Musings on film theory

review by Erica Tortolani

Stevens, Kyle, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory. Available from: VitalSource Bookshelf, Oxford University Press Academic US, 2022.

I begin designing all of my film theory courses with one simple question in mind: how can I best communicate the contemporary usefulness for those foundational, philosophical (and by some estimates, obtuse) texts on the function and relevance of the cinematic medium? The metaphorical albatross hanging around the neck of each course lies in the very issue of relevance. You, the reader, and I have perhaps come to learn the disciplinary significance of film theory, encompassing early formalist and structuralist conversations and extending into considerations of representation and audience engagement. Yet, even for the most astute, devoted students, the problem still stands: So what? Why does this matter?

The root of the issue, I’ve found, lies, in some part, in the vintage of canonical theoretical texts, those essays that we as instructors are expected to include in our course design. Truth be told, just because something is, for lack of better terms, old doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be put to the side, never again seeing the light of day. Still, as my students have increasingly vocalized, early formalist film theories—some of which are reaching the 100-year-old-mark—simply don’t resonate in the same ways, especially when applying those theories to texts that are technologically and stylistically advanced. Even those more “modern” texts chronicling ideas like gendered representation and desire admittedly miss the mark. As a scholar, I advocate for expanding the otherwise rigid film canon. Expanding this practice on the pedagogical level has proven to be a crucial albeit challenging task.

Kyle Stevens boldly—and in my opinion successfully—tackles the aforementioned issues that I  (and I’m sure many other scholar-instructors) have come to face in their edited volume, The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory. In their Introduction, Stevens astutely synthesizes these real-life questions posed by students and contemporary scholars alike:

“Yet why, if theory is so positive, so promising, have we arrived at a moment when many find the very thought of theory repellant?” (2).

Certainly, Stevens in film theory compiles scholarship that is anything but repellant, enriching and invigorating the discipline in the process.

I feel that the strength of Film Theory lies in the following two areas. First Stevens, especially in their introductory chapter, identifies the source of theory’s complicated and often unsavory reputation in contemporary film circles. According to Stevens, film theory has gradually been displaced by film philosophy, effectively losing its “momentum and much of its significance” in favor of “philosophy, with its ties to ancient legacies of ordinary insights, and with a practical benefit of convincing deans or readers to pony up funds” (3). To be sure, film philosophy and film theory share common goals among them, for instance, “generic taxonomy, spectatorship, aesthetics, narrative, interpretation, and so forth” (5). However, Stevens says the allure of film philosophy lies in its appeal “to a system that can confirm or establish [scholars’] claims. To state the obvious: philosophy is more concerned with what is true than what is necessarily useful” (Ibid). I too have found that from my students’ perspective film theory’s demonstrability often comes into question, especially considering the subjective nature of viewing a film and then interpreting its nature and function. Yet Stevens’ Film Theory reconciles the discipline’s underlying issues by rather plainly offering the new. Stevens asserts:

“The pursuit of theoretical novelty—of new terms, new concepts—is vital to continually develop a language with which to understand cultural objects, particularly when extant theoretical positions and critiques have been taken up and accounted for by the objects themselves. In this light, film theory is now repellant for exactly the reasons that it was once entrancing. Scholars searching for the security of boundaries, of systems to affirm one’s correctness, may be averse to the risks of thought that the doing of theory requires.” (5-6)

Stevens’ claims as staked in the new and boundary-pushing have led to the second merit of Film Theory. In my view, Stevens individually, as well as those scholars collectively recruited for the volume, adeptly offer solutions to the fundamental challenges of film theory. Moreover, they provide alternative interpretations of tried-and-true theories so as to account for diverse points-of-view. Stevens goes on to offer that film theory

“needs the help of resources from philosophy, social theory, the criticism of literature and theater, art history, and so forth. Film theory becomes part of cultural and political theory. Its value lies not solely in evaluating or understanding films and filmic technique but in understanding culture and its institutions” (6).

