10 Essential Film Theories you should know if you are a Cinephile

10 Essential Film Theories you should know if you are a Cinephile
10 Essential Film Theories you should know if you are a Cinephile

Cinema is the only industry with a comprehensive history that has been possible to retain over the years. Barring some of the prints that are burnt to ashes and some writings on cinema which couldn’t see the light of day and got lost in the oblivion between the diaries of some great film philosophers, there was a large number of film writings and theories that were retained and became an essential part of Film Academia. Film Theories by philosophers of world cinema often took inspiration in reality, psychoanalysis, literature, or cultural dynamism.

There are film theories that altered the technique of cinema and the subtext of the films which influenced the entire cinema world.

Here are 10 essential Film Theories that are cornerstone concepts in the world of cinema –

1. Italian Neorealism –

Italian Neorealism
Italian Neorealism

Post World War-II, Italian Cinema had undergone a tectonic shift with emergence of Italian Neorealism. Italian Neorealism portrays culture change in Italy after World War-II. It represents changes in the Italian psyche, conditions of poverty, oppression, injustice, and oppression. Amid all the textual interpretation and content of Italian Neorealistic Cinema, what was so unique in the context of filmmaking is the way Italian Filmmakers started telling the story through realistic frames and the way they started directing their actors, who were actually non-actors.

Furthermore, there was very less indulgence of dramatic mise-en-scenes, Noir-ish bleakness or even voyeurism inducing scenes. However, the films were a combination of uninflected and subsequent images that seemed too real to be cinematic, often shot by the handheld camera. Italian Neorealism’s first film was Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione. Some of the most famous Italian Neorealistic films are Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine, Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy and Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice.

2. Theory of Montage or Soviet Montage Theory –

Theory of Montage
Theory of Montage

In simple words, Soviet Montage Theory is about the fact that a film heavily depends on editing. It asserts that a series of connected and uninflected images enables complex ideas to be portrayed that constitute the entirety of a film’s intellectual form.

Theory of Montage
Theory of Montage

Sergei Eisenstein noted that Montage is the nerve of cinema and addressed Soviet Montage Theory as “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form.” Eisenstein defined it as “The idea that arises from the collision of the shots”. He further added that a film should be made in cuts. For that fact, Editing Moviola happened to be the most important part of paraphernalia associated with filmmaking. In the contemporary era, montage is frequently used to describe a sequence of short shots that demonstrate the passage of a prolonged time. You can also see this type of editing in films as old and classic as Citizen Kane. In Citizen Kane, the film also covers a long duration of Kane’s life using cuts and superimpositions.

3. Violation of Aesthetic Distance –

 Violation of Aesthetic Distance
Violation of Aesthetic Distance

The protagonist of the film is drenched into the miseries of poverty and there is a scene when he completely breaks down. How you react to this plaintive situation of the ‘hero’ solely depends on the Aesthetic-Distance. Aesthetic Distance is the measurement of how deeply and emotionally an audience gets involved in the events of a film. Moreover, the film with a low aesthetic distance would totally engross its audience over the sequences of events and the audience starts to sympathize with the character.

Famous screenwriter, filmmaker and film philosopher, David Mamet, who has authored a famous book on cinema named ‘On Directing Films’, had theorized violation of aesthetic distance. He asserted that intense violence in a film would be detrimental to aesthetic distance because an audience has to detach from the film to differentiate it from reality. He opines that violence pushes people away and breaks the attachment audience shares with the characters. David Mamet’s theory of Violation of Aesthetic Distance has faced criticism as the films with the biggest fan following like Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Trilogy and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction had traces of graphic violence, but still, the characters from those films are indelible.

4. Mise-en-Scene –

Mise-en-Scene
Mise-en-Scene

Mise-en-Scene is an illustrative narrative technique used in cinema that is bolstered through creative competency of production designing team that includes props person, spot boys who decorate the podium and costume designer, backed by graphics extravaganza. The technique of creating mise-en-scene is as old as Shakespeare’s plays and cinema has adopted it. Mise-en-Scene is often included 5 to 6 in a film whenever there are incidents wherein main characters exchange dialogues that depict their character or bring the story forward. Mise-en-Scene is created from articulately orchestrated storyboards, artful filmmaking, and graphics editing techniques. It covers at least more than one character in a frame. This method is observed in many famous films. In the Indian context, filmmakers like Imtiaz Ali and Sanjay Leela Bhansali often utilizes this technique in their films.

