cinema, culture, Film Notes, Media Studies Notes

Film: Art or Social Practice?

(These Film Studies Notes are my one-page notes on various articles or books on Film Studies / Media Studies which might interest students and teachers of Film or Media Studies.)

Film as Art or Film as Social Practice

While I was taking my MA in Media Studies, I usually debated with my professor, who film as Social Practicewas also the Dean. She insisted that Films should be viewed only as reflecting Social Practice. I argued that a film must be viewed primarily as a creative work, as Art. Many of the teachers were all trying to be politically correct, in other words, they try to appear as left-leaning and “progressive”.

Then one day, the officials of China’s state-run film school held a symposium at the College. To settle once and for all if Films should be viewed as Art or as Social Practice, I asked the head of the Chinese school his opinion during the open forum. The Chinese film professor said, that of course, Film must be viewed as Art. “If you want social practice,”he said, “read the newspapers!” I really laughed after that because the teachers, especially the Dean who was my professor at that time in the course Film as Social Practice, knew exactly what I was getting at.

Films, of course can be viewed as Social Practice, but first and foremost, film is a work of art.

I found this among my notes on Film Studies:

CULTURAL STUDIES AND FILM Film Studies and Cultural Studies are both interested in textual analysis of films as well as the historical and political economy that film as Subversive Artsurrounds the production of films. The most glaring difference is that Film Studies is focused on the text and is concerned with aesthetic value. Cultural Studies dismisses aesthetic value altogether and focuses on audience analysis.

In the 1950s, Film Studies received a big boost from Cahier du Cinema writers who considered mainstream Hollywood films as worthy of serious study. In the 60s, the auteur theory “legitimised” the critical studies on Hollywood mainstream directors like John Ford and Hitchcock. Also, film genres were given respectability; i.e., they were judged to be not mere formula driven shows but films that are worthy of study for their political economy as well as artistic potential. In the 70s, when cultural studies was still in its infancy, film studies developed analytical paradigms like the Structuralist (linguistics, semiotics) approach.

By the mid 70s, critical studies were also developing its own models. However, “its target was the nature of the political interests served by the patterns of meaning or strategies of representation such analyses uncovered.”

During that period, film studies were dominated by the so-called Screen theory which was based on semiotic-psychoanalytic theory of Metz and the Marxist theories of Althusser. Text was all-powerful and the subject-position theory became the film theory. But many opposed this view. Morley (1980), among others, argued for audience’s agency.

Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasures essay used this subject-position film theory to argue for the so-called male gaze. The feminists loved Mulvey’s arguments. But cultural studies writers “questioned the implicit proposition of a single, overly determined reading of the text.”

Today, the line dividing cultural and film studies are blurring. The best example is University of the Philippines’ M.A. in Media Studies, specializing in Film, program. This means that Cultural (Media) Studies subsumes Film Studies. But then, there were proposals to put up an M.A. in Film Arts program in the same school.


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