Film Theory: Variety of Theories

In the 1970s, influential theories of spectatorship and representation.

Metz on the film experience: Cinema retains something of “the sight of the primal scene.”

Steven Heath: on Narrativity

Methods–McDonald (Avant-Garde Book)

The 20 chapters in this book are arranged in a manner that reflects the dimensions of

Each chapter provides an extended look at a particular film made

All the chapters include info about the filmmakers other works, especialy about films that help to clarify the film discussed in detail (and about related work by others).

Each discussion explores the potential of the particular film for critiquing the dimensions of commercial cinema.

Obviously, films can be approached from different theoretical directions, and used in a variety of contexts (some of the films have been widely discussed elsewhere).

My goal is to provide a way of seeing each film that not only makes it more accessible, but also energizes viewers’ experience with cinema of all kinds.

While each chapter provides in-depth discussion of a particular film.

The overall organization of the chapters facilitates comparisons of films and types of films.

Theories (A to Z)

Harold Bloom: Anxiety of Influence



Queer Theory

In the l970s, influential theories of spectatorship and representation.

Metz on the film experience: Cinema retains something of “the sight of the primal scene.”


L. Mulvey: masculinization of spectatorship.

De Lauretis:
What constitutes being socialized as woman in our culture has impact on the experiences of the woman film spectator.

Spectatorship: Description of spectators in terms of unconscious desires and basic structures of language.

De Lauretis (Alice, p. 145): confusion about identify–as if synonym for understand, as if it denotes a specific process by which comprehension occurs.

Each person goes to the movies…a series of previous identifications by which she or he has somehow been engendered.”

Kaplan: Forms of Phallic Domination (1984)

Two main cycles of films have dominated commercial cinema from the mid 1960s, in the wake of the women’s movement.

The first excluded women (the buddy-buddy film), avoiding the problem of sexual difference altogether.

The second, emerging when the problem of sexual difference could no longer be avoided, showed women being raped and subjected to violence.

The book ends with two short chapters.

The first deals with problems of production, exhibition. and distribution of independent women’s films. I focus here particularly on the contradiction inherent in the very notion of an “alternate” cinematic practice and raise questions that must be answered if we are to move out of the impasse that both feminist filmmakers and feminist critics have now reached.

We need to combine debate about the most “correct” cinematic strategy (theoretically) with consideration of the practical problems of how individual films are received (read) and of the contexts of production and reception as these affect what films can be made and how films are read.

The conclusion looks at future directions in relation to the possibilities for challenging dominant patriarchal discourses. I suggest that the figure of the Mother offers a possible way to break through patriarchal discourses since, as critics have noted, she has not been totally appropriated by dominant culture. But this is clearly a problematic area in which much work remains to be done.

For the benefit of readers new to current film theory, I have listed below definitions of terms, concepts, and theoretical models that are used frequently throughout this book and are central to the theoretical arguments being developed. Readers already familiar with current theory should move on to chapter 1.


A feature length narrative sound film made and distributed by the Hollywood studio system.
There is ambiguity about the precise dates for the classic period (people agree on roughly 1930 60). What is important is the concept of a classical model with fixed conventions of film practice that are repeated from product to product and that the audience comes to rely on and to expect.

Central to this classical cinema are:
(a) genres (e.g. the gangster genre, the western genre, the adventure film, the woman’s film). (b) stars.
(c) producers, and (d) directors.
(a), (b) and (c) can be distinguished from (d) by the fact that they have to do with the selling of films. The public come to demand certain stars and desire certain genres (the demand for different genres varies in different periods). Producers try to satisfy their public and develop marketing strategies to this end.



This concept refers to the cinema in its many dimensions economic, technical, psychological. and ideological.
Embedded in a particular social and institutional context, the cinema works to suppress discourse. to permit only certain “speakers.” only a certain “speech.”

What critics call the enonciation of the cinema (its processes of saying) cannot be distinguished from the enonce (what is said).
Jean Louis Baudry has argued that the meaning (ideology) that is produced by the cinematic mechanism (projection) depends not only on the content of the images but also on the “material procedures by which an image of continuity, dependent on the persistence of vision, is restored from discontinuous elements” (Jean Louis Baudry (1974 5)
“Ideological effects of the basic cinematographic apparatus,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 2, p. 42).

Other critics have focused on the position of the spectator as that of: creating the film as s/he watches it. The meaning established in the interaction :between viewer and screen image involves a particular type of pleasure that : arises from the cinema’s dependence on the psychoanalytic mechanisms of fetishism and voyeurism (see definitions 7, 8 below).



