1950-1970: SOCIOLOGY AND STRUCTURALISM

Bedgar morin_marceline-jean rouchazin, who died in 1958, had nothing to do with the university sector, and his acolytes, the young critics, soon to become directors of the New Wave, did not emerge from film school (the IDHEC, Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, had been established in 1945). Bazin, like theorists before him, was an enthusiast, if not a film-maker himself. Film theory in France took a new turn around 1960 as academics began to take an interest in the medium, heavily influenced in the early 1960s by structuralism.

Academics had become interested in film during the late 1940s. An Institut de Filmologie with a ponderous journal had been established under Etienne Souriau,whose La Correspondance desarts of 1947 argued for a comparison between different art forms, thus attempting to legitimise the cinema, as did the young writers of the Cahiers du cinema a decade later with their politique des auteurs. A number of aca- demics produced substantial books, such as Gilbert Cohen-Seat’s Essai sur les principes d’une philosophie du cinema (1946). Amongst these writers was a sociologist, Edgar Morin, who published two important books. The first of these, very much influenced by Cohen-Seat and Sartre, was Le cinema ou I’homme imaginaire (1956) a socio-anthropological analysis that likened spectatorship to the dream (an analogy already developed in the 1920s) and to magic (a new concept). For Morin, the spec- tator is infantilised by being passive. He suggests that the spectator absorbs the screen-world in what he calls ‘projection-identification’, identifying not just with screen characters but with the activity of spectatorship itself – what he calls ‘anthropo-cosmomorphism’ – foreshadowing positions developed by Baudry and Metz in the 1970s.

Morin’s Les Stars was published in 1957, the year before Bazin’s death. Of all the books produced by the Filmology group, it is the one that has remained the most influential, quickly translated (1960), with several re-editions, and, as is the case with so much French theory, foreshadowingand influencingthe work of others, in this case the British academic Richard Dyer some 20 years later. Morin established a taxonomy of star types: the virgin, the femme fatale, the gamine (of which Brigitte Bardot is the best example), the action hero, the ‘homme fatale with his feminized features and fiery glance’ (Morin, 1961: 15),and more particularly the eroticised ‘good-bad girl’ (e.g. Marilyn Monroe) and ‘good-bad boy’ (e.g. Humphrey Bogart). He analysed the way in which the star and the role interact, the function of paratextual material and events such as fanzines, gossip columns, festivals (‘the mystic site of [the] identification of the imaginary and the real’; Morin, 1961: 62), the importance of the close-up for identification, and of make-up for idealisation and distance from the spectator. He pointed out the way in which stars combine the exceptional and the ordinary, so that they are at one and the same time close to the spectator and yet out of reach: ‘star-goddesses humanize themselves and become new mediators between the fantastic world of dreams and man’s daily life on earth’ (Morin, 1961: 34). Foreshadowing developments in star studies that rely on an ethnographic approach (such as Stacey, 1994), Morin prints fan letters to analyse types of identification with the star and, unlike Stacey, takes into consider- ation gender differences in star identification; thus, the male spectator may imitate the male star, but ‘does not wish to know him'(Morin, 1961:103), unlikethe female spectator’s relationship with the female star. Finally, Morin explains the way in which stars are not just consumer objects themselves, but help to sell merchandise. Morin’s work, like Dyer’s in the 1980s, focuses principally on Hollywood stars. For work on specifically French stars, we have to wait until Dyer’s colleague at Warwick University, Ginette Vincendeau, published a rigorous analysis of Jean Gabin (Vincendeau and Gauteur, 1993), followed by a collection of essays (Vincendeau, 2000) covering a variety of stars, including the early comic genius Max Linder, and a defining essay on Depardieu, whom Vincendeau famously characterises as the ‘suffering macho’.

