Film studies featured image

In a nutshell

  • Film studies offer a series of frameworks that we can use to approach film, understand how media works and how it relates to the context that it was made in
  • Film criticism discusses the film’s production quality, while film studies look at formal construction and historical context
  • Film theory aims to understand the different symbols and traditions of different cultures

Filmmakers usually focus their education on film production. It makes sense; a competent cinematographer or director needs to understand the logistics and techniques involved in the filmmaking process. Yet, knowing how and when to apply those techniques is equally important. That’s where film studies come in.

Film studies provide a series of frameworks through which we can approach film. The goal of a film scholar is to understand how media works and how it relates to the context in which it was produced. More than simply looking at the production value of a movie, film studies examine how to construct meaning as well as how audiences interpret and interact with that meaning.

How humans watch movies

One of the first ways we approach film as viewers is through the lens of film criticism. We like one film; we don’t like another.

At first, we aren’t sure why we prefer one film over another, but as we watch more films over time, we begin to notice patterns. We start to articulate our tastes, refining this language further as we discuss films with others. We liked this part. They hated it. This begins with friends and family members, but once we learn how to search the internet, we expand our vocabulary exponentially. But it all starts with basic film criticism as an entry point.

Film criticism vs. film studies

Film criticism, a la Robert Ebert, focuses discussion on the film’s production quality. It’s about how the production executed the film, from the plot’s pacing to the camera work to the soundtrack. Film critics may mention exceptional sound design or distracting lighting techniques; they’ll comment on the actors’ performance and the editing style. This type of analysis often ends with a star rating, or maybe a letter grade. Ultimately, the goal of film criticism is to determine whether a movie is well-made or poorly made.

It’s important to be aware of a movie’s production methods and how things like budget and casting might affect the finished film. However, film studies, in general, is less concerned with the quality of the work than with its formal construction and historical context. Film studies look at how movies construct meaning, often centering on the dialectic between cinema and society.

Film history

The narratives of a culture reflect the values, hopes and fears of that culture. Cinema, like all art, provides a way for us to process trauma and celebrate triumph collectively. We create art to express ourselves. We consume art to understand ourselves. To study the history of cinema is to study history itself.

At the same time, cinema also influences culture. What we watch on screen influences how we react to events in real life. We, as humans, look to stories to make sense of the world, searching for answers to the biggest questions facing humanity. Even escapist fantasies and action flicks expose cultural anxieties. And it’s not that film can do this. It must do it. It can’t escape doing it. From the American Film Institute’s Top 100 all the way down to “The Room” (2003), every film ever made has something to tell us about the historical moment from which it emerged.

A new view of the world

Cinema itself emerged alongside other industrial wonders, like the railroad. Together these technologies blew apart our notions of time and distance. They made us see ourselves differently. Indeed, the window of a train car frames the world in much the same way as the screen in a movie theater. We sit in a dark space and look out onto a bright world flowing past us beyond our reach and beyond our control.

It’s no coincidence that the early motion pictures frequently centered on locomotives. Trains and film have been intertwined since the beginning. Both have imposed significant changes in how we conceptualize ourselves and how we perceive and interact with the world. This is just one example of the dialectical relationship between cinema and culture.

Cinema and anxiety

Fast forward to the 1930s, we can find another example in German expressionism. Weimar-era directors immortalized the anxieties of a country between world wars in dark, dreamy scenes and canted angles. Even today, the Dutch angle — or better, Deutsch angle — is an effective way to make viewers uneasy. We likely wouldn’t have these techniques so ingrained in our cinematic lexicon if the rise of the Nazi regime had not pushed a wave of German directors to immigrate to Hollywood.

Likewise, “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) is a product of the post-war masculine anxiety emerging from ’50s suburban America. Much later, “Fight Club” (1999) reflects a similar theme. Each film shows us a particular moment in American history when the definition of masculinity was thrown into question.

“Rebel Without a Cause” (1955)

One final example of cinema’s dialectical relationship with history and culture: Imagine you are a scholar. You’re minding your own business researching monster movies when — BAM — history happens. And before you know it, you’re the leading authority on bodily dismemberment in post-9/11 horror films (even though you watch most of those movies shrunk down in one corner of your laptop screen). We can’t understand a work of cinema outside of its cultural and historical context. For films like “Saw” (2004) and “Hostel” (2005), that context is a nation at war, reeling from the 2001 World Trade Center attacks and the existential threat those attacks posed to the body of the United States.

