Domino: Tony Scott puts his faith in the image.

Natural Born Killers: Oliver Stone here anticipates the postclassical turn but ...

... one critic sees the film style as merely a "scattershot explosion of images, with arbitrarily shifting colors."

Bram Stoker's Dracula: Using a formerly debased genre to ...

... draw attention to a novel sound practice and expressive visual style ...

... giving audiences newer ways to participate in narrative film.

Natural Born Killers: The hyperclassical and classical-plus go mainstream.

Children of Men: Hypothetical future delineated with restless camera movement.

Children of Men: Previously fixed motifs undone in a cinema and culture in flux.

Domino: Short average shot lengths, jerky reframings, and forced color schemes.

Domino: Bipolar forced perspective.

Man on Fire: Pushing contemporary Hollywood cinema to a state of agitation.

Man on Fire: Character psychology permeating the diegesis.

Domino: A wild aesthetic.

True Romance: Christian Slater enjoys a glossy moment with Elvis (Val Kilmer).

Domino: Domino, Ed, and Choco as a WB logo.

Man on Fire: Nondiegetic subtitles as an overt narrative device.

True Romance: Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette cope with late capitalism.

Crimson Tide: The submarine war genre as Mutual Assured Destruction of Classical Hollywood Cinema and High Concept.


Postclassical faith in the image

Tony Scott’s shift from Top Gun to Man on Fire and Domino highlights a knee-jerk critical assumption that proper film authorship is one of order and harmony. Warren Buckland offers a thumbnail summary of this preconception in his work, Directed by Steven Spielberg:

"The skilled filmmaker reconciles film’s conflicting tendencies by maintaining a credible world and, at the same time, using film’s expressive capabilities to achieve heightened coherence—or organic unity. An unbalanced, incoherent film is one that either pulls too much toward realism and credibility or does not exploit film’s expressive capability, or one that overuses its expressive capacity at the expense of realism and credibility."[11][open endnotes in new window]

When a film is “overdirected,” the authorship becomes mannered and obtrusive, interfering with the audience’s primary identification with the camera — the very standard Justin Wyatt uses to praise the work of Coppola or David Lynch in the 1980s.[12] Once Scott becomes intrusive and disruptive in technique, one must assume an evolution in Scott’s work that reveals an unappreciated capacity for change within the boundaries of postclassical commercial cinema. The other critical obstacle that prevents critics from appreciating the deviation in Scott’s work is a longstanding critical antipathy toward the “spectacularization” of high-concept cinema. Wheeler Winston Dixon, in his incendiary essay “25 Reasons Why It’s All Over” from the aptly named anthology The End of Cinema as We Know It, reflects a common bias that the postclassical is a symptom of decline and decay:

"The classical shot structure employed by four generations of filmmakers has been abandoned for a scattershot explosion of images, with arbitrarily shifting colors, frame sizes, film stocks, video and film images intermixed, rapid cutting — anything to keep the viewer momentarily dazzled. The courage to hold on to a close-up of an actor’s face, the patience to build up a mood through a lengthy establishing sequence (as in Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, 1953), the faith that classical directors had in the audience’s ability and willingness to follow them through a slowly developing and complex narrative — all these qualities are things of the past. Instant audience capture with a violent opening, regular does of violence and brutality thereafter (or ruthless sentimentality), and a cutting style that resembles nothing so much as a bored insomniac maniacally channel-surfing at 3 A.M., desperately searching for some image to hang on to — these are the hallmarks of the new cinema, where the viewer cannot be left unattended for a second."[13]

This fear of the postclassical replays André Bazin’s classical division between “those directors who put their faith in the image” and “those who put their faith in reality.”[14] What Wheeler and other nostalgic critics perpetuate is Bazin’s suspicion of formalism and conviction that film, through spatial continuity and temporal coherence, should achieve a metaphysical union with God, nature, and phenomenological existence. Like Bazin, critics confronted with the fragmentation of the postclassical, with its heady embrace of “montage by attraction” (and concomitant rejection of Bazin's beloved depth of field, most famously achieved in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane [1941] and Touch of Evil [1958]) reject it as a distracting exercise in excess. But was not excess what motivated Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage to address human consciousness through plastic form? Is not excess Brakhage’s attempt to share a sight on a vertical/lyrical level rather than through a horizontal narrative? As Kristin Thompson argues, excess (or Roland Barthes’ third meaning) can function as a roughening of form inviting “the spectator to linger over devices longer than their structured fiction world seem to warrant.”[15] Excess can cue the spectator to grasp epistemological or other ontological issues even as the film viewer experiences a skidding perception of the narrative:

"Once the narration is recognized as arbitrary rather than logical, the viewer is free to ask why individual events within its structures are as they are. The viewer is no longer constrained by conventions of reading to find a meaning or theme within the work as the solution to a sort of puzzle, which has a right answer. Instead, the work becomes a perceptual field of structures that the viewer is free to study at length, going beyond the strictly functional aspects."[16]

Thus, the postclassical, with its roughening excess, should be recontextualized as a highly expressive norm of comprehension that can be manipulated to challenge and elevate audience perception.

