Film Theory: The Basics
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Film Theory: The Basics

Kevin McDonald

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eBook - ePub

Film Theory: The Basics

Kevin McDonald

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About This Book

Film Theory: The Basics provides an accessible introduction to the key theorists, concepts, and debates that have shaped the study of moving images. It examines film theory from its emergence in the early twentieth century to its study in the present day, and explores why film has drawn special attention as a medium, as a form of representation, and as a focal point in the rise of modern visual culture.

The book emphasizes how film theory has developed as a historically contingent discourse, one that has evolved and changed in conjunction with different social, political, and intellectual factors. To explore this fully, the book is broken down into the following distinct sections:

  • Theory Before Theory, 1915-1960
  • French Theory, 1949-1968
  • Screen Theory, 1969-1996
  • Post-Theory, 1996-2015

Complete with questions for discussion and a glossary of both key terms and key theorists, Film Theory: The Basics is an invaluable resource for those new to film studies and for anyone else interested in the history and significance of critical thinking in relation to the moving image.

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1 Theory before theory, 1915-1960

DOI: 10.4324/9781315757193-2
Film theory began to take shape over the first half of the twentieth century as an informal practice among individual writers, filmmakers, and enthusiasts dedicated to the new medium and its distinctive features. Although there was no formal framework or guidelines for these efforts, these early theorists did share several common aims. First and foremost, they participated in a broader effort to legitimize film. At this time, there was an overriding assumption that film did not warrant serious attention−that its popular appeal and its commercial and technological foundations necessarily meant it was antithetical to art or culture in its proper sense. To combat these general assumptions, early theorists made different claims on behalf of film's artistic merits, typically by comparing or contrasting it with existing aesthetic practices such as theater. This also involved various attempts to identify film's fundamental qualities−the formal and technical attributes that distinguished it as a medium and the practices to which it was attuned and that were necessary to advance its aesthetic potential.
The efforts of early theorists were often tied to the emergence of film connoisseurship and, by extension, the grassroots clubs, networks, and film-focused publications that were springing up in cosmopolitan hubs across the globe. These groups were characterized by their exuberance for the new medium. They recognized right away film's affinity for modern life and the new artistic possibilities it presented. In expounding these merits, they helped to develop more sophisticated ways of expressing an appreciation for its distinctive features. In this regard, the emergence of film culture provided an important foundation for elevating cinema both aesthetically and intellectually. In France, in particular, film culture was tied to new venues for writing about, viewing, and discussing films. These venues eventually fostered new forms of filmmaking as select theorists sought additional ways to augment and further articulate cinema's key characteristics. There was, as a result, a tendency for theory and practice to blend together throughout this period. Finally, this context served to establish a culture of lively debate and ongoing exchange, one in which writers became increasingly self-conscious of their ability to identify a canon of key films, filmmakers, distinctive performers, and genres.
At the same time that early theorists were linked in their effort to establish the new medium's legitimacy and in their affiliation with a growing culture of film appreciation, there were also numerous challenges that impeded the coherence of early film theory. Some of these were tied to the fact that film was still a new invention and many of its formal practices were still evolving. Even with the Hollywood system in place by 1916, new technologies like sound and color stock required ongoing adjustments to its visual and narrative conventions. Another more pressing factor was the social, political, and economic turmoil that persisted throughout much of the first half of the twentieth century. Major crises in Europe not only hindered the continent's nascent film industries−thus assuring Hollywood's ascent as the leading force in filmmaking−but in many instances disrupted the efforts of individual intellectuals, filmmakers, and the burgeoning grassroots networks that were still forming. Despite these challenges, the field's pioneering figures still managed to establish a body of writing and a series of key debates that became the foundation upon which later generations would develop theory into an important, academically rigorous, intellectual discourse.

