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Film studies: basic literature

Last Updated: 2-Mar-2015

This guide is designed to both introduce students to the field of film studies and provide suggestions for further reading in cinema, aesthetics, perception, spectatorship, the history of film, and the theories of the moving image.

It was created by Kiersten Jakobsen, a Ph.D. candidate in Film & Media Studies in the Department of Art & Art History.

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Introductory texts

9th ed. New York : McGraw-Hill, c2010.
Green Library » Stacks » PN1995 .B617 2010
Fim Art: An Introduction covers crucial ground on the study of film, moving seamlessly from the principal techniques and aesthetics of cinema to its history, its theory, and its practice. The strengths of this introduction rest in its ability to not only summarize and provide examples for camera movement, strategies of editing, and the like, but also to emphasize how these techniques and strategies work to develop and oftentimes complicate the progression of narrative and the understanding of each film as a whole. In addition, rather than focusing on popular western cinemas, the authors broaden the scope of their study to new and emerging national cinemas and filmmakers. The result is a consummate and unparalleled introduction to the moving image, and to film as a true art form.
6th ed. New York : Oxford University Press, 2004.
Green Library » Stacks » PN1994 .M364 2004
Now in its sixth edition, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings is--as its back cover states--“the most widely used and cited anthology of critical writings about film” since its first publication in 1974. Editors Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen have collected significant primary and secondary source materials produced by theorists, practitioners, critics, and scholars, and they have grouped each work according to theme, from “Film Language” to “Film Genres,” “Psychology, Ideology, and Technology,” and beyond. In essence, the book functions as a reader of film theory with clearly demarcated chapters and a highly useful index. Students searching for critical essays on feminism or apparatus theory will find them in this essential volume. Linda Williams, Maya Deren, and Jean-Louis Baudry--among others--are all represented here.

