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World Filmmakers: A Critical List of Books (February 2013): Aesthetic or Formalist Theory

By Mark Emmons and Audra Bellmore

Aesthetic or Formalist Theory

In monographs about world filmmakers, aesthetic or formalist film theory is the most represented in the English language.  Formalist theory examines issues related to the nature of the film itself and how its aesthetics promote meaning.  Common formalist approaches include analysis of style and narrative, as well as literary and artistic criticism.  Filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, Peter Greenaway, and Lars von Trier attract aesthetic analysis.

Many critics take a pure formalist approach, examining how filmmakers make meaning with their films.  Annette Insdorf interlaces formal film analysis and biography to uncover the sources of Truffaut’s style in François Truffaut.  Carole Le Berre, in an approach that is also somewhat auteurish, examines Truffaut’s working methods in François Truffaut at Work, revealing that his films show a passion for cinema, an interest in relationships, and a fascination with children.

In Antonioni, or the Surface of the World, Seymour Chatman argues that Michelangelo Antonioni’s use of visual minimalism and silence are tools for expressing his characters’ inner emotional life.  Murray Pomerance analyzes Antonioni’s use of color in Michelangelo Red, Antonioni Blue: Eight Reflections on Cinema.

David Bordwell examines Sergei Eisenstein’s life in the context of Russian society and closely reads his films in The Cinema of Eisenstein in order that the reader might appreciate his achievements.  Donald Kirihara, a Bordwell disciple, explores the “practice and strategies” in Kenji Mizoguchi’s films to influence 1930 film audiences in Patterns of Time: Mizoguchi and the 1930s.  Mark Le Fanu applies a formalist lens to two filmmakers, examining the mise-en-scène and the long take in Kenji Mizoguchi’s films in Mizoguchi and Japan and finding evidence of the divine in the characters in The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky.

Jack Stevenson examines working methods and details of film production, taking a more journalistic and descriptive approach in Lars von Trier, and using the films to reveal the aesthetic results of von Trier’s approach to filmmaking.  In Playing the Waves: Lars von Trier’s Game Cinema, Jan Simons takes a related but very unusual approach by applying game theory to argue that von Trier sees filmmaking as a game with principles and rules that he and his crew must follow.  These rules are denoted in von Trier’s and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 manifesto.  Simons argues that the naturalistic rules of the game shape the film, create a new media aesthetic, and foster creativity and simulation and “virtual realism” rather than traditional realism, as others have argued.

Critics often explore how the narrative makes meaning.  Akira Kurosawa in particular draws critical interest in his approach to narrative.  Donald Richie makes a biographical quasi-auteur appraisal in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, conducting a formalist study of how Kurosawa uses narrative, characterization, production, and filmmaking techniques in his films.  In Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema, James Goodwin argues that reading between the lines of Kurosawa’s narratives reveals modernity.  In his book The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Stephen Prince asserts that Kurosawa used narrative and visual forms to structure his films in order to influence Japanese national development and politics.  Historian and anthropologist Dolores Martinez studies narrative (but not formal film aesthetic) in Remaking Kurosawa: Translations and Permutations in Global Cinema to compare and contrast the similarities among Kurasawa films and of remakes by other filmmakers.

Additional narrative approaches are many.  Tony Whitehead, in Mike Leigh, argues that critics overemphasize the “real” in Leigh’s films at the expense of humor, thus seeing him as a failed realist rather than as a successful humorist.  Henry Bacon focuses on Luchino Visconti’s use of the novel and operatic structures in Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay.  Philippe Garner and David Mellor explore the visual and narrative aesthetic in Antonioni’s Blow-Up.  Alan Williams applies René Girard’s concept of desire in Max Ophüls and the Cinema of Desire: Style and Spectacle in Four Films, 1948-1955; Lutz Bacher examines the clash between American production values and the European visual style that Ophüls preferred to use in Max Ophüls in the Hollywood Studios.

Film critics occasionally take a literary approach to analyzing film, often focusing on the poetics of cinema.  In Tarkovsky: Cinema as Poetry, Maya Turovskaia asserts that Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are works of poetry.  In Derek Jarman and Lyric Film: The Mirror and the Sea, Steven Dillon analyzes Jarman’s “emblemata” (Jarman’s term) or visual poetry in his lyrical films.

Certain filmmakers, particularly those who are artists in other media in addition to being filmmakers, evince a style that draws aesthetic attention.  Peter Greenaway is such an artist, incorporating visual art including painting, costume, architecture, and decorative art, and has attracted much analysis.  Douglas Keesey explores themes of sex and birth and death in The Films of Peter Greenaway: Sex, Death, and Provocation.  Amy Lawrence, in The Films of Peter Greenaway, explores themes with a postmodern eye in the context of his artistry.  Paula Willoquet-Maricondi and Mary Alemany-Galway also use a postmodern eye in their edited volume Peter Greenaway’s Postmodern/Poststructuralist Cinema to explore issues of imagery, influences, and commentary.  David Pascoe makes the most explicitly artistic analysis in Peter Greenaway: Museums and Moving Images, claiming that Greenaway is a product of art history and showing the influence of artists on his films.

Works Cited