Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 2, 1992
Film: Matters of Style
Edited by Adrian Martin

The Possessed

Edward Colless

Style appears before us provocatively. Most casual connoisseurs of film and art would, like most fashion editors and hairdressers, justifiably if unwittingly echo Vasari and suggest that style arises with a distinct or characteristic way of doing things (Vasari's "working method"), and that things which lack style are things which seem to simply happen without design and without character. Style, it appears, is something which an object, a person, or an action possesses or fails to possess. And this is not merely an effete, honorific designation of style; for there are good and bad styles, high and low styles, esoteric and popular styles. Across all descriptions of style two elements seem crucial to a common understanding of it as property that is possessed and apprehended: methodical action and the manifestation of temperament, and both may be determined as operating on any scale (individual or social) or in any form (fragmentary or integral).

However, although style may appear as the embodiment of values expressed through actions (methodical and distinctive), valuation of either the technique or the temperament utilizing it is, strictly speaking, an unnecessary exercise in the apprehension of style. This is essential to the provocative appearance of style: that it paradoxically demands consent to a certain indifference to the content of actions which constitute it. Paul Valery's description of style as "the manner in which a man expresses himself, regardless of what he expresses" 1 is not at all a flamboyant motto for artistic licence but a subtle enhancement of this paradox. "It is in the act of expression", Valery continued, "that the man distinguishes himself." On the one hand, style is not a kind of action without content even though we tend to think of it as a supplementary operation upon an action or within it (an exhalation, a touch, an inflection, an accent, perhaps a "spur"). It is an imperative act, ethically self-possessed, which is apprehended as the consummate identity of action, material and idea, of intent and circumstance; "compounded," Valery says, "of consciousness and unconsciousness, of spontaneity and effort". 2 But on the other hand, style is also void of expression and inactive because it is the reiteration or doubling of that unity which assures the indifference to expressive content, and confers aesthetic self-possession to the act.

An act or object possessing style is an act or object doubled and possessed by a phantasmic force which corrupts its expression. Paradoxically, again, this corruption essential to style often appears in an attribution of purity or grace. For instance, as a repetition, the manifestation of style is to some formalist critics the presentation of the presence of the work of art to the beholder, it is the pure form of the work of art. For the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, style is the embodiment of grace because it provides the integration of diverse parts of the mind, "... especially", he says, almost repeating Valery, "those multiple levels of which one extreme is called 'consciousness' and the other the 'unconscious'." 3 Purity and grace are conditions that one cannot possess partially. They are wholly present or absent; as attributions they determine the singular character of the object, person or action. In this guise, style will appear to be the fulfilling expression of an innate quality of the thing which possesses it. But this is a dissimulation of the principle of indifference in style which corrupts the quality of expression. "Style", Valery provocatively suggested, "is held to reveal [a man's] nature, quite apart from his actual thought - for thought has no style." 4 A stylist's indifference to the content of expression is hardly an amoral element of style or a licence for formalism, but by a strange moral turn (vaguely like that of the Stoic condition of apatheia, though in a perverse use and closer to Kierkegaard's descriptions of the aesthete's cultivated indifference to his pleasures) it is the virtue of style to be the repetition of a will which may be embodied in an action but which does not attach value to its own choice of action.

The values, for instance, of beauty or excellence are themselves indifferent to the paradoxical virtue of style. Beauty can conceivably be characterless and void of style; but this is not illustrated by any derogatory assault on stereotypical or formulaic beauty, whether in art history, TV soaps, beauty pageants or Playboy pin-ups (which indeed display distinctive styles as well as having generic formulae). For a Franciscan, who may believe that natural objects manifest the all-inclusive presence of God in his Providence, God makes no selection in nor allows any exclusion to his benevolence: the beauty of such a Franciscan world is a rare beauty (certainly nothing to do with formulae), inspired but necessarily without character and one may say that its nature has no style. And if beauty can occur without the manifestation of temperament, so can virtuosity. Pliny's famous anecdotes from the Naturalis historia of the competitions between painters illustrate, certainly to their Renaissance commentators, the ambiguity of technical mastery as the criterion for praise of an artist's style. Parrhasios is astonished to see the doves pick at Zeuxis's painted grapes, but Zeuxis is fooled into attempting to pull aside a curtain painted by Parrhasios; or Protogenes recognises a single delicate line drawn on a panel as the work of Apelles, and so draws beside it an even finer line which Apelles likewise recognises to be by the hand of his competitor. Despite the suggestions of a common realist style in the former story and distinct personal styles in the latter, the distinction of virtuosity in both is actually indifferent to the manner of the artists' working.