5. Theory of MacGuffin –

MacGuffin in Pulp Fiction
MacGuffin in Pulp Fiction

The word MacGuffin became famous because of the legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. In simple words, MacGuffin is an element, an object or a character that doesn’t much part to play in a film. However, it is responsible to bring the screenplay forward. Basically, MacGuffin plays the role of a plot device.

Rosebud - MacGuffin in Citizen Kane
Rosebud – MacGuffin in Citizen Kane

MacGuffin’s importance is not the element itself, but its effect on the characters of the movie and their motivation and how it drives the film forward. You can observe MacGuffin in many films like Rosebud in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, the bicycle in Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’, The Suitcase in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ and Private Ryan (the character) in Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’.

6. Voyeurism –

Rear Window - Voyeurism
Rear Window – Voyeurism

Voyeurism is the quality of an individual to pry into someone’s private life. It particularly denotes the salacious desire of an individual to look at people who are naked or engaged in a sexual activity. Many films have used the theory of Voyeurism. These include Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’, Brian De Palma’s ‘Body Double’ and Christopher Nolan’s underrated film ‘Following’. Basically, film viewing is also an act of voyeurism where the spectator takes the pleasure of watching the lives of characters and the intermittent indulgence of heated scenes that are part of the film.

7. Auteur Theory –

Auteur Theory

Andre Bazin had proposed this film theory. According to Auteur theory, cinema is basically a mode of communication between director, and a director has to leave an impression of his own style no matter what the script is all about. Bazin received his share of flak when he asserted that you can’t make a good film through Italian Neorealism or German Expressionism.

According to him, a filmmaker needs to put frames through his own perspective. Auteur theory says that directors are creators of the film and have control over each aspect of filmmaking. You can observe this in films by great directors. “A Steven Spielberg Movie”, “A Martin Scorsese Picture” or “Pixar Films” are nothing but emblems of auteur theory. In the contemporary era, if we look at David Fincher’s movies, they hugely depict auteur theory as the film irrespective of the script has a style that is intrinsic to Fincher – for example, in all his films, he would take a close-up shot of a refrigerator. Basically, every film needs to have an idiosyncratic style of a director.

8. 3 Act Structure Theory –

Syd Field's 3 Act Structure
Syd Field’s 3 Act Structure

This theory demystifies the art of writing a screenplay. 3 Act Structure Theory dissects a screenplay into 3 parts – Set-up, Confrontation, and Resolution. You can study the theory in detail in screenwriting Guru Syd Field’s book on screenplay writing. The plot points separate the acts in the screenplay of the film. The first act of the structure defines the conflict of the main character of the film. At the first plot point, the story reaches a point when the character starts his/her journey to resolve the conflict – that becomes a confrontation. At the second plot point, the story culminates to a level that there is no scope of the further conflict. Moreover, it becomes necessary for a screenwriter to resolve the conflict of the protagonist. According to Syd Field, all the films observe 3 Act Structure of the screenplay.

9. Marxist Film Theory –

Battleship Potemkin
Battleship Potemkin

This is one of the oldest theories in world cinema. Filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and some other Soviet directors included acts of Marxism in their films. Eisenstein was against the US narrative structure of writing a screenplay. The films that depicted Marxism shunned having a protagonist and creating conflict in his/her life. In Marxist films, the conflicts generated from frames to frames. French filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard also used to involve acts of subversion and parodies in his films as an act of Marxism. The best example of a film that abides by Marxist theory is Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

10. Theory of Circular Narrative –

Circular Narrative [I]
Circular Narrative [I]

A film with a circular narrative is the one which starts and ends in the same place or event. The story is often non-linear in such a way that the characters travel through the sub-plots. They end up at the place where the screenplay began. Another word for a circular narrative is a cyclical narrative. The most common example of a film with a circular narrative is Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’. The film ends with a shot of main characters leaving the restaurant, which is also the place at which the film started.

Circular Narrative [II]
Circular Narrative [II]

Film theories provide a conceptual framework for the cinema and illustrate its relationship with other art forms, coeval cultures, and also society. Sometimes, these theories also lead to a fresh way of filmmaking which becomes a revolution. These film theories not only revolutionized the way how filmmakers from respective eras made films, but also influenced how audience perceived cinema in its subtext greatly.

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