Does anybody have any good suggestions for film theory reading? I don’t actually study film, so I have a hard time discovering things on my own. I do enjoy theory, but only sometimes. And now seems like one of those times.
Maybe some suggestions of things you’ve read or really enjoyed or were particularly interesting. I’m open for anything. Also, if you hate theory and want to bash it, please feel free to do so.
Andre Bazin is arguably the most important film theorist:
read “post-theory”, edited by bordwell and carrol. youll learn about all kinds of theory.
I imagine this is something of an unpopular opinion around here, but I find most film theorists are antithetical to developing an articulate awareness of film, they simply generate obfuscatory language and catchphrases that tend to disassociate and turn moving image articulacy into something that can only justify itself as dinner table conversation for those who would like to be called cultured.
Bruce, tell me that was intended to be humor…plzzzzzzzzz
The only film books I have read were for the only film history class I ever took. The book, whose title/author escapes me, having to do with 80’s american movies was just plain awful. The J. Hobberman book we read was too long….but pretty in depth.
I want to read the book by Tarkovsky, though.
@Robert: Why would it be?
Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image are extraordinary reads, very dense, but so rich with Deleuze’s view on cinema. The first three chapters from the Movement-Image are some of the most detailed and profound dissections of the medium of cinema. Both are filled with great examples from a wide number of art films spanning the beginning of cinema to the early 80s.
Also, the Braudy and Cohen anthology, Film Theory and Criticism is very valuable as a theory resource.
It is almost worthy of FUNNY POSTING ON THEAUTUERS: obfuscatory language and catchphrases that tend to disassociate and turn moving image articulacy
Okay, the irony may have passed bye you….
@Bruce: On the whole, Tarantino and film theory have very little to do with one another. As far as I’m concerned, Tarantino falls into the category of Film criticism, a feminist criticism most definitely would apply to his films as well as genre studies (not to Godard’s extent, but to a certain level). The only real example from any of his films that I feel absolutely shout film theory occurs towards the end of “Inglourious Basterds” when a certain someone dies at the same time as their moving image is projected on the screen – unbelievably powerful moment that encapsulates the Bazin’s writings on the embalming power of the cinematographic image and Deleuze’s sheets of time. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s writings on film, again in my opinion, do not fall into the category of film theory, rather the categories of criticism and historical studies.
@Robert: Why, because my vocabulary isn’t monosyllabic? Quite the irony, that.
@Greg: I felt that was an inappropriate statement, hence why I removed it, although obviously not quickly enough. My point was that even in the work of somebody who by the very dialogue he spins about his work you realize understands nothing in about how to articulate how films are constructed is still more worthwhile as a cinematic thinker than somebody who is widely praised for their verbal constructions on the matter, although Rosenbaum was probably not the best choice for that.
Oh okay, at least no catch phrases.
Critics/theorists can give POVs that are unknown to some – I think they are worthwhile
The works of David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson are great. Without weighing themselves down in academic acrobatics, they manage to present lucid and informative writings on film grammar, theory, and history. They use detailed examples from films in order to illustrate their points, so their analysis amounts to something concrete rather than hypothetical. Combined, their minds may make up the most complete living encyclopedia of film knowledge.
While Bruce may be overstating his case, there can be a tendency among academics to shoot off a bunch of nonsense in order to justify their position as professionals. It all depends on who you’re reading.
@Robert: I agree, I have myself had some very great transformations in thought from a very few writers on the subject. But most are abysmal, absolute shit. There tends to be a popular trend of spinning layers of verbal/political/sexual fog around guys like John Ford, Samuel Fuller, or John Carpenter, or their genre/Hollywood ilk, who are interesting only in that they are too incompetent to be enjoyed as popular artists today, and make such idiotic and simple-minded dreck that it makes me want to vomit. Melodramatics aside, this sort of elaboration on such stupidity seems like spitting on the art form, and is where I primarily take offense.
I hereby retract my defense of Bruce.
Film theory is usually pretty terrible since it takes complex works of art and looks at them through a limited prism of the critics invention. In the case of Bordwell and Thompson, they take the lowest common denominators of Hollywood film style and determine these to be the “correct” way to communicate through film. Anything that challenges this must be doing it wrong.
In the case of University professors over the world, you get things like “feminist theory” or “Marxist theory”, which shows off the writers knowledge of feminism or Marxism, while the actual job of criticizing the film itself gets left behind.
Maybe this is what Bruce was getting at, though I’m really not sure.
I disagree. Film theory is merely deciphering cinema, not prescribing a set of rules for it to follow. That is precisely why there is feminist and Marxist film theory.
That’s an interesting read of Bordwell and Thompson, because most of their work is not evaluative. They use examples of movies from all around the world, and are mostly interested in trying to deconstruct how movies communicate to us. They don’t seem to be making the rules, so much as helping us understand them. I’ve never seen them get harsh about people trying to challenge standard ways of film communication.
thinking hurts my brain….
I fully agree with Nathan.
@Fraser: I certainly wouldn’t dispute that interpretation of my argument.
@Law: Feminism and Marxism naturally arose from the language of film?
In the case of Bordwell and Thompson, they take the lowest common denominators of Hollywood film style and determine these to be the “correct” way to communicate through film. Anything that challenges this must be doing it wrong.
The same Bordwell who has written so extensively on the brilliance of Ozu, Dreyer, Kiarostami, and Kar-wai?
