The Film Experience Chapter 11, Reading about Film: Critical Theories and Methods/ Summary-Review

VIEWING CUE: The Wizard of Oz
In the beloved film The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her companions have reached the end of their journey, only to be asked to perform an additional task.
After watching the clips from The Wizard of Oz, consider the questions below.
1. How are the origins of the film’s story and characters in fairy tales illustrated in this sequence?
2. How does the film use cinematically specific and even self-referential elements in this scene that distinguish it from other forms of narrative?

FILM IN FOCUS: Persepolis

Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, 2007) is the autobiographical tale of coming of age as an artist and an Iranian during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. Marji (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) has left Iran and her family to attend school in Europe.
After watching the clips from Persepolis, consider the questions below.
1. How is the autobiographical voice established in this brief scene? Does the anecdote relate to the experience of exile?
2. How does the departure from "realism" work in this clip? Do other formal elements become visible because of this departure?


Cher (Alicia Silverstone), the Beverly Hills teenager who narrates Amy Heckerling’s comedy Clueless (1995), feels betrayed when the new girl, whom she’s taken under her wing, admits she has a crush on Cher’s stepbrother.
After watching the clips from Clueless, consider the questions below.
1. How is irony generated in the clip in visual terms? Through language? Through counterpoint between sound and image?
2. Discuss how the film’s Los Angeles setting contributes to a postmodern aesthetic.

Chapter Summary

What is it about the film experience that resonates so meaningfully with modern life? This question, which emerged with the first projected moving images, continues to drive our thinking about mediated experiences today. Such reflection on the nature and uses of the medium is the province of film theory.

The Evolution of Film Theory

Two primary issues within the discipline that seem at odds with each other are the specificity of the cinematic medium and the interdisciplinary nature of its study. Specificity refers to that which makes the medium of film distinct as an aesthetic form or mode of communication. At the same time, cinema represents a combination of other art forms as well as commercial, artistic, and social interests, and thus must also be considered from an interdisciplinary perspective.
Theories of an artistic medium often begin by trying to define their object; for example, “How does cinema differ from painting or photography?” All use pictorial imagery, but film differs from painting because it is composed of photographic images captured with a camera, and it differs from photography in that its images are displayed to give the illusion of motion. As a storytelling medium, cinema borrows from the novel; yet the way it associates images with emotions resembles poetry. Like music, film is a time-based performance. Each of these comparisons can and has been extended.
These questions of film’s medium specificity and interdisciplinarity are especially important today as recent technological developments – from videotape playback and virtual reality to computer-generated imagery (CGI), digital cinematography, and digital projection – raise profound questions about the inherent nature of the cinematic medium.

Early and Classical Film Theory

While today film theory is considered part of an academic discipline, earlier writers on the topic came from many contexts and traditions such as psychology or journalism. Early film theorists examined cinema’s relation to language and to other art forms, and questioned whether film is inherently a realist medium.
In the 1910s and 1920s in France, the first avant-garde film movement, impressionism, was fostered by groups known as ciné-clubs and by journals dedicated to the new medium. Film theorist Louis Delluc coined the term photogénie to refer to a particular quality that distinguishes the filmed object from its everyday reality.
After the 1917 Russian Revolution, a group of artist-intellectuals in the Soviet Union set about defining an artistic practice that could participate in revolutionary change. Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein elaborated the theory of montage in their writings and films. Montage is a way of breaking down a scene to direct the spectator’s perception and understanding. Eisenstein’s theory emphasized how the “collision” between two images could create a third meaning.
Filmmaker Dziga Vertov and the Kinoki, or “cinema-eye” group, also contributed to film theory with their manifestos that emphasized the movie camera’s ability to overcome limitations of the human eye, therefore creating a new way of seeing.
One of the organizing debates of classical film theory centers around the appeal to realism made first by photography and then by film. Realism in the arts, generally speaking, relates to mimesis, or imitation of reality. For theorists such as André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, film’s ability to refer to the world through images that resemble and record the presence of objects and sources of sounds sets it apart as a realist medium. Other film theorists such as Béla Balázs and Rudolf Arnheim championed formalist theories of film. These formalists were especially interested in how film became an art form precisely by transcending its referential qualities.
Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer’s Weimar-era contemporary, was particularly interested in how cinema participated in the transformation of perception in the modern world. Film, Benjamin argued, captured the sense of accelerated time and effortlessly traversed spaces typical of contemporary urban life.

