Sean Cubitt. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a swift decline in the popularity and significance of cinemagoing in the West, associated with suburbanization and the rise of competitor media like rock and roll and television. From the 1990s, cinema release was repositioned as a cornerstone of multimedia-themed product lines, including alternative forms of distribution and exhibition (in-flight entertainment, video, broadcast, DVD, and Webstreaming) and spin-offs such as sound-track albums, novelizations, comic books, franchised toys, board and computer games, and fast-food branding. Moribund profit centers like celebrity gossip magazines were revivified, and new ones like product placement inaugurated. Integration of print, TV, theme parks, and Internet companies into massive corporations allowed for an increasing cross-marketing of products in cycles of which film was only one instance. In this transition from mass spectacle to integrated media product, it might have been difficult to retain respect for cinema as “the seventh art.” Nonetheless, during this period and into the early twenty-first century, there has been vigorous interest in the medium of film.
The Language of Cinema
As a broad generalization, the development of cinema studies since 1970 has been shaped by a debate between the search for a medium-specific “language” of cinema and inquiries into the ways cinema reflects, reproduces, or otherwise expresses the cultures it derives from or seeks to change. Initial work of the later 1960s emphasized the linguistic structures that appeared to govern cinema. In the later 1970s, two backlashes came in the form first of a film-specific criticism antipathetic to the idea that “bourgeois” forms like the novel and the feature film shared similar structures, and second, of a move away from “theory” toward more traditional forms of humanistic and sociological scholarship. The 1980s witnessed a powerful burst of interest in the cultural dimensions of cinema as an expression of macro-and microcultures—African-American, queer, and third cinema theories privileging the role of cinema as communicator of distinct and differentiated cultural values. In the 1990s, additional emphases were placed on ostensibly marginalized techniques like sound and animation, while the struggle over theory was renewed in the arrival of new theoretical paradigms, notably from phenomenology and the philosophy of desire.
Earlier criticism (commonly referred to as “classical film theory”) often celebrated cinema’s capacity for realism (see Andrew, 1976). After 1968 the French journal Cahiers du cinéma, in common with much of French culture, was rapidly and radically politicized and began to critique the illusion of reality in cinema. In the person of Christian Metz, the new criticism articulated an influential mix of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and semiotics, the “science of signs.” In the 1970s, critics associated with the U.K. journal Screen began to translate much of this work, and to develop an indigenous theoretical practice, today often referred to as Screen theory. The addition of a powerful strand of feminist criticism was the most significant new development, especially as presented in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and in the work of Stephen Heath, while Paul Willemen added political commitment and polemic. Rejecting the realist proposals of André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, the Screen critics proposed that cinema acted as an ideological apparatus, a term borrowed in part from the French Communist Party’s leading philosopher of the day, Louis Althusser. Rather than transmitting ideological messages, as earlier political critics had assumed, cinema’s technical apparatus of camera and projector lenses and screens recreated a model in which the audience member was constructed as the subject of ideology. Interpellated (or “hailed”) by the apparatus and positioned by it, the cinematic subject became a willing participant in the construction of illusion. (It is interesting to note that the two leading political theorists of working-class collusion in their own oppression, Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, were both translated by editors of Screen.)
In Mulvey’s version, this process recapitulated the mirror phase of early childhood development proposed by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. For Lacan, the child’s first recognition of itself in the mirror was both a traumatic discovery of separation from the maternal body and the first identification with an ideal version of itself—more distinct, more capable than it feels itself to be. This dialectic between the loss and idealization of the self Mulvey holds to be the origin of identification with human figures on screen, a fundamental identification that is then articulated with the differing representations of men and women (the one typically looking, the other typically being looked at) to produce the effect of gendered subjectivity in the cinema apparatus. Screen critics prized especially the works of the avant-garde, deploying the semiotic theory of signs to advance the theory that avant-garde cinema freed signifiers (the materials of light and shade for example) from their bondage to the signified (to the illusory representation of an always already ideological reality). At the same time, they sought out more popular films that exemplified the contradictory and dialectical tendencies within the dominant ideology, such as the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk with their clash of wealthy lifestyles and emotional catastrophe. Technical work in film semiotics continues with the work of Warren Buckland, and Screen theory has retained its position since the 1970s, especially among feminist critics like Kaja Silverman, but it has never been uncontroversial.
