Film Criticism after Grand Theories

Deepsouth v.4 n.1 (Autumn 1998)
Copyright (c) 1998 by
Jo Smith - University of Otago, Department of English
  All rights reserved.
"To say that truth is created implies that the production of truth involves a series of operations that amount to working on a material strictly speaking a series of falsifications."


Recent discussions in Film Studies have concerned the dead end of Grand Theory with the most prominent example being the current backlash against psychoanalytic theory. Contributions to this particular backlash include Steven Shaviro's claim that, "Psychoanalytic discourse, even at its ostensibly most critical, does nothing but reinscribe a universal history of lack and oppression" (1993) while Noël Carroll (1988) argues that psychoanalytic theory only serves to mystify our understanding of cinema. Psychoanalytic thought and other theoretical frameworks have supposedly failed to produce concrete accounts of film through the obliteration of elements specific to the filmic encounter. While agreeing that Grand Theory as an overarching framework applied to a film is limiting, I intend to examine some of the options for theoretical practice in Film Studies

Noël Carroll and David Bordwell have come to represent the call for more commonsensical forms of analysis and I contrast their position with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's use of theory as the production of localised and empowering events. The paper is in two parts with the first section a description of the Cognitivist stance represented by Carroll and Bordwell and the second phase an exploration of the image of an encounter as a way of approaching the relation between theory and writings about film. When presented as a conference paper, this second part included the screening of video material accompanied by spoken word to accentuate the mutual resonances that occur when one writes about watching film. This emphasis on connectivity is a reminder that theory need not be a prescriptive practice but can perform a productive function when generated from the encounter between the assemblage of image-spectator-writings.

Film Criticism after Grand Theories

This is an exploratory paper that wants to map some moments in relation to theory and its role in Film Studies. Specifically I want to ask, what function has theory to play in writings about film, and by extension, what is the relation between film criticism and films themselves? Is the function of film criticism to uncover the hidden meaning of a film and to relay this meaning to an uninitiated audience? Must film criticism merely describe a filmic event or can writings about film produce events themselves? This paper focuses on the methods of description and production where I describe recent moves away from so-called Grand Theory. I offer the image of an encounter as an alternate critical practice that emphasises a productive relation between films and writings about film.

I begin by describing what the term Grand Theory refers to, who uses this term and who heralds its imminent demise. In the recent publication Post-Theory David Bordwell and Noël Carroll (1996) take a polemic stance against a wide range of theories such as Lacanian psychoanalysis, Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Marxism, divergent bodies of thought which Bordwell and Carroll reduce to the term Grand Theory. In the introductory notes of Post-Theory Bordwell describes Grand Theory as an attempt to provide broad and generalised accounts of aspects of society, history, language and psyche. Bordwell argues that in film criticism this approach operates from the top downwards meaning that the film critic takes a theoretical position and then applies it to the film with the film becoming an example of the prior theory. Bordwell (1996: 19) writes:

Rather than formulating a question, posing a problem, or trying to come to grips with an intriguing film, the writer often takes as the central task the proving of a theoretical position by adducing films as examples. From the theory the writer moves to a particular case. Lévi-Straussian analyses of the Western, feminist conceptions of the body in film, Jamesonian accounts of the postmodernity of Blade Runner again and again research is seen chiefly as "applying" a theory to a particular film or historical period.

In a top downwards approach theory becomes an abstract framework that hovers outside or above the filmic event which the critic experiences. Bordwell argues that this treatment leads'to theory becoming a doctrine and that film scholarship has taken this doctrinal approach since the subject position theorists of the 1970's and through to the rise of the culturalist trend in the mid 1980's. He argues for a Cognitivistic approach that functions in the reverse fashion where the film scholar starts from a body of evidence provided by the filmic event and moves to more general arguments and implications.

Cognitivists refer to their treatment of theory as piece-meal or as a middle-range methodology with Bordwell and Noël Carroll being the most prominent spokespersons. By starting at a body of evidence Cognitivists claim to create localised theories that do not prescribe or regulate the outcome of their enquiry. This presumably enables Cognitivists to incorporate a wide range of approaches and issues because of a unified interest in following problem-driven research generated by the actual practice of watching films. Through such scientific deduction, Bordwell and Carroll evolve categories for studying film derived from parallelling the perceptual behaviour of humans with the reasoning capabilities of computers. They focus on the formal and cognitive aspects of film viewing and extract the interpretive and experiential component of filmic encounters to return some form of rationalism to the field of film scholarship. Where psychoanalysis focuses on irregularity, middle-range research privileges the normal, the commonsensical, and the most ordinary. Bordwell's discussion of shot/reverse shot editing suggests such a return to rationalism which simultaneously revives the belief that we can discuss formal aspects of film cross-culturally without demarcating cultural or ideological differences in film viewing. Bordwell argues that shot/reverse shot editing convention is a convention because it is the most logical way of filming a conversation. Bordwell argues that this logic transcends culture and is worthy of critical attention. According to Bordwell (1996:104), other cross-cultural regularities include:

