Film theory

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Film theory is a set of scholarly approaches within the academic discipline of film or cinema studies that began in the 1920s by questioning the formal essential attributes of motion pictures;[1] and that now provides conceptual frameworks for understanding film's relationship to reality, the other arts, individual viewers, and society at large.[2] Film theory is not to be confused with general film criticism, or film history, though these three disciplines interrelate.

Although some branches of film theory are derived from linguistics and literary theory,[3] it also originated and overlaps with the philosophy of film.[4]


French philosopher Henri Bergson's Matter and Memory (1896) anticipated the development of film theory during the birth of cinema in the early twentieth century. 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; English: The cinematic illusion) he rejects film as an example 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.[5] These thinkers 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.[6]

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—as advanced by scholars such as Christian Metz.[7] 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.[8]

American scholar David Bordwell has spoken against many prominent developments in film theory since the 1970s. He uses the derogatory term "SLAB theory" to refer to film studies based on the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Roland Barthes.[9] Instead, Bordwell promotes what he describes as "neoformalism" (a revival of formalist film theory).

During the 1990s the digital revolution in image technologies has influenced 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.[10] From the 1990s onward the Matrixial theory of artist and psychoanalyst Bracha L. Ettinger[11] revolutionized feminist film theory.[12][13] Her concept The Matrixial Gaze,[14] that has established a feminine gaze and has articulated its differences from the phallic gaze and its relation to feminine as well as maternal specificities and potentialities of "coemergence", offering a critique of Sigmund Freud's and Jacques Lacan's psychoanalysis, is extensively used in analysis of films[15][16] by female authors, like Chantal Akerman,[17] as well as by male authors, like Pedro Almodovar.[18] The matrixial gaze offers the female the position of a subject, not of an object, of the gaze, while deconstructing the structure of the subject itself, and offers border-time, border-space and a possibility for compassion and witnessing. Ettinger's notions articulate the links between aesthetics, ethics and trauma.[19] There has also been a historical revisiting of early cinema screenings, practices and spectatorship modes by writers Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen and Yuri Tsivian.

In Critical Cinema: Beyond the Theory of Practice (2011), Clive Meyer suggests that 'cinema is a different experience to watching a film at home or in an art gallery', and argues for film theorists to re-engage the specificity of philosophical concepts for cinema as a medium distinct from others.[20]

Specific theories of film[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gledhill, Christine; and Linda Williams, editors. Reinventing Film Studies. Arnold & Oxford University Press, 2000.
  2. ^ Mast, Gerald; and Marshall Cohen, editors. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Third Edition.Oxford University Press, 1985.
  3. ^ Pieter Jacobus Fourie (ed.), Media Studies: Content, audiences, and production, Juta, 2001, p. 195.
  4. ^ "Philosophy of Film" by Thomas Wartenberg – first published 2004; substantive revision m 2008. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. ^ Robert Stam, Film Theory: an introduction", Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
  6. ^ André Bazin, What is Cinema? essays selected and translated by Hugh Gray, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
  7. ^ Metz, Christian (1974). Language and cinema. The Hague: Mouton. ISBN 978-3-11-081604-4. OCLC 840504588.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Quart, Alissa (2000). "David Bordwell Blows the Whistle on Film Studies" (PDF). Lingua Franca. 10 (2): 35–43.
  10. ^ Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, London: Verso, 2000.
  11. ^ Bracha L. Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace, University of Minnesota Press, 2006
  12. ^ Nicholas Chare, Sportswomen in Cinema: Film and the Frailty Myth. Leeds: I.B.Tauris 2015.
  13. ^ James Batcho, Terrence Malick's Unseeing Cinema. Memory, Time and Audibility. Palgrave Macmillan.
  14. ^ Bracha L. Ettinger, The Matrixial Gaze. Published by Leeds University, 1995. Reprinted in: Drawing Papers, nº 24, 2001.
  15. ^ Griselda Pollock, After-effects – After-images. Manchester University Press, 2013
  16. ^ Maggie Humm, Feminism and Film. Edinburgh University Press, 1997
  17. ^ Lucia Nagib and Anne Jerslev (ends.), Impure Cinema. London: I.B.Tauris.
  18. ^ Julian Daniel Gutierrez-Arbilla, Aesthetics, Ethics and Trauma in the Cinema of Pedro Almodovar. Edinburgh University Press, 2017
  19. ^ Griselda Pollock, Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum: Time, Space and the Archive. Rutledge, 2007.
  20. ^ Laurie, Timothy (2013), "Critical Cinema: Beyond the Theory of Practice", Media International Australia, 147: 171

Further reading[edit]