Such intersectionality—not only with other disciplines, but also those identities belonging to scholar-practitioners—is something that I agree should be considered in order for film theory to evolve and expand in academics at large. Stevens later declares that theorists should “combat ‘ideological rigidification’ if we are to put a halt to cyclical structures of society” (8). For me, that’s a guiding principle and important take-away from this volume.

Notably The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory includes a staggering thirty-two essays which, in the wrong hands, could have resulted in an incoherent and unwieldy final product. This is not so for Kyle Stevens, who logically structures their tome from beginning to end. Essays in Film Theory are placed into the following sections: “Meta-theory,” “Film Theory’s Project of Emancipation,” “Apparatus and Perception,” “Audiovisuality,” “How Close is Close Reading?” and “The Turn to Experience.” More broadly, this organizational structure is helpful for teaching purposes, as instructors could easily craft a syllabus based on the order of each topic. Beyond its practical advantages, I think that Stevens’ layout helps accomplish the overall goals of the volume, which are to

“narrow in on the subject of film, though not with a conservative or nostalgic sensibility, and with the recognition that which constitutes a film is historically contingent, in dialogue with the vicissitudes of entertainment, art, and empire. Questions regarding the history of theory, of what historical theoretical methods can be applied to contemporary texts, how to put international theorists in dialogue, the critical dismissal of pleasure, the potential biases inherent to using hypothetical spectators in one’s theory, relations of the theorist to the collective they are theorizing, and others were also overshadowed by attention to the relation of film to other media.” (8)

As evident in the quotation above, Film Theory offers an expansive range of theoretical discussions. Because of Stevens’ skillful curation and organization of these discussions, they appeal to even the newest of film scholar-theorists without compromising academic integrity in the process.

Stevens describes section one, “Meta-theory,” as answering the question, “What theory has been helpful?” (8). Building off this, section one ideally interrogates the value of classical film theories. Here contributors provide helpful interventions on affect, aesthetics, genre and film mode, and temporality, to name a few. In sum, section one includes the following chapters:

Tom Gunning’s “A Machine for Killing Time” adapts apparatus theory by considering the “mechanical marking of the passing of time as one of the specialties of cinema” (15), uniquely encompassing multiple temporal experiences like recording, replicating, experimenting with, and appealing to the leisurely passing of time. Next, “Interested and Disinterested Judgements: Film Theory and the Valences of the Aesthetic” by Daniel Morgan chronicles the “different versions of aesthetics and aesthetic theory [that] have come to play a role within cinema and media studies” (34), later incorporating the work of Hannah Arendt in their multi-layered discussion. Brian Price in “Moral Philosophy and the Moving Image” takes on another unique approach to so-called meta-theory by interrogating “what it means to think of morality as a matter of style” (57); or, put differently, how film can actively consider and in turn encourage the spectator in relation to real-life moral quandaries. In keeping with discussions of film form, style and genre, “Film | Video | Essay” by Domietta Torlasco argues that the boundaries between narrative film and film essays, are innately blurry, borrowing from theorists like Gilles Deleuze to conclude that these film types are often one in the same, “not this OR that but this AND that” (author’s emphasis; 82). Following this discussion, Malcolm Turvey in “The Medium Matters! In Defense of Medium-Specificity in Classical Film Theory” offers digital cinema as one possible solution to previous scholars’ “hostility to medium specificity in classical film theory [due to] the unwarranted conflation of medium specificity with a related but logically distinct doctrine, namely, medium essentialism” (96). Lastly, Damon Ross Young’s “In Defense of Psychoanalytic Film Theory” reiterates the value of psychoanalysis as a tool for breaking down film’s “technological process of registering reality [and] its technological modulation of fantasy” (121).

All chapters in “Meta-theory,” therefore, uniquely embrace preexisting theories while updating them for the contemporary moment, solving the fundamental problems I’ve discovered while working with film theory—applicability and relevance.

