The rise of film studies within the university has typically sought to justify itself less on the grounds of film as a commodity to be consumed with the guidance of critics and reviewers and more on the grounds of film as an art form or cultural object to be understood for its formal qualities and social implications. Film studies took root in the academy in the wake of the enormous interest in European art cinema generated during the postwar period by filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977), Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918), Akira Kurosawa (1910–1988), François Truffaut (1932–1984), Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), Claude Chabrol (b. 1930), Michelangelo Antonioni (b. 1912), Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956), and many others. Their work demonstrated that feature fiction films could address the same issues of alienation, spiritual hunger, historical memory, and formal experimentation that were evident in many works of literature and visual art. It was, in fact, in various humanities departments that film studies most frequently emerged as an academic subject. An older tradition of communication studies existed, and continues to exist, as a social science discipline, but the stress given in the social sciences to institutional factors, quantitative analysis of the industries and audiences for motion pictures, television and other media, and content analysis did not satisfy the same goals as humanistic approaches, which stressed interpretation of specific films and theorization about the cinema as both art form and cultural object. For the majority of film scholars, questions of industrial organization and measurable social effects took a subordinate place to questions of film structure, style, and meaning.
Treated as an art comparable to literature, painting, or sculpture, film called for study in terms of appreciation, differentiation, and interpretation. That is, an appreciation for film meant understanding what distinguished the medium from other arts and then differentiating among the myriad of actual films those that best exemplified the distinctive nature of the medium. The differentiation of films into clusters of various kinds also allowed for comparisons and contrasts to be made beyond the level of the individual film. Among the most significant of clusters were (1) the classic Hollywood film, from Grand Hotel (1932) to Spartacus (1960); (2) studio films—those made by MGM compared to those from Warner Brothers, for example; (3) genre film; (4) national cinemas (British, French, or Iranian cinema, for example, often with a focus on certain periods of notable achievement); and (5) the cinema of specific film directors or auteurs , such as John Ford (1894–1973), David Lynch (b. 1946), and Agnes Varda (b. 1926). Each choice of a cluster took support from methodological principles designed to facilitate understanding of that particular type of film, from the concept of continuity editing in classic Hollywood cinema to the concept of directorial style in auteur studies.
Initially, interpretation, or film criticism, revolved around an attention to details that showed how films conveyed meaning by cinematic means. Landscape, for example, was an important signifying element in westerns, whereas the jumpy editing style of Jean-Luc Godard's early films, such as À bout de souffle ( Breathless , 1960), proved an essential part of his attempt to reinvent the classic style of Hollywood films. Similarly, Antonioni often conveyed alienation through his mise-en-scène —that is, through the way he arranged characters in space and moved them through it to suggest their isolation from each other (by looking off frame or in different directions, for example).
At a more abstract level, the art of cinema came to be identified either with editing as a quintessential element, since it allowed two different shots to produce a new impression or idea not contained in either shot by itself, or with the long take and the cinema's capacity to register the uninterrupted occurrence of an event through time. Through debates about the merits of different strategies by specific directors, critics sought to understand not only the complexity of individual films and clusters of films but of cinema itself. The broad question "What is cinema?" provoked answers that shaped what came to be known as film theory.
Efforts to develop a systematic understanding of film are almost as old as cinema itself. When these efforts took root within the university in the 1960s and early 1970s, they shared at least three characteristics with other forms of humanistic inquiry: (1) film is a medium of aesthetic importance; the most important dimension to cinema is its capacity to take form as art, just as the most important dimension of writing is its capacity to take form as literature; (2) film art, like literature, affects viewers in a similar, aesthetic manner that is removed from the contingencies of time and place; it transcends the local to attain a more timeless significance; and (3) the history of the cinema is the history of its emergence as an art form.
These characteristics set up a series of priorities that carried with them a set of consequences. The greatest emphasis went to studying fiction films, which drew upon a realistic narrative tradition to tell stories revolving around individual characters, their situation or environment, and their actions. The appreciation, differentiation, and interpretation of such stories were already a familiar part of literary analysis, and many of the tools that furthered understanding of literary form proved valuable to film study, such as the close formal analysis of specific texts by literary New Criticism.
New Criticism, represented by figures such as T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and Alan Tate, was an American phenomenon that flourished from the 1930s to the 1950s. It sought to counter a sense of the evisceration of the emotional, affective dimension of life that science and technology threatened to impose by turning to literature, particularly poetry, as a social restorative. More crucially, as an influence, it took up the efforts by British critics such as F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards to celebrate the internal coherence and experiential pleasure of the text itself. Biographical studies of the artist or author, examinations of a work's historical or social context, topical concerns, and social issues all took a back seat to close readings of the text in and of itself. The text became a virtual fetish, valued as the timeless triumph of the creative spirit.
