Film theory is a form of speculative thought that aims to make visible the underlying structures and absent causes that confer order and intelligibility upon films. These structures and causes, while not observable in themselves, are made visible by theory. The ultimate objective of film theory is to construct models of film’s nonobservable underlying structures.
Because the invisible structures are unknown they cannot be discovered by means of inductive procedures such as taxonomies. At the same time, the structures are not unknowable, for they can be represented as a system of theoretical hypotheses, concepts, or propositions, which have only a tentative or speculative status. Theories therefore offer explanatory depth rather than mere empirical generalizations. A particular theory enables the analyst to identify specific aspects of a film’s structure, and to look at and listen to the film from the perspective of its own values. The aim of “theory” in this particular understanding is to construct different conceptual perspectives on a film, each informed by a specific set of values. A biased or value-laden theory is not only inescapable, but is also the condition of knowledge.
Academic film studies has created a specialized theoretical vocabulary around the cinema in order to talk about the invisible structures underlying films. This vocabulary represents the film theorist’s unique way of seeing and thinking, which exceeds the immediate, commonsense view of films (their consumption as harmless entertainment) and begins to ask a set of questions that common sense has no need for. Film theorists are experts who develop a passionate interest in theories, and ask seemingly strange and difficult questions about films. Where do these questions come from? Why are they important? What do you need to know to ask such a question, let alone answer it? To understand the questions film theorists ask we need to place cinema in the context of twentieth-century thought.
The Language Analysis Tradition
Twentieth-century thinking is marked by a shift from idealist philosophy to language analysis. The structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the American semiotician C. S. Peirce initiated a radical critique of Descartes’s and Kant’s idealist philosophy of the subject. In this critique, language and signs replace mental entities as the locus of knowledge. Language analysis rejects idealism, transforming its focus on private mental events (as in Descartes’s method of introspection) to the public perspective of language and signs.
The language analysts’ assumption of indirect access to one’s own thoughts via language replaced the idealists’ assumption of immediate access to thoughts. In the late 1950s cognitive processes made a decisive return within the language analysis tradition, beginning with Noam Chomsky’s transformational generative grammar. Chomsky created a synthesis of both idealism and the intersubjective nature of language. This history of thought in the twentieth century is encapsulated in film theory.
Schools Of Film Theory
The values inherent in all film theories have directed theorists’ attention to particular aspects of film’s general nature. Classical film theory, which dominated from the 1920s to the early 1960s, tried to define film as an art and attempted to achieve this from an idealist perspective by focusing on film’s ontology, or “essence.” Different classical film theorists located film’s essence in two incommensurate, diametrically opposed qualities of cinema: its photographic recording capacity (e.g., Siegfried Kracauer; Stanley Cavell; André Bazin 1967) and its unique formal techniques that offer a new way of seeing (e.g., Lev Kuleshov; Sergei Eisenstein; Vsevolod Pudovkin; Rudolf Arnheim 1957). For realists, film automatically (that is, mechanically) records and reveals reality. Filmmakers therefore have a duty, the realists argued, to maintain film’s relation to reality by privileging its recording capacity. Formalists, on the other hand, regarded film as a modernist medium that offers a new view of the world, and therefore urged filmmakers to exploit film techniques (montage, camera movement, etc.) to create a view of the world unique to the cinema. Auteur criticism is an offshoot from formalism. It examines the way individual directors use film techniques to manipulate film content in order to express their unique vision.
From the perspective of language analysis, which became prominent in the 1960s, film semioticians such as Christian Metz did not conceive “film” to be a pre-given, unproblematic entity, nor did they try to define its essence. Instead, they aimed to define film’s specificity by constructing a general model of its underlying system of codes. Metz’s first semiotic model was the grande syntagmatique (1974a) which (he believed) designated one of the primary codes underlying and lending structure to all narrative films. It represents a set of finite sequence (or syntagmatic) types from which a filmmaker can choose to represent filmed events. Metz defined each sequence according to the spatio-temporal relations that exist between the events it depicts. He detected eight different types of sequences in total, each of which is identifiable by a specific spatiotemporal relationship existing between its images. Metz’s second semiotic model, developed in Language and cinema (1974b), attempted to define filmic specificity in terms of a specific combination of five overlapping codes – iconicity, mechanical duplication, multiplicity, movement, and mechanically produced multiple moving images.
