What price normalization?

by Bruce Jenkins

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 24-26
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

J. Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976) Paper: $3.95

J. Dudley Andrew characterizes his recent book as an introduction to film theory, and it undoubtedly will compete with classroom staples such as V.F. Perkins' Film as Film and Andrew Tudor's Theories of Film. But Andrew's The Major Film Theories differs from these and other texts by attempting to present a "state of the art" of film theory, to take stock of the field's own inventory of theoretical merchandise. That is, whereas both Perkins and Tudor explicate the traditional theoretical approaches in order to promote their own critical positions,[1] Andrew constrains himself to the singular task of contrasting and comparing the theories themselves. The Major Film Theories is therefore an eminently reasonable book—one that recognizes that film scholars must clearly understand the issues of past and current theoretical debate before they can raise significant new issues. And for this reason, The Major Film Theories represents the best pedagogical tool to date. So, beyond assessing the success of Andrew's presentation here, we must also address the largely unraised issue of education and its ideological apparatuses, since the book's theoretical and aesthetic concerns become a function of this broader issue in the long run.

Let us begin on the surface level, where The Major Film Theories appears vulnerable to three separate criticisms:

(1) a feminist critique aimed at Andrew's tacit authorization of a male-dominated view of film theory and film history. Here we can note the near absence of women writers from consideration within Andrew's intellectual schema.

(2) an aesthetic attack delivered against his equation of cinema's history within the history of its dominant form—the conventional narrative film. Here we can point to Andrew's exclusion of theoretical writings by the avant-garde on film, as well as his limiting those theorists who are included to topics solely relevant to conventional film practice.

(3) a simple complaint that Andrew's book holds little significance for those actively involved in politically engaged film theory. We note the extremely brief explication Andrew gives of Marxist and other ideological approaches to film. He offers a three page summary of the "militant critics at Cahiers du cinéma and Cinéthique,  which isolates the work of political film theory from both its theoretical heritage (Benjamin, Brecht, Lukcás, Althusser, et al.) and its current applications in British and U.S. journals (Screen, Afterimage, JUMP CUT).

But these "sins of omission" do not necessarily imply that Andrew has worked consciously in bad faith. He does, after all, justify his choice of material by explicitly stating the criteria for its inclusion. His overall goal is "to set off the major theorists one against the other, forcing them to speak to common issues." Now, for Andrew the major theorists (Münsterberg, Arnheim, Eisenstein, Balázs, Kracauer, Bazin, Mitry, Metz, Ayfre and Agel) are those who "wrote about film in a broad sense … and did so with the force of extended argument." Beyond these two criteria of quality and quantity Andrew also requires that the writings be or will soon be available in English and that they "articulate a position which has behind it … an important tradition."

Given these rather broad goals and constraints, it comes as no surprise that Andrew has simply appropriated for The Major Film Theories the received opinion and tradition of cinema studies. The "naturalness" of his selections (and correlatively, of his exclusions), the adherence to the dominant patterns of film theory, reveal the true conservatism of this enterprise and allow him to participate (however unknowingly) in the normalization of the history of film theory.

Andrew presents his reader with the "normal view" of the development of film theory not only by presenting the historically dominant theories, but by creating a closed system of theoretical debate between them. Although this is a pedagogically expedient tactic, on the one hand, it may be ideologically suspect, on the other. Those works that might eclipse the finality of Andrew's scheme are suppressed. Those which are included become leveled through his tendency to force a systematic structure upon them. In this way, Andrew has made it difficult for the reader to see that, although the accepted theories are often in reality addressed to different issues, they have at the same time been made to appear totally consistent with one another in focus.

This synthetic consistency is evident from the way Andrew is able to map out each work upon the same theoretical model, constraining each to speak to the same issues. He proceeds in this by dividing the tasks of film theory into four parts or questions (derived from Aristotle's "four causes"): those which deal with the medium and raw materials, the methods and techniques, the forms and shapes, and the purpose or value. Each theory in turn is run through this scheme of concerns. Andrew's procedure tends to systematize the theories, ridding them of significant impurities, obscurities and anomalies. It's a kind of pasteurization. In this way, he forces each theorist's work to focus upon what he perceives as the crucial issues of film theory:

  • the realism of the image versus its potential for distorting that reality,
  • the potential of montage versus its limitations,
  • the signifying ability of film versus its capacity to reveal the significance of the world.