The treatment of style in contemporary cultural studies, and in art criticism and film criticism, demands that the apprehension of style is unattached to values of beauty or excellence. But it negates the aesthetic self-possession of the objects of stylistic analysis by describing style functionally as a regulation and a flourish or featuring of form: a formal variability in the materials of culture which is correlated to an artefact's function in the exchange of information defining social groups. More generally, style seems to be both the surface phenomenon of a body that conducts the explicit characteristics of that body as information and also the essential quality implicated in a body which allows its parts to adhere so that such a surface can be manifest. In most contemporary film criticism and theory, that body is defined as textual material; and style, consequently, is both accessible as a material system of selection, arrangement, modification and interpretation of the formative material of the text (manifest as the regulations of mise en scene and montage, for instance); yet it is also elusively perceived as a productive fantasia upon the codification of experience in the medium's forms. This latter might be the flourish of what Stephen Heath once called the film's "performance" 5 (or, one might say, the characterization of the system in a distinct aesthetic instance which may be defined in a number of ways: as an individual film, an historical period of cinema, a geographical place or industrial location for filmmaking, a director's or actor's career, and so forth). In any case, style is analysable by rendering it a property of an action, whether regulatory and "scored" or performative.

The art historian and critic Meyer Schapiro began his famous essay of 1953 on style by asserting that style denotes "the constant form - and sometimes the constant elements, qualities, and expression - in the art of an individual or a group." 6 Recording constancy, and so referring to a kind of fidelity; the appreciation of style offers an emblem of truth in an art. Hence in its more instrumental usage, as a diagnostic method in archeology or connoisseurship, it describes the immanent unity of a series of motifs by which the expert can localise and date an object or allow for attribution to an author. Stylistic elements conform by indexical function, usually according to another series of properties attributable to technique (motor habits in the handling of tools or inherent biases of materials) or to routines of function (whether practical or symbolic). And so the stylistic element in a physical specimen need not be a valued constituent of a cultural unity. It may be an incidental or minor habitual component of a technical procedure: the shape of an ear lobe, for instance, in a painter's repertoire, or the twist to the lip of a pot produced in ancient workshops associated with certain clay deposits. What the expertise of such attribution defends is a sense of style as the metaphysical principle for a unity within the realm of objects reprieved from function, although it does this by a subtle dissimulation in that the truth to which an object testifies by being accounted to participate in its own style is born from the disintegration of the specific unity of the object itself. In this usage, style describes the non-aesthetic features of an artifact. Style is like a symptomatic trait, something which the object "utters" despite itself, testifying to its incidental affinity with other objects, but superintended by a grandiose, synthetic principle.

In film theory, and in some film criticism and history, the synthetic principle which prompts and governs style is not unlike the synthesis of knowledge called "tradition", a kind of super-style, introduced by Erwin Panofsky to confirm the interpretative method of his Iconology. 7 In Panofsky's theory of meaning, he characterises "tradition" as the sum total of the historical processes constituting motifs, images, narratives, allegories and symbolical values: each of these is a manifestation of an underlying principle, a kind of Providence. One could translate this into more contemporary film theoretical terminology by saying that style is the manner of a "determined" totality, determined by an immanent authority of the institutionalisation of vision in cinema. Style is treated as the objective utterance of the implicated essence of this institution, or more accurately of its governing notion. Style in this sense is not the distribution of diffuse connotations of figuring elements but is the operation of intrinsic affects of the medium. The historical repetition of the affects develops as a norm, easily elided with the operative functioning of the medium itself, as a "normalising"vision (an academic insistence of a synthesising "notionality" which is actually quite distinct from stylistics). The norm is established not by the constancy of qualities but by the consistency of functions (indeed, of the operative "variables", a kind of "facilitation"); thus fluctuations within form can be scored as disturbances to the "norm", as excesses or amputations of value-function, as perturbations and deviations. These will be represented stylistically as passages of decadence, as alien intrusion into the determining schema, as impurities, lapses or transgressions.

