David Bordwell’s assertion in his article Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film, that modern American film style is not egregiously different than it’s older cousin Classical Hollywood Cinema, that the styles are intrinsically related—the former being nothing more than an intensified version of the latter-- seems very radical at first glance; however, upon further scrutiny, his assertion is not as radical as one might think and some will agree with this author that Bordwell’s conclusion is not particularly radical at all. In fact when looking solely at his technical paradigm, to assess American film style -- editing speed, bipolar lens length, shot framing (especially with regard the use of the close up), and camera movement -- one would be hard pressed to come to any other conclusion but Bordwell’s.
This is where I find fault in Bordwell’s essay, in his focus on the technical as opposed to the structural or the regional. Not that his conclusions are false, in fact I agree that given his variables and parameters, his theorem is proven. The problem lays in the fact that his variables and parameters leave filmmakers of the American Avant Garde, or at least the independent filmmakers, no real room to exercise their removal from the mainstream. He covers all the angles, it is far too copious. The intensified continuity argument leaves out any room for contention. It is in this broadness where my dissent rests. Bordwell in his thoroughness includes virtually every possible departure and innovation with exception of Third Cinema and Experimental film where techniques such as narrative intransitivity, multiple diegesis (with regard to time and space), group main characters, out of focus lensing, or perhaps the complete absence of editing at all -- one long take, are included in his theory.[i] He uses the advances of technology: film stock, (desaturated and monochromatic cinematography), and camera advances-- the latter also includes not only lighter cameras but also the advent of the Steadicam and it’s subsequent effect on blocking-- jump cut montage, axial cut ins, handheld shooting, and motion effects, all as part of his proof. These encompass all the technical innovations the American avant garde have at their disposal for cohesive narrative[ii].
What Bordwell has proven very effectively I might add, is if we take away the new bells and whistles of modern filmmaking then American film is well…American film. It is First World Cinema, the big budget, high production valued, imperialistic, consumerist, product of the United States. As opposed to Third cinema where all the real opposition to Bordwell’s analysis might be lodged.[iii]
And I state this with regard to the issue of censorship by the MPAA as well as the studio distribution oligopoly[iv]. American filmmakers are handcuffed. They cannot explore other elements of story in the same vein as their European or Third World counterparts. They cannot show nudity or push the envelope with sexuality in the way say French director Catherine Breillat might exercise or show an excessive criticism of government –especially since 911, unless in documentary form and of course we know there are no venues and thus little viewership for the American documentary [v], There simply is very little in the way of radical experimentation that is allowable in the American Film market. Thus even the most fiercely independent have to use some modicum of convention in order to have their films exhibited.
Bordwell really doesn’t speak to this fact, his analysis only addresses the mainstream Hollywood picture. He does however talk briefly about the convergence of the independent filmmaker to intensified continuity once they become more established (read mainstream )[vi]. Very few of these filmmakers stay on the fringes. Established Independent Directors such as David Cronenborg, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh and Jim Jarmuch, or the new lions in the midst such as P.T. Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Spike Jones or Daniel Aronofsky, all succumb to the conformity bug eventually.[vii] They may try their hand at the mainstream, then leave and go to the fringes again but the bottom line is if they have any commercial success independently then rest assured the indie director will soon be financed by the main stream. Hollywood in it’s intensified search for new talent and it’s next “ discovery” forces itself with the lure of big bucks on the independent director who previously, most likely, made a small, personal, heartfelt film which they had to make, a film from their soul, and now must make some pre-formatted Hollywood picture or worse -- remake their ‘”indie” film but now with A list actors and big budgets. [viii] Usually this phenomenon is received with mixed results at best. The most notable examples that come to mind here are Roberto Rodriquez, Charles Lane and Steven Soderbergh.