The Specificity of Cinema
The most influential critic of the Screen agenda has been David Bordwell. Accusing the Screen critics of blindness to the specificity of film, Bordwell and his co-author Kristin Thompson developed a “neoformalist” analysis. Combining inspiration from Russian formalism with cognitive psychology, they proposed a rigorous film scholarship grounded in archive work and extensive as well as intensive film viewing. They also argued for what appeared to be a more commonsense approach to audience activity. Using cognitive theories, Bordwell argued that audiences were actively engaged in constructing meaning, guessing what will happen next, forming hypotheses and mental maps, and piecing together the action of the plot from the fragments of edited film narration. Criticized for their normative and apolitical account of the cinema experience, and despite the sometimes strident protestations of their later work, Thompson and Bordwell have been influential in establishing close analysis of filmic technique and high levels of historical scholarship as necessary prerequisites of film study.
New historicism (rather confusingly referred to as “revisionist” in some accounts) has been especially effective in the renewal of film studies, focusing attention on the specificity of film’s evolution as technology, industry, and culture. In the 1980s and 1990s scholars such as Barry Salt, Tom Gunning, Roberta Pearson, Janet Staiger, Miriam Hansen, Kevin Brownlow, and Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery on U.S. cinema; Michael Chanan, Pam Cook, Andrew Higson, John Hill, and Robert Murphy on the United Kingdom; Thomas Elsaesser on Germany; Richard Abel on France; Yuri Tsivian on Russia; and others have radically rewritten the glib accounts of journalistic film history. The new cinema historicism diminishes the importance of individuals and denies the apparent linear progress from silent to sound, monochrome to color. Instead the new historicists emphasize the importance of institutional forces and economic trends in the innovation and dissemination of technologies and techniques, seeking reasons why certain promising technologies are delayed or abandoned, assessing the reactions of audiences and exhibitors to emerging technologies, focusing on the institutional histories of studios and government agencies, and tracing links between cinema and cognate industries. In the process some key beliefs of even recent film criticism have been undermined, as when Rick Altman argued, on evidence from D. W. Griffith’s involvement with the stage, that melodrama was a formative component of classical Hollywood, thus critiquing both the belief that U.S. cinema was realist in essence and that melodrama was an effective antidote to its dominance.
Since the 1990s film historians have turned to oral history and documentary accounts of audience activity in the cinema. A major element of television studies throughout its life, audience studies have had a weaker position in film studies, perhaps because of the relative difficulty and social impropriety of staring at audience members in the dark. Early accounts from the 1930s by participants in the British Mass Observation project, even Hugo Münsterberg’s pioneering psychological study of 1916, failed to establish a strong tradition of reception studies. Distinguishing themselves from market research by their interest in emotional, inventive, ironic, and resistant attitudes, and in the extremities of fan culture, such studies of necessity emphasize the depth rather than the breadth of their findings, giving more attention to highly specific audiences than to the standard aggregate measure of film audience, box-office returns. At least one international project attempted to do both deep and broad research, investigating cross-cultural meanings of fantasy though an Internet-based survey of responses to the twenty-first century blockbuster The Lord of the Rings. Both historical and contemporary reception studies focus on the cultural construction of audiences, the determinations of race, class, gender, and other formations on the ways audiences read and react to movies, disputing both the Screen concept of an apparatus that determines response, and Bordwell’s idea of the audience’s work of textual reconstruction.