Continuing the discussion of the nature and history of film theory, section two, “Film Theory’s Project of Emancipation,” uncovers theory’s underlying epistemological value, “asking how and when we know that our theoretical praxis yields knowledge and is not, in fact, a process that generates further ideological problems” (8). In the chapters that follow, each contributor asks the reader to rework the very tools and skills that we’ve adopted when analyzing film, for they have real-life, repressive, implications.

This task is taken up immediately from the section’s introductory chapter, “Film Theory as Ideology Critique (After Trump)” by Nico Baumbach, which argues for “the need for a revitalized ideological criticism in the post-Trump age” (155), especially when the status of such scholarly discussions is at times pushed to the side and at worst ignored entirely. Conversely, Victor Fan in “Buddhism and Film Theory: Beyond a Legacy” inquires, “Is there such a thing as Chinese film theory?;” the answer being a categorical, “yes,” with key concepts in Eastern twentieth-century film scholarship, Buddhist metaphysics, and early-Republican international debates (166) lending themselves to dialogues in global, contemporary film theory. As Fan reconceptualizes classical Western film theory, so too does Maggie Hennefield reconceptualize classical genre studies and feminist theory in “Feminist Film Theory on the Brink of Laughter,” an essay that importantly bridges the gap “between feminist film theory and feminist comedy studies” (186), calling into question earlier notions of subjectivity, power, oppression, and embodiment in the process.

Excerpts from the opening scene of Daughters of the Dust (Dash, 1991).  According to Kara Keeling in “‘The Fold of Old Wounds:’ Daugters of the Dust, Eve’s Bayou, and Mississippi Damned as Cinematic Black Feminist Theory,” Julie Dash’s 1991 feature film keenly illustrates “a broader conflict between the call for Black diasporic peoples to continue the practices and traditions that colonization and enslavement sought to erase and the insistence that those same peoples break with the past and its pain.”  Moreover, Dash’s film “reveals a theorization of it, positing that a way to undermine the confined institutional meaning of ‘history’ is to introduce an African conception of time, which is available within cinematic temporalities.” (232).

Next, Noah Isenberg in “Theory for the Masses; or, Toward a Vernacular Criticism” takes on a task that is near and dear to my heart: expanding the canon of early film scholarship by examining “in a more sustained fashion how this tradition first took root” (213), in this case by considering oft-understudied scholars like Miriam Hansen and Lotte Eisner. Kara Keeling’s chapter, “‘The Fold of Old Wounds:’ Daugters of the Dust, Eve’s Bayou, and Mississippi Damned as Cinematic Black Feminist Theory,” rounds out section two, taking on the significant work of reexamining Black feminism by making “understandable” what the titular films “might contribute to existing efforts to think historical continuity, historical rupture, and the ongoing cinematic production of ‘Black women’” (232).

While final two chapters pique my interest the most—they clearly extend my own scholarly interests and are valuable on a pedagogical level—all of the contributions in “Film Theory’s Project of Emancipation” successfully work in tandem to overhaul preexisting ideological discussions, filling in gaps and initiating new conversations in the process.

Zeroing in on apparatus theory, the aptly titled “Apparatus and Perception” revisits “the 1970s impulse to theorize relations of the cinematic apparatus to audience, but in new ways” (9). Namely, the contributions in section three each factor in identity formation, spectatorial alignment, affect, and technological advancement in ways that invigorate this preexisting line of inquiry.