A key transitional figure before the structuralist turn is Jean Mitry, who was, with Georges Franju and Henri Langlois, a co-founder in 1938 of the Cinematheque Francaise, as well the first university film professor in France, teaching at the IDHEC from 1945. He was a historian of film, as well as a theorist. His major the- oretical work is a massive two-volume treatise on the cinema, Esthetique et psychologic du cinema (1963; 1965), which, although influenced by Bazin, has none of his passion. It is a very ‘academic’ work, comparing and contrasting different theories, striving for the balanced academic view, examining problems in minute and often tedious detail, whether these problems have to do with structures (the subtitle of V olume 1), by which is meant the image and editing, or forms (V olume 2), which considers style. Mitry’s main point is that film hides reality from the spectator by framing it (Bazin’s view), while also transforming it through stylistic effects. These make film a kind of language, a second-degree language he suggests, since there are rules and there is meaning; but for Mitry the language was more akin to poetry than to the linguistics which Metz was at the same time applying to film. Mitry’s influence, however, depends less on what he said than how he said it. Although at heart an historian of film, his methodical attempts to categorise and systematise very different film practices, so different from Bazin’s impressionistic broad-brush strokes, are the precursor of Metz’s structuralism (see Andrew, 1984, for more detail on Mitry’swork).

Bazin’s theoretical position, as mentioned above, is regressive in the sense that it relied on a nineteenth-century view of the artist as origin of the discourse. By the 1960s, intellectual work in the social sciences had moved away from this position, undertheinfluenceoflinguistics.ModernlinguisticswasfoundedbyFerdinand de Saussure at the turn of the century; he called it ‘semiology’, the science of signs. For social scientists, not just language but all signifying systems, such as social organisa- tion for the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss or film for Metz, were seen as just that and no more than that: signifying systems. They were structures whose ele- ments, like language itself, ‘mean’ something only in relation to the other elements, rather than in relation to some essential transcendental meaning. Unsurprisingly, given the history of film theory we have outlined, the main issue for Metz was to define in what sense film might be a ‘language’, the question that had haunted film theorists since the 1920s. Metz was uninterested in whether a given film might be ‘good’ or ‘bad’; he wanted to understand how a given film worked. It is difficult to underestimate the shift that this represents; it is a shift away from the impression- istic judgements that had dominated theoretical discourses since the origins of film – outgrowths, one might argue, of intelligent reviewers – to an objective scientific analysis undertaken by academics versed in very specific academic disci- plines. Mitry had moved some way in this direction, but his theorising had been little more than an evaluation of other people’s theorising; he had not developed his own tools. Metz, on the other hand, adopted and adapted linguistic paradigms with considerable rigour. Like Bazin, he published his work in essay form during the 1960s, collecting it in two important volumes: Essais sur la signification au cinema (1968) and Langage et cinema (1971). When considering the issue of film as lan- guage, Metz demolished the standard view that the shot was like a word and the sequence like a sentence. The analogy between film and language operates at a dif- ferent level: both are systems where small units combine to form larger signifying units. These are sentences in the case of language, and ‘syntagmas’, as Metz called them, in the case of film.

Over a period of time Metz formulated the ‘Grande Syntagmatique’, which is a typology of the ways in which a narrative can be organised in sequences or syntag- mas. Metz defined eight of these, organising them into syntagmas where the shots were achronological and those where they were chronological, the single shot forming a separate instance. We have detailed these in Table 2.1, because we shall discuss the Grande Syntagmatique in some detail, as well as applying it to film sequences as a pedagogic exercise. The examples given in the table are for the most part those given by Metz himself in the final formulation of the Grande Syntagmatique in ‘Problems of denotation in the fiction film’, one of the chapters of Essais sur la signification au cinema.

Like all methods, Metz’s system has advantages as well as disadvantages. First, it is often difficult to define syntagmas with precision. In our experience, the parallel and alternating syntagmas are often confused, as are the bracket and the des- criptive syntagmas. The difference between them lies in the chronological or achronological nature of the shots within the syntagma, and the conceptual nature of the achronological syntagma. The scene, the ordinary sequence and the episodic sequence are not always easy to distinguish in practice, because of the weight attached to ellipses when distinguishing between the scene and the ordinary sequence, and the interference of the conceptual for the episodic sequence (when the ‘conceptual’ is more usually associated with an achronological syntagma). Second, because the emphasis of the system is on the image, problems can be encountered when considering the soundtrack, which can overlap between syntag- mas, for example, or which, when used diegetically, can turn what might look like an ordinary sequence into something more akin to a scene.

