Film Theory: Function, List of Perspectives

A theory in any field is an intellectual grid, a set of aesthetic generalizations. Yet some theories are more useful than others in understanding specific movies.  No single theory can explain satisfyingly all movies, or, for that matter, all aspects of a single movie.  Thus, one needs to rely on multiple theories in interpreting art works.

One goal of film theory is to study the tensions and contradictions between the economic and discursive field of signifying practices and the multiple determinations.

Classic Theory:

Attempts to see what’s distinctive about film vis-à-vis the other arts, such as theater, painting, literature, photography.  These theorists tend to focus and isolate the essential differences between film and other media.


Film as technical achievement

Film as acting showcase for the actor

Film as auteurist statement, reflecting the filmmaker’s singular vision

Thus Hawks becomes “Hawks,” a filmic structure designated by the name appearing on the director’s credit.

Film as a moral and philosophical medium

Film as emotional or sensual experience

Film as first impression: these are first thoughts, a tentative gloss on an extraordinary closed world that seems to embody universal passions and myths of creations.

Film as an ideological and socio-political statement (Marxist approach)

Theoretical developments in the 1970s: The intervention of ideology, feminism, representation theory.  The operation of ideology and other forces in art shattered auteurism as the dominant perspective.  The main assumption of aueturism was that the understanding of a director and his oeuvre  would provide a key to the interpretation of his movies. But the new theories suggest that meaning should seen as arising from the conjunction of various discoursive codes at work in the filmic text, of which the directorial code is only one force.Film as a gender statement (Feminism)

Film as a psychological and psychoanalytic medium

Film as a medium of multiple and various pleasures

The cinema offers a number of possible pleasures

Scopophilia: the very pleasure in looking, There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, but there’s also pleasure in being looked at. 

Theory: French Vs. American

Whereas the French clearly view theory as a first principle, we Americans tend to see it as a last resort, something to turn to when all else fails (Rick Altman, Musical)

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

Barthes showed that it’s impossible to have film discourse that exists outside ideology.

Shift of theory from the signified of films to the practice of signification

Shift from what film means to how it produces meaning.

Wellek and Warren: “The dilemma of genre history is the dilemma of all history, i.e. 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.”