Thomas Elsaesser recognizes this dynamic in his analysis of Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Instead of perpetuating Fredric Jameson’s postmodern model of blank irony and loss of historical memory, Elsaesser sees the postclassical as a “split mode of address” that uses formerly debased modes of genre (horror, science fiction, action) to re-center and revitalize classical modes of narration through involuted time schemes and characters who represent the uncertainty of identity, race, and gender. For Elsaesser,

“the postclassical does not oppose the classical but emphatically re-centers it, precisely by making the marginal genres the dominant ones, pulling an unusual time structure, a novel sound practice or an expressive visual style into focus and dead center, without thereby neutralizing their unsettling aberrance.”[17]

“[It] alerts one to the possibility of different form, of audience engagement, different ways of being inside and outside when it comes to identification and participation.”[18]

Because Man on Fire and Domino stray so far from Justin Wyatt’s characterization of Tony Scott’s work in Top Gun, it becomes imperative to recontextualize postclassical cinema not as a deterioration of Classical Hollywood Cinema (à la Wyatt)  but as a legitimate structure of meaning in the 1990s and 2000s. Is Scott a symptom of contemporary cinema or does he offer the same degree of agency and resistance that Oliver Stone brought to JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), Any Given Sunday (1999), and Alexander (2004)?[19] Two recent critical studies of postclassical studies, David Bordwell’s The Way Hollywood Tells It (2006) and Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland’s Studying Contemporary American Film (2002), offer a more nuanced appreciation of the postclassical as a manifestation, not a violation, of historical poetics. While Bordwell sees the postclassical as the further elaboration of Classical Hollywood Cinema, Buckland and Elsaesser view the postclassical as a semiotic deep structure that can challenge the dominant order even as it acknowledges the logic of the marketplace.

Hyperclassical continuum

For David Bordwell, Hollywood cinema from any era has a remarkable “capacity for flexible but bounded variation.”[20] Bordwell describes the postclassical as a change in degree not kind. Values associated with the postmodern condition — intertextuality, playful knowingness, and spectacle — have been operative throughout film history (e.g., is the Marx Brothers’s use of parody any different from the Simpsons or Family Guy?). What Bordwell identifies as postclassical — or using his terminology, the hyperclassical — is an aesthetic “problem of belatedness” similar to post-Renaissance mannerism in painting, a moment when a group of artists must contend with the patrimony of a Great Tradition before they can master the medium on their own terms. The hyperclassical represents a struggle to test the limits of “flexible but bounded variation” — reaching for the signifying moment when Classical Hollywood Cinema becomes unrecoverable. On a narrative level the postclassical incorporates

“paradoxical time schemes, hypothetical futures, digressive and dawdling action lines, stories told backward and in loops, and plots stuffed with protagonists.”[21]

While it resorts to scrambled time schemes, multithreading, and network narratives, Postclassical Hollywood Cinema still retains character psychology and Aristotelian story construction. Bordwell sees the postclassical not as a cultural paradigm (à la Wyatt) but rather a formal tipping point when the many stylistic and technical innovations of the 1960s and 1970s became an impact aesthetic, a form of intensified continuity that altered the rhythm and spatial continuity of U.S. cinema. Bordwell categorizes those changes:

  • shorter average shot lengths, usually 3-6 seconds with a lot of “jerky reframings” and cutting on camera movement;
  • bipolar forced perspective — i.e., a lot of noticeable wide and short lenses instead of the normal 35-50mm lens;
  • reliance on closer camera distances, reducing shot scales to medium close-ups;
  • restless camera movement;
  • forced color schemes, either desaturated or high-contrast;
  • ramping, shots shifting from slow to fast motion; and
  • 200-plus degree coverage, violating the axis of action, character eyelines, and spatial continuity.[22]

Bordwell laments how the loss of fixed long takes, sustained use of the plan américain,[23] shot scales in camera framings, and unobtrusive lenses, combined with the narrative fragmentation and unreliable narration of the puzzle film, have deprived Classical Hollywood Cinema of its “graded emphasis”:

“If every sequence contains complex tracks, rapid cutting, tight views, and the rest, how can these flourishes be allocated across the entire film for maximum effect?”[24]

What Bordwell bemoans is how intensified continuity robs Classical Hollywood Cinema of its Bazinian mystique:

"While studio directors avoided cutting in the middle of a camera movement, today’s filmmakers feel no hesitation. In the old days, the spots at which the camera started and stopped were as significant as the movement itself, but now tracks and pans are usually interrupted by cuts, denying us a sense of a sturdy progression toward a revelation."[25]

Eventually the hyperclassical threatens to break the hold of Classical Hollywood Cinema altogether:

