A Companion to Film Theory (2004) is a collection of essays related to the study of film and film theory edited by Toby Miller and Robert Stam. I selected to read seven of these essays, including Miller’s introduction, based upon my interests and the list itself. Therefore, this post is going to be formatted a little differently: I will go through each essay by stating its thesis in 1-2 sentences and including some helpful notes/quotes.
“Introduction” -Toby Miller
Thesis: Film is not just a form of entertainment, but is immediately tied to our social, political, industrial, and economic worlds. It should be treated as such.
Notes & Quotes:
According to Miller, film is:
…three things, all at once: a recorder of reality (the unstated pro-filmic event); a manufacturer of reality (the staged and edited event); and a part of reality (watching film as a social event on a Saturday night, or a protest event over sexual, racial, or religious stereotyping). Film is a marker of culture…This suggests that the study of cinema is about how consciousness and systems of value are created and either bind society together or illuminate its fissures… it was designated as ideal of propaganda and social uplift (choose your terms). (3-4)
He believes that film theorists need to do more than simple textual analysis of films due to their multi-layered work:
Perhaps the most significant innovation in recent film theory has been a radical historicization of context, such that the analysis of textual properties and spectatorial processes must now be supplemented by an account of occasionally that details the conditions under which a text is made, circulated, received, interpreted, and criticized. (4)
“Genre” -Sarah Berry-Flint
Thesis: Genre should be taken very seriously by film scholars because they are markers of social, political, and economic rules. Genre is used primarily as markers to circulate and sell the film, but they also can work to subvert or support dominate social and political norms.
Notes & Quotes:
I loved Berry-Flint’s views on genre in the 1980’s. According to her, there were two dominant definitions of genre in the 80’s: genre as a social ritual reflecting the collective imagination, and genre as an ideological tool, imposing dominant meanings on viewers (36). She goes on to explain that the documentary film becomes a form of entertainment rather than a method of education or a duty as an American citizen only after the “redefinition of the viewer as a consumer rather than a citizen” (41).
She states that scholars cannot define an entire genre by a single film. Rather,
…generic meaning can never be inscribed within a single film- the repetition of genre motifs can only be experienced intertextually. (27)
She adds that questions surrounding genre’s significance are “irresolvable” but focusing on genre’s place within the interdependent relationship between audience, industry, and text, is central to understanding (27).
Finally, throughout her essay, Berry-Flint stresses the importance of viewing genre within its particular social-political context. Patterns and sites of meaning are repeated either to socialize its audience or to work through particular difficult social problems, or both.
Genre is thus about social as well as textual rules. Genres indicate what kind of communication will be facilitated in specific social formations, and it is in this regard that genre criticism can be a matter of ‘high seriousness.’ (41)
“Spectatorship and Subjectivity” -E. Deidre Pribram
Thesis: There have been many different definitions of the viewing subject (the psychoanalytic subject, the discursive subject, the social subject, etc), however we have yet to reach a conclusion as to the “why” of the viewing subject: why do humans love watching films?
Notes & Quotes:
I really dug Pribram’s critique of Mulvey’s film criticism and other feminist film analysis:
…the theories are universalizing or totalizing, and so exclusionary, that is, they ignore historical and cultural differences. The subject, the individual psyche, appears to be the same, once gender differences are established, over time and social categories, despite class, race and ethnicity, nationality, sexual preference, and so on… In the second instance, it is difficult to accept the spectator as normatively male in the face of large numbers of social subjects- women who repeatedly attend the cinematic (and televisual) experience and do so with evident pleasure. Rather, one assumes that some manner of divergent signifying process(es) must occur for female spectators as well. (150-1)
Pribram’s description of Foucault’s discursive subject and the process of normatizing in relation to film (152-4) was also very helpful.
The result has been a broader, more complex notion of representation asa reflection of and a site for cultural struggles over meaning formation, that is, as a place where meaning production occurs and also where its structures of operation can be viewed. (154)
Pribram ultimately critiques Foucault’s discursive subject for its elimination of “the possibility of ‘agency,’ that is, motivated, intentional action and reaction on the part of the subject (156).
According to cultural studies, the viewer is active:
Instead, cultural studies argues that the spectator is the result of various discourses put in play by the text, but also the subject of social, economic, and political practices beyond the text, which are brought to bear at the moment of screen/viewer interaction. (159)
…the text is produced only at the moment of interaction with the audience member, bringing the spectator/reader/viewer to the forefront of the mediated event…Second, the viewing subject is composed of the interaction between the effects of discourses invoked by the text/representation and the effects of social and material discourses beyond. Spectatorship is formulated as the convergence of textual subjects and social subjects. (160)
She believes that the audience experience is a chaotic one (161).
Finally, I love her concept of pop culture as a potential site of resistance:
…the spectator is no longer positioned in subjectivity by the text, but, under the concept of hegemony, can offer resistance to the ideologies of the text. Indeed, cultural studies understands popular culture as the terrain where cultural power, relationships, and systems of meaning are negotiated and established- and consequently, can be resisted and/or reestablished otherwise. (160)
“Is There Class in this Text?” -David James
Thesis: There is a major lack of discussion of class in film (and literary) scholarship.
Notes & Quotes:
This essay is mainly a summary of the various reasons why class is missing from critical discussions of film. He mainly points to the lack of working class people in higher education and the prevailing focus on “bourgeois identity politics” (185) This lack of class discussion has allowed for class polarizations to be strengthened and enforced (184).