Focused studies

Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1985.
Green Library » Bender Room » PN1995 .C29 1985
In the spring of 1951, a small group of film critics and theorists led by André Bazin founded the French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma (Notebooks on Cinema). Cahiers was responsible for supporting and publishing the work of both film theorists and practitioners, most notably Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Éric Rohmer--the core of the French New Wave. In Cahiers du Cinéma, The 1950s: Neo-realism, Hollywood, New Wave, essays by these filmmakers and others on topics such as genre, American Cinema, and auteurs can be found. This volume is not only an anthology, it is a “documentary history of an important intellectual shift.” Cahiers du Cinéma is still in publication today and was edited for six years by former visiting Stanford Humanities Center scholar Jean-Michel Frodon. For Cahiers essays published in the 1960s, please see Cahiers du Cinéma, The 1960s: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood.
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1986.
Green Library » Stacks » PN1995 .C295 1986
Similar to Cahiers du Cinéma, the 1950sCahiers du Cinéma, the 1960s: New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood is more than simply a collection of essays, interviews, and conversations about film. The volume is a historical document which lays bare the continual shift in filmmaking practice, reception, and criticism. Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut are again contributors, yet this second volume sees the addition of such luminaries as Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, writers revered for their study of cinema and ideology. Part One focuses on the French New Wave, and the essays comprising Part Three, “American Cinema: Reevaluation,” are almost entirely responsible for putting American cinema on the critical map. In short, the authors are “uniquely rewriting cinema history, showing it as it evolved, from a contemporary, month-by-month perspective.”
Minneapolis : University of Minnesota, c1986-c1989.
Green Library » Bender Room » PN1995 .D39313 1986 V.1
Gilles Deleuze’s two-volume Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image is as much a philosophical treatise on film as it is a contribution to film theory. The two volumes split at 1945 with Cinema 1 focusing on films produced before the Second World War and Cinema 2 concentrating on films produced after WWII. The first volume takes a look at the Soviet school of filmmaking, particularly the evolution of montage, as well as the films of Griffith, Welles, Dreyer, and others. In the second volume, Deleuze shifts his study to the post-war landscape of Europe and the films that reflect the desolation and destruction of endless battle. Here, time rather than movement dominates the films of directors such as Rossellini, Godard, Antonioni, and de Sica. Characters in these films “see rather than act.” They attempt to make sense of their new surroundings and the historical circumstances that made such violence “necessary.” Deleuze’s language is at times opaque, but for the patient reader, rewards await. These two volumes are an absolute must-read for scholars of cinema.
London : BFI Publishing, 1990.
Green Library » Stacks » PN1993.5 .A1 E37 1990
For any scholar of film, Early Cinema: Space-Frame-Narrative is a must-read. The volume is a collection of essays by Film Studies superstars Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, Yuri Tsivian, Noël Burch, Jacques Aumont, and others. Here, their articles chart the evolution of cinema, from early film form and the articulation of space and time to the development of a more “continuous” style of filmmaking. Gunning’s “‘Primitive’ Cinema: A Frame-Up? Or, The Trick’s on Us” takes the notion of a “primitive” mode of filmmaking to task, and Yuri Tsivian’s “Some Historical Footnotes to the Kuleshov Experiment,” investigates--in detail--early theories of montage previously unavailable to those without access to the Russian language. In essence, overlooking Early Cinema is turning a blind eye to the history of film and Film Studies. For further revisionist writings on early cinema, see Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows.
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2000.
Green Library » Bender Room » PN1995.9 .W6 F448 2000
One might be surprised to learn the degree to which feminist theory was responsible for the emergence of Film Studies as a discipline, yet when one considers the former’s investment in psychoanalysisstructuralism, andpostmodernism, the surprise wanes. Feminism and Film Studies are sister fields, as it were, each informing and advancing the other over the last forty years. These decades produced countless and formative essays on cinema from a feminist perspective, many of which appear in this outstanding volume edited by E. Ann Kaplan. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and Mary Ann Doane’s “Film and Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator” are just a sample of the twenty-eight essays collected here. For those interested in listening to Laura Mulvey give commentary on a film from a feminist perspective, don’t miss Michael Powell’s psychological thrillerPeeping Tom released in 1960. 
New York, Oxford University Press, 1974.
Green Library » Stacks » PN1995 .M4513
When Christian Metz’s Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema first appeared in its original French publication in 1968, it immediately changed the Film Studies landscape. What was heretofore a field focused on narrative, critical history, and formalism became a discipline whose boundaries were sensibly in flux. The analysis of cinema would now include semiology, the study of signs and signification and the production of meaning in a text. While film may use words, it also uses an infinite variation of shots, camera angles, and modes of montage--all of which are signs subject to interpretation. Metz’s work exposes film as a discourse, analyzing how cinema expresses itself to its audience. Seven years later, Metz produced another volume driven by semiotic film theory entitled The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema in which the focus is on the spectator rather than simply the film itself. 
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Green Library » Lane Reading Room: Reference » PN1995.9 .M835 O45 2009
Karla Oeler begins A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form with the concluding sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). This is an apt opening, for the scene is more than simply an exercise in parallel editing where one narrative thread involves the senseless massacre of workers and another depicts the unfeeling slaughter of a bull. Instead, the sequence employs various formal mechanisms (namely montage) which lead the viewer through a process of deduction: the workers are slaughtered like cattle. The sequence illustrates how cinema “does not primarily show phenomena; it produces signification.” From this very early example (and others, including the shower sequence from Psycho), montage is compared to killing and killing to montage. Oeler shows how murder mirrors the act of cinematic representation, and in so doing rearranges how we envision the development and reception of film theory, practice, and film form. See also Sergei Eisenstein’s The Film Sense and The Film Form.
In 1916, German-American psychologist and philosopher Hugo Münsterberg published The Photoplay, one of the first printed volumes on the new phenomenon of film. Taking his interest and training in applied psychology as starting point, Münsterberg “casts a psychologist’s eye on the physiology, perception, and mental functioning of the spectator, while the philosopher in him considers the intrinsic aesthetic qualities of the art and the emotions and moral attitudes that the medium can elicit and engender.” He concludes, for example, that movement in film is not actual but rather created by the spectator; the viewer does not experience reality in the theatre, but rather a mental perception of reality. In essence, cinema stimulates the mental structures of the mind by way of its structural similarity to the mind itself. Münsterberg’s work was remarkably ahead of its time, precipitating a tremendous impact on what was to be the field of Film Studies.
Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c1982.
Green Library » Bender Room » PN1995 .M45313 1982
Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema is--like his Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema from seven years earlier--a valuable contribution to semiotic film theory. Yet rather than focusing primarily on the language of cinema itself, Metz turns to Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis to deepen his study of the nature of cinematic spectatorship. What we see on screen does not, in essence, exist. The images are imaginary, a play of light and shadow, yet we are still drawn in by an illusion of reality. By way of psychoanalysis, Metz attempts to answer why this is so, including in his scope the cinematic apparatus (the camera and the projector, for example). 
London : BFI Publishing, 1990.
Green Library » Stacks » PN1993.5 .A1 B8713 1990
In a mere 273 pages, Noël Burch challenges the traditional understanding of a technological (crude to sophisticated) development of cinema from its inception to its more modern iterations. Burch disputes many theorists' claims that film had a “primitive” birth in which it floundered amidst clumsy technology and amateur execution, only to be refined over time. He argues against a “natural” or “organic” development of the language of cinema, one which emerged outside social, economic, and historical circumstances. Instead, he asserts that there are reasons why certain strategies of representation and narrative progression were institutionalized, and why we as viewers and filmmakers adapted to and adopted what has come to be known as the Institutional Mode of Representation. Burch provokes his readers to think in revisionist ways, and to question how we have come to make sense of what we see on screen.
London : Macmillan, 1981.
Green Library » Stacks » PN1995 .H397 1981
It is as if Stephen Heath’s 1981 Questions of Cinema is in answer to and a continuation of André Bazin’s What is Cinema? published in 1967 (eleven years after Bazin’s death). Here, we see how far film theory has come with the addition of Heath’s volume which draws upon semioticsMarxism, and psychoanalysis. In the very first chapter, Heath considers film and ideology and the power and industry of the moving image. His “Narrative Space,” “On Suture,” and “Film, System, Narrative” are among the best essays ever written on cinema. For students searching for an analysis of the ideological underpinnings of film, they need not look any further. See also The Cinematic Apparatus edited by Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath.
Expanded edition London : British Film Institute, 1998.
Green Library » Stacks » PN1995 .W64 1998
The very first line of Peter Wollen’s introduction to his Signs and Meanings in the Cinema summarizes his enterprise: “The general purpose of this book is to suggest a number of avenues by which the outstanding problems of film aesthetics might be fruitfully approached.” With clear and straightforward prose, Wollen sails through three magnificent chapters beginning with “Eisenstein’s Aesthetics,” continuing with “The Auteur Theory,” and concluding with “The Semiology of the Cinema.” Despite being published in 1969, this small book of 174 pages is still as relevant and popular as it was forty years ago. 

