By the 1980s poststructural theory and criticism had begun to adopt a new set of guiding assumptions. The new characteristics ascribed to cinema were three: (1) the social impact of films on specific viewers matters more than the general qualities of film as art; (2) art is not essentially transcendent but always tied to a social and historical context within which different responses and interpretations occur; and (3) the history of film is the story both of its rise as an art and of its social impact and political significance as a mass medium.
Rather than appreciating the art of cinema outside of any particular context, the new emphasis called for situating the art of any film in a specific context. The importance of The Birth of a Nation (1915) for the art of cinema because of its inventive use of cross cutting between simultaneous events to create suspense must now be situated in relation to the actual suspense created: would members of the Klu Klux Klan rescue the endangered white women from the clutches of an evil black man? This racist theme itself belonged within the historical context of race relations in the early twentieth century, when prejudice and stereotypes took different shape and had different status than they do today. Situating film within a specific context has also added new impetus to the study of documentary film. Extraordinarily popular compared to its more marginal status up until the early 1980s, documentary film study now consistently addresses aesthetic issues in relation to socially specific goals and effects.
The differentiation of films into various groupings continued as before but with an added emphasis on the historical context to which genres, movements, waves, the work of specific directors, and historical phases of national cinemas belonged. The attempt to understand "What is cinema?" became a question posed less in relation to traditional arts and more in relation to newer media like television, installation and video art, digital, interactive media, and the Web. Forms of overlap and convergence among these various forms made the isolation of cinema as a distinct medium a less compelling question than the continuities and discontinuities among a wide array of moving image media.
"Identity politics," which places great stress on defining the qualities that characterize a given group, often with a stress on the issue of stereotypes, the need for "positive images," and the search for alternative forms of narrative more commensurate with the group's shared values, gave rise to a flowering of film theory, criticism, and history from the perspective of African American, Native American, ethnic, and queer (a combination of gay and lesbian) perspectives.
This shift in emphasis from the close reading of texts isolated from their context began in the 1970s as an aspect of a cultural studies approach to film and other media. It gained strength in the 1980s as identity politics—in this case, the examination of cinema from the distinct perspective of a specific group—became an important aspect of political debate in the larger society. Anthologies such as Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema and Screening Asian Americans provide a wealth of critical analysis devoted to issues that had gone largely unexplored by either auteur study or by ideological study that focused on the subject rather than the larger social system to which the subject belonged. Attention to a more socially and historically situated perspective challenged qualities previously taken for granted, such as heterosexual marriage as a marker of the happy ending, stereotypic representation of groups from Latinos and Latinas to Jews, and identification with male heroes but desire for female stars: the reversal of these conventions by gay and lesbian viewers, who desire differently, has undercut the universalizing claims of traditional film theory.
Also beginning in the 1980s, a call for a return to the history of film cast doubt on the received wisdom of existing film histories. Studies such as Miriam Hansen's Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film , David E. James's Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties , and Jane M. Gaines's Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era all depart radically from the earlier tradition of tracing the rise of film as an art within various national contexts. Revisionist histories such as these set out to apply a more finely tuned analysis of the larger context in which films arose. They took into account the social, historical, economic, and ideological factors that both a more traditional emphasis on the rise of film as an art and auteur theory with its stress on the centrality of the author as understood solely from films themselves failed to do.
The new assumptions listed above that sought to contextualize the understanding of films also called for interpretations that differentiated among the responses of specific audiences and compared the responses of different audiences. African American women, for example, were far more receptive than white males to Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), which tells the story of an African American family poised to embark upon profound changes at the start of the twentieth century. Even popular, mainstream films could no longer be understood from a single perspective. Different groups were shown to often read against the grain of the preferred meaning assigned by critics and marketers and to instead discover alternative meanings: slasher films, for example, which make violence against women grizzly "fun," often lead to male adolescents identifying, across the gender divide, with the "Final Girl," who vanquishes the male villain and restores order. The critic's own alignment in relation to the particulars of ethnicity, class, and gender has also become a more openly acknowledged aspect of film study since the universalizing voice of traditional criticism has become increasingly associated with a white, heterosexual male perspective that treats its own social viewpoint as normative.
Film studies scholars today continue to formulate theories about the broad patterns that characterize the cinema, but they do so in a form that gives heightened attention to the specificities of time and place. "Thick" interpretations, which attempt to grasp the multiple perspectives and divergent meanings that a given work conveys and prompts, have gained a stronger foothold than theorizations that view the cinema as a medium that functions in predetermined ways and produces consistent responses. Rather than serving as a form of social glue for the construction of a unified nation-state, the cinema has come to be seen as part of a highly contested cultural zone that no longer coincides with a single understanding of national or any other identity. The stakes of specific, often underrepresented groups seeking to claim a space within the cultural arena generally and film studies specifically have taken on great importance. Combined with mostly European theories of poststructuralism, these forces have altered the shape of film studies, proposing new ways to answer the perennial question, "What is cinema?"
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