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Films have been a central critical issue over the past century. In the beginning, the film was not given the title of art. But the critics could not resist the great influence on cinema vested in society and human thinking in a short span of time. When a film has come to understand as an object worthy of serious study, film studies have emerged and become firmly established within the institution of academia.
As soon as the moving photographic images were projected on the screen, critics, writers, philosophers and even filmmakers started describing the new medium, as critical problems were driven by the rapid growth and development of the medium.
Film theory provides conceptual frameworks for understanding film’s relationship to reality, the other arts, individual viewers, and society at large, Early films theory arose in the silent era and was mostly concerned with defining the crucial elements of the medium. It largely evolved from the work of directors like Germaine Dulac, Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Paul Rotha and film theorists like Rudolf Arnheim, Bela Balazs, and Siegfried Kracauer. The discussion on the film went on in two directions only Realist and formalist traditions.
After the world war II, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, film theory became interdisciplinary in nature by importing concepts from established disciplines like Marxism, psychoanalysis, gender studies, anthropology, literary theory, semiotics and linguistics, During the 1990s the digital revolution in image technologies has had an impact on the film theory in various ways.
Cinema is meant and believed to entertain, to take the viewer to a world that is starkly different from the real one, a world which provides escape from the daily grind of life. Cinema is a popular media of mass consumption which plays a key role in molding opinions, constructing images and reinforcing dominant cultural values.
Before cinema studies were established as an academic enterprise there existed already a fair pile of theoretical writing on cinema. Hugo Münsterberg, Béla Balász, and Rudolf Arnheim were the most prominent; however, the protagonists of Soviet montage film, Eisenstein, and Kuleshov, also contributed substantially to early theoretical reflection on the nature of cinema and its impact on spectators. André Bazin, perhaps the most significant during the period when early theories of cinema were gradually superseded by modern theories within academia, wrote a number of essays in the ’40s establishing a new angle on cinema not least through the French film journal Les Cahiers du cinema.
Characteristic of most early writing is its concern with the meaning of the film in comparison with other forms of art. Is film understandable as an extension and transformation of photography, theatre, the novel, or painting, and if so what is cinema’s own contribution? In that cinema was considered a mechanical recording of reality it was furthermore not clear at all that it at the same time was identifiable as art. It was felt to be necessary to define cinema as an art form in itself and in its own right to endow cinema with artfulness. Being interested in what the essence of the film was early theory often was directed toward ontological questions about cinema.
The ’60s saw the humanities undergo considerable expansion. Film programs were established in Western countries. Many film scholars came from other fields of study, which meant that many new theoretical questions were raised. More important was the sheer proliferation of theories and epistemologies, and the shift toward a new focus in cinema studies. The question of the essence of cinema was still an undercurrent in many writings but the legitimization of cinema studies as a scientific enterprise seemed more urgent. The domination of structuralism followed by semiotics and psychoanalysis meant that cinema studies were connected to new fields. Also, the politicization of the humanities meant the import of new theories concerned with cultural philosophy and ideology, which were essentially taken from different strands of Marxism. The questions throughout that period were, therefore, scientific and political in nature.
Other shifts in film theory took place throughout the ’80s with a more keen focus on the interaction between film and the spectator, and a focus on film as a cultural issue. Both these new foci meant that film studies again was connected to new fields as it became a part of a huge industry known as cultural studies. New studies connecting film with cognitive psychology furthermore re-established the connection between film studies and natural science, such as neurobiology and other sciences of the brain. These new fields meant another huge piling up of texts related to cinema studies. The shift in the ’80s put forward questions on culture and natural sciences.
This very brief history of film theory indicates how the history of theory creates serious problems for teachers in film studies. The first problem has to do with the teachers’ own (in)capacity, actually, to follow new theoretical paradigms in their totality. The second problem is connected to actual teaching in the fields of film theory, film history, and film analysis. Due to the immensity of theories, how is it, then, possible to present the serious and relevant theories for students at different levels? The answer is obvious: by film readers encompassing the most central texts throughout the history of film theory. Academic compilation books have taken up the challenge from the vastness of theory and have given rise to the “film reader industry”. A film reader, however, always responds in some way or another to its own historical context with actual theoretical agendas and more or less specific requirements. Film readers, therefore, are not necessarily the answer to the proliferation of theories but may be part of the problem by way of a proliferation of books.
