Classical Hollywood Cinema

Classical Hollywood Cinema is a term that has been coined by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson in their seminal study of the same name. In this study the authors performed formalist analysis on a random selection of 100 Hollywood films from 1917 to 1960. They came to the conclusion that during this period a distinctive cinematic style developed that they called classical Hollywood style. Furthermore the authors claimed that this style has become paradigmatic because of the global dominance of Hollywood cinema. The most controversial claim of the authors has been that filmmakers anywhere basically face a choice between two alternatives. Either they succumb to the classical Hollywood style and follow its example, or they revolt against it and try to consciously subvert the norms of that style.

What are the most important elements of the classical Hollywood style? Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson have given a very comprehensive and extensive answer to that question. In this context any answer has to be simplified and highly selective. Here are some of the more important aspects:


In Classical Hollywood Cinema, narrative follows building blocks that are part and parcel of most Western narratives such as events, actors and agents, linear chains of cause and effect, main point and secondary points. The narrative is clearly structured with discernable beginning middle and end. The narrative generally provides comprehensive resolution at the end. The characters goals are usually psychologically rather than socially motivated.


Maybe the single most important and most influential element of cinematic form that characterizes classical Hollywood cinema is continuity editing. The most important goal of continuity editing is to make the cut invisible. This is achieved by devices such as the shot / reverse-shot or the eyeline match. The editing is subservient to the flow of the narrative and is usually constructed in a way that it does not draw attention onto itself.

Cinematic space and time

Both space and time are constructed in cinema. In the classical Hollywood style space and time are unified, continuous and linear. They appear as a unified whole to match our perception of time and space in reality. This is for example achieved by the 180º rule or by the relative lack of jump cuts (cuts that leave out a time period of a continous action.


The unifying force behind the classical Hollywood style is motivation and conventions. In the development of the narrative every event is motivated, i.e. follows a causal relationship. In the same way the use of cinematic style is generally motivated by the narrative. The connection between narrative and cinematic style is highly conventional. Due to the dominance of the style viewers come to expect certain stylistic choices for certain narrative situations. For example if you have a hostage situation there will invariably be a cross-cutting between the rescuers and the hostage. All of the above results in what Bordwell has called "an excesslively obvious cinema,". in that it follows a set of norms, paradigms, and standards that match and gratify viewers expectations. In other words by the end of a classical Hollywood film answers for all questions have been provided and one doesn’t leave the cinema perplexed and starteled as one would after some New Hollywood films or European Art films. From an ideological perspective, these practices discourage viewers critical inquiry of any particular film as well as the underlying practices of mainstream cinema in general. Although the authors do not support the anti-humanist arguments of theorists who applied the concept of interpellation to cinematic spectatorship, their conclusions in fact provide strong evidence for at least a serious consideration of interpellation and the power of classical Hollywood cinema.

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