Film, aesthetics of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 15, 2024, from

1. History

The first period of serious writing on film aesthetics (roughly from the 1920s to the 1950s) was devoted to the problems raised by the photographic method, and to the accusation that film was merely the automatic recording of reality. The second period, still under way, has been dominated by attempts to elaborate a theory about the role of the camera as spectator, participant and the object or vehicle of the viewer’s identification. But issues of realism have continued to be influential.

Two opposing tendencies were evident in the first period. One sought to show that what was distinctive about cinema, and therefore to be encouraged, was the means, notably editing, by which the product deviated from a mere recording of the real world (realism of method). This view was often combined with an opposition to the use of integrated sound, on the grounds that its use resulted in a hybridized and weakened medium. In film practice this tendency was evident in the montage style of the early Soviet cinema, which emphasized the juxtaposition of objects and events by quick cuts, close-ups and striking camera angles. Thus realism of method was made the grounds for preferring an unrealistic style. The contrary and somewhat later tendency was to celebrate the dependence of film on the process of automatic recording, to argue that the medium of film is reality itself, and that in consequence developments like sound and colour are to be seen as fulfilling the historical destiny of cinema because they are additions to the realism of film. Central to this view was an endorsement of so-called ‘long-take, deep-focus’ style, thought to provide a visual experience approximating to our visual experience of the real world, and enabling different actions to take place within the same frame – a capacity later enhanced by the introduction of wide screen. Thus realism of style was justified by an appeal to realism of method.

Both tendencies exhibit a high degree of concern for prescriptive issues about film-making. The writing that initiated the second period during the 1960s rejected this approach and sought a new, ostensibly more scientific attitude to cinema through the articulation of a supposed language of film, which would enable us to analyse film technique and the viewer’s strategies for understanding film. But this approach soon abandoned its structuralist and quasi-scientific impetus in favour of a psychologically oriented approach that sought to analyse the way that film, especially the mimetic cinema of Hollywood, engages the viewer, and to characterize the experience of engagement as a species of entrapment. Thus the second period has generally been hostile to the realist tendency of the first period. Film theory in this second period has had a distinctly political agenda, drawing on Marxism and psychoanalysis to explore the role of film in reinforcing the viewer’s subjective identity. Feminist theorists have argued that conventional film-making is geared to the satisfaction of male voyeuristic desire (Mulvay 1976).

Citing this article:
Currie, Gregory. History. Film, aesthetics of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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