These pseudo-stylistic interventions in the operating schema of a medium (the "institution cinema") will assume, rhetorically, an integral association between style and content. A pseudo-style appears to arise in connection with a particular content and become a mode governing all representations within that institutional schema: "Hollywood cinema" or "third world cinema", "women's cinema" thus simultaneously delivered stylistic schemes for analysis and putative procedures for intervening in the functioning of those schemes. Most misconstruals of so-called "classic narrative" performed this simple operation on style to produce descriptions of the perturbations of an alleged classic norm. Take the claim by Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery in Film History: Theory and Practice that in "classic narrative" everything is subordinated to the narrative:

Cinematic style may be defined as the systematic use of specific cinematic techniques characterising a given film or group of films.... The predominant filmic style of cinema in the west since the 1910s has been called the classical Hollywood narrative style. This term designates a particular pattern of organisation of filmic elements whose overall function is to tell a particular kind of story in a particular way. The story the Hollywood film relates involves a continuous cause-effect chain, motivated by the desires or needs of individual characters and usually resolved by the fulfilment of those desires or needs. Nothing is introduced into the story that will distract us from this sequence of narrative events.... All filmic elements in the classical Hollywood cinema serve the narrative and are subordinate to it. Editing, mise en scene, lighting, camera movement, and acting all work together to create a transparency of style so that the viewer attends to the story being told and not to the manner of its telling... 8

If this schematic conception poses the dubious conceit of a "zero point of cinematic style" in which formal devices "are used only to serve the needs of the narrative and remain themselves 'invisible'", 9 it is so that any sense of style which will possibly subvert this alleged disenfranchisement of form unattached to the enonce will necessarily also break the iconological order of the cinematic schema. By implication the fabulous theoretical notion of Lyotard's "acinema" proposes anti-acting, for example, as the unproductive discharge of energy otherwise contained within characterisation. 10 Anti-acting is a kind of "insubordination" rather than a failure or ineptitude - a derealisation of the regulations of the scenic tableau, a rebellion against the dominance of narrative, which is characteristically dismissed by "conventional" criticism. Conventional criticism (that's to say, criticism defending its claims on evaluation of a work of art) is complicit with the stylistic forces of a normalising classicism because, when dealing with screen performance it is absorbed in the iconological order regulating characterisation. An unconventional critic, John O. Thompson, once complained in Screen that while screen acting was left to critics lost in reverie over faces or bodies on the movie screen, 11 an important element of filmic style was being left "in the hands of the enemy". 12

Reverie is presumably a condition in which one is held by the style of acting without questioning the institution of cinema which superintends, by possessing, that style. Questioning acting in the way Stephen Heath "questioned cinema" would allegedly reveal that the complaint often placed against a "radical cinema" (structural film, for instance) that "nothing happens" is merely a repression: a great deal happens, Heath would say, but not to do with the classical performance of "the subject". As Allen S. Weiss put it, phenomenological theory supports most stylistic criticism in film primarily founded upon considerations of acting and verisimilitude: "In the phenomenological model, acting (as gesture) is considered to be a prime cause in the production of cinematic effects of verisimilitude, or realism." 13 (Speech itself is reduced to a mode of gesture, expression based on a corporeal paradigm). "Conversely," Weiss continues, "in theories based on Freudian metapsychology, acting is considered to be an effect of subjectivity." 14 (Heath would say that the subject-reflection is a narrative effect ... all representation is a performance of the time of production and construction of subject positions and effects 15.)

In cinema, an actor's position is on the pleat which always provisionally differentiates the gesture (or symbolic function of the body) from the performance of the gesture (or the iconic function of the body). The iconicity of the the actor's body appears in relation to the reiteration of the gesture, the inflections or differential emphases of which allow one to designate the style of the actor as a property possessed by the action. Yet in this conception of style, the repetition of the gesture is a troping of the gesture (usually a mode of irony determines the translation); the repetition is not indifferent to the content of its expression. If perceived, however, as an indifferent doubling of the gesture, then cinematic performance is apprehended in the self-possession of its style. Then it is perceived as the momentary fold between functional operations; without function, but doubling the division of its textual functions against the film text.

This is the condition - phantasmic and abysmal - which is sometimes experienced when in shock we recognise that actors before us must actually perform, immediately, the gestures they enact. James Naremore, in a casual footnote from his book Acting in the Cinema, recollects an anguish felt in childhood when unable to decide whether actors who kissed on screen were actually kissing. "The question involved a moral dilemma," he says, "and it revealed a paradox: in fact, actors both do and pretend, sometimes at one and the same moment - hence the potentially scandalous nature of their work." 16 The "dilemma" arises from being unable to determine in which category of action to place the "kissing". But so described as an exercise of illusion and theatrical/film communication the question is quite familiar in artistic theory. A common prejudice against actors from antiquity onwards, this moral suspicion was given lucid - and still challenging - expression by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Letter to M. d'Alembert on the Theatre, originally published in 1758:

