Long thoughts on style in filmmaking here. More so than any other posts, I welcome reactions. This is me thinking out loud…
A few posts ago I mentioned a film that I found to by style-less. Keeping that film unnamed I want to talk more about style and lack thereof. Why is style important (or is it at all)? What is style?
I see style as different from mise-en-scene (the visual elements making up a frame) and aesthetics. Here’s an attempt to define style, which might evolve over the course of this post: a set of aesthetics that combine to form a greater, singularly described aesthetic, an outlook, or a way of approaching a film that relates directly to the director’s values.
More simply put, style differs from mise-en-scene and aesthetics in that it is an attitude. It is an “extra” that does not require being there (as do mise-en-scene and aesthetics, which are unavoidable) for the film to exist. It is the most biased of the three.
Does style have anything to do with “auteur-ship,” that is, with the idea of ownership, of an indelible stamp on a film?
Keeping the film unnamed, I’ll describe parts of what I consider to be a style-less film. It’s also important to note, as any rudimentary film theorist might, that bias is nearly impossible to avoid in filmmaking and that if style and bias have some relation, as I’ve noted above, then a style-less film may also be impossible to avoid. That being said…let’s go on our merry way.
A style-less film: First the obvious things out of the way – no elements within the film call attention to the director’s “hand.” There is nothing of the irony of an intentionally anachronistic song, for example. No extreme (overdone) gore that might point to a genre fascination. The beats (pauses, generally) that the actors take don’t feel over or under-paced. For that matter, they don’t feel “perfect.” There are no beats that mean anything more than the words themselves say. There is little time for reflection, no shock cuts, few camera moves or frames that imply, through the composition, timing within the film, or synchronicity with other elements, anything greater than a general following of action. Little subtext abounds, and the film could fit into any categorical summation in fewer than three well-written paragraphs.
Yet – there can be a story. In the film I refer to the story holds interest. The characters are not 2-dimensional. There is a small twist that surprises. There is at least one other unexpected plot point.
So why even note the lack of style? For one, the film is poorly pieced together in its lack of ideal camera placement – much more on this in a separate post. But more importantly, this particular film hopes to appeal to a specific emotion – that of loss. Loss is an emotion that we all understand, if not know well. Because a human being is making the film, I want to understand his/her unique understanding of loss. Style, in this case, could be used to transcend the simple dialogue and action and further clue the audience to the nature of the theme. Is this an empty feeling of loss? Loss with room for hope? Loss that is universal? Personal?
Now this is where it gets tricky. The director controls the mise-en-scene. If the director carefully controls it, shouldn’t the mise-en-scene point us in this same direction? And how does it differ from the style the director might employ?
The answer: the mise-en-scene in this particular film is controlled to be consistent. There is a color palette and a pacing that stay consistent throughout, for example. But these (and other elements) are there only (seemingly) as choices necessary to make the film, and not as choices necessary to move the film to new heights. Therefore, it seems to me that style is, or can be argued to be, mise-en-scene that achieves auteur-ship. Mise-en-scene that achieves a calibration careful enough to speak to the film and not just make up the film.
Let’s look at a scene from a well known film as an example. Many people have seen American Beauty. This is from memory, so hopefully I don’t totally mess up the shots and analysis here.
There’s a scene where Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) psyches herself up to sell a house. A loose look at the shots:
1. Medium wide shot as Carolyn unpacks her car and sees the sign of a rival real-estate agent
2. MWS as Carolyn dramatically enters stating, “I will sell this house today.”
3-6 (approx) A montage of Carolyn removing her dress to reveal a slip, vacuuming in the slip, dusting a ceiling fan in the slip, all the while repeating “I will sell this house today.”
7. CU of Carolyn applying makeup in the mirror. She says her line a final, direct, time. She removes a last smudge from the mirror. Perfect.
The mise-en-scene in this short sequence might be described in a few ways. It is generally, with the exception of the first shot outside, in a relative high-contrast lighting set-up. The light is soft. The colors are a mixture of the saturated (lipstick) and the monochrome, with the latter dominating. Carolyn’s costuming and movements indicate an obsessiveness and nervous energy.
Now for the style. This sequence does have style, and its style is inclusive with, but also beyond the above-described mise-en-scene. Much of the style in here exists in the placement of the camera, the rhythm of the editing, and the beats taken by the actor.
The camera is placed to intentionally over-dramatize – to the point of theatricalization – Carolyn’s preparation. She bursts through the front doors in a near-silhouette as though the curtains are being raised (or thrown apart, in this case). We look up at her as she delicately climbs a step-ladder to dust the ceiling fan, holding a paper to carefully block any debris from her hair. She tiptoes through a low-composed frame in high heels (stress on the heels and calves) as she vacuums the place.
The editing, working with the music but still consistent on mute, takes on a feeling of hopefulness and propelled energy. Carolyn takes a critical beat upon her entrance. This is her kingdom. Her domain. But one that she’ll make more her own. It is this beat, and the editing that follows that don’t simply show Carolyn’s actions, but emphasize the nearness of the first potential buyers and her own determination. Had Carolyn simply walked in the door, shoulders down instead of erect, door squeaking open instead of thrown, no beat instead of the pause, and just read the line from the script, we would miss director Sam Mendes’ interpretation of her character. The narrative would remain intact, but the style would suffer.
As the edits speed up – and the “rhythm” of editing is one of those ephemeral things that is impossible to define or book-learn – so too does our anticipation of the first showing. This is not simply a filmed script with a “look.” The style here gives a deeper meaning.
Now I should note the potential for over-stylization (I’m looking at you, Guy Ritchie). I won’t talk much about this now, because another post is upcoming on it…but it most certainly exists.
Likely more on style coming soon as well. I recently watched 28 Days Later, which I hated, and largely because of the style.
28 Weeks Later