In 1990 Lane, made a wonderful feature length, innovative, Silent Film that won critical acclaim. He then was “picked up” by the studios and given a horrible script True Identity a comedy with a central premise whereby in order to escape the mob a black actor has to feign whiteness. We can see where the jokes would categorically fit. It was a disaster and Lane has never worked again [ix]. Rodriguez, made his indie blockbuster El Mariachi for $7000 and won Sundance, then promptly was snatched by the studios and paid to remake El Mariachi with a bigger budget and A-list actors –Antonio Banderas, Selma Hayek. The film was very weak but had the requisite explosions, sex and action. He then parlayed this “ success” to make mainstream films and has yet to return to the independent film form. Soderbergh on the other hand has had the good fortune to work both sides of the coin, alternating between indie and studio, with his trademark style infusing both, albeit more intensely on the indies, and less so on the mainstream ventures. In between those examples and probably the more common occurrence is the experience of David Lynch who tried his hand at the mainstream with Dune and failed miserably then returned to his bizarre roots with Lost Highway and his masterpiece Mulholland Drive, thus maintaining his independent / Art House voice and success, and viewership[x].
All these films and filmmakers use very different styles visually and more importantly narratively. However under Bordwell's analysis, they are still in the box, thus leaving the independent American director in the same category as the mainstream director which as I said earlier feels much too broad. There has to be some subcategories for the independent movement, especially since this movement tends to influence the mainstream over time.
What is interesting however is if we conclude that Bordwell is generally correct then what we are basically defining is: American film. He is stating that regardless of technique the American cinematic aesthetic is standardized. Why is this important? Because if we answer this question we are really asking ourselves how does the American film aesthetic relate in context to the rest of the world? i.e. What makes American film, American? This then leads us into a completely different province for discussion. We then are reflecting on Teshome Gabriel, and Getino and Solanas[xi]. Asking How does First World Cinema (read US ) differ from Second and Third Cinema? And more importantly, is the question Bordwell SHOULD have raised which is A) has there been any convergence between other cinema and Classical Hollywood Cinema in the realm of technology and style and continuity. And B) has the story structure changed with said innovation.
Looking at American Cinema as a whole and the issue of convergence with other Cinema around the world is beyond the scope of this paper but I wanted to introduce the concept because it is crucial to Borwell's point of view, at least in a very narrow sense with respect to any regional analysis. And while this regional component is important I think part B to the question is more the crux of problem in Bordwell’s essay: The structure of story and the technique employed in storytelling.
Lets take a quick overview of the structure issue. Basically, American film story structure is the element that has remained constant throughout it’s existence, not necessarily the techniques that serve this structure. The techniques most certainly have changed, or at the very least as Bordwell suggests have become more intensified (which in my mind mean different). Nevertheless, the story components – 3 acts, 8 sequences, 2 main plot points , A & B story, 1 main hero (usually White and male), star driven, Narrative Wholeness—lack of nebulousness in story ending, single diegesis, hero wins despite tremendous odds, hero gets the girl, the femme fatale, truth and righteousness prevail over evil, 120 minute time frame, etc – are ever present as are the accompanying signifiers for audience familiarity and acceptance. One may go as far as to say that the narrative of 90-120 minutes that maintains a 3 act, 8 sequence structure is by very definition Classical Hollywood.
With Bordwell in mind as well as the American structural component, I have chosen 1 film to examine—Soderbergh’s traffic to prove or disprove my points. That is to say that I believe, Bordwell is obtuse in his categories and that the American narrative structure is inert, not it’s style. I use Soderbergh because as I state earlier he has had the most success of any of the so-called independents and to date has command of both Worlds. Also his style is tremendously innovative with Traffic perhaps being the height of his success commercially and technically.
Soderbergh’s style starts with 2 elements handheld camera and disjointed editing. He edits, in what I would have previously though before this article, very rapidly and he continually jump cuts. In actuality looking at the Average Shot length (ASL) his editing speed is slow, ranging between 5-6 seconds which is similar to ASL’s of the late 60’s and early 70’s. This might be somewhat misleading however because of his sequence of shots. First, he uses few set ups and everything is handheld which give the illusion of a rapid edit in a way because you are constantly seeing additional imagery in the frame (I’ll revisit this idea again in the chapter on camera and framing). Also he uses the same set ups which also give the illusion of a quick ping-ponging of shots. Lastly he follows his swing and whoosh pans with still shots, although because they’re handheld they are not perfectly still. This again gives the effect of jerkiness that adds to the illusion of super fast cutting; and of course his action sequences are similarly orchestrated but faster.
Thus under Bordwell's first test Traffic is certainly Classical.
