Cinema and Media Studies Film Theory Before 1945
by
Malcolm Turvey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0037

Introduction

Film theory, defined broadly as any reflection on the nature and functions of cinema, appeared soon after cinema’s emergence in the mid-1890s. Due to the novelty of the moving image and its quick development into a mass entertainment, around 1910, intellectuals and artists began trying to identify cinema’s particular capacities, articulating their value and highlighting the formal and stylistic techniques best suited to exploiting them. For many, cinema had the capacity to be an art, one that was similar in some respects to the preexisting arts but that differed from and even surpassed those arts in other respects. Hence, in their writings, film theorists before 1945 often compared and contrasted cinema to other art forms, principally the theater (to which cinema was seen as bearing the greatest resemblance), in an effort to isolate what was “specific” to it (a doctrine known as medium-specificity). For most film theorists of this period—unlike those who followed them immediately after the war, who tended to highlight film’s potential for realism—cinema’s specificity lay in its capacity to alter the appearance of reality in ways unavailable to the other arts. In addition to medium-specificity, such theorists often adopted a prescriptive medium-essentialism, insisting that filmmakers must transform the appearance of reality using uniquely cinematic techniques. In fact, many of these theorists were themselves filmmakers, and their theories reflected the distinct concerns of the national filmmaking movements to which they belonged, principally French Impressionism and Soviet montage. Film theorists in this period were not only concerned with the specificity and essence of the moving image, however. Some drew on the latest developments in psychology to explain cinema’s perceptual, cognitive, and affective effects on viewers. Others, especially of a Marxist persuasion in Germany and the Soviet Union, were concerned with cinema’s transformative impact on society and developed theories of how it could be used as a tool of enlightenment or deception. Finally, cinema became embroiled in the avant-garde movements of the 1910s and 1920s, and intellectuals, artists, and filmmakers affiliated with abstract painting, Dada, surrealism, and other avant-garde movements of the era proposed theories of how film might best be used in the pursuit of their avant-garde goals.

General Overviews

Although there is no overview in English devoted exclusively to film theory before 1945, a few works summarize film theories from this period in tracing the history of film theorizing into the post–World War II era and beyond (Andrew 1976, Stam 2000). Traditionally, film theory before 1945 has been labeled “formalist” or “modernist,” in contrast to the post–World War II “realist” film theories of André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer (Andrew 1976, Bordwell 1997). This is because film theorists before 1945 by and large highlighted cinema’s formal attributes in praising its capacity to transform the appearance of reality, in contrast to realists, who tend to celebrate cinema’s ability to reproduce reality accurately. Recently, however, overviews have focused more on continuities between early and later, or modernist and realist, film theories. Aitken 2001 explores the philosophical sources of early European film theory and its relation to the realist theories of Bazin, John Grierson, and Kracauer. Elsaesser and Hagener 2010 groups early and later film theorists in terms of how they conceive of the mind and body of the film viewer. Moore 1999 argues that early film theorists in general viewed cinema as a “primitive,” “magical,” “ritual cure” for “modern misfortune,” while Turvey 2008 claims that some early film theorists combined modernist formalism with realism. Meanwhile, essays in Trifonova 2009 focus on some of the philosophical sources of early European film theory.

  • Aitken, Ian. European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

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    A history of European film theory with chapters on early German, Soviet, and French film theories. Recommended for advanced students.

  • Andrew, Dudley. The Major Film Theories: An Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

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    A seminal introduction to film theory until the 1970s with chapters on early film theorists Arnheim, Balázs, Eisenstein, Kracauer, and Münsterberg. Recommended for beginning students.

  • Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

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    A critical overview of the different ways the history of film style has been conceptualized. Chapter 2 provides a succinct, clear summary of early film theory. Recommended for beginning students.

  • Elsaesser, Thomas, and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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    Early film theorists covered include Arnheim, Balázs, Eisenstein, and Vertov. Recommended for advanced students.

  • Moore, Rachel O. Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

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    Early film theorists covered include Lindsay, Eisenstein, Kracauer, and Benjamin. Recommended for advanced students.

  • Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

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    A history of film theory until the 1990s with several chapters on early film theory. Recommended for beginning students.

  • Trifonova, Temenuga, ed. European Film Theory. New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    Includes essays on Canudo, Eisenstein, Epstein, and Kracauer. Recommended for advanced students.

  • Turvey, Malcolm. Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    Early film theorists covered include Balázs, Epstein, Kracauer, and Vertov. Recommended for advanced students.

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