Define Film Theory
It can seem like a daunting task, trying to come up with one succinct definition of film theory. Just the term “theory” can elicit images of academic discipline, of stuffy people in a stuffy library reading stuffy tomes (that’s a stuffy word for books). It almost sounds like work, doesn’t it? And while there is a tremendous amount of study devoted to film theory, it isn’t a difficult concept.
In fact, you’ve probably already had lengthy film theory discussions, especially if you’re interested in one of our film school programs.
How do you Define Film Theory?
In simplest terms, defining film theory is basically breaking down a movie beyond a thumbs up or down. Breaking down what you liked about the movie, what didn’t work, and how it put you in a state of mind are all aspects of film theory.
It goes beyond watching motion pictures, too. Think about the discussions you’ve had with friends after a night at the movies, what you liked, what they hated, and so on, and apply it to your film. They may be general ideas, how certain scenes were filmed, and so on. If it’s your project, you go with what you want – but it doesn’t hurt to appeal to audiences, either.
What are the Three Main Types of Film?
There are three main types of films when it comes to understanding film: Formalism, Realism, and Classical. Depending on the actors, the story, even the type of camera used while shooting a film will place your story into one of these categories. Now, these are pretty broad definitions and not to be confused with themes or genres.
1. Realism Film
The best example of this type of movie is a documentary, complete with non-actors, minimal film production or special effects, and even choppy film editing. These films are as “real” as it gets. That doesn’t necessarily mean gritty, but they’re more stripped-down than other movies. As digital cameras get smaller and smartphone capabilities get better, realist movies are experiencing a real uptick.
2. Formalism Film
Think of everything that makes up a realism film or realist film, turn it upside down, and there you have a formalist movie. This is where Hoop Dreams becomes Space Jam. These movies give us alternate worlds, universes, and realities. Heavy on the special effects, crazy camera angles, and out-of-this-world storylines, these are the “Summer Blockbusters” that get us into the seats.
3. Classical Film
In a way, this is the happy medium between the other two types of film. Think of Good Will Hunting: Everything in the film is entirely possible (untapped potential, bar disagreements, complicated love story), but it’s entirely made up. Or take a real story and manipulate it to fit a 100-minute time frame.
What Different Types of Film Theory Exist?
Where the list of film types is generally small, film theories can be as wide and varied as their audience. Because, in a way, everyone can and does have their own film theories (even if they don’t know it). For example, a man and a woman can go and see Thelma and Louise and see two entirely different films. Film theorists believe this is because they’re seeing the movie through two different lenses, two different realities.
This type of theory purports that a film is a reflection of the director and the film they want to make. When we talk about a Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson film, we are talking about a very specific type of film. This theory can even be applied to blockbuster films—everyone knows what to expect when Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton takes the helm of a film.
In fact, this can be crystallized in their treatment of Batman, D.C.’s most successful superhero (at least in terms of the box office). Tim Burton’s Batman was a fanciful, surreal, almost giddy way to make a superhero film. Nolan’s trilogy was altogether different: Dark, gritty, violent. Even their treatments of The Joker couldn’t be more different.
You definitely knew which director made their respective films. The visualizations, the pacing, the lighting, the sounds, acting, and everything else were solely at the discretion of the director. Each had all the trademarks of the director and each was wildly successful at bringing people to the theater.
There’s a scene in They Live when Roddy Piper’s George Nada puts on a pair of sunglasses and he begins to see subliminal messages in, well, everything. In a sense, that’s what the apparatus film theory believes: Films are here to tell you what you should be thinking. Or rather, what you’re already thinking.
There’s a psychological relationship between the film and the audience, where the action on the screen pulls out certain feelings or beliefs. Or, in some cases, encodes those feelings and beliefs into the gray matter of the audience. It’s a way to look at films in a funhouse mirror with as many (or as few) distortions needed to reflect a reality that’s portrayed.
It’s the basis of why films, video games, and other art forms have ratings, age limits, and so forth. Bad things happen because we’re inundated with certain messages every waking moment of the day. You could think of it as a cynical way to look at a movie, or coming to the realization that it’s who we are as a society. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
When watching a film, it’s often pretty obvious who the good guy is and who wears the black hat. Whether it’s a procedural featuring a struggling single mother fighting a major corporation that’s causing disease in a small Midwestern town or a horror film where a college student is literally nothing more than a body for the rich and powerful to possess.
There’s a long list of movies throughout film history pitting an underdog against the ensconced, immovable, and insurmountable power structure. Even when that power structure is supposedly “good.” A Marxist theorist looks at a movie through the lens of an attempt to take the power from the few to give it to the people.
George Lucas is one of the most financially successful filmmakers of all time, at one point amassing a net worth of more than $6 billion, but one of the most popular and persistent criticisms was that he couldn’t write for women. That criticism didn’t affect his popularity or the popularity of his films.
Feminist film theory looks at how women are portrayed in films, either with their accomplishments, their roles, or their influence on the film as a whole. Where other theories may look at the film and society as a whole, feminist theory takes a critical look at how the women are portrayed.
There are many other theoretical ways to look at movies, either through the eyes of sex, gender, age, and race as well as other societal, political, and theological lenses. Not every movie will hold up to the same scrutiny, and not every movie wants to be held up in that manner. But understanding why film theory matters, how it can provide you with various lenses through which you can consider the film, and how it can help you tell your stories is a key part of being a professional filmmaker with depth and the ability to see past mere spectacle.
Want to Learn More About Film Theory?
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Our curriculum is based on what you need to know when working towards becoming a director and filmmaker. Our learning system has many externs move on to the silver screen and the TV screen, but they earned their shots. Will their success become your success? Well, that’s up to you. Apply today.