Yet the significance and centrality of these particular issues primarily derives from the inclusion of these (and not other) theories and from Andrew's own underlying assumption about the primacy of representation and narrativity in film. Andrew's "reading" of each theorist, his desire to contain the theories within homogeneous bounds (specifically, within the two broad dichotomies of formative versus realist, and semiological versus phenomenological) forces attention consistently upon these issues. Arnheim's writings, for example, can be as useful for examining Richter's Rhythms 21 as they are for Chaplin's The Immigrant. Andrew, however, avoids any thrust toward abstraction, which Arnheim's writings might imply, and instead reasserts the consistency of Arnheim's theory squarely within the formative-realist debate:

"His view that film becomes art when the filmic process of representing the world is retarded nevertheless keeps film art dependent on representation" (p. 33).

 Thus for Andrew, representation is a kind of given feature of film which mediates the two competing theories (one which sees representation as a distortion of reality, and the other, as a disclosure of reality). This status given to representation, then, eclipses the very possibility for the broader dichotomy between representation and pure abstraction. Andrew concludes that, in fact, film is

"a process which was invented to represent the world and is unthinkable apart from the world."

This latter comment is at best trivial, and at worst a falsification of both film and the implications for film in Arnheim's writings. Andrew fails to provide significant alternative theories, which might be totally inconsistent with the prescribed dichotomies. In this way, he excludes from consideration a whole range of films and concomitant filmic "facts" to which the reader will surely be exposed in, say, viewing a New American experimental film or one of Godard's post-'68 works. And this reinforces the established arbitrary view, which sees the non-representational or non-narrative film as marginal and anomalous—something which exists outside the domain of the "cinematic," as it is characterized by the "major film theories."

Complementing this pasteurization, we discover a form of homogenization as well, a high-powered process of synthesis. We sense a tacit dismissal attached to Andrew's theoretical explications (especially of the formative and realist theories that constitute three-fourths of the book). This dismissal stems from a formal strategy which amounts to a teleological argument. Specifically, Andrew has set up Jean Mitry as the great resolver of the formative-realist dichotomy.

It is no small coincidence that Mitry's two volume Esthétique et psychologie du cinéma is divided along the same lines as Andrew's model of analysis. For Andrew, Mitry represents the great synthesizer of film theory. And indeed it is reasonable that the reader feel, as Andrew does, that Mitry has achieved a resolution to the consistently contradictory views of the theorists before him. After all, Andrew has limited the explication of each theory to those issues which would eventually be resolved by Mitry's pluralist acknowledgment of film as both "window" and "frame." We now learn that

"Eisenstein's theory suffered from its obsession with his admittedly remarkable insight into editing";

or that

"Bazin's views on reality and shot-in-depth are brilliant and invaluable, but they weave themselves into all his writings, limiting his overall insight" (p. 188).

Mitry makes the proper adjustments which will resolve the contradictions of the old theories and thereby allow film theory to set about new tasks. And Andrew does just that for the reader. He leaves Mitry to consider the issues of this new era of theorizing. Having limited the older theorists to their place within the formative-realist dichotomy, Andrew sets his sights on examining the contradictions of the contemporary theoretical positions.

 This ploy has a certain efficacy. Yet it also implies a kind of retroactive dismissal of these older theorists. Andrew achieves unity at the price of thrusting the likes of Eisenstein and Bazin back into obscurity. The so-called normal film student who has such "extreme difficulty in understanding the positions of Cahiers du cinéma and Cinéthique" (p. 239) might have even more difficulty in understanding why Cahiers should undertake a project to translate and publish the writings of Eisenstein or why Metz should be interested in the writings of Arnheim.

In his consideration of contemporary film theory, Andrew limits himself to tracing a broad dichotomy in French theoretical trends, between the structuralist-semiological approach and an older phenomenological one. His historical reading sets up this newer opposition as a symmetrical replacement for the older formative-realist division. As he puts it,

"If we may hope to find a systematic challenge to structuralism in film theory, we must once again look to France and to the heritage of that country's phenomenology" (p. 183).

This he does in articulating an opposition between the semiotics of Metz, the structuralism of Noël Burch and the materialist approaches of Cahiers du cinéma and Cinéthique on the one hand, and the phenomenological writings of Amédée Ayfre, Henri Agel and Roger Munier, on the other.

Although Andrew provides reasonably clear explications of the particular texts he examines, I find a few peculiarities in the book's final section. Andrew's analysis of Metz, for example, deals with the basic conceptual construct of the earlier linguistic-based semiotics but has little to offer in regard to Metz's more recent shift to a psychoanalytical perspective.  (Of course, Andrew can hardly be blamed for omitting a current which had not yet received its full formulation at the time of publication of The Major Film Theories. Yet this is the problem with any work which attempts to characterize contemporary theory—its lack of critical distance is apt to confuse more than elucidate.)

