READING ABOUT FILM: CRITICAL THEORIES AND METHODS
Explain the concept of cinematic specificity. Introduce the method of formal analysis.
Describe the interdisciplinary nature of film and media studies.
Outline the major positions in classical film theory, from Soviet montage theory to realism.
Demonstrate knowledge about the key schools of thought within contemporary film theory, including
semiotics and structuralism, psychoanalysis and apparatus theory; feminist, queer, and critical race theory;
cultural studies; philosophical approaches; and postmodernism.
Chapter 11 explores major methods, concepts, and thinkers in film theory from the first decades of the medium
to the digital age. The first chapter in Part 4 begins with an overview of the two concepts at the heart of film theory:
the interdisciplinary nature of film and film studies and cinema’s medium specificity. It then considers film theory in
historical context, beginning with early film theory and the major concerns of classical film theory from Soviet
montage to formalism and realism. Next, the chapter looks at postwar film culture, including auteur theory and
genre theory, as well as the role film journals played in developing these ideas. The chapter ends with contemporary
film theory, engaging students in theoretical approaches rooted in structuralism and semiotics, Marxist ideological
critique, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, apparatus theory, spectatorship, feminist film theory and queer theory,
reception theory and star studies, race and representation, cognitive theory, philosophy, and postmodernism.
This chapter aims to demystify the field of film theory, although students may certainly have to st ruggle with theory
and do some work to understand film on a more abstract plane. In reading and picking apart theorists’ work, it is important
to remember that referring to “theory” is a useful, shorthand way to refer to a body of knowledge and a set of qu estions. It
is important to emphasize to students that we study film theory to gain historical perspective, to acquire tools for decoding
our experiences of particular films, and, above all, to comprehend the hold that movies have on our imaginations, desi res,
and experiences. While this chapter serves as an overview of the major critical questions in film theory, encourage your
students to seek out and read the work of theorists mentioned in this
chapter and to engage with the Viewing Cues available on LaunchPad for The Film Experience.
TEACHING THE OPENING VIGNETTE
Using the shot of Sherlock, Jr. (1925) in which Keaton’s slumbering projectionist enters the film on the screen
to launch a lesson on film theory can open up several fruitful lines of discussion. He’s a detective, so is it a mystery?
An action film? A psychoanalytic examination of cinematic illusion, identification, and spectatorship? Students can
debate aspects of spectatorship theory as they try to determine whose gaze the viewer is meant to identify with:
Keaton the passive projectionist or Buster the active protagonist. What is the effect of having the divided self of the
viewer acted out on screen? Consider assigning groups of students to take different theoretical approaches —identity
politics, apparatus theory, Marxism—and debate the advantages and liabilities of each film theory for analyzing
Keaton’s film. Or compare Keaton’s screen crossover with similar scenes in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and
TEACHING THE CHAPTER
To present an overview of the history and debates of film theory, situate some important concepts and methods in
relation to two general issues of theoretical inquiry:
recognizes that cinema draws from other arts, and that the study of film borrows
from other disciplines such as philosophy, literature, and history.
, which addresses the distinct characteristics of the medium or of the inner workings of
a specific film.
Emphasize to students that film studies, like any academic discipline, tends to advance by active questioning
and dissent. Pluralism and skepticism add a welcome perspective on ideas that might otherwise become rote and
ossified, simply “applied” to new cases. Film scholars continue to draw on the legacies of previous inquiries to
identify the salient questions our contemporary audiovisual experience raises and to develop tools with which to
address those questions.
When teaching this chapter, consider assigning supplementary readings that demonstrate different or evolving
theoretical approaches to the film you screen. If the class reads both Laura Mulvey and Tania Modleski on Rear