By Deborah Jenkin



There’s an interesting article called “New Concepts of Cinema” in THE
OXFORD HISTORY OF WORLD CINEMA (see Bibliography). In it, Geoffrey
Nowell-Smith argues that in 1960s and ’70s, there was a revolution in ways
of thinking and writing about film. Until this time, there was a fairly
uniform approach to film in theoretical terms: film was regarded in
aesthetic (art) terms, and theory concerned itself with the status of the
photographic image and the possibilities filmmaking offered for artistic

Most film theory and criticism took no notice of mainstream, commercial
filmmaking at all, which meant that, although Hollywood films dominated
movie theatres around the world, they received almost no critical or
theoretical attention. But in the 1950s European (esp. French) theorists
began to look seriously at Hollywood cinema, and so to break the monopoly
of European art cinema in the theory arena. Two main approaches developed:

(i) Auteur analysis (“auteur” is a French word meaning “author”) – this
involved a celebration of filmmakers working in the Hollywood studio system
(and in other mainstream cinemas) who, by virtue of creative genius and
force of personality, managed to transcend the limitations of that system
and genre filmmaking. Filmmakers who tended to be discussed were ones like
John Ford, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk. Example of auteur
analysis can be found in Sarris (1969).

(ii) Genre analysis – another method of classification and evaluation.
This approach acknowledged that the studio system and genre filmmaking
offered interesting possibilities as well as limitations. It was concerned
with identifying and analysing the characteristics of particular genres,
and to identify genres which were progressive (eg. films noirs like THE BIG
SLEEP) as opposed to conservative (eg. Westerns). It often went along with
auteur analysis, as critics looked for directors working within, but also
transcending, genres.

But the “revolution” didn’t really kick off in a big way until the
importation of structuralist and semiotic theories into film theory in the
late ’60s and early ’70s. This importation set off a kind of massive
fragmentation in film theory, with a proliferation of theoretical
approaches emerging from the 1970s onwards – ideological criticism,
psychoanalysis, feminism, queer theory, postcolonialism. At the same time,
film studies beacme a common area of tertiary study in the 1970s. Then,
from the 1980s, postmodernist theory emerged.

I can only give the most cursory description of some of the main
theoretical approaches (which are often contradictory and fragmented
themselves) – but this will give some idea of the diversity of film theory.


These theories began in linguistics (with Ferdinand de Saussure) and in
anthropology (with Claude Levi-Strauss) – their basic aim was to locate and
analyse the ways in which meanings were produced, and to identify
structures of meaning underlying language and kinship relations,
respectively. It was quickly recognised that these ideas could be used to
analyse almost any kind of meaning system – Roland Barthes’ book
MYTHOLOGIES has analyses of advertising images, art exhibitions, wrestling,
war photos, cooking, and so on.

Applied to film, semiotic and structuralist theories tried to analyse film
as a language – Christian Metz (1974) produced an incredibly detailed
analysis of the way film works in terms of its units of meaning and the
ways they were strung together. This kind of analysis is a bit technical
and dull, and doesn’t produce especially useful results on its own. Still,
these approaches are vital because they form the basis of pretty much every
film theory approach to come later – we’ll look at some of them.


These are effectively Marxist-derived approaches which look at social
relations and texts in terms of class structures, and usually take a
politically critical approach. Early versions of ideological film theory
analysed the Hollywood film industry as a capitalist system, and looked at
the films it produced as supporting and sustaining bourgeios ideals. Later
approaches take up the idea of ideology in a broader way. For example,
Bill Nichols (1981) uses semiotics to show how all kinds of film texts (not
just Hollywood ones) produce different versions of social reality, and
promote particulars sets of values, beliefs and ideas about the world (ie.


This is probably the most complex set of theories to be used in film
studies, but it dominated film theory through the 1970s and ’80s and is
only just beginning to lose its hold in favour of postmodernist theory. If
you’re going to study film theory in any detail you need to something know
about psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalytic film theory is based on the ideas of Jacques Lacan, French
academic and psychoanalyst (I’ve put one of his books on the Bibliographyt,
but I don’t recommend it for light reading…). Put as simply as possible,
psychoanalytic theory tries to account for the way in which the individual
comes into existence as a sexual and psychological being. Applied to film,
it deals with relationships between the spectator and the text – how the
text positions the spectator, how film produces and satisfies desire (ie.
by reproducing some of the earliest experiences of the developing child; by
setting up structures of looking [“gaze”]). It’s this interest in the
spectator which really sets this approach apart – earlier theories had
focused mostly on the director and/or the text.


