The Major Film Theories

This is a course from a previous year. View the current courses
Lecture, Open—Spring

What is cinema? Is it a mass entertainment medium or an art? And if it is an art, how does it differ from other artistic mediums to which it bears a resemblance, such as theatre and literature? Is it a tool of enlightenment that reveals reality as it is, or is it a tool of deception offering merely an “illusion” of reality? How does it effect viewers, both cognitively and emotionally? Can it change society for the better, or does it merely reproduce relations of power? These, and many other fascinating questions, have been debated widely by film theorists—many of them also filmmakers—almost since cinema’s inception in the 1890s. Due to cinema’s enormous popularity in the 20th century, they have also attracted the attention of intellectuals more generally, such as Rudolf Arnheim, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Gilles Deleuze. Film theory has, moreover, tended to be an interdisciplinary affair, drawing on the latest developments in psychology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics, the natural sciences, and philosophy. This course will survey the major film theories, beginning with debates about cinema’s nature and functions that emerged in the 1920s; the widespread utopian belief in its potential to change both human beings and society for the better prevalent before WWII; the countervailing view, often held by Marxists, that the cinema is a tool of domination and control; the turn since WWII to theoretical paradigms such as linguistics, psychoanalysis, and cognitivism to answer questions about the cinema; feminist interventions into film theory in the 1970s; and the wholesale critique of film theory undertaken by theorists and philosophers trained in Anglo-American analytical philosophy since the 1980s. The only prerequisite for this course is a commitment to analytical thinking, in-depth reading, and rational debate.