Marta Figlerowicz’s “Lesbian Photographers: Affect and Cinematic Self-Discovery” is one stand-out essay in this section, powerfully considering “film as a tool of insight” and “a site and standard for affective proprioception” for queer identity (258), something that is relatively absent in traditional theories of identification. Equally resonant, Homay King’s “Notes on Some Forms of Repetition” explores repetition in experimental film, its significance lying beyond being merely “materially conditioned, mechanically programmed, stupidly reflexive” (275) and instead clearing new paths for exploring meaning and memory, to name a few. Combining theory with history, “Empiricism and Film Theory: On the Moviola’s Political Ideology” by David Panagia details the relation between “politics, aesthetics, and film” by situating early film apparatuses—namely, the moviola—alongside classical film theory’s “claims made of and about editing, cutting, pasting, duration, repetition, continuity, and relationality in film” (298). Similarly, Antonio Somani in “Film Theory and Machine Vision” uses an historical lens to understand the links between nascent “machine vision technologies” and film theory’s claims that staked “images in profilmic reality” (319). Pulling double-duty, editor Kyle Stevens closes out section three with “Headphones, Cinematic Listening, and the Frame of the Skull,” asserts that headphone listening is altogether “a new medium of cinema,” one that invites “complicated questions about the relation of bodies to world, and how our bodies extend into space or retreat from it” (338).

Excerpts from Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945), one of the examples of cinematic listening offered by Kyle Stevens in “Headphones, Cinematic Listening, and the Frame of the Scull.” Stevens finds Brief Encounter provides an example of headphonic sound that begets important philosophical questions related to “half-conscious expression” (351), amongst other techniques.

In all, section three provides nuanced, at times complex, and wholly necessary updates to an area of film theory that, from my experiences, needs some of the most extensive overhauling in the present day.

Stevens’ exploration of film sound offers a seamless bridge to section four, “Audiovisuality,” which seeks to remedy “the all too commonly divided considerations of sound and image in film scholarship by focusing on neither separately but on audiovisuality as a condition of film” (9).

Section four begins with Luka Arsenjuk’s “The Audio-Visual Nonrelation and the Digital Break” and, like many chapters in Film Theory, adapts digital media studies into their new interpretation of film theory, offering that film, “may instead be reconsidered according to its place within the larger ‘audio-visual discourse’ or in the context of a more general dispositif of audio-visual media” (author’s emphasis, 360). Michel Chion moves in a slightly different direction in “The Composer of Musique Concréte Wields a Camera” (trans. Claudia Gorbman), offering personal ruminations on their previous studies of film sound, which relied heavily on “patient observation and careful description” (376). Taking another different approach, “The Many Bodies of the Dancer-Actress: Toward a Kinesics of Film Acting” by Usha Iyer discusses “the critical consequences for theorizations of acting when we read dancing and acting alongside rather than against each other, and examine how the presence of dancer-actors produces multiple modes of cinematic narration and affective responses” (386), particularly in Hindi cinema. Iyer’s welcomed consideration of global cinema and cultural studies extends to Pooja Rangan’s essay “Documentary Listening Habits,” where they posit “objective listening and embodied listening” in documentary film practice as being “entangled with discriminatory auditory practices that extend beyond documentary,” having vast implications “with an eye—or ear—to our auditory futures” (403). Lastly, Rick Warner’s “Audiovisual Rhythm and its Spectator: Moonlight as Example” extends audiovisual theory to Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film, Moonlight; Warner reads the film as employs “multisensory combinations—audial and visual rhythms that stimulate and develop our ‘transsensorial’ attention” (422).

Excerpts from Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016), analyzed in Rick Warner’s “Audiovisual Rhythm and its Spectator: Moonlight as Example.”  In part, Warner argues that Jenkin’s film illustrates “rhythmic orchestration of mood and atmosphere around its main character’s traumatic passage from youth into adulthood,” tying “aesthetic sensitivity to political consciousness, enabling the viewer-listener to track and associate resonances of style, character, and identity.” (422).

While reflecting on each of “Audiovisuality’s” contributions, I’m reminded of the impressive depth and breadth of contemporary film theory, alongside the film medium’s equally impressive technological leaps. As long as film is technologically advancing—in image, sound, and beyond—so too will theory move in exciting new directions.

Section five, “How Close is Close Reading?,” takes on an all-too familiar task: uncovering film’s interior meaning and rhetorical potential. Yet, section five is noteworthy because it “reacquaints us with the necessity of scrupulous film analysis, not as divorced from historical political concerns but precisely because understanding what a work of art is really doing—how it creates certain effects—is inseparable from its politics” (10). This, to me, is the most useful section of Film Theory, at the very least on a pedagogical level. For, as Stevens suggests in the volume’s introduction, “How Close is Close Reading?” advocates for “the labor of careful attention” (Ibid.), with the very task of performing a close reading having radical political and socio-cultural potential.

