Supposed superiority of literature over popular culture, literary study has traditionally been able to wield a considerable amount of academic authority. This authority has been eroded as critics have come to appreciate that literature and film are two different kinds of signifying practice, producing meaning in different ways. Neither should be considered superior.
Novel and film are closely related. Morris Beja has argued “two forms of a single art: the art of narrative literature”. As a primarily visual medium, films have distinctive grammar stemming from the use of physical equipment unavailable to the literary artist. Martin Esslin has divided this grammar into two parts:
a) signs derived from the camera (including different kinds of shots-static, panning, trackingâ€¦) and
b) signs derived from the linking of shots”(including dissolves, fades, sharp cutsâ€¦).
This film grammar clearly helps to distinguish film criticism from other types of criticism and theory.
In turn, film criticism may best be understood in relation to the evolution of film theory.
Evolution of Film Theory
1. The First Phase held sway until about the mid 1930s, was formalist. Principal practitioners were Rudolf Arnheim, Sergel Eisenstein, and Hugo Musterberg.
Arnheim argued that film not only simply copied but also interpreted and moulded material. He basically anticipated and rejected the coming phase of Film theory i.e. the classical realist phase.
The Classical Realist Phase (lasted until 1960s) the most celebrated theorists were Andre Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer.
Classical realism shares some of the conventions of literary realism and naturalism prevalent especially in novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Film theorists especially Bazin was of the view that certain films tried to conceal the fact that they were films by making sure that the viewer was always given enough information to follow the plot and by ensuring that shot transitions were as inconspicuous as possible.
In spite of the rebellious ethos of the 1960s in terms of a general opposition to the academic establishment, the more liberal mood of the decade coincided with film criticism’s burgeoning(developing quickly) acceptance as an academic discipline.
The 1960s saw the emergence of semiology also called Semiotics. (the study of signs and symbols, what they mean and how they are used). Among major figures is Christian Metz.
Metz was able to incorporate into the field of film semiotics work from other disciplines, including linguistics (relying briefly on concepts derived from the American philosopher C.S. Peirce and more substantially on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (/sÉ”ËËˆsÊŠr/ or /soÊŠËˆsÊŠr/) and psychoanalysis (relying on the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan’s [Ê’ak lakÉ‘Ìƒ]; rewriting of Freudian theory)
Metz is best remembered for his articulation of his grande syntagmatique in which he divided filmic narrative into eight autonomous (independent) units or syntagmas (Syntagma (ÏƒÏÎ½Ï„Î±Î³Î¼Î±), a Greek word meaning “arrangement” in classical Greek and “constitution” in modern Greek)
Metz work gave rise to a good deal of film criticism.
4. Widespread political demonstrations of 1968-some thinkers located pivotal moment in film theory–after which the social role of cinema could hardly be ignored. The works of thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin were considered. Benjamin had optimistic view that cinema has ability to transform people’s consciousness in a positive way which was an important counter to Adorno’s apprehensive view that cinema was a part of the fantasy culture industry, a breeder of mass conformity, and paralyzer of independent thought.
Benjamin’s influence was especially felt in England where film study was gaining respectability despite the opposition of the Leavisite (Frank Raymond “F. R.” Leavis CH (14 July 1895 – 14 April 1978) school of thought, which sought to defend the study of English literature with its canon against the barbarism of “mass culture”
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( Mass culture is a term which was used in the late nineteenth century until the 1950s. Since the 1960s the term popular culture has been used instead. Popular culture is the culture of the common people or in other words: mainstream culture or just culture. It is a result of the influences of “low” culture and “high” culture. The growth of modern industry in the 19th century led to massive urbanization and the rise of new great cities, first in Europe and then in other regions, as new opportunities brought huge numbers of migrants from rural communities into urban areas. Increased literacy, rapid printing, cheap paper, music halls gave rise to popular culture as we know it today.The culture of the common people outside of large urban areas and/or in pre-industrial times is referred to as folk culture, rather than popular culture.)
5. Late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of major film journals with a theoretical slant, notable Cahiers du Cinema and Cinetique in France, and Screen in Britain. Through them films were considered to be political. Contributors to Cahiers du Cinema were inclined to evaluate films in terms of their ability to depict or stand against prevailing social attitudes or ideology.
Screen was influenced by Structuralism and theories about the position of the spectator or the subject indebted to Louis Althusser’s notion of “interpellation” (the view that ideology constructs individuals as subjects).
First Cluade Levi Strauss’ structural anthropology, and then Roland Barthes’ structuralist or mythologist critique and Michel Foucault’s analysis became increasingly influential. Following Foucault, films came to be seen as “discursive formations” depicting relations between power, knowledge, and the body.
In the 1970s film criticism also coalesced with feminist criticism, as could be seen in the first feminist journals, for example, Camera Obscura. Critics began to question the ways in which women, and particularly women’s sexuality, had been represented in films. By the 1980s feminist theory, often supported by Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, was flourishing. It is worth noting here the work of Claire Johnston, E. Ann Kaplan, Teresa de Lauretis, and Laura Mulvey. Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which analyzed the male gaze and attempts landmark in film theory and has produced as important and substantial body of film criticism.
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At the same time the male theorists Stephen Heath, Colin MacCabe, and Peter Wollen were also carrying out important initiatives in film criticism. In their early work, Heath and MacCabe seemed to share Althusser’s optimism in terms of cinema’s potential to bring about revolutionary change. These thinkers became wary of structuralism-Wollen, for example, in Godard and Counter-Cinema: Vent d’Est” reflects on the limitation of trying to understand film in terms of straightforward binary oppositions.
Then with the turn toward poststructuralism, these theorists became more skeptical about links between film and society and possibilities of “worlds of plenitude (completion), a concept undercut by the theories of Jacques Lacan. For Lacan our existence is constructed around a gap or hole; and we spend our lives trying to make up to by trying to recapture the moments of plenitude which as babies we are said to have experienced with our mother. Some film critics have connected this to film’s deployment of the ideology of romantic love, and especially the notion that love will make us whole.
As film criticism in the 1990s, the decade can perhaps best be described, in Susan Hayward’s words, as one of “postmodern pluralism,” a time when the door that started to be opened in the 1960s stood wide open. Contemporary film criticism seems to be able to incorporate a plurality of approaches; none of the familiar approaches have discarded but instead tend to resurface in different forms-like neoformalism and poststructuralist semiotics.
As for the future, academic film criticism will have to face up to and come to terms with digitalized technology: there is a danger for example, that we will have at our fingertips a surfeit of information, but as Jean Baudrillard says, “not enough meaning”. In other words if insufficient attention is paid to earlier film theories or the history of the discipline, film criticism may run the risk of becoming too open-ended and losing its autonomy or distinctive space.
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