Film-Philosophy Conference, Film-Philosophy Conference 2012

Systems philosophy and film

Maria Poulaki


The purpose of this paper is to suggest a systemic analysis of films from the perspective of complex systems theory.

Different approaches to film theory at different historical stages of its development paved the way for a systemic approach to film. From the perspective of the structuralist tradition, and influenced by Saussurian semiotics, Christian Metz saw film as a textual system determining the way its units are organized (1974). Cognitive film theory and its more recent representatives David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson also introduced an approach to films which is systemic in principle, since they define a film’s form as a system, “a unified set of related, interdependent elements” (2008: 65). It is mainly from the viewer’s perspective and his or her cognitive processes and “need for form” that Bordwell and Thompson highlighted  the systemic function of films.

In this presentation  I will extend the semiotic and the cognitivist framework for the description of filmic systems,  by borrowing elements from the transdisciplinary field of systems theories, which flourished in the second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, showing a rising interest in the notion of complexity (see Mitchell 2009). Thus, I will stress the complex and not just the systemic properties of films. A complex systemic approach is necessitated by the intensely piecemeal articulation of many contemporary films (see Kinder 2002, Cubitt 2004, Cameron 2008), and the nonlinear connections between their units, often involving loops and repetition. To configure this complex conception of system formation in films, I will particularly draw on Niklas Luhmann’s philosophy of systems, and his account of systemic self-reference. Seen as manifestations of this systemic process, the  time loops, repetition and variation that so much proliferate in contemporary “complex” films, from Antichrist to Take Shelter, can be considered as factors of complex self-organization of the filmic system.  


Works Cited

Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin (2008). Film art: An introduction (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Cameron, Allan (2008). Modular narratives in contemporary cinema. Houndmils: Pallgrave Macmillan.

Cubitt, Sean (2004). The cinema effect. Massachusetts, MA: MIT Press.

Kinder, Marsha (2002). Hot spots, avatars, and narrative fields forever: Buñuel’s legacy for new digital media and interactive database narrative. Film Quarterly 55(4), 2-15.

Luhmann, Niklas (1995a). Social Systems. (John Bednarz Jr. with Dirk Baecker, Trans.) Stanford: Stanford UP.

Metz, Christian (1974). Film language: A semiotics of the cinema. (Michael Taylor, Trans.) Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Mitchell, Melanie (2009). Complexity: A guided tour. Oxford: Oxford UP.


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About the Presenter

Maria Poulaki
University of Amsterdam