To start, Caetlin Benson-Allott’s “Contesting the White Gaze: Black Film and Postcinematic Spectatorship” astutely analyzes the titular postcinema (or film in the wake of new media), and its role in encouraging “different spectatorial reactions” to viral videos of anti-Black violence, “a problem of framing and reception that film theory is uniquely equipped to elucidate […] they invite theorists to extend their field and consider how racism, visual culture, and postcinematic media intersect currently” (448). In keeping with spectatorial engagement, Timothy Corrigan in “In Other Words: Film and the Spider Web of Description” critically considers how we as audiences recall film content, arguing that such discursive practices are “always contingent, provisional, and sometimes creative responses to the movies” (470) and thereby have important, affective implications.

Excerpts from Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), one of the films analyzed in David A. Gerstner’s “Women’s Hands and the Cinematic Cut: The Work of Montage in Man with a Movie Camera, Klute, and The Piano.”  According to Gerstner, Vertov’s film complicates notions of cinematic montage—as well as traditional images of the female body—precisely “through the cinematic cut insofar as the image of feminist labor finds itself performed as a sensual dance of power relations within masculinist discourses. What these films illustrate through their cinematic writing—montage—is the ‘constitutive dynamics that of a dialectic which constitutes the story’.” (486).

Switching gears, “Women’s Hands and the Cinematic Cut: The Work of Montage in Man with a Movie Camera, Klute, and The Piano” by David A. Gerstner combines close reading, montage theory, and feminist film theory, showing how the aforementioned films “toggle between the abstract (ideology = patriarchy) and the concrete (image = woman’s hands), between the part and the whole” (484) through their editing techniques.

Excerpts from The Soft Skin (Truffaut, 1964), as referenced in “Standing Up Too Close or Back Too Far? A Slanted History of Close Film Analysis” by Adrian Martin.  In their essay, Martin advocates for alternatives to close reading, beyond extracting mere symbolic or metaphoric status to films.  Discussing gas station sequence pictured here, Martin emphasizes: Truffaut “set himself apart from the school of mannerist directors of the 1960s […] For Truffaut, meaning had to be embedded within the world of the story—the routine actions and daily rituals of its characters—and never superimposed in an ostentatious way.” (515).

Adrian Martin further interrogates close reading in “Standing Up Too Close or Back Too Far? A Slanted History of Close Film Analysis” by defending its merits of this analytical approach, offering that close analysis signals “very close attention to the details of an individual text” (507), an academically rigorous process that is reflective of key moments and trends in film history.

Stills from Emak Bakia (Ray, 1926), Ghosts Before Breakfast (Richter, 1927), discussed in Marketa Uhlirova’s “On Fire: When Fashion Meets Cinema.”  Both short films help illustrate Uhlirova’s claims on the use of clothes in early experimental films to dissociate and defamiliarize “functions and meanings habitually assigned to them,” turning into “objects of wonder that acquire an intense transgressive power. Like magical fetishes […] they have the capacity to act on their owners, though more often than not with a distinctly subversive twist.” (534).

“On Fire: When Fashion Meets Cinema” by Marketa Uhlirova provides yet another adaptation of close reading, this time focusing on film and dress; they propose a standard scholarly baseline that accounts for the nuances between “fashion,” “film clothing,” and “clothes,” providing “a prism through which to reframe our understanding of cinema’s workings across its narrative and nonnarrative forms” (528).

Amy Villarejo’s essay, “When and Where Does a Film Begin? Putting Films in Context,” concludes section five, calling into question the very contexts used in studying moments in film history and offering an alternative that accounts for “place,” a process “tying together social interactions and built environments, bounded spaces and links to what encloses them, unique histories, and internal conflicts” (549).

