Before cinema studies was established as an academic enterprise there existed already a fair pile of theoretical writing on cinema. Hugo Münsterberg, Béla Balász and Rudolf Arnheim were the most prominent; however, the protagonists of Soviet montage film, Eisenstein and Kuleshov, also contributed substantially to early theoretical reflection on the nature of cinema and its impact on spectators. André Bazin, perhaps the most significant during the period when early theories of cinema were gradually superseded by modern theories within academia, wrote a number of essays in the ’40s establishing a new angle on cinema not least through the French film journal Les cahiers du cinéma.
Characteristic of most early writing is its concern with the meaning of film in comparison with other forms of art. Is film understandable as an extension and transformation of photography, theatre, the novel, or painting, and if so what is cinema’s own contribution? In that cinema was considered a mechanical recording of reality it was furthermore not clear at all that it at the same time was identifiable as art. It was felt to be necessary to define cinema as an art form in itself and in its own right to endow cinema with artfulness. Being interested in what the essence of film was early theory often was directed toward ontological questions about cinema.
The ’60s saw the humanities undergo considerable expansion. Film programs were established in Western countries. Many film scholars came from other fields of study, which meant that many new theoretical questions were raised. More important was the sheer proliferation of theories and epistemologies, and the shift toward a new focus in cinema studies. The question of the essence of cinema was still an undercurrent in many writings but the legitimisation of cinema studies as a scientific enterprise seemed more urgent. The domination of structuralism followed by semiotics and psychoanalysis meant that cinema studies was connected to new fields. Also the politicisation of the humanities meant the import of new theories concerned with cultural philosophy and ideology, which were essentially taken from different strands of Marxism. The questions throughout that period were, therefore, scientific and political in nature.
Other shifts in film theory took place throughout the ’80s with a more keen focus on the interaction between film and the spectator, and a focus on film as a cultural issue. Both these new foci meant that film studies again was connected to new fields as it became a part of a huge industry known as cultural studies. New studies connecting film with cognitive psychology furthermore re-established the connection between film studies and natural science, such as neurobiology and other sciences of the brain. These new fields meant another huge piling up of texts related to cinema studies. The shift in the ’80s put forward questions on culture and natural sciences.
This very brief history of film theory indicates how the history of theory creates serious problems for teachers in film studies. The first problem has to do with the teachers’ own (in)capacity, actually, to follow new theoretical paradigms in their totality. The second problem is connected to actual teaching in the fields film theory, film history and film analysis. Due to the immensity of theories how is it, then, possible to present the serious and relevant theories for students at different levels? The answer is obvious: by film readers encompassing the most central texts throughout the history of film theory. Academic compilation books have taken up the challenge from the vastness of theory and have given rise to the “film reader industry”. A film reader, however, always responds in some way or another to its own historical context with actual theoretical agendas and more or less specific requirements. Film readers, therefore, are not necessarily the answer to the proliferation of theories but may be part of the problem by way of a proliferation of books.
Routledge has published a new film reader in four volumes Film Theory. Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies edited by Philip Simpson, Andrew Utterson and K. J. Shepherdson. One would expect that these four volumes, collecting 99 articles and book fragments, would target readers without allegiance to any specific agenda and with a high degree of endurance. This expectation, however, is not quite fulfilled. And moreover it has presumably not been the intention to fulfil this rather naive expectation of an unbiased presentation when the book’s subtitle (the emphasis on “Cultural Studies”) is taken as an indication. Some parts of the volumes are highly influenced by a cultural studies approach. This means that the editors have chosen to include texts which only to a minimal degree address questions of film, film theory and film history, as for example Jean Baudrillard’s text. The price for this inclusion is, of course, the exclusion of more relevant texts.
Film Theory is divided into 12 parts dealing with topics which have dominated film theory at different times. The first section “Essence and Specificity” relates to early film theory. It also includes new takes on the question of a cinema essence. Alone this question could have filled all of the book’s volumes given it has been an intermittent one throughout film theory. The question of essence is related to the notion of film as a specific kind of language, which is dealt with in the second section of Volume One. “Language” was of course the buzzword or key concept when structuralism was introduced to film studies; or rather academic film studies was born simultaneously with structuralism in the ’60s. In this second section, film language is traced to its origins in Soviet theories of the ’20s where the theories of montage exactly treated film as a kind of language. Oddly enough, though, Bazin’s influential essay “The evolution of the language of cinema” is also included in this section. This is odd given Bazin’s essay uses language as a metaphor rather than understanding film as language; in actual fact, his essay addresses the essence of film. The first volume’s last section deals with “Technologies”.
In Volume Two, the first section bears the title “Authorship” and focuses on the politics of the auteur. Why the editors have omitted the founding text by Astruc, “The birth of a new avant-garde: la caméra-stylo” from 1948, and Bazin’s later essay on the politics of the auteur from ’57 is, however, difficult to understand.
Also in the subsequent section on “Genre” there is a somewhat peculiar focus and an omission that strikes me as strange. There has been a lot of debate on how to grasp the concept of genre; and a few articles included deal with that problem. But more of the essays in the section deal with film noir, which should not substitute for a genre section proper. It seems that the editors are not that interested in genre theory. This is accentuated by not including one of the most thoroughly worked out film genre theories, namely Rick Altman’s self-reflexive “A semantic/syntactic/pragmatic approach to genre”. It is of course always very difficult to decide what to include or exclude from a film theory reader. But Altman’s earlier essay “A semantic/syntactic approach to genre” has been anthologised a great deal, which is not the case with the later essay, which includes a pragmatic dimension to genre theory.
There are further sections on “Narrative and Narration”, “Audience and Spectatorship” and those which focus on identity, culture, economics and globalisation. And there are two sections devoted to “Realism and the Real” and “Modernism and Postmodernism”. In both sections different essays could have been chosen. In particular, the section on “Modernism” is insufficient. It includes two essays by Peter Wollen and Peter Gidal and a couple of essays by Eisenstein and Vertov. These latter two do not approach the concept of modernism but rather ideas regarding new cinematic principles. This leaves the concept of modernism an anathema in the reader, which, unfortunately, is also the case with film theory in general, and a tendency strengthened by cultural studies approaches making mainstream cinema (entertainment) the key subject of studies.
The sections contained in Film Theory are relevant for most film study programs, and, overall, the film reader will be an answer to many teaching requirements. A very useful chronological table is included, which makes it easy to get a sense of the historical context of the essays as well as being able to see what other essays appeared at the same time. The chronological table forms a part of history of film theory. The table would have benefited from including other significant writing not included in the four volumes and perhaps also some film history.
The choices taken in every anthology of film theory are always disputable according to different preferences and idiosyncratic judgments of taste. The choices made in Film Theory seem overall balanced despite my reservations. Film Theory is, however, not a film reader above other readers, and the book’s endurance time is not secured by the sheer number of essays and book fragments included.
Film Theory. Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, edited by Philip Simpson, Andrew Utterson and K.J. Shepherdson, Routledge, London, 2004.