The term classical cinema was coined by author’s David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, over 40 years from 1917 to 1960s there were distinctive collections of movies which had the similar way of storytelling which is established as the classical Hollywood style of cinema. The film style typically adheres to a set of unwritten rules which was widely accepted by film makers.
Kristen Howard suggests that ‘the formulation of the classical mode began quite early in the period around 1909-1911, and that by 1917, the system was complete in its basic narrative and stylistic premises.’
‘Classical Hollywood cinema possesses a style which is largely invisible and difficult for the average spectator to see. The narrative is delivered so effortlessly and efficiently to the audience that it appears to have no source. It comes magically off the screen.’ John Belton, film scholar, Rutgers University (Bordwell, Staiger, & Thompson, 1985)
For centuries the only form of visual story telling was the theatre, where audiences would gather to see many live performances. During the 1890s narrative films had become grew popular amongst the masses and Filmmakers sought to capture the same sense of storytelling the theatre had and transform and mould it onto a cinema screen.
To better understand the development of the classical Hollywood style we must first establish the events leading up to its emergence. Many accredit the Americans with the invention of the motion picture camera more specifically American Thomas Edison. Edison did not create the motion picture camera however it was developed by a team of editors under Thomas Edison. Many countries around the world also claim to have invented the motion picture camera the UK, France and Germany. If Edison was to be given credit for the invention credit must also go to Lumiere brothers a pair of French directors.
Perhaps the most influential directors of early cinema or some as historians call the ‘primitive period. This period is generally assumed to have begun with the cinema’s commercial origins.’ (K. Thompson 1996 P.157). The French Lumiere brothers made world history when they invented the cinematograph the world leader in motion picture technology, at the end of 1895 the Lumiere brothers premiered 10 short films in Paris these films were under 50 seconds long varied from a comedy to a simple shot of people leaving a factory, the night was a success and the Lumiere brothers continued to create with a focus on documentaries. The success of the documentaries accompanied by the fictional pictures gave the French an edge.
However, the Lumiere brothers success was short lived and unable to see the narrative potential of cinema the brothers stated that the cinema as ‘invention without any future’, as a result their fame was eclipsed by the narrative films that followed.
Cinema attendance and audience members didn’t go to the cinema for narratives or great stories in fact they went to see spectacles on the screen this type of cinema is what Tom Gunning calls cinema of attractions, the most infamous examples of these exciting thrilling one shot films were Lumiere brothers a train arriving at a train station Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895). Apparently, the cinema attenders were so shocked that they ducked and in rare cases ran out of the theatre in shock of the train coming towards them.
As early as 1896 films were painted hand painted with colour and toner to enhance mood and atmosphere, likewise those the films were silent films they almost always involved sound. Cinemas would incorporate orchestras or live bands to score the happenings on the screen and in some cases lecturers to narrate what was happening.
In 1906 nickelodeons appear they were widely popular in a span of only 3 years their numbers had more than tripled. By 1909 cinema attendance was estimated at forty-five million per week, audiences began to complain about unclear narratives in the period 1907 and 1917 huge measures were taken to produce a clearer and more cohesive narrative for the first-time editing promoted narrative intensity and not just shock value. For example, ‘Classical narration tailored every detail to the spectator’s attention; the primitive cinema had only done this sporadically.’ (K. Thompson 1996 P. 163) also as cinema involved film makers found ways to combat ‘the disruptive spatiotemporal effects of multiple shots and locales they accomplished this by constructing a totalised model making a unified narrative the top priority.’ (K. Thompson 1996 P. 163) This may be the first indication of a movement towards classical Hollywood cinema a longer and more refined narrative.
American director D.W Griffith led the Americans in this push towards longer narratives and in turn, played a huge role in the emergence of the classical Hollywood style when he first directed in 1908, his films incorporated in average around 17 shots and by 1913 that number jumped to 88 shots. Griffith faced a lot of opposition with the American studio system, this was because the Americans favored shorter films as the shorter the film, the more they could play in the Nickelodeon and therefore the more turnover they would have the more nickel they would produce.
Griffith can be attributed to introducing one of the characteristic elements of classical Hollywood cinema with the birth of the nation in 1915. The film is organised around distinct experiences of different characters. The camera was brought closer to the actors another element of classical cinema, it was also a complex story which focused on individuals which evokes emotional responses much like that of classical Hollywood.
During 1907 to around 1913 of cinematic history cinema of attractions was a popular form of cinema. Filmmakers of that era were attempting to create more unique images that transgressed the act of reproducing everyday life. This exact curious innovation of early filmmakers brought about Tom Gunning’s concept of “cinema of attraction.”