4. Camera Movement
As stated earlier Camera movement is one of Soderbergh’s true mantles. He normally operates his own camera (against camera union wishes I might add) and sometimes is his own cinematographer as well[xii]. On Traffic this was the case. Therefore every shot in this film with the exception of second unit work, is under Soderbergh’s auspices[xiii]. The staple of his camera is the free movement and the floating still.[xiv] It seems as if there is not one stationary moment in his films; yet while engrossed in the story we find there is so much quiet, and still reflection. This would seem oxymoronic but the magic of Soderbergh’s style is that everything else moves so fast that when he is still (coupled with the melodic score) the viewer feels as though he can take a breath with the character. Yet the camera is still moving almost imperceptibly.
Due to his hand held technique he seems to eschew big crane shots, overhead jibs and the like. He’ll move his subjects or shoot them at awkward angles to give the same effect as a crane or similar device. For example in the first act of Traffic we see a plane approaching while in a (2 shot) of Manolo and Rodriquez sitting in the car. As the plane flies overhead the camera pans from the policemen almost 90 degrees to find the plane then pans down with the plane as it lands. We then dissolve from the rear of the plane moving away from camera to the front of a truck coming toward camera. In another example, during the shootout scene again in the first act, we see 3 characters jump over a large train yard area from a ledge. He shows us this from underneath them and pans with them until they land, then we cut to another shot of them running in hot pursuit of one another. These types of arcing shots gives scope and a large sense of movement, very similar to the effect of a crane shot. the quick editing and time compression create the effect of a jib –to show the full movement of the character and to place them in space to show the odds of their predicament, or their next move. Soderbergh’s efficient and economical technique nullifies the need large scale equipment.
In relation to Bordwell under strict intensified continuity variables these usages are within the theories’ scope. However, I do not agree that this style of camera work is Classical in any sense. It is so frenetic, and unconcerned with perfection that it is in essence Anti- Classical. The constant movement creates a dirty frame (a concept I will revisit in the next section) and the whoosh pans and motion blur juxtaposed with the creeping still shot creates in my opinion a new text, a new language or at least a slang of an older one. This style was established in the 60’s and yes, has been incorporated into the mainstream somewhat – especially on television -- but again it is clearly post classical.
2 & 3. Bipolar Lens use and the Close Up
Soderbergh’s run and gun style does not permit much lens interchange. It seems that he basically shoots with a zoom and adjust on the fly tending to skew toward the longer end of the lens spectrum to aid his shaky-cam effect while staying short for his establishing shots. Also interior and more intimate shots seem as though they are longer lensed as well. One very noticeable aspect to his use of lens is that he tends to create a dirty frame—a less than pristine frame. This framing in the textbook sense would be graded incorrect. Moreover, Soderbergh does this purposefully. There are always other elements in the frame even in tight singles. Sometimes it may seem like a tight single but a shoulder or hand or some other piece of the other character drifts into frame due to the float of the shot. In fact throughout this film his use of close up is sparse, with the notable exception of the “main story” the drug czar and his family. Again the textbook usage of close ups are to heighten emotion and provide connection and empathy with character. He uses the convention for this effect, especially when he wants us to feel for the czar, his drug addict daughter and the czar’s overall predicament. He uses close ups for the other stories more as an introduction to character as they’re mostly quick snippets and again dirty frames as opposed to full faced, lingering, singles.
Additionally, the cinematography is quite unique in Traffic, to use 3 different visual styles, three different techniques in one film is remarkable and in many regards revolutionary. It represents for me a sort of anti- continuity issue a purposeful disjointing to aid in the overall concept of the far ranging multi character story. Three stories, three cinematic treatments. The extent to which Soderbergh goes to achieve these looks is extraordinary as well, for example for the Mexico sequences he extremely over exposed the film, used a 45 degree shutter angle (instead of the “normal 180 degree shutter”) to create a strobing effect, used various filters including tobacco for the yellowish-brown tone and printed down[xv]. He then printed on reversal film stock which required so many steps that by the final printing, the image was 7 generations from the original negative. For the San Diego scenes the negative was flashed by ten percent, which reduced the contrast and increased the highlights (hence the extremely blown out and soft windows).[xvi] The Czar scenes were cold and blue using uncorrected tungsten light.