New Criticism inspired many studies in film that aimed at appreciating the full impact of aesthetic choices made within specific films. Robin Wood has been among the best practitioners of such an approach, enriching it with a keen eye for the sexual politics of a wide range of films and a broad appreciation of fiction films from the high art of Mizoguchi and Marcel Ophuls (b. 1927) to "trash" genres such as horror films. During this period, or up until the 1980s, avant-garde cinema, which often explored cinematic form in ways that gave scant attention to narrative, and documentary, which often stressed social issues in ways that diminished the viewer's attention to cinematic technique, received less consideration.
Auteur theory, with its stress on the style or vision of the filmmaker as it emerged more from an analysis of his or her films than from biographical anecdotes or personal statements of intention, proved an extremely important aspect of film study. Auteur criticism was among the first of the critical methodologies to gain widespread currency in the 1950s and 1960s. The practice retains a high degree of currency some fifty years later, although its focus on close reading, the director as the sole creative force, and thematic preoccupations that seem to be segregated from their larger social, historical context have all come in for considerable correction. Auteur criticism initially spread from France, most notably from critics soon to become directors writing in Cahiers du Cinema such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette (b. 1928), and others. In English-speaking countries its appearance coincided with the rise of film studies as a discipline. It dovetailed handily with literary and art historical approaches to art via the Great Man theory, which consistently gave priority to men (seldom women) whose creative genius looms above those of lesser ability.
It also coincided, in France, with a rebellion, led by François Truffaut, against the institutionalized "tradition of quality," characterized by masterful but largely literary rather than truly cinematic achievements. Such work dominated the French cinema of the postwar years. Truffaut called for a cinema that explored cinematic means of expression with verve and imagination rather than one that subordinated technique to a careful but more theatrical development of characters and their conflicts. This stress led to a distinction between "metteurs en scene," directors who simply converted a script into a film as a builder might convert a blueprint into a building, and the " auteur, " a director whose vision and style transformed a script into something truly cinematic that could not be envisioned on the basis of the script alone.
It fell to an American newspaper critic, Andrew Sarris, to convert the French " politiques des auteurs " into an international phenomenon. Sarris chose to label it the " auteur theory," a term that lost the original emphasis of the French phrase on a policy or politics of the author and suggested something of a far more systematic nature. His own book, The American Cinema , proposed to trace the history of American cinema by classifying over 150 directors in categories ranging from the "Pantheon," for Charles Chaplin, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and others, to "Oddities, One-Shots, and Newcomers," for John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Ida Lupino, and others, or "Subjects for Further Research," for Tod Browning, James Cruze, Henry King, and others. Movie , in the UK, and Film Comment , in the US, followed the lead of Cahiers du Cinema in devoting large portions of their issues to studies of individual directors, often discovering stylistic and thematic consistencies in the work of directors who had seemed to be merely the hired-hands of the Hollywood studios.
Auteur criticism provided a conceptual framework not only for the analysis of the work of directors who clearly possessed a distinct visual style, such as Robert Bresson (1901–1909), Yasujiro Ozu (1903–1963), Bernardo Bertolucci (b. 1941), or Peter Greenaway (b. 1942). Even more valuably, it prompted the discovery of filmmakers of vision who might have otherwise been buried within the Hollywood system on routine assignments or as specialists in various genres. Once compared with the work of others working in the same genres, the films of Howard Hawks (1896–1977), Preston Sturges (1898–1959), Vincente Minnelli, Anthony Mann (1907–1967), and Robert Aldrich (1918–1983), for example, gained coherence for their thematic and stylistic continuity. Hawks, whose style was extremely conventional, nonetheless used westerns and action films to focus on rituals of male bonding that involve getting the job done with stoic determination, whereas his comedies explore the hilarious results of men falling under the sway of women who isolate and feminize them.
The emphasis on film as a transcendental art with an autonomous history took shape within a strongly national context, in keeping with the almost universal role of the humanities in cultivating a sense of national identity. American, British, French, Senegalese, Iranian, Japanese, Brazilian, Argentine, and many other national cinemas qualified as transcendental art with distinctive history but did so within a national context. The greatness of a German film in the 1920s might be tied to its distinct use of the Expressionist techniques common in German art at the time—a quality, for example, that distinguished German film from the montage principles of 1920s Soviet cinema. Similarly, American films were often said to exemplify the pursuit of individual happiness or the obstacles to its attainment, a consistent theme in American art and literature.