Film theory

Film theory

Film theory is an academic discipline, closely allied with Marxist critical theory, that aims to explore the essence of the cinema and provides conceptual frameworks for understanding film's relationship to reality, the other arts, individual viewers, and society at large. Film theory is not to be confused with general film criticism, though there can be some crossover between the two disciplines.



French philosopher Henri Bergson's Matter and Memory (1896) has been cited as anticipating the development of film theory during the birth of cinema. Bergson commented on the need for new ways of thinking about movement, and coined the terms "the movement-image" and "the time-image". However, in his 1906 essay L'illusion cinématographique (in L'évolution créatrice), he rejects film as an exemplification of what he had in mind. Nonetheless, decades later, in Cinéma I and Cinema II (1983–1985), the philosopher Gilles Deleuze took Matter and Memory as the basis of his philosophy of film and revisited Bergson's concepts, combining them with the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce.

Early film theory arose in the silent era and was mostly concerned with defining the crucial elements of the medium. It largely evolved from the works of directors like Germaine Dulac, Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, and Dziga Vertov and film theorists like Rudolf Arnheim, Béla Balázs and Siegfried Kracauer.[1] These individuals emphasized how film differed from reality and how it might be considered a valid art form. In the years after World War II, the French film critic and theorist André Bazin reacted against this approach to the cinema, arguing that film's essence lay in its ability to mechanically reproduce reality, not in its difference from reality.[2]

In the 1960s and 1970s, film theory took up residence in academia importing concepts from established disciplines like psychoanalysis, gender studies, anthropology, literary theory, semiotics and linguistics. However, not until the late 1980s or early 1990s did film theory per se achieve much prominence in American universities by displacing the prevailing humanistic, auteur theory that had dominated cinema studies and which had been focused on the practical elements of film writing, production, editing and criticism.[3] American scholar David Bordwell has spoken against many prominent developments film theory since the 1970s, i.e., he uses the humorously derogatory term "SLAB theory" to refer to film studies based on the ideas of Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, and/or Barthes. Instead, Bordwell promotes what he describes as "neoformalism."

During the 1990s the digital revolution in image technologies has had an impact on film theory in various ways. There has been a refocus onto celluloid film's ability to capture an "indexical" image of a moment in time by theorists like Mary Ann Doane, Philip Rosen and Laura Mulvey who was informed by psychoanalysis. From a psychoanalytical perspective, after the Lacanian notion of "the Real", Slavoj Žižek offered new aspects of "the gaze" extensively used in contemporary film analysis.[4] There has also been a historical revisiting of early cinema screenings, practices and spectatorship modes by writers Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen and Yuri Tsivian.

Television writer/producer David Weddle[3] suggests that film theory as practiced in the early 2000s is a form of bait and switch, taking advantage of young, would-be filmmakers: anyone in Hollywood filmmaking who used film theory terms like "fabula" and "syuzhet" would be "laughed off the lot." Weddle also quotes Roger Ebert's opinion that "Film theory has nothing to do with film" and is an obscuricantist "cult;" and quotes silent film historian Kevin Brownlow's alarm that academic film theorists are typically "quite aggressively Marxist."

In 2008, German filmmaker Werner Herzog[5] suggested that "Theoretical film studies has become really awful. That’s not how you should study film. Abolish these courses and do something else which makes much more sense."

Specific theories of film

See also


  1. ^ Robert Stam, Film Theory: an introduction", Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
  2. ^ André Bazin, What is Cinema? essays selected and translated by Hugh Gray, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
  3. ^ a b Weddle, David. "Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology: Film School Isn't What It Used to Be, One Father Discovers." Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2003; URL retrieved 22 Jan 2011.
  4. ^ Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London: Verso, 2000.
  5. ^ "Wrath of Herzog", UPenn Gazette, Jan/Feb 2008.

Further reading

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