The term ‘cinema of attraction’ can be defined as: ‘a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.’ (Tom Gunning 2006 P. 382) Filmmakers of that era were attempting to create unique images of extreme potential, images that went far beyond the act of reproducing everyday life. This exact curiosity of early filmmakers brought about Tom Gunning’s concept of ‘cinema of attraction.’
Formally, the classical Hollywood style is distinguished at three general categories devices, systems, and relation to systems. Devices are “isolated technical elements” (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, 1988 P. 6). Classical Hollywood employs several formal techniques to place the spectator within the narrative (e.g, continuity editing). This was achieved through methods such as eye-line matches, match-on-action shots and shot to reverse shots which both contributed in avoiding disorientation of audiences – “thus the principles and devices of continuity editing function to represent space for the sake of the story” (D. Bordwell, 1985 P. 56). Classical cinema also includes the 180-degree rule a crucial element of continuity editing. The 180-degree rule creates an imaginary 180-degree line axis between the viewer and the shot, allowing viewers to appropriately position and situate themselves within the action. Cutting techniques in the classical Hollywood style of cinema help maintain continuity, as in the cross-cut, which shows the action occurring in different locations at the same time. Jump cuts are also used but in the form of an axial cut, this type of cut avoids changing the angle of shooting at all, but has the clear purpose of showing a perspective closer or farther from the subject and therefore does not disrupt the temporal continuity.
Systems consist of the functions that individual devices perform, and their relations amongst each other. For example, one of the many systems in the classical Hollywood style of cinema is narrative logic. The narrative is structured with an unmistakable beginning, middle, and end, and generally, there is an obvious resolution. Utilizing events, causal effects. The characters in Classical Hollywood Cinema have clearly recognisable traits, characters are active, and all typically have a goal they are willing to achieve. Characters are motivated by psychological reasons. The narrative is a chain of cause and effect with the characters functioning as the driving force for the chain of events.
Another system is the cinematic time in the classical Hollywood style, time in classical Hollywood is linear, continuous and uniform as non-linearity would lead the viewer to question the illusory workings of the medium. The only manipulation of time that can be found in the classical Hollywood style of cinema is the flashback It is mostly used to introduce a memory sequence of a character most notably in Casablanca.
Classical Hollywood also has its uniform treatment of space which consists of four key aspects: balancing, frontality, centring, and depth. Balancing ensures characters are evenly distributed within the frame. Characters or objects of significance are mostly in the centre part of the picture frame and never out of focus. The action is subtly addressed towards the spectator which is called frontality. Three-point lighting is also mostly used and costumes are designed to accentuate by separating foreground from the background this is known as depth.
The relations of systems refer to the relationships between “narrative logic, time, and space interacting with one another” (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson 1988 P. 6). Space and time remain inextricably linked to narrative logic.
Classical Hollywood films also have an inherent narrative style which exhibits a number of basic components still used today. The exposition this introduces the spectator to the principle characters, and the space or environment they inhabit. The goal oriented protagonist is the central character in a film. He typically offers the spectator a focal point for the narrative action.
The primary action is psychologically motivated, character-driven, normally by a character’s desire to achieve a goal. This leads to a question that forms the central enigma of the film. Classical narratives rely on a series of delays, which forestall the solution of the central enigma (typically, the antagonist).
Every narrative contains a series of cause and effect events that occur over the entirety of the film. Characters act as agents for this cause and effect, and events do not happen randomly in classical films.
The climax is the most concentrated moment of the narrative, being that the climax is usually when the film’s central enigma will be solved. The denouement takes care of any loose ends that the narrative may have left open, giving the film and viewer a strong sense of closure. Ultimately the classical movie aims to answer all the questions in the story through the course of the movie so by the end of a classical narrated cinema the audience does not feel unfulfilled.
Classical Hollywood also established many of the hegemonic ideals seen in the film today, as you constantly watch films you become conditioned to expect a certain type of film as dominant ideology. These hegemonic ideals can be seen in the classical Hollywood style of cinema, for example, a heterosexual White, male as the hero demonstrating patriarchal order. This male must prove his masculinity against an antagonist establishing gender roles. The Hero also typically wins the heart of a woman linking to heterosexuality. Lastly, the Hero takes on a mission, succeeds, and with that comes power, monetary spoils, etc. which links to capitalism.
The classical Hollywood style could be described as falling directly in between Realism and Formalism. Although the film is shot in a controlled environment by the directors, the environment must achieve verisimilitude by appearing realistic and therefore believable to the viewers.