Top 10 Film Theories That Could Change How You Watch Movies


Since the early days of film, there have been philosophical writings about the medium, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it started moving into academia. Being a fairly new discourse, film theory often borrows theories from other disciplines like literature, psychoanalysis and gender studies and imposes them on films. These are ten of the most famous and interesting theories that have been developed over film theory’s short history.

10. The Bomb under the Table


Widely considered to be The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock had an interesting theory on how suspense is built. He was talking to famed director and film theory pioneer, François Truffaut, in front of an audience and he told Truffaut to pretend there was a bomb under the table. As the audience watched them talk, they wouldn’t know the bomb was there and when it exploded, it would surprise them. But what if the audience knew a bomb set to go off at 1:00 was under the table? Perhaps they were privy to seeing someone place it there before he and Truffaut sat down. If there was a clock on the stage and it ticked away, getting closer and closer to 1:00, the conversation on the stage would be more interesting and it would create anxiety in the audience members. Hitchcock says that the second case is what suspense is. He also says that the unknown bomb is 15 seconds of excitement, but the audience knowing about the bomb is 15 minutes of suspense.

9. Narrative Codes


French linguist Roland Barthes compared a text, like films, to a ball of thread that needed to be unraveled. Once that is done, it will look completely different from the original ball. Also, he said that not all balls are the same way. Some are “open,” meaning they can be untangled in many ways and some others are “closed,” which means there is only one way to untangle the ball. This is what films are like; some are open to plural meanings, while others only have one.

This leads to his five narrative codes which are ways of unraveling a film. Two examples of how the codes work is by picturing them as colored lenses and different people talking. Using the lenses to look at an object changes your view of the object, but the object itself doesn’t change. The second example is to imagine five different people are talking to you all at the same time. The narrative codes allow you to hear just one person speaking at a time.

The codes are Hermeneutic, Proairetic, Semantic, Symbolic, and Cultural. The Hermeneutic code is looking for hidden meaning in a film and trying to solve any mysteries that are not solved right away.  Proairetic is simply watching the film and wondering what will happen next and understanding that each action leads to another action. The Semantic code is a bit hard to explain because Barthes does not give a definition, but it involves “semes,” which connote things. For example, “John is rich and likes to drive fast,” could be said as “John drives a Ferrari.” The Symbolic code is meant to look for symbolism in the film; for example, an old man and a young man are sitting on a bench, the space in between could represent life. Finally, there is the cultural code, which involves references to anything outside the film, such as culture, science and history.

8. Violation of Aesthetic Distance


The theory of aesthetic distance is the measurement of how emotionally involved a viewer gets with a piece of art, like a movie or a book. For example, if  a film can completely hold a viewer’s interest and the viewer was emotionally invested in the movie, then the film would have low aesthetic distance. Obviously, many filmmakers want to have low aesthetic distance because they want viewers to be immersed in the film. What is interesting is what famed screenwriter David Mamet theorized about aesthetic distance. According to Mamet, intense violence in films violates the aesthetic distance because it will push people away. He argues that a viewer will have to detach themselves in order to question if what they saw was real or not, meaning that they will have to think about what they are watching as a film and not experience it at low aesthetic distance. Yet, the argument against Mamet’s theory is that many of the most beloved films of all time, like The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Shawshank Redemption, and Pulp Fiction all have depictions of graphic violence.

7. Orientalism


Orientalism is a 1978 book by Edward Said, an English Professor from Columbia University. Said grew up in Cairo and Jerusalem, attending British and American schools. He went to study English Literature in the United States where he graduated from Princeton and then achieved his doctorate in English from Harvard. Orientalism is Said’s theory that the Western world has a patronizing perception of the East and it often manifests itself in art. His claim is that the West, such as North America and Europe, views countries in Asia and North Africa, as backwards and uncivilized, but also exotic and even magical. However, Said points out this view is wrong. He says, “There has been so massive and calculatedly aggressive an attack on contemporary Arab and Muslim societies for their backwardness, lack of democracy, and abrogation of women’s rights that we simply forget that such notions as modernity, enlightenment, and democracy are by no means simple and agreed-upon concepts that one either does or does not find like Easter eggs in the living-room.”

