pátek 28. října 2016

Narrative Structures and Creative Choices in Czech Silent Cinema: A Case for Comparative Analysis (Conference Paper)

Conference Paper: NECS – European Network for Cinema and Media Studies, Milano, Italy, 2014

In this paper, I would like to present my project of style and narrative history of cinema in Czech lands – in different words, historical poetics of film. Since my research is still in progress, I can’t offer you final results and final conclusions. I decided to realize something like a rhetorical-logical experiment – offer two complementary historical theses.

One of them refers to director, producer, screenwriter, actor and technical inventor Karel Lamač. Karel Lamač was as filmmaker extraordinarily influent on many creative levels, and although he started his carrier in Czech lands, later he directed many films in Austria, Germany, France, Great Britain or Belgium too. In years 1918-1952 Lamač shot almost three hundred movies in different filmmaking positions. I’d like to show you later – Lamač strongly tended to use of classical-style and this tending is really important for characterization of Czech film style history in a surprising way. But in the context of Czech silent film history, he was an exception - and that is the ground for my second thesis. In other words...

(1) My first thesis depends on Karel Lamač: although he represented powerful author-like persona, simultaneously he represented strong so-called “grouping person” – he congregates a lot of talented people around himself and together they created something we can call “group style”. What is crucial for us – that wasn’t the film company style, because there is only one standard factor: Karel Lamač himself. So my first thesis is that Karel Lamač was such an influential artist that filmmakers around him represent a particular stylistic trend, while separately each of them tended to a different set of artistic choices and preferences.

(2) My second key assumption depends on film style tendencies in Czech lands to 1925 in a most general way. We can ask: Why could be something so unimportant as film-style changing of Czech cinema relevant or interesting for someone else than Czech film historians? I start with a quite general but essential proposition: most of film style histories (in more or less formalistic way) are occupied with big standard-setting cinema like Hollywood, French, German or Scandinavian.[1] For me is the problem that these "expanding" cinemas seem tended to be standardizing: standardizing of production, standardizing of style and standardizing of narrative techniques. But Czech cinema is something we can call a small national cinema[2] without expanding ambitions. And the point is that this “standardizing 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. And what’s the most usual type of standardizing? Tending to the group of classical film aesthetic norms.[3]

 I’d like to compare the first particular and the second general thesis rationally.

I assume that Karel Lamač and his boys (so let’s called them L-TEAM) as a collective “classical” style independent from particular film companies indeed represented something typical for international film style history, but simultaneously it was instead untypical or even divergent in Czech film style history. Even more – film critics reflected L-TEAM aspiration like something subversive – something anti-national, pathetic and harmful.

But it is actually not important for my work argument that Czech film cinema (and probably other small nation cinemas too) maybe represents somewhat alternative film style history – not just defective and low variant of the so-called official international film history.

And now in more detail way – Karel Lamač and his nearest colleagues like director and screenwriter Jan Stanislav Kolár and cinematographer Otto Heller were foremost in systematically trying to understand and use the aesthetic norms of Hollywood style and narrative.

While Kolár employed flashbacks in his narratives extensively, Lamač preferred straightforward stories connecting several lines of film narrative and carefully-planned analytical editing. In their collectively scripted and directed films like Otrávené světlo (1921) Kolár and Lamač achieved unusually smooth and effective intersection of their individual styles. What does it mean?

David Bordwell in his book On the history of film style writes: „I take style to be a film’s systematic and significant use of techniques of the medium. (...) Style in this sense bears upon the single film. We can, of course, discuss style in other senses. We may speak of individual style. (…) We may talk of group style.”[4] Why it is so important and why it is so important especially in the case of the Karel Lamač and the group of filmmakers around him? That’s possible to read L-TEAM as a cluster of individual styles: a style of the Karel Lamač, a style of the Jan Stanislav Kolár, a style of the Karel Anton or a style of the Otto Heller.

But as we saw on the example of Otrávené světlo, collaboration creates relatively unproblematic stylistic fusions. In other words, there are probably many differences in particular stylistic or narrative choices between Kolár’s films as Příchozí z temnot or Kříž u potoka on the one side and Lamač’s Drvoštěp and Bilý ráj on the other one.

But these individual styles simultaneously represented parts of the L-TEAM group style and every its part is patchable with another part. How it is possible? The common factor is a systematic aspiration to understand and use the classical aesthetic norms when the primary aim is to tell a story most understandably.

Let’s look at the first Lamač’s feature film Drvoštěp from 1922. Just the Drvoštěp shows out Lamač’s drifting towards classical Hollywood narrative and style, methodically and with accuracy and sensibility. Every element of a narrative is there for a reason and is connected with the other elements so that Drvoštěp features a dramatically coherent narrative on two levels: in the city and in the country. Drvoštěp also shows his confident handling of the rules of Hollywood style: the 180-degree rule, analytical editing with an alternating distance of framing, the rhythmical alternating of shot lengths, and especially cross-cutting. You can notice a last-minute rescue in the spirit of D. W. Griffith’s montage, interchanging not two, but three, and, at one moment even four, lines of parallel action (with each having its own editing pattern). Unprecedented in the Czech silent cinema is the underwater shots during one of the climactic moments of the story, or the gunfight between the sides of evil and justice.

There are three arguments which I wanted to demonstrate on the case of Drvoštěp:

(a) Systematic work with classical Hollywood stylistic, narrative and thematic patterns;
(b) Intelligibility of the film form in every aspect;
(c) Fact, that although Lamač’s individual style – as we saw – is much clearly Hollywood-like than individual styles of his companions, on end there are no problems with the cooperation of these styles into the more general concept of individual style of the L-TEAM.

