P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Cinema

What you see is what you get
Reflections on European and American film practices

Edvin Vestergaard Kau

To speak of cinema, then, is to speak of the unique way that the cinematic process uses the film material. [...] The essential cinematic operation is this sequential linking of spatial images.

Gerald Mast, 1977

Pride or Prejudice?
One way of comparing European and American film could be by examining production methods, company policies, the distribution business, the national and worldwide fate of films in the market place, the competition between Hollywood and smaller national industries, etc. Prototypically, that is. In this vein, we are used to seeing American, commercial products compared to more artistic European works. But, are there not artistic American and commercial European films? So-called independent American experimental efforts versus European-produced speculation in the lowest common denominator? Of course there are.

Then again, one could argue that the market place, distributors' business methods and strategies, and theatres' programs are dominated in many places, not just in the US, but in Europe and on other continents as well, by Hollywood-produced mainstream entertainment, while other national cinemas fall more or less behind at the box office.

It seems that one can detect opposing tendencies everywhere, and not only as a schism between American and European cinema. Certainly, one can see aspirations directed in different directions along a continuum of film production, with a wide span of mixed grey scale in between. On the one hand, people making films at least primarily motivated by an interest in the medium as an art form, and on the other, people primarily releasing films in the name of the market economy, free enterprise, and unholy greed.

So, either way, comparisons run the risk of merely exercising commonplaces from a familiar, traditional discussion, which has been going on for almost all of the hundred years the film medium has been in business. Nowhere do any of the clear-cut extremes dominate on their own. For instance, artistic ambitions are not the main interest of the American film industry – and commercial enterprise not that of the European.

But what about the films of the two cinemas? How can we make a comparison, while both maintaining characteristics rightly attributed to the films by standard descriptions – and at the same time introducing nuances and some less conventionally focused analyses, that can draw attention to interesting features of both kinds of feature-film fiction? Through a brief discussion of some examples, I will propose some ideas about what is at stake in the grey zone mentioned above, thereby hopefully contributing to a little more confusion – and perhaps reflection – instead of the easy solutions of charting everything in black and white.

Continuity editing. Safety-first within the tradition
What does conventional film language, as seen in mainstream productions, look like? One thing, often mentioned and well known, even in early descriptions by people like Eisenstein, Bazin, and others, is a practice utilizing different ways of securing the coherence of space and chronology within scenes. Developed as a set of rules of thumb, this approach has been labeled ‘continuity editing’ or ‘seamless editing’. Tradition has it that this has been developed and refined as an editing principle in classic Hollywood cinema, with D.W. Griffith as one of the pioneering figures. These efforts to avoid confusing the audience as to the geography of a scene and the position of things and characters in it are described with great clarity in the book Film Art. An Introduction by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.[1]

Briefly, it can be summarized as follows. The so-called 180° system calls for the filmmaker to keep the camera solely on one side of the 180° line or axis of action, for instance, the line between two people talking to each other. If the camera (while cutting back and forth between the two) is moved from the half circle or 180° line on one side of the people to the other, the result may look as if one of the characters has turned his back, leaving the other – and confusing the audience. The key concepts of continuity editing, as described by Bordwell & Thompson, can be listed like this: 1. Establishing shot (the room or other space of action is defined, including the position of characters). 2. Shot/reverse-shot (cutting back and forth, e.g., depicting dialogue). 3. Eye-line match (cut from one shot to another, motivated by direction of the character's gaze in the first shot). 4. Match on action (cut motivated by direction and continuity of action between two shots). 5. Match on sound (off-screen sound causes characters to turn in the direction of the sound, and a cut is made to a shot showing the source of the sound). 6. Analytical editing (this very method of choosing parts of what is shown within the established space of action and putting them together in the kind of puzzle described). Finally, we may list as a 7th element the possible cycle of establishing, breaking down, and reestablishing (the established scene is broken down in parts, which are edited together as described, and as another person enters, the characters are redistributed/reestablished in the room, whereupon a new breakdown with an editing series may begin).

Continuity editing’s visual style is a kind of stylistic backbone in the greater part of American mainstream film output. If not invented in American cinema, at least it has been cultivated in American studios and used throughout mainstream film narration. At the same time, this is a principle of orchestrating elements of the diegetic worlds of films that has become common practice, certainly in mainstream film, in most countries. Of course it is not only used in dialogue scenes, but in car chases, all kinds of outdoor scenes, in cities as well as in mountains or prairies, etc. In Europe we see it in popular, entertaining movies such as Germinal, Manon des Sources, Jean de Florette (Claude Berri), or Pelle the Conqueror (Bille August) to name but a few of the thousands of possibilities. Also, this practice has been developed into assembly-line routine in television sit-com production, soap operas and other types of TV series, because it has clear guidelines and is unmistakable to production people as well as to their audiences.

Traditional practice in experiments
But, perhaps surprisingly, this "safety first" kind of representation is not only characteristic of traditional movies, but very much at the core of editing practices in many films that are otherwise seen as art- or even experimental movies. A few examples: In The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998), Helene is reading her dead sister's suicide letter aloud at the dinner table. After this final disclosure of his sexual abuse of his own children, her father demands some wine in order to toast his daughter. This becomes an emotional peak of the movie, because of the rejection and contempt he is confronted with through the silence of the guests as well as his family. The building up of this moment and its tension is thoroughly controlled through the editing practice that meticulously coordinates establishing shots, matches on eye-lines, matches on sounds, shot/reverse-shot directions, a whole range of analytical editing devices.

