Intro to Com Lec W12 (2) Film Theory & World Cinema

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Intro to Com Lec W12 (2) Film Theory & World Cinema

Deborah Jenkin

There's an interesting article called "New Concepts of Cinema" in THE

OXFORD HISTORY OF WORLD CINEMA (see Bibliography). In it, Geoffrey

Nowell-Smith argues that in 1960s and '70s, there was a revolution in ways

of thinking and writing about film. Until this time, there was a fairly

uniform approach to film in theoretical terms: film was regarded in

aesthetic (art) terms, and theory concerned itself with the status of the

photographic image and the possibilities filmmaking offered for artistic


Most film theory and criticism took no notice of mainstream, commercial

filmmaking at all, which meant that, although Hollywood films dominated

movie theatres around the world, they received almost no critical or

theoretical attention. But in the 1950s European (esp. French) theorists

began to look seriously at Hollywood cinema, and so to break the monopoly

of European art cinema in the theory arena. Two main approaches developed:

(i) Auteur analysis ("auteur" is a French word meaning "author") - this

involved a celebration of filmmakers working in the Hollywood studio system

(and in other mainstream cinemas) who, by virtue of creative genius and

force of personality, managed to transcend the limitations of that system

and genre filmmaking. Filmmakers who tended to be discussed were ones like

John Ford, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk. Example of auteur

analysis can be found in Sarris (1969).
(ii) Genre analysis - another method of classification and evaluation.

This approach acknowledged that the studio system and genre filmmaking

offered interesting possibilities as well as limitations. It was concerned

with identifying and analysing the characteristics of particular genres,

and to identify genres which were progressive (eg. films noirs like THE BIG

SLEEP) as opposed to conservative (eg. Westerns). It often went along with

auteur analysis, as critics looked for directors working within, but also

transcending, genres.

But the "revolution" didn't really kick off in a big way until the

importation of structuralist and semiotic theories into film theory in the

late '60s and early '70s. This importation set off a kind of massive

fragmentation in film theory, with a proliferation of theoretical

approaches emerging from the 1970s onwards - ideological criticism,

psychoanalysis, feminism, queer theory, postcolonialism. At the same time,

film studies beacme a common area of tertiary study in the 1970s. Then,

from the 1980s, postmodernist theory emerged.

I can only give the most cursory description of some of the main

theoretical approaches (which are often contradictory and fragmented

themselves) - but this will give some idea of the diversity of film theory.
These theories began in linguistics (with Ferdinand de Saussure) and in

anthropology (with Claude Levi-Strauss) - their basic aim was to locate and

analyse the ways in which meanings were produced, and to identify

structures of meaning underlying language and kinship relations,

respectively. It was quickly recognised that these ideas could be used to

analyse almost any kind of meaning system - Roland Barthes' book

MYTHOLOGIES has analyses of advertising images, art exhibitions, wrestling,

war photos, cooking, and so on.

Applied to film, semiotic and structuralist theories tried to analyse film

as a language - Christian Metz (1974) produced an incredibly detailed

analysis of the way film works in terms of its units of meaning and the

ways they were strung together. This kind of analysis is a bit technical

and dull, and doesn't produce especially useful results on its own. Still,

these approaches are vital because they form the basis of pretty much every

film theory approach to come later - we'll look at some of them.
These are effectively Marxist-derived approaches which look at social

relations and texts in terms of class structures, and usually take a

politically critical approach. Early versions of ideological film theory

analysed the Hollywood film industry as a capitalist system, and looked at

the films it produced as supporting and sustaining bourgeios ideals. Later

approaches take up the idea of ideology in a broader way. For example,

Bill Nichols (1981) uses semiotics to show how all kinds of film texts (not

just Hollywood ones) produce different versions of social reality, and

promote particulars sets of values, beliefs and ideas about the world (ie.


This is probably the most complex set of theories to be used in film

studies, but it dominated film theory through the 1970s and '80s and is

only just beginning to lose its hold in favour of postmodernist theory. If

you're going to study film theory in any detail you need to something know

about psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalytic film theory is based on the ideas of Jacques Lacan, French

academic and psychoanalyst (I've put one of his books on the Bibliographyt,

but I don't recommend it for light reading...). Put as simply as possible,

psychoanalytic theory tries to account for the way in which the individual

comes into existence as a sexual and psychological being. Applied to film,

it deals with relationships between the spectator and the text - how the

text positions the spectator, how film produces and satisfies desire (ie.

by reproducing some of the earliest experiences of the developing child; by

setting up structures of looking ["gaze"]). It's this interest in the

spectator which really sets this approach apart - earlier theories had

focused mostly on the director and/or the text.
Maybe this should now be called "Gender Theory", because there's been a

recent burst of interest in looking at masculine identities (eg. Krutnik,

1993) - but interest in gender as a theoretical and analytical category

began with analysis of female identity.

