Film Style And Technology, by Barry Salt

From Wide Angle, vol. 8, no. 3-4, 1986. –- J.R.



Salt, Starword, 3 Minford Gardens,

London W14 0AN, England, 1983:

paper, $ 15.00, 408 pages, lllustrations

It is a sad commentary on the

narrowness and inflexibility of current

academic publishing in film studies

that this major work had to be brought

out at the author’s own expense.

Handsomely produced and generously

priced, Film Style and Technology:

History and Analysis offers what is

conceivably the most detailed account

of film technology that we have had to

date, stretching from 1885 through the

Seventies, with roughly one chapter per

decade, and for this aspect of the book

alone, no comprehensive library devoted

to film history can afford to be without it.

In addition, the book’s innovative use of

statistical style analysis, while

problematical in relation to certain stylistic

issues, nevertheless introduces a new form

of rigor to film analysis that deserves to be

considered in detail.

If, as a “total” view of cinema, Salt’s approach

often seems constricted, it nonetheless yields

a wealth of potentially useful material to many

different kinds of film scholars. As Salt’s title

makes clear, a technological history of film

represents only one part of his enterprise. The

historical development of film style, seen chiefly

through the historical development of film

technology, would be a more accurate

definition of his subject -– an extraordinarily

ambitious undertaking — and it is largely here

that Salt has attracted the most controversy.

Describing his intellectual position as Scientific

Realism, “[which] can be crudely summarized

as the view that there is a real world, and that

this real world is described by the established

natural sciences,”

Salt is concerned with establishing an objective.

precision to his work which is clearly at odds

with both impressionistic criticism and much of

the speculative film theory that has dominated

film studies up to the present. The virtual solitude

oi Salt in relationship to the contemporary scene

has a lot to do with what makes him provocative

and valuable, regardless of whether or not one

sympathizes with his aims; whatever he’s piping,

it’s not the same old tune. Speaking as a journalist

and academic who has often championed self-

declared (as opposed to unacknowledged)

subjectivity as a potentially liberating force —

and who tends to value theory, criticism and

history alike as material to be scavenged for

possible insights rather than as self-generated

activities desirable as ends in themselves — I

approached Salt’s book with some caution and

misgivings, and continue to regard it with a

certain ambivalence, in spite of its unquestionable

achievements. Without being qualified to confirm

or challenge Salt in most of his factual assertions,

I have a natural suspicion towards any historian

who claims to know the “first” time a particular

usage occurs in the cinema, at least when such a

usage is not wholly dependent on a new

development in technology, and the three

examples below point to some of the possible

confusions that can lead from such assertions:

As far as using optical printing for

reversing action and producing “freeze

frames”is concerned, the important film

seems to have been Hollywood (James

Cruze, (1923), but a much better-known

example where the effects of these

techniques are central to the plot is René

Clair’s Paris Qui Dort (1924 ). These

devices, though continuing to appear

intermittently in lighter films, were never

used in serious dramas till the nineteen-

sixties. (p. 206)

Michelangelo Antonioni was another film-

maker important for his use of long focal

length lenses in ll Deserto Rosso (1964

In his case he was interested in them as a

means of producing near-abstract

compositions of hard-edged areas

of flat colour, and a large proportion of

in ll Deserto Rosso was shot with lenses

of focal length from 100mm upwards.

As far back as La Notte (1961), Antonioni

had been creating compositions influenced

by the school of “hard-edged” abstract

painting descended from Barnett Newman (

an Italian representative was Bruno

Marani), though initially he had done this

with standard-lens cinematography. This was

the first time since the nineteen-twenties that

the advanced painting of the recent past had

an influence on film image composition. (336)

CassavetesShadows was original in that it

was created largely through guided group

improvization [sic] , and this has remained

Cassavetes’ practice ever since in his low-

budget films… (347)

In each case, Salt begins with a

commonsensical assertion that then

becomes problematical as soon as he tries

to make too much out of it. The freeze-frames

that occur in such serious dramas as It’s a

Wonderful Life (1946) and at the end of All

About Eve (1950) throw some doubt on the last

sentence in the first quotation.

