Comparing Structural Films versus the Classic Hollywood Format

by Derek P. Rucas

 

Structural films emerged out of the late 1960s and into the early 1970s within underground film communities.  One of its forefathers is Michael Snow, who is presumably “…one of the world’s two most highly acclaimed experimental filmmakers (the other being Stan Brakhage, US).” (“Michael Snow:,” pars. 1) Snow produced two landmark films—Standard Time (1967) and Wavelength (1967)—that would eventually become influential within the structural film movement.  These films both scrutinize spatio/temporal structures and camera movement.  Snow pans and tilts the camera back and forth several times in Standard Time, whereas in Wavelength, he gives the illusion of a 45 minute zoom effect through office and warehouse space in an urban landscape.  Film scholars and historians such as P. Adams Sitney and Annette Michelson have hailed Wavelength for its innovative style.  They both “…make claims for its cinematic processes being analogous to ‘philosophical thought’ and ‘consciousness…’” (“Michael Snow:,” pars. 2) In 1967, Snow won the first prize award for Wavelength at the Knokke-le-Zoute Experimental Film Festival.  It is stated in an article that, “Despite its apparent simplicity, ‘Wavelength’ had a tremendous impact on the evolution of film as a medium, and became an instantaneous avant-garde classic, setting a new standard for originality and rigor.” (“On Snow’s Wavelength,” pars. 1-2)

 

Other structural filmmakers such as Hollis Frampton, Su Friedrich, Ernie Gehr and David Rimmer have followed in Snow’s footsteps and have produced several films such as Zorn’s Lemma (1970), Sink or Swim (1990), Serene Velocity (1970) and Surfacing on the Thames (1970).  Zorn’s Lemma was credited in Scott MacDonald’s article “Hollis Frampton: Zorns Lemma” as a film that sparks both “…intellectual and esthetic interest…” (MacDonald 58) In “Carrying On: Leslie Thornton, Su Friedrich, Abigail Child and American Avant-garde Film of the Eighties”, William C. Wees explains that Friedrich’s Sink or Swim weaves, “…innovative formal device[s]…[and] arbitrary constraints on ‘personal expression’ and, at the same time, emphasizes the social basis of individual identity…” (Wees 96) The structural film genre has been received well within underground and independent art communities, however, it is important to acknowledge that the general public—that is, an audience that is not comprised of film savvy individuals such as scholars, critics, historians and filmmakers—will more than likely find the structural sub-genre of avant-garde films less engaging than film that they are used to, herein referred to as the classic Hollywood format.

 

One of the reasons for this is because structural films rely on formal elements and structural concepts that result in their overarching framework.  Structural filmmakers will generally adopt a particular concept, such as the twenty six letter alphabet, or the mathematical arrangement of frames per shot, or spatio/temporal concepts.  The filmmakers will usually incorporate one of these modes into their films through audio/visual editing techniques that give the film its “structural” component. 

 

On the other hand, the classic Hollywood format relies on the arch structure of storytelling to convey a narrative discourse to the audience.  Hollywood films are generally comprised of a beginning, middle and an end.  The beginning of a story serves to 1) introduce the main character, 2) establish the mood and the setting of the story, 3) tell us what the problem or the main character’s goal is (or at least hint at it) and 4) grab the viewer’s attention and compel the viewer to keep watching.  The middle of a story is where the character acts.  He/she strives to solve the problem that he/she is faced with and usually encounters several obstacles on the way.  Also, in the middle of a story, the dramatic level will continually increase.  If it were to stay stagnant, the storyline would be boring.  Finally, the ending of a story incorporates the climax—which consists of a resolution—and the dénoument.  The climatic point is where the main character solves his/her problem and the life of the main character returns to normal.  The dénoument (in French, the “untying”) is the final part of a story where the main character returns to his/her “stable world,” the world in which he/she left at the beginning of the story. (“Tip Sheet #8,” pars. 6-11)

 

Since the layman is so familiar with the classic Hollywood format, it is difficult for structural films to keep an audience engaged.  For example, in Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma, he divides the film into three parts.  The first part consists of a narration of a series of verses juxtaposed with a blank screen.  MacDonald explains that, “…Section 2 [is] structured into the grid so as to become ‘clocks’ for measuring our temporal position within the section…” (MacDonald 62) The shots in the second section are timed mathematically, lasting one second each, (or 24 frames per second.) At the beginning of the second section, Frampton films a word representing each shot, starting from the letter ‘Z’—leaving out the letters ‘J’ and ‘U’—and ending with ‘A’.  This progression continually repeats, and slowly, words drop off and are replaced with images, (such as fire for ‘X’, a tracking shot of a wheat field for ‘Y’ and a painter painting a wall for ‘K’.)  The last section ends with oral speech.  Each word is given the same amount of time and is divided equally to the beat of a metronome.  The last section consists of a shot of someone walking into an open space.