This is also the case in most of the other scenes. The hand-held dogma footage is held together by artful and very clever editing, to which it owes its impact. The conventional belief in the illusion of realism is abstracted into this editing principle, which may even say more about the artificiality of this illusionist view than about the film itself. Another film that not only plays with the tradition, but also relies, even heavily, on it, is Pulp Fiction (Quintin Tarantino, 1994). Every scene in it is edited in accordance with the classical tradition's rules of thumb, and – while also playing around with the narrative patterns – it relies heavily on precisely the knowledge that the audience will put traditional fabula elements in place.

Dancer in the Dark (Lars Trier, 2000) is an avowedly melodramatic story, clearly aiming to stir up the emotions of the audience. This movie being (a kind of) a musical, the interesting thing in that respect is that emotional qualities may not be found in the most elaborate or greatest scenes, or in the dance sequences (musical and traditionally melodramatic elements). Instead, they are to be found in the more intimate scenes between Selma and other characters. An example would be her relation to the female warder in the prison. But then again, these intimate dialogue scenes belong to the more traditionally edited portions of the film, e.g., with close shots and "naked" voices.

In relation to what has been said above about shot directions, their combinations, and eye-line matches, it is also interesting to note that the editing practice (that is, the manner of telling its story) of this film is almost obsessed with direction of attention. The way both the attentions of the characters and of the camera are foregrounded almost dictates the attention of the audience (or tries to). The camera work and editing are organized around a special variation of continuity, namely the combinations of the directions of the characters' eye-lines as well as their movements, in spite of jump cuts, hand-held shaking, violations of the 180° rule, etc. This obsession with attention (the characters', the camera's, the movie's) may even be that which defines its own kind of unity and what it aspires to in its direction of emotional intention and desire.

Telling more through rebellious – as well as traditional – style
On the other hand one can find variations or violations of the rules in traditional films. In The Maltese Falcon (1941) John Huston violates the 180° rule if it will add the right mood or suggestion of tension to a scene – without confusing the audience. The experienced film artist is able to articulate the cinematic material in ways that transcend safety-first traditions. Directors such as Dreyer, Kurosawa, and Godard all add to the reservoir of cinematic potential through their experimentation with editing. People like Melville, Kitano, and Jarmusch sometimes create almost geometrical patterns within their stylized diegetic worlds. Worlds that can only tell their stories because they look the way they do. Ghost Dog (Jim Jarmusch, 1999) and Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967), and Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano, 1994) all have their own logic and spatial definition. They are unique spatio-temporal constructions (just like movies of the continuity model, as the constructs they are, have their own artificiality, or artfulness, if you like). Most importantly, these very consciously stylized films create a kind of audio-visual aesthetics with its own spatio-temporal logic that demonstrates a vision of the world in which Ghost Dog and Jeff live (not just presenting plots in the form of events as narrative elements).

Even an old classic like Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) uses the continuity editing, the seamless editing, that is supposed to be "invisible," in ways which precisely convey more than the mere plot event (the fact that this or that actually happens in the plot line). Take the roulette scene at Rick's Café Américain: if the filmmakers were only interested in relating the fact that Rick helped the Bulgarian couple to win the money for their escape on number 22, it would have been sufficient to show the scene in a long shot, which would give a good view of all the characters involved, and allow us to follow their action and dialogue. But, instead, we are shown a piece of very elaborate analytical editing, with rather sophisticated combinations of pans and trackings, medium and close shots, etc., making the so-called invisible style all but invisible. The way this is told produces levels of psychology that are both something else and something more than an event you could have read as a description in a synopsis. Thus, even seamless editing can be practiced with a sophistication that makes it do more than ensure a continuity that will not confuse or distract the audience. As William Rothman writes, the meaning of style is the object of investigation:

The time has come for a re-examination of the whole idea that classical narrative continuity is "illusionistic."[2]

In the classic style, as well as in more experimental or artistic practices, whether in the US, Europe, or elsewhere, it’s interesting to examine the cinematic ways of producing meaning, and of capturing and fascinating audiences through controlled patterning of aesthetic choices and emotional engagement in cinematic practices. To find out how this is done in different kinds of films, it is my belief that it is necessary, in Stefan Sharff's words, to examine "uniquely cinematic elements of structure."[3] He also talks about "the primacy of form in cinema as the foremost means of expressing content" (ibid.). To further this inquiry and to better understand some of cinema's "laws of aesthetic organization" (ibid.), he points out on the one hand what is surface, and on the other hand what is in a way superficial, and what is the important object of interest in this respect. To find out how strictly cinematic elements are used in movies, it is necessary to view films "in a way which penetrates the surface components of plot to delve into the strata of structural elements, the bricks and mortar of cinema." (ibid.; my italics). This is the center of interest in European popular cinema as well as in American art movies, and vice versa. So, if you look closely: what you see is what you get.

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Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin. Film Art (6th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Kau, Edvin. Dreyers filmkunst. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1989.

Mast, Gerald. Film/Cinema/Movie. A Theory of Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Mast, Cohen & Braudy (eds.). Film Theory and Criticism (4th edition). Oxford University Press, 1992.

Sharff, Stefan. The Elements of Cinema. Toward a Theory of Cinesthetic Impact. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

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1 New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 2001; 6th edition, pp. 262-69.

2 Gerald Mast, "Against 'The System of the Suture,'" in Mast, Cohen and Braudy (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 194.

3 Stefan Sharff, The Elements of Cinema. Toward a Theory of Cinesthetic Impact (Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 1.

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