Film Theory! A Quick Guide To Meaning, Types, Approaches

Film Theory! A Quick Guide To Meaning, Types, Approaches

By Chinenye Nwabueze

Film critics use theories to analyse contents of films. To do a thorough critique requires knowledge of relevant film theory that would guide the analysis. What is film theory? Before delving into what film theory is, let’s take a quick look at meaning of theory.

A theory is a set of ideas used in predicting or explaining phenomena. Theories are used to understand how things are likely to happen. A theory is a tested and testable concept which provides explanations for understanding a phenomenon. It is a set of meaningful propositions which give systematic approaches to phenomena by specifying relationship among occurrences. A theory offers conceptual frameworks for reality, occurrences, and relationship among elements in the society.

Some actors in the classic movie “Game of Thrones”

What is film theory? Film theory therefore, is a set of propositions which provide an explanation of how film works, how people view and understand film. Film theory provides scholarly, conceptual frameworks for comprehending the relationship between film and reality, the other arts, the audiences, and society. Film theory has also been defined as a theory developed to explain the nature of motion pictures and how they produce emotional and mental effects on the audience.

Film theory is used to understand how various film genres work, how the audience understand and appreciate them, what makes such film genres unique, and their relationship with the society at large. The basic fact is that film theory is used to appreciate film as a unique art form. Film theories are developed to analyze film, especially as people began to realize that films provided more than entertainment to the audience. Theories were developed to also understand what film offers beyond entertainment. Here is a list and quick explanation of some of the most common film theories developed to explain how film works.

Auteur film theory: This theory suggests that the director is the major force responsible for creating a movie, without recognizing the efforts of several other people involved in the film production process. The theory sees the director as the super genius behind every film. An auteur is a person, usually an artist such as film director, who uses a highly centralized and subjective approach in controlling several aspects of a collaborative work. An auteur is equivalent of an author. Those who adopt this approach in film criticism see the director as the person that dominates film creative; his personal life and former works may be viewed as having influenced the film being critiqued.

Cognitive film theory: This theory which was proposed by Noël Carroll suggests that science such as neuroscience and psychology should be used in explaining how audiences watch and understand films.

Deconstruction theory: This is the use of deconstruction theory to analyze films. This approach to film criticism focuses on how commonplace assumptions about reality and literal meaning are the product of arbitrary, but widely held habits of thinking. The theory was originated by philosopher Jacques Derrida. It is used to provide indepth analysis of a film with a view to exposing meanings which most times, is different from what the film makers intended.

Feminist film theory: This theory critiques film from the perspective of male dominance or superiority over women –  patriarchy. This theory focuses on the portrayals of women in a film; were they portrayed in the film as strong or weak, are their stereotypes used to portray them, were they protagonists, antagonists, or even dehumanized? This is the primary focus of a critique adopting this theory in examining a film.

Realist film theory: This is an approach that analyzes films from the perspective of how they represent reality. Realist films are also known as “actualities”. They focus more on showcasing characters and/or actors; they use a lot of close ups to convey emotions; they rely on talents of actors to tell stories to the audience. Anyone adopting this theory in anaylizing a movie looks out for how characters were used in expressing meaning in the film.

Formalist film theory: This is the opposite of realist film theory. It focuses on how formal properties of film (such as editing or image composition) make a movie unique. This approach looks at the form and structure of the film itself. It does not look for external evidence of why a film is good (such as the auteur theory that looks at director’s contribution). This theory focuses on internal evidence of film quality such as editing, image composition, makeup, scenic design, among others. Formalist films focus illusions, myths and fantasies, particularly use of external elements in movies to express emotions and messages. Such elements include music, makeup, sets, props, special effects, among others. The basic different between realist and formalist movies is that the former focuses on actors while the later focuses on other devices used in creating expressing meanings outside the actors. A film critique adopting the formalistic theory in anaylizing a movie looks out for how other devices or elements in a movie (apart from characters) were used in expressing meanings in the film.