 

Zorn’s Lemma is cleverly produced with regards to its structural framework.  The film starts in darkness and ends in the light.  It is full of structural references regarding the use of thought and language and is mathematically calculated and compiled into a piece that lasts sixty minutes.  MacDonald even states that Zorn’s Lemma has, “…established Frampton as a major contributor to alternative cinema.” (MacDonald 58) Nevertheless, an audience that is used to seeing classic Hollywood films would be compelled to reject Zorn’s Lemma because of its lack of story. 

 

Zorn’s Lemma does not have a story, nor does it have a main character.  There is no narrative structure for the audience to follow, thus potentially making it a “boring” film.  The lack of problem, crisis, obstacles, climax, resolution and dénoument are also factors that make Zorn’s Lemma a difficult film for mainstream film audiences to enjoy.  It’s repetitive structure and formal elements lend to veer the film away from all notions of narrative coherence, which can leave mass audiences alienated.

 

Since structural films rely on spatio/temporal components, their flow can get repetitive.  Examples of this are films such as Serene Velocity and Surfacing on the Thames, in which the filmmakers have one event occurring, and edit the film meticulously according to concepts of structural precision.  For instance, in Serene Velocity, Ernie Gehr sets up his camera so that the lens faces the end of an empty institutional hallway.  He shoots several frames of the hallway, then moves his camera closer to shoot another few frames.  He repositions his camera to its initial spot and shoots more frames.  The perceptive dimension conveyed to the audience is a strobe-like effect.  We see the end of the hall getting closer, then further away.  Gary Kibbins explains that this film was created around a drug culture when perceptual experimentation was prominent in experimental filmmaking. (Kibbins. 2004. Feb. 23)

 

The repetitive aspect of Serene Velocity can be interesting and also somewhat nauseating.  Film scholars and theorists can appreciate Serene Velocity’s perceptual dimension with relation to the context in which it was created.  Nevertheless, to a mass film going population, Serene Velocity’s continuous repetitive structure can be both vexing and perplexing.  Its unrelenting shifting motion can be physically strenuous and mentally incomprehensible.  The notion of “repetition” will bore the viewer quickly, especially if the film is more than several minutes long, which is usually the case of experimental cinema.  Unless one is savvy to the context in which Serene Velocity was made (and even at that) one will more than likely reject this piece as a film.  Linda Hope Lee gives an explanation for why films like Serene Velocity will bore the viewer: “Stories that have the same level of drama all the way through tend to be boring, and one of the commandments of writing is, Thou shalt not bore the reader!” (“Tip Sheet #8,” pars. 8)

 

Finally, one must consider the content of structural films, and how it is integrated within the filmic text rather than the content of classic Hollywood cinema.  In James Peterson’s article “Avant-garde Film Viewing as Problem Solving,” he states that:

 

“The comprehension of the poetic and assemblage strains of the avant-garde is so rarely automatic because their films often make use of unusual and unexpected template schemata…Though a wide variety of template schemata has been used to structure works of art, the cause-and-effect chains that distinguish narrative from other types of textual organization are especially powerful…Discourse organized causally is both easier to understand and easier to remember than discourse organized in other ways…Of course, avant-garde films typically do not have the kind of narrative characteristics of the classical Hollywood cinema.” (Peterson 76)

 

Peterson explains that the “cause-and-effect chains that distinguish narrative from other types of textual organization” are crucial for one’s understanding of discourse.  Since experimental cinema usually lacks structure which incorporates cause-and-effect chains, it is difficult to interpret the film’s meaning.

