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Film Theory Intro



What is the point of film theory? It is a question we should keep in mind throughout this ten week course, for before we know it theory can become a meta-language, an argument amongst theorists that has too little to do with film itself, and the feelings evoked by the viewing experience. It might be useful to think of Paul Coates’s comment in The Story of the Lost Reflection, where he says that “film theory is for people who have seen too few films to practice criticism”.

However that is not how theorist Stephen Prince sees it. In an article called ‘Psychoanalytic Film Theory and The Missing Spectator’, he reckons that the critic “proceeds, and convinces, by virtue of the power of his or her rhetoric and command of the language and by skilfully referencing these against the observable features of the films under study.”  This would surely depend on the quality of the critic. Some, like Anthony Lane for The New Yorker, or Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic, would seem rhetorically inclined, but others are more interested in getting at the truth of the art work. Andre Bazin has proved one of the most influential thinkers in film, yet worked completely outside academia and was employed as a critic for various magazines. Judith Williamson’s columns for The New Statesman are fine, analytic accounts of the films under scrutiny.

More useful might be the differentiation Aristotle makes between method and conjecture. In the former the thinker tries to arrive at certain and well-established truths; the conjectural works merely from likely and plausible arguments. Whether theorists like it or not, much of their thinking functions (as with the critic) off the conjectural, and the question is not always between truth seeking and rhetoric (theory versus criticism), but the quality of the thinker’s mind in either field: be it the approach of the magazine critic; the academically focused theorist. Often the difference comes down to tenureship on the academic’s part; penury on the critic’s. As a recent edition of the magazine Cineaste noted, “In recent months, American critics have been fired, downsized or bought out by a host of publications”, but the critic still works, even if for far less money than before.

This is not especially the place to set up criticism against theory. Indeed where possible what we want to do is dissolve the categories and accept that what matters is the originality of the thinking in whatever form. What we demand from both criticism and theory is a sort of conceptual reservoir that can allow us to make sense of our personal responses to film. That is, we are seeking neither the ready opinion nor the objective statement, but something in between. As the philosopher and film writer Gilles Deleuze once observed, what is it that makes opinion more than just that; and answers by saying it is the use and creation of concepts.

The purpose of the course is to find a way of absorbing theory into our everyday perceptions, to our reaction to film images. If for example we believe the film to be slow, do we mean that it is too slow (pure subjective response) or that it utilises what the French call temps mort – dead time? The latter allows us a conceptual framework for thinking about cinematic pacing; the former tells us no more than the person’s personal reaction. However that doesn’t mean in the class we don’t want people offering a decidedly personal response; the course’s purpose is to put some flesh on the bones of opinion – to generate thought from the immediate emotional reaction.

But to get us going it will be useful to look at a few film clips and muse over what critics and academics have to say about them. In Germany Year Zero, for example, Andre Bazin, after explaining how films generally use children, comments on the film’s significance residing in director Roberto Rossellini’s deliberate refusal “to resort to any such sentimental sympathy, to make any concession to anthroporphism.” Bazin adds that though the “kid is eleven or twelve years old, and it would be easy, even normal, most of the time for the script, and the acting, to introduce us into the innermost recesses of his conscience”, Rossellini does not do this. Thus what Bazin does is look at the film from the point of view of a fresh approach to childhood, and at the same time push through his general theoretical belief that realism is the key to great cinema. When he says, in relation to the boys’ conscience after an appalling deed, that “the kid walks and walks, searching here and there among the ruins; but one after the other people and things abandon him”, what matters for Bazin is not the guilty conscience, per se, but the way that conscience comes into contact with day to day reality. The boy could as readily have had guilty hallucinations, a la Renton in Trainspotting, but that is not how Rossellini chooses to frame it. What criticism and theory can help us see are options available within the same problematic. Trainspotting goes for a loosely expressionist style; Germany Year Zero is clearly more realistic.

Bazin was to some degree reacting against the sort of formalist aesthetics of, amongst others, Sergei Eisenstein, the great Soviet theorist and filmmaker. When for example another ’realist’ theorist, Siegfried Kracauer, disagrees with Eisenstein’s approach, he does so by saying “This is how Eisenstein conceives of the close-up. Its main function, says he, is ‘not so much to show or to present, as to signify, to give meaning, to designate.'” This is usually done through editing, so that the most important thing is not to show the character moving through space, but to show through the editing the nature of crisis. In Strike for example Eisenstein proves himself a master at bringing together opposing elements. As he views the strike from the point of view of the workers and the bosses, so he cuts between the various factions involved in the strike to bring out the relations between them. Where Rossellini wants to present a boy’s crisis; Eisenstein gives meaning to the nature of a strike. Obviously this is partly the difference between a crisis that belongs to the individual, and the crisis that belongs to the group, but we might ask whether they have not chosen subjects that lend themselves particularly well to their chosen aesthetic?

Having briefly touched upon realism and formalism, what can semiotics tells us about cinema? Especially if we keep in mind Christian Metz’s comment that as “an easy art, the cinema is constantly in danger of falling victim to that easiness.” How to avoid the dangers of that easiness, and can semiotics help? Let us take two terms often utilised in relation to making sense of film: the denotative and the connotative. In the denotative we have, according to James Monaco, “the strict literal definition”, where in connotation there is “the suggestive or associative sense of expression”. (How to Read a Film) Most films utilise both the reality of what they present, and the symbolic function that certain images invoke. When a filmmaker cuts to the fire as lovers kiss, this will still be a fire (denotative meaning) but it also of course serves the connotative (the lovers’ kindled passion). So far so obvious, perhaps. But an awareness of the denotative and the connotative can be useful for filmmakers to avoid clichés by refusing heavily freighted connotative images (like cutting to the fire as lovers kiss), and in trying to find fresh ones. Michelangelo Antonioni is so significant a filmmaker not least because of the originality of his semiotic. Often his entire mise-en-scene will have connotative possibilities, while still indicating denotative realities. In Zabriskie Point, Antonioni enlarged the billboards and shot from unusual angles to bring out the centrality of consumerism in American society. This wasn’t only about film in American life; it was also filming the world’s most advanced consumerist society. One of Antonioni’s key questions is how do we negotiate our perceptions in a constantly shifting modern world. Antonioni does so by framing, using colour, enlarging billboards or depopulating streets (as in the London set Blow-Up)  to connote our fragility in the face of changing reality.

We will say a lot more about semiotics in a few weeks, but to conclude today we will comment on a fourth element of theory, ideology and politics. It can take numerous forms, but here are a couple in relation to ideology: the overt and the covert. Is the political an aspect the filmmakers wants us to notice, or is it an aspect the filmmakers choose to hide? The American filmmaker Irvin Kershner tell a story in Mark Litwak’s book, Reel Power, of a Russian filmmaker he met during Communism who said to him: in American films “you open a refrigerator in a film and it is stocked full of food and people are taking things out, spilling things and grabbing food and running out. They are treating food as if it is nothing. My God that is propaganda.”

This is clearly an example of covert propaganda as the filmmaker is no doubt not consciously offering a critique of American capitalism through the food in the fridge. But what about an overt form of ideology? In their book Film: Form and Function, George Weade and George Lellis use the term ‘persuasive cinema’ to describe films as varied in form and content as The Battleship Potemkin, Triumph of the Will, Easy Rider and If…., films that they see are pushing an ideological agenda. When we talk specifically on ideology we will try and breakdown the different ways in which we can view films politically.


©Tony McKibbin