Early American Theorists and the Quest for Legitimacy

The publication of two books marks the official beginning of film theory. First, the poet Vachel Lindsay provided an inaugural attempt to cast film as an important aesthetic endeavor in his 1915 account, The Art of the Moving Picture. One year later, Hugo MĂŒnsterberg followed suit with The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, also arguing that film presented a unique aesthetic undertaking. In both cases, simply writing about film was a statement unto itself−an implicit attempt to elevate the medium and an argument that it warranted serious consideration despite assumptions to the contrary. The two authors shared several additional similarities. Both, for instance, used their reputations in other fields to confer credibility on the fledgling medium. Both identified key formal characteristics and began the work of establishing the distinct aesthetic merits of these attributes. As part of this particular task, both considered the relationship between film and theater, drawing attention to the ways that film surpassed its predecessor. While Lindsay and MĂŒnsterberg anticipate the main developments of early film theory, they are most noteworthy for their idiosyncrasies in attempting to navigate this uncharted territory.
For most of his career, Vachel Lindsay was best known as an American poet who enjoyed fleeting success in the 1910s and early 1920s. He was also a lifelong aesthete with a rather unconventional sense of purpose. For instance, after briefly attending art schools in Chicago and New York, Lindsay built his reputation by embarking on several "tramping" expeditions, crisscrossing the country on foot and by train attempting to barter his poems in exchange for room and board. With these expeditions, Lindsay forged a romanticized bond with both the common folk and with the physical landscape of America. He wanted to use these experiences to continue in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he was also adamant about cultivating a new and modern American aesthetic. Specifically, he envisioned a style that was more readily accessible to all, and that promised spiritual renewal as part of a utopian vision of the future.
Lindsay's unusual beliefs about art and society indicate an ambivalence; one that was further complicated by his vacillation between populist undercurrents and a more modern sensibility. By 1914 Lindsay had published his two most famous poems, "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" and "The Congo," in Poetry magazine. In short order, Lindsay became one of the country's most visible poets both performing on a nationwide circuit and participating in Progressive Era programs such as the Chautauqua education movement. While he had a distinctive performance style that helped establish him among middle-class audiences, his peers−academics and poets of the period−mainly dismissed his work as sentimental and insipid. Lindsay nevertheless incorporated modern elements both in content and form. He authored several odes celebrating Hollywood starlets such as Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh, and Blanche Sweet, and he introduced singing, chanting, and sound effects into his recitation. "The Congo," for instance, incorporated the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, the spontaneity of jazz, and racist caricatures drawn from blackface minstrelsy, all as part of Linday's effort to animate his poetry with the sounds of modern American life.
Such ploys were part of a broader synthesis that Lindsay termed "Higher Vaudeville." In other words, he was interested in producing an elevated version of the popular variety theater that appealed to the American masses. This aesthetic aim was also evident in another term he favored. "I am an adventurer in hieroglyphics," Lindsay once claimed. He would soon use the same term to describe motion pictures, adding further that with the "cartoons of [Ding] Darling, the advertisements in the back of the magazines and on the bill-boards and in the street-cars, the acres of photographs in the Sunday newspapers," America was growing "more hieroglyphic everyday" (Art of the Moving Picture 14). In moving pictures, he found the ideal extension of his personal aesthetic, the most dynamic and compelling iteration of this new and growing field of hieroglyphic arts. The main objective of The Art of the Moving Picture was indeed to establish the virtues of this new endeavor, and to suggest that it take a leading role in shaping modern American life.
