Theories of the Classical/Modern
Distinction in the Cinema
Understanding modern cinema historically means understanding how it differs from its counterpart, nonmodern or classical narrative (art) cinema. This chapter gives an overview of the typical distinction between classical and modern cinema. This overview will suggest some basic principles to use as we begin to construct the stylistic-historical aspect of cinematic modernism.
The notion of modern cinema spread through the ranks of filmmakers, film critics, and “ordinary” film viewers since the late fifties. The use of the concept reflects the three aspects of the “classical/modern” dichotomy discussed in chapter 1: modern cinema as the new versus the old/classical; modern cinema as the actual and valid form of cinema versus invalid cinema; and modern cinema as an aesthetic variation of the classical.
We can also find various combinations of these oppositions in different approaches. In the history of film theory the combination of these aspects has crystallized in two main patterns of theorizing cinematic modernism. One depicts modernism as the result of the aesthetic and technical evolution of the cinema while the other considers it as an alternative stylistic movement appearing in different forms in certain moments of film history. In other words, the main demarcation between approaches to modern cinema separates those who treat it as an outcome of an aesthetic, stylistic, or intellectual evolution and those who see it as a specific combination of aesthetic/stylistic choices, whether or not some of these in fact come out of technical or stylistic innovations. Both views have been present simultaneously in film criticism right from the early 1950s.
Theoreticians of the first group, whom I will call “evolutionists,” contend that modern cinema represents a higher degree of development of cine-