In the world of cinema and television, storytelling takes on many different forms, each with its unique approach and artistic intention. One of the most unique is formalism, the style pushes the boundaries of the conventional narrative and embraces the visual and artistic aspects of storytelling.

Formalism in film and TV challenges viewers to look beyond the surface and engage with the medium on a deeper, more introspective level.

Today, we'll delve into the intricacies of formalism, exploring its origins, defining characteristics, and its impact on the way we experience visual storytelling.

Let's dive in.

Formalism Definition

Dorothy Vallens, played by Isabella Rossellini, and Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper, in 'Blue Velvet'

'Blue Velvet'

Credit: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group

Formalism in film and TV refers to an artistic approach that emphasizes the aesthetic and technical elements of the medium, often prioritizing visual style, composition, and sensory experiences over conventional narrative structures.

Formalist works focus on the manipulation of cinematography, editing, lighting, and sound design to create a distinct and immersive visual language.

It is the opposite of realism.

Why Use Formalism?

sergei Eisenstein looking at negatives.

Sergei Eisenstein

Credit: Mubi

The formalism approach encourages audiences to engage with the medium on a deeper level, interpreting and deriving meaning from the visual and symbolic aspects of the storytelling.

Unlike more traditional narrative-driven filmmaking, formalism often embraces ambiguity, subjectivity, and metaphorical imagery.

It might even employ non-linear narratives, fragmented storytelling, and unconventional plot structures to evoke emotions and provoke thought.

It's all about challenging the audience to see outside the everyday.

Formalist filmmakers aim to transcend the boundaries of realism, using their creative choices to convey abstract concepts, emotions, and thematic messages through the interplay of visual elements.

Origins and History of Formalism in Film and TV

Fritz Lang tells his Hollywood stories.

Fritz Lang

Credit: YouTube

Formalism in cinema has its roots in the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, such as German Expressionism and Soviet Montage.

These movements sought to break away from the constraints of realism and embrace a more abstract and experimental approach to filmmaking.

Filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Sergei Eisenstein were pioneers of formalist techniques, using visual metaphors and innovative editing to convey emotional and psychological themes.

The Influence of Formalism in Film and TV

The mother, played by Jennifer Lawrence, walking through her house in 'mother!'


Credit: Paramount Pictures

Formalism has left an indelible mark on the filmmaking landscape, influencing directors from various genres and eras. Many even use formalist elements even if their films aren't totally lumped in that way.

Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Darren Aronofsky are known for their distinctive formalist approaches, utilizing intricate visual design and unconventional storytelling techniques to captivate audiences.

The Characteristics of Formalism in Film and TV

Aaron Paul in \u201cBeyond the Sea,\u201d Episode 3 of Black Mirror Season 6'Black Mirror'Credit: Nick Wall/Netflix

Formalism is an artistic philosophy that emphasizes the aesthetic and technical elements of a medium, often at the expense of traditional narrative structures.

In the realm of film and television, formalism seeks to elevate the visual and sensory aspects of storytelling, using techniques like cinematography, editing, lighting, and sound to create a sensory-rich experience for the audience.

So how can you tell if something is a formalist film?

  1. Visual Aesthetics: These films often prioritize visual composition and aesthetics, utilizing techniques like framing, color palette, and visual symbolism to convey meaning. These films invite audiences to interpret and engage with the visual elements on a symbolic level.
  2. Emotional Impact: Formalism aims to evoke emotional responses through sensory experiences. By manipulating elements like lighting, camera movement, and sound design, filmmakers can elicit specific feelings from the audience.
  3. Subjectivity and Ambiguity: This kind of storytelling often embraces ambiguity and subjectivity, allowing viewers to interpret the narrative in various ways. This encourages active engagement and intellectual exploration of the film's themes.
  4. Non-Linear Narrative: Traditional linear storytelling takes a backseat in formalist works, where non-linear narratives or fragmented storytelling may be employed to create a more impressionistic and dreamlike experience.
  5. Metaphorical Imagery: Formalism often employs metaphorical imagery and allegory to convey abstract concepts and emotions. This invites audiences to think critically about the underlying messages within the narrative.

Critiques of Formalism

Mr. Robot season 3

'Mr. Robot'

Credit: USA Networks

While formalism offers a fresh perspective on storytelling, it's not without its critics. Some argue that the emphasis on style can sometimes overshadow the substance, leading to narratives that are intellectually intriguing but emotionally distant.

They also say the more abstract elements can muddy the theme and take people out of an empathetic, and realistic engagement with the material.

Additionally, the avant-garde nature of formalist works can limit their mainstream appeal, potentially alienating viewers.

Examples of Formalism in Film and TV

Man flips a table in 'Legion'


Credit: FX Networks

So what are some of the major examples of formalism in Film and TV? I made a list of movies and TV shows that I think fit the bill.

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
    Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this science fiction masterpiece is renowned for its meticulous attention to visual detail, groundbreaking special effects, and abstract narrative structure. The film's sequences, such as the "Star Gate" sequence, are prime examples of formalist storytelling, using mesmerizing visuals to evoke a sense of wonder and existential exploration.
  2. Mulholland Drive (2001)
    Directed by David Lynch, this neo-noir film exemplifies formalism through its dreamlike, non-linear narrative and surreal imagery. Lynch uses disorienting editing and symbolic motifs to create a psychological and emotional impact, inviting viewers to interpret the story on multiple levels.
  3. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
    Directed by Darren Aronofsky, this film employs dynamic visual techniques, including rapid editing, extreme close-ups, and intense sound design, to convey the emotional turmoil of its characters. These stylistic choices immerse the audience in the characters' experiences and add to the overall intensity of the narrative.
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
    Directed by Wes Anderson, this comedy showcases formalism through its meticulous production design, symmetric framing, and vibrant color palette. Anderson's signature visual style becomes an integral part of the storytelling, contributing to the film's whimsical and quirky tone.
  5. Twin Peaks (1990-1991, 2017)
    Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, this TV series blends mystery, drama, and surrealism. The show's unconventional narrative structure, combined with dream sequences and symbolic imagery, exemplifies formalism on the small screen.
  6. Legion (2017-2019)
    This Marvel-based TV series, developed by Noah Hawley, takes a formalist approach to its storytelling. The show uses innovative visual effects, unreliable narration, and mind-bending visuals to explore the psychological struggles of its protagonist, blurring the lines between reality and perception.
  7. Mr. Robot (2015-2019)
    Created by Sam Esmail, this series employs formalist techniques to immerse viewers in the world of hacking and psychological turmoil. Unconventional camera angles, fourth-wall breaks, and distinctive visual choices reflect the protagonist's disoriented mindset.
  8. Black Mirror (2011-present)
    Created by Charlie Brooker, this anthology series often employs formalism to explore the dark side of technology and society. Episodes like "San Junipero" and "USS Callister" use futuristic aesthetics and thought-provoking concepts to engage viewers in moral and ethical dilemmas.

Summing Up Formalism in Film and TV

Formalism in film and TV challenges the traditional norms of storytelling, inviting audiences to explore narratives through an artistic and sensory lens.

By prioritizing visual aesthetics, emotional impact, and metaphorical imagery, formalist works provoke thought and introspection, leaving a lasting impression on those who engage with them.

As filmmakers continue to experiment with formalist techniques, the boundaries of cinematic storytelling are pushed, offering audiences a diverse range of experiences that transcend the conventional and embrace the abstract.

What are your favorite formalist movies and TV shows?

Let me know what you think in the comments.