Prompt: Is there such a thing as timeless or universal film theory? Select 2 major theoretical frameworks (e.g. apparatus theory, identification, reception studies, transnational theory) from any time period(s) or cultural contexts, and discuss how certain aspects of those theories can be used to productively analyse films from any other period and/or nation, to reflect on the endurance of certain ideas about film. Or, focus on theories that are historically/culturally-specific and argue for their specificity within particular contexts.
The feeling that cinema evokes has, is, and always will be a fundamental part of the spectator’s viewing experience. Most often, classical film theory only implicitly alludes to this. Instead, they choose to highlight the medium’s psychological, political, or ideological functions. However, since the phenomenological turn in film theory, scholars have begun to foreground the virtuosities of this embodied experience. My final paper will argue that these phenomenological approaches to cinema studies are universal and timeless. That is not to say that all classical film theory is obsolete; only that the aspects of classical film theory that most organically transcend time, consciously or unconsciously, acknowledge cinema’s potential to interact with the audience actively.
I will explore this in two sections. The first, more extended section of my paper will focus on the characteristics of contemporary phenomenological approaches to cinema. Vivian Sobchack’s “Phenomenology and Film Experience” will provide a foundational base for how this theoretical framework makes the many disparate elements of classical film theory and more contemporary theories interact with each other. Then, I will explore how these phenomenological approaches manifest most explicitly in more-maligned popular genres, like melodrama. Here, Linda Williams’ work will inform how this approach offers a diverse way of examining the dynamic relationship between female spectators and these melodramatic genres. Lastly, I will demonstrate how easily Laura Mark’s concept of “haptic visuality” also transcends time by analyzing Dziga Vertov’s manifesto film Man with a Movie Camera (1929). This trip back to Soviet montage theory also initiates the second, shorter part of my essay. Here, I will focus on Vertov’s writing. Firmly situated within the Russian Revolution, Vertov consistently underlined the importance of cinema’s constructivist qualities, particularly the montage, in promoting Marxist ideology. However, his dynamic writing style alludes to the need for an embodied experience similar to that of the phenomenologists. To show this, I will apply his “kino-eye” approach to the autobiographical/city symphony film Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2016), concluding that the ideological specificities of Soviet montage may be confined to time, but the “haptic” element inherent in them continue to reverberate.
1. Elsaesser, Thomas & Hagener, Malte. “Chapter 5 – Cinema as Skin – Body and Touch.” Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses. 2015. pp. 124-146. This chapter’s comprehensive analysis of both the various strands of phenomenological theories and their varied applicability to early and contemporary cinema help shape my argument about this theoretical framework’s universality and timelessness.
2. Marks, Laura U., Chateau, Dominique, & Moure, Josè. “The Skin and the Screen – A Dialogue.” Screens. 2016. pp. 258-263. This chapter elaborates on Laura Mark’s formulation of “haptic visuality,” which will inform my analysis of the Soviet Montage’s “haptic qualities” and how its adaptation in the contemporary film Knight of Cups also produces similar feelings with considerably different ideological implications.
3. Sobchack, Vivian. “Phenomenology and Film Experience.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. 2001. pp. 62-69. Sobchack’s precise delineation of “realists,” “formalists,” and “mirrorists” that situate her phenomenological framework as an intersection between the three classical frameworks forms the basis of this paper’s argument about the potential universality of the phenomenological framework.
4. Sobchack, Vivian. “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in Flesh.” Senses of Cinema. 2000. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2000/conference-special-effects-special-affects/fingers/. Sobchack’s first-person account of watching The Piano is critical in demonstrating how phenomenologists situate their theory not only on abstracted thoughts but on their own spectatorial experience of experiencing a film. This approach will help inform my filmic analyses.
5. Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Theory and Criticism. 1999. pp. 701-715. William’s appraisal of the maternal melodrama’s “jolts” and “sensations” supplements Sobchack ”s arguments. By focusing on alternative, more complicated modes of film spectatorship for female viewers of genre films, Williams argues for phenomenological approaches that go beyond conventional film theory’s study on film reception in fixed and binary terms. This analysis aids my argument about the potential universality of phenomenology.
6. Vertov, Dziga. “Film Directors: A Revolution.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. 2001. pp. 257-262. Vertov’s uniquely written manifesto about the unlimited potentialities of the “kino-eye” and montage informs my analysis of how Soviet Montage’s culturally specific ideology and revolutionary spirit may be lost to time. However, its inherent haptic qualities persist in contemporary cinema.