Salient. Official Newspaper of Victoria University Students Association. Volume 40, Number 3. March 14, 1977.
Book Review — How film? — The Major Film Theories: An Introduction
The Major Film Theories: An Introduction
The Major Film Theories is a comparative representation of film theory. Inevitably, it contains nothing more than the well qualified interpretations of one man. Readers interested in the primary sources are referred to such anthologies as Mast and Cohen's Film Theory and Criticism. What Andrew has done, and what probably no other writer has yet attempted, is to extract from the major theorists the common points of reference and to set them up in constructive relationship with each other. By making them speak within a given framework, by revealing their philosophical, psychological, and aesthetic backgrounds, and by pinpointing their differences he forms a general and enlightened perspective which cannot be gained from the originals themselves.
This is achieved through evaluation of the two predominant bodies of film thought, formalism and realism, and discussion of current attempts to supercede the conflict of these two traditions. Andrew concerns himself only with 'pure' theory (that which deals with cinematic capabilities), ignoring the applied aspects (such as the auteur theory and genre criticism) which aim at a method of appreciating individual works. Although his main approach is to compare the ideas within each camp, considerable space is given in passing to comparison between the opposites.
Formalism is centred on the notion that art exists so that one may recover the sensation of life, and that its power to do this rests in the way it deviates from 'reality'. It is a technique oriented concept placing primary emphasis on the method of presenation. The fact that cinema is by its very nature unreal must be exploited. The theorists range from Munsterburg and the gestalt-trained Rudolf Arnheim through Eisenstein to the Marxist Bela Balazt.
Realism is content-oriented, its adherents arguing that the naked power of an image it of fundamental importance. Technology is the means to this end because it is capable of a more objective, more universal study of nature than any one man can aspire to. The film-maker must accept the unreal characteristics and learn to work within them. The major advocates are Siegfried Kracauer and Andre Bazin. Both 'schools' claim the same result. Each can be applied to socialism and reactionary thought; for each, the proper cinema contains a kind of magic by which we can better know ourselves.
Contemporary French film theory, the only current body of thought Andrew considers systematic enough to allow analysis, embraces a variety of positions. Jean Mitry has attempted a synthesis of Bazin and the formalists; while Christian Metz has pioneered the semiotic approach. Metz's argument is that Mitry's work signals the end of the first stage of film theory, and that it is now time to adopt a new perspective. Semiotics (the study of signs) has special relevance to cinema in that nowhere else has it been quite so apparent that signification (the meaning of signs) need not be word-oriented. The film semiotician aims to scientifically describe what it is which makes cinema possible and meaningful. The final chapter on phenomenology is an appropriate end. Because theory is secondary, the proponents argue, logic-based analysis carries with it the dangerous tendency of approaching an artwork from the outside. Art exists only for experience and only as experienced. It expresses, not communicates, 'the epiphany of the sensible.'
The Major Film Theories is by no means a profound work. It does not pursue arguments to any great depth, but it does give us a concise and well organised account of all aspects of its subject. The weaknesses arise mainly from a variation of approach. The early chapters assume virtual ignorance on the part of the reader, and are prone to misleading generalisation. For example, Arnheim's systematic explanation of why sound degraded the artform and how it need not do so is eventually reduced to the simple claim that for Arnheim, 'the sound film failed as art in every way.' The discussion of contemporary theories tends to the other extreme, by assuming the reader's familiarity with the concepts. Wollen's Signs and Meaning in the Cinema is perhaps the most useful aid to a satisfactory understanding of this section. Not surprisingly, it is with his own subject, Bazin, that Andrew is at his best. Avoiding both the above-mentioned pitfalls, he takes us quickly and clearly from an introduction to a comprehensive knowledge of the theorists work. More than any other, it is Bazin who is effectively interlaced through the book.
The task of the analyst of theory must be threefold: to provide an overview of the theories, to send the reader back to the primary texts, and to enlarge the reader's interest in film itself. Even if he does play to a small degree on our suspicion and ignorance in the second respect, Andrew performs all three fuctions admirably. The student of film will find this a valuable book.
— Simon Wilson