Week Fourteen: Postmodernism

December 14, 2010

According to Fredric Jameson, postmodernism is characterized by its emphasis on fragmentation. Fragmentation of the subject replaces the alienation of the subject. Jameson sees postmodernism as the successive stage to the “high-art” modernism of the early twentieth century. Postmodernist works are often characterized by a lack of depth. Also distinctive is its focus on the recycling of old images and commodities. Using examples from cinema, Jameson cites key features of postmodern culture such as self-referentiality, irony, pastiche, and parody.

Additionally, films are now flooded with advertisements before the film and, increasingly, now in the film itself. A famous sequence from Wayne’s World (1992), when Wayne holds a Pepsi can and states that it’s the “choice of a new generation” with a slight wink and a nod, is undoubtedly postmodern. First, it is an example of product integration where advertising, entertainment, and “art” are all merged. Second, it responds to the increasing cynicism of marketing ploys, letting the audience in on the joke even while the film still benefits financially from it.


Week Eleven: Feminism

December 14, 2010

Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” aimed to discover the root cause of women’s secondary status in not only Hollywood, but society as well. Mulvey’s main contribution was to isolate three related “looks” in Hollywood cinema that she argued were all male. The look of the camera which were mainly operated by men, the look of the spectator which of necessity followed the camera’s “masculine gaze,” and the dominating look of male characters within the narrative that deprived women of any power or subjectivity. She believed cinema was set up so that men could identify with the idealized male hero while women were left to identify with inferior figures and often silenced.

Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ellen Ripley in the Alien Series and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator I & II are two fierce feminist film heroines that immediately come to mind. Both are survivors, who aren’t afraid to wield weapons, and use their strength and ingenuity to their advantage; they embody and exude empowerment. I think many people are drawn to or intrigued by female action heroes because, in part, they counter the norm. We are overrun with images of male protagonists so it’s refreshing to see female leads. Social norms dictate that women should be gentle, nurturing, and caring but female action heroes break this mold.


Week Nine: Psychoanalysis

December 14, 2010

In his book The Imaginary Signifier Christian Metz draws on the work of spectatorship theorists such as Jean-Louis Baudry and expands the notion of the “cinematic apparatus” to cover a more general view of the “imaginary signifier.” Metz attempts, through the use of psychoanalysis, to discover an original grounding event that would explain the nature of the film spectator. Although Baudry drew some ideas from the thought of psychoanalysis, Metz goes much further in incorporating psychoanalytic notions into his theory of film spectatorship.

According to Metz, the film screen serves as a mirror through which the spectator can identify himself or herself as a coherent and omnipotent ego. The sense of power that spectatorship provides derives from the spectator’s primary identification with the camera itself. Though the spectator is in fact a passive viewer of the action on the screen, identification with the camera provides the spectator with an illusion of power over the screen images.


Week Seven: Star Image

December 14, 2010

Rudolph Valentino, a silent movie star, was the very first widely recognized sex object and teen idol. In her article on Valentino, Miriam Hansen discusses ways in which that idol was reviled by the mainstream press and his image as a male vamp, something both foreign and feminized. She notes this was the case because Valentino literally made a “spectacle” of himself, posing a threat to “natural and reserved American virility.” Valentino, like all idols, not only accepts the gaze of the female spectator but encourages it. She points out however, that this can also be disruptive in the scheme of things. If a woman is not just allowed but inspired and stimulated to look at her object of desire with pleasure equal to that of a man’s, then that dominance is threatened.

Nowadays, I would say Brad Pitt fits the bill as one of the few present day heartthrobs. Named the “Sexiest Man Alive” countless times by People Magazine, Pitt’s reputation has undoubtedly reached iconic status. His sex scene with Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise (1991) is often cited as the defining moment that categorized Pitt as a sex symbol. This would of course lead to leading roles in films like Interview with the Vampire, Se7en, 12 Monkeys, Fight Club, and other critically acclaimed motion pictures.  Nominated for multiple academy awards and golden globe awards, his success speaks for itself. Previously being connected with females like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston, and currently now with Angelina Jolie, three of the sexiest actresses in their own regards, this sure doesn’t hurt his image either.


Week Six: Semantic/Syntactic Approach

December 14, 2010

Rick Altman points out that genres are usually defined in terms of either signs (semantic) or plots and themes (syntactic). He argues that traditional genre theory needs to keep this distinction in mind if it is to come to terms with issues such as generic evolution and genre hybridity. The single-minded approach, as he puts it, ignores the considerable “cross-pollination” that occurs across genres. Altman suggests a basic model of genre creation using these terms. He claims that genres start out with a set of semantic elements, and only achieve true genre status when they complete a process of evolving an accompanying syntax.

Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is an interesting example of a classic hybrid, with elements of both science fiction and police crime genres. The figure of Robocop is a classic example of the western gunfighter but in a futuristic setting. The analogy is made even more explicit with Robocop’s western style spinning of his gun before placing it in his holster. Looking at the film’s genealogy we can also identify its influences as well. The police elements of the film are largely based upon Dirty Harry with the western persona and placed it in a contemporary setting. On the science fiction side, we can see the film as a reworking of James Cameron’s The Terminator with the robot transformed to a good guy.


