Academic journal article Style

Stylistic Description as Historical Method: French Films of the German Occupation

Academic journal article Style

Stylistic Description as Historical Method: French Films of the German Occupation

Article excerpt

In this article, I undertake a study of the cinema of occupied France with the aim of demonstrating the necessity of the descriptive analysis of film style in film historiography. My basic claim is that descriptive analysis is necessary because it provides the only means of disclosing the constitutive dimension of film practice. Unusual or inventive aspects of film style resist causal explanation in terms of either extra-cinematic conditions and forces or pre-given rules, principles and beliefs concerning film practice. To understand the novelty or singularity of particular instances of film style, what is most helpful, I will argue, is a description that discloses aspects of such instances that allowed them to appear as they did. Why descriptive analysis? One reason is that before explaining developments in film style we need, minimally, an adequate account of what we are trying to explain. But here I wish to make a stronger claim, that description can reveal constitutive aspects of film style inaccessible to film historiography's customary task of external causal explanation.(1) In such cases, description can affect our very sense of what needs to be explained, and thus re-orient the explanatory project in novel directions.

The self-evident novelty of the films of the occupation points to the fundamental limitation of explanations of film style in terms of factors external to the domain of film practice. Critics and filmmakers in occupied France recognized films such as Le corbeau as exemplars for the French cinema of the future. More than simply the context-dependent products of an already constituted film culture, the films of the occupation were context-generative events that, insofar as they served as exemplars for practicing filmmakers, triggered the production of new techniques, skills, commitments, identities, and styles. In short, occupation-era films had effects within film culture that altered that culture's configurations. To explain the films as the result of external forces and conditions is to foreclose inquiry into the films' substantive effects within the field of film practice.

The methodological upshot of the account that follows is that the way to account for the films' constitutive dimension is to defer the closure of external causal explanation by describing films so as to disclose unfamiliar or anomalous aspects of their material singularity. The aim here is to change the dimension under which particular films are perceived, thus producing the kind of gestalt shift or "aspect seeing" that enables a new understanding of film style.(2) Concerning the cinema of the occupation, such a change occurs when the focus of analysis is directed away from the customary emphasis on image techniques and toward sound-image relations. While it may be that the occupation did not introduce a dramatic change in methods of mise-en-scene, cinematography, and shot duration, changes in sound accompaniment allowed the results of such methods to become perspicuous in new ways.

How did sound practice change during the occupation? Most fundamentally, filmmakers no longer recorded a scene's dialogue at the same time as the ambient sound. While continuing to record dialogue live, they began creating and adding ambient sound during post-production. Ambient sound became abstract, its immanent materiality harnessed to narrative and formal purposes. Thus, in contrast to French films of the 1930s, in which direct sound anchored actors' performances within the spatial environments where the filming had taken place, films of the occupation effaced traces of the event of recording in order to ensure that filmic space would be defined solely in terms of a scene's narrative situation. Material conditions that had made possible a film's narrative were excluded to the hither side of the viewer's experience. At the same time, new sound methods made scenographic space highly variable in extension, so that it might expand or contract according to the narration. …

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