The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview
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New Concepts of Cinema


As the cinema has changed, so have the ideas in terms of which it was discussed and written about. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a revolution in film criticism and theory. Starting in the world of specialist magazines, it went on to affect both journalistic and academic writing on the cinema and to influence many aspects of filmmaking, not only at the margins but also in the mainstream.

Like any such revolution, its effects were only partially irreversible. The bolder insights of the new writing failed to find general acceptance, while many originally radical ideas became routinized and academicized with the spread of film studies in the universities and the dwindling interaction between academic study and world outside.

To make sense of the revolution it is perhaps convenient to divide it into a number of distinct but overlapping stages. As each stage was consolidated so it became possible either to build on its achievements or to reject its limitations and head off a new direction. Events did not always precisely follow the order suggested here, and there were other tendencies at work, but a division into three or four stages demonstrates a certain logic in what, at the time, seemed a very confusing set of developments.

The first stage, beginning in the early 1960s, involved a general revaluation of the artistic values of mainstream cinema, and Hollywood in particular, stressing the contribution of individual auteurs and greatly extending the boundaries of what could be regarded as film art. This was followed, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by a Marxistinfluenced critique of that same cinema, downplaying the role of individual artists and seeing the cinema as a cracked ideological monolith, in which the cracks, interesting though they were, never seemed sufficient to challenge the general ideological character of cinema as a whole. Analysis of the ideological operations of cinema then in turn produced two contrasting developments. Acceptance of the ideological critique led to ideas of a 'counter-cinema', and of subversive practices within the mainstream, as a way of escaping the ' Hollywood-Mosfilm' monolith. Another school of thought, however, increasingly came to assert that the fissures were after all more important than the monolith and that the reception of films was a more complex and open-ended process than the ideological critics maintained.


Much of what passed for film theory in the 1940s and 1950s consisted of barely re-examined assumptions about film art inherited from the aesthetics of the silent period. The core of this theory was a notion of filmic specificity as located in the image, either singly or in juxtaposition through montage. The main difference of opinion concerned the status given to the photographic image. Some writers (and film-makers) saw it as inherently manipulable, so that the art of film consisted in the degree to which it could be transformed to produce new meanings and effects, while others located the specific difference of film in its subordination to the demands of reality as captured by the camera. Sound was seen as having added additional possibilities of counterpoint to basic imagistic values, but also, on the alternative view, as helping the cinema fulfil its inherent vocation for realism. Film theory was also very much oriented towards art practice, and to the idea of making films, in some nebulous way, more artistic. Emphasis was put on the effects the film-maker wanted to produce, rather than on the spectator's reading of them.


Film theory as it existed in the 1950s tended to privilege films which were either self-consciously artistic or which used the supposed realism of the photographic image to psychological or social effect. It had relatively little to say about the great majority of mainstream films which were neither conspicuously arty nor systematically realistic. Critics admired Welles and Ford, but not Hawks or Preminger. Since individuality was prized, and the studio system was thought to value repetition and formula over originality, the qualities of genre films were often overlooked. A first stage in the critical and theoretical revolution, therefore, consisted in the affirmation of genre films in general and of directors working within a genre framework which disciplined and channelled their individuality. With this came a recognition of on the one hand the thematic richness of the Hollywood movie in general


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
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