Maybe this should now be called “Gender Theory”, because there’s been a
recent burst of interest in looking at masculine identities (eg. Krutnik,
1993) – but interest in gender as a theoretical and analytical category
began with analysis of female identity.

Early feminist theory, like Molly Haskell’s book FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE
tended to look at the roles available for women in film industries and in
film texts. The general consensus was that these roles were pretty dismal:
there were very few women producing films, and the female characters
represented a depressing array of stereotypes – little girl, mother, wife,
whore. This approach was influenced by ideological theory, replacing class
structures with gender structures.

Later feminist film theory was much more strongly influenced by
psychoanalytic theory – and this pretty much began with Laura Mulvey’s 1978
article “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema”. Mulvey argued that
mainstream films had gaze structures which privileged the male over the
female – so that the audience was always identifying with a male gaze,
usually attached to an active hero who drove the plot. Women, on the other
hand, were constructed as objects to be looked at – the female body was
always emphasised and put on display, and this was reinforced by the
passive role of the woman in the plot (eg. Hitchcock’s PSYCHO). Such
psychoanalytic feminist approaches find some intriguing outlets – like
Barbara Creed’s analysis of horror films in terms of male fear of female
sexuality (mentioned in Week 1’s lecture).


This approach grew out of both psychoanalytic and feminist film theory –
esp. their interest in sexuality and the body. Effectively, queer theory
aims to challenge accepted notions of gender and sexuality, and to analyse
them as shifting, fragmentary categories rather than fixed identities.

In film theory it began, to some extent, as a critique of representations
of homosexuals in mainstream cinema – like feminist film theory with women
(see Russo, 1985). But later, there was a more complex, psychoanalytic
response – a rereading of mainstream texts in subversive, sometimes
slightly perverse ways, finding evidence of homoeroticism in images and
narratives. For example, Carol Griggers reads THELMA AND LOUISE as a
lesbian text – quite self-conscious that hers is an aberrant reading (ie.
one which goes against the obvious meaning of the text). Also see Dyer
(1993) for some queer film theory and analysis.


Postcolonialist theory came into its own in the 1970s, after the European
empires set up in the 18th and 19th centuries had been more or less
dismantled. This body of theory deals with the effects of colonial
activity on colonised peoples, and with the possibilities which exist for
them to express themselves, attain cultural independence, and assert their
identities and cultural histories.

Studies of film from a postcolonial perspective tend to take one of two
approaches (though Shohat & Stam, 1994, deal with both):

(i) Analysing the relationships between film industries around the
world, ususally in terms of the dominant position of the Hollywood
industry, and its effects on other industries. This approach concerns
itself with the possibilities for national (and sub-national) cinemas to
develop and survive – the debates about the Australian fim industry often
fall into this category. The idea of neo-colonialism comes into play in
this context – ie. colonisation not in physical terms, but in cultural and
economic terms.

(ii) Analysing representations of colonised “Others” and marginalised
racial groups, and discussing possibilities for them to produce images of
themselves. We saw this kind of idea in relation to multicultural and
Aboriginal identities in Australian films. See also Guerrero (1993) for an
analysis of representations of African-Americans in US films.


There’s no real way of making this idea coherent or straightforward – the
term refers to so many ideas and phenomena that any account is going to be
selective. But, to make it possible to deal with now, I’ll talk about
postmodernism in terms of three issues:

(i) A description of contemporary society, economics and politics. From
being a world economy and society based on industrialisation and
manufacture, we’ve moved to one of information exchange, backed by advances
in communication technology. The new world order is characterised by
globalisation (dealt with in International Comm), transnational
corporations, breakdown of national boundaries, fragmentation of identity.

(ii) A description of artistic practice and cultural production –
postmodernist texts have characteristics such as fragmentation of
narrative structure, pastiche (“borrowing” from other texts, genres),
parody (sending up other texts/genres), a breakdown of distinctions between
“high” and “low” culture.

(3) A set of theoretical propositions and approaches which can be used to
analyse anything. The main approach is a deconstructive one – ie. one
which looks into texts (or whatever is being analysed) to locate their
contradictions, fragmentations, etc.


Now I want to look at some of the connections between a couple of these
theoretical perspectives and certain changes in film production over the
last thirty years. I’ll take two of the theories – postcolonialism and
postmodernism (though would be equally possible to make similar arguments
in relation to, say, feminism or queer theory). What I want to suggest is
that during the 1960s and ’70s, a strong postcolonialist sensibility
developed in world filmmaking, with countries respondingf both to
relatively recent political independence (with all its difficulties), and
to the neo-colonialist Hollywood domination of world film markets. And
then, in the 1980s there were certain changes which can be linked to
postmodernist theory.