Not only perceptual equipment but also the disposition to see the world as a three-dimensional space in which free-standing objects exist independent of the observer; not only language 'in general' but pronouns and proper names, lies and narratives, grammatical redundancy and the greater frequency of short words for familiar objects; not only toolmaking but the fashioning of pounders and containers; not only spontaneous smiling but also expressions of skepticism and anger, as well as a fear of snakes and loud noises - all these and many more activities are current candidates for being "cultural universals."

This willingness to speak of the commonplace is essential to Bordwell and Carroll's endeavour to ground the flights of Grand Theory.

Therefore it is Cognitivists who herald the death of Theory in a deliberately dialectical manner that complicates attempts at a nuanced response. I would like to remind those who celebrate such a demise that Cognitivism has its own agenda for rendering Theory in such broadsweeping terms, (a tendency that is paradoxically the target of Bordwell and Carroll's criticism of Grand Theory). For not all film scholars treat theory as doctrine, and not all theorists are blind to the implications of their writings. Reading Post-Theory it might appear that only Cognitivists have discovered the abstracting tendencies of some theoretical endeavours, however, this very problem is a central concern to many contemporary critical writers. For example, feminist scholars have a long history of grappling with the sometimes great divide which exists between theories for understanding the world and how theory relates to the events and practices experienced in the world. In the realm of feminist politics abstraction is not an option. I believe the primary function of theory is to develop ways for understanding the world and to invent strategies that can trace the production of knowledge to reveal the terms of that production. Theory is that which dismantles and complicates doctrinal practices itself and this is the political dimension to theory that finds its origins in the politics of Marxism, a movement focused on the transformation of social and material relations. Although some film scholars treat theory as a recipe for producing dazzling and abstracting interpretations of texts, theory is also a tool-box for working within the world. Such an approach to theory can make us aware of the processes behind the production of knowledge and who are the producers of such knowledge, because we need strategies for questioning what gets to count as knowledge and who gets to make up the questions.

A Cognitivistic stance overlooks such reflexive questions. I agree with Bordwell and Carroll that at times the application of an overarching theory to a film is limiting. I also believe that the revolving circle of hermeneutics and endlessly deferred meaning can become tiresome in the face of political and material necessity. Yet quasi-scientific approaches contain their own philosophical presumptions and there are aspects of Carroll and Bordwell's argument that cause me some concern. A more pragmatic approach to the filmic event seems to be an attractive alternative and so I admire Carroll and Bordwell's commitment to return to the scene of the filmic event. My feminist sensibility, however, is immediately alerted when I hear the word "commonsense" or an emphasis placed on "cross-cultural regularities" (1996: 87). These terms assume particular understandings that sit uneasily with my interests in feminist and subaltern contexts, areas with long histories of resisting normative and restrictive foundations. Theorists of middle-range research claims to be specific to the filmic event yet Bordwell's assumption that it is worthy of critical attention to seek sameness across cultures is a decision made before the filmic encounter. Bordwell's methods assume that the question of causality is an important issue and that what is the most obvious filmic element is the most important factor to study. In the pursuit of commonsense, Bordwell remains blind to those theoretical precepts underpinning his own work that still assume a myth of scientific objectivity. Rejecting deconstructive approaches opens Bordwell up to the charge of essentialising tendencies because of an unquestioned acceptance of precepts such as teleology, causality, and the resolute march of History. The questions Bordwell asks come before the filmic event, implying a continued abstraction away from the filmic encounter. In his desire for localised theories produced from the bottom upwards, Bordwell merely reverses the model of theorising that he vigorously opposes.

Here the concepts of Deleuze and Guattari are useful since these theorists desire to think outside of dialectical engagement and beyond the gap of deconstructivism in a move towards experimentation with concepts that might generate the new. They focus on methodology and the how of thought that produces rather than reflects its object. In this conceptual world it is the relations between things rather than the object itself that are meaningful, for Deleuze and Guattari focus on the way society produces theory rather than on how theory can reflect society.

I move into the second phase of this paper and remind myself that process is the only ever known outcome. That it is the journey that is paramount, and not the object or answer at the end. What happens after the so-called dead end of Grand Theory? Theory ensures that the journey continues by mapping the world as a feed-back loop endlessly short circuiting. These mappings are run through with intensities or charged encounters that constantly change the known terrain. Filmic events sometimes catch these intensities. So I offer exploratory moments that might produce a resonance running through the different domains of my paper and the images that accompany it. I do not tell a definitive story, nor do I wish to construct a cause and effect narrative that will result in some uncovered truth. Rather, I intend to lay the concept of an encounter alongside the idea of film criticism to see what mutual relations occur. The images I play do not aim to represent an encounter, but rather desire to produce one.