Film theory and the human condition

So far, we’ve discussed two different lenses through which we can examine film: film criticism and film history. The final leg of this tripod is the mercurial film theory. This is where film studies borrow most heavily from disciplines like rhetoric, philosophy and psychology. Often, we borrow frameworks from the larger cultural dialogue.

Film criticism seeks to qualify a film’s execution, and film history seeks to understand a film’s historical context. Film theory aims to understand the inner workings of film as a medium. It gives us the tools to consider how different cinematic elements combine to build meaning. This is a deep rabbit hole. Tunnels veer off and reconnect seemingly at random.

Let’s try to get a handle on these feral rabbits. It’s time to explore some core concepts in film theory.

Montage theory

Some of the earliest scholarly writing on film came out of Russia in the early years of the Soviet Union. Curious scholars like Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein helped us understand how individual shots string together to build meaning. Unlike photography, cinema is a time-based medium. Therefore, the creator controls which images are shown, for how long and in what order.

The Kuleshov Effect teaches us that the same image can carry different meanings depending on what it is The Kuleshov Effect teaches us that the same image can carry different meanings depending on what it’s juxtaposed against. Eisenstein expanded this concept into a theory of montage, which he applied in the landmark propaganda piece, “Battleship Potemkin” (1925).

Poster for “Battleship Potemkin” (1925)

Again, we can see how history and film are inherently linked, one giving us a deeper understanding of the other. Eisenstein saw film as the ideal medium for soviet propaganda since, through montage, it could convey complex, abstract ideas in visceral, emotional images.

Revealing reality

Montage theory concerns itself with how film manipulates reality and builds its meaning out of images. André Bazin, however, focused on film’s ability to reveal reality. Bazin began writing about film in 1943 and co-founded the legendary film journal “Cahiers du cinéma” in 1951. He used the concept of the objectif — or lens — to emphasize realism as film’s most important function. In practice, this meant using wide angles, deep focus and long takes to allow viewers to make their own judgments about what is meaningful.

We can see how this idea coincides with a rejection of the highly propagandized media that flourished during World War II. In Italy, after the fall of Mussolini, filmmakers forged a grittier aesthetic directly opposed to the highly polished studio production of the previous years. This style became known as Italian neorealism. Films like “Rome, Open City” (1945) and “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) use amateur actors and real locations to tell hard-hitting stories about Italy’s common people.

“Bicycle Thieves” (1948)

The problem of realism

But is it actually possible to tell a story with true objectivity? Even the longest take has to cut eventually. Even the widest frame leaves something out. “Rashomon” (Kurosawa, 1950), for example, challenges realism in film. The film tells the same story from four different perspectives, implying that an objective account of events is actually impossible.

Poster for Rashomon” (Kurosawa, 1950)

Goddard and the French New Wave critiqued both the illusion of realism and the polished construction of French mainstream cinema. The icon film “Breathless” (1960) aimed to shatter the illusion of unfiltered reality. It revealed the marks of the filmmaking process with techniques like jump cuts and character asides. This film and others like it both expose and celebrate film as an art form.

Defining documentary

These notions of truth and realism also heavily inform the discussion around documentary filmmaking. Documentaries are assumed to offer up an objective view of reality. However, as we have just discussed, this is an illusion. In fact, when filmmaker John Grierson coined the term “documentary,” he defined it as “the creative treatment of actuality.” That was after seeing Robert Flaherty’s “Moana” (1926), which depicts a Samoan family reenacting elements of traditional culture that were already beginning to fade. The question of “what is real?” doesn’t come with easy answers.

A scene from “Moana” (1926)

Industry vs. art

With billions spent on making and watching motion pictures every year, entertainment is an industry. Generally, a blockbuster studio production needs to have enough mass appeal to make back its production budget. Therefore, studios gravitate toward safer subject matter, conventional run times and big-name stars.

The film studies discourse recognizes this. One area of study involves analyzing how the industry affects what movies are made and what those movies look like.