“As the zone of indeterminacy widens, however, our reliance on classical cinema wanes, and we must call on more rarefied comprehension skills to play with the ambiguities the films offer.”[26]

Bordwell’s insights place Scott securely within the changing registers of film style and offer a historical explanation for the growing restlessness in Man on Fire and Domino. Bordwell’s model of intensified continuity validates Tony Scott as a key postclassical filmmaker — as important to contemporary cinema as John Ford, Howard Hawks, or Alfred Hitchcock were to Classical Hollywood Cinema. Bordwell notes that contemporary filmmakers have three options in the wake of Classical Hollywood Cinema — 1) recycle and update it; 2) debunk it; or 3) push it further:[27]

“One option is to strain for novelty, to aim at bold strokes and tours de force, to replace calm with agitation—energy we call it—and proportion with wildness.”[28]

Scott opts for the third and most progressive option, allowing Man on Fire’s character subjectivity to permeate the entire diegesis, suggesting a Caligari-like loss of narrative unity, mirroring the increasing pathology and xenophobia of Denzel Washington’s mercenary-for-hire. Man on Fire’s aesthetic begins “wild” and increases in severity until Scott sees no reason to isolate Denzel’s perception from the entire narration. With Domino Scott appropriates all of the innovations of the postclassical and the hyperclassical and ramps them to such a level of abstraction and distraction that belatedness is replaced by a brazen rejection of intertextuality and spectacle as stable norms of comprehension. Domino is as intertextual as True Romance, but while Christian Slater shares glossy, shallow-focus conversations with Elvis Presley, Domino plays with the fact that it is based on an actual celebrity, Domino Harvey, the troubled daughter of Laurence Harvey. Domino takes great delight in forcing Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering — former cast members of Beverly Hills 90201 who play themselves — to sit next to Locus Fender as Choco detaches his arm with a shotgun blast. Domino enjoys eviscerating any media text that enters its cross-processed diegesis. The film offers glimpses of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Beverly Hills 90201, the Jerry Springer Show, the Weakest Link, and a fabricated reality TV program, Bounty Squad, a Dog the Bounty Hunter knockoff starring Domino, Ed, and Choco themselves, posed playfully in front of the WB logo.

Classical-plus semiotics

Bordwell’s neoformalist stance rejects any social-reflection or symptomatic readings that focus on the ideological tensions and contradictions that the narrative seeks to repress or resolve. Not so with Buckland and Elsaesser. Acknowledging Bordwell’s argument that Hollywood continuity still prevails despite its hyperclassical tendencies, Buckland and Elsaesser see the postclassical as a form of excessive classicism or “classical-plus” that puts a playful twist on Raymond Bellour’s symbolic blockage: Bellour's concept presents a structural model of a rational and repetitive surface structure straining to contain the deep structure of our desires and cultural contradictions.[29] While Classical Hollywood Cinema imposes a textual and narratological repetition-resolution effect that encourages the spectator to tolerate the contradictions of the text and the society-at-large, classical-plus cinema fails to repress the law of desire with its surface structure. The emblematic clusters of verisimilitude versus fantasy or linear versus circular storytelling fail to do their textual and ideological work as previously fixed motifs become sliding signifiers of a cinema and culture in flux. As the white male body becomes increasingly exposed and eroticized, a new mobility brought on by race and gender produces moments of condensation that open up the text to any number of audiences or readings. This shift from classical displacement to postclassical slippage allows the spectator to contemplate the contradictions of contemporary United States without being pacified by Bellour’s symbolic blockage:

“The ‘work’ of classical narrative—dreamwork, textual work, or ideological work—is becoming, it seems, the ‘play’ station of the post-post classical.”[30]

Buckland and Elsaesser agree with Bordwell that the postclassical represents the resilience of Classical Hollywood Cinema. Despite its excess and “knowingness,” it is still doing coherent cultural work, except now the postclassical must function as a emblematic cluster of sliding signifiers in which the “mobility and drift” of punning and visual motifs create surface patterns of “ambiguity, polysemy, and irony” rather than narrative patterns of depth and interiority.[31] Sliding signifiers — Wyatt’s concept of images taking on extradiegetic intertextual roles — become part of a greater cultural engine instead of the classical focus on depth and interiority fostered by the old continuity system. The use of familiar wordplay and visual punning generate

“meaning out of difference and similarity, metaphor and metonymy, preparing spectators for the introduction of a special object, multiply motivated and radiating signifying power at different points and in different contexts.”[32]

The classical-plus challenges the old binary of surface structure/deep structure that constituted the ideological work of Classical Hollywood Cinema. While Bordwell laments the loss of Bazinian space and time in contemporary cinema, Buckland and Elsaesser see the classical-plus as an open textual strategy in which any motif can become a sliding signifier that can destabilize a text, even as the film works furiously to

“disguise the ideological contradictions of cotemporary capitalist society and to enforce patriarchal values in the form of normative heterosexuality.”[33]

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