Excerpt from the Introduction

Film Theory, Cinema, the Body and the Senses II

What is the relationship between the cinema, perception and the human body? Film theories, classical or contemporary, canonical or avant-garde, normative or transgressive, have all addressed this issue, implicitly framing it or explicitly refocusing it. In Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses we opt for making this our key concern: it provides the guiding concepts to our historical-systematic survey, and it gives the chapters their coherence and determines their succession.

Each type of cinema (as well as every film theory) imagines an ideal spectator, which means it postulates a certain relation between the (body of the) spectator and the (properties of the) image on the screen, however much at first sight the highlighted terms are ‘understanding’ and ‘making sense,’ ‘interpretation,’ and ‘comprehension.’ What is called classical narrative cinema, for instance, can be defined by the way a given film engages, addresses, and envelops the spectatorial body. Films furthermore presuppose a cinematic space that is both physical and discursive, one where film and spectator, cinema, and body encounter one another. This includes the architectural arrangement of the spectatorial space (the auditorium with its racked seating), a temporal ordering of performances (separate sessions or continuous admission) and a specific social framing of the visit to the movie theatre (a night out with friends, or a solitary self-indulgence), the sensory envelope of sound and other perceptual stimuli, as well as the imaginary construction of filmic space through mise-en-scène, montage, and narration. Likewise, bodies, settings, and objects within the film communicate with each other (and with the spectator) through size, texture, shape, density, and surface appeal, as much as they play on scale, distance, proximity, colour, or other primarily optical but also bodily markers. But there are additional ways the body engages with the film event, besides the senses of vision, tactility, and sound: philosophical issues of perception and temporality, of agency and consciousness are also central to the cinema, as they are to the spectator. One of the challenges of our task was to tease out from formalist and realist theories their respective conceptions of cinema’s relation to the body, whether formulated normatively (as, for example, in the approaches of both Sergei Eisenstein and André Bazin, however opposed they might be in other respects) or descriptively (more typical, at least in rhetorical strategy, of phenomenological and other contemporary theories).

This leitmotif of body and senses also communicates productively with the by now widely used periodisation of film history into early, classical, and postclassical cinema, especially where these distinctions also take account of the transformations of the cinema as a physical site with its interrelation of (real) reception space and (imaginary) media space within the fixed geometrical arrangement of projector, screen, and spectator, to the cinema as a more ad hoc or virtual space, under the fluid and informal viewing conditions in front of the television screen or the laptop monitor, and extending to the mobile screens on handheld devices, which explicitly invite new modes of bodily engagement in their hand-eye coordination. In other words, our trajectory through film theory deliberately avoids setting up a categorical distinction between the cinema experience as a theatrical event and the cinema experience as an ambient event, no more than it posits a radical break between analogue and digital film. Instead, it maps the respective (and salient) differences of various film theories around changing – new and not-so-new – configurations of the spectator’s body and senses.

This is why our model also tries to rearticulate in a theoretically pertinent manner the spatio­temporal relations between the bodies and objects depicted in a film, and between the film and the spectator. Crucial in this respect is the dynamics connecting the diegetic and the non- and extra-diegetic levels of the ‘world’ of the film and how they intersect with the ‘world’ of the spectator. The concept of diegesis (derived from the Greek diegesis, meaning narration, report or argument, as opposed to mimesis, meaning imitation, representation) was originally used in narrative theory to distinguish between the particular time-space continuum created by narration and everything outside it. For instance, jazz music in a nightclub scene is diegetic, when the film includes shots of the musician or band, whereas the background strings heard but not seen in a romantic tête-à-tête are usually nondiegetic (i.e. referring to elements made meaningful within the film but located outside its story world). Whenever the camera independently closes in on an object carrying considerable narrative weight – for instance the revelation at the end of Citizen Kane (US 1941, Orson Welles) that “Rosebud” is a sled – one speaks of a nondiegetic camera movement, even though the object itself is diegetic. Given that today’s films also tend to carry with them extra-diegetic materials, so-called ‘paratexts’ such as DVD bonuses and commentary, and that spectators watching films ‘on the go’ increasingly inhabit two worlds (the cinematic universe, i.e. the diegesis, and their own physical environment and ambient space), alternately suspending one in favour of the other or shuttling between them, a thorough reassessment of the cinematic experience is clearly in order: one that can separate out the distinct but variable components that produce the ‘effect’ of cinema, but can also identify what holds them together, which is the spectator, conceived as a ‘relational entity’ and not only as a physical being.

The different forms that this spectatorial relation takes between cinema, film, sensory perception, physical environment, and the body might be pictured as a series of metaphors, or paired concepts, which can be mapped on the body: its surfaces, senses, and perceptive modalities, and its tactile, affective, and sensory-motor faculties. Yet the fields of meaning thus staked out also take into account the physical properties, epistemological conditions, and even ontological foundations of the cinema itself, emphasising its specific characteristics and key elements. We have chosen seven distinct pairs that describe an arc from ‘outside’ to ‘inside,’ and at the same time retrace fairly comprehensively the most important stages of film theory roughly from 1945 to the present, from neorealist and modernist theories to psychoanalytic, ‘apparatus,’ phenomenological, and cognitivist theories. Using the seven configurations as levels of pertinence as well as entry points for close analysis, we noted that earlier film theories, such as those from the ‘classical’ period during the 1920s and 1930s, also respond to such a reorganisation, suggesting that our outline – however schematic it might seem – can actually provide a nuanced and illuminating reclassification of the cinema’s many contact points with the human senses and the body of the spectator.