Out of this semiotics emerged modern film theory of the 1970s (sometimes called the second semiotics or contemporary film theory) of (again) Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, theorists centered around the journal Screen (Stephen Heath, Colin MacCabe) and feminist film scholars (Laura Mulvey, Mary Ann Doane, Teresa de Lauretis) (see Rosen 1986). They combined the Marxism of Louis Althusser with the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan to examine the underlying ideological, social, psychical absent causes that structure mainstream films and create the illusion of spectators as free, coherent subjects. They then mapped out the space for an oppositional avant-garde cinema that would break the ideological hold over mainstream film.
Cognitive film theory emerged in the 1980s as an alternative to modern film theory. Cognitivists share with the modernists a focus on the specific nature of the interface between film and spectator. But whereas the modernists examined the way a film addresses the spectator’s irrational/unconscious desires and fantasies, the cognitivists analyzed the knowledge and competence spectators employ to comprehend films and engage them on rational and emotional levels (Bordwell 1985; Branigan 1992; Tan 1996).
The New Lacanians (most notably Slavoj Zizek) are united by a new concern with what has been called the “ethics” of psychoanalysis and its contemporary political ramifications, which revolve around democracy, totalitarianism, universality, and multiculturalism. Instead of concentrating on the imaginary and the symbolic when assessing the film experience in relation to a spectator, the New Lacanians focus on the imaginary and the real. This shift is a double one: it tries to free film studies from its obsession with vision, illusion, and representation, especially as elaborated around sexual difference, and it tries to repoliticize the cinema, by tracking the various permutations of the symbolic order under capitalist globalization (Elsaesser & Buckland 2002, 236 –248).
Film scholars not persuaded by psychoanalytic or Marxist film theory, but equally dissatisfied with the cognitivists’ analysis of rational and emotional reactions to films, have in recent years turned to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze’s two cinema books (The movement image  and The time image ) offer an alternative conceptualization of the film experience as an embodied, spatio-temporal event. Deleuze is not a film theorist in the commonly accepted sense, for he theorizes with rather than about the cinema. What seems to have drawn him to the cinema is the relation of bodies, matter, and perception, seen as a traditional philosophical problem, and in the twentieth century most vigorously explored by phenomenology (Elsaesser & Buckland 2002, 261–283).
Film theory, then, is a system of interrelated hypotheses, or tentative assumptions, about the unobservable nature of reality (a reality assumed to be a regular, economical, cohesive structure underlying chaotic, heterogeneous, observable phenomena). It unveils the scope and limits of human reasoning. This is Film Theory in the singular, written with a capital T.
For David Bordwell and Noël Carroll (1996), localized, middle-level (or piecemeal) theories should replace this singular Film Theory. They argue that to theorize should be conceived as an activity that is problem-driven rather than doctrine-driven. There are two immediate responses to this reconfiguration of film theory, one serious, the other less serious. First, piecemeal theorizing sounds like the story of the elephant and the six blind men. The one who felt the elephant’s leg said that it was like a tree trunk; the second who felt its tail said it was like a rope; the third who touched the elephant’s trunk said it was like a hose, and so on. Piecemeal theorizing may not be able to see the forest for the trees if it completely abandons the tendency to develop a unifying theory.
Second, and more seriously, Theory and piecemeal theorizing are not incompatible. The initial stage of the theoretical activity involves the simplification (abstraction and idealization) of the domain under study. Simplifying is the necessary first step in constructing a theory. The early stages of any theory are governed by attempts to obtain the maximum amount of simplicity by studying only the essential determinants of a particular domain. But as research progresses, those determinants deemed inessential and irrelevant at the early stages take on a greater importance, and make the research domain complex, in the negative sense that the theory cannot successfully subsume important factors within its framework. For research to progress, this “negative complexity” must be translated into “positive complexity” – the theory must expand to take into account these additional factors.
Film Theory followed the simplicity principle and attempted to reduce, by as much as possible, the negative complexity of its research domain, by studying only those characteristics of the cinema posited to be specific to it (the spatio-temporal articulations of the grande syntagmatique, or the five overlapping codes outlined in Language and cinema). This process of simplifying eventually and inevitably leads to a crisis, as the so-called inessential phenomena take on importance. Modern film theory embraced positive complexity by including in its domain of research additional absent structures and causes – ideology, society, and the unconscious. To recognize and break down general theoretical problems into smaller, piecemeal theoretical problems does not necessarily involve a rejection of Theory, as Bordwell and Carroll suggest, but represents its next stage of development.
Film theory is valuable to the extent that it does not study film as an unproblematic, pre-given entity, but as a complex and little understood medium with its own properties, and cultural and social effects. Film theory therefore challenges and goes beyond the commonsense ideological understanding of film as a mere form of harmless entertainment, and instead maintains that it is an intrinsically significant medium integral to contemporary society.
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