Where they are not simply unimaginable, such conceptions are now so ubiquitously denigrated that any approach to the role of culture in class society is obliged to begin from the recognition of two absences: first, the absence of a generally accepted theory of class and of its articulation with other forms of structural social division, and hence second, the absence of any single systematic or comprehensive theory of the way class could inform the study of cinema. (186)
“Culture Industries” -Douglas Kellner
Thesis: Hollywood should be considered as the United States’ filmic culture industry, which produces a form of commercialized culture. These films also help to socialize and normalize viewers by promoting meaning as created by the few major studio corporations.
Notes & Quotes:
Kellner defines “culture industries” as the term which signifies
…the process of the industrialization of mass-produced sulcture and the commercial imperatives that drove the system. The critical theorists analyzed all mass-mediated cultural artifacts within the context of industrial production, in which the commodities of the culture industries exhibited the same features as other products of mass production: commodification, standardization and massification. The culture industries had the specific function, however, of providing ideological legitimation of the existing capitalist societies and of integrating individuals into the framework of its social formation. (203)
American film “emerged as one of the first mass-produced cultural forms of the twentieth century” that “provided a new mode of culture that changed patterns of leisure activity and played an important role in social life” (205). Almost from the beginning, genre films appeared as a result of demand and marketing needs. Additionally, early film was used as a form of enculturation for American immigrants, urban populations, and the working class (206).
…many films focused on the rich and celebrated wealth and power, serving as advertisements for the consumer society and the ruling elites… Consequently, films played an important socializing role by mobilizing desires into certain models. In particular, they helped socialize immigrant and working-class cultures into the emerging forms of consumer society, teaching them how to behave properly and consume with style and abandon. (206)
I loved his description of genre as a reflection of the factory system of production, just as early film studies were set up like “factories with big barns, rows of barracks, stock sets, and so forth” (210). Genre allows films to be mass-produced using cookie-cutter patterns, icons, characters, and plot lines (ibid.). According to Kellner, genre films are also cheap and efficient to make the most profit.
He spends a lot of time displaying how these major studies generally produce conservative meanings that support capitalism, democracy, and the American dream. However, he also notes that “the Hollywood system was flexible enough to allow individual cinematic statements and social critique within the genre system… Genre films could thus be used to contest ideological norms as well as reproduce them, and thus to provide ideology critique as well as legitimation” (212-13). He lists Hitchcock among these genre auteurs.
I particularly appreciated his summary of the “culture wars” in cinema during the 1970’s, in which liberal and conservative films battled and the radical voices within cinema were therefore silenced (214). This lead to the return of the genre film. Major successes of key genre films (like The Exorcist) led studies to search for the next blockbuster. He cites Jaws as the film which “set the pattern for the blockbuster syndrome” and caused “high concept” films to be “a major focus of the Holly wood film industry” because they could be “clearly marketed and described” (ibid.)
Finally, he describes 1970’s and 1980’s film as strictly conservative and full of Reaganite values. Even seemingly liberal films were anti-welfare, highly individualistic, and celebrated self-help beliefs (215). Some of these took the form of conspiracy films and displayed the government as untrustworthy and evil (The Omen?).
He also celebrates the horror films of the 1970’s-80’s, as they provided a space for “critical moments, problematizing hegemonic ideologies and putting in question dominant ideologies like the family” (215).
“The Political Economy of Film” -Janet Wasko
Thesis: Film studies has traditionally avoided analyzing film as a form of (politically) mediated communication, but we should do just that!
Notes & Quotes:
She defines the work of Vincent Mosco, a recent political economist. According to Mosco, political economy is:
…about survival and control, or how societies are organized to produce what is necessary to survive and how order is maintained to meet societal goals. (222)
It is important to remember that the study of political economy encompasses political as well as economic analysis. Indeed, the political cannot be separated from the economic. (225)
In the 1950’s and early 60’s, it was argued that communications should be considered as an important part of the economy (216). In the 1970’s, Murdock and Golding claimed that media and communication should be considered as commodities within capitalism (ibid.). I think applying this concept to films can be very helpful, especially popular culture genre pieces. Wasko does just this:
…the political economy of film must understand motion pictures as commodities produced and distributed within a capitalist industrial structure. As Pendakur notes, film as a commodity must be seen as a “tangible product and intangible service.” (227)
“Psycho’s Bad Timing: The Sensual Obsessions of Film Theory” -Toby Miller
Thesis: Just reading through the various major analysis of two films: Psycho (1960) and Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980), it is clear that film scholars should use multiple methods of understanding a film before they write about it. There is no single school of theory that can be used to unlock the mystery of each and every film.
Notes & Quotes:
Miller’s review of major Psycho criticism was eye-opening to me. I expected there to be a lot out there, but I didn’t expect the EXTREMELY different meanings that arise from each decade of Psycho scholarship. There was even a capitalist reading of Psycho in the mid-80’s, which I didn’t even consider, despite my interest in capitalism and gothic texts. I was happy to see Robin Wood and Barbara Creed, two horror critics on my list, cited within this chronology of Psycho scholars.
Miller, Toby, and Robert Stam, editors. A Companion to Film Theory. Blackwell Publishing, 1999, 2004.