Postwar Film Culture and Criticism

Postwar film culture fostered the development of film journals. One of the most famous, Cahiers du cinéma, was founded by André Bazin in 1951. The magazine published the criticism of the young cineastes – François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol— who would later shape the French New Wave film movement. The criticism published in Cahiers elaborated on the significance and patterns of mise-en-scène, auteurs, and genre. Rival journals in France, Positif and Cinéthique, also flourished, and the polemics between them energized film enthusiasts.
Auteur theory, which asserts that a film bears the creative imprint of one individual (typically the director), emerged in the 1950s when specific directors were vocally championed by the French critics. Debates arose over whether a particular director should be classified a true auteur or a mere metteur en scène (French for “director,” derived from theatrical usage), a label that conveyed technical competence without a strong individual vision.
Sometimes genre criticism is considered to be at odds with auteurism, but the two concepts can also inform each other, and both rely on cinephilia, a deep love of film. The term “genre film” designates a type of movie that is quickly recognizable, but it may also carry pejorative connotations of lacking originality.
Contemporary Film Theory
The academic discipline of film studies has been heavily influenced by European thought, especially by several currents converging in postwar France, including semiotics, structuralism, and Marxism.
The study of linguistics and language models influenced film theory beginning in the 1970s. Semiotics (also called semiology) is the study of signs, which could include words, pictures, gestures, and a wide range of other systems of communication or perception. A sign is composed of a signifier, the spoken or written word, picture, or gesture, and a signified, the mental concept it evokes.
Narratology, the study of narrative forms, is a branch of structuralism that encompasses stories of all kinds, including films. Structuralist theorists reduce narrative to its most basic form: a beginning situation is disrupted, a hero takes action as a result, and a new equilibrium is reached at the end. Modernism, on the other hand, favors a more fragmented human subjectivity and a more open-ended narrative.
Some critical theories reject narrative based on an argument against the naturalization of conventions. One such ideological critique is Marxism. French Marxist Louis Althusser approaches the question of the nature of ideologya systematic set of beliefs that is not necessarily conscious—with a new understanding of the structures of representation in order to explain how people come to accept ideas and conditions contrary to their interests.
Poststructuralism questions the rational methodology and fixed definitions that structuralists bring to their various objects of study, the assumption of objectivity, and the structuralist disregard for cultural and historical context.
Louis Althusser’s theoretical writing on how an individual comes to believe in ideology as “imaginary representation” refers to psychoanalysis and in particular to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s definition of the imaginary. Film theorists likened Lacan’s theory of the illusionary mirror stage to the experience of viewing a film and “believing” in its world, which is also an illusion.
Apparatus theory explores the values built into film technology through the particular context of its historical development.
The study of how subjects interact with films and with the cinematic apparatus is known as the theory of spectatorship. Going to the movies gratifies our voyeurism (looking without being seen ourselves) and plays to our unconscious self-image of potency.
Feminist film theory often explores the representation of women in cinema. The objectification of the female image seems to solicit a possessive male gaze or female identification. British theorist and filmmaker Laura Mulvey’s famous article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” argues that the glamorous and desirable female image in film is also a potentially threatening vision of difference, or otherness, for male viewers.
Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) film theorists explore more fluid ways of understanding identity and posit that the gender of a member of the audience need not correspond with that of the character he or she finds most absorbing or most alluring. Audiences can read “against the grain” of intended or conventional meanings to satisfy their own desires and interests.
Cultural studies scrutinizes aspects of cinema embedded in the everyday lives of individuals or groups at particular historical junctures and in particular social contexts; it does not analyze individual texts or theorize about spectatorship in the abstract.
Reception theory focuses on how a film is received by audiences. An important component of reception is our response to stars, performers who become recognizable through their films or who bring celebrity to their roles. In addition to analyzing how a star’s image is composed from various elements—not only film appearances but also promotion, publicity, and critical commentary—theorists are interested in how audience reception helps define a star’s cultural meaning.
The concept of race intersects with the film experience on many different levels, raising questions about the possibilities for cross-racial identification and other aspects of spectatorship. Cultural studies models are flexible enough to address racial images, such as stereotypes, and their reception by diverse audiences, as well as how discourses of imperialism, colonialism, and nationalism, often related to racial representations, are embedded in film stories, genres, and star images.
Theories derived from philosophy and cognitive science have been used to address certain questions about film perception. Cognitivist film theory understands our response to film in terms of rational evaluation of visual and narrative cues. Based in psychological research, it advocates verifiable scientific approaches to studying film. Phenomenology stresses that any act of perception involves a mutuality of viewer and viewed and, when applied to film theory, places emphasis on the film experience as intersubjective and conscious.
The predominance of visual media is characteristic of the culture of postmodernism. Postmodernism has two primary definitions:

  1. In architecture, art, music, and film, postmodernism incorporates many other styles through fragments or references in a practice known as pastiche.
  2. Historically, postmodernism is the cultural period in which political, cultural, and economic shifts challenged the tenets of modernism, including its belief in the possibility of critiquing the world through art, the division of high and low culture, and the genius and independent identity of the artist.

Stylistically, postmodern cinema represents history as nostalgia, as if the past were nothing more than a movie that could be quoted. Postmodernism also recognizes the reality of today’s increasing globalization and the role of new technologies in making the flow of images across the globe even easier.