At any rate, without digressing too far into “tech speak”, the main issue is that Soderbergh deliberately manipulated the image significantly. This type of approach is counter to Bordwell’s conclusions, although he does list it in his additional items for intensified continuity list. This usage of the medium cannot possibly be considered Classical if for no other reason than the Classical period did not use color for effect. And for the majority of the classical period there was no color at all. Even in the last decade of the Classical studio period, the 50’s, the injection color was used as spectacle and not manipulated for story telling to the extent that Soderbergh has done here. The “dirtying” of the image from a textbook pretty picture is an element of the Avant Garde going back to Cassavetes in Shadows (1959) and locking into the French New Wave technique of the 60’s. These issues have to be labeled as such and not simply lumped in with Classical-ness for at the very least --the sake of honoring invention.
As for lens use and the close up, my opinion is mixed. Yes, the long lens is commonplace and is an all purpose tool, particularly the zoom variety, but used in conjunction with a shaky camera style it may not be conventional. However, I will concede here and place this aspect of Traffic within the Bordwell paradigm. Nevertheless, the framing issue is definitely outside of his intensified continuity domain. Soderbergh does not use the standard shot reverse shot as his standard, instead using unclean frames mixed in with an occasional close up. His staple dialogue shot seems to be the over the shoulder shot but with the foreground undefined and gauzy. He also uses the wider medium shot for dialogue as well, in place of the rapid succession of full close ups we typically see today.
Thus overall I would say that Bordwell himself would denote this film as Classical but I trust it is clear I would not. The innovations pursued by Director / dp Soderbergh, especially visually, place Traffic in the Avant Garde / Quasi experimental category-- certainly not a true experimental work but not a Hollywood picture either—at least technically. Soderbergh even muses himself that “ Traffic is a $49 million Dogma film.”.
With that stated one would surmise at this point my conclusion is : Traffic is not an intensified continuity film and therefor not within the Classical Hollywood canon. However lets take one step further, take the step that Bordwell doesn’t, the step that mitigates his argument—story structure.
5. Narrative Structure
It is within the structure of the film that Traffic fully complies with Classical Hollywood. While it uses many conventions of Third Cinema—multiple characters, political in nature, non White significant characters, political intertextuality, documentary verisimilitude, and conflicting world perspectives from at least 2 different ideals —Traffic still seeks to promote the American film aesthetic. It does this by adhering to one crucial principle: It makes the White male character the “hero” and makes his story the most important, as evidenced by the timely use of the Bordwell conventions, especially with regard to close ups for this portion of the film, as well as overall screen time. Soderbergh and screenwriter Steve Gaghan create an A and a B story line from the Czar character and his daughter. The A story resonating in the form of commentary on the futility of the drug war and the B story how this fight is waged at home in our homes. It clearly intended for the Average white American to look and see just how the scourge of illegal drugs can and will, if left unattended, affect their lives and their families. And to hammer the idea home lets show America the worse case scenario ( in their eyes): White prep school girl gets hooked on drugs then is exploited sexually by a muscular, violent Black man who then pimps her out to pedophilic professionals. While Soderbergh may have been well meaning in a very liberal sense in the same vein as Spielbergh’s liberalism in the Amistad debacle, his attempt at political commentary still smacks of forced White, male perspective, with little attention paid to the more decimated Black and Brown communities who have been the overwhelming victims of the international drug trade. What about the little girls strung out in those communities? Soderbergh doesn’t address this as perhaps he has said if change is to occur it has to occur from the white middle class.[xvii]. Additionally, he allows the only reference to these communities to come from arguably the most hated character in the film, Seth who is the culprit that first gets the czar’s daughter, Caroline Wakefield hooked. When he does breakdown his soliloquy on the economics and racial perspective of the “drug problem” it is done in a half hearted manner in an desperate attempt to save himself as he is attacked by Czar Wakefield in his manic attempts to find his daughter. Seth says these empty words then is silenced by a single look from Wakefield. Thus, we know he was simply trying to save himself with rhetoric, dispelling any wholeness to the issue; and refocuses the audience on the more important matter at hand: finding America’s symbolic daughter—Caroline Wakefield.
