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Towards a synthetic analysis of film style

posted on 22.06.2017, 03:23 authored by Adrian Martin
This thesis aims to synthesise two, dominant modes of analysing film style: a traditional mode based on the precepts of classical aesthetics; and a modernist mode known as poststructuralism. Where classicism stresses order, coherence and control, poststructuralism encourages fragmentation, excess and playfulness. Rather than opting for one method over another, I attempt to combine the insights of both.

This task involves, in the methodological investigation offered by the introductory chapter (Part l), a consideration of the different aesthetic economies posed by each of the dominant modes of critical analysis, and also by various kinds and genres of film. What is the relationship between style and subject in cinema? Should style always exist (as classicism insists) to serve, reinforce, express the narrative, with its characters and fictional world? Or can style work (as poststructuralism argues) in the aesthetic foreground, for itself? And what would it mean to approach the analysis of any given film, director, genre or cinematic mode with both options in mind: the careful, subtle modulations of the classical text, as well as the performative, heterogeneous aspects of the poststructural text?

Beyond the gesture of ascertaining that certain styles of analysis are better suited to particular types of film, I make the bolder claim that the common ground of classicism and poststructuralism is an attention to the systematic logic of the filmic text. I see this logic working on many levels of a film simultaneously: on the level of narrative patterns and dramatic motifs (as classicism has taught us), but also on the purely formal levels (to which poststructuralism has alerted us) of rhythm, colour, abstract texture, and so on. I argue that the most recent innovation in international film study, the theory of figuration, offers an expanded, highly inclusive sense of such a textual logic in film. But, no matter which critical school I am drawing on at any particular moment, I try to keep open the options that have sometimes been closed down too hastily in the heat of the field's polemics.

The rest of the thesis gathers a group of studies, undertaken between 2002 and 2006, which reflect both the process of theorising a synthetic analysis, and its practical application. Part II disengages four particular elements of cinematic style: sound design (as illustrated by the highly systematic films of Fritz Lang), acting performance (taking the example of an unorthodox star, Dennis Hopper), and the interplay of mise en scène and editing (masterfully orchestrated by Robert Mulligan in The Man in the Moon [1991]). Part III offers three reflections on scene analysis: in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), three films from the 1960s by Jean-Luc Godard, and a group of works that embody or pay homage to a unique Hong Kong style in contemporary action cinema.

Part IV offers seven extended analyses: of the directors Fritz Lang, Robert Bresson, Raúl Ruiz, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Claire Denis; of a popular film cycle, the Mad Max series; and a complex, disturbing work, Fingers (1978). ln each instance, I attempt to locate the multi-levelled textual logic that gives form, meaning, force and value to the work, while also expanding the framework of analysis to include historical and cultural factors.

Winner of the Mollie Holman Doctoral Medal for Excellence, Faculty of Art and Design, 2006.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Robert Nelson

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Art and Design


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture

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