Early feminist theory, like Molly Haskell's book FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE

tended to look at the roles available for women in film industries and in

film texts. The general consensus was that these roles were pretty dismal:

there were very few women producing films, and the female characters

represented a depressing array of stereotypes - little girl, mother, wife,

whore. This approach was influenced by ideological theory, replacing class

structures with gender structures.
Later feminist film theory was much more strongly influenced by

psychoanalytic theory - and this pretty much began with Laura Mulvey's 1978

article "Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema". Mulvey argued that

mainstream films had gaze structures which privileged the male over the

female - so that the audience was always identifying with a male gaze,

usually attached to an active hero who drove the plot. Women, on the other

hand, were constructed as objects to be looked at - the female body was

always emphasised and put on display, and this was reinforced by the

passive role of the woman in the plot (eg. Hitchcock's PSYCHO). Such

psychoanalytic feminist approaches find some intriguing outlets - like

Barbara Creed's analysis of horror films in terms of male fear of female

sexuality (mentioned in Week 1's lecture).

This approach grew out of both psychoanalytic and feminist film theory -

esp. their interest in sexuality and the body. Effectively, queer theory

aims to challenge accepted notions of gender and sexuality, and to analyse

them as shifting, fragmentary categories rather than fixed identities.

In film theory it began, to some extent, as a critique of representations

of homosexuals in mainstream cinema - like feminist film theory with women

(see Russo, 1985). But later, there was a more complex, psychoanalytic

response - a rereading of mainstream texts in subversive, sometimes

slightly perverse ways, finding evidence of homoeroticism in images and

narratives. For example, Carol Griggers reads THELMA AND LOUISE as a

lesbian text - quite self-conscious that hers is an aberrant reading (ie.

one which goes against the obvious meaning of the text). Also see Dyer

(1993) for some queer film theory and analysis.
Postcolonialist theory came into its own in the 1970s, after the European

empires set up in the 18th and 19th centuries had been more or less

dismantled. This body of theory deals with the effects of colonial

activity on colonised peoples, and with the possibilities which exist for

them to express themselves, attain cultural independence, and assert their

identities and cultural histories.

Studies of film from a postcolonial perspective tend to take one of two

approaches (though Shohat & Stam, 1994, deal with both):

(i) Analysing the relationships between film industries around the

world, ususally in terms of the dominant position of the Hollywood

industry, and its effects on other industries. This approach concerns

itself with the possibilities for national (and sub-national) cinemas to

develop and survive - the debates about the Australian fim industry often

fall into this category. The idea of neo-colonialism comes into play in

this context - ie. colonisation not in physical terms, but in cultural and

economic terms.

(ii) Analysing representations of colonised "Others" and marginalised

racial groups, and discussing possibilities for them to produce images of

themselves. We saw this kind of idea in relation to multicultural and

Aboriginal identities in Australian films. See also Guerrero (1993) for an

analysis of representations of African-Americans in US films.
There's no real way of making this idea coherent or straightforward - the

term refers to so many ideas and phenomena that any account is going to be

selective. But, to make it possible to deal with now, I'll talk about

postmodernism in terms of three issues:

(i) A description of contemporary society, economics and politics. From

being a world economy and society based on industrialisation and

manufacture, we've moved to one of information exchange, backed by advances

in communication technology. The new world order is characterised by

globalisation (dealt with in International Comm), transnational

corporations, breakdown of national boundaries, fragmentation of identity.

(ii) A description of artistic practice and cultural production -

postmodernist texts have characteristics such as fragmentation of

narrative structure, pastiche ("borrowing" from other texts, genres),

parody (sending up other texts/genres), a breakdown of distinctions between

"high" and "low" culture.
(3) A set of theoretical propositions and approaches which can be used to

analyse anything. The main approach is a deconstructive one - ie. one

which looks into texts (or whatever is being analysed) to locate their

contradictions, fragmentations, etc.

Now I want to look at some of the connections between a couple of these

theoretical perspectives and certain changes in film production over the

last thirty years. I'll take two of the theories - postcolonialism and

postmodernism (though would be equally possible to make similar arguments

in relation to, say, feminism or queer theory). What I want to suggest is

that during the 1960s and '70s, a strong postcolonialist sensibility

developed in world filmmaking, with countries respondingf both to

relatively recent political independence (with all its difficulties), and

to the neo-colonialist Hollywood domination of world film markets. And

then, in the 1980s there were certain changes which can be linked to

postmodernist theory.


