The Persistence of Formalism

Scott C. Richmond

In U.S. colleges and universities, just about every intro to film class takes, under the juggernaut force of “Bordwell and Thompson,” a finely articulated, explicitly formalist approach to the movies.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s venerable Film Art has dominated that textbook market for decades (I was subject to it as an undergraduate).[1] And even if an instructor is using an alternative (I myself don’t believe in textbooks), it is very frequently the case that, if the goal of the class is film analysis (as it almost always is in intro to film—it is analysis, not history or theory, that we film scholars stress in our early curriculum)—then the pedagogical method is formalist, with dashes of history and theory thrown in as the professor’s proclivities dictate. My own pedagogical practice is organized around an attempt to get students to care less about “content” (whatever that word means): to detach from story and character, from the ambivalent elsewhere of diegetic space. To detach, that is, from a naïve sense that the real action in an aesthetic encounter is always somehow somewhere else.[2] To observe instead what takes place here: in this room, on this screen, in this body.

It’s not just film, and it’s not just the distraction of diegesis. Contemporary media, disseminated across networks both broadcast and digital, foster an anxiety that the real action is always somewhere other than where we are. Perhaps amazingly (although it will come as no surprise to anybody who teaches about aesthetics) it takes an elaborated effort to attend to the immanence of an aesthetic encounter. In my own work, it is phenomenology that orients attention to such immanence, that animates a practice of detachment. When it comes to our teaching, however, it is formalism that initiates students into a posture of detachment. Shot-by-shot analysis plays out below the story; segmentation grasps the film structurally, above the story. Under the tutelage of “Bordwell and Thompson,” or subjected to essays from Shklovsky and Bellour and Bordwell and Thompson, students learn to analyze films in terms of, and by means of, their form: editing, mise-en-scène, fabula/syuzhet or histoire/récit, and so on.[3] When the dominant mode of our aesthetic objects is the noisy dreck of Hollywood blockbuster melodrama, one refuge from bombast is form.

Despite this disciplinary investment in form, largely unspoken and mostly untheorized, Eugenie Brinkema has argued that much recent scholarship in the humanities, and in film studies in particular, has been invested in affect in a way that occludes the work of form and relieves scholars of the burden of scholarship, which she understands as reading: “the affection for affect has itself been subsumed by a more powerful yearning for a standing before or outside of the very moment in theory that demanded the deep attention required for interminable difficult reading.”[4] Brinkema’s diagnosis and prescription: “affect is not where reading is no longer needed” (xiv, emphasis in original). Her theoretical and methodological lesson is that affect indexes where we need to read, read more, read better, read with difficulty, read interminably. And in doing so, we need to read for form. At the very moment of “vague shuddering intensity” (xv) when form’s structure seems to dissipate or wane, seems no longer to hold, seems no longer to explain what takes place in the aesthetic encounter—that is where we must work to discover form at work.

At the site of form, then, a contradiction: form is the most elementary thing in the discipline, what we teach our students first; it is where we build a small space for thought and critical reflection in our encounter with mass culture; it is also the thing humanities scholars have apparently rebelled against en masse, or at least have forgotten; it is the opposing term to intensity; it is what we must read for, as though we have lost our way on the way to form. In Brinkema’s accounting, form is easily missed, difficult to render. To some extent, her claims about form depend upon a recasting of the meaning of the term. If for Bordwell and Thompson form is a reasonably consistent set of possible techniques and patterns for making meaning in film, and therefore formalism is a reasonably consistent and discrete approach for describing and analyzing such techniques and patterns, for Brinkema, form is the goal of a highly deconstructive practice of reading that attends, for example in Psycho, not to shots or cuts or lighting or any of the other things Bordwell and Thompson might usually understand as form—but rather to a single tear that falls from Marion’s face, which may not be a tear after all.[5]

Perhaps this opposition is not after all so great as all that: a formalism of shots and a formalism of affects share a conviction that an analysis of form brings you to an encounter with the otherwise hidden dimensions of a film. Formalism is revelatory: it is a method, or comprises many methods, for making manifest and articulating what is otherwise hidden in an aesthetic encounter. Notwithstanding Bordwell’s cranky polemics against “belletrist” and “mystifying” film theory[6] and Brinkema’s frustration with affect theory’s “vague shuddering intensity,” both place their faith in form—and in practices of reading with, or for, form—as that aspect of an aesthetic encounter which, when read properly, can make explicit our otherwise inchoate, vague, unreflected, unconscious, or habitual responses to our encounters with films (or with any aesthetic object whatever). If we can articulate form, we can describe (or begin to describe) the critical importance and seemingly magical force of our aesthetic encounters. Formalism gives us tools for such articulation, and does so in the service of a faith that we ought to be articulate about our affects and our aesthetics, that such articulation will reveal something. What, exactly, formalism will reveal, what it will allow us to say about its revelation: this is subject to a bit more debate. The constant is the analysis of form as a practice of putting-into-discourse a something that would otherwise remain latent or hidden.

To the extent that it makes sense to speak of formalism’s faith in x, or to group together rather distinctly different scholarly practices and attachments as belonging somehow to an overarching formalism—in short, to the extent it makes sense to speak about Brinkema and Bordwell together in this way—it does so precisely because formalism names the impulse to dilate the aesthetic encounter as such, to prolong it by means of analysis and reading.[7] To build, after all that, a small space for thought, reflection, even for mystery, in the noisy mess of capitalist cultural production. Not to let the encounter evanesce.