Orientalism started with early paintings of the East and spread into other mediums. It is so widespread that Orientalism is still prevalent in movies today. Recent Movies where Orientalism is quite obvious are Eat, Pray, Love, Iron Man, Prince of Persia, Karate Kid and Sex in the City 2, just to name a few. The take away is look at how places like India and Arab countries are depicted in movies. Are they anything less than exotic?

6. The Bechdel Test


This test started off as a joke in the comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. In a strip published in 1985, a character explains the three very simple rules of the test. First is that the movie has to have two female characters. Second, they have to talk to each other and third, they have to talk about something other than a man. Since it was published, it has been a way to look at gender bias in films and an astounding amount of films do not pass the test. And for those people who think that women talking may come across as boring or make it a chick flick, just a few of the films that pass the test are Alien (which is mentioned in the comic), Die Hard, No Country for Old Men, Goodfellas and even the Godfather Part II.

The Bechdel test simply speaks to the diminished roles women characters are sometimes relegated to. Next time you’re watching a movie, in any genre, pay attention and see if it passes the Bechdel Test.

5. Queer Theory


Queer theory first arose in the 1990s and it has a few different branches when it comes to relating to film. The first is an examination of how heterosexuality is constructed as “normal” in films. Even in contemporary times, homosexuality is more common in mainstream films, but their sexuality is how the character is defined. For example, straight characters are defined by their job, income and other aspects that aren’t about their sexuality, but gay characters are often solely or primarily defined by their sexuality. Theorists also point to Alfred Kinsey’s Scale, which argues that sexuality is fluid, especially more fluid than depicted in films.

The rise of queer theory arose at about the same time as New Queer Cinema, which included films like My Own Private Idaho and The Living End. Theorists say that this wave of films made sexuality a bit more fluid in Hollywood. A classic example is that Johnny Depp is a movie star and his most famous role is a flamboyant pirate that wears make-up. Depp is considerably different than someone like John Wayne or Carey Grant.

The second branch of queer theory is queer readings of texts and films. This is the practice of looking at movies that may have hidden homosexual subtext to them. Even some of the most macho films, like Rebel Without A Cause and The Wild Bunch have some incredibly gay subtext which may have been purposely placed in the film.

4. The Gaze


In 1975, the influential British film journal, Screen, published an essay by experimental feminist filmmaker Laura Mulvey called “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The paper discusses the power of what she called “the gaze” in film. Mulvey argued that there is a sense of scopophilia, which is the attraction to statues, when it comes to watching films through two different actions by the filmmakers. First off, there is the voyeuristic way where the camera focuses on a woman, creating “the gaze” via the camera. Mulvey suggests that the way movies are shot, that it puts the audience in the perspective of a heterosexual man and that is the lens in which people are supposed to watch it; no matter what their gender or sexual orientation is. This process is a masculinization of the viewer, which can be alienating to a number of viewers. She also says that by objectifying women through the gaze, it makes it easier for women to even objectify other women. Besides what it does to the viewer, it also relegates women characters to a lesser position in the film. Often, they are only there just to support the man. Or they are just there for visual pleasure, either for the audience or for the male characters in the film. Mulvey also says that male characters are active, people look to them in admiration and they push the plot along. As for women, they slow the plot down and are only there to inspire the male characters. The problem that worries Mulvey is people will passively watch this and believe this type of treatment in women is normal.

3. The Genre Cycle


In his widely regarded book, Understanding Film, Professor Louis Gianetti asserts that there are four essential stages when it comes to a genre. The first stage is the primitive stage where the conventions are established. The second is the classical stage, when the genre is rich and the conventions of the movies are well known so the audience knows what to expect. The third stage is the revisionist phase where the genre moves into more symbolism than straight stories and it becomes more stylized. In this stage, the filmmakers are more aware of the conventions of the genre and filmmakers play with them. Finally, there is the parodic stage, which is basically when films become parodies. The fourth cycle usually means the genre is losing popularity.

An example of the genre cycle theory in action is slasher films. It starts off with films like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the primitive stage. The classical stage has films like Halloween and a Nightmare on Elm Street. In the late 1990s, it leads to Scream, which is a revisionist film and finally, it ends up with Scary Movie, which is a parody.  