 

An example of this is Surfacing on the Thames which is a six minute piece that shows an image of the Thames in London shifting periodically.  David Rimmer uses optical printing to give the film a “surfacing effect” which gives the illusionary effect of the boats traveling across the Thames.  Film theorists claim that Rimmer pays great attention to the grain and the scratches on the film and that these elements are designed to be an homage to the great Thames in London. (Kibbins. 2004. Feb. 9) Nevertheless, the lack of “cause-and-effect chains” may dissuade the typical film viewer from appreciating the artistic nuances of Surfacing on the Thames.  Although Rimmer’s film depicts a great historical landmark through the means of cinema, his six minute, static shot masterpiece does not adhere to the formulaic structure that mass film audiences are used to.

 

Viewers of the classic Hollywood format must be drawn-in to a film’s discourse based on the cause-and-effect relationship the writer scribes out.  Whereas Surfacing on the Thames conveys the same visual image for six consecutive minutes, classic Hollywood narratives tend to have a formulaic structure that allows the audience to become engaged with the storyline.  A classic example is Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939).  Peterson states that, “…the overall meaning of The Wizard of Oz might be paraphrased thus: though exotic places and people seem appealing, ultimately they are not as important as one’s family.  Or, to quote the film itself, ‘There’s no place like home.’” (Peterson 71) As the audience accompanies Dorothy through a whirlwind of dramatic plot points, (being whisked away by a tornado from Kansas, meeting Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, acquiring the ruby slippers, meeting the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, etc…) they will eventually identify with Dorothy and feel compelled to follow her on her magical journey in search of the mysterious Wizard of Oz.

 

This formulaic structure is evident in most classic Hollywood films.  For instance, in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future part II (1989), Marty McFly (the protagonist) is whisked away to the year 2015 in a DeLorean converted into a time machine created by the wild-eyed scientist Dr. Emmett Brown.  In the future, Marty must save his son from joining Griff’s gang of hooligans.  The audience later realizes that if Marty’s son were to join Griff’s gang, this will result in the downfall of the McFly family.  While in the future, Marty buys a sports almanac so he can place bets back in 1985.  The Doc lectures him on his greed and explains the potential outcome if he were to “mess with his destiny.”  Nevertheless, Marty leaves the almanac behind, resulting in old Biff (Griff’s grandfather) to take it, and steal the DeLorean to accomplish what Marty was told not to do.  The rest of the film follows Marty attempting to relocate the almanac back in an alternate 1985, where Biff is rich and powerful, and married to his high school sweetheart who coincidentally happens to be Marty’s mother.

 

As we follow Marty through several series of trials and tribulations, we grow admirably fonder of Marty’s character as we see him put himself at the forefront of dangerous situation to save the unwritten future of his family and Hill Valley.  By the end of the film, the almanac is destroyed and the viewers feel relief for Marty, the McFly family and the fate of Hill Valley.  Similarly, at end of The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow receives a brain, the Tin Man a heart, the Lion some courage, and Dorothy, a way back to Kansas.  The audience feels relieved that the Wicked Witch of the West is dead and that Dorothy is alive and well.  It is apparent that the formulaic structure of the classic Hollywood film has reproduced itself throughout decades of filmmaking, thus making it recognizable and generally liked among film going audiences.

 

The sub-genre of structural films that emerged out of the experimental cinema movement were received well within independent and alternative art communities, however, their importance among the mainstream movie going public is limited.  It can be argued that the classic Hollywood format of filmmaking is carefully constructed to cater to a mass population, whereas, structural films were the product of experimentation within tightly-knit art circles.  Structural films lack the narrative elements that are usually used to engage the viewer into the filmic text.  Structural films are constructed using formal techniques such as mathematical precision, rather than basing its structure around a narrative component.  Moreover, structural films tend to become repetitive, that is, allowing the audience to be able to predict what will happen next in the film, thus making its duration long and strenuous.  Since structural filmmakers were the first of their kind, they were more apt to experiment with formal techniques, which resulted in predictability and repetition in their films.  Furthermore, since structural films tend to be experimental—deviating from the classic Hollywood format—the discourse that is conveyed is usually difficult to interpret and perplexing for most mainstream film audiences.  Since Hollywood films abide by a formulaic structure, they are easily interpretable and thus, more popular among mass audiences.  Suffice it to say, unless one belongs to the elitist club of film scholars, critics, historians and makers, chances are, one will not be able to appreciate the structural film to its fullest extent.      

 

Bibliographic Information

 

Rucas, Derek P. "Comparing Structural Films versus the Classic Hollywood Formal." Film Articles and Critiques. 14 Apr. 2004 <http://www.angelfire.com/film/articles/structural.htm>.

transcribed by Derek P. Rucas