Though Lindsay's discussion of film is highly impressionistic, he does propose three specific types of films that highlight the medium's specific qualities: the action film, the intimate film, and films of splendor. For each of these three categories he designates a corollary aesthetic distinction. The action film is described as sculpture-in-motion, the intimate film as painting-in-motion, and the splendor film as architecture-in-motion. These designations were not simply a matter of genre, but rather a way to foreground the medium's specific strengths and the subject matter to which it is most attuned. For example, the action film is closely linked to the chase sequence, a formula based on editing techniques such as cross-cutting and other innovations associated with the groundbreaking work of D.W. Griffith. This type of editing endowed cinema with dynamism−a rhythmic quality, an aptitude for speed, movement, and acceleration−that appealed to modern American society. This was considered sculptural in the sense that action emphasized the constituent features of the medium−its ability to capture and manipulate spatial and temporal relations. Just as the sculptor is trained to accentuate the materiality of a given medium, Lindsay believed that film should draw into relief that which "can be done in no medium but the moving picture itself" (Art of the Moving Picture 72).
While Lindsay emphasized the temporal dimension that film added to traditional spatial or plastic arts, he was also careful to distinguish it from time-based practices such as poetry, music, and especially theater. The reason for this was that film had begun to elicit perfunctory analogies with these other practices. Films were being described as photoplays, theatrical performances that had merely been photographed by a motion picture camera. This term had arisen as films increased in length, and as the emerging Hollywood studio system readily looked both to popular theater and proven classics for source material. On one hand, the term conferred some legitimacy, suggesting an amalgamation between cinema and an existing art. On the other hand, this association suggested a dependency, one that would enslave cinema to reputable but unadventurous conventions while forfeiting its own aesthetic specificity. Lindsay found this to be unacceptable and, instead, argued that adaptations "must be overhauled indeed, turned inside out and upside down," so that film might better adhere to the "camera-born" opportunities fostered by the new technology (Art of the Moving Picture 109).
It was in these moments that film most clearly captured his notion of hieroglyphics, or rather the idea that film could communicate something more than what simply appeared before the camera. The term "hieroglyph" refers to a pictographic marking or symbol that is also part of a broader system of language−at the time, one that was primarily associated with ancient Egypt. Each figure stands for a word or idea while also encapsulating different levels of meaning or indirect associations. Lindsay discusses several examples from Griffith's The Avenging Conscience (1914), including the close-up of a spider as it devours a fly. This was a particularly apt example in that the spider is at once part of the scenery and a highly symbolic figure or metaphor designed to enhance the film's dramatic mood. In short, the spider is more than just a spider. It sets the tone of the scene while also evoking the macabre mood for which Edgar Allan Poe−the inspiration behind The Avenging Conscience−was so well known (Art of the Moving Picture 90). More broadly, these figures could function like individual letters or words within a film, and, in turn, these units could be combined into increasingly complex patterns of signification.
The hieroglyph signaled an important advance in the emerging grammar of narrative cinema, but for Lindsay, it was also a sign of something far more decisive, a turning point in history. "The invention of the photoplay is as great a step as was the beginning of picture-writing in the stone age," he wrote (Art of the Moving Picture 116). And America was poised to "think in pictures," continuing the pursuit of cultural enlightenment that had been inaugurated by the Egyptians, the first "great picture-writing people" (Art of the Moving Picture 124, 117). This suggests that hieroglyphs might supplant language altogether, and Lindsay was adamant that the medium could serve as a universal visual language, or Esperanto, that was accessible to all. In this regard, he also believed that film was destined for an even higher calling. He proclaimed that it had the power to kindle spiritual renewal, and to nurture prophetic visions that would guide viewers to a utopian promised land. Such references made it easy for many to dismiss Lindsay as naĂŻvely mystical, or merely eccentric. But this evangelical zeal was also an integral part of his personality, a necessary asset for someone pioneering the entirely new and still unknown field of film theory.
