Book review of Thompson (1988)

Neoformalist Film analysis, or Designing a New Bookcase
(book review published in 1989)

If I were a librarian, I would place three sets of shelves in the film theory department. I would fill the first with works by the pioneers, and reflections on their writings by succeeding generations. This book case would have golden moulding and glass doors: it would be a shrine to a greater glory (or perhaps a fancy coffin?).
I would fill the second case with the works of the first generation film scholars, and their descendants. The shelves would bulge with texts on semiotics, structuralism, psychoanalysis, marxist ideology and feminism.
I would begin to fill the third book case with two publications by Kristin Thompson: her dissertation (a Neoformalist analysis of Ivan Grozni) and Breaking the Glass Armor, which I will discuss below. Since Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film would of course be on permanent loan, I would have to acquire a display copy to make this third set of shelves complete.
Thompson and Bordwell do not belong on the other shelves with their colleagues because they offer an unique approach to film studies. Thompson calls it ‘Neoformalism’, because she and Bordwell base their approach to film analysis on the art theories of the Russian Formalists, a group of literary scholars and critics in the 1920’s. A few of them (Ejchenbaum, Tynjanov, Shklovsky and Mukarovsky) published essays about film, and some of their texts have been translated into English (see appendix below), enabling us to see for ourselves how inaccessible their theory is and how difficult it is to apply.
Thompson applies Formalism to film research and comes up with good results. The prefix ‘Neo’ is appropriate: Thompson gives Formalism indeed a new approach. Her book contains ten examples of Neoformalist film analysis. Half the essays were published previously in journals, the rest she wrote for pleasure and in order to create some variety during lenghty archival research. The result is a book that convey an infectious enjoyment in analysis.
The Neoformalist framework
The first chapter lays the theoretical basis, in 44 pages Thompson explains in a clear and didactic way what Neoformalist film analysis is.
Fundamental to Neoformalism is the difference between the everyday world and the world of art. The everyday world depends upon the cultivation of habit, using routine to foster the efficiency of communication. In contrast, the world of art relies upon the disruption of routine by deliberately deviating from what is normal.
The key word in Neoformalist art theory is ‘alienation’. This term expresses the unusual perception that art demands. Yet even this unusual perception can become routine through frequent repetition.
A quote by Shlovsky serves as Thompson’s motto and as an explanation for her book’s title:
The fate of the works of old artists of the word is exactly the same as the fate of the world itself. They are completing the journey from poetry to prose. They cease to be seen and begin to be recognized. Classical works have for us become covered with the glassy armor of familiarity – we remember them too well, we have heard them from childhood, we have read them in books, thrown out quotations from them in the course of conversation, and now we have callouses on our souls – we no longer sense them.”
The formation of a solid film canon is still in development. There are just a few over-familiar film classics, but film art  does have a number of recognizeable styles. The film artist can focus upon several existing habits and expectations among his audience and could aim at disrupting them.
Thompson researches films in which the glass armor has been shattered. The question the Neoformalists present can be phrased as follows: in which way does art distinguish itself from everyday life? This open question becomes more specific by employing an outline of four possible motivations for the use of filmic devices.
Thompson attempts to exorcise the prejudice that Neoformalist film analysis only serves to scrutinize experiments in form. She argues that Neoformalist film analysis consists of surveying film styles and their accompanying motivations, in order to rank the principals of form determining the organization of a film style. Thompson defines the ‘Dominant’ as “the main formal principal of a work or group of works uses to organize devices into a whole. The dominant determines which devices and functions will come forward as important defamiliarizing traits.” (p.43).
Breaking the Glass Armor contains two essays analyzing the Dominant: Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Tati, 1953) takes as its Dominant the combination of triviality and comedy. Tout van Bien (Godard, 1972) has the story structure and viewer activity as its Dominant. These essays offer an inspirational example. In the first, Tati’s oeuvre is set against the genre of comedy, in the second, Brecht’s theory of theatre is applied to film.
Thompson mentions a number of possible approaches within Neoformalist film analysis. The most general variety is the analysis of the Dominant, it could be used to investigate every film. Other approaches are more specific, such as research into:
-  the style of the average Classical Hollywood film;
-  the possible alienation within the Classical Hollywood style;
-  different varieties of realism;
-  the parametric narrative style.
Unlike most of the publications in film theory, Thompson wastes little energy on academic reactions to her predecessors or contemporaries. She reserves her polemics with colleagues for footnotes or parentheses. It is indeed a relief to encounter a theoretician who is in the first place concerned about understanding and appreciating film art.
Thompson, Kristin, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988.
(the contents pages are on line available through among others
* This book review was published in 1989 in the Flemish film magazine ‘Andere Sinema:
‘Neoformalistische filmanalyse. Ontwerp van een nieuwe boekenkast’, in: Andere Sinema.Tweemaandelijks filmtijdschrift Nr. 91 (mei/juni 1989, blz. 27-28).
Russian Formalists in English translation
Neoformalist Film Analysis / Historical Poetics of Cinema
Further reading
  1. Bordwell, David & Kristin Thompson Film Art: An Introduction. New York: Mc Graw-Hill, 2010 (9th edition).
  2. Thompson, Kristin & David Bordwell Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009 (third edition).
  3. Bordwell, David The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
  4. Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger & Kristin Thompson The Classical Hollywood: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, New York: Columbia UP, 1987.