(i) National cinemas:

Hollywood films were already dominating cinema screens around the world by
the 1920s, because of a number of factors: the US’ vibrant economy (until
the Depression of the ’30s); its non-involvement in World War I until the
last minute (European industries couldn’t be kept up during the war); its
modernised industrial system. This domination has never really
disappeared, and still operates – the table attached shows the massive
share Hollywood has of European film markets in 1995, and Hollywood films
also dominate African, South American, Australian/NZ, Middle East and many
Asian markets. In fact, Nowell-Smith argues that the popularity of
Hollywood films, together with increasingly relaxed regulations on the
import of US films, is going to increase and will have a drastic effect on
other countries’ cinemas.

This argument is essentially a postcolonialist one, which sees America as a
neo-colonialist power – ie. it “colonises” countries in a cultural way,
exporting its values, ideals, images all over the world via its culture
industries (TV, film, advertising, the Internet). This applies even to
previous coloniser countries, esp. in Western Europe, whose film cultures
are effectively “colonised” by Hollywood. In accordance with postcolonial
theory, awareness of this domination has, since the 1960s, resulted in
quite a wide range of oppositional moves on the part of filmmakers in many
parts of the world.

In the 1960s and ’70s, there were efforts by many countries to develop
filmmaking styles which were entirely different to classical Hollywood
filsm and which could effectively define national cinemas. In France,
Germany and Italy, for example, “New Wave”cinemas appeared in the 1960s
which deliberately countered Hollywood – they moved away from action and
spectacle, and from narrative resolution, developing what came to be called
“European art film” – an example is LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. As colonial
empires ended, previously colonised countries also used this strategy of
establishing alternative filmmaking styles and forms to set up national
cinemas. African countries provide an example – esp. Burkina Faso, which
developed an art cinema influenced by France, but using very “African”
subject matter (eg. WEND KUUNI).

There were also highly politicised cinemas, especially in South America
(eg. Argentina, Brazil, Chile) which opposed existing political regimes for
their subordination to the US, and often had a go at the US directly. They
often used anti-Hollywood styles and forms, deliberately avoiding the kinds
of high production values and spectacle associated with Hollywood. They
often used documentary forms, polemical voiceovers, and radical montages,
and they borrowed indigenous cultural notions (eg. cannibalism) as a way of
asserting their specific identities – for example, THE HOUR OF THE

The kind of anti-commercialism which defines all of these developments also
influenced filmmaking in countries with big commercial cinemas – in India,
an art film industry emerged in the 1960s, and in Hong Kong, the New Wave
came in the ’80s, as did the Chinese Fifth Generation. These films had the
same cultural prestige as the European and other films, and often did good
things for their countries’ international reputations by winning awards and
critical accolades.

(ii) Racial marginality – minority cinemas:

Along with the development of politicised and oppositional national
cinemas, the ’70s saw an increasing political and cultural activism of
marginalised groups in many Western countries. In America, for example,
there were civil rights marches by African-Americans; in Australia, growing
Aboriginal activism and the rise of multiculturalism; in Britain and other
European countries (eg. France, Germany), race riots and increasing

Not only did these marginalised groups seek to increase their political
power and social/ economic status, but they also began to be more assertive
in the cultural arena. They worked at getting access to equipment and
finance, and at developing modes of representation which would give them
some kind of space in which to express their identities. In film, this has
resulted in an increasingly diverse array of images of racial groups – we
saw this in relation to Australia and the representation of Australian
migrant identities. A few other examples (there are many more) include:

** African-American filmmaking – African-Americans began making films in
earnest in the 1970s, largely with “blaxploitation” films like SHAFT,
SUPERFLY, SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAAADASSS SONG – violent, sexually explicit,
misogynistic films which aimed at asserting a powerful black masculine
identity. In fact, this masculinist approach has persisted in
African-American filmmaking in the 1980s and ’90s – for example in the
films of Spike Lee or John Singleton. But the positive thing is that these
films have attracted quite substantial mainstream audiences and are
increasingly able to get funding. It’s likely that film representations
will become more diverse as more African-Americans get access to the

** Other activity by ethnic minorities in America. The Hollywood film
industry has always been quite ethnically diverse in its make-up, but until
the 1970s its film texts tended to represent the Anglo-American experience
at the expense of other ethnic identities. In the 1970s, Italian-American
directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola began making films
about the Italian-American experience, and often the mafia – THE GODFATHER
series, MEAN STREETS, GOODFELLAS. There had been gangster films before,
but these new ones had a kind of cultural realism which reflected the
filmmakers’ assertion of their own ethnic identities. There’s also, very
recently, been some activity by Asian-American filmmakers (THE JOY LUCK
CLUB, THE WEDDING BANQUET, DIM SUM). On the negative side, Native
Americans have had virtually no opportunities to make films yet.

