How to study films

The form of inquiry in film studies involves a distinction between theory, methods, and analysis.

Theory. The aim of theory is to make visible the invisible structure that orders and confers intelligibility upon films. The values inherent in all film theories direct theorists' attention to particular aspects of film's general nature or essential properties. Each theory formulates hypotheses about the general nature of film, leading to the formation of declarative knowledge (or 'knowing-that', Gilbert Ryle).

Methods. The term 'method' simply refers to procedural knowledge ('Ryle: knowing-how'). Rhetoric identifies the stages involved in an entire course of reasoning, from start to finish. These stages involve invention, composition, and style, or:

• inventio (invention, discovery)

• dispositio (disposition, composition, arrangement)

• elocutio (elocution, style)

Inventio For Aristotle, the primary way to invent arguments is by means of 'the topics': definition, comparison, relationship, circumstance, testimony.

Definition: put the subject matter to be defined into a general class; and then indicate the specific differences that distinguish this subject matter from other subjects.

Definition of 'man' = 'rational animal'; 'animal' is the general class; 'rational' is the specificity that distinguishes man from other animals.

Classical film theory: 'film' = 'art' (the general class).

Bazin: photographic recording capacity is the specificity that distinguishes film from other arts.

Arnheim: film's unique form is the specificity that distinguishes film from other arts.

Comparison: involves bringing two or more subjects together and then comparing and contrasting them, and sometimes ranking the two subjects in terms of the sub-topic of degree ('better or worse', 'more or less').

The debate focusing on the relation between classical and post-classical Hollywood cinema is conducted using the topic of comparison.

The values embedded in the auteur approach to film uses the topic of comparison to focus the critic's attention on the similarities across a director's entire output.

Relationship: cause and effect. With this topic, film analysts can explain the effects a film has on spectators by looking for probable causes.

Circumstance: 'the possible and the impossible'; 'past facts and future facts'. The analyst may set up a hypothetical or ideal spectator, and then write about what s/he experienced when watching a film (past fact) and then generalizes from these impressions, assuming that everyone who sees the film will react in the same way (future facts). Moreover, the analyst who sets up a hypothetical spectator is writing about possible reactions to the film.

Testimony: reference to external sources, either authorities (informed opinion) or examples from the film. We need to consider carefully the examples we use from a film, how we use them, and how many times we use examples, and why we choose one scene rather than another.

Arguments can also be invented by formulating a question that addresses a problem, or by carrying out a literature review and identifying the weaknesses and limitations of previous research.

Dispositio Aristotle: introduction, presentation, proof, epilogue. For film analysts, the key is 'presentation'. The disposition of some analysts is determined by the disposition of the film, while others select specific shots and scenes.

Elocutio Correctness, purity, simplicity, clearness, appropriateness, ornateness of language; avoidance of clichés.

Analysis One major aim of analysis is how a film creates meaning. Is there not a contradiction between the perception and reception of a film as a continuous experience and the fact that, at the material level, when we look at the strip of celluloid and even when we slow it down on the video player, a film is made up of wholly discontinuous, discrete entities: individual scenes, which themselves consist of segments? The analyst addresses this contradiction by focusing on the film itself, its fundamental units and how they are put together, or on the relation between the film and spectator (from the perspective either of psychoanalysis or of cognitive science).

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