local & subjective anyway. They do not add to the evolution of cinema as an art form.

Ultimately (and inevitably), it is up to an individual artist as well as up to an individual spectator, what political & emotional meaning – and to what degree – they wish to attach to a singular work. The political and formal elements, when suggesting a reform or subversion, are not mutually exclusive either. I think one filmmaker that consistently & explicitly takes upon both, is Hou Hsiao-Hsien. His MILLENNIUM MAMBO is scathingly critical of the young generation – which I can relate more with than perhaps a young adult in United States, having lived in a developing South Asian metropolis during my formative years – while cleverly defying mainstream conventions of modern-day filmmaking, with long takes depicting mundane routines, narrational experiments with linearity of time, and rejection of plot. The second story in his THREE TIMES – a silent, period romance – also condemns society’s oppressional stand towards women in early 1900s Taiwan, but not without making unique formal choices in its depiction, like keeping dialogues silent though the image is colorful & presented in pristine widescreen or playing a song uninterruptedly as background to multiple scenes only to reveal it later as being performed in the present moment, turning it diegetic. Across the seven seas, these formal choices inspired Barry Jenkins to have a three-story structure for MOONLIGHT while the vibrant visualization influenced his aesthetic vision. It is these formal elements that propagate more easily through differences of cultures around the globe, compared to the political subject matter. Today there is a keenness to stress upon politics of a film. It may serve its momentary purpose, which is important, but it might also work against its own timelessness. We, therefore, need more artists working on making works, whose appreciation is not limited by an era, by the way of focusing on experimenting with cinema’s formal aspects, helping us explore the art form in depth.

This essay has an accompanying experimental short film, titled ELEMENTAL, accessible here –

[1] David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson & Jeff Smith, Film Art: An Introduction 11th Edition (McGraw Hill Education, 2017), “Form” vs “Content”, Page 52, 53

[2] Germaine Dulac, The Essence of the Cinema: The Visual Idea (Les Cahiers du Mois, No. 16/17, 1925), translated by Robert Lamberton

[3] Germaine Dulac, The Avant-Garde Cinema (Le Cinéma des Origines à nos Jours, Ed. du Cygne, 1932), translated by Robert Lamberton

[4] Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton University Press, 1988)

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