** Pakistani and Indian filmmaking in the UK – There are large Pakistani
and Indian migrant communities in Britain, esp. in London, and since the
1980s there have been a number of films focusing on that migrant
experience. For example, the films written by Hanif Kureishi and directed
LAID. There was also BHAJI ON THE BEACH in 1994. These films have tended
to circulate mostly in the arthouse circuit, but they get pretty good
critical responses and win awards at festivals – plenty of cultural

What I’m trying to indicate with both national and marginal cinemas is
that, during the ’60s and ’70s, a split developed between mainstream,
commercial cinema on the one hand, and alternative, art cinema on the
other. This was linked to a postcolonialist sensibility which associated
certain characteristics (strong narrative drive, spectacle, stock
characters – ie. commercial cinema) with neo-colonialist dominantion, and
others (complex characters, indeterminate plotting, stylistic innovation –
ie. art cinema) with opposition and resistance.


Postmodernism seems to be a phenomenon which has had a definite impact on
filmmaking around the world. I want to concentrate on two issues here –
globalisation; and postmodernist film texts.

(i) Globalisation & breakdown of national boundaries:

This is a significant theme in postmodernist theory, and we can see
evidence of the process in the world world since the 1980s. This tends to
work against the kind of thing I was talking about in relation to
postcolonialism (ie. national cinemas), so we can see a further shift in
general trends in world filmmaking.

For one thing, co-production is becoming more and more common, with funding
coming from all over the place, and producers less dependent on their
governments or private investors at home. On Monday I mentioned some
Australian moves in this direction, and there are many countries to whom
the same thing applies. For example, Chinese filmmkaer Zhang Yimou got
French funding for his film RAISE THE RED LANTERN; Indian filmmaker Mira
Nair’s recent KAMA SUTRA was European-funded; Juzo Itami’s A TAXING WOMAN
RETURNS had Italian as well as Japanese funding; Stanley Tong’s RUMBLE IN
THE BRONX was financed by Canada and HK; Ang Lee’s THE WEDDING BANQUET had
US and Taiwanese funding, Idrissa Ouedrago’s TILAI was funded in Burkina
Faso, Switzerland and France.

Along with this phenomenon, we’re finding many filmmakers shifting between
countries to make their films – eg. Nair made MISSISSIPPI MASALA in the US,
and Hong Kong filmmaking has crossed over with North American in
repetition of America in these examples could be seen as evidence of the
kind of domination discussed by postcolonialist theory. But, in fact, it
could also be read as indicating a new openness by the American film
industry to other cultural influences. A look at the Academy Awards over
the last couple of years support this view – once the only avenue for
non-American films was the special “Best Foreign Film” category, but now,
Australian, British, or Italian films can get a look-in. They may still be
Western, but the possibilities for greater diversity are there.

The implications of this are clear in postmodernist terms – it’s slowly
becoming more difficult to link films straightforwardly to national cinema,
and therefore to national identity (we saw this on Monday with Australian
film). The postcolonialist assertion of national specificity in cinema may
be gradually giving way to a kind of international cinema.

(ii) Postmodernist film texts

We can also see evidence of similar kinds of changes in the types of films
being produced, which we could describe as a gradual move towards a
postmodernist aesthetic sensibility. Several trends can be identified:

** Breakdown in art/commercial boundaries. On the one hand, many
well-known art directors have been producing films which are aimed at the
minstream international market, rather than at the international art
circuit. For example, Zhang Yimou’s FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE, Lee Tamahori’s
Neil Jordan’s THE CRYING GAME; many films by Hong Kong’s New Wave
directors. The same is true of American art directors, whose films are
becoming increasingly commercially successful – Quentin Tarantino’s PULP
FICTION, David Lynch’s WILD AT HEART, the Cohen brothers’ FARGO. These
filmmakers have tried to reconcile the two approaches, maintaining a
commitment to art cinema techniques, while adopting some of the
characteristics of classical Hollywood filmmaking. PULP FICTION is
exemplary of this trend – it’s a film which mixes popular culture (stars,
popular fiction genre) with a kind of plot fragmentation, indeterminate
ending, rambling structure which are more typical of art cinema. There’s
also a learnedness in the dialogue which seems kind of at odds with the
popular-culture extreme violence.