The performative aspect of this paper intends to emphasise connectivity, since these images from films form an assemblage between myself and the words I read. I suggest that one of film criticism's function is to accentuate the loop between image-viewer-reader. I believe that film criticism can be a productive force that engenders new relations between spectator-image and world through the recognition of radical connectivity as opposed to the myth of objectivity. Rather than any pretence of objectivity, the encounter between spectator-subject and image-object is a process of interference or mutual mutation whose assemblage produces truth effects rather than any objective truth. For as Deleuze (1995: 126) writes,

To say that truth is created implies that the production of truth involves a series of operations that amount to working on a material strictly speaking a series of falsifications.

The strategy I offer as a critical practice for film does not pretend to reflect meaning but overtly acknowledges its productive function, its messy entanglements, sticky surfaces and its capacities for falsity.

An encounter first suggests to me a movement or an opening up of oneself to a chance occurrence. An unexpected meeting in a street, a face seen in a crowd or glances exchanged across space. Brief, transitory, sometimes surprising and often troubling, an encounter is something that passes, and something that moves while at the same time producing movement. Experiencing such an event throws me out of a known territory and disconnects all habitual responses. This strange terrain renders me nomadic and forces me to invent strategies that have a capacity to adapt and respond to the momentum of events that do not always occur in easily understood patterns. It is the patterns of the filmic event that must determine the mode of engagement or rather the forms or the lines of intersection between image and spectator.

I emphasise intersection because an encounter is not a clash of opposites or of two discreet bodies in collision. An encounter passes through bodies leaving traces that fade in their passing like nomadic tracks or desert footsteps. To study these traces means to treat film as a singularity or as a singular event that takes as its object the forces on hand. There is no lack or absence in a filmic encounter, no hidden meaning to be unearthed, no abstract body of knowledge to reach for to re-insert a meaning. If anything, an encounter revels in the loss of meaning and the phase states between objects where exists the white noise of an excess that goes beyond meaning. These phase states are moments of potential and of potential lines of flight. As an encounter, film criticism accentuates this excess and these proliferating differences to produce an abundance in the heart of a desert.

An image from a vampire film moves me to contemplate connections beyond the psychosexual. I sit in darkness and watch a figure emerge from the shadows to hover above a bed. A woman lies in a trance produced by the pulse of an encounter. She is beyond fear and horror, and this is neither beauty encountering the beast, nor the remnants of some interior longing for "Daddy". This image requires another narrative; one capable of affirming the energies between the filmic figures and their affect upon me. Films do not play out my primal scene but encourage me instead, to imagine new stories activated by the charges in the image.

An encounter as a critical practice requires a creativity that imagines the territory of a film as a landscape seen for the first time, or as a glance to a stranger on a street. Imagining film as perhaps a foreign land concentrates critical attention on the singular features of the filmic encounter and the interests and desires animated at this meeting point. Deleuze argues that all knowledge is an act of creativity and fiction where any perceived knowledge of society derives from the inquirer's own capacities, desires and modes of existence. Phillip Goodchild (1996: 44) explains Deleuze's emphasis on the fictitious nature of knowledge:

In Deleuze's empiricism relations are external to their terms. This means that knowledge of society is a theoretical construct given by the mind of the observer. All knowledge takes on the character of 'fantasy' or 'fiction', which may at best only approximately model the real relations existing in society. What is significant for Deleuze and Guattari, however, is the way in which such a fiction is constructed.

Imagination is not purely spontaneous, but operates in the service of needs, interests, forces and desires. The fictions produced by the film theorist neither reflect nor represent any prior concept but rather express political and sexual interests that converge to generate the fabulation. The fictions that she or he fabricate are run through with intensities that reveal the desires and interests mobilised at the point of encounter. Desire in this context does not relate to any psychoanalytic model nor do these writings reflect some inner psyche or subjectivity. Any sense of a subject is radically exteriorised and only produced by the circumstances surrounding it which implies that subjects and bodies, and bodies of knowledge are transforming entities in states of continuous encounter. In this understanding the film theorist cannot be an impartial observer writing at the boundary between spectator-subject and imageobject. Indeed, in Deleuze and Guattari's conceptual world subjects and objects are not distinctive elements but rather blend into or connect with one another to form what they refer to as assemblages. This is a concept of exteriority that has productive implications for writings about film. Deleuze and Guattari have this to say about their own writings:

There is no longer a tripartite division between a field of reality (the world) and a field of representation (the book) and a field of subjectivity (the author). Rather, an assemblage establishes connections between certain multiplicities drawn from each of these orders, so that a book has no sequel nor the world as its object nor one or several authors as its subject (1988: 23).