This concept indicates the “constructed” nature of the image (see definition 10 below), which Hollywood mechanisms strive to conceal.
The dominant Hollywood style. realism (an apparent imitation of the social world we live in), hides the fact that a film IS constructed, and perpetuates the illusion that spectators are being shown what is “natural.”
The half aware “forgetting” that the spectator engages in allows the pleasurable mechanisms of voyeurism and fetishism to flow freely.


Before going on to discuss the mechanisms underlying pleasure in the cinema, it is necessary to outline Freud’s notion of the Oedipus complex, which provided the cornerstone for his (at the time) revolutionary psychoanalytic theory and on which the other phenomena relevant to film theory depend.

Freud took the name Oedipus from classical mythology, particularly the story, dramatized by Sophocles. of how Oedipus unwittingly killed his father and married his mother, a deed for which he was severely punished.

The myth represents for Freud the inevitable fantasy of the growing child: first bound in illusory unity with his mother, whom he does not recognize as Other, separate, or different, the child exists blissfully in a pre Oedipal phase; as he moves into the phallic phase, the child becomes aware of his father. At the
height of his positive Oedipal phase, he loves his mother and hates his father who takes mother for himself.

Successful resolution of this Oedipal phase takes place on the boy’s discovery that his mother lacks the penis. i.e. is castrated (he can only imagine that all people must originally have had penises). This bitter discovery propels him away from his mother, since he fears that by identifying with the one who lacks the penis, he will endanger his own organ. He now
identifies with his father, whom he longs to be like, and he looks forward to “finding someone like his mother” to marry.

Freud did not pay much attention to the girl’s Oedipal crisis. but post Freudians have generally agreed that it is a much more complicated one. They argue that the girl turns away from her mother through penis envy and the belief that her mother is responsible for her lack of a penis. The girl tries to get from the father what the mother could not provide, now equating “child” with “penis”, and looking to bear the child with a man like her father.

The best neo Freudian analysis of the girl’s Oedipal complex can be found in Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978, Berkeley, Calif., University of California Press).
Chodorow examines the much more difficult task for the girl in having to turn away completely from her first love object, her mother, and place erotic interest in her father; she argues that since they cannot “replace” their mothers. as boys do with their wives, girls remain attached pre oedipally to their mothers throughout adulthood.


Another Freudian term, fetishism refers to the perversion whereby men strive to discover the penis in the woman in order to grant themselves erotic satisfaction (e.g. long hair, a shoe, or earrings stand in for the penis).

Fear of castration underlies fetishism in that sexual excitement is impossible with a creature who lacks the penis, or something that represents it.

In the cinema, the whole female body may be “fetishized” in order to counteract the fear of sexual difference, i.e. of castration.


Pleasure in the cinema is created through the inherently voyeuristic mechanism that comes into play here more strongly than in the other arts.

A Freudian psychoanalytic term, voyeurism refers to the erotic gratification of watching someone without being seen oneself, i.e. the activity of the Peeping Tom.

Exhibitionism refers in psychoanalysis to the erotic gratification derived from showing one’s body or part of it to another person, as in the pleasure of being seen, or seeing oneself on the screen.

Voyeurism is an active perversion, practiced primarily by men with the female body as the object of the gaze, while exhibitionism is its passive counterpart:


(a) Scopophilia

Sexual pleasure in looking is activated by the very situation of cinema: the darkened room, the way the gaze of the spectator is controlled by the aperture of first, the camera and second, the projector, the fact that the spectator is watching moving images rather than either : static ones (painting) or live actors (theatre), all help to make the cinematic experience closer to the dream state than is possible in the other arts. Psychoanalytic critics argue that a kind of regression to the state of early childhood happens in the cinema.

(b) The act of gazing is played upon in dominant cinema, creating the pleasure that, in this argument, has ultimately erotic origins. The gaze is built upon culturally defined notions of sexual difference.

There are three looks:
The basic level for Saussure is that of sounds made by the human voice (i.e. the phonetic level). Here items gain their significance only from their relationship to other items in the system, which are signaled by difference. The level of recognized difference is called the phonemic level. As Terence Hawkes puts it: “This is to say that the meaning of each word resides in a structural sense in the difference between its own sounds and those of other words.

The English language has registered the contrast or sense of ‘opposition’ between the sound of /t/ in tin and the sound of /k/ in kin as significant, that is, as capable of generating meaning” (Structuralism and Semiotics (1977) London, Methuen, pp. 22 3).

