Anatomy of a Film: 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. The exposé, for the lack of a better word, of the politics of an image, or a media content to be more inclusive, is much faster today with the advent of internet and social media. Now, media is a very broad umbrella, so to make my investigation easier and comprehensive, we will stick with the works in moving images which reach most consumers, prominently narrative-based fiction films and TV shows.  It is not exactly an orthodox or 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 elements of the medium and the universal meaning of a moving image.

What constitutes the meaning of a moving image in a typical narrative fiction film/TV, something that is termed widely comprehensible? Is it always tied in closely with a spectator’s ability to associate all the objects in the frame with their respective nature, as his/her own understanding/conception 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 angle/placement of the camera which manipulates the perspective in a certain manner, emphasizing on the status of a subject in the narrative at that particular moment in overall work? Is it the musical composition accompanying visuals that creates a sense of a typical 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 a moving image or filmed 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, we 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.

So let’s 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 economics of the society that it represents. For race related politics, skin color becomes a gateway. For gender politics, body parts become an entrance. For class related politics, daily objects in a human routine become an opening.

Just like for 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’ – typically the narrative, subject matter, etc. – are also formal elements of the film because those inspire other formal elements and respective choices. So, for the kind of films that we’re talking about, 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 and The Avant-Garde Cinema – 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 body in my short experimental film. Like Dulac suggested, it became a better ground for orchestrating the art work in the manner of composing a musical symphony, where my focus was more on previously mentioned 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, the film became a very different kind of work than the films that we began this essay with. During the same process, I also felt that Kristin Thompson’s Neoformalist Film Analysis 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 during the construction of 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 a lot longer than the political ones.

Politics of the film is relevant for that particular era in time, again, which is changing much faster. Though, sometimes the political commentary in a film stays relevant even years after its making. For ex., we say Sidney Lumet’s NETWORK is very relevant today, however, it is more of a coincidental occurrence. 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, which is now considered a racist film, so much that a student protest at Chapman University led 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 moment now and will become more of a historical account.

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”. Just 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 a lot 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 analysis in many 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. Take Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for example. It is heavily concentrated on one family from a certain social strata that it sets these boundaries to its world, lessening scope for classist politics. The major type of politics this film constitutes is the interpersonal one, between all these different characters, which 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. With RULES OF THE GAME, Renoir emphasizes highly 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 the film ends up limiting its accessibility to global audiences. A viewer in Central Europe, where family structure isn’t 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 most of the ones termed classics or timeless today which focused upon universal themes, had a strong, inseparable political aspect to it. 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 is so significant and most talked about among cinema movements. Filmmakers part of that movement tried to wage a war against the conventions on most of the conspicuous formal elements of the film. Although, the political elements, like misogyny or hyper masculinity, remained untouched. Arguably, these political elements are ephemeral and local anyway. Those do not add to the evolution of cinema as an art form.

Finally, it is up to individual artist as well as up to individual spectator what meaning he/she wishes to attach to a singular work. The political and formal elements, suggesting a reform in their nature, are not mutually exclusive either. A filmmaker which achieves both together frequently is Hou Hsiao-Hsien. His MILLENNIUM MAMBO is a social critique of the young generation, which I can relate more with – having experienced living in a developing South Asian metropolis during my formative years – than perhaps a youth in United States, while it also shows us how you can set the cinematic texture of your film with the opening scene. The second story – a silent period romance – in his THREE TIMES also condemns the patriarchal society in early 1900s Taiwan, while making unique choices about its realization, like keeping dialogues silent but the image is colorful and in pristine 16:9 widescreen. Across seven seas, these formal choices inspired Barry Jenkins to have a three-story structure to MOONLIGHT while their rich & striking visualization influenced his aesthetic vision. It is these formal elements that penetrate easily through differences of cultures around the globe, while it is not that straightforward for political subject matter. Today there is a keenness to stress upon politics of a film. While, it serves a momentary purpose, it works against its timelessness. We, therefore, need more artists working on making timeless works, by the way of focusing on formal aspects, which would also help us explore the art form more in depth.

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