Ideological theory: This suggests that culture shapes how people think and behave, and this could influence film production and exposure. Ideological approach to film criticism seeks to uncover the hidden politics of a film.

Post-colonialist film theory: This theory says film could be analysed based on the impact or legacy of colonial power exerted over cultures or nations. In film studies, post-colonialism theory examines films made by film-makers from countries colonised (or formerly colonised) by the West or at Western films that depict colonised nations. The critique attempts to establish whether a pattern exists in film making based on post-colonialism.

Postmodernist theory: This theory presents a period of critical theory which claims that the old big ideas have run out of juice. It says that high art and popular culture are now inseparable, and that images have become more real than reality.

Reception theory: This theory approaches film criticism and analysis from the point of view of film audience. It asks film audiences what they thin, rather than theorising about how they are interacting with what they see on film.

Semiotic film theory: This theory focuses on the use of signs, language, symbols and formal structures to convey meaning in films. It explains how meaning is conveyed in movies through various methods such as body language, gesture, letters, words, and visual illustration. It is related to structuralist film theory.

Structuralist film theory: This theory suggests that films use codes and symbols to convey meanings. It suggests that a combination of structures of a film or key elements can be used to convey additional meaning even when no conversion is involved. Such elements as shot composition and duration, lighting, angle of shot, cultural context and juxtaposition of shots could reinforce or undermine meanings expressed in a film. This approach is used to expose such meanings to the audience. The structuralist theory recognizes that elements within a structure gain their meaning through their relations to other elements in that structure.

Psychoanalytic film theory: This theory examines the ‘unconscious’ of the film’s director, characters, subjects, and sometimes the film’s audience.  This theory was derived from the Psychoanalysis discipline which was started by Sigmund Freud. This discipline studies the unconscious in every occurrence, attempting to bring to the surface repressed mental material, and how someone’s past could lead to unconscious desires manifested present actions. A film critique adopting this approach subjects a film makers’ work to a kind of psychoanalysis session aimed at ascertaining whether the film makers’ biographical background led to unconscious desires embedded in their personality which they want to manifest and satisfy in a film. This also shares meaning with the psychological approach.

Contextualist approach: This theory suggests that no film is produced in isolation. It is an approach to film analysis considers a film as part of some broader context. The theory states that all incidents in a film have social, political, and cultural context with which the film concerns itself and in which it was made; such contexts should guide the evaluation of a movie.

Generic approach: The generic approach to film criticism focuses on a film as a representative of a genre, comparing it with other films from the same genre and finding meaning by identifying shared symbolic motifs or variations from the expected formula. This approach becomes very essential when a film intentionally subverts or inverts various elements of traditional generic formulas. Specific film genres have unique qualities used in evaluating quality of films. This theory suggests a focus on the features that make specific genres unique and using such qualities to examine films in such genres even where the film maker has attempted to change what is conventional about specific genre in a bid to be creative or innovative.

Marxist film theory: This approach to film criticism creates a class-struggle scenario for characters and events in a film. It sees these characters as representative of class struggle, for instance labor vs. management, poor vs. rich, oppressive governments, and other Marxist sociopolitical concerns. A critique adopting this approach looks at how class struggle was expressed in the movie.

Dualist Approach: This approach to film criticism primarily looks for pairs of opposites in a film and evaluates the contributions of such observations to overall film quality and experience. Some of the common pairs upon which film evaluation is premised include male-female, good-evil, light-dark, urban-rural, young-old, rich-poor, literate-illiterate, among others.

Linguistic film theory: This theory proposed by Stanley Cavell studies aesthetics of films in their ability to engage the audience in a therapeutic process of ‘dialogue’. It studies how words are used in movies to facilitate message understanding of and elicit aesthetic experience in the audience. This theory sees film as a language and how that language is expressed in the total production package is the premise of any critique adopting this approach.

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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