There are several other issues structurally that solidifies Traffic in the American canon such as the implication that Mexico is the seedy brown other, while the United States, the hero and victim (helped by the tobacco cinematography).[xviii] Yet, any discussion on the drug trade in America that does not discuss America’s own involvement via the CIA is at best uninformed and unauthentic and at worst racist and propaganda.[xix]
Also on that same note in a very simplistic manner, the bad guys are the people of color-- including the upper class Mexicans, the Ayalas, (Steven Bauer and Catherine Zeta-Jones) cast in true American tradition with non Latino Actors which in my view is a troubling racist tradition in Hollywood dating back to the beginnings with D.W. Griffith and the infamous Birth of a Nation.
Lastly the ending only works for the Wakefields who seem to have learned their lessons and are now a family again whereas the Mexicans are still corrupt and in turmoil with Officer Rodriquez getting his wish to have a park for kids to play—a symbolic gesture but where is the Wakefield – like closure? The remaining surveillance office Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) gets his supposed reward and revenge for his partners death by planting a bug at the Ayala’s home, yet everything we have seen would suggest that the bug will not matter, because 1) if he has enough money to hire a corrupt attorney Ayala will still win or 2) If he does get imprisoned his wife is more than capable or 3) even someone else will take over and the machine keeps running.
I could go on here but this would turn into a full blown critique and I only wanted to briefly investigate the issue as evidence of narrative American structure. In the interest of time as I am well over the word requirement, I will let my initial thoughts ruminate for the time being.
However I will add one last structural aspect to finalize my points. The 3 act structure is observed throughout although we have three different stories. Each story exhibits narrative Wholeness and is cohesive with one hero (white and male) dominating the story line. Said hero is a major star (Michael Douglas) and yes, he get the girl, in this case his daughter; it is approximately 2 1/2 hours, and of course -- truth and righteousness, at least momentarily , especially for the Wakefields , prevail over evil.
Therefore in conclusion, we can see while Traffic although quite innovative and arguably non-Bordwellian in technique, does in fact, remain in the “box” and is therefore consistent with Classical Hollywood Cinema. The issue though is to which box are we referring? As I have shown, I hope very clearly in this paper the failing of the intensified continuity analysis when based solely on the technical aspect. Furthermore, it is somewhat useless to compare modern film versus films of yesteryear on that basis alone. The important issue is not to see whether or not ASL’s, or lens lengths are similar or in general how the crux of the criteria are the same, but to observe instead how the differences are relevant to the story telling.
How are American movies different today? Are the ways, mores, elements, values and conclusions different or are have they remained intact over the past 70 years? What are the conventions and what are the elements? We can clearly recognize that the Matrix could technically not be made in 1949 so why compare it. What we can determine however, by examining the elements that it is a very structured “fish out of water” story, layered with action conventions, romance and Judeo – Christianity mythology. Placed in this context we can now adequately compare it to other Sci Fi / action epics of yesteryear as well as the canon of American film in general.
Ultimately, Bordwell should be revised. It is a good starting point but needs to include the narrative and regional elements while also reducing its variables significantly. Once done however, I think it will be a complete tool with which we can compare films of different eras with regard to Classical Hollywood Cinema.
[i] The only avenues untouched are sound technique and film stock manipulation where not only is the stock used in a different environment from which it is made for, but the stock is further debased such as deliberate scratching or over exposure, flashing, or even bleach bypass ( the latter might be covered in monochromatic technique under Bordwell).
Wollen, Peter, Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent D’Est in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds.)..Film Theory and Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1999, p.499
Narrative Intransitivity is a term used by Wollen to discuss Godard's techniques for Anti -Hollywood Cinema This term is to denote out of sequence narrative while multiple Diegesis is the terminology he uses for multiple time –space issues in one film. An example would be; While following what we may think is the lead story we are abruptly transferred into another time / space to view another unrelated story.
One of the principal feature of Third cinema is the non reliance on the single hero but the group or multiple main character scenario.
Technology has allowed for a breakthrough. Due to the advent of the HD camera and a 2 hour Tape magazine, Russian Ark (2003) is credited with being the first feature film completely shot in one continuous take. A remarkable feat made even more so while watching the hundreds of characters interact. The rehearsal time must have been incredible.
