Film theory
Film theory is an academic discipline that aims to explore the essence of the cinema
A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still or moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects...

 and provides conceptual frameworks for understanding film's relationship to reality
In philosophy, reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. In a wider definition, reality includes everything that is and has been, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible...

, the other art
Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect....

s, individual viewers, and society
A society, or a human society, is a group of people related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the same geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations...

 at large. Film theory is not to be confused with general film criticism
Film criticism
Film criticism is the analysis and evaluation of films, individually and collectively. In general, this can be divided into journalistic criticism that appears regularly in newspapers, and other popular, mass-media outlets and academic criticism by film scholars that is informed by film theory and...

, though there can be some crossover between the two disciplines.


French philosopher Henri Bergson
Henri Bergson
Henri-Louis Bergson was a major French philosopher, influential especially in the first half of the 20th century. Bergson convinced many thinkers that immediate experience and intuition are more significant than rationalism and science for understanding reality.He was awarded the 1927 Nobel Prize...

's Matter and Memory
Matter and Memory
Matter and Memory is one of the four main works by the French philosopher Henri Bergson . Its subtitle is "Essay on the relation of body and spirit", and the work presents an analysis of the classical philosophical problems concerning this relation...

(1896) has been cited as anticipating the development of film theory during the birth of cinema. Bergson commented on the need for new ways of thinking about movement, and coined the terms "the movement-image" and "the time-image". However, in his 1906 essay L'illusion cinématographique (in L'évolution créatrice), he rejects film as an exemplification of what he had in mind. Nonetheless, decades later, in Cinéma I and Cinema II (1983–1985), the philosopher Gilles Deleuze
Gilles Deleuze
Gilles Deleuze , was a French philosopher who, from the early 1960s until his death, wrote influentially on philosophy, literature, film, and fine art. His most popular works were the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus , both co-written with Félix...

 took Matter and Memory as the basis of his philosophy of film and revisited Bergson's concepts, combining them with the semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

 of Charles Sanders Peirce.

Early film theory arose in the silent era and was mostly concerned with defining the crucial elements of the medium. It largely evolved from the works of directors like Germaine Dulac
Germaine Dulac
Germaine Dulac was a French filmmaker, film theorist, journalist and critic. She was born in Amiens and moved to Paris in early childhood. A few years after her marriage she embarked on a journalistic career in a feminist magazine, and later became interested in film...

, Louis Delluc
Louis Delluc
Louis Delluc was a French film director, screen writer and film critic, many of whose late 1910s film writings for French newspapers were collected in the volume Cinema et cie...

, Jean Epstein
Jean Epstein
Jean Epstein was a French filmmaker, film theorist, literary critic, and novelist. Although he is remembered today primarily for his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, Epstein directed three dozen films and was an influential critic of literature and film from the...

, Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein , né Eizenshtein, was a pioneering Soviet Russian film director and film theorist, often considered to be the "Father of Montage"...

, Lev Kuleshov
Lev Kuleshov
Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov was a Soviet filmmaker and film theorist who taught at and helped establish the world's first film school .-Career:...

, and Dziga Vertov
Dziga Vertov
David Abelevich Kaufman , better known by his pseudonym Dziga Vertov , was a Soviet pioneer documentary film, newsreel director and cinema theorist...

 and film theorists like Rudolf Arnheim, Béla Balázs
Béla Balázs
----Béla Balázs , born Herbert Bauer, was a Hungarian-Jewish film critic, aesthete, writer and poet....

 and Siegfried Kracauer
Siegfried Kracauer
Siegfried Kracauer was a German-Jewish writer, journalist, sociologist, cultural critic, and film theorist...

. These individuals emphasized how film differed from reality and how it might be considered a valid art form. In the years after World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, the French film critic and theorist André Bazin
André Bazin
André Bazin was a renowned and influential French film critic and film theorist.-Life:Bazin was born in Angers, France, in 1918...

 reacted against this approach to the cinema, arguing that film's essence lay in its ability to mechanically reproduce reality, not in its difference from reality.

In the 1960s and 1970s, film theory took up residence in academia importing concepts from established disciplines like psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis has expanded, been criticized and developed in different directions, mostly by some of Freud's former students, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav...

, gender studies
Gender studies
Gender studies is a field of interdisciplinary study which analyses race, ethnicity, sexuality and location.Gender study has many different forms. One view exposed by the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir said: "One is not born a woman, one becomes one"...

, anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

, literary theory
Literary theory
Literary theory in a strict sense is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature. However, literary scholarship since the 19th century often includes—in addition to, or even instead of literary theory in the strict sense—considerations of...

, semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

  and linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

. However, not until the late 1980s or early 1990s did film theory per se achieve much prominence in American universities by displacing the prevailing humanistic, auteur theory
Auteur theory
In film criticism, auteur theory holds that a director's film reflects the director's personal creative vision, as if they were the primary "auteur"...

 that had dominated cinema studies and which had been focused on the practical elements of film writing, production, editing and criticism. American scholar David Bordwell
David Bordwell
David Bordwell is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film , Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema , Making Meaning , and On the...

 has spoken against many prominent developments film theory since the 1970s, i.e., he uses the humorously derogatory term "SLAB theory" to refer to film studies based on the ideas of Saussure, Lacan, Althusser, and/or Barthes. Instead, Bordwell promotes what he describes as "neoformalism."

During the 1990s the digital revolution in image technologies has had an impact on film theory in various ways. There has been a refocus onto celluloid film's ability to capture an "indexical" image of a moment in time by theorists like Mary Ann Doane
Mary Ann Doane
Mary Ann Doane is currently George Hazard Crooker Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She is a pioneer in the study of gender in film....

, Philip Rosen and Laura Mulvey
Laura Mulvey
Laura Mulvey is a British feminist film theorist. She was educated at St Hilda's College, Oxford. She is currently professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck, University of London...

 who was informed by psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis has expanded, been criticized and developed in different directions, mostly by some of Freud's former students, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav...

. From a psychoanalytical perspective, after the Lacan
Lacan is surname of:* Jacques Lacan , French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist** The Seminars of Jacques Lacan** From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power, a book on political philosophy by Saul Newman** Lacan at the Scene* Judith Miller, née Lacan...

ian notion of "the Real", Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher, critical theorist working in the traditions of Hegelianism, Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. He has made contributions to political theory, film theory, and theoretical psychoanalysis....

 offered new aspects of "the gaze
Gaze is a psychoanalytical term brought into popular usage by Jacques Lacan to describe the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed. The psychological effect, Lacan argues, is that the subject loses some sense of autonomy upon realizing that he or she is a visible object...

" extensively used in contemporary film analysis. There has also been a historical revisiting of early cinema screenings, practices and spectatorship modes by writers Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen
Miriam Hansen
Miriam Hansen was a film historian who made important contributions to the study of early cinema and mass culture.-Career:...

 and Yuri Tsivian.

Television writer/producer David Weddle
David Weddle
David Weddle is an American television producer and writer, best known for episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine , The Twilight Zone , Battlestar Galactica , and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation with writing partner Bradley Thompson...

 suggests that film theory as practiced in the early 2000s is a form of bait and switch
Bait and switch
Bait-and-switch is a form of fraud, most commonly used in retail sales but also applicable to other contexts. First, customers are "baited" by advertising for a product or service at a low price; second, the customers discover that the advertised good is not available and are "switched" to a...

, taking advantage of young, would-be filmmakers: anyone in Hollywood filmmaking who used film theory terms like "fabula" and "syuzhet" would be "laughed off the lot." Weddle also quotes Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert
Roger Joseph Ebert is an American film critic and screenwriter. He is the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.Ebert is known for his film review column and for the television programs Sneak Previews, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and Siskel and Ebert and The...

's opinion that "Film theory has nothing to do with film" and is an obscuricantist
Obscurantism is the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or the full details of some matter from becoming known. There are two, common, historical and intellectual, denotations: 1) restricting knowledge—opposition to the spread of knowledge, a policy of withholding knowledge from the...

The word cult in current popular usage usually refers to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre. The word originally denoted a system of ritual practices...

;" and quotes silent film historian Kevin Brownlow's alarm that academic film theorists are typically "quite aggressively Marxist."

In 2008, German filmmaker Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog Stipetić , known as Werner Herzog, is a German film director, producer, screenwriter, actor, and opera director.He is often considered as one of the greatest figures of the New German Cinema, along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Margarethe von Trotta, Volker Schlöndorff, Werner...

 suggested that "Theoretical film studies has become really awful. That’s not how you should study film. Abolish these courses and do something else which makes much more sense."

Specific theories of film

  • Apparatus theory
    Apparatus theory
    Apparatus theory, derived in part from Marxist film theory, semiotics, and psychoanalysis, was a dominant theory within cinema studies during the 1970s. It maintains that cinema is by nature ideological because its mechanics of representation are ideological. Its mechanics of representation...