While relevant to film theory as hitherto understood, our conceptual metaphors neither amend previous theoretical models nor do they form a succession of independent or autonomous units: despite covering core arguments from very disparate and seemingly incompatible theories, the chapters – on window/frame, door/screen, mirror/face, eye/gaze, skin/touch, ear/space, and brain/mind – nonetheless tightly interlace with each other. We are not proposing a Hegelian synthesis, but neither do we stand outside the fray – this would be, in a nutshell, our methodological premise on the issue of the historicity of theory itself. A new approach (implicitly or explicitly) tackles questions that a preceding theory may have brought to light but which it could not explain in a satisfactory manner. But by the same token, each new theory creates its own questions, or can find itself once more confronting the very same issues that a previous theory had counted as resolved. For instance, one explanation for the surprising revival since the mid 1990s of André Bazin’s theories, after many thought his theory of realism had been laid to rest in the 1970s (when realism was widely seen as an ideological characteristic of bourgeois art), is the fact that the transition from analogue to digital media again raises, albeit in a new form, Bazin’s central question concerning the ‘ontology of the photographic image.’ The revival of Bazin (but also that of Kracauer, Epstein, Balázs, and Arnheim) proves that the history of film theory is not a teleological story of progress to ever more comprehensive or elegantly reductive models. Generally speaking, a theory is never historically stable but takes on new meanings in different contexts. If, as already indicated, film theory is almost as old as the cinema, it not only extends into the future but also the past, as witnessed by the renewed interest in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific treatises on the theory of motion in images and on optics and stereoscopy. Similarly, the new dialogue between the hard sciences and the humanities around cognitivism has given Hugo Münsterberg’s The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (1916) a new topicality as ‘predecessor,’ which suggests that the history of film theory extends into the future, which is to say, it is liable to change, because every new present tends to rewrite its own history.

To return to our central question, the individual chapters not only stand in a particular relation to the history of film theory, but also to the forms of cinema prevalent in a given period, since the evolution of theory and the changes in filmmaking and cinema-going are mutually influencing factors. Besides a historical-analytical overview of many important theoretical positions (from André Bazin and David Bordwell, to Gilles Deleuze and Laura Mulvey), our project also involves the beginnings of a reclassification of film history (around pre-cinema and early cinema, but also from the 1940s to the present), based on the premise that the spectator’s body in relation to the moving image constitutes a key historical variable, whose significance has been overlooked, mainly because film theory and cinema history are usually kept apart. Consequently, more is at stake than presenting film theory from an objective perspective, treating it as a closed universe of discourse that belongs to history. Rather, we want to probe the usefulness of the various theoretical projects of the past for contemporary film and media theory, in the hope of reconceptualising theory and thus of fashioning if not a new theory, then a new understanding of previous theories’ possible logics.

But such a history is at this point not at the forefront of our study, because diachronic overviews have never been in short supply. What we aim for is a comprehensive and systematic introduction, underpinned and guided by a specific perspective opened up when raising a different set of questions about old problems. Our mission – to condense a hundred years of history with thousands of pages of theory – necessarily involves losses, biases, and omissions, but on the whole we hope to achieve an effect similar to that of a concentrate: the volume decreases, the liquid thickens, but important flavours and the ingredients linger. The distinctiveness, sometimes to the point of incompatibility, among theories should not disappear or be disavowed.

Each chapter opens with a paradigmatic scene from a film, capturing in a nutshell a central premise, highlighting one of the levels of analysis, and introducing the main proponents of a particular theory (schools, concepts and theorists) that will be discussed in the chapter. The films selected combine well-known classics of the cinema, such as Rear Window (US 1954, Alfred Hitchcock) and The Searchers (US 1956, John Ford), with titles such as Gravity (US 2012, Alfonso Cuaron) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (US 2004, Michel Gondry). The period of the films we draw on does not necessarily coincide with the date of the respective theories, for although our seven-tier model develops roughly along chronological lines, it does not purport to trace an exact one-to-one fit between the history of cinema and film theory. Therefore, the emblematic film scenes should not be understood as ‘examples’ or ‘illustrations’, but rather as an opportunity to think with a given film (not just about it), as Gilles Deleuze has so emphatically proposed and attempted to do in his cinema books. Moreover, in every chapter we return time and again to specific filmic examples, which do not serve as evidence for independently existing theories, but rather want to offer food for thought and an opportunity to reacquaint oneself with films and theories. We hope that readers will feel inspired to bring their own film-culture, cinema-experience, and video essays to bear on this theoretical knowledge, not in the sense of ‘applying’ one to the other, but rather as an act of inference or even interference: a meditation on the ways cinema builds on theory, and theory builds on cinema. Many contemporary films, from blockbusters to art-house fare and avant-garde manifestoes, seem to be acquainted with advanced philosophical positions and want to be taken seriously also on a theoretical level, sharing a certain knowingness with the spectator as part of their special reflexivity.


1 On the topic of diegesis see Etienne Souriau, “La structure de l’univers filmique et le vocabulaire de la filmologie,” in Revue internationale de la filmologie 2, 7–8, 1951: 231–240. David Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film (London: Methuen, 1985) is an influential formulation of the distinction in English. For further considerations see Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988).

2 See, in recent years, Garrett Stewart, Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999), Phil Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), and Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2006). The question is also addressed by Warren Buckland, “Realism in the Photographic and Digital Image (Jurassic Parkand The Lost World),” in Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland, Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis (London: Arnold, 2002), 195–219.

3 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, both trans. Hugh Tomlinson, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986 and 1989).