Understanding Film Theory
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Understanding Film Theory

Ruth Doughty, Christine Etherington-Wright

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eBook - ePub

Understanding Film Theory

Ruth Doughty, Christine Etherington-Wright

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About This Book

This essential core textbook provides an approachable and extensive introduction to film theory, written by two highly experienced senior lecturers. Bringing a fresh, contemporary and accessible approach to what is often perceived to be a challenging and old-fashioned area of film studies that requires time and effort to grasp, the text illustrates why theory is important and demonstrates how it can be applied in a meaningful way. The book's sixteen chapters are clear and comprehensive and provide an insight into the main areas of debate, using clear definitions and explaining complex ideas succinctly. The ideal entry point for any student studying film, the book is designed for use on courses on film theory on undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes within film, cinema, media and cultural studies. New to this Edition:
- An expanded introduction, plus a new chapter looking at Adaptation
- Contemporary case studies exploring popular and topical films, such as The Hunger Games (2012), Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) and The Lego Movie (2014)
- An expanded introduction, plus a new chapter looking at Adaptation
- Additional genre-based case study on the British Gangster film
- Additional actor-basedcase study on Ryan Gosling
- A greater focus throughout on the relevance of film theory to students undertaking practical film degrees and units

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1.A film director whose personal influence and artistic control over his or her films are so great that he or she may be regarded as their author, and whose films may be regarded collectively as a body of work sharing common themes or techniques and expressing an individual style or vision.
Setting the scene
Historically the notion of authorship conjured up the image of an isolated individual passionately working to create bodies of art. Characters such as those in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) help perpetuate this romantic stereotype of the tortured Bohemian artist. When applying ideas of authorship to the field of Film Studies it is typically the director that is acknowledged as the creative force. The term auteur is French for author and the word derives from the prefix ‘auto’, meaning one.
The idea of a single controlling figure was acknowledged as early as the 1910s in the British fan magazine Bioscope where certain directors were identified as special. Similarly, in Germany the term Autoren film was used, which also promoted the idea of the director as author. However, screenwriters campaigned for their right to be recognized as the creative force and accordingly, the notion of authorship became increasingly complex. This debate from the 1910s continues to resonate a century later and is one of the founding ideas of film theory.
The idea that film is the sole work of a single contributor is problematic. Film is a collaborative process and therefore to attribute control to the director above all others is contentious. The number of people involved in producing a film is extensive: actors, writers, set designers, camera operators, musicians, financial backers, technical advisors, costume and make-up artists, editors, marketing and distribution staff, and so on. To understand this debate fully, it is necessary to trace the emergence and development of Auteur Theory and explore its complexity. These debates about the auteur were initiated by an influential text from filmmaker and novelist Alexandre Astruc.
Astruc coined the term caméra-stylo, which literally translates as ‘camera pen’. He wanted to bring film into line with other kinds of art, namely raising its status from a working-class form of entertainment to match that of opera, ballet, poetry, literature and fine art. His article ‘The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo’ (1948) called for a new language in filmmaking. He posited that the camera should be used in the same way that a writer would use a pen. He rallied filmmakers to move beyond institutionalized forms of cinema in favour of more personal ways of storytelling. The emphasis that Astruc placed on the ‘personal’ has fuelled debate. The most vigorous participants in this debate came from France.
The Cahiers group
The Cinémathèque Française in Paris was much more than a typical cinema, as it was home to a group of enthusiasts who collectively sought to revolutionize cinema. Led by Henri Langlois, the group showed films throughout the day and night, attracting the attention of likeminded individuals. Their fascination in cinema instigated a forum for debate and experimentation. For example, they would watch films without any sound so that they could focus solely on the importance of the image. This fanaticism and attempt to comprehend the very essence of cinema resulted in two major developments in film history: the journal Cahiers du cinéma and the Nouvelle Vague/French New Wave school of filmmaking.
These ‘filmoholics’ were often referred to as cinéphiles as they were obsessed with filmmaking. Among the key members of the group were:
André Bazin (theorist)
Claude Chabrol (New Wave director and writer)
Jean-Luc Godard (New Wave director, writer and theorist)
Henri Langlois (archivist)
Alain Resnais (New Wave director)
Jacques Rivette (New Wave director and writer)
Francois Truffaut (New Wave director, writer and theorist)
Roger Vadim (New Wave director and writer).
From within this influential group of filmmakers and thinkers, Francois Truffaut energized the debate with his article ‘Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français’.
François Truffaut
‘Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français’ (1954)
Truffaut’s seminal text ‘Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français’ signalled a radical shift in the auteur debate. He and his fellow cinéphiles found traditional French filmmaking conservative and unexciting. ‘Tradition de la qualité’ was the term used to describe films that were typically based on adaptations of literary classics. The Cahiers group mocked this mode of production, calling it ‘Cinéma du Papa’ (Dad’s cinema) as they felt it was stuffy and outdated. More importantly, this form of filmmaking privileged the role of the writer rather than acknowledging the director. In contrast to ‘tradition de la qualité’ they aspired to create films that spoke to their generation. Their intention was to attack the ideology of bourgeois culture.
