the style versus content smackdown - part 4

It’s becoming clear by now that, to a large extent, Emerson and Gelderblom are trying to set fire to straw men. But to sum up they key issues undermining their case for equating content with style:

Literalism vs symbolism: the thing about symbols is that the condition of their possibility is simultaneously the condition of their impossibility. For something to serve as a symbol, it has to be, in some way, totally detached from the thing it symbolizes; it wouldn’t be a symbol otherwise, if it is even possible to conceive of a fixed, necessary symbol. The absence of meaning, nothingness, is thus always a possibility, which leaves open the possibility of new meanings, new symbols, etc, but can also remain without meaning. Gelderblom suggests that people who see style in substance are more liable to “hit” upon overlooked levels of meaning, but the mistake is that the meaning is not something to be hit upon (remember that quote by Jameson?). Meaning is something that is created and created anew. As such, meaning isn’t some static that can be overlooked, but a dynamic process that is ever-changing.

The Missing Links: It’s not simply that “style” and “content” are different words, but that in ordinary, everyday language we make a distinction between the two all the time. In an informal poll among people I know, no one agreed that style and content are the same. By itself, this doesn’t necessarily prove much except that if we don’t equivocate style and content in everyday terms, why should do so in formal film criticism? Gelderblom’s complaint – that arguing that style comes at the cost of substance assumes that style “by itself is incapable of prompting any thought” – actually misses the point, just as it misses a key concept: information. Of course style is by itself capable of prompting thought. It is even capable of serving a communicative function, as is content. In other words, just as content is informative, so is style. However, the information in style and the information in content are not necessarily identical. To use an example. I could say, “It’s raining today.” (Content) But tone of voice (style) can influence how the fact that it’s raining today is interpreted; it can even question the truth of that “fact.” Hence, “It’s raining today?” Or “It’s raining today!”

So with all due respect to Godard’s sensible definition, perhaps we need to view style not as a property of content, but as vessel for content. In other words, style is the medium of content. This brings me to another key concept lacking in Gelderblom and Emerson’s discussions on style: dialectic. Without implying that style and content are opposed to one another, we could informally say that they’re the thesis and antithesis that come together in synthesis to make a film. When it’s a good synthesis, we have a good film (irrespective of whether the filmmaker starts with style or content). When it’s not, we have a bad film. If there is no distinction between style and content, then the basis for saying that is inferior to rests on shaky foundations. After all, perhaps dismissing Lara Croft: Tomb Raider arises out of a failure to appreciate what the film’s formal qualities are telling. It’s ironic that the very thing Gelderblom argues for ultimatly has the effect he believes arises out of distinguishing between style and substance.

To illustrate, consider a great scene from No Country for Old Men (minor spoilers!). Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) sits in his hotel room, tensely waiting to find out what Chigurgh (Bardem) will do. He calls down to the reception, but without the camera leaving Moss’ face and telephone-holding hand, we can hear the phone ring endlessly in the lobby. We then get a shot of the cat licking spilled milk. The implication, of course, is clear: Chigurgh killed the desk clerk.

What makes the scene so wonderful is how the Coen Brothers set up the scene in terms of shots and the like as well as the choices they make in what to reveal and what to conceal. There is palpable tension and terror. Yet they could just as easily have shown Chigurgh walking into the hotel and killing the desk clerk. The overall information we learn – that Chigurgh killed the desk clerk and has no compulsion about killing anyone who might be in his way – remains the same regardless of how that information is conveyed. It just so happens that the Coens chose – masterfully – to be sly rather than explicit. The moral of the story, then, is however much style and content work as a seamless, unified whole when we experience a film, analytic distinctions between the two are unavoidable and perhaps even desirable when trying to figure out what makes a movie tick.

For the most dramatic example of how and content are distinguished, we actually have to look no further than the fact that there some questions that references to a film’s formal qualities won’t answer. Example:

Did the character perform action X with a motive that is both believable and consistent with other character information provided by the film?

Does it make sense for event C to occur given events A and B?

Are the characters well-developed or merely stereotypes?

And so on. In this vein, we come full circle to what launched this series of posts. To question the ethics of what and how a film represents a particular subject, to discuss cultural context as Jonathan Rosenbaum did; all these and more are perfectly legitimate questions, as is respecting a film for its formal qualities but rejecting the quality of its meaning/information (or vice versa). A film isn’t merely collection of isolated scenes; it is a gestalt of cinematic elements. In my view, No Country for Old Men is an example of the former. It has outstanding performances and some truly excellent scenes, but doesn’t gel as a gestalt. Even if I thought otherwise, I’d still think Emerson is off-base with his film theory and critique of Rosenbaum.


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