MA Film Research Seminar: History of Film Theory

Instructor: dr. Abe Geil

This seminar will undertake a critical examination of the principle thinkers and concepts of film theory prior to 1960. That period—now dubbed the “classical” era of film theory—was an extraordinarily rich time for writing about cinema. Although students will develop a solid foundation in the canon of early film theory, this seminar will not be driven by historical interest alone. Over the past decade the discipline of film studies has become increasingly interested in a “return” to classical film theory to find resources for theorizing the situation of “post-cinematic” mediation that confronts us today. This has meant, in part, posing anew the sorts of questions that preoccupied the first generation of film theorists: What is the specificity of cinema as a medium and as an art? What is the political force of cinema as a mass art? What new modes of human perception does film help shape in the context of modernization? How do we produce an account of the spectator’s experience? We will explore these questions through, alongside, and, in some cases, against the major figures of classical film theory.

These figures will include Hugo Münsterberg, Rudolf Arnheim, Jean Epstein, Béla Balázs, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Hans Richter, Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and André Bazin. Students will also have the opportunity to research less well-known theorists writing during this period, both inside and outside of the European context. Along the way, we will also read a number of contemporary film scholars (e.g. Mary Ann Doane, Miriam Hansen, and David Rodowick) whose recent work has undertaken a thoroughgoing reconsideration of this era of film theory. Finally, we will consider the uses to which two continental philosophers — Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Rancière — have put the writing of classical film theorists in the elaboration of their own distinctive approaches to cinema. Our screenings will be devoted to films that preoccupied the theorists we will study, drawn primarily from the silent era of American, European, and Soviet Cinema.