Moreover, the book suffers from a failure to provide the cultural and intellectual context within which to situate Metz's enterprise for a semiotics of the cinema. This lack becomes twofold in that Andrew ignores not only the critical, scientific and philosophic precursors of film semiotics but also the current writings of any semiologists other than Metz. Given the idealist philosophic background provided in Andrew's examination of Münsterberg or the Gestalt perspective, elaborated in the chapter on Arnheim, I find striking the omission of such structuralist critics as Roland Barthes and Tzvetan Todorov, the structural-anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and European linguist Roman Jakobson. Even the "fathers of semiology," Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce, are given little mention. This paucity in explicating the theoretical background is matched by the significant absence of such important contemporary figures as the Italian semiologists Umberto Eco, Gianfranco Bettettini and the late Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose works have differed from and in part been a challenge to the writings of Metz.

Andrew restricts his examination of Noël Burch to basically the first chapter of Burch's Theory of Film Practice. In so doing, Andrew omits from consideration Burch's shift from a kind of formal structuralism to a politicized semiotics. Burch' essay "Propositions" (co-written with Jorge Dana for Afterimage No. 5)[2] provides an important link between semiological and Marxist approaches. The omission of this essay from Andrew's analysis especially hinders a full consideration of both semiotics and materialist film theory. I have already mentioned the rather short shrift given to current Marxist approaches to film. As with his analysis of Metzian semiotics, Andrew offers a rather foreshortened perspective, which ignores both the intellectual heritage of Marxist thought and the varied currents of recent work.

Andrew's chapter on phenomenological approaches to film contains similar peculiarities. It is here that he transgresses his own guideline (of availability in English) by focusing upon untranslated texts in French. In fact, Andrew ignores outright two important U.S. attempts at articulating a phenomenology of film: Stanley Cavell's The World Viewed and George Linden's Reflections on the Screen. Andrew's reasoning behind the omission of these latter texts—they were written in isolation and have had little impact—seems rather odd in light of his chapter-long examination of Münsterberg's single volume on film. Cavell and Linden's works are certainly no more "isolated" than that of Münsterberg, the neo-Kantian philosopher who in 1916 published The Photoplay: A Psychological Study. Having rejected these two recent phenomenologies, Andrew constructs a kind of anachronistic challenger to semiology. (Amédée Ayfre, one of the most important of these French theorists, died in 1963.) However, the case which Andrew constructs is quite persuasive. He insightfully elaborates the vision of matching up an "external structuralism and an internal, reflective phenomenology."

Despite the criticisms that I have presented, I do not wish to leave the reader with the impression that The Major Film Theories fails as a critical enterprise or that it is, in any sense, written in "bad faith." Lest this be the impression, let me state that I believe Andrew's book is the best existing (but not the best possible) introductory text for film theory. It presents a much more comprehensive account of the developments in theory than Peter Wollen's Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, is less dogmatic and more reasoned than Perkins' Film as Film and articulates a much clearer, more descriptively insightful view of the individual theorists than Andrew Tudor's Theories of Film. Indeed, the quality of The Major Film Theories has evoked a whole new range of expectations for such pedagogical works. Paradoxically, it is precisely these expectations which throw into relief the book's own shortcomings.

Although the kind of exclusion and leveling we have been discussing is indeed necessary for pedagogical purposes, these are nevertheless processes which should be more fully explicated to the reader and continually acknowledged. Borrowing from Noël Burch's use of Eco, we can say that Andrew has failed to set the theories "in crisis" in such a way that the underlying assumptions, codifications and determinations would reveal both the philosophical and ideological conditions of theorizing as such, and the problematic nature of the "filmic facts (e.g., "reality," "montage," even "shot" and "cut") to which each theory addresses itself. Yet for this reason, The Major Film Theories is a valuable text to work from, and in part to work against (as one must work in ideology and against it).

Just as recent critical practice has set about examining the natural giveness of the "classical narrative text," theoretical investigation must focus upon the codifications, the assumptions, and the aesthetic ideology implicit in the theories of film themselves, or perhaps more compelling for us, in the normative uses to which these theories have been put. The utility of The Major Film Theories derives from the vigor with which we can deconstruct the theories and the book's synthetic unity, their reductive system of concerns, to locate within their rational discourse the suppression of the possible, and the fixing (in its stead) of the familiar and the "known." Only then can we resist the rationalizing specter of a reified history as our theoretical heritage. So while we may acknowledge the usefulness of The Major Film Theories as a pedagogical tool, we must not at the same time lose sight of the more fundamental issue, the question of education.


 1. Where Perkins forthrightly articulates his principles of criticism, Tudor merely points out the necessity of developing a model of film language while offering no positive account of how we might construct such a model. See William Rothman's critique of Tudor's book in JUMP CUT, No. 9.

2. See Martin Walsh's "Noël Burch's Film Theory," JUMP CUT, No. 10/11.