Film Studies

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Film Studies




From the outset, motion pictures have stimulated discussion and debate as a technology, a social phenomenon, a political tool, a moral danger, and an art. The earliest discussions and debates took place outside an academic context. From noted filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893–1953), and Maya Deren (1917–1961) to eclectic thinkers and social critics such as Siegfried Kracauer, John Grierson (1898–1972), and André Bazin, a body of knowledge began to develop that would provide a launching pad for the academic study of film in the years following World War II, especially the 1960s.

These pioneers also established a tradition of commentary about film that continues to operate independent of the university. Exemplified today primarily by the circulation of relatively formulaic film reviews, biographies, profiles, and box-office statistics, these popular forms of commentary work largely to support the dominant forms of feature filmmaking and to aid consumers of entertainment in their choice of films. The devoted amateur cinephile has given way to the professional film reviewer and the university scholar, although passionate engagement with the art and politics of film can still exist in both sectors.


The rise of film studies within the university has typically sought to justify itself less on the grounds of film as a commodity to be consumed with the guidance of critics and reviewers and more on the grounds of film as an art form or cultural object to be understood for its formal qualities and social implications. Film studies took root in the academy in the wake of the enormous interest in European art cinema generated during the postwar period by filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977), Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918), Akira Kurosawa (1910–1988), François Truffaut (1932–1984), Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), Claude Chabrol (b. 1930), Michelangelo Antonioni (b. 1912), Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956), and many others. Their work demonstrated that feature fiction films could address the same issues of alienation, spiritual hunger, historical memory, and formal experimentation that were evident in many works of literature and visual art. It was, in fact, in various humanities departments that film studies most frequently emerged as an academic subject. An older tradition of communication studies existed, and continues to exist, as a social science discipline, but the stress given in the social sciences to institutional factors, quantitative analysis of the industries and audiences for motion pictures, television and other media, and content analysis did not satisfy the same goals as humanistic approaches, which stressed interpretation of specific films and theorization about the cinema as both art form and cultural object. For the majority of film scholars, questions of industrial organization and measurable social effects took a subordinate place to questions of film structure, style, and meaning.

Treated as an art comparable to literature, painting, or sculpture, film called for study in terms of appreciation, differentiation, and interpretation. That is, an appreciation for film meant understanding what distinguished the medium from other arts and then differentiating among the myriad of actual films those that best exemplified the distinctive nature of the medium. The differentiation of films into clusters of various kinds also allowed for comparisons and contrasts to be made beyond the level of the individual film. Among the most significant of clusters were (1) the classic Hollywood film, from Grand Hotel (1932) to Spartacus (1960); (2) studio films—those made by MGM compared to those from Warner Brothers, for example; (3) genre film; (4) national cinemas (British, French, or Iranian cinema, for example, often with a focus on certain periods of notable achievement); and (5) the cinema of specific film directors or auteurs, such as John Ford (1894–1973), David Lynch (b. 1946), and Agnes Varda (b. 1926). Each choice of a cluster took support from methodological principles designed to facilitate understanding of that particular type of film, from the concept of continuity editing in classic Hollywood cinema to the concept of directorial style in auteur studies.

Initially, interpretation, or film criticism, revolved around an attention to details that showed how films conveyed meaning by cinematic means. Landscape, for example, was an important signifying element in westerns, whereas the jumpy editing style of Jean-Luc Godard's early films, such as À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), proved an essential part of his attempt to reinvent the classic style of Hollywood films. Similarly, Antonioni often conveyed alienation through his mise-en-scène—that is, through the way he arranged characters in space and moved them through it to suggest their isolation from each other (by looking off frame or in different directions, for example).

At a more abstract level, the art of cinema came to be identified either with editing as a quintessential element, since it allowed two different shots to produce a new impression or idea not contained in either shot by itself, or with the long take and the cinema's capacity to register the uninterrupted occurrence of an event through time. Through debates about the merits of different strategies by specific directors, critics sought to understand not only the complexity of individual films and clusters of films but of cinema itself. The broad question "What is cinema?" provoked answers that shaped what came to be known as film theory.

