4 minute read


Challenges Of Cinema

The tumultuous history of cinema studies since the mid twentieth century has concentrated several core debates in the history of ideas. Should the study of film deploy traditional hermeneutic and humanistic techniques, or should it abandon them for a more rigorous analysis grounded in linguistics? Or was such grappling with continental theory an alibi for a failure to address the realities of political economy, actual rather than textually determined readers, and the operations of oppression and exploitation disguised or denied by filmic representations? Or was cinema in any case an entirely symbolic activity, a simulacrum with no relation to any reality, physical or social? In institutions where cinema has been taught, there have been the additional claims that the analysis of film is mere carping, all too often negative and destructive, and of no use to those who wish to move into filmmaking as a career. Such claims have led to the rise of major literatures in script analysis and structure, in the technical aspects of filmmaking, and in elements of creative industries literature devoted to film financing, marketing, and policy, many of which have been subsumed into the canon of cinema studies teaching.

Looking to cinema's specific contributions to the history of ideas, among the most significant has been its meticulous attention to the specificities of cultural difference and the contemporaneous splitting and differentiation of subjectivity, in the admission of transcultural cinemas and in queer cinema, for example. At its best, the affirmation of camp, for example in Richard Dyer's work on queer cinema, is valuable not only for film studies but for better understanding of the rich emotional life of the culture.

Indeed, if anything distinguishes the cinema theory among media studies, it is its readiness to engage with the emotional life. Alongside the cool analysis of finance, technique, and box office, it is difficult to sidestep the intense emotive power of film, from haunting abstraction to political passion, and in physiological reactions of tears, shrieks, and laughter. While some advances have been made in the study of the erotic (by Linda Williams) and the horrific (by Barbara Creed), both comedy and tearjerkers have resisted analysis and remain in many ways the most difficult emotional technologies to account for, partially because they are among the least esteemed in intellectual circles.

There is too the contradictory fascination of cinema captured in the phrase the dream factory. Flagship of the consciousness industries, cinema figures as both escape and utopia, flight from oppression or flight toward its alternative. It is both a device for replenishing the exhausted with meaningless entertainment and a technology for demanding the impossible. Its illusions may be seen as lies and ideology, or as evocations of emotional and spiritual satisfactions denied and destroyed by consumerism. Its darkness, serried ranks of seating, and clockwork rhythms of projection can appear as both a continuation of factory discipline into leisure time and as an expression of solidarity, community, and sociability.

Meanwhile, despite (and, in some resistant political sense, perhaps because of) the dominance of Hollywood on world screens, cinema has proved remarkably successful at translating cultural difference across the world: one thinks of the mix of kung fu, spaghetti western, and U.S. gangster in Perry Henzell's Jamaican The Harder They Come (1973). The films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John Woo, Akira Kurosawa, and Satyajit Ray have reached far more people than equivalent literary or even musical creations. Nonetheless, there remain huge difficulties in securing distribution for non-Hollywood films, a challenge that film studies shows signs of addressing in the early twenty-first century, along with the issues of cross-cultural transmission, emotion, and identification, and the utopian as well as the industrial capabilities of the medium.


Andrew, J. Dudley. Concepts in Film Theory. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

——. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Gledhill, Christine, and Linda Williams, eds. Reinventing Film Studies. London: Arnold, 2000.

Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Translated by Michael Taylor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

——. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Translated by Celia Britton et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

——. Language and Cinema. Translated by Donna Jean Umiker-Seboek. The Hague: Mouton, 1974.

Miller, Toby, and Robert Stam, eds. A Companion to Film Theory. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16, no. 3 (autumn 1975): 6–18. Reprinted in her Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976–1985.

Shohat, Ella. and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multi-culturalism and the Media. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Solanas, Fernando, and Octavio Getino. "Towards a Third Cinema." In Movies and Methods, Vol. 1, edited by Bill Nichols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Revised translation in 25 Years of Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan. London: BFI/Channel 4, 1984.

Stam, Robert, and Toby Miller, eds. Film and Theory: An Anthology. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000.

Sean Cubitt

Additional topics

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