During World War II foreign imported films were limited due to the Nazi occupation of France. Post-war the influx of films, particularly from Hollywood, strongly inspired the Cahiers group. In spite of studio stipulations, they recognized that certain directors’ films exhibited identifiable stylistic traits. As a result of these observations Truffaut developed ‘la politique des auteurs’ (auteur policy). It is important to establish that Truffaut never intended for his work to form the basis of a theory; it represented a policy, an attitude and a critical approach to reading film. The two overriding principles he put forward were:
1Mise-en-scéne is crucial to the reading of cinema and is essential in film analysis and criticism.
2The director’s personal expression is key in distinguishing whether they should be afforded the title of auteur.
Truffaut was concerned with the focus on film style (mise-en-scene and thematics) rather than film plot (content).
Reflect and respond
1How did the Cahiers group change the previous sense of the auteur?
2Why do you think Truffaut favours mise-en-scéne over other aspects of filmmaking?
3Can you identify any directors who are instantly recognizable due to the consistency in mise- en-scéne throughout their films?
The term mise-en-scéne literally translates as ‘put into the scene’. Originating from the theatre, it describes everything that appears in the frame. This can be divided into four specific components:
1set design (props and décor)
2lighting (and shadow)
3acting (movement and gesture, not dialogue)
4costume and make-up
In order to understand the importance of mise-en-scène in relation to Auteur Theory, it is necessary to identify consistent stylistic traits across films to decide whether or not a director can be classed as an auteur.
Tim Burton provides an interesting study, as his films have a distinctive aesthetic style. Consider the films Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Big Fish (2003). The narratives in both films are located in the woods, a typical trope found across Burton’s oeuvre, with the gnarled, eerie trees serving to create a foreboding atmosphere. The viewer is drawn into an uncomfortable world, as generically Burton falls between the two camps of Horror and Fantasy. This is enhanced by the artistic use of light and shadow to anticipate the arrival of nightfall and unspoken horrors.
Burton owes a great debt to German Expressionism; this can be seen through the use of curves, the angular objects within the frame and the surreal nature of his storytelling. The lead protagonist, though central to the composition, is intimidated by the pervading forest. These elements of the mise-en-scène combine to induce a sense of menace where man is pitted against nature, a recurring dynamic in Burton’s work.
Figure 1.1 Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999)
In addition to the importance of set design and lighting, the aesthetic consistency can also be applied to Burton’s use of costume and make-up. A typical feature of an auteur is a director who uses the same actors time and time again. Throughout Burton’s career, Johnny Depp has been cast in numerous leading roles. Despite the disparate characters Depp has played, Burton recycles and develops roles rather than abandoning characters. Sweeney Todd can be seen as an extension, and in many respects an inversion, of Edward Scissorhands. The naive, fearful and introverted character from the 1990s is transformed into the cynical, murderous and predatory demon barber of Fleet Street; a ghost of his former self.
To examine this in more detail it is appropriate to focus on costume and make-up. In both films Depp sports a dishevelled look with unkempt hair. Similarly, his black and white clothing is reminiscent of a Gothic, Romantic artist, a familiar motif woven throughout Burton’s repertoire. The costume is flamboyantly adorned with frills typical of swashbuckling heroes of old. Yet unlike with the conventional heroes, the garments are crumpled and suggestive of neglect. The razor-sharp fingers that were imposed on the earlier character of Scissorhands become a fundamental part of Todd’s character and once more integral to the narrative. Similarly, in 2012, Dark Shadows has Depp white-faced, hollow-eyed, disheveled-hair and with long finger nails portraying a more comedic version in a gothic setting of these characters.
Figure 1.2 The Nightmare Before Christmas (Tim Burton, 1993)
The consistency in design across Burton’s work is exemplified by the highly stylized look explicit in the mise-en-scène of his films. Figures 1.1 and 1.2 exemplify tropes discussed earlier; extreme use of light and shadow, curves and angles, influence of both German Expressionism and the Gothic. Furthermore, the compositions of the images are incredibly similar. In 2010, Alice in Wonderland exhibited Burton’s distinctive mise-en-scène bringing a darker twist to the original book. These images reflect Burton’s consistent preoccupation with the macabre. His use of dark tones, spooky landscapes and scary objects provide an appropriate backdrop for his Gothic tales. These have become synonymous with his oeuvre.
Personal filmmaking
Another facet of the auteur argument is the notion of directors pursuing projects that hold personal significance. These personal aspects can manifest in many forms, such as political, social and cultural. For example, Spike Lee is typically drawn to narratives about race and Martin Scorsese is interested in Catholicism.
To continue with Burton as an illustration, it can be seen that the theme of childhood isolation is pertinent within his films. As a child Burton was estranged from his parents, living with his grandmother from the ages of 12 to 16. During this period he sought solace by escaping into his imagination, which was fuelled by fairytales and classic monster movies. Burton identified with the monster rather than the hero as he was himself a loner. He states:
Every kid responds to some image, some fairy-tale image, and I felt most monsters were basically misperceived, they usually had much more heartfelt souls than the human characters around them. My fairy-tales were probably those monster movies, to me they’re fairly similar. (Salisbury, 2006, p.3)
The film Edward Scissorhands (1990) is probably his most autobiographical to date and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children ...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Understanding Film Theory
APA 6 Citation
Doughty, R., & Etherington-Wright, C. (2017). Understanding Film Theory (2nd ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2996928/understanding-film-theory-pdf (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Doughty, Ruth, and Christine Etherington-Wright. (2017) 2017. Understanding Film Theory. 2nd ed. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://www.perlego.com/book/2996928/understanding-film-theory-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Doughty, R. and Etherington-Wright, C. (2017) Understanding Film Theory. 2nd edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2996928/understanding-film-theory-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Doughty, Ruth, and Christine Etherington-Wright. Understanding Film Theory. 2nd ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.