Cultures and Economies of Cinema
Cross-cultural dimensions of cinema, initially discussed mostly in terms of the textual properties and ideological concerns of national cinemas, are now the object of much work in reception, political economy, and postcolonial research. Summed up in Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s 1994 title “Unthinking Eurocentrism,” cross-cultural studies result in several kinds of work that dispute the normative tendency of neoformalism and the blindness to cultural difference of the apparatus theory espoused by the Screen critics. Some scholars have been at pains to emphasize the creativity or political significance of previously marginalized cinemas and directors. Others apply rigorous theoretical critique to such art house favorites as the Chinese fifth-generation filmmakers. Still more radical was the movement in filmmaking and film theory known as third cinema, after an influential 1976 essay by Cuban cinéastes Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino, which argued that the first and second cinemas—mass entertainment and bourgeois psychodramas, respectively—had failed the revolution and that a third cinema based in popular forms and addressing popular struggles was the best way forward. This spirit was echoed across the world, in the films of Haile Gerima in Ethiopa, Sembene Ousmane in Senegal, and Anand Patwardhan in India, and in the critical writings of Teshome Gabriel, Trinh Minh-Ha, and others (for example, Jim Pines, Paul Willemen, Coco Fusco, and John Downing). Since a central tenet of third cinema was that cultural specificity was integral to a cinema that was genuinely popular in the sense of belonging to and acting with the people, the term acted as an umbrella for a wide range of practice. Another early Cuban proponent, Julio Garcia Espinoza, called for an imperfect cinema; in Brazil, Glauber Rocha called for a cinema of hunger. For some proponents, the third cinema demanded a break with the technical wealth as well as the techniques of the first and second cinemas, while for others the resultant formally challenging films were merely reversions to the self-important antics of art house cinema and of no interest or use to the oppressed. This debate became especially vibrant in North America and in Europe where a new and intensely articulate generation of filmmakers and critics from African-and Hispanic-American, black British, and British-Asian backgrounds began to give voice to their artistic and political demands.
A second effect of this global consciousness has been a reappraisal of the old Marxist political economy espoused by Screen theory, updating the analysis to take account of globalization on the film business, its working practices, and its use of international free trade agreements to maintain and develop monopolistic corporate cartels. Janet Wasko, Andrew Higson, and Richard Maltby, among others, have addressed the impact of information technologies and the increasing integration of entertainment industries in guiding the development of new industrial practices as well as strategic policy on global media flows, intellectual property rights legislation, and the potential impacts of North American dominance of film distribution on the cultural lives of smaller nations. Increasingly, studies of auteurs are articulating the creative process with the industrial, and the best of them are also informed by theoretical paradigms that explain the dependence of creation in film on industrial and technical processes over which an individual director has little control.
Such studies of the development of film industries merge with analytical concerns in the study of cinema’s relationships with modernity. A number of scholars, among them Anne Friedberg and Friedrich Kittler, trace cinema’s roots back to related developments of the late nineteenth century such as department stores, electric streetlights, railways, and advertising, and argue forward to the digital era that cinema has always integrated with a range of other media into a broad process of modernization. In this context the study of entertainment has developed rapidly, with increasing awareness of the cross-media appeal of stardom, movie soundtracks, and animation. Film sound has benefited especially from the work of Michel Chion, Rick Altman, and Philip Brophy, who listen not only to music but to sound effects, to the construction of off-screen space, thematic constructions of gender and race, and the shifting hierarchy of recorded sound and recorded image. Like stardom, which is governed by a dialectical relation between on-screen presence and real absence, the study of film sound reveals complex interactions of space and time, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes undermining the coherence of a film’s imaginary world. The sense of modernity as a complex process of homogenization and fragmentation is also common to studies of popular genres like horror, action movies, and science fiction, genres that frequently evoke both utopian and dystopian alternatives to dominant conceptions of embodiment, agency, and the necessity of current social arrangements.
Technologies of Cinema
The arrival of digital technologies in cinema has provoked debate over the degree of continuity between this process of modernization in the predigital cinema and the potential postmodernity of digital film. Critics like Lev Manovich believe in the continuity of the two, and in cinema’s powerful determination of such key factors of digital media as the use of screens. Others derive from digital media new paradigms for reviewing the historical data, rediscovering such typically digital techniques as motion capture in the pre-cinematic chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey, or digital compositing of layers in the trompe-l’oeil sets of Georges Méliès’ early fantasy films. Scholars of special effects, such as Vivian Sobchack, Scott Bukatman, and Timothy Murray, have begun to analyze the diminishing dependence of cinema on what can be enacted in front of a camera, tracing, in Michelle Pearson’s work, a transition from spectacle for its own sake to a more embedded expectation of near-photographic illusion seamlessly wedded to cinematographic imagery, as in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), a case argued by Angela Ndalianis, for whom spectacle is, if anything, a more significant element of contemporary entertainment than at any time since the Baroque.