  • Auteur theory
    Auteur theory
    In film criticism, auteur theory holds that a director's film reflects the director's personal creative vision, as if they were the primary "auteur"...

  • Feminist film theory
    Feminist film theory
    Feminist film theory is theoretical film criticism derived from feminist politics and feminist theory. Feminists have many approaches to cinema analysis, regarding the film elements analysed and their theoretical underpinnings.-History:...

  • Formalist film theory
    Formalist film theory
    Formalist film theory is a theory of film study that is focused on the formal, or technical, elements of a film: i.e., the lighting, scoring, sound and set design, use of color, shot composition, and editing...

  • Genre studies
    Genre studies
    Genre studies are a structuralist approach to literary theory, film theory, and other cultural theories. The study of a genre in this way examines the structural elements that combine in the telling of a story and finds patterns in collections of stories...

  • Marxist film theory
    Marxist film theory
    Marxist film theory is one of the oldest forms of film theory.Sergei Eisenstein and many other Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s expressed ideas of Marxism through film...

  • Philosophy of language film analysis
    Philosophy of language film analysis
    The philosophy of language film analysis is a form of film analysis that studies the aesthetics of film by investigating the concepts and practices that comprise the experience and interpretation of movies. It is based on the philosophical tradition begun by Ludwig Wittgenstein...

  • Psychoanalytical film theory
    Psychoanalytical film theory
    Psychoanalytical film theory is a school of academic film criticism that developed in the 1970s and '80s, is closely allied with critical theory, and that analyzes films from the perspective of psychoanalysis, generally the works of Jacques Lacan....

  • Screen theory
    Screen theory
    Screen theory is a Marxist film theory associated with the British journal Screen in the 1970s. The theoreticians of this approach -- Colin MacCabe, Stephen Heath and Laura Mulvey -- describe the "cinematic apparatus" as a version of Althusser's Ideological State Apparatus . According to screen...

  • Structuralist film theory
    Structuralist film theory
    Structuralist film theory is a branch of film theory that is rooted in Structuralism, itself based on structural linguistics, a now-obsolete branch of linguistics...

See also

  • Fictional film
    Fictional film
    Fictional film or narrative film is film that tells a fictional story or narrative. Narrative cinema is usually contrasted to films that present information, such as a nature documentary, as well as to some experimental films...

  • Film
    A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still or moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects...

  • Film journals and magazines
    Film journals and magazines
    Film periodicals combine discussion of individual films, genres and directors with in-depth considerations of the medium and the conditions of its production and reception. Their articles contrast with film reviewing in newspapers and magazines which principally serve as a consumer guide to...

  • Film studies
    Film studies
    Film studies is an academic discipline that deals with various theoretical, historical, and critical approaches to films. It is sometimes subsumed within media studies and is often compared to television studies...

  • List of motion picture-related topics
  • Philosophy of film
    Philosophy of film
    The philosophy of film is a branch of aesthetics within the discipline of philosophy that seeks to understand the most basic questions regarding film.- History :...

Further reading

  • Dudley Andrew
    Dudley Andrew
    Dudley Andrew is an American film theorist. He is R. Selden Rose Professor of Film and Comparative Literature at Yale University, where he has taught since the year 2000. Andrew is "one of the most influential scholars in the areas of theory, history and criticism," particularly specializing in...

    , Concepts in Film Theory, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
  • Francesco Casetti
    Francesco Casetti
    Francesco Casetti is an Italian film and television theorist. He is currently professor in the Humanities Program and the Film Studies Program at Yale University...

    , Theories of Cinema, 1945-1990, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.
  • Stanley Cavell
    Stanley Cavell
    Stanley Louis Cavell is an American philosopher. He is the Walter M. Cabot Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University.-Life:...

    , The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (1971); 2nd enlarged edn. (1979)
  • Bill Nichols
    Bill Nichols
    Bill Nichols is an American historian and theoretician of documentary film. His study Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary covers the theory of documentary film, a topic neglected by mainstream film theory...

    , Representing Reality. Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
  • The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford University Press
    Oxford University Press
    Oxford University Press is the largest university press in the world. It is a department of the University of Oxford and is governed by a group of 15 academics appointed by the Vice-Chancellor known as the Delegates of the Press. They are headed by the Secretary to the Delegates, who serves as...

    , 1998.
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