Formalism the Subject of Films Is a Term Paper

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The subject of films is a matter of dreams for many persons though the attraction has come down after the new medium of video has come in. Yet, for some it is still the medium to dream in.

To get into the concept of formalist film theory, one has to talk about the film in terms of the formal or technical elements within the film. These are in terms of its lighting, sound and set design, scoring, color usage, composition of shots and editing. This is the most prevalent method of studying films today. Thus when the theory is considered, it will take into account the synthesis or lack of synthesis of the different elements of film production and the total effects that are produced by the individual elements of the film. One of the common examples of this is to consider the effects of editing and when a formalist movie critic considers movies made in Hollywood he will have to think the method of "continuity editing" used in Hollywood whereas in other areas a jump cut form of editing may be used. The Hollywood form is felt to be more comforting by most viewers. (Formalist film theory)

Another form of the usage of different elements like editing, shot composition and music are used together in the "Dollars" trilogy to make an effect on the audience. This is done through the usage of shot selection from very wide to close and tense and the lengths of the shots decrease as the movie builds up to the end; and at the same time the music keeps building up. Formalism combines both the ideological and appreciation types of criticism. The point where both these types of criticism are similar is the style -- the ideologist feels that economic pressure has to be reflected in a particular style, while appreciator thinks of it in his own way. Formalism appeals to both as it tries to communicate the ideas, emotions and themes. (Formalist film theory)

This can be seen in two different styles of movies -- Hollywood and Film noir. Hollywood movies have continuity editing, massive coverage, three point lighting, mood music, dissolves and all other elements to make the film a very pleasant experience. The ideologist applies a certain explanation for this and says that the movie is trying to make as much money as possible. On the other hand, Film noir types of films have lower production values with darker images, low lighting, and a general projection of very little hope for the future. This is also said to have been the attitudes of both the filmmakers and film goers were pessimistic in general during the Second World War and immediately after it. Some of these types of filmmakers also came to United States and brought with them their lighting effects and one such person was Fritz Lang. These reasons also bring an idea that formalism was not a creation of the persons involved, but of the social, economic and political pressures of the time.

To put it in brief, this type of films were first made by Francois Truffaut and others who were in a film magazine. These individuals felt that films should have authors, as much as all other art forms had -- like literature, music or painting. To be accepted as an art, this was needed. It is the author who gives it the creative force that makes it an art -- the author for a novel, the composer for a piece of music, or the painter for a fresco. There are others who are involved with the preparation, but it is only the author who gives it the life force. This made them give much more importance to the director of the movies in comparison to screenwriters and others, and also give it the status of an art. They were trying to bring out from its earlier ranking as being somewhere in between theatre and literature. This status also made the directors more important and tried to justify their using thrillers, pulpy action films and romance for direction and putting their personal stamps on it. This style of the director is what is called formalism for the film. (Formalist film theory)

Getting on to two of the films that are to be discussed, the first we are taking up is "The night of the Hunter" and this was adapted for films by James Agee from the novel that
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was written by Davis Grubb. This was the only film directing effort of the famous actor, Charles Laughton. The actor did not make any other films in his lifetime. The most interesting part of the story starts with the phony preacher Harry Powell being imprisoned with the thief Ben Harper. The role of Ben Harper was played by Peter Graves and the role of Harry Powell was played by Robert Mitchum. Harry Powell learns that the thief has hidden a large sum of money near his house, inside a doll being carried around by his daughter. The sum is the large sum of $10,000! (The Night of the Hunter: The New York Times)

Then after some time, Powell is released and he wants the money and manages to get into the house of Ben and proceeds further in his mission of taking that large sum of money by marrying the widow of Harper, Willa. Time and Powell go on and finally all that stands between Powell and the money are the children of Harper -- the son played by Billy Chaplin and the daughter played by Sally Jane Bruce. The children are thrown out of the house and finally end up in a home for abandoned children, and the home is looked after by the indomitable, scripture quoting Rachel Cooper, played by Lillian Gish. This starts of the final one -- third of the film which is full of horror and music. The direction from Laughton had been superb and it is important to know that he stopped directing the children after an incident. Totally, it is now regarded as a classic film made in United States. (The Night of the Hunter: The New York Times)

The best part of the film was the excellent performances of the actors -- Robert Mitchum, Shelley winters and Lillian Gish. But he also took up personally a comment made by the little boy, Billy Chapin saying that he had won a New York Critics' Circle Prize for his role in a recent play. Laughton lost his temper and said "Get that child away from me." This led to a situation where the children were then directed mainly by Mitchum for the rest of the production. The film was ignored and misunderstood when the film was first released, and only a handful of critics had noted the quality of the film. The film took its deserved place among quality works in American cinema after quite some time and is now thought to be on par with John Ford's "The Searchers" produced in 1956 and Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" produced in 1958. There were no other films directed by Charles Laughton and he was very upset that the film was a commercial failure. That is probably what stopped him from further efforts in direction. The quality of the film is in excellent performances and Robert Mitchum provides one of his best performances as also the acting of Lillian Gish. (Spotlight of the Month: The Night of the Hunter) The question is whether is can be said to be an excellent effort by the director. Part of his direction job was left to Robert Mitchum, and how can you say that you were the creator when part of the creation was made by another person? It is certainly a good film, but not an example of formalism.

On the other hand, Great expectations is one of the best films of David Lean and the only comparable film made of Charles Dickens' novels was one made of David Copperfield made by Cuckor. Some of the scenes created are wonderful with Pip nervously getting back home along the seashore while the darkness is coming in. There are also the gibbets and dead trees all around while his encounter takes place with Magwitch the convict within the graveyard. The total picture was difficult to imagine, but Lean is clear about the picture that he wanted to convey -- a totally Gothic world yet one which seemed like one made from our fantasy. It is the world in which poor and mad Miss Havisham stays with her sorrow about her broken marriage along with the cobwebs of what remains of her wedding dress. The performances of the actors are beautiful and continue with more and more. (Film Reviews: Great Expectations) This is certainly a wonderful effort of the director where he succeeds in making us step into the world of our own childhood imaginations.

The question now arises about naming a director in mainline cinema who may be called a…

Sources Used in Documents:


Baker, Elizabeth. 2003. Hitchcock. Retrieved from Accessed 14 August, 2005

Film Reviews: Great Expectations. Retrieved from Accessed 14 August, 2005

Formalist film theory. Retrieved from Accessed 14 August, 2005

Spotlight of the Month: The Night of the Hunter. Retrieved from,,99305%7C911%7C29975,00.html Accessed 14 August, 2005

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