At certain points, this discussion of the transition from photo-mechanical to electronic cinema replicates the long-running debate between culturalist and medium-specific accounts of film. If such vast currents as modernity or globalization run through the transition to digital, then there will be continuity. But if the deep-seated alterations to cinematic technique take precedence, then the experience of cinema, and to some extent of cultural activity at large, can be expected to change equally. This hypothesis has been tested especially by a generation of phenomenological critics like Vivian Sobchack and Laura U. Marks, for whom the object of inquiry is the physical embodiment of the spectator and the ways this relates to the richness of the felt experience of cinema. This type of work, instigated by Dudley Andrew, is extended in Marks’s work into a consideration of the emulation of touching in certain modes of cinema practice. The theme of embodiment also runs through the rapid rise of interest in Gilles Deleuze’s two-volume analysis of cinema, remarkable for its espousal of a philosophy of desire grounded in Henri Bergson (rather than the ubiquitous Heideggerianism, in themes of loss, lack, and the fading of reality, of poststructural criticism) and for its meticulous readings of individual films. Deleuze envisages a shift from the “movement-image” pre-1945 toward a “direct time image” in postwar cinema. Informed by the semiotic pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce, Deleuze deploys an idiosyncratic vocabulary to argue for cinema’s gradual liberation from a mechanistic dependence on the image of the human body toward a more metaphysical engagement with the pure dimensionality of time and its flows.
Challenges of Cinema
The tumultuous history of cinema studies since the mid twentieth century has concentrated several core debates in the history of ideas. Should the study of film deploy traditional hermeneutic and humanistic techniques, or should it abandon them for a more rigorous analysis grounded in linguistics? Or was such grappling with continental theory an alibi for a failure to address the realities of political economy, actual rather than textually determined readers, and the operations of oppression and exploitation disguised or denied by filmic representations? Or was cinema in any case an entirely symbolic activity, a simulacrum with no relation to any reality, physical or social? In institutions where cinema has been taught, there have been the additional claims that the analysis of film is mere carping, all too often negative and destructive, and of no use to those who wish to move into filmmaking as a career. Such claims have led to the rise of major literatures in script analysis and structure, in the technical aspects of filmmaking, and in elements of creative industries literature devoted to film financing, marketing, and policy, many of which have been subsumed into the canon of cinema studies teaching.
Looking to cinema’s specific contributions to the history of ideas, among the most significant has been its meticulous attention to the specificities of cultural difference and the contemporaneous splitting and differentiation of subjectivity, in the admission of transcultural cinemas and in queer cinema, for example. At its best, the affirmation of camp, for example in Richard Dyer’s work on queer cinema, is valuable not only for film studies but for better understanding of the rich emotional life of the culture.
Indeed, if anything distinguishes the cinema theory among media studies, it is its readiness to engage with the emotional life. Alongside the cool analysis of finance, technique, and box office, it is difficult to sidestep the intense emotive power of film, from haunting abstraction to political passion, and in physiological reactions of tears, shrieks, and laughter. While some advances have been made in the study of the erotic (by Linda Williams) and the horrific (by Barbara Creed), both comedy and tearjerkers have resisted analysis and remain in many ways the most difficult emotional technologies to account for, partially because they are among the least esteemed in intellectual circles.
There is too the contradictory fascination of cinema captured in the phrase the dream factory. Flagship of the consciousness industries, cinema figures as both escape and utopia, flight from oppression or flight toward its alternative. It is both a device for replenishing the exhausted with meaningless entertainment and a technology for demanding the impossible. Its illusions may be seen as lies and ideology, or as evocations of emotional and spiritual satisfactions denied and destroyed by consumerism. Its darkness, serried ranks of seating, and clockwork rhythms of projection can appear as both a continuation of factory discipline into leisure time and as an expression of solidarity, community, and sociability.
Meanwhile, despite (and, in some resistant political sense, perhaps because of) the dominance of Hollywood on world screens, cinema has proved remarkably successful at translating cultural difference across the world: one thinks of the mix of kung fu, spaghetti western, and U.S. gangster in Perry Henzell’s Jamaican The Harder They Come (1973). The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John Woo, Akira Kurosawa, and Satyajit Ray have reached far more people than equivalent literary or even musical creations. Nonetheless, there remain huge difficulties in securing distribution for non-Hollywood films, a challenge that film studies shows signs of addressing in the early twenty-first century, along with the issues of cross-cultural transmission, emotion, and identification, and the utopian as well as the industrial capabilities of the medium.