Overall, I find the value of section five both on a scholarly level—perhaps guiding alternative approaches to my own future scholarship—and on an instructional one. The chapters here, I think, will help students reevaluate their own approaches to reading, researching, and talking about films in the classroom.

Film Theory’s final section, “The Turn of Experience,” provides an even more robust discussion of affect theory and phenomenology. In retrospect it seems that this is a connecting thread amongst many earlier essays, which initially made me question the need for a wholly separate section with this theoretical focus. However, as Stevens writes, “there is much more to be said about affect, labor, epistemic validity, spectatorship, and technology” (11), especially considering phenomenology. Therefore, “The Turn to Experience” helpfully closes out Stevens’ volume, and looks to broader, spectatorial implications within film theory. With this in mind, section six is laid out as follows:

“The Affective Turnabout’s Fair Play” by Sarah Keller deconstructs the very premises underlying affect theory, namely that affective experience is partial, passive, and monolithic, and instead they provide alternatives in independent cinema that account for the “disenfranchised, individual, and multifarious” (569). Next, Julian Hanich in “An Invention with a Future: Collective Viewing, Joint Deep Attention, and the Ongoing Value of the Cinema” reconceptualizes traditional viewing practices and studies thereof, urging us to “reconsider not only to what we devote our attention but also where, when, and how we do so” (author’s emphasis; 590). In other words, it profits to focus on alternate engagements with film beyond the black box of the traditional movie theater. John David Rhodes in “Those Who Have: The Impersonality of Film Theory” takes Hanich’s study of subjective film experience one step further, historicizing the early theoretical impulse to displace “at least, any personal individualizing sense of the person” (609), and the consequences that this has in present-day understandings of film consumption. Similarly, Scott C. Richmond’s “On the Impersonality of Experience: Psychoanalysis, Interiority, and the Turn to Affect” traces affect theory alongside psychoanalysis, showing how these schools of thought have a collectively “shared project of reckoning with what is difficult to articulate in our aesthetic encounters with technical media […] in ways that reflect the meaning, force, texture, and context of those encounters” (628). Finally, Robert Sinnerbrink in “Cinematic Experience: From Moving Images to Virtual Reality” turns to new media like VR and other interactive media to further illuminate how “the original enthusiastic embrace of cinema as an ‘experience machine’ capable of arousing, emulating, and enhancing ‘ordinary’ experience has returned in response to the rise of digital media culture” (646), in effect showing how old is really new again. In “The Turn of Experience,” in total, all look to the future of film theory in light of new media and modality and consider the ways that this complicates our studies of film proper for the better.

“The ambition of these chapters, taken together, is to further our exchanges about the methods that cohere film studies,” Kyle Stevens concludes in his introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory:

“Psychologists may think deeply about love. Philosophers may think deeply about love. Scholars of romantic comedies may think deeply about love. What determines a scholarly community is how they think. If film theory is to perdure, the conversation about our shared methods and questions is imperative.” (11)

Indeed, Stevens and each of his contributors achieve such aims towards discussion, reflection, and transformation, that in the process they clear a path for new, advanced film scholarship, which is no small task. Recalling the questions—So what? Why does this matter?—Stevens in Film Theory clearly shows the purpose and value of film theory, beginning with classical, formative discussions and entering contemporary debates, not only proving theory’s lasting relevance but also possibility for continued sustainability. Volumes like Stevens’ reinvigorate the discipline, for sure.

Excerpts from Strike! (Eisenstein, 1924), as discussed in John David Rhodes’ “Those Who Have: The Impersonality of Film Theory” by John David Rhodes.  Rhodes argues that films like Strike! demonstrate early film theory’s (or, rather, Soviet film theory’s) tendency towards emotion: director Sergei Eisenstein “is the more Kantian thinker: he is less interested in the work of art itself, than the work of art as a medium in which the spectator discovers a new experience—one that feels immediately their own but that in fact is shared universally.” (615).