Classical hollywood cinema

Classical Hollywood Cinema

Classical Hollywood Cinema is a definition, introduced by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson to identify a special style of film making, which was formed between 1917 and 1960. Distinctive features of classical style include accents in narrative, editing and time flow. The story of the film has clear structure with obvious causes and effects, main points and secondary points. The narrative is made of discernible beginning, middle and end (usually comprising culmination and resolution). It’s flow is in all times motivated and reasonable. Editing is continuous aiming to male cuts invisible and not used as independent tool. Space and time are wholly realistic, linear and unified with lack of time contraflows or jump editing. In total, such style tended to work with established and even dogmatic forms, causing Bordwell to call it “an excesslively obvious cinema”[1]. A spectator should always enter a mainstream and never leaves it as the action progresses.

Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, made in 1959, is a brilliant example of classical Hollywood style in it’s palmy days. The film has clear starting point and development. It begins at the crowded streets of Manhattan, and the audience has no idea how the action will proceed. The action is tied by protagonist – Roger O. Thornhill, self assured and successful person in a grey suit, whose strange adventures create a narrative.

Although the film represents a tensed espionage thriller, it develops strictly according to rules of classical cinema with no jumps between actions or traveling back in time. The scenes, which happened earlier go first, and the ones which happened later go next. The characters move through several realities: from business environment to the countryside and than into a police investigation, however, the cause and effect rule is followed and no paradox ties between actions. Thornhill comes to a country mansion because he is invited there, he is kidnapped because of mistake, becomes happily saved by police and so on. Each of the scenes logically results from the previous one, without any ethical or psychological influences. The conclusion of the film solves all the contradictions, leaving no feeling of evidence failure. The story is complete and there is nothing to add.

“Matewan” by John Sayles (1986) is an example of late classical movie. This social drama falls out of filming style of 1980-s, as it shows a “different” and unpopular American dream: a story of the exploited immigrants in a small town, where a company owes virtually everything.  The beginning of the film gives a brief description of the place and situation. The main part of the action starts as Joe Kenehan, a protagonist, gets victimizated from the company. In the following scenes he forms a group of strikers to protest against company’s policies. The film’s composition is classical, however, it is not free from modernist influences. A spectator of Hitchcock’s film is thrilled by an exciting story, and in the  “Matewan” a spectator gets involved into action, feeling despair, dirt and dust of the narrative[2].

It can be observed, that the term “classical cinema” should be applied mostly to technical aspects of film-making – composition, editing, etc. Therefore, personal approaches, psychological matters and manner of telling a story may differ even inside classical scheme.

[1] Bordwell, David (1985), Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Washington: Columbia University Press
[2] Desson Howe, ‘Matewan’ (PG-13), Washington Post, October 16, 1987

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