 

Table 2.1 Metz’s Grande Syntagmatique

Autonomous shot

A single-shot sequence (e.g. early silent films) or an inserted shot, of which there are at least four types.

  1. Non-diegetic insert: objects exterior to the fictional world of the action, e.g. a metaphoric shot.
  2. Displaced diegetic insert: events from the diegesis, but temporally/spatially out of context, e.g. the single shot of a pursuer inserted into a sequence showing a pursuit.
  3. Subjective insert: memories, dreams, fears, premonitions. 4 Explanatory insert: closer shots of letters, headlines, etc.

Syntagmas with more than one shot in an achronological sequence

Parallel syntagma

Alternating two motifs without spatial/temporal relationship: ‘scenes of the life of the rich interwoven with scenes of the life of the poor, images of tranquillity alternating with images of disturbance, shots of the city and of the country, of the sea and of wheat fields’.

Bracket syntagma

‘A series of very brief scenes representing occurrences that the film gives as typical samples of a same order of reality, without in any way chronologically locating them in relation to each other.’ The syntagma functions like a parenthesis (hence its title) which establishes a concept: The first erotic images of Une femme mariee (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964) sketch a global picture of “modern love” through variations and partial repetitions’; ‘in The Scarlet Empress (Joseph von Sternberg, 1935), the sequence that constructs the terrifying yet fascinating image of Tzarist Russia that the future empress imagines as a little girl (prisoners tied to giant bell clappers, the executionerwith his axe, and so on).’

Syntagmas with more than one shot in a chronological sequence

Descriptive syntagma

Objects or actions that occur at the same time and in the same space: ‘a tree, followed by a shot of a stream running next to the tree, followed by a view of a hill in the distance’; ‘views of the sheep, the shepherd, the sheepdog’.

Alternating syntagma

Two series of intercut actions where what happens within each series is consecutive, but the two series are taken to occur at the same time: ‘shot of the pursuers, followed by a shot of the pursued, and back to a shot of the pursuers’.

Scene

The event is continuous,and breaks do not disrupt the impression of continuity, e.g. a conversation.

Ordinary sequence

The event is continuous, but there are temporal ellipses to excise unimportant details, and there is more likely to be a change of location than in the scene, e.g. a sequence dealing with an escape.

Episodic sequence

Brief episodes whose meaning lies in their juxtaposition; they function as ‘the symbolic summary of one stage in the fairly long evolution condensed by the total sequence’. Metz gives the example of the breakdown of Kane’s relationshipwith his wife in the breakfast sequence, where swish pans separate different moments in a long period of time. Another example might be episodes suggesting a character’s “rise to fame”

A deeper issue was for many that this kind of system scratches at the surface of any given film. Not only is it too mechanical, imposing a structure on a film which leaves everything to be said, but, more importantly perhaps, it establishes a radical separation between the objectively scientific spectator/analyst and what really matters in the act of watching a film, the way in which we are implicated affectively. However, it remains the only film-specific typology of narrative. Its major advantages are that it can help identify unusual features in a film and, despite its problems, indeed perhaps because of them, forces close attention to detail. It is for this reason that we have included examples of sequence analysis using the Grande Syntagmatique later in this book. The problems of detail in the Grande Syntagmatique were never resolved, because theorists, Metz among them, became less interested in what had dominated film theory since the 1920s, issues of film language, than in what the Grande Syntagmatique, with its pseudo-scientific approach, could not address: the position of the spectator, and the effect of the film on the spectator. The major question to be addressed in the following period was not so much the key question of the first major period of film theory from 1920-1970, ‘Does film have a language?’, as ‘What does a film do to the spectator?’, a subject already explored by Morin in the 1956 Le Cinema ou I’homme imaginaire, but about to become the dominant film theory in France, and even more so in the Anglo- American arena. Before such questions began to be asked in detail, there was a theoretical diversion caused by the Marxist turn in the wake of the events of May 1968.

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