by William Rothman
Cut, no. 9, 1975, p. 25
Books concerning film theory tend to take one of two forms. The first is writing which presents itself as constituting a theory of film, however it construes that notion [e.g., Kracauer’s Theory of Films, Arnheim’s Film as Art, Burch’s Theory of Film Practice]. The second is anthologies of theoretical pieces or excerpts, with introduction and blurb about each piece [e.g., Mast and Cohen’s Film Theory and Criticism, Lewis Jacobs’ anthologies].
Andrew Tudor’s Theories of Film presents itself both as a survey of significant film theories, and as a piece of theory in its own right. But the object of Tudor’s theorizing is not so much film as film theory itself. It is at one level conceived as a contribution to a “theory of film theory,” intended to help raise film theory to a state of self awareness which might assure it a productive future.
The book’s argument can be summarized. It begins with an introductory chapter, which attempts to define what is meant by “theory of film.” Tudor argues that it is essential to observe the distinction between theoretical work which aims primarily at expanding knowledge of the medium’s empirical operation through constructing scientific models, from theoretical work which is intended primarily to articulate a film aesthetic. The implications of this distinction call for revisions in the history of film theory.
A chapter on Eisenstein follows. Tudor feels that Eisenstein has been misunderstood as primarily elucidating and advocating a montage aesthetic. For Tudor, Eisenstein is less a figure in the realism vs. formalism debate than the man responsible for the “great beginning” in attempting to create a science of film language. Eisenstein fails, however, to confront the problem of the relation between film’s formal language and film’s social and psychological context (in part because of an uncritical Pavlovian psychology, Tudor claims).
This judgment brings Tudor to a chapter-length consideration of the implications of John Grierson’s work. Eisenstein failed to take context seriously in developing his models of film language. At the opposite pole, Grierson dedicated himself to a cinema in which aesthetic formal considerations would be not merely conditioned by contextual assumptions about the social and psychological role of cinema, but dominated by a particular envisioned social function. Tudor argues that Grierson’s work illuminates the task of constructing a model which strikes the right balance between a “context free” essentialist impulse and a “context dominated” impulse to replace aesthetic argument by a discourse conducted entirely in social/ psychological terms.
The next chapter is called “The Aesthetics of Realism: Bazin and Kracauer.” Tudor is sympathetic to Kracauer’s desire to formulate a consistent aesthetic system, but argues that Kracauer is hopelessly confused and in any case perpetually hedging his bets (seesawing on the question of whether “realism” involves being real in a certain sense or only appearing real). Among Kracauer’s assumptions which Tudor cannot accept is one that Kracauer shares with Bazin. An essentialist approach posits that a medium has a “nature”—in film’s case, a photographic nature which determines its “natural affinity” with recording and revealing reality. Tudor cannot accept this non-social aesthetic of the “real.” He sees in both Kracauer and Bazin a combination of positivism and romantic faith in nature, which is in any case ultimately anti-cinematic.
Tudor thinks that Bazin is as confused as Kracauer, although Bazin’s confusion is less obvious because he never tries to be as systematic as Kracauer, and because he possesses far greater sensitivity to cinema. Tudor argues that there is a contradiction between Bazin’s earlier and later writings (and in part within the writings of each period) which Bazin never acknowledges. Bazin starts out—and part of him remains—a “pure” realist. He then becomes—but not consistently—a “spatial” realist. This is the split between “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (where Bazin claims for the film image a direct ontological bond with the “reality” from which it is forged) and the later “Theater and Cinema” (where the claim is modified: what film image and “reality” share is the fundamental attribute of spatial/ temporal unity). It is also the split between the idea that Expressionism is the enemy and the idea that montage is the real enemy.
According to Tudor, the realist aesthetic declined with the decline of Italian neorealism.
Tudor argues that there has been no such thing as an “auteur theory.” The notion of “auteur” has led some critics to a cult of personality rather than a consistent aesthetic. The notion is best thought of as a principle of sympathetic descriptive analysis, rather than as a source of critical evaluation. (The working hypothesis of auteurism: assume that the director “creates his films on the basis of a central structure.”) This principle remains at the level of pre-theory, and brings us back to the need for models of film language.
The notion of genre likewise raises fundamental issues involving the methodology of descriptive analysis, which in turn raise theoretical issues. In particular, it returns us to the need for development of sociological and psychological theories of film which must interlock with the development of any general models of film language.
The book ends with a chapter titled “Epilogue.” In it, Tudor expresses his conviction that top priority in film theory must be given at present to the development of detailed models of film language (which are attuned to the problem of context). For example, Tudor insists that a detailed theory of film language is a pre-condition of useful application of structuralist methods to film. And it is the pre-condition of meaningful consideration of such basic philosophical questions as “What is the nature of film?”
As a piece of theory, Tudor’s book is open to radical criticism. For one thing, it offers virtually no positive insights into how theorists might go about developing a detailed model of film language. Indeed, Tudor is entirely vague as to what the process of constructing such a model, and the constructed model itself, might be like. He speaks of the “core problem” as one of “tapping the meaning of film.” But he apparently thinks that “analyzing meaning” has nothing to do with actually determining the meanings of concrete films: as if the way in which a film is meaningful has nothing to do with its meaning. (He is mute on the subject of what it might have to do with.)
Tudor supposes that, in order to construct objective analytical descriptions of films, we need a language we do not possess, and that we must first derive this language from models of film language that we likewise do not possess. Two conflicting objections suggest themselves. (a) We already possess models of film language: meaningful films themselves—which are ripe for analyses, which in turn might be used in increasing our understanding of what is involved in theorizing about film. (b) Film is in any case not a language. Fortunately, we do possess a language which we can use in constructing theoretically illuminating analytical/ descriptive accounts of films: English, supplemented by frame enlargements and a handful of technical terms.
If the above criticisms are rather obscurely stated, a related one can be put clearly: Tudor’s is surely the only book of film theory which avoids making any substantial statement about film or films. In particular, Tudor reveals nothing about what he thinks of film that accounts for his conviction that theorizing about film might be a meaningful activity for us—contemporary political agents, among the other things we are—to engage in.
Then again, it is not at all clear what Tudor thinks or knows of the recent and contemporary film world. When he claims that the realistic aesthetic ebbed with Italian neorealism, he apparently feels no inclination to acknowledge the cinema verité and “direct cinema” movements, nor to consider the work of, say, Godard and Straub. He does not acknowledge the existence of U.S. and European avant-garde film movements. He does not acknowledge the continuing struggles to develop a filmmaking practice grounded in Marxism. Nor does he acknowledge recent theoretical writing by, say, Stanley Cavell, Annette Michelson, Noel Burch, the recent Althusser- and Lacan-influenced French writing and its English and U.S. spinoffs, and so on. Unfortunately, anyone familiar with—or even interested in—recent discourse on film will find Tudor’s argument and conclusions to be of virtually no interest.
Tudor’s book is written in such a way that his aim of offering a “survey” of the field of film theory cannot be separated from the problematic theoretical strain that runs through the book. In part for this reason, the book cannot really be recommended as an introduction to film theory. Students would be far better off reading the “classic” texts, the anthologies, and the current magazines—and thinking and talking about the issues themselves.