Rutledge has published a new film reader in four volumes Film Theory. Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies edited by Philip Simpson, Andrew Utterson, and K. J. Shepherdson. One would expect that these four volumes, collecting 99 articles and book fragments, would target readers without allegiance to any specific agenda and with a high degree of endurance. This expectation, however, is not quite fulfilled. And moreover, it has presumably not been the intention to fulfill this rather naive expectation of an unbiased presentation when the book’s subtitle (the emphasis on “Cultural Studies”) is taken as an indication. Some parts of the volumes are highly influenced by a cultural studies approach. This means that the editors have chosen to include texts which only to a minimal degree address questions of film, film theory and film history, as for example Jean Baudrillard’s text. The price for this inclusion is, of course, the exclusion of more relevant texts.
Film Theory is divided into 12 parts dealing with topics which have dominated film theory at different times. The first section “Essence and Specificity” relates to early film theory. It also includes new takes on the question of a cinema essence. Alone this question could have filled all of the book’s volumes given it has been an intermittent one throughout film theory. The question of essence is related to the notion of film as a specific kind of language, which is dealt with in the second section of Volume One. “Language” was, of course, the buzzword or key concept when structuralism was introduced to film studies, or rather academic film studies were born simultaneously with structuralism in the ’60s. In this second section, film language is traced to its origins in Soviet theories of the ’20s where the theories of montage exactly treated the film as a kind of language. Oddly enough, though, Bazin’s influential essay “The evolution of the language of cinema” is also included in this section. This is odd given Bazin’s essay uses language as a metaphor rather than understanding film as language; in actual fact, his essay addresses the essence of the film. The first volume’s last section deals with “Technologies”.
The sections contained in Film Theory are relevant for most film study programs, and, overall, the film reader will be an answer to many teaching requirements. A very useful chronological table is included, which makes it easy to get a sense of the historical context of the essays as well as being able to see what other essays appeared at the same time. The chronological table forms a part of the history of film theory. The table would have benefited from including other significant writing not included in the four volumes and perhaps also some film history.
The choices taken in every anthology of film theory are always disputable according to different preferences and idiosyncratic judgments of taste. The choices made in Film Theory seem overall balanced despite my reservations. Film Theory is, however, not a film reader above other readers, and the book’s endurance time is not secured by the sheer number of essays and book fragments included.
Once people realized that films could do much more than provide simple entertainment, a variety of theories and approaches were developed to help analyze films in order to understand how they created responses in viewers and just what they might mean. Different approaches examine different aspects of a film for different reasons. A formalist approach looks at the film itself, its structure and form. Thus, while other approaches often use some degree of external evidence to analyze a film, a formalist approach will focus primarily on internal evidence. This approach might analyze how the way the plot presents the story material forces the viewer to see things at certain times and have reactions that might be different if presented some other way. A narrative analysis will examine how a film employs various narrative formal elements (such as character, setting, repetition/variation, etc.) to convey meaning to the viewer. Analysis of specific formal techniques might concentrate on a film’s use of mise en scene or photographic composition, camera movements, editing choices, sound in relation to the image, etc., noting the effect of those techniques on how the viewer perceives the scenes and interprets what they mean.
A realist approach examines how a film represents “reality.” Some films attempt to make techniques “invisible” to viewers so the characters and situations are always the primary focus. Others attempt to use cinematic techniques to replicate a certain type of reality the filmmaker wants the audience to experience — love, aging, memory, insanity, drug use, etc. Some films are more concerned with creating moods and emotional impressions than with depicting a traditionally plotted story with an obvious beginning, middle, and end. These films may be attempting to convey a type of really important to their creators, hoping that viewers will pick up on it, but the non-mainstream use of techniques and non-standard structure may require a concerted effort on the part of a viewer to understand, multiple viewings, or even an explanation by the filmmaker. Look, for example, at the unusual films written or directed by Charlie Kaufmann, such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synechdoche New York, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich.
A contextualist approach to analysis always considers a film as part of some broader context. This can be society at large, the particular culture, time, and place that created it a culturalist approach, the director’s personal life and previous body of work an auteurist approach that assumes the director is the “author” of a film), or various psychological and/or ideological contexts. A psychological approach often identifies plot elements with theories of psychologists like Freud or Jung, looking for sexual symbolism, treatment of the subconscious, representations of the id, ego, and superego, etc. The dualist approach looks for pairs of opposites possibly identifying them as symbolic of contrasting tendencies in society or human nature itself. A feminist analysis concentrates on the portrayals of women in a film — are they strong, weak, stereotypes, protagonists, antagonists, etc. A Marxist critic will attempt to associate characters and events in a film as representative of class struggle, labor vs. management, poor vs. rich, oppressive governments, and other Marxist sociopolitical concerns.
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