Auteur theory

Auteur theory provides one framework for understanding how art and industry interact. Emerging from the “Cahiers du cinéma” era of film criticism, François Truffaut first introduced the concept as La politique des auteurs, or the policy of the authors. Andrew Sarris then applied the concept to Hollywood cinema in his 1962 essay “Notes of the auteur theory.”

The idea is that, regardless of the studio policies and budget constraints that influence a film’s production, the director is ultimately the author — or auteur — of the film. Auteur theory gives creative authority to the director above all else. Though it has endured critique over the years, auteur theory continues to influence how we view the director’s role in the filmmaking process.

Exploring genre

Genre is another way films aim to be more marketable, but looking at genre can also reveal how society relates to different tropes over time. Genres often emerge or reemerge at particular historical moments. Look at George Romero’s series of zombie classics, beginning in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead.” The films highlight the racial tension and social unrest of a newly integrated nation. Looking at genre film in this way makes new connections between media and history.

Duane Jones stars in “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

National film traditions

Different cultures have different symbols and traditions. This affects how each culture produces cinema. National cinema is one category we can use to understand these various approaches to film as a medium. Why do Bollywood films look so strikingly different from Korean cinema? Exploring how the history and values of a nation impact their movies — that’s the arena of national cinema.

The politics of the moving image

Another lens to view cinema through is to view it as the product of an identity, a community or lived experience. Feminist film theory, for instance, takes feminist critique to the silver screen. Laura Mulvey, for example, observed that often in film, the man is the active protagonist and the woman is the object of desire. Mulvey used feminist theory to understand how cinema often constructs a subject position for the viewer from the male perspective. This idea sparked an entirely new school of filmmaking that aimed to break apart this oppressive narrative structure.

That’s just one example of how we use broader cultural frameworks to understand and disrupt film. Also concerned with how movies interact with oppressive rhetoric, queer theorists analyze film through an LGBTQ+ perspective. Likewise, concepts from race and ethnic studies also apply to film analysis. Race and representation in film has been an issue ever since the existence of movies.

Feminist theory, queer theory and race theory each represent a vast discourse with multiple points of entry. These approaches look at what cinema says — and what it could say — about the structure of society. Each has a rich and complex discourse that deserves more space than can be given in this overview.

Experimental cinema

Experimental cinema pushes the boundaries of form. Like free verse poetry, experimental cinema prioritizes form and imagery over plot and narrative. These films aren’t worried about reaching a mass audience. Instead, experimental filmmakers concern themselves with discovering the limits of what film can do.

As you might expect, experimental film is not a monolith. Different schools sought to explore different aspects of cinema, from the abstract animation of Oskar Fischinger in the 1910s to the feminist interrogations of narrative in works by Chantal Akerman and Sally Potter in the 1970s. Surrealists like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali made films to explore the connection between cinema and dream states. Americans like Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren followed on, turning away from literal representation to reveal deeper internal truths. Eventually blending with artists’ film and video, experimental cinema continues to be an important way to explore film as a medium.

Maya Deren in “At Land” (1944)

The state of film studies

Like filmmaking, film studies unifies concepts from a variety of disciplines. Of course, there are infinite other frameworks that we can use to understand cinema better. The most interesting ideas are often the most specific. It’s therefore difficult to catalog all of them here.

You might look closely at sound design, or costume, or lighting or any number of small details that work to say something specific. Then, you’ll look at how constructing meaning in this particular way relates to the larger historical context. Lately, the discipline has expanded to encompass all types of cinema and media broadly. Many of the tools of cinema studies can be applied to the analysis of TV, YouTube videos or even video games. Pretty much any visual medium can be better understood through film studies.

Film studies and film production

This may seem like a lot to learn. “I just want to make movies,” you may say. I’d say you’re missing out. If you are willing to take a deeper look at the films you love, I personally guarantee, as the author of this article, that your productions will improve. You’ll have the tools and the vocabulary to look at a piece of media and unpack why it’s effective — or why it isn’t. You’ll also identify techniques to use in your own films, allowing you to construct meaning more creatively and intentionally.

Even if you aren’t a filmmaker, it’s still important to understand how media constructs and conveys meaning. In an era where we encounter moving images more frequently than ever, this kind of media literacy helps us recognize how cinema influences our perception of the world.

Nicole LaJeunesse is a professional writer and a curious person who loves to unpack stories on anything from music, to movies, to gaming and beyond.