Film Style And Technology, by Barry Salt

From Wide Angle, vol. 8, no. 3-4, 1986. –- J.R.

FILM STYLE AND TECHNOLOGY: HISTORY AND ANALYSIS by Barry Salt, Starword, 3 Minford Gardens, London W14 0AN, England, 1983: paper, $ 15.00, 408 pages, lllustrations

Review by Jonathan Rosenbaum

It is a sad commentary on the narrowness and inflexibility of current academic publishing

in film studies that this major work had to be brought out at the author’s own expense.

Handsomely produced and generously priced, Film Style and Technology: History and

Analysis offers what is conceivably the most detailed account of film technology that we

have had to date, stretching from 1885 through the Seventies, with roughly one chapter

per decade, and for this aspect of the book alone, no comprehensive library devoted to

film history can afford to be without it. In addition, the book’s innovative use of statistical

style analysis, while problematical in relation to certain stylistic issues, nevertheless

introduces a new form of rigor to film analysis that deserves to be considered in detail.

If, as a “total” view of cinema, Salt’s approach often seems constricted, it nonetheless

yields a wealth of potentially useful material to many different kinds of film scholars.

As Salt’s title makes clear, a technological history of film represents only one part

of his enterprise. The historical development of film style, seen chiefly through the

historical development of film technology, would be a more accurate definition of

his subject -– an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking — and it is largely here that

Salt has attracted the most controversy. Describing his intellectual position as

Scientific Realism, “[which] can be crudely summarized as the view that there is a

real world, and that this real world is described by the established natural sciences,”

Salt is concerned with establishing an objective precision to his work which is clearly

at odds with both impressionistic criticism and much of the speculative film theory

that has dominated film studies up to the present. The virtual solitude oi Salt in

relationship to the contemporary scene has a lot to do with what makes him

provocative and valuable, regardless of whether or not one sympathizes with his

aims; whatever he’s piping, it’s not the same old tune.

Speaking as a journalist and academic who has often championed self-declared

(as opposed to unacknowledged) subjectivity as a potentially liberating

force — and who tends to value theory, criticism and history alike as material to

be scavenged for possible insights rather than as self-generated activities desirable

as ends in themselves — I approached Salt’s book with some caution and misgivings,

and continue to regard it with a certain ambivalence, in spite of its unquestionable

achievements. Without being qualified to confirm or challenge Salt in most of his

factual assertions, I have a natural suspicion towards any historian who claims to

know the “first” time a particular usage occurs in the cinema, at least when such a

usage is not wholly dependent on a new development in technology, and the

three examples below point to some of the possible confusions that can lead

from such assertions:

As far as using optical printing for reversing action and producing “freeze frames”

is concerned, the important film seems to have been Hollywood (James Cruze,

1923), but a much better-known example where the effects of these techniques

are central to the plot is René Clair’s Paris Qui Dort (1924 ). These devices,

though continuing to appear intermittently in lighter films, were never used

in serious dramas till the nineteen-sixties. (p. 206)

Michelangelo Antonioni was another film-maker important for his use of long

focal length lenses in ll Deserto Rosso (1964 ) In his case he was interested in

them as a means of producing near-abstract compositions of hard-edged areas

of flat colour, and a large proportion of in ll Deserto Rosso was shot with lenses

of focal length from 100mm upwards. As far back as La Notte (1961), Antonioni

had been creating compositions influenced by the school of “hard-edged” abstract

painting descended from Barnett Newman (an Italian representative was Bruno

Marani), though initially he had done this with standard-lens cinematography.

This was the first time since the nineteen-twenties that the advanced painting

of the recent past had an influence on film image composition. (336)

CassavetesShadows was original in that it was created largely through guided

group improvization [sic] , and this has remained Cassavetes’ practice ever since

in his low-budget films… (347)

In each case, Salt begins with a commonsensical assertion that then becomes

problematical as soon as he tries to make too much out of it. The freeze-frames that

occur in such serious dramas as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and at the end of All

About Eve (1950) throw some doubt on the last sentence in the first quotation.

Regarding the last sentence quoted on Antonioni, one doesn’t even need a contrary

example to question whether Salt could possibly assert that over 30 years of

commercial filmmaking, “film image composition” was never — presumably not

even once — influenced by “advanced painting of the recent past.” (How could

any historian claim to know this?) Regarding Cassavetes, further research

would reveal that the practice of group improvisation played a substantial role only

in his first feature; in a recent feature like Love Streams (1984), according to several

accounts, improvisation occurs significantly only in a single scene (Gena Rowlands

trying to amuse her family beside a swimming pool.)