2. Morphology of the Folktale


Have you ever thought that every movie sort of just feels the same? Well, that is possible because they may all follow Vladimir Propp’s 31 functions of narrative. In 1928, Propp, a Russian theorist, published the essay “Morphology of the Folktale”, which examined Russian folklore and found that the basic structure of every story is the same and follows 31 possible functions. No story has all 31 functions, but every story has some of the functions that appear in varying order in four stages. The first stage is the introduction, which starts the character on a quest. Some of the functions include someone or something that is missing or the hero has to escape their environment. The second stage is the body of the story where the villain is identified and the quest starts. The third is the donor sequence, often the heroes overcome their obstacles and/or the villain is defeated. The fourth stage, which is optional, is the hero’s return.

There are plenty of popular films that follow the 31 functions, such as most comic book movies, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Harry Potter films, The Matrix and many, many more. But there are people who do not believe the 31 functions exist in all narrative films. For example, a big part of the theory depends on seven character roles that Propp devised that correspond to the functions. They are: hero, villain, the dispatcher (the person who sends the person on the quest), the helper, the princess (or the prize), the donor (a character who usually trains or gives the character a magical object) and the false hero (who tries to claim credit for the hero’s action and/or marry the Princess). So with a film without a real hero or villain, like The Social Network or There Will Blood, it makes it hard for the functions to work because there is no hero quest or villain to vanquish.

1. Auteur Theory


One of the most famous and popular theories in film studies is the auteur theory. Auteur is a French word that was used before the 1950s to describe composers or authors. It was first used to talk about film in 1954 by François Truffaut, who was a writer at the famed film journal Cahiers du Cinéma. Besides being a film critic, Truffaut was also a director, like a number of other writers at the journal, including Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer. In his essay, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” (“A certain tendency of French cinema”), he singles out a group of French filmmakers that write their own dialogue and “… invent the stories they direct.” After that, the theory was advanced by French film critic and director Alexandre Astruc who proposed the idea of the caméra-stylo, or “camera-pen” in 1958. Astruc argued that the director is more of the author of the film than even the screenwriter, who actually authored the screenplay. In the end, the definition of the theory became, “a film director whose personal influence and artistic control over his or her films are so great that he or she may be regarded as their author, and whose films may be regarded collectively as a body of work sharing common themes or techniques and expressing an individual style or vision.”

Now, many people will argue that, of course, the auteur theory is correct. There are a number of directors that have their own distinct style in films, even when they are just a director; Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese are usually the go-to examples of auteurs. With that being said, there are people who are not completely sold on it. For example, films are incredibly collaborative efforts involving actors, cinematographers and screenwriters. Meaning a number of artists contribute to the film, so how can one person be the author? Others argue that the film wouldn’t exist without the screenplay. This is the basis of the Schreiber Theory, which argues that the real author of a film is the screenwriters.  


Robert Grimminck is a Canadian freelance writer. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, follow him on Pinterest or visit his website.

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  1. Charles Campbell on

    If the amount of time invested into these film theories had been invested in areas that truly help people then we may have had something! Films are only entertainment. That’s all. Granted a great number of them are very well constructed but we don’t need nerds to tell us who is doing what. It is all in the presentation and camera angles. Robert Altmans treatment of women in his films are harsh yet he stated that that is the way women are treated! Oliver Stone makes money showing the dirty side of America and is well compensated for it. Hitchcock khew how to manipulate and was great at it. They are all showmen that knew what works. Many directors worked with the same camera and script people on several decades from the silent era till the present day. Clint Eastwood used the same crews more of less for 40 years. John Ford the same thing. Maurice Tournear \and Josef von Sternberg did it as well.

  2. You’ve really missed something here, while overemphasizing all those pansy French directors (Boring!). That is the amount of time films devoted to smoking before smoking became passe. About a 1/4 to 1/2 of a movie could be devoted to getting out the smoking materials, preparing them, often offering them around, lighting them, smoking, blowing out the smoke through which we see the characters. Often no dialogue or very limited was needed during these sequences. I wonder to what extent writers wrote them in or were they the invention of directors? Nowadays, of course, smoking scenes are annoying, but for decades they were a sensual romp for audiences and should be closely-studied by our impressive and hard-working modern academic scholars.