Efforts to develop a systematic understanding of film are almost as old as cinema itself. When these efforts took root within the university in the 1960s and early 1970s, they shared at least three characteristics with other forms of humanistic inquiry: (1) film is a medium of aesthetic importance; the most important dimension to cinema is its capacity to take form as art, just as the most important dimension of writing is its capacity to take form as literature; (2) film art, like literature, affects viewers in a similar, aesthetic manner that is removed from the contingencies of time and place; it transcends the local to attain a more timeless significance; and (3) the history of the cinema is the history of its emergence as an art form.

These characteristics set up a series of priorities that carried with them a set of consequences. The greatest emphasis went to studying fiction films, which drew upon a realistic narrative tradition to tell stories revolving around individual characters, their situation or environment, and their actions. The appreciation, differentiation, and interpretation of such stories were already a familiar part of literary analysis, and many of the tools that furthered understanding of literary form proved valuable to film study, such as the close formal analysis of specific texts by literary New Criticism.

New Criticism, represented by figures such as T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and Alan Tate, was an American phenomenon that flourished from the 1930s to the 1950s. It sought to counter a sense of the evisceration of the emotional, affective dimension of life that science and technology threatened to impose by turning to literature, particularly poetry, as a social restorative. More crucially, as an influence, it took up the efforts by British critics such as F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards to celebrate the internal coherence and experiential pleasure of the text itself. Biographical studies of the artist or author, examinations of a work's historical or social context, topical concerns, and social issues all took a back seat to close readings of the text in and of itself. The text became a virtual fetish, valued as the timeless triumph of the creative spirit.

New Criticism inspired many studies in film that aimed at appreciating the full impact of aesthetic choices made within specific films. Robin Wood has been among the best practitioners of such an approach, enriching it with a keen eye for the sexual politics of a wide range of films and a broad appreciation of fiction films from the high art of Mizoguchi and Marcel Ophuls (b. 1927) to "trash" genres such as horror films. During this period, or up until the 1980s, avant-garde cinema, which often explored cinematic form in ways that gave scant attention to narrative, and documentary, which often stressed social issues in ways that diminished the viewer's attention to cinematic technique, received less consideration.

Auteur theory, with its stress on the style or vision of the filmmaker as it emerged more from an analysis of his or her films than from biographical anecdotes or personal statements of intention, proved an extremely important aspect of film study. Auteur criticism was among the first of the critical methodologies to gain widespread currency in the 1950s and 1960s. The practice retains a high degree of currency some fifty years later, although its focus on close reading, the director as the sole creative force, and thematic preoccupations that seem to be segregated from their larger social, historical context have all come in for considerable correction. Auteur criticism initially spread from France, most notably from critics soon to become directors writing in Cahiers du Cinema such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette (b. 1928), and others. In English-speaking countries its appearance coincided with the rise of film studies as a discipline. It dovetailed handily with literary and art historical approaches to art via the Great Man theory, which consistently gave priority to men (seldom women) whose creative genius looms above those of lesser ability.

It also coincided, in France, with a rebellion, led by François Truffaut, against the institutionalized "tradition of quality," characterized by masterful but largely literary rather than truly cinematic achievements. Such work dominated the French cinema of the postwar years. Truffaut called for a cinema that explored cinematic means of expression with verve and imagination rather than one that subordinated technique to a careful but more theatrical development of characters and their conflicts. This stress led to a distinction between "metteurs en scene," directors who simply converted a script into a film as a builder might convert a blueprint into a building, and the "auteur," a director whose vision and style transformed a script into something truly cinematic that could not be envisioned on the basis of the script alone.

It fell to an American newspaper critic, Andrew Sarris, to convert the French "politiques des auteurs" into an international phenomenon. Sarris chose to label it the "auteur theory," a term that lost the original emphasis of the French phrase on a policy or politics of the author and suggested something of a far more systematic nature. His own book, The American Cinema, proposed to trace the history of American cinema by classifying over 150 directors in categories ranging from the "Pantheon," for Charles Chaplin, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and others, to "Oddities, One-Shots, and Newcomers," for John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Ida Lupino, and others, or "Subjects for Further Research," for Tod Browning, James Cruze, Henry King, and others. Movie, in the UK, and Film Comment, in the US, followed the lead of Cahiers du Cinema in devoting large portions of their issues to studies of individual directors, often discovering stylistic and thematic consistencies in the work of directors who had seemed to be merely the hired-hands of the Hollywood studios.