Just as Lindsay is better known as a poet, Hugo MĂŒnsterberg is known primarily for his work in the field of psychology. While his 1916 account The Photoplay: A Psychological Study is certainly more scholastic in its overall composition, its overall impact is in many ways just as peculiar as Lindsay's contribution. MĂŒnsterberg was born and educated in Germany, and he accepted a permanent faculty position at Harvard in 1897 after he was unable to secure a sufficiently prominent position in his home country. MĂŒnsterberg was appointed Professor of Experimental Psychology in Harvard’s Department of Philosophy at a time when psychology was still an emerging academic discipline. His work was particularly noteworthy for his commitment to empirical data collected through scientific experimentation. Once at Harvard, he immediately set up and became the director of a modern research laboratory, which contributed significantly to both his and his department’s overall reputation. Throughout his early career MĂŒnsterberg published prolifically. In addition to authoring several books devoted to his core research interests, he wrote about the psychology of litigious testimony, optimizing workplace performance, current social debates, and the relationship between Germany and America. At times, his forays into these more general topics embroiled him in controversy. This was exacerbated by his obstinate allegiance to Germany in the lead-up to World War I. At this time MĂŒnsterberg seemed to intentionally provoke his Harvard colleagues, and he was eventually accused of being a German spy.
MĂŒnsterberg completed The Photoplay after he had fallen into disrepute and just months before he died in 1916. The book was a strange turn in what was already an unconventional career. For his entire life, MĂŒnsterberg had rejected the movies as an undignified commercial art. He claimed that he began a “rapid conversion” after deciding on a whim to see Neptune’s Daughter, a 1914 fantasy film starring the one-time professional swimmer Annette Kellerman (Hugo MĂŒnsterberg on Film 172). Some suspect that his turn to motion pictures may have been a calculated effort to repair his reputation and endear the American public that had recently censured him. The fact that it was both his final book and the only one to address the topic of film makes it difficult to fully situate in relationship to his earlier work. Still, the most striking assertion in The Photoplay is undoubtedly MĂŒnsterberg’s contention that several cinematic techniques resemble specific cognitive procedures.
For example, he argues that the close-up—a shot in which the camera magnifies or increases the scale of a particular detail—parallels the “mental act of attention,” the process by which we selectively concentrate on one aspect within a given field of sensory data. By heightening "The vividness of that on which our mind is concentrated,” he explains, it is as if the close-up “were woven into our mind and were shaped not through its own laws but by the acts of our attention” (Hugo MĂŒnsterberg on Film 88). In other words, the film formally replicates our mental faculties. This was also evident in the “cut-back,” or what became more commonly known as the flashback. In terms of narrative, a flashback is used to present an event out of chronological order. In the same way that editing allows filmmakers to alternate between different locations (i.e., cross-cutting), it is also possible to shift between different moments in time (e.g. cutting from a scene in an adult character’s life to an event that took place during their childhood). For MĂŒnsterberg, this technique further extends his point about the close-up: the flashback parallels the “mental act of remembering” (Hugo MĂŒnsterberg on Film 90). In both cases, it is again as if the “photoplay obeys the laws of the mind rather than those of the outer world” (Hugo MĂŒnsterberg on Film 91). The larger significance of these parallels is that they confirm the active role of cognitive faculties in shaping the cinematic experience. This upheld MĂŒnsterberg’s wider-ranging interests concerning the nature of psychology. This parallel has additionally been cited as a forerunner to later film-mind analogies in developments ranging from psychoanalytic accounts of spectatorship to the rise of cognitive film theories in the 1990s.1
Like Lindsay, MĂŒnsterberg’s account helps to identify the basic formal techniques that were integral in developing film's stylistic conventions and expressive capacity. In addition to noting their psychological dimension, MĂŒnsterberg commented on how both the close-up and the flashback elicit a strong emotional connection with viewers. The close-up, for instance, tends to focus on an actor’s facial features, “with its tensions around the mouth, with its play of the eye, with its cast of the forehead, and even with the motions of the nostrils and the setting of the jaw” (Hugo MĂŒnsterberg on Film 99). The enlargement of such details not only heightens the psychological impact of what is shown, but also serves as part of a syntactic configuration (i.e., the arrangement of individual shots to convey a larger unit of meaning). In an earlier discussion, MĂŒnsterberg poses a hypothetical example in which “a clerk buys a newspaper on the stree...

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Citation styles for Film Theory: The Basics
APA 6 Citation
McDonald, K. (2016). Film Theory: The Basics (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
McDonald, Kevin. (2016) 2016. Film Theory: The Basics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
McDonald, K. (2016) Film Theory: The Basics. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
McDonald, Kevin. Film Theory: The Basics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.