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Film Studies

This guide is an introduction to the resources for Film Studies at Dartmouth. If you are interested in Television, see the separate research guide for Television.

A short definition for film theory

A discourse that seeks to establish general principles concerning film as a distinct art form or to set out general concepts underlying all films and cinema: This might include the moving image screen or screens, what is exhibited on these screens, and the nature of the viewer’s encounter with the cinema screen and its contents. Theory provides conceptual and methodological tools for thinking about, understanding, and explaining the objects with which a body of knowledge concerns itself—in the present instance film, films, and cinema—and ideally also takes on board any shifts or changes in disciplinary objects. At its most illuminating, theory measures its generalizations against its objects; and at its most grounded, theory derives its generalizations from its objects. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably and the two practices do overlap, film theory may be held in distinction from film criticism, in that the former is concerned mainly with general ideas relating to films and cinema as opposed to commentary on particular films or filmmakers.

The origins of film theory can be traced to attempts, in the early years of cinema, to identify the unique attributes and aesthetics of this entirely new art form (see medium specificity). Important questions addressed in classical film theory include: What is the distinctive nature of cinema? What is the aesthetic value of cinema? What is the social or educational role of cinema? How might cinema fulfil its potential as a medium? The first major film-theoretical work, published in 1916, was by a psychologist: in The Photoplay: A Psychological Study Hugo Münsterberg observed that films, uniquely, are free of the strictures of time, space, and causality that govern people’s daily lives. Rudolf Arnheim, also a psychologist, wrote a number of books and articles on film, the most influential being Film as Art (published in German in 1932, with an English edition in 1957). Arnheim argued that cinema does not merely imitate reality but manipulates and refashions reality through its own expressive processes: this, suggested Arnheim, is what confers on cinema the status of an art form. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet filmmakers Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein classified and theorized editing and montage and the artistic possibilities opened up by these uniquely cinematic techniques (see Soviet avant garde). The Hungarian-German writer Béla Balázs also published his principal works on film in the 1920s and 1930s (with English translations of some of them appearing in the 1950s): these include pioneering thinking on montage, as well as on the closeup and the shot. In The Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960), Siegfried Kracauer struck out in another direction, exploring the relationship between film and the real and the nature of realism in film. Of all the classical film theorists, however, André Bazin has arguably exerted the most profound influence on contemporary film theory. Between 1944 and 1958 Bazin wrote a series of essays on cinema, and in 1951 co-founded the film studies journal Cahiers du cinéma. In the two-volume collection of his writings first published in English under the title What is Cinema? Bazin set out an ontology of cinema, phenomenological rather than realist: he saw cinema’s fundamental nature—indeed its destiny—as resting in its capacity to inscribe the trace of the world and to reveal the world in its full complexity and ambiguity. Film studies has recently seen a renewal of interest in classical film theory; and with the publication of new editions and translations of early writings, film theory has itself become an object of scholarly inquiry.  ...

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2020). Film theory. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 9 Mar. 2023

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