Auteur criticism provided a conceptual framework not only for the analysis of the work of directors who clearly possessed a distinct visual style, such as Robert Bresson (1901–1909), Yasujiro Ozu (1903–1963), Bernardo Bertolucci (b. 1941), or Peter Greenaway (b. 1942). Even more valuably, it prompted the discovery of filmmakers of vision who might have otherwise been buried within the Hollywood system on routine assignments or as specialists in various genres. Once compared with the work of others working in the same genres, the films of Howard Hawks (1896–1977), Preston Sturges (1898–1959), Vincente Minnelli, Anthony Mann (1907–1967), and Robert Aldrich (1918–1983), for example, gained coherence for their thematic and stylistic continuity. Hawks, whose style was extremely conventional, nonetheless used westerns and action films to focus on rituals of male bonding that involve getting the job done with stoic determination, whereas his comedies explore the hilarious results of men falling under the sway of women who isolate and feminize them.

The emphasis on film as a transcendental art with an autonomous history took shape within a strongly national context, in keeping with the almost universal role of the humanities in cultivating a sense of national identity. American, British, French, Senegalese, Iranian, Japanese, Brazilian, Argentine, and many other national cinemas qualified as transcendental art with distinctive history but did so within a national context. The greatness of a German film in the 1920s might be tied to its distinct use of the Expressionist techniques common in German art at the time—a quality, for example, that distinguished German film from the montage principles of 1920s Soviet cinema. Similarly, American films were often said to exemplify the pursuit of individual happiness or the obstacles to its attainment, a consistent theme in American art and literature.


These types of film studies held sway during the transitional period during which film became accepted as a disciplinary focus and a departmental entity within the university. Even at this time, during the 1960s and 1970s, the field was not as homogenous as this account so far implies. The question of "What is cinema?" also took a turn toward the political, asking how film mattered within the larger social arena. At the same time, a wave of European critical theory exerted considerable influence throughout Europe and North America. This work tended to shift emphasis away from content analysis per se, as it was practiced in the social sciences, where form or style was of little importance, and instead stressed the mechanisms by which content arises in relation to specific institutional practices and linguistic or semiotic forms. Artistic expressiveness, or style, came to be considered less a matter of individual creativity and more a matter of institutional systems, which establish a context and set limits within which specific forms of expressivity can occur. Stress on the psychology of individual characters, for example, might be seen as a function of a realist tradition that tends to give priority to the individual as the primary social and historical force. Such a tradition, in turn, could be considered an ideology—a particular way of seeing the world that can be subjected to the same close scrutiny as the style of individual films.

Initially associated with structuralism and then with poststructuralism, continental theory posed numerous challenges to the humanistic tradition. Language itself, including the language of cinema—its narrative codes, formal structures, and expressive techniques—became regarded less as a vehicle for expressing already conceived ideas and more as a mechanism that actually generated the impressions that they only appear to represent. Realism, for example, serves to make its view of the world transparent, as if the world obviously and naturally exists in a certain way. Continuity editing, which tends to go unnoticed, reinforces such a view. Modernist techniques, on the other hand, question this naturalness and stress the disjointed, subjective, incommensurate view of the world that different individuals might have. Jump cuts and strange juxtapositions between people and places reinforce this view. In this regard, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) exemplifies the realist film as L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961) exemplifies the modernist film.

The idea that meaning is always tightly related to a specific context and to a specific form of expression was carried beyond the film itself and applied to the artist and viewer. In this case, artistic vision or individual identity was seen as always tightly related to the specific institutional mechanisms that generate a sense of self-expression and identity. Traditional literary and film criticism held that the creative artist possessed special powers that led to artistic excellence. Structural and post-structural theory instead proposed that all subjects—artists and filmmakers, critics and viewers—were constituted as subjects within specific cultural and institutional frameworks that set goals and limits for creativity. These frameworks served the specific needs or interests of an existing social system—that is, they were ideological. For the French political theorist Louis Althusser, this idea led to the influential argument that the very idea of an independent subject was itself the product of an ideological operation: individuals think of themselves as free, subject to no one, within a social field that makes this notion the cornerstone of a free-market economy in which shared awareness and collective action represent a limitation or diminution of a subject's individuality.

