The Language Of Cinema
As a broad generalization, the development of cinema studies since 1970 has been shaped by a debate between the search for a medium-specific "language" of cinema and inquiries into the ways cinema reflects, reproduces, or otherwise expresses
the cultures it derives from or seeks to change. Initial work of the later 1960s emphasized the linguistic structures that appeared to govern cinema. In the later 1970s, two backlashes came in the form first of a film-specific criticism antipathetic to the idea that "bourgeois" forms like the novel and the feature film shared similar structures, and second, of a move away from "theory" toward more traditional forms of humanistic and sociological scholarship. The 1980s witnessed a powerful burst of interest in the cultural dimensions of cinema as an expression of macro-and microcultures—African-American, queer, and third cinema theories privileging the role of cinema as communicator of distinct and differentiated cultural values. In the 1990s, additional emphases were placed on ostensibly marginalized techniques like sound and animation, while the struggle over theory was renewed in the arrival of new theoretical paradigms, notably from phenomenology and the philosophy of desire.
Earlier criticism (commonly referred to as "classical film theory") often celebrated cinema's capacity for realism (see Andrew, 1976). After 1968 the French journal Cahiers du cinéma, in common with much of French culture, was rapidly and radically politicized and began to critique the illusion of reality in cinema. In the person of Christian Metz, the new criticism articulated an influential mix of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and semiotics, the "science of signs." In the 1970s, critics associated with the U.K. journal Screen began to translate much of this work, and to develop an indigenous theoretical practice, today often referred to as Screen theory. The addition of a powerful strand of feminist criticism was the most significant new development, especially as presented in Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" and in the work of Stephen Heath, while Paul Willemen added political commitment and polemic. Rejecting the realist proposals of André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, the Screen critics proposed that cinema acted as an ideological apparatus, a term borrowed in part from the French Communist Party's leading philosopher of the day, Louis Althusser. Rather than transmitting ideological messages, as earlier political critics had assumed, cinema's technical apparatus of camera and projector lenses and screens recreated a model in which the audience member was constructed as the subject of ideology. Interpellated (or "hailed") by the apparatus and positioned by it, the cinematic subject became a willing participant in the construction of illusion. (It is interesting to note that the two leading political theorists of working-class collusion in their own oppression, Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci, were both translated by editors of Screen.)
In Mulvey's version, this process recapitulated the mirror phase of early childhood development proposed by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. For Lacan, the child's first recognition of itself in the mirror was both a traumatic discovery of separation from the maternal body and the first identification with an ideal version of itself—more distinct, more capable than it feels itself to be. This dialectic between the loss and idealization of the self Mulvey holds to be the origin of identification with human figures on screen, a fundamental identification that is then articulated with the differing representations of men and women (the one typically looking, the other typically being looked at) to produce the effect of gendered subjectivity in the cinema apparatus. Screen critics prized especially the works
of the avant-garde, deploying the semiotic theory of signs to advance the theory that avant-garde cinema freed signifiers (the materials of light and shade for example) from their bondage to the signified (to the illusory representation of an always already ideological reality). At the same time, they sought out more popular films that exemplified the contradictory and dialectical tendencies within the dominant ideology, such as the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk with their clash of wealthy lifestyles and emotional catastrophe. Technical work in film semiotics continues with the work of Warren Buckland, and Screen theory has retained its position since the 1970s, especially among feminist critics like Kaja Silverman, but it has never been uncontroversial.