So, for L-TEAM as the industrial collective style sui generis is characteristic, what we can reflect as the regular tending to the cluster of Hollywood-editing-techniques and to the set of Hollywood-genre-patterns.

I suppose that every Lamač’s colleague probably knew it and worked with knowledge of this fact. It wasn’t something accidental, but the aware concept. Why? For example, Karel Anton directed “under” L-TEAM activity (with Lamač in leading role and Otto Heller as a cinematographer) film Únos bankéře Fuxe (1923). Únos bankéře Fuxe was quite a clever homage to Sherlock Holmes detective stories, crime-adventure films, and crazy slapstick.

The film worked with quite fast cutting rate (average shot length of Únos bankéře Fuxe is 3,5 seconds), classical analytical editing with a shallow staging and with classical storytelling structure.

But 2 years later Anton directed film Do panského stavu (1925) which is apparently un-classical: spatially and temporally confused editing, episodic narrative construction without a causal chain of events... and without any narrative conflicts as well.

Although Lamač has a tiny role in this film, very probably they didn’t discuss the narrative and stylistic structure of the film. So we can divide individual styles of filmmakers under group style of the L-TEAM (there are many similitudes simultaneously) and individual styles of filmmakers out of the group style (which are not compatible with L-TEAM formal techniques).

In which aspects is L-TEAM case possibly crucial for the international film style history and for the Czech film style history? How I said before:

From the broader international perspective L-TEAM doesn’t represent something so unusual: for example, Yuri Tsivian writes about the same two modes of “Americanization” in Russian cinema between years 1918-1924.[5] In different words, it is the quite typical case of intrusion of classical Hollywood aesthetic norms.
BUT from the narrower Czech film history perspective L-TEAM is not something typical – what’s more, it is not usual either: similar systematic using of the classical norms was almost aberration.

So, L-TEAM classical-like group style represented just minor tendency during the first half of the twenties in Czech cinema – I beg to leave to state it because I saw and analyzed everything from Czech cinema to 1925 what is preserved and available in National Film Archive.

Yes, we can recognize some international tendencies, but on each occasion, there are not typical. How I said before there is no clear recognizable tending to standardization – less so the standardization in the classical-style-sense.

Instead of the standardization tendency, we can speak firstly about simultaneous lines of the preferred choices of film techniques using. Secondly, it is possible to talk about different ways of feature film storytelling. And again, a classical plot structure was just one of many possibilities (and surprisingly not the dominant one). Much-favored were following techniques: more or less episodic plot structures, complex narrative with many flashbacks or cyclical storytelling when one plot-part varying another plot-part.

And finally the most surprising thing: not only that is really difficult to recognize group styles excepting L-TEAM, but it is complicated speaks about continuously evolving of individual styles also!

That’s to say outstanding directors like Vladimír Slavínsky or Václav Kubásek surprisingly didn’t represent just one formal line of the preferred aesthetic norms – they rapidly changed their stylistic and narrative techniques often film by film and sometimes during one year. For example, Václav Kubásek and his activity during the year 1924: he directed four films, and all of them have the same cinematographer and screenwriter. We can say it was the same filmmaking team – so… why are all of them stylistically so different? You can see that in part from next few average shot lengths of his films:

Jindra, hraběnka Ostrovínová – 3 s.
Dvojí život – 3,9 s.
Děvče z hor – 4,2 s.
Záhadný případ Galginův – 4,8 s.

Of course, that average shot length is epistemically problematic argument[6] – but for better or worse it still implies that these films have significantly different editing structures.

In the case of Karel Lamač and L-TEAM, I tried to demonstrate that cinema in Czech lands presents a rather specific research subject. The use of the same research assumptions as in the case of these big, standard-setting cinemas could be very reductive and be misrepresenting. I mean reductive and misrepresenting for understanding and explanation of (a) the poetic specificity of Czech cinema, (b) the poetic specificity of small non-standard-setting cinemas in a more general way.

In so far that is one of the possible reasons, why precise research of Czech film style could be eventually useful not only for Czech historians but for understanding another line of history of film style. The history of film style in which small cinemas will not be just aberration or an unfaithful copy of big cinemas' aesthetic norms, but rather autonomous, more likely alternative line of film style transform in time.

[1] See intriguing and inspiring articles by Richard Abel, David Bordwell, Ben Brewster, Lea Jacobs, Charles O’Brien, Barry Salt, Kristin Thompson, or Casper Tybjerg.
[2] Cp. Hjort, Mette - Petrie, Duncan (eds.). The Cinema of Small Nations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.
[3] David Bordwell, for example, found this tendency in Danish or Japanese cinema. Bordwell, David: Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic. Lisbeth Richter - Dan Nissen (eds.). 100 Years of Nordisk Film. Copenhagen: Danish Film Institute, 2006, p. 80–95; Bordwell, David. Visual Style in Japanese Cinema, 1925–1945. Film History 7, 1995, 1, p. 5–31.
[4] Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. Cambridge – Massachusetts – London: Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 4.
[5] Tsivian, Yuri. Between the Old and the New. Soviet Film Culture in 1918-1924. Griffithiana, 1996, 55/56, s. 39-45.
[6] For my measures and explaining of them see http://www.douglaskokes.cz/pdz/.  


- Kokeš, Radomír D. (2012): Záhada Václava Kubáska (blog)