What’s new in classical film theory?
JOHANNES VON MOLTKE
What’s new in classical film theory? This was the question behind a remarkably well-attended panel at the 2012 Society for Cinema andMedia
Studies (SCMS) conference – prompted by a string of recent interventions in academic publishing and on the conference circuit – and it is one that deserves our attention.Whether in confirmation of or in opposition to posttheoretical turns and elegies for theory,we arewitnessing a concerted return to someof the central texts and authors of classical film theory.Over the past few years, conferences and symposia in London and Paris, and at US universities including Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and Dartmouth, have led to anthologies covering ‘Arnheim for film and media studies’, to ‘opening
Bazin’ for reconsideration, to investigating theworks of JeanEpstein, and to probing the legacies of Siegfried Kracauer.1Just as importantly, and doubtless prompting some of these new reflections, many texts and fresh translations have become newly available: thanks to Erica Carter and
Rodney Livingstone, Béla Balázs’s early film theory (the subject of a 2009
Screen symposium) is nowaccessible for the first timenEnglish translation;
Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul’s Epstein anthology includes a substantial section of new translations of Epstein’s own writings; and Siegfried
Kracauer’s American Writings have also recently been published.
Two years after the panelmentioned above, a roundtable on ‘the return to classical film theory’ at this year’s SCMS again attracted considerable interest; another on the same topic preceded the publication of a special issue ofOctober.2After a period of comparative neglect, it would seem, the classics are back: that is what’s new. 1 Béla Balázs, Early Film Theory:
Visible Man and The Spirit of Film, ed. Erica Carter, trans. Rodney
Livingstone (Oxford: Berghahn
Books, 2010); Siegfried Kracauer,
American Writings: Essays on Film and Popular Culture, ed. Johannes von Moltke and Kristy Rawson (Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press, 2012). See also
Siegfried Kracauer, Werke,
Volumes I–IX (Frankfurt am Main:
Suhrkamp, 2004–12). 2 ’A return to classical film theory?’,
October, no. 148 (2014). 396 Screen 55:3 Autumn 2014© The Author 2014. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Screen. All rights reserved doi:10.1093/screen/hju032 do ss ie r at Tem ple U niversity on A pril 22, 2015 http://screen.oxfordjournals.org/
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What, though, has prompted this return? Is it a sign of exhaustion, a kind of theory fatigue, or does it speak instead of a renewed theoretical vigour?
And to which classical film theory, or theories, are critics turning? Which theorists are we neglecting – who is arguing for the rereading of Deren, of
Panofsky or Pudovkin, for example – and why? These are some of the questions that this dossier considers, and to which it starts to offer some answers, all ofwhich arguably hinge onhowwevariously ‘locate’ the return of classical film theory historically and discursively. It comes in thewake of psychoanalytic and poststructuralist theories of the 1970s and 1980s, of the ostensible ‘end’ to that mode of theorizing proclaimed in 1996 by David
Bordwell andNoël Carroll inPost-Theory,3 and of the ensuing explorations of cognitive andneuroscientific paradigmsunder the aegis of theSociety for
Cognitive Studies of theMoving Image. But it also follows the digital turn, the explosion of media platforms, and the apparent dissolution of film as a concrete, clearly delimited object of study in the age of convergence. After all of these seismic shifts, the field is looking back to early theorizations of film by Arnheim, Balázs, Bazin, Epstein and Kracauer, rethinking their contributions, historicizing and actualizing them at the same time.
The following three essays take stock of recent developments in an effort to account for some of the reasons for this resurgence and to propose frames for debates still to come. Johannes von Moltke considers different ways of appropriating classical film theories in and for the present, advocating a historicizing approach. David N. Rodowick then asks us to contextualize classical film theorizingbyhistoricizing theverynotionof ‘theory’. Finally,
Erica Carter recovers the place of the NewWoman as image, cinema icon and myth in the ekphrastic style of Balázs’s writings. Deriving from ongoing engagement by these authors with the foundational theoretical texts of our discipline, these interventions are designed to prompt further discussion of the place of classical film theory in contemporary film and media studies. 3 David Bordwell and Noël Carrol,
Post Theory: Reconstructing Film
Studies (Madison, WI: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1996). 397 Screen 55:3 Autumn 2014 . Johannes von Moltke . What’s new in classical film theory? Introduction dossier at Tem ple U niversity on A pril 22, 2015 http://screen.oxfordjournals.org/
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