The aim of my research is to propose a history of Czech film style and storytelling, in other words, historical poetics of Czech cinema. My central tool is a detailed shot by shot and sometimes frame by frame style analysis of each film or sample of films. I ask for functions of distinct components, functions of distinct techniques, or functions of stylistic trends in the most general way. I’d like to catch up, describe and explain specific stylistic trends in Czech cinema history, ask why already these trends and ask for their transforming during history. My research has been following certain traditions of formal analysis and historical poetics: Russian formalism, Prague structuralism, Barry Salt’s statistical analysis of cinema, and mainly David Bordwell's and Kristin Thompson's neoformalist (historical) poetics of cinema.
A crucial question is: “Why?” A possible answer would be: “Because it already doesn’t exist.” So you can ask me: “How could be something so unimportant like film style evolution of Czech Cinema useful for everyone excepting Czech historians?” I’ll try to make out fairly basic and work answers here, and I hope that definitive answers furnish my next research.
I start with a fairly general but fundamental proposition: almost all of film style histories (written in the more or less formalistic way) have been occupied with big standard-setting cinemas like Hollywood, French, German or Scandinavian. (See mostly excellent and inspiring articles by David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Barry Salt, Ben Brewster, Lea Jacobs, or Charles O’Brien.) For me, it is a problem that every of these "expanding" cinemas tended to be standardised: standardised in production, in style and narrative techniques.
In other words, these big expanding cinemas tended to one group of aesthetic norms, a group of preferred artistic choices, how solved specific creative problems: how to create narrative space, how to develop narrative time, how to narrate or how to represent more or less abstract meanings.
Czech cinema is a so-called small nation cinema without expanding and exporting ambitions. And the point is that this “standardising requirement” was very weak during (not just only) silent era and didn’t have trendsetting character transforming or creating national film style as a whole. I have a few basic hypotheses about Czech cinema before 1925 – I’ll work with postulates of film style histories of big standard-setting cinemas and compare them with my up to now results:
1) Non-plausibility of dividing international film style tendencies during the silent era to the tableau style and analytical editing: In the Czech cinema, I identified a combination of these two tendencies and simultaneously using other techniques in the 1910s and 1920s.
2) Non-plausible anticipation of a tendency to classical Hollywood film style and narrative: In the Czech cinema, there were a few parallel stylistic and narrative tendencies, but only one of them inclined to so-called classical norms. (Cf. Bordwell – Staiger – Thompson /1985/: The Classical Hollywood Cinema.)
3) Inconsistencies in creating and using specific aesthetic norms: There were a few parallel groups of filmmakers with very different (a) preferred choices of film techniques, and (b) use of the same film techniques, in Czech cinema during the 1910s and 1920s.
4) Diverse approaches to feature film storytelling: A classical plot structure was just one of many possibilities (and surprisingly not the dominant one). The much-favoured were: more or less episodic plot structures, complex storytelling with many flashbacks or cyclical storytelling when one plot-part varying another plot-part.
5) Strong impingement of non-cinematic effects: Czech cinema followed traditions of the cabaret culture, popular literature narrative structures, adaptations of current more or less nationalistic topics. Eventual preffering of international film techniques was selective and unsystematic.
Czech cinema, as a type of the small nation cinema, presents a rather specific research subject. The use of the same research assumptions as in the case of big, standard-setting cinemas could be very reductive and misrepresenting. I mean reductive and misrepresenting for understanding and explanation of (a) poetic specificity of Czech cinema and (b) the poetic specificity of small nation cinemas in a more general way.
That’s the reason why to precise research of Czech film style could be eventually useful not just for Czech historians but for understanding of another trajectory of the history of film style. Of a history of film style, in which small cinemas will not be just an aberration or a wrong copy of big cinemas' aesthetic norms but rather the autonomous, alternative trajectory of film style transformation in time.
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