Cultural Studies and Film Theory

This is the level where culture is studied in all its historical heterogeneity and variance. As a question of consciousness the self is seen as a unique social configuration and a certain orientation, an individual way of inhabiting the world. Cultural and reception studies have the task of sorting out what kind of meanings have been attached to various cinematic products in different historical and social circumstances.

Cultural studies was first established very much in the spirit of opposition against traditional art studies. There was some oedipal fervour involved in that. Yet, also these two should be seen as complementary: We cannot understanding the functioning of a work of art outside the various social contexts to which it might relate (or be related), and we cannot understand its meaning in various context without being able to appreciate it as a work of art - or of entertainment, for that matter. Just like we humans must be understood both in terms of being-in-the-world and being-in-a-given-culture, we may on a certain level of description view film as a medium which mimics our way of being-in-the-world, but must also analyse it as a historically contextualised discourse. Furthermore, we must also take into account the form of the film as a whole, the film as an artefact which is an objectification of a historically situated agent or agents, the filmmakers, however they are conceived in connection with a given film.

The study of film/cinema in respect of cultural traditions and social formations may include both an analysis of the production, distribution and exhibition as well as of reception. All this involves sociology, cultural studies and hermeneutics. Furthermore, sociology and communication studies have the task of explaining the role of cinema in the society and people’s lives and patterns of behaviour.  We must study also the functions and significance of art in general and cinematic art in particular as parts of the overall process of the social construction of the cultural world. This engages both our cognition and our emotions, it relates both to our bodily and intellectual orientation into the world. While sociological study may be mainly quantative, cultural studies seeks to explore the actual qualitative aspects of how film is integrated into the patterns of people’s everyday life. The latter is in a sense a hermeneutical exercise, which involves taking into account certain interpretative possibilities that the film offers. This might be seen as going somewhat against the ‘official’ line of poetics. However, this need not be the case.

The hermeneutic aim, pace Bordwell, is not to try and find “a scheme for producing valid or valuable interpretations” (italics added), but rather the assessing of the relevance of a work in terms of ever new concerns and contexts. At its most systematic hermeneutics is the practice of setting horizons of expectation into dialogue with one another with the aim of finding non-definitive answers to the twin questions of “what was meant by this?”, and “what does this mean to me?” A difference between the two emerges from the very fact that texts of any complexity can give rise to much more meanings than was ever consciously intended. Hermeneutics on the lines of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur is quite compatible with Bordwell’s definition of poetics as “a conceptual framework within which particular questions about films’ composition and effects can be posed.”[i] After all, the very understanding of a narrative is tied to the spectators understanding of the world, society, life (i.e. what in neoformalist theory is referred to as realistic motivation[ii]) and above all of the motivations, conditions, consequences and meaning of human action - which is what narration is all about.

Understanding a film involves having an idea of the worldview and values that either explicitly or implicitly are expounded in the film and relating those to one’s own ideas about these issues. While historical and formal analysis of films is a sine qua non of any self-respecting film studies, it does not suffice when seeking to understand how people relate to a film, why and how they find it important, in what ways it communicates with their lived experience of the real world. A hermeneutical analysis might also have as its task the exploration of the potential meanings that a work of art may have in ever new historical, interpretative situations. To quote and elaborate on an ingenious formulation by Thompson: “Each analysis should tell us something not only about the film in question, but about the possibilities of film as an art.”[iii] In the same spirit one might state that: “Each interpretation of a film that has any resonance should tell us something about the possibilities of film and relating to a film as a way of exploring the human condition, the way we perceive and understand the world and the possible roles we might play in it.” This should also include ideological criticism as one of the main responsibilities of film studies is to analyse the ideological views and values that films either explicitly, implicitly or symptomatically propagate.

Excerpt taken from:

Bacon, H. (2010). Synthesizing approaches in film theory. available at, 1-14.

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