The Ins and Outs of Identifying Classical Hollywood Storytelling

Think of it as an "I Spy" puzzle but for the basic principles of classical era storytelling.
Rear Window and classical hollywood storytelling

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that explores how to spot the narrative conventions of classical Hollywood storytelling.

Before we pick our way into the reeds of theoretical narrative conventions, let’s all make sure we’re on the same page with respect to what “Classical Hollywood” is, exactly.

Classical Hollywood cinema is a term used by historians to describe both the visual style and narrative conventions of American cinema between the 1910s and the 1960s. If that sounds like a relatively vague span of time, that’s because it is! That said, you’ll be keen to note that that period effectively covers the tightening grip of American film as one of the most pervasive forms of the medium. All to say: understanding some of the era’s creative bones (broad strokes be damned) is imperative if you want to identify Classical Hollywood’s influence and detractors.

As the video essay below suggests, several of the key narrative conventions that defined Classical Hollywood storytelling are as follows:

  • psychologically defined individuals
  • a struggle to solve a problem or achieve a goal
  • a conflict with other people or external circumstances
  • characters have agency and causality moves the story forward
  • there is decisive victory or defeat

Because most theoretical principles are best understood with examples, the essay (which takes the form of a lecture) looks at two films that embody these narrative principles: Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeurism thriller Rear Window (1954) and a modern example, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013).

Be warned: the video essay below features spoilers for the aforementioned films.

Watch “What is Classical Hollywood Narration?”:

Who made this?

This video essay about how to identify Classical Hollywood narration is by Jordan Schonig, who holds a Ph.D. in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago. They are a Film Studies lecturer and make video essays on, what else, film. You can subscribe to Schonig on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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