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Film Theory Outline Essay

From the very beginning of film, theorists have tried to dissect or understand the nature of the new medium of art. As a result various theories of film have emerged, such as feminist, auteur, psychoanalytical, Marxist, Editing and Structuralist. This essay attempts to give an outline of these various theories. One of the first theories to emerge is Editing theory, coming from the context of early Russian cinema. A key event in this regard is the experiment carried out by the film-maker Lev Kuleshov in 1918, in which he demonstrated that what the viewer perceives depends on how images are juxtaposed with each other through inter-cutting.

Thus, when a human close-up is juxtaposed with a bowl of soup, the perception is of hunger, but when juxtaposed with a shot of a coffin the same close-up is perceived to express grief. Kuleshov concluded that juxtaposition was crucial towards the effect, and thus advocated the use montage in film-making. Other film-makers like Sergei Eisenstein played close attention to these findings, and made use of them in his masterpieces of montage, such as Battleship Potemkin and October. He also spelled out a comprehensive film theory based on editing in a highly influential essay from the late twenties.

In it he outlined he various categories of editing, such as metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual. For example, with intellectual montage a scene may be inter-cut with something immediately unrelated, but which nevertheless works as metaphor is a more profound sense. The above came to constitute soviet montage theory, which was in contrast to the Hollywood system of continuity editing. Montage is a very visible component of film, whereas continuity editing aims to make inter-cutting invisible, so that the viewer may concentrate on the flow of the narrative in an easy way.

Since the fifties a parallel theory of editing has emerged in the West which embodies the Hollywood ethos. In the same essay Eisenstein proposed a Hegelian interpretation of film montage, and which came to form the basis of Marxist film theory. He suggested that montage worked by the principle of the Hegelian dialectic, where thesis is said to beget antithesis, and are resolved in the end through synthesis. For example, when human close up is inter-cut with a glass of water, the viewer interprets this as thirst. If the face is the subject, then its antithesis is the object of vision, i.

e. the glass of water. ‘Thirst’ is merely the synthesis of the two. It is present in neither of the two shots in consideration, yet emerges form the inter-cutting of the two. Of course, it was through the Hegelian dialectic that Marx had derived his famous concept of the proletariat revolution, and Marxism was the avowed principle of the Bolshevists. Therefore, it is not surprising that Eisenstein’s theories found a favorable audience in the Soviet Union. Indeed, it was instrumental in forming of Socialist realism, which became the state sponsored ideology in art.

Marxist film theory soon found itself as defined in opposition to capitalistic and bourgeoisie art, in which the narrative of the protagonist finds prominence. Eisenstein’s films attempt to obliterate the presence of the protagonist, concentrating instead on the clash of images towards creating a larger ideological narrative. Even then he was accused by the authorities for not championing the workers, and for indulging in the internal mechanics of film, which was deemed to be a kind of formalism. Marxist theory held that the purpose of art is to overcome all ‘forms’ towards dialectical purification.

Formalism was felt to be a bourgeoisie component. Marxist theory, as it has flourished both in the East and the West, concerns itself with dissecting films in order discredit bourgeoisie forms, usually those emerging from the Hollywood system. A native western theory of film was late in developing, and a crucial starting point was the theories developed by Andre Bazin, as editor of the French film magazine Cahiers du cinema. Up to that point films were seen as merely commercial vehicles, and Hollywood had evolved into a mighty and well groomed machine that churned films for the pleasure of the masses.

Analyzing these films Bazin came to the conclusion that it was the director who left the most characteristic stamp, and as illustration he held up the work of directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. He advocated that directors infuse their personal vision into the films under their charge, in order that they become the complete authors, which is the ideal state. This came to be known as the Auteur theory of film, which was given a more formal presentation by Francois Truffaut. Directors were described as using the camera as a pen towards composing their films.

Another significant idea of Bazin’s was that film should aim for “objective reality”. This was in opposition to prevalent theory based on montage, which said that object of film is to manipulate reality. This instrumental approach led to the formulation of Structuralist film theory, which examines the structure of the components of film as they come together meaningfully. Instead of the dialectical approach of Eisenstein, the analysis takes into account conventional devices that have come to acquire meaning. The components that come into play are camera angle, lighting, juxtaposition, shot duration, cultural context etc.

Meaning is usually accounted for by convention, and conventions change according to social and economic circumstances. For example, the highly commercial nature of Hollywood films has created the Institutional Mode of Representation, in which cinematic devices are used that make film viewing easy and exciting. For this reason it incorporates the established ideology with little departure from the norm. Other interpretations overlook the mechanics of production and instead considered the viewer as the focus of study. Psychoanalytic film theory offers such an interpretation.

It is largely influenced by the views of the French philosopher Jacques Lacan regarding the child’s ‘mirror stage of development’. According to this theory the developing child endeavors to see a reflection of itself in all the objects it encounters. Psychoanalytic film theory replicates this situation with the viewer of film. The viewer is always looking for self-identification in the process of watching a film, and in this sense uses the medium as a mirror. It is usually the male protagonist who provides the focus of this identification, and functions as a conduit by which the desires of the viewer are played out.

The film is said to have constructed a ‘gaze’ for the benefit of the viewer. Sometimes the gaze is simply the viewpoint of the protagonist; at other times, in the more graphic sequences, the viewer is allowed to gaze directly. Psychoanalytic theory is careful to point out that such identification is merely illusion, and therefore it differs from the identification of the child growing up, whose identifications come to form tangible character. Feminist film theory takes psychoanalytical theory a step further, in that it interprets the gaze as scopophilia, or ‘the desire to observe in secret’, which is also known as voyeurism.

Such desire is sexual in origin, and feminist theory is framed in the context of the man wanted to gaze at the woman. Such a theory provides a ready explanation of the objectification of woman in film, a phenomena that has been noticed from the very beginnings of the medium. As in psychoanalytical theory, the male protagonist provides the focus of identification, but his specific desire is to objectify the women in the film, a desire which is vicariously shared by the viewer. There are three levels of objectification.

First there is the camera’s point of view, then that of the protagonist, and finally that of the viewer himself, who is allowed to gaze at the women directly. Critics of this theory point out that the female viewer is not taken into account, for women also go to see the same films, and they enjoy them too. However Laura Mulvey has given convincing arguments to explain female enjoyment. She says that it is either through a masochistic identification, or a transsexual one. In the first the female takes secret pleasure in male domination.

In the second, the female identifies with the male protagonist, and thus shares in the pleasure that men take. However, she is also continuously slipping back into her female identity, which is said to be a mask that she wears. Identification with the male pushes her uncomfortably close to the image of the subjected women, and the masquerade allows her to maintain a distance from it. Feminist film theory is a harsh criticism of the norms of cinema, which is also blamed on the patriarchal norms of society. The advocacy is to make films that overcome the norms, and therefore to make films that are free from female objectification.


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