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The Way Hollywood Tells It

The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies

Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 309
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  • Book Info
    The Way Hollywood Tells It
    Book Description:

    Hollywood moviemaking is one of the constants of American life, but how much has it changed since the glory days of the big studios? David Bordwell argues that the principles of visual storytelling created in the studio era are alive and well, even in today's bloated blockbusters. American filmmakers have created a durable tradition-one that we should not be ashamed to call artistic, and one that survives in both mainstream entertainment and niche-marketed indie cinema. Bordwell traces the continuity of this tradition in a wide array of films made since 1960, from romantic comedies likeJerry MaguireandLove Actuallyto more imposing efforts likeA Beautiful Mind. He also draws upon testimony from writers, directors, and editors who are acutely conscious of employing proven principles of plot and visual style. Within the limits of the "classical" approach, innovation can flourish. Bordwell examines how imaginative filmmakers have pushed the premises of the system in films such asJFK, Memento,andMagnolia. He discusses generational, technological, and economic factors leading to stability and change in Hollywood cinema and includes close analyses of selected shots and sequences. As it ranges across four decades, examining classics likeAmerican GraffitiandThe Godfatheras well as recent success likeThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, this book provides a vivid and engaging interpretation of how Hollywood moviemakers have created a vigorous, resourceful tradition of cinematic storytelling that continues to engage audiences around the world.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93232-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Beyond the Blockbuster
    (pp. 1-18)

    This book is about the art and craft of Hollywood cinema since 1960. In two essays I trace some major ways that filmmakers have used moving images to tell stories. The narrative techniques I’ll be examining are astonishingly robust. They have engaged millions of viewers for over eighty years, and they have formed a lingua franca for worldwide filmmaking.

    Naturally, during the years I’m considering, American films have changed enormously. They have become sexier, more profane, and more violent; fart jokes and kung fu are everywhere. The industry has metamorphosed into a corporate behemoth, while new technologies have transformed production...


    • [PART I: Introduction]
      (pp. 19-26)

      In the mid-1990s, Cameron Crowe decided to write “a movie with a real story, the kind that shows up on TV late at night, usually in black and white. For months afterSingles[1992] I had gorged on the great storytellers and character geniuses of cinema, stalking the video shelves.” He studied Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges, and “the incomparable Billy Wilder.”The Apartment(1960) was Crowe’s favorite film, and it inspired him “to begin writing [his] own portrait of the contemporary man, that faceless guy who puts on a suit and tie every day, Jerry Maguire.” He even...

      (pp. 27-50)

      We can see Hollywood’s judicious balance of continuity and innovation in the emergence of contemporary screenwriting rules. Contrary to those who would argue that today’s movies are mere agglomerations of star power, special effects, raucous comedy, and shattering violence, the dozens of screenplay manuals pouring from the presses have demanded tight plot construction and a careful coordination of emotional appeals. We can’t take these manuals wholly on faith—we’ll need to test them against finished films—but their consolidation of studio-era principles nicely exemplifies how modern American moviemaking pays its tribute to tradition.

      Few screenplay manuals inspire confidence. If you...

      (pp. 51-71)

      Most of the four or five hundred theatrical films released each year continue Hollywood’s narrative tradition straightforwardly, through practiced tactics of subject or style. The average filmmaker asks: What well-tested devices tell my story most effectively? Some filmmakers, however, have sought to refine the tradition, to explore its principles more thoroughly. These creators ask, in effect: How can I raise the premises to new levels of achievement? How can I revive a defunct or disreputable genre? How can I extend ideas that the studio system has failed to explore fully? How can I make causal connections more felicitous, twists more...

      (pp. 72-103)

      Hollywood’s output, from routine efforts to richly detailed worlds and hyperclassical movies, adheres to long-standing principles of storytelling. Is this system therefore rigid and unbending? No. Hollywood has always valued innovation, for both artistic and economic reasons. The talent pool has to be refreshed, people long to see something different, and the right kinds of novelty can sell.