Regarding the last sentence quoted on Antonioni,

one doesn’t even need a contrary example to

question whether Salt could possibly assert that

over 30 years of commercial filmmaking, “film

image composition” was never — presumably

not even once — influenced by “advanced painting

of the recent past.” (How could any historian claim

to know this?) Regarding Cassavetes, further

research would reveal that the practice of group

improvisation played a substantial role only

in his first feature; in a recent feature like

Love Streams (1984), according to several

accounts, improvisation occurs significantly

only in a single scene (Gena Rowlands

trying to amuse her family beside a swimming


Ironically, it is Salt’s own call for precision that

makes such relative imprecisions stand out. (On

the whole, he is a good deal more cautious.) More

generally, as a corrective and challenge to film

studies as they are presently constituted, his

methodology is like a strong tonic, and I have

few misgivings about Salt’s frontal assault on

fashionable film theories in his first five

chapters –- which, according to his Preface, is

what led to his book as a whole being rejected by

American academic presses. Unlike he more long-

winded and self-regarding disparagements of

Continental theory that have recently become à la

page in the more apolitical reaches of academia

(as in the work of David Bordwell and Noel Carroll),

Salt’s objections to many of the same theorists are

pithy, pungent and existentially sound in relation

to his own sphere of interest, and there is little

sense of grandstanding in the way that Salt

delivers them.

My objections to Salt, then, have little to do with

his dismissals of Metz, Heath, Eco, Althusser,

Lacan et al — although one might note in passing

that the refusal of the academic world to deal with

his arguments has probably brought a certain

stridency to his tone. What seems more troubling

to the reader is Salt’s overall conception of film

style –- a conception that is in some respects

inseparable from his methodology, but in other

respects demands to be viewed quite

independently of it. Although Salt never

precisely equates devices, effects and equipment

with aesthetic strategies, his working assumption

that style is quantifiable nonetheless leads him

in that general direction, and there are times

when he appears to be more concerned with

“styling” (as in the way cars are built –- how

much chrome, the size of the fins, etc.) than

with style per se, and more with equipment and

statistics than with art. This is not to deny that his

statistical tables, regarding shots scales, shot

durations, reverse angles and camera movements

in large numbers of films are germane to

discussions of style, only to suggest that how and

when they are germane is not a question that is

always happily resolved. The facts that, say,

Ophuls’Liebelei (1932) contains 100 pans and

that Lola Montès (1955) contains 52 pans, 9

cranes, 54 tracks with pans and tilts, 62 tracks

with pans, 19 tracks, 19 pans with tilts, and 8

tilts may or may not be useful, but surely the

pertinence of any one of these camera

movements is more important than

any of the above; and it is on questions of

pertinence that Salt most often leaves one


In the final analysis., then, Salt’s

findings mav be more relevant as a

checkpoint against the factual abuses

of other scholars than as an aesthetic

topography which is satisfying in its

own right. It is fascinating to read

Salt’s account of the method of interior

lighting in Godard’s Le petit soldat

(1960), and frustrating to find that in all

his detailed accounts of jump-cuts he

fails to mention A bout de souffle (1959)

even once. Similarly, to remain in the

chapter on the Sixties which has provided

most of the examples here, it is pleasing to

see Tati’s Playtime (1967) acknowledged as

the “only film to begin to develop a new

form out of the special properties of 70mm film,”

and infuriating to see Salt short-change this

same achievement by coming up with a

reductive and objectively inaccurate

description like the following:

Despite the claims made by some people that the separate actions in different parts of the frame actually involve different simultaneous comic interests, calm viewing of     the film shows that this is not so, and that there is only    one point of narrative or comedy interest going on at any one instant, in just one area of the frame. The rest of the action is really just background distraction which makes    it a little difficult to find where the main point of interest lies.

Arguably, if “calm viewing” entails a refusal to laugh and a concerted lack of interest in all narrative detail that detracts from a central thread, Salt’s misreading might indeed be defensible as Scientific Realism, even if Tati’s genius gets lost in the shuffle; but what is gained in such an exercise? On a somewhat related plane, considering the fact that Robert Bresson’s name doesn’t figure once in Salt’s index, it perhaps isn’t unduly surprising to find him label Being There (1979) and American Gigolo (1980) as films of “high artistic ambition”.

But even after airing all these qualms,

my description of Salt’s book as

indispensable still, stands. It might

sound like a backhanded compliment

to say that this book deserves to be

used and consulted as one uses

Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies -– as a

cross-reference and source of additional

information rather than as a primary text

— but in fact, given the many practical uses

of Maltin, it is nothing of the sort. A Martian

who wanted to learn about the cinema and

stumbled upon Film Style and Technology

might be dissuaded by such a book from

delving into the subject any further, but any

self-respecting Martian – or film professor –

who uses it as a backup source will be amply


This entry was posted in Notes. Bookmark the permalink.