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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


Ian McKellen as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). The massive production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was aided by shooting outside the U.S. to take advantage of cheaper labor costs and flexible working arrangements. THE KOBAL COLLECTION

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson, New Line/Wingnut, New Zealand/USA, 2001, 178 mins.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson, New Line/Wingnut, New Zealand/USA, 2002, 179 mins.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson, New Line/Wingnut, New Zealand/USA, 2003, 201 mins.

Based on the best-selling novel of the twentieth century, the first major blockbuster of the twenty-first could base its innovations on a significant preexisting fan base. The trilogy format, already opened up as a possibility by the highly successful 1999 release of The Matrix, differed from the better established "franchise" model of comic-book superhero and horror cycles in the 1980s and 1990s by promising to tell a complete narrative, rather than an open-ended series of discrete tales. Though large, the production budget was comparable to similarly ambitious block-buster films of the period. The risk of spending such budgets on fantasy, a genre notoriously difficult to sell to mass audiences, was spread across the fame of the original "property," J. R. R. Tolkien's novel, the use of overseas labor, and an innovative marketing campaign.

The Lord of the Rings, though frequently marketed as a triumph of the New Zealand film industry, is an example of a "runaway" production—that is, a Hollywood project filmed in a foreign territory to benefit not only from location scenery but from tax breaks offered by national governments to entice high-spending studio productions, cheaper labor costs than the highly unionized U.S. industry, and flexible working arrangements often unavailable in the United States. Unusually for a big-budget production, the film employed relatively unknown actors at cheaper rates, concentrating spending instead on props, stunts, locations, and digital effects. Without a star, the film then needed to be sold on its look and its story. (The 1977 block-buster Star Wars is a comparable example.)

During the 1990s, a low-budget student film achieved significant box-office success through judicious use of word-of-mouth advertising on the then-new Worldwide Web. The marketing of The Lord of the Rings, while also using the familiar channels for preselling blockbusters, used carefully leaked and later carefully timed releases of teasers, interviews, backstage footage, trailers, stills, and production details to fan sites, even inviting fan Webmasters to attend significant film festivals and to report on them. In contrast to the Disney Company, which had set lawyers onto fans running Harry Potter sites, New Line, the AOL–Time-Warner branch company responsible for the film, used the fans as a medium for publicity before, during, and after the release of the films.

The trilogy extended and systematized a number of developments in the blockbuster film that may now be referred to as event movies. The theatrical release of the film is the trigger for a raft of related products including books, toys, computer games, soundtrack albums, and, very significantly, DVD release. Unusually, The Lord of the Rings could not benefit from the lucrative market in "product placement" (the sale of screen time within the film to automobile, computer, hotel and food companies, among others). Instead it capitalized on the very authenticity of a fantastic world without commercial products. The international touring exhibition of props from the films helped build this aura of authenticity. The planning and filming of substantial extra scenes so that the theatrical release of the film could be supplemented with up to an hour of extra storytime on the extended DVD release allowed an innovative release pattern for the films stretching over a five-to six-year period. This in turn required a loyal fan base, whose interest could be maintained over the extended period of the release strategy.

The films' budget also required that the movies, like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), should be especially palatable to East Asian audiences. Action sequences quoting both Hong Kong fight films and Japanese anime graphic style have become key components in large-budget films destined for a cosmopolitan marketplace. Cinema theory now needs to undertake explorations of such global cultural phenomena, their relationship with both the United States and the country of production, and the future status of cultural specificity in the global circulation of audiovisual materials.

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


Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime, 1997). A product of the Japanese animation industry, Princess Mononoke depicts the struggle between the natural world and technology. REUTERS NEWMEDIA INC./CORBIS

Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazake, Tokuma Shoten/Nippon Television Network/Dentsu/Studio Ghibli/Miramax, Japan, 1999 (U.S. version), 128 mins.

Hayao Miyazake's Mononoke-hime (1997; released in the United States in 1999 as Princess Mononoke), the sixth feature film for his Studio Ghibli, built on the success of his child-oriented anime, extending back more than a decade. The Japanese animation industry, powered in part by its close relations with the export of television shows for children and the toys and games crazes of the 1980s, had turned in the late 1980s to themes more suited to young adults. The international success of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira in 1988 and Mamoru Oshii and Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell of 1995 had paved the way for higher production values, the assimilation of digital technologies into traditional hand-painted cel animation, and increasingly convoluted narrative lines.

Immensely successful in Japan, where it was only outgrossed by Titanic, the film raises special challenges for the theory of cinema. The animation form has traditionally been seen as childish and has received proportionately little critical attention, while Japanese product aimed at television sales had acquired a reputation for shoddy technique, often due to the practice of farming large proportions of the handcraft out to overseas animation factories, notably in Thailand. Miyazake's film is extremely well crafted throughout, essential if the film was to succeed on the big screen. Several innovations helped, including the use of specially-written software to make three-dimensional digital animation look more like traditional cartoons.

Princess Mononoke's themes of struggle between environmental and mechanistic forces at a formative moment in Japanese history seem not only to have chimed with audiences, but to have echoed in the cartoon form the dialectics of technology and nature. Evoking the environmental ethics of first peoples, the film seeks to reconcile technological progress with a mystical understanding of the forest as stronghold of nature. The very unnaturalness of the medium, including the necessity to invent sounds for the various cartoon creatures that inhabit the film, give the movie a greater depth and deeper conflicts than the wishful ending would suggest. And the success of the film challenges cinema theory to address two of its major weaknesses: the first being the audio component of audiovisual media and its articulation with the visual; the second, the distance between photographic and graphic depiction.

Digital theorist Lev Manovich observes that the rise of digital cinema makes contemporary audiences aware that cinematography is a brief excursion in the history of animated pictures. From such specialized formal analyses, cinema studies can hope to derive new paradigms for understanding relations between recording, inventing, representing, and communicating in an increasingly global media society.

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.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterCinema - The Language Of Cinema, The Lord Of The Rings, Princess Mononoke, The Specificity Of Cinema