Source texts

San Diego : Harcourt Brace & Compay, c1977.
Green Library » Stacks » PN1995 .E5 1977
There are few filmmakers and film theorists as respected and revered as Sergei Eisenstein. As early as the 1920s, Eisenstein began writing about montage, and in 1924 published his groundbreaking “The Montage of Attractions” inLEF: Zhurnal Levogo Fronta Iskusstv (The Journal of the Left Front of the Arts), a periodical edited by the great Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. At the same time, Eisenstein was working on his first film, Strike, which was released a year later. Shortly afterwards, his Battleship Potemkin was also released. In a mere two years, Eisenstein’s published theoretical writings and the first filmic examples of his theory in practice changed the direction of cinema forever.Film Form: Essays in Film Theory is a companion piece to Eisenstein’s earlier The Film Sense: Essays in Film Theory. Here, Eisenstein’s later writings can be found, from his outstanding “A Dialectical Approach to Film Form” to “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram.” The filmmaker includes diagrams, film stills, and shot sequences to illustrate his arguments and to intensify his charge towards intellectual cinema.
Berkeley : University of California Press, [1967-71]
Green Library » Bender Room » PN1994 .B3513 V.1
Perhaps the greatest contribution to the study of cinema by one of the medium’s most revered critics and poets, André Bazin’s two-volume What is Cinema? (Qu'est-ce que le cinema?) delves into the practice and nature of film and filmmaking by way of a series of short, ground-breaking essays. Volume 1 is comprised of ten works, including “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” and “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage,” essays any film scholar would be remiss to overlook. Here, for example, Bazin engages filmmakers such as Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, and Sergei Eisenstein in examining the essence of montage, and questions how the technique may be used by cinema to impose specific interpretations of events on spectators. Does a resistance to montage and thus an adherence to spatial unity produce more realistic results? Volume 2 includes some of the most influential essays ever written on Italian Neorealism, yet these essays are not exclusive to the history of Italian cinema alone. Rather, Bazin discusses strategies of composition, mise-en-scène, narrative, and realism as it applies to the enterprise of cinema at large. As valuable as this collection of essays is, its greatest contribution to Film Studies may very well be its lucid and tangible grasp of history by showing how cinema is a product of specific historical and material circumstances.