What is the talent of the actor? It is the art of counterfeiting himself, of putting on another character than his own, of appearing different than he is, of becoming passionate in cold blood, of saying what he does not think as naturally as if he really did think it, and, finally, of forgetting his own place by dint of taking another's. What is the profession of the actor? It is a trade in which he performs for money, submits himself to the disgrace and the affronts that others buy the right to give him, and puts his person publicly on sale. I beg every sincere man to tell if he does not feel in the depths of his soul that there is something servile and base in this traffic of oneself... Is there anything more odious, more shocking, more ignoble, than a decent man playing a rascal's role in the theatre and using all his talent to make criminal maxims convincing, maxims for which he himself has only disgust? 17

Rousseau weaves a clever, unstated comparison between the theatrical actor and the Sophist caricatured by Plato in the Gorgias: a man who sells his talent for persuasive communication, and who can demonstrate the strength of the weak position in an argument (or the conviction in the wrong judgement) only by counterfeiting his sincerity. How can such a man only pretend to be a rascal? Naremore despatches this moral suspicion to the domain of a juvenile incompetence in comprehending the codification of performance (a rhetorical manoeuvre appropriate to his book's polemic against Lee Strasberg's adaptation of the Stanislavskian "Method"). The implication is that its return in his adult scholarship is a demonstration of the disavowal required for screen fiction.

The "paradox" identified by Naremore is, however, just as abysmal as the one which infuriated Plato's Socrates in that dialogue, and which haunts the criticism in Rousseau's letter. As "traffic" or communication, acting is "servile ... base", and indeed any sincere man addressed by Rousseau would be repelled by the compromises of character required. (It was precisely in the formulation of theatrical expression as communication that Diderot was able to defend the actor's art in his Paradox of Acting.) But the final offence for Rousseau is that in his repetition an actor forgets his own place, and this is not a sign of insincerity or compromise but a condition of indifference to the content of expressive action, an indifference which annuls communication.

Perhaps it is just this indifference which is manifest in the style of one of those famous archaic materials of cinema, pornography. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched (nor very original) to suggest, after Rousseau, that all cinema performance is necessarily pornographic; that on screen there is no semiotic distinction between kissing and fellatio. But if this is so it is not so much because the actors "both do and pretend ... at one and the same moment", rather, because they are without pretence, indifferent to their expression - they are self-possessed in their doubling. It is not their insincerity which would offend Rousseau's reader or fascinate Naremore's; instead it is the disinterested reiteration of their sincerity as a pseudo-sincerity which is abysmal, if not diabolical. It may seem like a mere contradiction to suggest that this indifferent sincerity might have a diabolical nature, but it is a little clearer if one considers a mode of contemporary art which perversely endorses Rosseau's moral dispute with acting.

"Performance art", sometimes called "body art", is a kind of anti-acting inasmuch as the performance artists who insist on being distinguished from even avant-garde theatre or dance (both a modal and a moral distinction) are compelled to challenge the insincerity of theatrical affects by resurrecting an unaffected body as a content within the conventional, communicative forms of action. The performance artist is bound to present this body as an offering, usually in some manner of self-sacrifice which endows the performance with the authority of ritual. In one sense there is always a pious decorum to performance art, appropriate to its political tendencies: this body is committing the action, regardless of how well the action is performed according to the protocols of theatre. Performance art will claim something like the priest's authority over the text of a mass: he may be a poor orator but the substance of his text is present through his action (it would be a sin to criticise the quality of a priest's performance; and it is out of order to complain of the ineptitude of so much performance art). Compared to pornography, performance art is essentially a comic exercise of Sentiment; regardless of its sometimes confrontational content, performance art is a kind of sincere, reverent version of slapstick: to remind the actor, by an extreme submission, of his place within the body he enacts.

In cinema today, splatter "FX" sequences are a descendant of the diabolical disregard of Sentiment in slapstick. They are the semiotic equivalent of "come-shots" in pornographic cinema, but with the paradox that like the come-shot they represent without irony the limit of acting (in which no dissimulation is possible) and also the dramatic vengeance of the actor's double upon the pro-filmic body (the exquisite defilement of appearance). This is why coitus interruptus is aesthetically as well as technically crucial to the come-shot: ejaculation is proof of the indifferent repetition of the actor to his performance, a kind of corrupt grace; it is the hallucinatory essence of pornography's style which corrupts the expressivity of the body. And it is why expulsion and expansion are generative principles behind "splatter": 18 the prosthesis is always technically an extension of the body, even if its purpose is to facilitate dismemberment, rupture or evisceration; like ejaculation, splatter is an explication of the phantasmic doubling of the scenic action because it indifferently enacts the actor.

