More than bells and whistles

This week I want to return to something mentioned in passing in a post on from a couple of weeks ago. I quoted a paper on editing in television news by Richard Schaefer and Tony Martinez, which noted that there was a dearth of formal analyses of television news programmes, which they attribute to ‘the lack of a conventional vocabulary for describing and analyzing structural techniques used in what is primarily an audio-visual phenomenon’ and a reliance on ‘scant anecdotal evidence.’

You can read the article here:

Schaefer R and Martinez TJ 2009 Trends in network news editing strategies from 1969 through 2005, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 53 (3): 347-364.

It seems to me astonishing that after some forty years of film studies as an academic subject (building on decades of film criticism), media studies researchers have failed to develop a suitable vocabulary for describing the formal aspects of media texts. It is remarkable that as late as 2009it remains necessary to emphasise how form should be central to the analysis of media and should not be separated from content or discourse.

The fundamental question we are faced is

  • Why have media studies researchers failed to develop such a vocabulary?

I think there are two reasons for this.

First, style does not appear to be taken seriously in media studies. As an example read the following article online here:

Grabe ME, Zhou S, and Barnett B 2001 Explicating sensationalism in television news: content and the bells and whistles of form, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 45 (4): 635-655.

This is another article that reflects on the lack of formal research in news media, and sets out to remedy this. It sets out to explore sensationalism in television news by focussing on two different aspects of form:

  • video manoeuvres, by which are meant zooms and ‘eyewitness perspectives’ (POV shots)
  • decorative effects, referring to ‘brief, attention-grabbing devices’ and ‘flamboyant post-production techniques’ that are the ‘immaterial bells and whistles of television magazine shows;’ and includes audio manipulations, which refers to music, voice-over narration, and sound effects, transition effects (which is editing to you and me) with shot transitions such as wipes, dissolves, fades, etc referred to as ‘decorative transitions,’ and non-transitional effects (split-screen, freeze-frame, posterization, etc).

The lack of vocabulary is evident here: I’ve never seen anyone in film studies refer to ‘video manoeuvres,’ and the term ‘camera movement’ is more common. Why did the authors of this paper not know this, especially when there is an extensive literature on how pans, tilts, zooms, etc. create meaning in the cinema? ‘Video manoeuvres’ seems to me to imply post-production effects rather than camera movements. Why are zooms included but not other types of camera movements? I don’t think that either term adequately describes POV shots.

Why is editing not referred to as editing, and what is about them that is ‘decorative?’ To describe these aspects of style as ‘decorative’ is, I think, unfortunate as it may be inferred that these elements are not in themselves meaningful. Style does not adorn a film – it is integral to it. In general, this is the problem I have with this article: that it argues for the analysis of form as necessary in understanding sensationalism in news media, but then does not seem willing to take it seriously: the use of the term ‘bells and whistles’ to refer to film form is pejorative.

The second problem is that great problem that affects so many academic fields: the reason there is a lack is that apparently no one tried. Only two film studies text book is referred to: an article by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis on Surrealist cinema and the 1982 edition of Louis Gianetti’s Understanding Movies. This is the third edition of Gianetti’s book, and there have been numerous editions since then – at the time this article was published the current edition was the 8th edition. There are many, many, many books on film studies that could have been referred to that have been published since 1982. In fact, there are too many to bother listing here. There are no references to the literature on point-of-view (e.g. Noel Carroll or Edward Branigan), to cinematography, to editing, or to any other aspect of film style.

Now, the Schaefer and Martinez paper I referred to above does make an attempt to address this problems and does refer to editing manuals, but ultimately re-enacts the same opposition between realism of the Bazin/Kracauer stripe and Soviet montage that is the staple of first year film studies essays (although there is no reference to Ian Aitken’s European Film Theory). Rudolf Arnheim even makes an appearance. It is a sincere effort to bring some of the work of film studies into media research, but it would have been improved greatly if a film studies scholar had been involved somewhere along there line.

The reason we are lacking formal analyses of television news is basically that no one made the effort.

We might approach this problem from another direction, and ask the following question:

  • Why have film studies scholars failed to educate researchers in other similar fields about what we have done?

Surely, given the lack of formal analyses of television news this is an area to which film scholars could have made a substantial contribution. A problem here may be that film scholars define the scope of their research very narrowly: films, and only films. Consequently, they do not make contributions to research on other types of media texts even when their expertise is precisely that required to make progress. A more disappointing possibility is that we aren’t talking to anyone other than other film scholars who already know this stuff. A key question for film studies how do we make an impact on research outside the confines of the subject area?

Interdisciplinarity is one of the great academic clichés, but what we find when we examine the issue of form is that researchers cognate fields such as media studies and film studies do not talk to one another even when they are seeking answers to the same questions.


About Nick Redfern

I am an independent academic with over 15 years experience teaching film in higher education in the UK. I have taught film analysis, film industries, film theories, film history, science fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, and Leeds Trinity University, where I was programme leader for film from 2016 to 2020. My research interests include computational film analysis, horror cinema, sound design, science fiction, film trailers, British cinema, and regional film cultures.

Posted on October 6, 2011, in Film Studies, Media Studies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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