In the context of film viewing, assemblages occur between spectator, filmic image, and critical writer with each element intersecting the other to form a transient alliance. Alliances can be made anywhere and between anything and transformation is immanent within such encounters.

For example, two elements engage: a fork of lightning and a human body. One is earthed, the other injected with energies. The body takes on the function of lightning rod, the natural element becoming a freak occurrence. In this instance, each expresses a singular function in relation to the other and attains a transitory identity as a result of external relations. These encounters with disparate elements make transient connections that are also capable of transformation by forming other relations to neighbouring elements.

Transformation occurs when I watch images of film where I enter a new spatial consciousness with each space particular to each film. When watching a film I negotiate a relationship with the narrative engine, and make decisions about whether to engage or disconnect with the narrative logic. I become dispersed through the inter-connectedness with film which is a medium of movement, and through moving pictures that double and dynamise my body. My body, in memory, retains traces of the filmic body. Can writings about film re-animate the energies that make these encounters dynamic to transform and produce new assemblages?

An encounter as critical practice could take as its function the mapping of the forces and relations that collect around the spectator-image assemblage. It could map how territories are re-configured and diagram the new arrangements entered into. Or it could further accentuate the feed-back loops and resonances of the filmic event by producing contiguous narratives that overlap image-spectator-writings. It is the exchange of mutual resonances between image-spectator-writings that provide the most productive moments. To be moved and to capture movement in writing is the rhizomatic image of Deleuze and Guattari's conceptual world. Theirs is not a desire to describe the world, but to transform it from the inside by performing acts of fabulation that are a kind of putting into orbit. The film critic becomes philosopher and enters into arrangement with the art of cinema. Fundamentally creative, an encounter as critical practice delights in the unexpected, feeds on dynamic intersections, and seeks to activate new energies and relations between thought and the filmic body. Film criticism as an encounter is not a process of divination where film critics are seers or prophets capable of bringing the word to the people. Instead, the image-spectator-writings assemblage of film criticism forms a reflective series where each term intersects with the other. The critic is mediator and producer from whose productions immanate the force of desire. Not sexual desire or desire for an absent object but desire understood as purely a social relation.

Psychoanalytic thought reduces all desire to the concept of an absent object, leaving these theorists of film mostly entangled in a theatre of representation that abstracts from the specificities of the filmic encounter. As Deleuze argues:

The concepts philosophy introduces to deal with cinema must be specific, must relate specifically to cinema. You can of course link framing to castration, or close-ups to partial objects, but I don't see what that tells us about cinema. (1995: 50)

Cognitivistic theory attempts to rectify the totalizing tendencies of pyschoanalytic thought by creating localised and piecemeal theories. These approaches tell us everything about a cognitivist's desire for scientific objectivity while also failing to tell us anything about cinema (or at least anything new). The black hole of Derridean negativity maps the limit of the unthinkable in thought, a gap of absence which Cognitivist theory seeks to fill by a returning to reason and rich research traditions that have as their basis, unexamined and transcendent foundations. Cognitivists intensify the rhetoric of death at the heart of thought through a dialectical engagement that focuses upon the insufficiencies of the old, rather than building concepts for the production of the new. An encounter as critical practice is fundamentally an active concept; an idea that wants to work and an image that wants to create productive resonances. The function of such criticism is not to fix meaning, nor to take moments from a film and place them in a closed and reductive totality. Film criticism as an encounter suggests open forms that exceed expectation and that move in directions that cannot be anticipated by any overarching framework. To be on the lookout for encounters means to live in an intensive and affirmative mode ever alert to the possibility of the production of the new. The so-called dead end of Grand Theory does not mean a necessary return to the old myths of rationalism and pseudoscientific enquiry. Instead, it offers film critics the opportunity to treat theory as a productive and creative tool which affirms the intensities of filmic events and which devises strategies and tactics for engendering the new.



Bordwell, D. and Carroll, N. 1996. Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Deleuze, G. 1995. Negotiations: 1972-1990. trans. M. Joughin, New York: Columbia University Press.

Goodchild, P. 1996. Deleuze and Guattari: An Introduction to the Politics of Desire. London, California: Sage Publications.


Suggestions for further reading

Bordwell, D. 1988. 'Adventures in the Highlands of Theory.' Screen 29.1: 72- 97.

-- 1989. 'A Case for Cognitivism.' Iris 9 Spring: 11-41.

-- 1989. Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the interpretation of Cinema. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Carroll, N. 1988. Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

-- 1990. The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York:Routledge.

Deleuze, G. 1986. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

-- 1989. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. 1983. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.