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Tom Paulus teaches film studies in the department of Theatre and Film Studies at the University of Antwerp. He is the former curator of film and digital media at the Museum for Contemporary art (MuHKA) and former editor of the media journal AS/Andere Sinema. He has published on issues of genre and film style in such journals as Film International. His essays on pictorial style in the films of John Ford were published in three edited collections, John Ford in Focus (Stoehr & Connolly eds.) from McFarland, Westerns: Movies from Hollywood and Paperback Westerns (Paul Varner ed.)  from Cambridge Scholars Press, and New Perspectives on The Quiet Man from the Liffey Press. His edited collection (with Rob King) Slapstick Symposium: Essays on Silent Comedy was published by Routledge in the American Film Institute Film Readers series.


2013 (in print or accepted for publication)

Paulus, Tom. Structured Wandering: The Drifting Camera in Flowers of Shanghai. Journalism and Mass Communication, 02 (2013)

Paulus, Tom. In Yoko’s Room: Hou, Ozu, and the Poetics of Space. In: Ozu and Evolution: Reassessing an Icon of Japanese Cinema. DiPaolo, Marc (edit.). Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press.

Paulus, Tom, Adriaensens, Vito. Mannerism: Self-Consciousness and Style. In: Michael Mann and Philosophy. Sanders, Steven (edit.), Skoble, Aeon (edit.), Palmer, Barton R. (edit.). 


Paulus, Tom. The Melodramatic Moment as Allegory in Griffith’s Biograph Films. In: Melodrama Revisited – Rethinking Cinema/Repenser le Cinéma series. Andrin, Muriel (edit.), Nasta, Dominique (edit.). Brussels: PIE Peter Lang, 2012 (in print).

Paulus, Tom, Adriaensens, Vito. For a Canon of Moments. In: The Film Canon. Bianchi, Pietro (edit.), Bursi, Giulio (edit.), Venturini, Simone (edit.). Udine: Forum/University of Udine Press.

A full bibliography can be found on my University of Antwerp home page



Questioning Historical Poetics in (Early) Cinema


My research is primarily to be situated in film aesthetics and film history. The crucial question I raise, is why the stylistic and narrative parameters of cinema evolve in a certain way at a certain point in time. To this question are tied a number of secondary queries, like: what is the importance of historical norms and conventions? How do we relate individual processes of artistic making to conventional rules and prescriptions regarding group or institutional style? In turn, these queries engender an equally pertinent questioning of historical poetics as a method to chart individual authorship and intentionality. What interests me, is the creative process behind the finished product, the way artists behave in certain ways in certain contexts and make specific choices within a given paradigm. Should these choices be seen as the result of normative pressure only, or should inter-artistic influence and personal creativity also be taken into account? And if so, how do we go about describing and analyzing such matrix of contingent factors?


Engaging with creativity, my essentially formalist research project is forced to take into account less quantifiable parameters, both at the creative and the receptive level. The role of the viewer is less central to my research, which although undeniably socio-historically informed is still clearly differentiated from cultural sociology or cultural studies, research traditions that primarily tie questions of artistic agency and production to socio-political environment and ideological dispositifs.  My interest is primarily in cinematic form, in how form is constructed by both maker and viewer in a rational process and creation and decoding. On the other hand, as suggested, there is a residual logic to this exchange which we can only qualify as ‘aesthetic’ and has no clear historical ground.  Nevertheless, the ‘aesthetic’ aspect of cinema, its being shaped by the viewer’s cinephilia in particular, interests me both as a methodological challenge and a historiographical problematic, both of which I also try to engage with in my pedagogy.  What I mean here, is that in my teaching I try to find a balance between a formalist, analytical approach on the one hand, and a more inductive method on the other hand, that tries to derive from contingent factors like experience, memory and creative reinterpretation a consistent theory of cinema that serves in complement to my main conception of the filmmaker as creative agent directed by norm-consciousness.   