Better to close one’s mouth…
“The same Bordwell who has written so extensively on the brilliance of Ozu, Dreyer, Kiarostami, and Kar-wai?”
“Hollywood” may have been been used mistakenly but, by deconstructing films down to elements and techniques Bordwell and other theorists have encouraged a way of looking at films that drains them of the importance of content. Ozu, Dreyer, Kiarostami, and Wong become no different from Hitchcock, Spielberg, DePalma or Woo when you simply evaluate how their techniques are crafted. Look how many academics waste their time analyzing the signs and meanings of CSI, The X-Files, and Supernatural. For an academic theorist evaluation only gets in the way. The crappy shows I’ve just mentioned are as satisfying to the academic as The Wire or other superior shows. This seems to me like the wrong way to look at art.
Nathan: They won’t “get harsh” about films that don’t fit into their understandings, they’ll either ignore the filmmakers entirely (John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh) or comment only on the most superficial aspects of the work (the directors Gringo mentions).
As a quick example, take this review (http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=4089) of a Kiarostami film.
At the end of the article, Bordwell states, “Like Godard, Kiarostami has been busy reinventing the Kuleshov effect (perhaps by way of Bresson).”
This is what counts as insight for Bordwell: The way a filmmaker plays with previously understood conventions. What’s never discussed is any deeper reason for a film’s style. What is Kiarostami trying to say with this film? Is he making an insight into the characters whose faces fill the screen? Maybe he’s aiming for somewhere deeper? Nope, he’s just playing around with different techniques as an experiment.
“What we see, in all these concerned, fascinated faces and hands that flutter to the face, is what we spectators look like—from the point of view of a film.” After this you might expect Bordwell to go into what Kiarostami reveals through this unique style about our own understandings of film, or Kiarostami’s relationship to his audience, or something the least bit insightful. But unfortunately, that’s the end of the article! Kiarostami shows what spectators would look like if a film had eyes, he plays a trick with convention, and that’s the deepest insight Bordwell can perceive. Kiarostami is actually doing much more than this, but it doesn’t matter. Bordwell is too busy looking in the wrong direction to notice.
The job of a critic should be to expand an audiences’ understanding of film, not reinforce the same tired perspectives the great works of art seek to break us out of.
A lot of good suggestions above, but I would start with a book like Hugo Munsterberg’s “On Film” or Rudolph Arnheim’s “Film as Art.” Or just get an anthology…eventually you need to get to Laura Mulvey and Christian Metz. Also, if you like Soviet montage, there is tons of stuff written by Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Vertov, etc.
i dont think bordwell and other theorists have drained film of the importance of content. i just think they want to argue that style IS content. and i think their approach is refreshing, at the least to continue to promote diverse methods and approaches to film studies. as i mentioned before, im no cinemetric proponent, but im also anti-SLAB. im not so interested in cognitive approaches to film studies, but i think they need to exist and someone needs to be doing that research. im also tired of SLAB theorists. its old and boring. i recently read a new critical article by an academic i respect, and the whole thing was based on lacan, freud, and the idea of suture (in the service of reading godard, no less). i couldnt help but think, “man, youre still singing that old song??”
theres nothing wrong with an academic being interested in bad or good shows. simple value judgments get in the way of true academic inquiry. the populist critic can afford those thoughts in business hours. the academic cannot.
Bordwell’s not a critic, he’s a historical scholar/theorist. He doesn’t do evaluative interpretation of films. This and your claim that he thinks Hollywood style is the “correct style” shows that you’re largely unfamiliar with Bordwell’s work. So what business do you have bashing him?
Deleuze Cinema 1 and 2 are absolutely beautiful reads. He really fuses philosophy with film theory. I would also highly suggest reading Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Andre Bazin
Bobby, I agree that style and content are one and the same. However, it’s my belief that, through style, a great artist chooses to express something deeper than technical virtuosity with their films. They seek to enlighten us, to expand our perceptions, to offer us insight into human nature. They’re trying to communicate something to the viewer. The SLAB theorist (forgive me for not knowing what SLAB stands for) you mention does the same thing as the writers I dislike, taking a pre-determined method of understanding (Freud and Lacan in this case) and applying it to a work, in the belief that this provides a deeper reading of the film. All the while, of course, they miss what the work had to offer in the first place.
Gringo, you are correct that I wrongly identified Bordwell as a critic. I am aware that Bordwell does not evaluate the films he discusses. He merely recounts the technical details of the film, compares this to techniques used in other films, maybe talks a bit about the production, and gives an overview of what he can glean from these elements. At no time does he offer any insight, or anything that would be expected of an art critic.
It was also wrong of me to claim Bordwell thinks of “Hollywood style as the correct style”. This phrase is vague and way off the mark of what I intended to get across, so allow me to elaborate a little: Bordwell perceives the blandest of films, created only to make money, that express nothing of value, to be worth talking about. The superficial methods he uses to understand these works of junk, he also applies to the masterpieces of film, thus missing everything the great films do that sets them light years ahead of the mainstream. See the previously mentioned Kiarostami piece as an example.
Finally, you’re correct that I’m unfamiliar with a large portion of his writings, since what I have read I found to be so uninteresting. If you can contradict me with an example of a Bordwell piece that has any significant amount of depth to it, or a hidden value of his readings on cinema that I’ve been missing, I’d love to hear it.
Let me also say that at no point have I meant to bash him, as I’m sure he’s a nice guy. I only mean to bash his work.