(i) National cinemas:
Hollywood films were already dominating cinema screens around the world by

the 1920s, because of a number of factors: the US' vibrant economy (until

the Depression of the '30s); its non-involvement in World War I until the

last minute (European industries couldn't be kept up during the war); its

modernised industrial system. This domination has never really

disappeared, and still operates - the table attached shows the massive

share Hollywood has of European film markets in 1995, and Hollywood films

also dominate African, South American, Australian/NZ, Middle East and many

Asian markets. In fact, Nowell-Smith argues that the popularity of

Hollywood films, together with increasingly relaxed regulations on the

import of US films, is going to increase and will have a drastic effect on

other countries' cinemas.

This argument is essentially a postcolonialist one, which sees America as a

neo-colonialist power - ie. it "colonises" countries in a cultural way,

exporting its values, ideals, images all over the world via its culture

industries (TV, film, advertising, the Internet). This applies even to

previous coloniser countries, esp. in Western Europe, whose film cultures

are effectively "colonised" by Hollywood. In accordance with postcolonial

theory, awareness of this domination has, since the 1960s, resulted in

quite a wide range of oppositional moves on the part of filmmakers in many

parts of the world.
In the 1960s and '70s, there were efforts by many countries to develop

filmmaking styles which were entirely different to classical Hollywood

filsm and which could effectively define national cinemas. In France,

Germany and Italy, for example, "New Wave"cinemas appeared in the 1960s

which deliberately countered Hollywood - they moved away from action and

spectacle, and from narrative resolution, developing what came to be called

"European art film" - an example is LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. As colonial

empires ended, previously colonised countries also used this strategy of

establishing alternative filmmaking styles and forms to set up national

cinemas. African countries provide an example - esp. Burkina Faso, which

developed an art cinema influenced by France, but using very "African"

subject matter (eg. WEND KUUNI).

There were also highly politicised cinemas, especially in South America

(eg. Argentina, Brazil, Chile) which opposed existing political regimes for

their subordination to the US, and often had a go at the US directly. They

often used anti-Hollywood styles and forms, deliberately avoiding the kinds

of high production values and spectacle associated with Hollywood. They

often used documentary forms, polemical voiceovers, and radical montages,

and they borrowed indigenous cultural notions (eg. cannibalism) as a way of

asserting their specific identities - for example, THE HOUR OF THE

The kind of anti-commercialism which defines all of these developments also

influenced filmmaking in countries with big commercial cinemas - in India,

an art film industry emerged in the 1960s, and in Hong Kong, the New Wave

came in the '80s, as did the Chinese Fifth Generation. These films had the

same cultural prestige as the European and other films, and often did good

things for their countries' international reputations by winning awards and

critical accolades.
(ii) Racial marginality - minority cinemas:
Along with the development of politicised and oppositional national

cinemas, the '70s saw an increasing political and cultural activism of

marginalised groups in many Western countries. In America, for example,

there were civil rights marches by African-Americans; in Australia, growing

Aboriginal activism and the rise of multiculturalism; in Britain and other

European countries (eg. France, Germany), race riots and increasing

Not only did these marginalised groups seek to increase their political

power and social/ economic status, but they also began to be more assertive

in the cultural arena. They worked at getting access to equipment and

finance, and at developing modes of representation which would give them

some kind of space in which to express their identities. In film, this has

resulted in an increasingly diverse array of images of racial groups - we

saw this in relation to Australia and the representation of Australian

migrant identities. A few other examples (there are many more) include:

** African-American filmmaking - African-Americans began making films in

earnest in the 1970s, largely with "blaxploitation" films like SHAFT,

SUPERFLY, SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAAADASSS SONG - violent, sexually explicit,

misogynistic films which aimed at asserting a powerful black masculine

identity. In fact, this masculinist approach has persisted in

African-American filmmaking in the 1980s and '90s - for example in the

films of Spike Lee or John Singleton. But the positive thing is that these

films have attracted quite substantial mainstream audiences and are

increasingly able to get funding. It's likely that film representations

will become more diverse as more African-Americans get access to the

** Other activity by ethnic minorities in America. The Hollywood film

industry has always been quite ethnically diverse in its make-up, but until

the 1970s its film texts tended to represent the Anglo-American experience

at the expense of other ethnic identities. In the 1970s, Italian-American

directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola began making films

about the Italian-American experience, and often the mafia - THE GODFATHER

series, MEAN STREETS, GOODFELLAS. There had been gangster films before,

but these new ones had a kind of cultural realism which reflected the

filmmakers' assertion of their own ethnic identities. There's also, very

recently, been some activity by Asian-American filmmakers (THE JOY LUCK

CLUB, THE WEDDING BANQUET, DIM SUM). On the negative side, Native

Americans have had virtually no opportunities to make films yet.

