Formalist film theory
Formalist film theory is a theory of film study that is focused on the formal, or
technical, elements of a film: i.e., the lighting, scoring, sound and set design, use
of color, shot composition, and editing. It is a major theory of film study today.
Formalism, at its most general, considers the synthesis (or lack of synthesis) of the
multiple elements of film production, and the effects, emotional and intellectual, of
that synthesis and of the individual elements. For example, let's take the single
element of editing. A formalist might study how standard Hollywood "continuity
editing" creates a more comforting effect and non-continuity or jump-cut editing
might become more disconcerting or volatile.
Or one might consider the synthesis of several elements, such as editing, shot
composition, and music. The shoot-out that ends Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western
"Dollars" trilogy is a valid example of how these elements work together to produce
an effect: The shot selection goes from very wide to very close and tense; the length
of shots decreases as the sequence progresses towards its end; the music builds. All of
these elements, in combination rather than individually, create tension.
Formalism is unique in that it embraces both ideological and auteurist branches of
criticism. In both these cases, the common denominator for Formalist criticism is
 Ideological Formalism
Ideologues focus on how socio-economic pressures create a particular style, and
auteurists on how auteurs put their own stamp on the material. Formalism is primarily
concerned with style and how it communicates ideas, emotions, and themes (rather
than, as critics of formalism point out, concentrating on the themes of a work itself).
Two examples of ideological interpretations that are related to formalism:
The classical Hollywood cinema has a very distinct style, sometimes called the
Institutional Mode of Representation: continuity editing, massive coverage, three-
point lighting, "mood" music, dissolves, all designed to make the experience as
pleasant as possible. The socio-economic ideological explanation for this is, quite
crassly, that Hollywood wants to make as much money and appeal to as many ticket-
buyers as possible.
Film noir, which was given its name by Nino Frank, is marked by lower production
values, darker images, underlighting, location shooting, and general nihilism: this is
because, we are told, during the war and post-war years filmmakers were generally
more pessimistic (as well as filmgoers). Also, the German Expressionists (including
Fritz Lang, who was not technically an expressionist as popularly believed) emigrated
to America and brought their stylized lighting effects (and disillusionment due to the
war) to American soil.
It can be argued that, by this approach, the style or 'language' of these films is directly
affected not by the individuals responsible, but by social, economic, and political
pressures, of which the filmmakers themselves may be aware or not. It is this branch
of criticism that gives us such categories as the classical Hollywood cinema, the
American independent movement, the New American independent movement, the
new queer cinema, and the French, German, and Czech new waves.
 Formalism in Auteur Theory
If the ideological approach is concerned with broad movements and the effects of the
world around the filmmaker, then the auteur theory is diametrically opposed to it,
celebrating the individual, usually in the person of the filmmaker, and how his
personal decisions, thoughts, and style manifest themselves in the material.
This branch of criticism, begun by François Truffaut and the other young film critics
writing for Cahiers du cinéma, was created for two reasons.
First, it was created to redeem the art of film itself. By arguing that films had auteurs,
or authors, Truffaut sought to make films (and their directors) at least as important as
the more widely-accepted art forms, such as literature, music, and painting. Each of
these art forms, and the criticism thereof, is primarily concerned with a sole creative
force: the author of a novel (not, for example, his editor or type-setter), the composer
of a piece of music (though sometimes the performers are given credence, akin to
actors in film today), or the painter of a fresco (not his assistants who mix the colours
or often do some of the painting themselves). By elevating the director, and not the
screenwriter, to the same importance as novelists, composers, or painters, it sought to
free the cinema from its popular conception as a bastard art, somewhere between
theater and literature.
Secondly, it sought to redeem many filmmakers who were looked down upon by
mainstream film critics. It argued that genre filmmakers and low-budget B-movies
were just as important, if not more, than the prestige pictures commonly given more
press and legitimacy in France and the United States. According to Truffaut's theory,
auteurs took material that was beneath their talents—a thriller, a pulpy action film, a
romance—and, through their style, put their own personal stamp on it.
It is this auteur style that concerns formalism.
A perfect example of formalist criticism of auteur style would be the work of Alfred
Hitchcock. Hitchcock primarily made thrillers, which, according to the Cahiers du
cinema crowd, were popular with the public but were dismissed by the critics and the
award ceremonies, though it should be noted that Hitchcock's Rebecca won the Oscar
for Best Picture at the 1940 Academy Awards. Though he never won the Oscar for
directing, he was nominated five times in the category. Truffaut and his colleagues
argued that Hitchcock had a style as distinct as that of Flaubert or Van Gogh: the
virtuoso editing, the lyrical camera movements, the droll humour. He also had
"Hitchcockian" themes: the wrong man falsely accused, violence erupting at the times
it was least expected, the cool blonde. Now, Hitchcock is more or less universally
lauded, his films dissected shot-by-shot, his work celebrated as being that of a master.
And the study of this style, his variations, and obsessions all fall quite neatly under
the umbrella of formalist film theory.
Representational realism states that we do not (and cannot) perceive the external
world as it really is; instead we know only our ideas and interpretations of the way the
world is. This might be said to indicate that a barrier or 'veil of perception' prevents
first-hand knowledge of the world, but the representational realist would deny that
'first hand knowledge' in this sense is a coherent concept, since knowledge is always
via some means.
An indirect realist believes our ideas of the world are interpretations of sense data
derived from a real external world (unlike idealists). The debate then occurs about
how ideas or interpretations arise. At least since Newton, natural scientists have made
it clear that the current scope of science cannot address this. Nevertheless, the
alternative, that we have knowledge of the outside world unconstrained by our means
of access through sense organs that does not require interpretation would appear to be
inconsistent with every day observation.
Social constructionism and social constructivism are sociological theories of
knowledge that consider how social phenomena develop in social contexts. Within
constructionist thought, a social construction (social construct) is a concept or practice
that is the creation (or artifact) of a particular group. When we say that something is
socially constructed, we are focusing on its dependence on contingent variables of our
social selves. The underlying assumptions on which social constructivism is
typically seen to be based are reality, knowledge, and learning.