Film Theory Term Paper

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Film Theory

The canonical model of the purely cinematic (Eisenstein, Kracauer, Bazin) starts disappearing in contemporary theory. Most film theorists since the 1970s (Baudry, Wollen, Mulvey, Stam/Shohat, or Jameson, etc.) Explain in different ways how the textual (content and form, the film text itself) and institutional have merged together. Choose two theorists for whom the institutional issues are integrally connected to the textual ones, and explain their insights about reading cinema.

Laura Mulvey's piece, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" is divided into three sections. The first section is the introduction, the next section is called "Pleasure in Looking: Fascination with the Human Form." The third section is called "Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look," which is followed by a summary of the entire work. Mulvey makes numerous assertions in her work, but one of her primary intentions of "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" is to call serious, critical attention to the act of looking as part of the cinematic experience. She calls attention to three fundamental types of looking: the looking of the camera at the frame as it records the footage, the looking of the audience upon the screen, and the looking of the characters between and among each other within the frame. Mulvey proceeds to elaborate upon each time of looking and how the look functions as part of the cinematic experience as well as the connection between the types of looking within narrative cinema and the duplication of experienced gender stratifications in reality between men and women.

Mulvey employs various techniques as part of her strategy of film analysis and critique. She uses methods including psychoanalysis, feminist theory, and deconstructionism. She uses these various methods to support her argument that narrative cinema provides various forms of pleasure and non-pleasure to those who look upon it. Mulvey writes that "looking itself is a source of pleasures, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at." (Mulvey, 1989) She focuses upon cinema because of the power of film as medium with regard to a culture's collective unconscious, cultural & gendered ideologies, and other social constructions in which viewers (as subjects) must live. Mulvey states: "As an advanced representation system, the cinema poses questions of the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking." (Mulvey, 1989)

Within the same section as the previous quotation, section 2 -- Pleasure in Looking: Fascination with the Human Form," Mulvey references Jacques Lacan's theory of the mirror-stage as a way to segue into her argument that a similar moment occurs within each audience member while looking at a film. Lacan's theory is that the moment when a child realizes its own whole image in the mirror is a pivotal moment in the constitution of the child's ego; an analogous situation occurs while watching cinema. Mulvey draws a parallel between the movie screen and the mirror, contending that audiences engage in a similar psychological attachment to characters on the screen in a film narrative within themselves. By reading film, she posits that this attachment occurs via the process of looking, which reiterates her supposition about the psychological, social, and ideological affects of the cinematic experience in real life.

For Mulvey, reading cinema is an exceptional opportunity to understand how looking orders relationships both within the film narrative and in experienced reality. By reading film, Mulvey deciphers and theorizes how relationships between men and women are ordered based on who is looking and who is the subject of the look. She reads cinema as a way to understand how cinema functions as part of "an ideology of representation that revolves around the perception of the subject" (Mulvey, 1989) and what the implications are for such an ideology in actual reality as opposed to only the reality of the narrative.

Peter Wollen takes more of a historical approach with regard to the reading of film in "The Semiology of Cinema," an excerpt from his larger work, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Wollen's piece begins with reference to the approaches of other theorists and their ideas on how cinema renders meaning and how audiences render meaning from cinema. He opens with the declaration: "The cinema contains all three modes of the sign: indexical, iconic and symbolic." (Wollen, 1969) Cinema is a dense, semiotic text to be read from a variety of approaches as an attempt to derive as much meaning that is present from the piece of cinema being studied. Wollen's first theorist of
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focus is Andre Bazin and the influence of his ideas upon film criticism. Wollen critiques Bazin's views regarding his views of the cinema, characterizing them as "bi-polar." On one end of the spectrum is film as realism and on the other is film as expressionism. As Bazin adamantly clung to the primary of the object over the image, and nature over artifice, anyone who used cinema as more expressionist, he condemned. Wollen finds this reaction problematic as he considers a greater range of semiotic possibility for cinema with regard to meaning and aesthetics. (Wollen, 1969)

Wollen's ultimate argument regarding film is to view it as a triadic model, where there is, as he states in his opening statement, not a dichotomy of meaning, but a trichotomy of meaning. He advocates for film to be regarded with care and consideration for the creation of unique images, infused with individual style, and directorial interpretation. He acknowledges the "understandable tendency to exaggerate the importance of analogies with verbal language" to film, but stresses to regard film more as painting and photography rather than words. He concludes: "The film-maker is fortunate to be working in the most semiologically complex of all media, the most aesthetically rich." (Wollen, 1989) For Wollen, film is the penultimate semiotic media object and with respect to historical criticisms about the plurality of its capability as a sign, new perspectives unleash greater semiotic and reading potential for cinema.

2. Explain the evolution of theory of race, why and how it shifts its focus from image-studies to issues of self-representation and delegation of voice. Refer to at least two texts in your discussion. Then explain how this debate/shift informs the reading or understanding of a particular film text (such as Spike Lee's Bamboozled).

In "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators," bell hooks focuses her attention upon a group of spectators that receive little or reductive attention in the worlds of theory and criticism: African-American females. Her piece traces the trajectory of the gaze from a black feminist perspective, though within the relative contexts of Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," for example. She adapts the gaze as a tool of resistance and a method by which to change her reality, and presumably the realities of other, if not all, black female spectators. hooks' focus is not upon image representation, or of self-representation; she argues how with intentional use of the gaze, black female spectators amplify their voices as women, as blacks, and most significantly, as spectators -- as those with the power of the directed gaze. As hooks sees the gaze as a tool of resistance for black female spectators, it is not surprising that she, like Diawara, advocates for use of the gaze toward moments of rupture:

Of particular concern for him are moments of "rupture" when the spectator resists "complete identification with the film's discourse." These ruptures define the relation between black spectators and dominant cinema prior to racial integration…Critical, interrogating black looks concerned with issues of race and racism, the way racial domination of blacks by whites overdetermined representation. (hooks, 1992)

hooks advocates for use of the gaze as a way to voice inequalities and social stratifications, not necessarily as a campaign for better or equal media representation. The directed, black, female gaze is a part of the feminism campaign in general, but using the look as a theory for race is a different method just as Mulvey uses the look as a theory for gender.

Shohat and Stam scrutinize realism with regard to race in the cinematic canon. They, too, trace the trajectory of the theory of race as it has shifted with regard to cinematic representations and media representations in general. The term they use that is closely related to image studies is progressive realism. They define it as a way of ...countering the objectifying discourses of patriarchy and colonialism with a vision of themselves and their reality "from within." But this laudable intention is not always unproblematic. "Reality" is not self-evidently given and "truth" is not immediately "seizable" by the camera. We must distinguish, furthermore, between realism as goal…and realism as a style of constellation of strategies aimed at producing an illusionistic "reality effect." (Shohat & Stam, 1994)

Thus, the first situation of the theory of race is problematic and leaves room to be undermined. The quotation states that reality can be real and it cannot be real; reality can be an effect produced and/or constructed to aesthetically resemble actual…

Sources Used in Documents:


Diawara, M. 1993. Noir by Noirs: Towards a New Realism in Black Cinema. African-American Review, 27(4), 525 -- 537.

Hooks, B. 1991. Micheaux: Celebrating Blackness. Black American Literature Forum: Black Film Issue, 25(2), 351 -- 360.

Hooks, B. 1992. The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press, Boston.

Mulvey, L. 2004. Beyond the Gaze: Recent Approaches to Film Feminisms -- Special Issue. Signs, 30(1), 1286 -- 000.

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