What is film theory? Is it just the theory of film? Or is it something more? Fear not, we’re going to answer the question “what is film theory?” with a film theory definition. We’re also going to examine a variety of different aspects of film theory, both technically and theoretically. By the end, you’ll know what film theory is, how to apply it, and why it’s important to the study of media.
Filmmaking Theory Explained
First, let’s define film theory
If you’ve ever watched a film and thought critically about it, you’ve effectively applied film theory. We’re constantly trying to understand the media we consume textually, metatextually, intertextually, paratextually, etc.
But before we get ahead of ourselves breaking down the types of film theory, let’s first define what theory in general is.
Theory is a framework that seeks to explain why something is or why something will be. That said, film theory is concerned with the present of the text: the film itself.
For example, a film theory about The Godfather may seek to explain how writer/director Francis Ford Coppola used real-life experience to build filmic tone. Or how Michael Corleone’s “shutting out” of his old life is communicated through mise en scène; or how certain themes can be understood through specific lenses.
There are a lot of ways to apply film theory; we’ll explore a bunch, but first, let’s define film theory.
FILM THEORY DEFINITION
What is film theory?
Film theory is a catch-all term used to refer to technical and theoretical ways of studying film. Film theory often situates the study of film(s) within a specific point of view; for example: the works of Orson Welles within the point of view of auteur theory. Film theory has been one of the predominant forms of discourse for media studies since the 1920s. There are many different theories of film, each with a specific framework and methodology.
Types of Film Theory (Partial List):
- Genre Studies
Movie Theory Types
Structuralism is a branch of philosophy that examines how small things relate to bigger structures, i.e., marriage and social bonding. In film theory, structuralism is used as a framework to examine how small elements of filmmaking — i.e., blocking and staging, shot size, lighting, etc. — contribute to the work as a whole.
This video from The Living Philosophy breaks down structuralism in further detail.
The goal of film structuralism is to situate particular elements of a film within the greater context of the film itself. Film structuralism may utilize a “compare and contrast” approach in which theorists look for areas of juxtaposition, or a “building block” approach in which theorists look for motifs that support their argument.
Film Theory Examples
Feminist film theory allows theorists to re-situate films — which have historically been dominated by men — within a framework of gender relationality so that we can better understand power dynamics both in the film, and in the making of the film.
British academic Laura Mulvey helped pioneer feminist film theory with her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in which she argued that classical Hollywood film largely provided audiences with women “to be looked at” and men to identify with.
Feminist film theory is heavily rooted in the psychoanalytic tradition, developed by thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jacques Lacan.
In the next video, Academic Philosopher Judith Butler explores sex and gender and how it relates to media.
Feminist film theory is still widely applied today despite radical changes in global filmmaking,
Auteurism is a film theory that seeks to examine how the director of a film plays an “authorial role.” Auteurism was developed by writers of Cahiers du Cinèma, a film magazine that included work from the likes of French New Wave titans Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and more.
Auteur theory suggests that directors can be recognized by essential elements of authorship… technical, stylistic, or both.
For example: Wes Anderson is widely considered an auteur because his work often features symmetrical shots, expressive use of color, and a peculiar tone.
Here’s a video of Truffaut explaining his basis for auteur theory:
Auteur theory holds a precarious position in the history of film, situated between the “great auteurs” of the '40s, particularly Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, and those who studied them in film school, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.
Auteur theory is still widely applied today; Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino are often given the moniker “auteur” because of their recognizable directing styles.
Film Theory Meaning
Why film theory matters
Film theory allows us to apply academically rigorous analysis to films. Through this, we garner a greater understanding of texts, how they were made, and their dialectics.
Not every film theory applies to every text as perfect as one another. For example: it might be hard to apply structuralism to Un Chien Andalou. Conversely, it can be incredibly interesting to apply film theories to films that seem to be a) absurd or b) a terrible match. I once wrote a paper that applied postcolonial theory to Paddington; absurd? Perhaps.
A terrible match? Hardly.
There are no limitations to how we can apply film theory; it is merely the onus of the theorist to support their ideas with proper analysis of the text.
What is Queer Theory?
There are a lot more theories than what we went over here. Want to learn more about film theory? Check out our next article, where we break down queer theory with examples from Bojack Horseman, Pose, and more. By the end, you’ll know what queer theory is and how to apply it to both television and film.