Some critics, like Nowell-Smith, see this as a Hollywoodisation of other
cinemas, but it’s also possible to see some cross-fertilisation – ie.
mainstream American films strongly influenced by art cinema. Scorsese’s
and Coppola’s films are examples, as are more recent films like SEVEN, 12

In both cases (non-American filmmakers going commercial, American films
going art), the tendency is to blur the boundaries between art and
commercial film. These boundaries have never really been absolute, but
it’s always been possible to talk about the two as separate categories with
reasonable confidence. As this becomes more difficult, the question
becomes how it relates to the issue of national cinema – to some extent the
commercial/art distinction has been more or less the same as the
Hollywood/alternative distinction, and national cinemas used art cinema
techniques precisely to distinguish themselves from Hollywood. If the
present trend continues, how will countries distinguish themselves? This
question is related to the globalisation issue discussed above.

** Generic complexity. One interesting recent habit in American
filmmaking is a rethinking of generic conventions – we’ve seen a number of
films which play with the whole idea of genre in a very self-conscious
(reflexive) way. Sometimes we’ve seen obvious parodies of genres, or of
specific films – the spoof film started in the ’70s with BLAZING SADDLES,
and became extremely popular (repetitive) in the ’80s – eg. the FLYING
HIGH, POLICE ACADEMY, HOT SHOTS or NAKED GUN series. More recently, there
are things like MARS ATTACKS! which play on 1950s sci-fi conventions. In
other cases, the genre play is a bit more subtle. More recently, For
example, the Western got a bit of a revision in the ’80s, with, say
UNFORGIVEN, which worried at the idea of the Western hero-killer, or BAD
GIRLS, a women’s Western. I think INDEPENDENCE DAY was also a bit
self-conscious and campy – I can’t quite believe the flag-waving was
entirely in earnest.

As well, there are many films which really don’t fit traditional genre
categories at all. How would you characterise, for example, films like
often called “postmodernist films”, but that’s not a genre classification
in the traditional sense, and seems to indicate a lack of certainty about
how to talk about these films.

We can also see new generic interests developing in countries other than
America. For example, in the 1980s, Japanese producers made a whole array
of urban comedies, often quite black and frequently concerned with food and
FAMILY, THE FAMILY GAME, SUMO DO SUMO DON’T. As well as making sardonic
comments about contemporary Japanese society, these films were aimed at
international audiences familiar with urban comedy as a genre. And, to
give another example, the Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo makes films in the
gangster genre, a staple of Hong Kong film for some time – but Woo’s films
like A BETTER TOMORROW or HARD-BOILED show signs of cross-fertilisation
with American mafia films like GOODFELLAS, CASINO, the GODFATHER series.

** Recycling, pastiche. Another trend over the last half dozen years or
so is to recycle and borrow from old texts – again, this has always been
done to some extent, but it’s becoming predominant. Some of the genre
reworking I mentioned is related to this trend – playing with and parodying
older genres and texts is clearly a way of recycling them. But there are a
few other trends we could notice:

– The current obsession with Shakespeare and 19th century English
literature (esp. Jane Austen) – film has always drawn on literary sources,
but there seems to be an enormous number of recent films based on books
having major cultural prestige. And often, there’s little attempt to do
anything terribly interesting with them (there are a few exceptions – eg.
Lurhman’s ROMEO AND JULIET, CLUELESS, RICHARD III). This kind of nostalgia
is quite typically postmodernist – the films seem to be reproducing the
surface appearances of the Renaissance and 19th century England (the films
are often very visually lush) without any great interest in their social
critiques, etc.

– Remakes of old films and making movies of TV shows or comics –
have always been kind of mutually cannibalistic in this sense, but what
interests me in the current crop is how many come from ’50s and ’60s
TV/comic sources, rather than the ’80s or ’90s – more of that postmodernist
nostalgia, connected to retro fads in music and fashion.

– Self-consciously sophisticated (and sometimes extremely tacky)
references to other texts, which aren’t quite adaptations or remakes of


Developments in film theory since the 1960s can clearly be linked to trends
in film production. However, I don’t want to overstate the influence of
postmodernism; postcolonialist arguments and practices are clearly still
relevant in the 1990s (as the debate about Australian film shows). I’ve
concentrated on postcolonialism here, but you can pursue similar kinds of
historical change in relation to, say, feminist and queer theories and
their relationships to postmodernism – see the Bibliography for references.