And yet, form is also the other of content (or, if you’re Aristotle, of matter).[8] Formalism is the opposite of interpretation, in Sontag’s sense of the term.[9] Interpretation is supposed to reveal hidden meaning, to disclose more content, or an esoteric, truer content. Formalism reveals instead something hidden, yet nevertheless also given, in our perception and our feeling. Formalism addresses the sensuous impact of the work, at the level of surface, but this surface is not mere surface. (A good student of Deleuze, Brinkema says that it folds.) Formalism makes no allegorical claims; it discloses not a hidden meaning but a hidden structure of feeling the work puts into operation; it suggests that what is most difficult, or at least most urgent, in an encounter is not its meaning but rather its impersonal force in the registers of perception and affect; and it places its faith in the reflective articulation of these structures and forces, these percepts and affects, these aesthetic encounters.[10]

I have my doubts about aesthetic investments which demand articulation, which place their faith in the critical rendering of encounters in discourse, and which value reflection over perception or affect.[11] This is not only because contemporary aesthetics—blockbusters as well as our ubiquitous computational and networked media—so rarely call for articulate acknowledgment. I am, nevertheless, quite sympathetic with these impulses to attend very closely to these encounters, and not only because the intensities (however vague and shuddering) are worth holding onto and drawing out. Formalist attention clears some space for reflection, and reflection is hard and should be fostered wherever it is found. More to the point, however, it provides an alternative to hermeneutic parsing of such encounters in which the real action is always somewhere else. How could action elsewhere really matter to me, if this action here in which I find myself enmeshed, didn’t also matter? Perhaps formalism helps salve the peculiar anxiety, driven by our networked media (broadcast and digital) and given shape by various hermeneutic practices (psychoanalysis, Marxism, and so on) that the real action is always somewhere else. Wherever you go, there you are. Formalism is often an epithet leveled at those who do not wish to deal with politics, and may sometimes be the appropriate epithet.[12] But a desire to avoid politics is not necessarily pathological. And holding open a space that is not yet political may even be good politics. Formalism at least helps me say how the action here is real. From the very common perspective in which our aesthetic artifacts and encounters accrue value by virtue of what it is that we can say about them, formalism is valuable, indeed. Then again, perhaps I don’t really need to say anything at all; perhaps what takes place here might merely be felt, can only really be felt, acknowledged less by saying than by smiling, laughing, crying, or screaming.[13]

It is very easy to generalize about the contemporary humanities, although very difficult to do so well. To end, I will not hazard yet another generalization, but rather a wish. It seems to me that we have seen increasing desires to find kinds of humanistic analysis that aren’t quite so organized by the subject and its objects (or vice versa), whether this take the form of affect theory, or speculative realism and OOO, or what Richard Grusin calls the nonhuman turn.[14] My wish is this: if we turn away from the subject, and from experience, and towards affects and nonhuman others, that we do not forget how to elaborate the shape and contour of an encounter that can only happen here. Formalism’s articulation may be one way to persist in that.

[1]. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 10th edition (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2012). For their more scholarly formalist work, see especially Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). Among Bordwell’s work, start with The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

[2]. To be sure, formalism may also offer a certain detachment from a sophisticated sense that the real action is somewhere else, under the influence of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, or others.

[3]. In addition to the Bordwell, Thompson, and Bordwell and Thompson above: Raymond Bellour, The Analysis of Film, ed. Constance Penley (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), and Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 3–24.

[4]. Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), xiv. Subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

[5]. As Brinkema describes at length in her first chapter of The Forms of the Affects, “A Tear that Does Not Drop, But Folds.”

[6]. As in, for example, David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, eds., Post Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996).

[7]. I mean the term prolong in the sense Shklovsky gives it, as the primary work of the aesthetic, in “Art as Technique,” 12.

[8]. Aristotle’s doctrine of form and matter comes in Book II of the Physics.

[9]. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1966), 3–14.

[10]. I want to stress here that my language is perhaps closer to Brinkema’s, and so it may seem that I am speaking primarily of The Forms of the Affects. But this is equally true as well of the sort of formalism Bordwell and Thompson offer in The Way Hollywood Tells It and Breaking the Glass Armor, among other places.

[11]. In fact, this is a main theme of much of my writing. It is the major polemical target, under the heading of modernism, in Richmond, Resonant Perception: Cinema, Phenomenology, Illusion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2016). It is also manifest in “‘Dude, that’s just wrong’: Mimesis, Identification, Jackass,World Picture 6 (2011): np.; and “Vulgar Boredom, or What Andy Warhol Can Teach Us About Candy Crush,” Journal of Visual Culture 14 no. 1 (2015): 21–39.

[12]. An epithet I have seen levied at Brinkema in various lectures; I do not think I need to rehearse the familiar criticisms of Bordwell and Thompson.

[13]. Here I am not only restating my own hesitations about the value of articulation, but explicitly riffing on Linda Williams, “Body Genres: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly vol. 44, n. 4 (1991): 2-13.

[14]. Richard Grusin, ed., The Nonhuman Turn (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).


Scott C. Richmond is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies in the Department of English at Wayne State University, where his teaching and research focus on experimental media forms, film and media theory, and phenomenology. His work has appeared, among other places, in World Picture, Discourse, Cinema Journal, and most recently in the Journal of Visual Culture. He is co-editor, with Elizabeth Reich, of a special issue of Film Criticism entitled “New Approaches to Cinematic Identification.” His first book, Cinema’s Bodily Illusions: Flying, Floating, and Hallucinating, is forthcoming in October 2016 from the University of Minnesota Press.