Film Theory: Excess, Extremity in Film–Definition, Genres, Particular Movies

December 6, 2020

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom–William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Excess in Film

Kristen Thompson

Thompson has observed that films experience a struggle of opposing forces. Some forces strive to unify the work, hold it together, while others aspects of the work are not contained by its unifying forces, thus they are elements of excess.

Scholars and critics should concentrate neither on the coherent elements nor upon the excess, but on the tension between them.

For some critics, however, moments of excess represents self-indulgence on the part of the director, lack of taste and restraint, wildly extravagant kitsch.

Stephen Heath:

The narrative never exhausts the image.

Homogeneity is an effect of the film, not the filmic system.  The narrative can seldom contain the whole film.  The material of the film image creates a play which goes beyond this unity.

A film can never make all the physical elements part of its set of smooth perceptual cues.

Heath claims that the excess arises from the conflict between the materiality of a film and the unifying structures within it.

The Russian Formalist definition of narrative: An interplay between plot and story. Plot is the actual representation of events in the film

Story is the mental reconstruction by spectators of these events in their “real”, chronological order (on the basis of codes of cause and effects)

Classical Hollywood film typically strives to minimize excess. 

But some films do not always try to provide apparent motivation for everything in film.  Hence, they leave potentially excessive elements more noticeable.

Roland Barthes essay “The Third Meaning” (La Troisieme sense)

Roland Barthes was the first to observe that the source of excess is the material aspects of film.

Excess doesn’t necessarily weaken the meanings of the structures in which it appears.

The materiality of the image goes beyond the narrative structures of unity in a film.

The choice of “meaning” is misleading, since these elements do not participate in the creation of narrative and symbolic meaning.

Excess and Dissident Moments

Robert Ray, in an essay in the Oxford Dictionary, asks a significant question: Can dissident moments (thematic or stylistic) disrupt or subvert the intentional ideological effect of a movie?

There is no general theory yet, just case by case

In other words, can dissident thematic variations outfight the content that seeks to subdue it?

There have been effective challenges to Hollywood’s prevailing ideology:

Dissident moments surface in a film when the emotional quotient is excessive in terms of the narrative needs, when the emotional moments are inadequately motivated

Significantly, the most interesting Hollywood movies, and some of the most popular ones (Casablanca) display moments of excess and dissidence.

American audiences seem to like seeing the most privileged moments or elements in its ideology challenged (if not utterly defeated).


“Occasionally the movies go mad. They have terrifying visions; they erupt in images that show the true face of society. However, they are healthy at the core. Their schizophrenic outbursts last only a few moments, then a curtain is lowered again and everything returns to normal.”

Pauline Kael, review of Dirty Harry:

“It’s the feeling of freedom from respectability that we have always enjoyed at the movies that is carried to an extreme by American International Pictures and the Clint Eastwood Italian Westerns; they are stripped of cultural values.”

Excess in Different Genres

Linda Williams in Oxford Dictionary, 1991–100

Analysis of excess in three movie genres: Pornography, which has the lowest esteem; Horror, gross-out horror, next to lowest, and Musical, which is more respectable.

Action Genre:

Levy:  Chase scenes in actioners (Bullitt; The French Connection) or in Westerns (Stagecocah)

Melodrama and Musicals

Moments of excess are manifest in unmotivated events, rhythmic montage, highlighted parallelism, overlong spectacle

Excess represents a competing logic, a second voice to the main, dominant logic.  Excess itself may be organized as a system

In musicals: Excessive spectacle, parallel constructions

In melodramas–linear, progressive classic style can not accomodate melodramatic attributes, such as episodic presentation.

There’s too much dependence on coincidence, unless and except they are limited exceptions of “play” with dominant linear causality.

Devices and Props

Props may carry interest beyond their function in the narrative, such as repetition of prolonged close-ups, individual decorative patterns, specific sounds, shifts between color and black-and-white, all of which may cause perceptual disruption, and even shock.

There’s arbitrary rather than logical organization of the narrative

The work becomes a perceptual field of structure, which the viewer is free to look at and choose from during the viewing experience.


Film Excess: Movies, A to Z

Leave Her to Heaven:

The lurid spectacle of Gene Tierney (with lips that are blood-red), riding on a horseback as she spreads her father’s ashes.

Touch of Evil:

Orson Welles’ film noir contains scenes that have no narrative function, scenes that provide relatively little causal material about Quinlan.  But the scenes (at Tanya, for example) provide scenic material about Quinlan.

For studio directors of Classic Hollywood Cinema, excess is the material that must be repressed by the narrative.


A scene in which Debbie Harry burns her breast with a cigarette is ultra- provocative, especially for feminist scholars.

Zorba, the Greek

The public humiliation (ending in knifing) of the young widow and the stripping the dying woman’s hotel are sequences go on past necessity; they go on so long that we want to say, enough, enough (Pauline Kael)



Bad and the Beautiful, The

Barefoot Contessa, The

Duel in the Sun, The

Fountainhead, The

Leave Her to Heaven

Touch of Evil


Zorba, the Greek


Bibliography: Sources

Barthes, Roland 

Eckert, Charles: Analysis of Marked Woman (1937).

Heath, Stephen

Thompson, Kristen, Concept of Cinematic Excess

The Russian Formalist

Williams, Linda, article in Oxford Dictionary