Althussser's most forceful statement of the idea of the individual subject as a product of ideology was his essay "Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus" in Lenin and Philosophy. His line of thought was extended to the cinematic apparatus as an ideological device for the reinforcement of the status quo by French theorists at Cahiers du Cinema such as Jean Louis Baudry. Althussser stressed how the individual internalized assumptions about his status as a subject that inevitably placed an emphasis on how this internalization occurred. In film study, this led to a large quantity of work in the 1970s that attempted to make use of psychoanalytic theory to account for the effects of cinema on the viewer. Screen magazine, from the UK, became the leading proponent of this effort. One of the most influential articles on ideology and the subject was Laura Mulvey's essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," first published in Screen in 1975 and anthologized many times since. The essay is discussed further in the next section.

The dominant narrative cinema came to be seen as serving an ideological function that confirmed the individual as a subject. The nature of the star system, the system of continuity editing, and narrative realism worked to make stories of individual characters and their fate appear to simply tell themselves as a natural expression of an obvious fact: individuals are the key creators of social structure and historical change. The mechanism that actually animates these individuals, narrative storytelling or, as it came to be known, the cinematic apparatus, remains basically unacknowledged, off-screen. Like a puppet master, it creates the illusion of an imaginary world and fictitious characters that have independent lives of their own.

Film theory thus identified the cinema as a system whose formal elements contribute to the ideology of the individual. Feminist film theory carried the analysis one step further. Laura Mulvey, in her pioneering essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," noted that the individual subject who takes action in films—embarking on quests, courting a partner, solving a mystery, and so on—is almost invariably male, and the individual who awaits the outcome of such actions is almost invariably female. Paralleling this distinction, the camera encourages identification with the male hero; his look becomes the camera's look. We see the world from his point of view or from a point of view that places him front and center. Simultaneously, among the things the male hero sees when he looked out at the world around him is the female lead. She is there to be seen; she represents, in the words of Laura Mulvey, "to-be-looked-at-ness," a passive position that can be understood as a symptom of a social hierarchy between the sexes.

Whereas structuralism gave emphasis to the text itself and the principles that structured it, poststructuralism emphasized the context within which a film is received. A given structure to a text was no longer seen as fully determining meaning. Interpretation and meaning vary; formal qualities of the text set limits but do not predetermine meaning. The primary context is the actual viewing situation and the relation of the spectator to the screen. The differentiation between male and female spectators is one example of the way in which poststructural and feminist analysis have given added specificity to ideas about an ideological effect to cinema in general. The camera's gaze no longer affected all viewers equally, regardless of sexual identity. In many ways this represented the first of many cracks in the three basic assumptions that had underpinned much of the initial effort to introduce film studies into the university.


By the 1980s poststructural theory and criticism had begun to adopt a new set of guiding assumptions. The new characteristics ascribed to cinema were three: (1) the social impact of films on specific viewers matters more than the general qualities of film as art; (2) art is not essentially transcendent but always tied to a social and historical context within which different responses and interpretations occur; and (3) the history of film is the story both of its rise as an art and of its social impact and political significance as a mass medium.

Rather than appreciating the art of cinema outside of any particular context, the new emphasis called for situating the art of any film in a specific context. The importance of The Birth of a Nation (1915) for the art of cinema because of its inventive use of cross cutting between simultaneous events to create suspense must now be situated in relation to the actual suspense created: would members of the Klu Klux Klan rescue the endangered white women from the clutches of an evil black man? This racist theme itself belonged within the historical context of race relations in the early twentieth century, when prejudice and stereotypes took different shape and had different status than they do today. Situating film within a specific context has also added new impetus to the study of documentary film. Extraordinarily popular compared to its more marginal status up until the early 1980s, documentary film study now consistently addresses aesthetic issues in relation to socially specific goals and effects.

The differentiation of films into various groupings continued as before but with an added emphasis on the historical context to which genres, movements, waves, the work of specific directors, and historical phases of national cinemas belonged. The attempt to understand "What is cinema?" became a question posed less in relation to traditional arts and more in relation to newer media like television, installation and video art, digital, interactive media, and the Web. Forms of overlap and convergence among these various forms made the isolation of cinema as a distinct medium a less compelling question than the continuities and discontinuities among a wide array of moving image media.