Saussure called the two aspects of the linguistic sign concept and sound image, the signified and the signifier. The signifiers in the language system are phonemes which can be made up into words to represent certain objects in the world, i.e. the signified on the level of denotation (see definition 12 below). Thus, the sounds r o s e make up the word rose, which is the sign for a flower that looks a certain way. But there is no inherent relationship between this sign and the flower. It is only an arbitrary connection and thus can never be questioned in terms of its fitness or suitability to anything in the sensual world. Furthermore, all that we can think and know is conditioned by the language system we must use; ideas and concepts do not exist outside of the system, but are bounded by it, shaped by what the sign system permits.
Critics thus do not simply use language (discourse) but are positioned in discourse (see definition 14 below).

The decentering of a hitherto unquestioned, autonomous and individualistic Cartesian “I.” “I” is now simply the subject in a subject predicate linguistic system. Far from being the central actor, man is controlled by the laws that govern the language system in which he lives.

Such a position clearly undermines the whole tradition of thought introduced by Descartes; this tradition was first questioned in the international Romantic and Post Romantic movements by the thinkers who most influenced the early twentieth century: Rousseau, Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. These thinkers represent a variety of discourses which all, in one way or ; another, began to question the unproblematic self; but the full force of their work was not generally felt in the culture until the impact of the First World War made many of their theories suddenly relevant.

Semiology needs to be placed in the line of reaction against nineteenth century humanist habits of thought which remained despite the inroads made by the thinkers named above. The earlier thinkers did not question their own ability (methodologically) to analyze their subject matter “objectively,” and it is this examination of the very tools of analysis (signification) that characterizes semiology and puts the nail in the coffin of the unified self.

(i) within the film text itself, men gaze at women, who become objects of the gaze;

(ii) the spectator, in turn, is made to identify with this male gaze, and to objectify the women on the screen; and

(iii) the camera’s original “gaze” comes into play in the very act of filming.


The image can be discussed, broadly, in two main ways:

(a) Sociological critics discuss the image in terms of the types of role characters play (e.g. the image of the housewife, the macho male (hero), the homosexual, the villain (anti hero), the prostitute, etc.). They compare the representation of these roles in film to people in these roles in society. The problem here is that such analysis ignores the mediation of film as an art form (i.e. that these images are constructed).

(b) A cinematic analysis keeps in mind the construction and talks about distance of subject from camera, point of view, editing, place. function of a character in a narrative, etc.


These two ways of thinking about the image are reflected in two main approaches in feminist criticism: first, the sociological method refers to a study of people in society; film critics here use the terminology of sex roles, e.g. Virgin, Vamp.

The second, the semiological method refers to a science of signs; critics here use a terminology from linguistics, discussing film as a signifying system, in which woman functions as “sign.”

The sociological approach was the one the early feminist film critics used, and it continues to be an important method. Concepts such as the distinction made between the domestic (private) sphere of the home, where the wife and/or mother is positioned, and the work (public) sphere, where the husband belongs, are useful but limited. They do not tell us how meaning is produced in film, and tend to blur distinctions between the realm of lived experience (the social formation) and that of representation (images on film).

Semiology, applied to film, attempts to explain how film communicates, how its meaning is produced in a manner analogous to the way a sentence in written language communicates meaning. Ferdinand de Saussure is credited with introducing semiology or the science of signs. The meaning of language, he said, is found not in the words or thoughts of an individual speaker, but in the relation of elements within the sign system itself. He used the word langue to refer to the whole complex language system with its structure of relationships and parole to refer to the level of speech, where the abstract rules of the larger system are put into operation.

Relevance of semiology to the analysis of women in film

Christian Metz extended Saussure’s theories about language to film and wrote a semiotics of the cinema (Metz (1974) Film Language, trans. Michael Taylor(New York, Oxford University Press). For Metz, cinematic discourse. like that of language. entails a source of articulation (“I”), a speaker, and a person being addressed (spoken to), a “You.” But, as in the language system, this “I” and this “You” are structured in relation to one another in filmic discourse: “I” is the subject (like the linguistic subject in a sentence), and “You” is the object (again, like the object position in the sentence).

The rules and conventions that structure a particular discourse are called codes; Roland Barthes established a series of codes which literature uses (Barthes (1975) S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, London, Cape), and film critics began to apply them in film analysis. They took the concept of “code” to analyze how a film works (see definition 15 below) . Barthes is further important for film theory because he revealed that we live in a world comprised of a whole series of signifying systems of which language, while dominant, is only one.