Because of the emphasis in my work on the conventional nature of cinema poetics, the choice of my primary corpus is more or less a straightforward one: the classical cinema in general, and American cinema in particular. In a first phase of my research I was primarily interested in the figure of the ‘auteur,’ specifically the case of the American filmmakers John Ford and Howard Hawks. Let’s take Ford as a typical instance of classical cinema. In the literature, Ford is adapted to whatever paradigm or hermeneutics is in fashion: alternately viewed as the most perfected instance of classical American studio style (Bazin), as both exemplary of and critical towards dominant ideological structures (Cahiers du Cinéma), as personified collection of returning thematic clusters and tropes (the ciné-structuralism of Peter Wollen and his ilk).  My own skeptical position towards this extremely flexible characterization of Ford’s cinema as exemplary case study, led to my essay, Ways of Knowing: Peter Lehman and The Searchers, published as book chapter in John Ford in Focus - Stoehr Kevin (edit.) & Connolly Michael (edit.), 2008), in which I confront the influential ideological reading of Ford by Peter Lehman with a more pragmatic view of filmmaking based on my historical research in John Ford’s papers and production materials gathered at the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. Contra Lehman’s epistemological casting of certain ‘gaps’ in Ford’s narratives, I argued for a reading of The Searchers that takes into account the concrete choices made by the filmmaker from the menu of available options (and subtle deviations) presented by the classical Hollywood style. My frustration with Lehman’s willful ‘misreading’ also led to an analysis of the pictorial nature of certain motifs that reappear throughout Ford’s films and are again subjected by Lehman to a-historical interpretation. This paper, "If you can call it an art…”: Pictorial Style in John Ford's Early Westerns, was also included in the Connelly & Stoehr book. 


Because of the importance of the aesthetic of silent cinema in the evolution of Ford’s poetics, I became more and more intrigued by the conversation between pre-classical cinema and the pictorial arts (mainly narrative painting and pictorial photography). My questions about the filmmaker’s informed creative choices became much more concrete in light of certain borrowings from the other arts. Because Ford’s pictorial style, within the classical paradigm based on an invisibility of style and narrative strategy, was found to be far from exceptional within the institutional context of American studio filmmaking, my line of research was broadened from an to an inquiry into the adaptation and integration of conventions and representational strategies taken from painting and photography in the American cinema of the early classical period. I found a remarkable consistency in the use of pictorial forms and motifs borrowed from Victorian culture in the films of those makers who, either to differentiate their product from that of the competition or to highlight their own position as artist or auteur, attempted an often striking pictorial revision of those norms of representation which had been taken as tied exclusively to narrative interest and comprehensibility and  viewer empathy. After attempting studies of the use of specific visual motifs, like the contre-jour or silhouette shot, more specifically the use of contre-jour landscape compositions or ‘maritime’ framings (the subject of my paper at the International Film Studies conference in Udine devoted to early cinema, The Plein-Air Effect: Pictorial Lighting in Early Film, 2009), I came to the conclusion that the iconography of early classical cinema remained to be written.     


This find occasioned an ambitious research project that should be the closing chapter of my research into the stylistic patterns of early classical cinema. An early version of the project, entitled, The Adaptation and Transformation of Victorian Pictorial Strategies in Early American Cinema, was recently proposed to the FWO. Purpose of the project is to trace the impact of typical representational strategies and patterns from Victorian culture on the American cinema of what is critically referred to as the ‘transitional period.’ A first preliminary to the project was the presentation of my paper,  Little Girls in Empire Dresses: The Influence from Women Children's Book Illustrators on Early Art Titles, at the ‘Women and the Silent Screen’ International Conference in Bologna (2010). The research into the inter-artistic adaptation and exchange of pictorial strategies is not only an iconographical inquiry, but at the same time raises questions about viewer familiarity with the ‘attractions’ of cinema. At the end of this research I also hope to be able to attempt an answer to the question of whether cinema viewership was initially a condition of ‘amazement’ (as has been generally proposed and accepted) or familiarity and conventionality.  


Essentially my work on the conversation between early American cinema and Victorian pictorial culture is devoted to the notion of continuity. Likewise, I am drawn to the notion of the continuing legacy of modernism, both in the arts and the cinema, specifically as it pertains to those ‘Developing Cinemas’ Fredric Jameson has qualified as cinemas of ‘late modernism.’ I have recently begun looking at the cinemas of both Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami with this question in mind: is their cinema, which is taken as embodying both the ‘future’ of the medium and its contemporariness, informed less by the revision of postmodern conceptions of image production than by the same tropes that produced the modernist European cinema of the sixties and cinemas? This question, in my view, is tied not only to the history of aesthetics but to institutional factors, related not only to national film industries but to film pedagogies and the concrete circumstances of the dissemination of cinematic knowledge.


‘Continuity’ is also at the core of my inquiry into the relationship between theatrical and cinematic genres of comedy. In my book, Slapstick Comedy (edited with Rob King, 2010), the main structuring argument was to return slapstick to the historiography of American film and its theatrical models. My most recent paper, on the generic relation of Hollywood marital comedy to theatrical farce, again raises the question of how stage routines and structures of staging were transformed when adopted by the cinema.    

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