These types of film studies held sway during the transitional period during which film became accepted as a disciplinary focus and a departmental entity within the university. Even at this time, during the 1960s and 1970s, the field was not as homogenous as this account so far implies. The question of "What is cinema?" also took a turn toward the political, asking how film mattered within the larger social arena. At the same time, a wave of European critical theory exerted considerable influence throughout Europe and North America. This work tended to shift emphasis away from content analysis per se, as it was practiced in the social sciences, where form or style was of little importance, and instead stressed the mechanisms by which content arises in relation to specific institutional practices and linguistic or semiotic forms. Artistic expressiveness, or style, came to be considered less a matter of individual creativity and more a matter of institutional systems, which establish a context and set limits within which specific forms of expressivity can occur. Stress on the psychology of individual characters, for example, might be seen as a function of a realist tradition that tends to give priority to the individual as the primary social and historical force. Such a tradition, in turn, could be considered an ideology—a particular way of seeing the world that can be subjected to the same close scrutiny as the style of individual films.
Initially associated with structuralism and then with poststructuralism, continental theory posed numerous challenges to the humanistic tradition. Language itself, including the language of cinema—its narrative codes, formal structures, and expressive techniques—became regarded less as a vehicle for expressing already conceived ideas and more as a mechanism that actually generated the impressions that they only appear to represent. Realism, for example, serves to make its view of the world transparent, as if the world obviously and naturally exists in a certain way. Continuity editing, which tends to go unnoticed, reinforces such a view. Modernist techniques, on the other hand, question this naturalness and stress the disjointed, subjective, incommensurate view of the world that different individuals might have. Jump cuts and strange juxtapositions between people and places reinforce this view. In this regard, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) exemplifies the realist film as L'Année dernière à Marienbad ( Last Year at Marienbad , 1961) exemplifies the modernist film.
The idea that meaning is always tightly related to a specific context and to a specific form of expression was carried beyond the film itself and applied to the artist and viewer. In this case, artistic vision or individual identity was seen as always tightly related to the specific institutional mechanisms that generate a sense of self-expression and identity. Traditional literary and film criticism held that the creative artist possessed special powers that led to artistic excellence. Structural and post-structural theory instead proposed that all subjects—artists and filmmakers, critics and viewers—were constituted as subjects within specific cultural and institutional frameworks that set goals and limits for creativity. These frameworks served the specific needs or interests of an existing social system—that is, they were ideological. For the French political theorist Louis Althusser, this idea led to the influential argument that the very idea of an independent subject was itself the product of an ideological operation: individuals think of themselves as free, subject to no one, within a social field that makes this notion the cornerstone of a free-market economy in which shared awareness and collective action represent a limitation or diminution of a subject's individuality.
Althussser's most forceful statement of the idea of the individual subject as a product of ideology was his essay "Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus" in Lenin and Philosophy . His line of thought was extended to the cinematic apparatus as an ideological device for the reinforcement of the status quo by French theorists at Cahiers du Cinema such as Jean Louis Baudry. Althussser stressed how the individual internalized assumptions about his status as a subject that inevitably placed an emphasis on how this internalization occurred. In film study, this led to a large quantity of work in the 1970s that attempted to make use of psychoanalytic theory to account for the effects of cinema on the viewer. Screen magazine, from the UK, became the leading proponent of this effort. One of the most influential articles on ideology and the subject was Laura Mulvey's essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," first published in Screen in 1975 and anthologized many times since. The essay is discussed further in the next section.
The dominant narrative cinema came to be seen as serving an ideological function that confirmed the individual as a subject. The nature of the star system, the system of continuity editing, and narrative realism worked to make stories of individual characters and their fate appear to simply tell themselves as a natural expression of an obvious fact: individuals are the key creators of social structure and historical change. The mechanism that actually animates these individuals, narrative storytelling or, as it came to be known, the cinematic apparatus, remains basically unacknowledged, off-screen. Like a puppet master, it creates the illusion of an imaginary world and fictitious characters that have independent lives of their own.
Film theory thus identified the cinema as a system whose formal elements contribute to the ideology of the individual. Feminist film theory carried the analysis one step further. Laura Mulvey, in her pioneering essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," noted that the individual subject who takes action in films—embarking on quests, courting a partner, solving a mystery, and so on—is almost invariably male, and the individual who awaits the outcome of such actions is almost invariably female. Paralleling this distinction, the camera encourages identification with the male hero; his look becomes the camera's look. We see the world from his point of view or from a point of view that places him front and center. Simultaneously, among the things the male hero sees when he looked out at the world around him is the female lead. She is there to be seen; she represents, in the words of Laura Mulvey, "to-be-looked-at-ness," a passive position that can be understood as a symptom of a social hierarchy between the sexes.
Whereas structuralism gave emphasis to the text itself and the principles that structured it, poststructuralism emphasized the context within which a film is