Sign systems range from clothing, eating habits, sexual habits, to the construction of photographs, advertisements, film images. For Barthes, film is a sign system that functions largely on the level of myth it has lost its connection to any tangible reference, any object in the real world. (Barthes (1975) Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, New York, Hill & Wang). A sign (for example, the sign “rose”) can be emptied of its denotative meaning and a new connotative meaning piled onto it. Thus ‘rose’ becomes a signifier for “passion” (a signified), making a totally new sign, a sign on the second level.

On this secondary level of significance it is culture that provides the new meanings, that drains original signs of their denotation and lifts them into a connotation that is culture specific. fitting a certain ideology, a certain set of values, beliefs. ways of seeing.

Barthes (in Mythologies, p. 116) gives the example of a photograph in Paris Match of a black soldier saluting the French flag. On the denotative level, that is the meaning of the photo: the soldier is saluting the flag; but on the secondary level of signification, that of culture, ideology, connotation, we know that the meaning has to do with celebrating French colonialism: we are to praise the fact that the colonized people love their governors and willingly fight for their cause.

The example that Godard uses in the film Letter to Jane of the Life front page photograph of Jane Fonda with the Vietnamese.

This photograph too is full of connotation (i.e. ideology); it is emptied of its denotative sign, a white woman with some Asian soldiers in a j jungle setting, and built up into the second level that Barthes calls “myth”. Fonda, with connotations of both film star and radical activist, is in the front of the photograph large, important, given status while in the rear are the anonymous Vietnamese small, bunched together, with connotations of inscrutability, foreignness. the Other. The photograph thus praises the liberality of Jane Fonda. with her position in American culture as sex object and star, in going to visit the “enemy,” who is racially stereotyped.

In cinema woman is likewise, as her actual self, a real woman, lifted onto the second level of connotation, myth; she is presented as what she represents for man, not in terms of what she actually signifies. Her discourse (her meanings, as she might produce them) is suppressed in favor of a discourse structured by patriarchy in which her real signification has been replaced by connotations that serve patriarchy’s needs.

The sentence “A woman is undressing,” or the image of a woman undressing, cannot remain at the denotative level of factual information, but immediately is raised to the level of connotations–her sexuality, her desirability, her nakedness; she is objectified in such a discourse, placed in terms of how she can be used for male gratification. That is how our culture reads such sentences and images, although these meanings are presented as natural, as denotative, because the layering of cultural connotation is masked, hidden.

Our task, then, in looking at Hollywood films is to unmask the images, the sign of woman, to see how the meanings that underlie the codes function.

(See the bibliography for a list of works about structuralism, psychoanalysis, and semiology relevant to film studies.)


On the level of the sign (image, word), ideology works by a sliding between connotative and denotative usages of words or images. The Strict, literal definition of an expression (word, image, sign) is not always easy to distinguish from its connotative uses (i.e. the suggestive and associative levels). What passes itself off as denotative “natural” meanings may already carry a number of implicit connotations (See the discussion of semiology in definition 11 above.)

Another way in which ideology is communicated in film is through the specific properties of the shot, i.e. its iconography, which include mlse en scene, composition, dress, gesture, facial expression, focus, and lighting.


The film narrative combines diegesis and discourse and represents a chain of events occurring in time, in a cause effect relationship. The diegesis is the denotative material of film narrative (the Story, i.e. actions, happenings, characters, items of Setting), while the discourse refers to the means of expression (i.e. the use of language and other Sign Systems in a spatio temporal order) rather than to content. Discourse also contains, as its points of reference, the conditions of expression, a source of articulation (“I”) and an addressee (“You”).

15. Codes

The discourse is structured through a set of rules or conventions that semioticians call the code. The cinema employs a complex system of codes pertaining to its heterogeneous levels of expression: codes of representation and editing, acting and narrative, sound, music. and speech. Some of these codes are specific to the cinema (e.g. editing), while some are shared with other forms of art and communication.



Keeping this distinction clearly in mind prevents us from falling into the trap of sociological critics, and linking screen image and lived experience too simplistically.

(a) The cinematic refers to all that goes is on the screen and to what happens between screen image and spectator (what results from the cinematic apparatus).

(b) The extra cinematic refers to discussion about, for example:
(i) the lives of the director, stars, producers, etc.,
(ii) the production of the film in Hollywood, as an institution,
(iii) the politics of the period when a film was made, and (iv) the cultural assumptions at the time a film was made.