Ironically, it is Salt’s own call for precision that makes such relative imprecisions

stand out. (On the whole, he is a good deal more cautious.) More generally, as a

corrective and challenge to film studies as they are presently constituted, his

methodology is like a strong tonic, and I have few misgivings about Salt’s frontal

assault on fashionable film theories in his first five chapters –- which, according

to his Preface, is what led to his book as a whole being rejected by American

academic press. Unlike he more long-winded and self-regarding disparagements

of Continental theory that have recently become à la page in the more apolitical

reaches of academia (as in the work of David Bordwell and Noel Carroll), Salt’s

objections to many of the same theorists are pithy, pungent and existentially

sound in relation to his own sphere of interest, and there is little sense of

grandstanding in the way that Salt delivers them.

My objections to Salt, then, have little to do with his dismissals of Metz,

Heath, Eco, Althusser, Lacan et al — although one might note in passing that

the refusal of the academic world to deal with his arguments has probably

brought a certain stridency to his tone. What seems more troubling to the

reader is Salt’s overall conception of film style –- a conception that is in

some respects inseparable from his methodology, but in other respects

demands to be viewed quite independently of it. Although Salt never

precisely equates devices, effects and equipment with aesthetic

strategies, his working assumption that style is quantifiable nonetheless

leads him in that general direction, and there are times when he appears

to be more concerned with “styling” (as in the way cars are built –- how

much chrome, the size of the fins, etc.) than with style per se, and more

with equipment and statistics than with art. This is not to deny that his

statistical tables, regarding shots scales, shot durations, reverse angles

and camera movements in large numbers of films are germane to

discussions of style, only to suggest that how and when they are germane

is not a question that is always happily resolved. The facts that, say, Ophuls’

Liebelei (1932) contains 100 pans and that Lola Montès (1955) contains

52 pans, 9 cranes, 54 tracks with pans and tilts, 62 tracks with pans, 19 tracks,

19 pans with tilts, and 8 tilts may or may not be useful, but surely the

pertinence of any one of these camera movements is more important than

any of the above; and it is on questions of pertinence that Salt most often

leaves one hanging.

In the final analysis., then, Salt’s findings mav be more relevant as a checkpoint

against the factual abuses of other scholars than as an aesthetic topography

which is satisfying in its own right. It is fascinating to read Salt’s account of

the method of interior lighting in Godard’s Le petit soldat (1960), and

frustrating to find that in all his detailed accounts of jump-cuts he fails to

mention A bout de souffle (1959) even once. Similarly, to remain in the

chapter on the Sixties which has provided most of the examples here, it is

pleasing to see Tati’s Playtime (1967) acknowledged as the “only film to

begin to develop a new form out of the special properties of 70mm film,”

and infuriating to see Salt short-change this same achievement by coming

up with a reductive and objectively inaccurate description like the following:

Despite the claims made by some people that the separate actions in different

parts of the frame actually involve different simultaneous comic interests, calm

viewing of the film shows that this is not so, and that there is only one point of

narrative or comedy interest going on at any one instant, in just one area of the

frame. The rest of the action is really just background distraction which makes

it a little difficult to find where the main point of interest lies.

Arguably, if “calm viewing” entails a refusal to laugh and a concerted lack

of interest in all narrative detail that detracts from a central thread, Salt’s

misreading might indeed be defensible as Scientific Realism, even if Tati’s

genius gets lost in the shuffle; but what is gained in such an exercise? On a

somewhat related plane, considering the fact that Robert Bresson’s name

doesn’t figure once in Salt’s index, it perhaps isn’t unduly surprising to find

him label Being There (1979) and American Gigolo (1980) as films of

“high artistic ambition”.

But even after airing all these qualms, my description of Salt’s book as

indispensable still, stands. It might sound like a backhanded compliment

to say that this book deserves to be used and consulted as one uses Leonard

Maltin’s TV Movies -– as a cross-reference and source of additional

information rather than as a primary text — but in fact, given the many

practical uses of Maltin, it is nothing of the sort. A Martian who wanted to

learn about the cinema and stumbled upon Film Style and Technology might

be dissuaded by such a book from delving into the subject any further, but any

self-respecting Martian – or film professor – who uses it as a backup source

will be amply rewarded.

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