** Pakistani and Indian filmmaking in the UK - There are large Pakistani

and Indian migrant communities in Britain, esp. in London, and since the

1980s there have been a number of films focusing on that migrant

experience. For example, the films written by Hanif Kureishi and directed


LAID. There was also BHAJI ON THE BEACH in 1994. These films have tended

to circulate mostly in the arthouse circuit, but they get pretty good

critical responses and win awards at festivals - plenty of cultural

What I'm trying to indicate with both national and marginal cinemas is

that, during the '60s and '70s, a split developed between mainstream,

commercial cinema on the one hand, and alternative, art cinema on the

other. This was linked to a postcolonialist sensibility which associated

certain characteristics (strong narrative drive, spectacle, stock

characters - ie. commercial cinema) with neo-colonialist dominantion, and

others (complex characters, indeterminate plotting, stylistic innovation -

ie. art cinema) with opposition and resistance.

Postmodernism seems to be a phenomenon which has had a definite impact on

filmmaking around the world. I want to concentrate on two issues here -

globalisation; and postmodernist film texts.
(i) Globalisation & breakdown of national boundaries:
This is a significant theme in postmodernist theory, and we can see

evidence of the process in the world world since the 1980s. This tends to

work against the kind of thing I was talking about in relation to

postcolonialism (ie. national cinemas), so we can see a further shift in

general trends in world filmmaking.
For one thing, co-production is becoming more and more common, with funding

coming from all over the place, and producers less dependent on their

governments or private investors at home. On Monday I mentioned some

Australian moves in this direction, and there are many countries to whom

the same thing applies. For example, Chinese filmmkaer Zhang Yimou got

French funding for his film RAISE THE RED LANTERN; Indian filmmaker Mira

Nair's recent KAMA SUTRA was European-funded; Juzo Itami's A TAXING WOMAN

RETURNS had Italian as well as Japanese funding; Stanley Tong's RUMBLE IN

THE BRONX was financed by Canada and HK; Ang Lee's THE WEDDING BANQUET had

US and Taiwanese funding, Idrissa Ouedrago's TILAI was funded in Burkina

Faso, Switzerland and France.
Along with this phenomenon, we're finding many filmmakers shifting between

countries to make their films - eg. Nair made MISSISSIPPI MASALA in the US,

and Hong Kong filmmaking has crossed over with North American in


repetition of America in these examples could be seen as evidence of the

kind of domination discussed by postcolonialist theory. But, in fact, it

could also be read as indicating a new openness by the American film

industry to other cultural influences. A look at the Academy Awards over

the last couple of years support this view - once the only avenue for

non-American films was the special "Best Foreign Film" category, but now,

Australian, British, or Italian films can get a look-in. They may still be

Western, but the possibilities for greater diversity are there.

The implications of this are clear in postmodernist terms - it's slowly

becoming more difficult to link films straightforwardly to national cinema,

and therefore to national identity (we saw this on Monday with Australian

film). The postcolonialist assertion of national specificity in cinema may

be gradually giving way to a kind of international cinema.
(ii) Postmodernist film texts
We can also see evidence of similar kinds of changes in the types of films

being produced, which we could describe as a gradual move towards a

postmodernist aesthetic sensibility. Several trends can be identified:
** Breakdown in art/commercial boundaries. On the one hand, many

well-known art directors have been producing films which are aimed at the

minstream international market, rather than at the international art

circuit. For example, Zhang Yimou's FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, Lee Tamahori's


Neil Jordan's THE CRYING GAME; many films by Hong Kong's New Wave

directors. The same is true of American art directors, whose films are

becoming increasingly commercially successful - Quentin Tarantino's PULP

FICTION, David Lynch's WILD AT HEART, the Cohen brothers' FARGO. These

filmmakers have tried to reconcile the two approaches, maintaining a

commitment to art cinema techniques, while adopting some of the

characteristics of classical Hollywood filmmaking. PULP FICTION is

exemplary of this trend - it's a film which mixes popular culture (stars,

popular fiction genre) with a kind of plot fragmentation, indeterminate

ending, rambling structure which are more typical of art cinema. There's

also a learnedness in the dialogue which seems kind of at odds with the

popular-culture extreme violence.
Some critics, like Nowell-Smith, see this as a Hollywoodisation of other

cinemas, but it's also possible to see some cross-fertilisation - ie.

