Film Theory: Issues and Concerns

The scholar Philip Kolker has noted (in the Oxford Film Encyclopedia) that Film studies (and film theory) are against the notion of film as being a kind of self-constructed presence, full of story, characters, and emotions.  They are against the notion that film is there, complete, full, just waiting for our gaze.

All film theories attempt to use a central concept and then apply it to the task of relating film to society.

Ways of Seeing

Film is an open system, not just a set of components framing a whole, but an interrelated set of components that are conditioned by each other. For example: Technological developments are conditioned by economic factors.

A theory in any field, including film studies, is an intellectual grid, a set of thematic and aesthetic assumptions, hypotheses, and generalizations.

The test of every theory is its empirical validity. Some theories are  more useful than others  in understanding particular genres, or specific movies.

No single theory can explain all movies, or even all aspects of the same movie.

Key Issues and Concepts

Some of the key issues and concepts of modern film theory are:


Technology (film as technical achievement)






Politics: film as medium of political and moral statements, transmitting ideological messages

Reception: film as an emotional and sensual experience



Genre History:

Wellek and Warren have observed:

“The dilemma of genre history is the dilemma of all history: in order to discover the scheme of reference (in this case, the genre), we must study the history, but we cannot study the history without having in mind some scheme of selection.”

First Film:

Film scholars such as Kolker have emphasized:

The first film that demonstrates  a cinematic movement and a critical theory.

The first film that demonstrates the self-consciousness and foregrounding of form.

American Vs. French Film Theory

The scholar Rick Altman has observed that French scholars  view theory as  a first principle, whereas American scholars tend to view it as a “last resort,” something to turn to when  all else fails.

The American perspective is a limited and pragmatic view, whereby theory is to be avoided  at all costs.