Formalist film theory

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Formalist film theory is an approach to

set design, use of color, shot composition, and editing. This approach was proposed by Hugo Münsterberg, Rudolf Arnheim, Sergei Eisenstein, and Béla Balázs.[1] Today, it is a major approach in film studies


film production, and the effects, emotional and intellectual, of that synthesis and of the individual elements. For example, 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.[citation needed

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 notable 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.[citation needed]

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 style. 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).[citation needed]

Ideological formalism

Two examples of ideological interpretations that are related to formalism are the classical Hollywood cinema and film noir.[citation needed]

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 that Hollywood wants to make as much money and appeal to as many ticket-buyers as possible.[citation needed]

German Expressionists (including Fritz Lang, who was not technically an expressionist as popularly believed)[2] immigrated to America and brought their stylized lighting effects (and disillusionment due to the war) to American soil.[citation needed

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 queer cinema, and the French, German, and Czech new waves.[citation needed]

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 opposite to it, celebrating the individual, usually in the person of the filmmaker, and how their personal decisions, thoughts, and style manifest themselves in the material.[citation needed]

This branch of criticism, begun by François Truffaut and the other young film critics writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, was created for two reasons.[citation needed]

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, their 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 their 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories: An Introduction, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, Part I.
  2. .


  • Bordwell, David, Film Art: An Introduction; McGraw-Hill; 7th edition (June 2003).
  • Braudy, Leo, ed., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings; Oxford University Press; 6th edition (March 2004).
  • Gianetti, Louis, Understanding Movies; Prentice Hall; 10th edition (March 2004)