      Any temptation to see the studio aesthetic as unadventurous should be scotched by recalling all the dynamic storytelling experiments that emerged in the years 1940– 1955. After two trailblazing flashback movies,Citizen KaneandHow Green Was My Valley(both 1941), Hollywood...

      (pp. 104-114)

      The action film has become the emblem of what Hollywood does worst. The weekly reviewer sees the all-engulfing special effects, the formulaic conflicts of cops and their superiors or the rogue male and the soulless bureaucracy, the car crashes and fistfights and bomb blasts and concludes that American cinema is sinking fast. The film academic is likely to search out the contradictions of capitalism or the crisis of masculinity (evidently one of the longest-running crises in history). Instead of interpreting these movies as symptoms of something, though, we can ask how much they stray from the norms of traditional filmmaking....


    • [PART II: Introduction]
      (pp. 115-120)

      Starting as an assistant to D.W. Griffith onIntolerance(1916), Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke II began directing in 1917 at age twenty-eight. Before his death in 1943, he made over eighty features, includingWhite Shadows in the South Seas(1928),Tarzan the Ape Man(1932),San Francisco(1936), several Jeanette MacDonald musicals, and many entries in theThin Manseries. Van Dyke came on the set every day at 5:00 A.M., laid out his shots for the day, and often wrapped before 3:00. He filmed only what he needed of every bit of action. An MGM editor recalled, “He knew he...

      (pp. 121-138)

      Four strategies of camerawork and editing seem central to the new style: rapid editing, bipolar extremes of lens lengths, reliance on close shots, and wide-ranging camera movements. Most of these techniques have been remarked on before, often by irritated critics, but none has been considered closely, and we haven’t sufficiently appreciated how they work together to create a coherent set of artistic choices. Further, despite technological progress on many fronts, the choices available to filmmakers have narrowed since the studio era. The strategies I’ll be discussing have become dominant, even domineering: increasingly filmmakers aren’t encouraged to explore other options. This...

      (pp. 139-157)

      I’ve drawn most of my evidence about intensified continuity from regularities in the films and comments by practitioners, but critics have also noticed these norms. In 1980 Richard Jameson observed that an overwrought style had become evident in the previous decade.⁵¹ Two years later, Noël Carroll pointed to a tendency toward “strident stylization” since the mid-1960s.⁵² I’ve already mentioned the critics’ sense that movies are cut faster nowadays, with Todd McCarthy ofVarietyharping on the drawbacks of the style: “Gladiator,with its fast flurries of action and jump cuts, emphasizes the ferocious speed and urgency of every move in...

      (pp. 158-179)

      We could trace the interactions among institutions, technology, tastes, and style in a lot more detail. We should also analyze changing sound and color practices, to discover whether these too fed into the style.¹³² But let the foregoing stand as an outline of some major causal inputs. What concern me now are the functions of the new style. What sorts of cinematic texture does it yield? What aesthetic problems does it pose? What possibilities for innovation does it open up or close off?

      At the level of stylistic texture, we can trace out a spectrum of more or less aggressive...

    • 4. WHAT’S MISSING?
      (pp. 180-190)

      Despite all the historical changes and local variants we find in contemporary film style, we are still dealing with a version of classical filmmaking. An analysis of virtually any film from the period under consideration will confirm the simple truth with which I started: nearly all scenes in nearly all contemporary mass-market movies (and in most “independent” films) are staged, shot, and cut according to principles that crystallized in the 1910s and 1920s. Intensified continuity constitutes a selection and elaboration of options already on the classical filmmaking menu—some going back quite far. Building a scene out of tight rapidly...

  7. APPENDIX: A Hollywood Timeline, 1960–2004
    (pp. 191-242)
    Bradley Schauer and David Bordwell
  8. Notes
    (pp. 243-272)
  9. Index
    (pp. 273-298)