mainstream American films strongly influenced by art cinema. Scorsese's

and Coppola's films are examples, as are more recent films like SEVEN, 12

In both cases (non-American filmmakers going commercial, American films

going art), the tendency is to blur the boundaries between art and

commercial film. These boundaries have never really been absolute, but

it's always been possible to talk about the two as separate categories with

reasonable confidence. As this becomes more difficult, the question

becomes how it relates to the issue of national cinema - to some extent the

commercial/art distinction has been more or less the same as the

Hollywood/alternative distinction, and national cinemas used art cinema

techniques precisely to distinguish themselves from Hollywood. If the

present trend continues, how will countries distinguish themselves? This

question is related to the globalisation issue discussed above.
** Generic complexity. One interesting recent habit in American

filmmaking is a rethinking of generic conventions - we've seen a number of

films which play with the whole idea of genre in a very self-conscious

(reflexive) way. Sometimes we've seen obvious parodies of genres, or of

specific films - the spoof film started in the '70s with BLAZING SADDLES,

and became extremely popular (repetitive) in the '80s - eg. the FLYING

HIGH, POLICE ACADEMY, HOT SHOTS or NAKED GUN series. More recently, there

are things like MARS ATTACKS! which play on 1950s sci-fi conventions. In

other cases, the genre play is a bit more subtle. More recently, For

example, the Western got a bit of a revision in the '80s, with, say

UNFORGIVEN, which worried at the idea of the Western hero-killer, or BAD

GIRLS, a women's Western. I think INDEPENDENCE DAY was also a bit

self-conscious and campy - I can't quite believe the flag-waving was

entirely in earnest.

As well, there are many films which really don't fit traditional genre

categories at all. How would you characterise, for example, films like


often called "postmodernist films", but that's not a genre classification

in the traditional sense, and seems to indicate a lack of certainty about

how to talk about these films.

We can also see new generic interests developing in countries other than

America. For example, in the 1980s, Japanese producers made a whole array

of urban comedies, often quite black and frequently concerned with food and


FAMILY, THE FAMILY GAME, SUMO DO SUMO DON'T. As well as making sardonic

comments about contemporary Japanese society, these films were aimed at

international audiences familiar with urban comedy as a genre. And, to

give another example, the Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo makes films in the

gangster genre, a staple of Hong Kong film for some time - but Woo's films

like A BETTER TOMORROW or HARD-BOILED show signs of cross-fertilisation

with American mafia films like GOODFELLAS, CASINO, the GODFATHER series.
** Recycling, pastiche. Another trend over the last half dozen years or

so is to recycle and borrow from old texts - again, this has always been

done to some extent, but it's becoming predominant. Some of the genre

reworking I mentioned is related to this trend - playing with and parodying

older genres and texts is clearly a way of recycling them. But there are a

few other trends we could notice:

- The current obsession with Shakespeare and 19th century English

literature (esp. Jane Austen) - film has always drawn on literary sources,

but there seems to be an enormous number of recent films based on books

having major cultural prestige. And often, there's little attempt to do

anything terribly interesting with them (there are a few exceptions - eg.

Lurhman's ROMEO AND JULIET, CLUELESS, RICHARD III). This kind of nostalgia

is quite typically postmodernist - the films seem to be reproducing the

surface appearances of the Renaissance and 19th century England (the films

are often very visually lush) without any great interest in their social

critiques, etc.

- Remakes of old films and making movies of TV shows or comics -



have always been kind of mutually cannibalistic in this sense, but what

interests me in the current crop is how many come from '50s and '60s

TV/comic sources, rather than the '80s or '90s - more of that postmodernist

nostalgia, connected to retro fads in music and fashion.
- Self-consciously sophisticated (and sometimes extremely tacky)

references to other texts, which aren't quite adaptations or remakes of



Developments in film theory since the 1960s can clearly be linked to trends

in film production. However, I don't want to overstate the influence of

postmodernism; postcolonialist arguments and practices are clearly still

relevant in the 1990s (as the debate about Australian film shows). I've

concentrated on postcolonialism here, but you can pursue similar kinds of

historical change in relation to, say, feminist and queer theories and

their relationships to postmodernism - see the Bibliography for references.

[Submitted by: Glen Lewis (

Tue, 20 May 1997 12:51:42 +1000]

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