"Identity politics," which places great stress on defining the qualities that characterize a given group, often with a stress on the issue of stereotypes, the need for "positive images," and the search for alternative forms of narrative more commensurate with the group's shared values, gave rise to a flowering of film theory, criticism, and history from the perspective of African American, Native American, ethnic, and queer (a combination of gay and lesbian) perspectives.

This shift in emphasis from the close reading of texts isolated from their context began in the 1970s as an aspect of a cultural studies approach to film and other media. It gained strength in the 1980s as identity politics—in this case, the examination of cinema from the distinct perspective of a specific group—became an important aspect of political debate in the larger society. Anthologies such as Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema and Screening Asian Americans provide a wealth of critical analysis devoted to issues that had gone largely unexplored by either auteur study or by ideological study that focused on the subject rather than the larger social system to which the subject belonged. Attention to a more socially and historically situated perspective challenged qualities previously taken for granted, such as heterosexual marriage as a marker of the happy ending, stereotypic representation of groups from Latinos and Latinas to Jews, and identification with male heroes but desire for female stars: the reversal of these conventions by gay and lesbian viewers, who desire differently, has undercut the universalizing claims of traditional film theory.

Also beginning in the 1980s, a call for a return to the history of film cast doubt on the received wisdom of existing film histories. Studies such as Miriam Hansen's Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film, David E. James's Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties, and Jane M. Gaines's Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era all depart radically from the earlier tradition of tracing the rise of film as an art within various national contexts. Revisionist histories such as these set out to apply a more finely tuned analysis of the larger context in which films arose. They took into account the social, historical, economic, and ideological factors that both a more traditional emphasis on the rise of film as an art and auteur theory with its stress on the centrality of the author as understood solely from films themselves failed to do.

The new assumptions listed above that sought to contextualize the understanding of films also called for interpretations that differentiated among the responses of specific audiences and compared the responses of different audiences. African American women, for example, were far more receptive than white males to Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), which tells the story of an African American family poised to embark upon profound changes at the start of the twentieth century. Even popular, mainstream films could no longer be understood from a single perspective. Different groups were shown to often read against the grain of the preferred meaning assigned by critics and marketers and to instead discover alternative meanings: slasher films, for example, which make violence against women grizzly "fun," often lead to male adolescents identifying, across the gender divide, with the "Final Girl," who vanquishes the male villain and restores order. The critic's own alignment in relation to the particulars of ethnicity, class, and gender has also become a more openly acknowledged aspect of film study since the universalizing voice of traditional criticism has become increasingly associated with a white, heterosexual male perspective that treats its own social viewpoint as normative.

Film studies scholars today continue to formulate theories about the broad patterns that characterize the cinema, but they do so in a form that gives heightened attention to the specificities of time and place. "Thick" interpretations, which attempt to grasp the multiple perspectives and divergent meanings that a given work conveys and prompts, have gained a stronger foothold than theorizations that view the cinema as a medium that functions in predetermined ways and produces consistent responses. Rather than serving as a form of social glue for the construction of a unified nation-state, the cinema has come to be seen as part of a highly contested cultural zone that no longer coincides with a single understanding of national or any other identity. The stakes of specific, often underrepresented groups seeking to claim a space within the cultural arena generally and film studies specifically have taken on great importance. Combined with mostly European theories of poststructuralism, these forces have altered the shape of film studies, proposing new ways to answer the perennial question, "What is cinema?"

SEE ALSO Auteur Theory and Authorship;Criticism;Semiotics;Structuralism and Poststructuralism


Bazin, André. What Is Cinema?, 2 vols. Translated and edited by Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Bobo, Jacqueline. Black Women as Cultural Readers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form. Translated by Jay Leyda. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977.

Feng, Peter X. Screening Asian Americans. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Friedman, Lester D. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Gaines, Jane M. Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Gledhill, Christine, and Linda Williams, eds. Reinventing Film Studies. London: Arnold, and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hansen, Miriam. Bable & Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

James, David E. Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Movies and Methods, edited by Bill Nichols, vol. 2, 303–315. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co, 1968.

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam, eds. Unthinking Eurocentrism. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

Wood, Robin. Personal Views: Explorations in Film. London: Gordon Fraser, 1976. Revised edition; Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2006.

Bill Nichols