Week Five: Auteurism

December 14, 2010

Auteur theory is an idea that doesn’t have a certain definition. In Andrew Sarris’ “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” he proposes that auteur theory is made up of three ideas or three concentric circles as he puts it. The first, or outer circle, is made up of the director’s technical competence. Therefore, if films by a director are considered poor from a technical aspect, then this prevents the director from being considered an auteur. The second, or middle circle, is made up of the director’s personality and how the film unfolds. In other words, over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurring characteristics of style, which serve as his “signature.” The third, or inner circle, focuses on interior meaning. This conception of interior meaning he states comes close to definition of mise-en-scène.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the first names that comes to mind when talking about auteur theory. Some of his most famous films include Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and Rear Window. Hitchcock’s story telling techniques were renowned for their intelligent plots, witty dialogue, and bits of mystery and murder. He has also been attributed with revolutionizing the thriller genre. However, the reason for his success was not because of this, but rather the skill which he exhibited in the filmmaking. For example, his treatment of the subject in terms of the shots he uses and how he specifically combines them. One of Hitchcock’s best known scenes is the terrifying shower scene in Psycho. This shot features 70 distinct shots in less than 1 minute. They are edited together in such a way, that even though the knife blade never even makes contact with the female lead, the murder is still totally believable.


Week Four: Realism

December 14, 2010

According to prolific film critic Andre Bazin, what all filmmakers had in common was a desire to put cinema at the service of what he called a “fundamental faith” in reality. The credibility of a film did not come from its authenticity but from the identity between the image and its object. For Bazin, realism was a style whose chief elements were the long take, deep focus, limited editing and, when possible, the use of non-professional, or at least relatively unknown actors. Realism for Bazin was the essence of cinema and its keys were simplicity, purity, and transparency.

Like Bazin, Kracauer argued that of all the arts, film is uniquely qualified to record physical reality. Kracauer conceded that many films combine realist with formalist tendencies, but he concluded the films that make us “experience aspects of physical reality are the most valid aesthetically.” Kracauer cites that the best moment in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) is not Shakespeare’s text, or Olivier’s acting, or even his direction, but a moment when the camera, almost by inadvertence, frames a window of Elsinore castle and lets us see the “real ocean” in all its force. Thus, in essence, what Kracauer is saying is that realism reasserts all that is before the camera.


Week Three: Soviet Montage

December 14, 2010

Soviet montage is a type of film theory focused on understanding and creating cinema using specific film editing techniques. The theory was conceived in the Soviet Union during the 1920’s and was pioneered by such Soviet directors Alexander Dovzhenko, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, and most famously, Sergei Eisenstein. Though many of these directors disagreed about montage, Eisenstein’s thinking was eventually viewed as “soviet montage.”

Pudovkin’s theory of montage focused not only on the juxtaposition of shots through editing, but also the comparison of objects in the mise-en-scène. Pudovkin saw actors more as objects on the screen rather than working actors. He also saw montage as the key to revealing the emotion of a scene, including the actors, by their relationship to other objects in the shot.

A major difference between Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s use of montage was Eisenstein’s insistence on conflict, where not only was there conflict occurring in the narrative, but even the editing would cut together conflicting shots, sometimes disrupting the flow of the story. Pudovkin did not share this view and often would not cut parts of his film to intentionally disrupt the narrative. His view of montage was to create a powerful emotion and he wished to build up that emotion with his narrative and editing.


Week Two: Reproduction of Reality

December 14, 2010

Rudolf Arnheim believed that film’s potential to be considered a true art form lied with its ability to represent a facet of reality. Having a background in psychology, he not only looked at film as a whole but believed that the perception of the audience watching the film and the auteur creating the film are active agents as well. The main principle supporting Arnheim’s theory was that film does in fact fall short of an actual reproduction of reality. However, this is where its inherent beauty lies in his mind, that it isn’t an exact duplication.

With that being said, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is without a doubt one of the few films Arnheim would approve of and one that he actually discusses at length in his works. He praises Chaplin’s use of various technical elements, one including his use of pantomime. It wasn’t unusual in Chaplin’s earlier films that he didn’t speak a single word in any or all of his scenes. Instead, he evoked his emotion through a series of cleverly executed body movements and facial expressions. Chaplin’s remarkable ability to clearly express his feelings without uttering a single word is what Arnheim claims is the genius of his filmmaking.

What Arnheim sees in Chaplin is a director who relied upon visual images that were both cinematic and well thought out, which he believed was the director’s sole purpose to begin with. As a result, he sees Chaplin using the unique attributes of the medium to artistic effect. It’s not that Arnheim didn’t care at all about the actual content, it’s just that he felt that it should be conveyed purely through visual means.


Week One: Film Theory

December 14, 2010

David Weedle’s article “Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology” in the L.A. Times is essentially a fourteen page long rant on his views and opinions on the education his daughter is receiving at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His daughter is a film studies major and consequently is required to take courses in film analysis and theory. From his protests over the long-length of the textbooks to the unclear syntax and terms, Weedle brings up some valid and understandable arguments against his daughter’s coursework. However, while I do see where he is coming from, I still have to disagree with his overall assessment on the subject matter that pertains to film theory.

My opinion on the situation is that I feel his daughter should’ve had an idea of what she was getting herself into. When one first hears the term film theory, I’m sure the immediate associations they come up with are negative ones. If you can get past all of these misconceptions and fears, most of which Weedle successfully points out in the article, the heart of film theory is simply a way of means to explain and interpret various aspects of film in an intellectual and logical way. The very definition of theory being “a system of ideas intended to explain something,” wether is be realism, auteurism, or feminism, these are all plausible topics when it comes to the art of film.

One thing I did find interesting that Weedle brought up was the comparison of film theory to philosophy. I think this is a very good comparison because film theory relies much more on reason than actual fact. With the revolving and never-ending cycle of theories and concepts being formulated in the discipline at any given time, opinions and views can always change. Moreso, there can be more than one answer or explanation to any particular theory, and this is what makes the study of film theory so intriguing in my eyes.


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