In Leo Braudy‘s minor classic of film theory, The World in a Frame (1976), the author establishes a dichotomy within classical cinema: Renoir’s films are open, Lang’s and Hitchcock’s, closed. In one case, there is reality beyond the frame and the character’s presence within it is essentially conscious and voluntary, as are the symbolic meanings attached to objects and actions in the film. In the other, the film world is self-contained and the characters are trapped within it, its symbols imposed upon them unaware.
Braudy does not prolong this distinction beyond the era that began with the talkies and came to an end with the New Wave in France and the decline of the studio system–and of pre-war adult popular culture–in the US. The very technology of more recent cinema–color, wide screen–makes the old closed forms unthinkable, and in the twenty years since the book’s publication we have moved yet farther away from them. But the importance of this distinction in the formative years of the sound film makes us wonder both how it is to be articulated with the distinction between naturalism andformalism that is more traditional in both film practice (Lumière vs Méliès) and theory (Kracauer vs Arnheim), and what it tells us about film in contrast with other narrative forms such as the drama and the novel. Can these questions be approached via originary analysis?
Even the most rigid ritual must engage in an outward assimilating movement toward the world before it can return upon itself. That is, the form of the rite must assimilate a new content. The open work emphasizes the newness of this content, whereas the closed work emphasizes the immutability of the form that encloses it. The closed work operates as a self-contained and reversible model of the originary event, whereas the open work reproduces the irreversible gesture of assimilating the outside world to its sacrificial structure. This dichotomy is reminiscent of Nietzsche‘s famous opposition between the Dionysian and the Apollonian, which great tragic art must maintain in perfect tension at the double risk of either succumbing to the rigidity of form or dissolving in the anarchy of content.
But the tension between ritual closure and the assimilation of external reality finds expression not only within rites and artworks but in the fundamental institutions of human behavior. In the broadest sense, cultural systems emphasize closure, whereas economic systems are concerned with assimilation. The open/closed dichotomy is realized on the highest level in the opposition, familiar to readers of these Chronicles, between culture and the market.
These categories provide an originary basis for Braudy’s opposition, but they do not quite grasp its specificity. Certainly one might oppose openpicaresque novels to closed Gothic novels, or claim that Balzac‘s writing is more open than Zola‘s, Dickens‘ than Hardy‘s. But these differences reflect chronological evolution rather than alternative formal possibilities. As particular to cinema as its mechanical mode of representation is the lateness of its history. Film is a postmodern art avant la lettre; created at a time when the other arts had matured and sprouted into modernism, it received at birth the multiple possibilities that they had worked through history to create. The full capacity of cinema emerges with the introduction of sound just after the great explosion of the modernist novel with Proust and Joyce. Not coincidentally, the coming of sound put an end to major experimental film-making and established the status of cinema as a popular art, liberating it from the constraint of historical tradition.
Neither cinema nor any other signficant invention can be understood as a mere artifact of the autonomous evolution of technology. On the contrary, it is quite possible to understand cinema as an autonomous development of the art of narration in which technology is the servant of the esthetic. The early evolution of modern market society generated a nineteenth-century passion for increasingly convincing reproduction of experiential reality that produced not only photography but moving panoramas, magic lanterns, and increasingly elaborate stage sets that included live animals, cliffs and rivers, fires, floods, and explosions. This development is also reflected in the increasingly “cinematic” technique of the novel, which inspires Eisenstein to make his famous rapprochement of Dickens and Griffith.
Thus on the one hand, the lateness of film’s appearance gives it a “posthistorical” choice of narrative modes among all those previously developed–but on the other, this lateness is the culmination of an historical progression toward the increasingly information-rich representation of reality as we see it. The first, synchronic perspective gives the tension between form and content, formative and realistic cinema theory and practice–Lumière vs Méliès. The other, diachronic perspective is not one of increasing realism, Lumière triumphing over his rival, but rather one of increasing realisticity or effet de réel, a development equally as visible, if not more so, in fantasy as in the depiction of the everyday. The technical difference between King Kong and Jurassic Park measures the progress made from the 30s to the 90s in reproducing the feel of lived experience.
Now we can understand why the closed-open tension inherent in the esthetic in general becomes a dichotomy in cinema: because it reflects the necessity of accepting or rejecting the opening toward the world implicit in the technological progress of the art itself. But this opening is anything but a local feature of cinema. The choice between closed and open films reflects a fundamental dichotomy in our view of reality. During the period around World War II, the industrialized West went through the agony of the final conflict between the closed ritual-based and open market-based models of the social order–the last moment of the Renaissance. The high-cultural version of the closed film esthetic is the last-gasp theatrical neoclassicism of the 20s and 30s, when playwrights from Giraudoux, Cocteau, and Anouilh to O’Neill were rewriting Greek tragedy.
The closed film implies that cinema, although the product of technological progress, remains nonetheless confined within the old sacrificial structures, just as technological progress as a whole seems incapable of freeing humanity from these structures. From 1930 to 1959, the black and white sound film could not yet be accused of imposing a closed vision through arbitrary technological retrogression. But the closed frame that refuses to let our desire be drawn to objects beyond its borders is incompatible with postwar consumerism. The universalization of color (in TV as well as film) makes impossible the abstract shadow-world of the film noir and its closed predecessors. Modern market society moves too fast to permit the maintenance of closure in any but the most pathological forms of experience. There are claustrophobic films, but there are no more closed films in Braudy’s sense–films in which we cannot sense the wealth of sights and sounds of which the closed universe is willfully deprived.