[ii] The key here is cohesive. There are many other techniques to use however to further a story along in the traditional manner of beg –middle – end there are but so many techniques to use to keep an audience focused, especially if that audience is used to and set in it’s story structure. Also anything that is set outside of this box is then labeled in the art house vein which in America mean limited distribution and box office revenue.
[iii] Chanan, Michael, The Changing Geography of Third Cinema, http://www.mchanan.dial.pipex.com/chanan/third/cinema/htm p2
[iv] The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 was the first official U.S censorship board. These Codes were dismissed in 1968 and replaced by the rating system ( G, PG, R and X) which was supposed to allow the creator to have more freedom. However this became an albatross around the necks of filmmakers due to the insistence of studio distribution networks to have nothing more risqué than an R rating for finished pictures, with X being reserved for censurable salacious material, i.e. pornography. (X initially was meant for mature risqué but non pornographic material) If Directors did not adhere to this mandate they were not funded nor would they have first run exhibition. This reality is still very much in existence today. In 1990 the new adult category was created , NC-17; but again this has no weight if the exhibitors and studios continue their collusion.
[v] Breillat’s , a French director, made Romance (2000) a film that followed a woman emotionally abused by her unaffectionate boyfriend, in search of love and romance, only finds sex on her journey. She confuses intimacy with sex until the bizarre conclusion. The film showed graphic sexuality including a rape scene and sexual penetration . yet this film is not pornographic. It was released in America without a rating. I don’t think an American counterpart could be made.
Only in the past year has there been a trend toward the theater release of documentaries lead by the Oscar winning Michael Moore with Bowling for Columbine (2002).
[vi] Bordwell, David, Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film , Film Quarterly, Vol. 55, issue 3, P.21 and P.24
[vii] Aronofsky, after his Independent masterpiece Requiem for a Dream is now slated to helm the next installment of the Batman franchise. You can’t get anymore mainstream than that!
[viii] Robert Rodriguez’s independent success El ‘ Mariachi was remade into Desperado. It wasn’t nearly as good but provided a big payday for the little independent. Rodriguez followed Desperado with the mainstream teen picture The Faculty and then the monstrously successful kiddie franchise Spy Kids.
[ix] It has been a well documented critique of Hollywood whereby Black directors do not have a chance to work again after failure, unlike their White male counterparts.
[x] Lynch films are cultist and his viewership steady.
[xi] Chanan, Michael, The Changing Geography of Third Cinema, http://www.mchanan.dial.pipex.com/chanan/third/cinema/htm
Gabriel, Teshome, Third Cinema: The Development of Third World Cinema and Critical Theory, http://www.home.vicnet.au/~freeman/theory/thirdcinema.htm
[xii] Roberts, Jerry, As d.p. , Soderbergh hastens prod’n flow, Variety January 18, 2001
[xiii] Smith, Gavin, Film Comment ,
Soderbergh says that he felt it would have been difficult to use as many techniques if he had hired a dp. He felt he would have to have too many discussions and it would be hard to justify methods to the studio, if they were suggested by photographer as opposed to director. Also he states that he probably will continue to work this way due to the control. that it allows him. .
[xiv] . Roberts, Jerry, As d.p. , Soderbergh hastens prod’n flow, Variety January 18, 2001
It is reminiscent of Godard and with good reason due to the admiration and influence that Raoul Coutard the cinematographer for many French new Wave films has played in Soderbergh's development.
[xv] Smith, Gavin, Film Comment
printing down is a process by which the
[xvi] Flashing is a process which allows light onto the negative in camera to partially develop before the actual full development of the film at the lab
[xvii] Smith, Gavin, Film Comment
Soderbergh states that he hoped people would come away with n understanding that with illegal drugs “if it’s your kid, it’s a health-care issue, when it’s somebody else’s kid, it’s a criminal issue.”
[xviii] Porton, Richard, ”Film Reviews”, Cineaste (3) summer 2001 p.41-43
[xix] Castillo, Celerino III and Harmon, Dave, Powderburns: Cocaine Contras and the Drug War, Ontario, Buffalo, London, Mosaic Press , 1994.
McCoy, Alfred W. The Politics of Heroin, Brooklyn Lawrence Hill books, 1991.
There are voluminous material on this subject but these two books come to mind as an copious over view.