Style is just this possession of the action or object by its phantasmic repetition. The force of possession is what Valery may have had in mind when he stated that style is not only the manner of doing something, but also the power of doing it. Style is not an attribution or property of an object; or more precisely, if it can be treated as an attribute, then this is only as the ostentatious figure for the seizure of an action or object with a compelling and compulsive force that is style: mannerisms or, using Edgar Allan Poe's term, "arabesques" (the prodigious instances of style) are attributed. By way of explanation, one might momentarily draw a parallel with "evil" as an attribute: to say someone is evil is not to say that they exemplify a principle of evil, but that they manifest an instance of it. If this instance adequately describes the evil in an action or intention (if it is evil's embodiment) then that evil would be circumscribed. This is what occurs in the variable instances of style: the circumscription of paradox, of perversity, neither its negation as decorum nor its affirmation as superfluity, but its regulation in the possession of an action or intention: style is a "wantonness" which appears innate (natural: in accord with one's disposition) rather than an additive or subversive element. Possession, that is to say, being ruled by a principle of perversity. In the art historical instance of Mannerism the regulation becomes manifest (as ostentation) with the representation of the repetition disfigured by the compelling force of the repetition as a sheer force of compulsion: "style" manifests itself as a heightening or vivification of utterance (gesture, intention) with a rhetorical consistency. In Mannerism this consistency is seen as gratuitously rhetorical (as mere heightening) and the force of the repetition feels compellingly uncanny.

Style, whether by descriptive or interpretative accounts, is manifest as a certain emphatic operation or exercise of form: a particular stress and relaxation, a rhythm (more or less specific to an artist's idiom, sensibility, sensuality and circumstance), a gesture both automatic and willful like a signature. In cinema, as in any of the arts, style is treated as the facture of the signature: the paradoxical embodiment (compulsive, inevitable but also voluptuous, capricious) of the artistic will. Style's execution of form will thus demand (by the very nature of its essential gesturality) a repetition which is inimitable, like the signature. Of course, lurking close by any such gestural, circumstantial comprehension of style will be the dark terror of the false signature: either the singularly willful (the perverse seizure of the forger's flourish, disguising the uniqueness of the signature) or the singularly automatic (the dead hand of the bureaucrat, a stand-in for the signature, the stamp or the maniac's stutter - submersion in the immanent value of the repetition). In the paradox of style's unique repetitions lies a provocation against the false, the dubious, the specious, the banal. But not for the sake of beauty or excellence revealed in any natural characteristic. We should think of style as the possession of a nature in distraction. Our instances of style manifest the fashioning of the world contrary to Providence. Providence determines the forms of existence (a world not distracted); but in its essence style is the forceful apathy of nature self-possessed, distracted. This paradox binds together the physiognomic exemplification in gesture of the artistic will with its "disincarnation" as the regulation or force of artistic form: but style's originality then is a kind of "fit" or passion overwhelming an action as it becomes an aesthetic object, that is to say the voluptuous echo of the will, its decor, its curse. Abduction, distraction, corruption, captivation: the signs of style's possession. Style is the devil's grace.

I would like to thank a number of colleagues who have provided me with critical responses to this essay at various stages of its development: David McDowell in Hobart, John Macarthur and Rex Butler in Brisbane. The argument presented in this final form of the essay, of course, does not necessarily represent their own opinions.


1. Paul Valery, "Style", trans. Ralph Mannheim, in J.V. Cunningham ed., The Problem of Style (New York: Fawcett Publication, 1966), p.18.

2. Ibid, p.19.

3. Gregory Bateson, "Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art", in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Frogmore: Paladin, 1973), p.102.

4. Valery, p.18.

5. See "Film Performance", in Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (London: Macmillan Press, 1981).

@FTNS TOP = 6. Meyer Schapiro, "Style", reprinted in Morris Phipson ed., Aesthetics Today (Meridian, 1961), p.137.

7. Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), pp.5-16.

8. Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery, Film History: Theory and Practice (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1985), p.81.

9. Ibid.

10. Jean-Francois Lyotard, "Acinema", Wide Angle, v.2, n.3, p.58.

11. "Performances seem ineffable, and thinking about them induces reverie rather than analysis," says Thompson, "Screen Acting and the Commutation Test", Screen, v.19, n.2 (1978), p.55.

12. Ibid.

13. Allen S. Weiss, "Acting, Identity and Scenarisation", Art & Text, n.34 (1989), p.154.

14. Ibid.

15. Heath, p.124.

16. James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p.22n.

17. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. D'Alembert on the Theatre, trans. Allan Bloom (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968), pp.79, 81.

18. Philip Brophy, "Horrality - the Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films", Screen, v.27, n.1 (1986).

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