Early Film Theory

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The first theorists of the cinema were mainly the directors themselves, and their critics, in the increasing number of publications devoted to the cinema, whether the daily press, fan magazines or the more serious journals. The latter had started appearing before the First World War and had spread rapidly in the early 1920s, making France, and more especially Paris, one of the world's centres of reflection on film. One of the earliest journals, Le Film, became the mouthpiece for one of the better-known theorists of the early period, Louis Delluc, originally a drama critic. Delluc was committed to cinema as a realist, popular medium. His view can be contrasted with that of Emile Vuillermoz, originally a music critic, whose avowed aim was to educate the public with a view to weaning it away from a view of cinema as a fairground attraction. It was Delluc who was the major impetus behind the establishment of film clubs, the ciné-clubs, which became a feature of French cinema from the early 1920s through to the 1950s, where they became an increasingly important feature as they were a place where enthusiasts could watch and debate films, and debate the various issues in film. It was Delluc, too, who began to talk of the director as a key force in the making of a film (his term was cinéaste), thus laying the ground for André Bazin's later politique des auteurs. It was Delluc again who addressed the spectator's relationship to the star, in work that foreshadows psychoanalytical film theory. Delluc, finally, coined the term photogénie, a much-debated concept in this period. The term was used to suggest the way in which reality was transformed by the camera through lighting, framing and so on - in other words, what made cinema special: 'The cinema was a photogenic or revelatory medium of absorption and defamiliarization, whether it focused on inanimate objects, faces, or landscapes' (Abel, 1988: 115; see also Aitken, 2001: 82-3 for a useful overview).

The other major theoretical term debated in the period was cinégraphie, introduced by Vuillermoz before the war, but adopted by a number of writers who wished to pursue the idea of film as a language, at its most basic a set of codes. Like so many other ideas circulating in the silent period, it resurfaced in the work of later theorists, in this case Alexandre Astruc in the 1940s and Christian Metz in the 1960s. These ideas were at the heart of the theoretical work of two Impressionist filmmakers and writers, Germaine Dulac and Jean Epstein, who, with others, struggled to define the detailed ways in which film could function as a language. Epstein's theoretical work, like Metz's later, crossed over into psychoanalytical concerns, with his view of cinema as self-revelation. This was a position shared by the Surrealists, who felt that films could represent dreams as well as work in ways analogous to dreams. Their particular interest was to undermine rationality. They therefore argued for films that subverted the real, whether the comedies of Chaplin and Keaton, or the early horror films, such as Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), or anti-narrative films, such as Bunuel's classic avant-garde film Un chien andalou (1929) or, finally, films that attempted to convey the dream-state, a position forcefully supported by the Surrealist poet Antonin Artaud, who, like many of his avant-garde contemporaries, wrote poetic screenplays as well as theoretical tracts and, indeed, in his case, acted in a number of films.

In the second half of the 1920s, the high/low polarity hardened in the furious debate between advocates of a mainstream cinema on the one hand and advocates of a 'pure cinema', as it was called, on the other, a cinema completely divorced from narrative concerns and constructed along different lines, such as rhythm. The pure cinema debate lasted only a few years, but it serves to demonstrate how deeply rooted the polarity between 'realism' and high-art cinema was, and has to some extent remained in French theorising. During the 1930s, after a considerable but brief flurry of theoretical work on the advent of sound, realism dominated theoretical discourse in Europe (see Aitken, 2001: 84-5). Whereas French theorists had dominated theoretical work in the 1920s, it was theorists of realism published in German such as Arnheim and Balâzs who dominated the 1930s; André Bazin took up the issue of realism after the war. During the 1930s in France, however, writing on film was closely associated with film-making, as directors and critics took up polarised political positions, with many shades of grey, of course, between the supporters of Fascism and the supporters of Communism. What was clearly at issue in these troubled times was the way in which film could represent a 'reality' that was increasingly being moulded by political perceptions. Symptomatic of this period was the creation in 1936 of the Louis Delluc prize for the most promising film by a group of independent critics anxious that Delluc should not be appropriated by the Right.

The early period is characterised by a wide variety of theoretical concepts, tossed around, often contradictorily, by the same writers. It would be wrong to assume that theorising in this period can be characterised by the handful of writers we have selected (Delluc, Vuillermoz, Dulac and Epstein), since what is characteristic is rather the multi-faceted debate around the new medium. Many of these debates foreshadowed future theorising, and can broadly be summarised as the opposition between realism and fantasy, the slow establishment of the director as the key figure for a film, and the attempt to outline the specificity of film not so much through narrative types (what later became known as genre study), but rather through attempts to determine a film language. These broad areas of concern remained vital to theory in the following periods.

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