Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 1, January 2001

 

 

Gregory L. Miller

Casetti on Film Theory

 

 

 

Francesco Casetti

_Theories of Cinema: 1945-1995_

Translated by Francesca Chiostri and Elizabeth Gard Bartolini-Salimbeni,

with Thomas Kelso

Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999

ISBN 0-292-71207-3

368 pp.

 

Francesco Casetti's _Theories of Cinema: 1945-1995_ deserves a place in

every film scholar's library, even though the project is quixotic and, in

the end, only partially successful. After World War II, Casetti suggests,

film theory entered a new era: as cinema became an acceptable focus for

intellectual inquiry, theory became more specialized, and the ensuing

debates were increasingly international. Casetti (who teaches at the

Universita Cattolica in Milan) attempts to delineate these fifty-odd years

of film theory, meticulously tying each strand back into a whole cloth. In

a cautious introduction, the author explains: 'It is the *productivity* of

a knowledge that ensures, perhaps more than anything else, its theoretical

status . . . [This] book is focused more on the frameworks of research, on

their development and their dynamics, than on isolated contributions' (3).

 

He divides his survey, reasonably enough, into three parts. The first (and

in many ways most successful) part considers ontological debates that

flourished in the 1950s. This section is followed by chapters on

methodological approaches, while the third section examines various 'field

theories' (including feminist film theory, political theory, critiques of

representation, and so on).

 

What is cinema? Andre Bazin was certainly not the first to pose this

question, but Casetti credits Bazin and a few others with imbuing the

debate with rigorous urgency in the post-war years. This debate was

stimulated by Italian neorealism; Casetti begins with some exemplary

Italian theorists. Cesare Zavattini, certain that the war had taught people

to appreciate what is real, argued that true cinema should therefore mirror

reality. Guido Aristarco aims for similar results, but instead -- taking

his cue from literature -- proposes an 'aesthetics of reconstruction' (27),

in which exploring the facts takes priority over mere recording. Casetti

surveys other Italian theorists and filmmakers (and notes the obvious

influence of writers from Lukacs to Gramsci) before moving on to clear

summaries of Bazin and Kracauer.

 

The next chapter, 'Cinema and the Imaginary', continues the ontological

section. In an unequivocal break from the realists, surrealists argued that

cinema was necessarily fantastic. Concerns with the subjective nature of

film led thinkers to explore paths away from neorealism. The sociologist

Edgar Morin is given pride of place in this chapter (as is the case with

other figures, Casetti covers him in later sections when appropriate).

Morin considers spectator participation, finding a duplicity of cinema in

the bond between observer and observed. For Morin (writes Casetti), cinema

functions as both 'a modern and ancestral machine . . . [allowing] us to

photograph ourselves, our interior states, our drives, our attitudes, to

the point where it becomes either an 'archive of souls' . . . or an

'anthropological mirror'' (52).

 

Casetti continues his survey of ontological film theory in Chapter Four,

'Cinema and Language'. Three thinkers are singled out: Galvano Della Volpe,

Albert Laffay, and Jean Mitry. Since cinematic images introduce precise

concepts, Casetti explains, theorists began relating these images to other

signs. Casetti begins, as he often does in these pages, with Italy.

Resisting Croce's 'reduction of language to a purely aesthetic fact' (65),

Della Volpe finds a rational component in images, and postulates a dynamic

between a symbolic structure, the structures of a single expression, and

concrete thought. Laffay's analysis of film narrative furthers the notion

of cinema as discourse by examining how a film's plot is supported by an

underlying logical plot. Mitry signals a third way to establish the

linguistic nature of cinema by emphasizing its logical and dialectical

organization. Since filmic images are never isolated -- rather, they are

connected to each other by similarity or contrast, or at the very least by

succession -- their value is always contingent. As such, a film initiates a

process of abstraction and generalization, and, in doing so, engenders a

*new* reality; for Mitry, then, when Bazin and others take a film image for

reality, they succumb to the illusion of *trompe-l'oeil*.

 

Casetti concludes his survey of ontological theory with Mitry. I have

provided a summary of a summary, which is perhaps unfair in that Casetti's

sixty-four pages here are significantly more detailed. The author's

presentation is reasonably broad and extremely clear and well organized;

still, a single volume summation of film theory can only cover so much.

While Casetti labors toward objectivity, readers will likely become

impatient with many of his choices. The limitations of his approach become

more noticeable in ensuing sections.

 

Consider, for instance, his division of disciplinary approaches into four

sections psychology, sociology, semiotics, and psychoanalysis. There can be

no question that psychological and psychoanalytic contributions to film

studies have been voluminous and profound. Still, a hierarchy is

established here that more or less maintains itself throughout the rest of

the book. The chapter on sociology, in particular, seems simplistic and

underdeveloped. His explanation of Adorno and Horkheimer is lucid, for

instance, but later objections to the Frankfurt School are given the final

word. Casetti sums up the section with the typically simplistic reversal of

Adorno's ideas that came later in an effort to escape from troubling

conclusions. Casetti writes,

 

'Consequently, art does not become consumer goods, but consumer goods

become art. We observe, therefore, an *aesthetization of the commodity* and

not a commodification of aesthetics, as Horkheimer and Adorno believed . .

.. [T]he readers' and spectators' involvement in actually 'productive

consumption' does not lead to their subjection to the machine. It makes

them assume its rhythms and potentials. A *technologization of the body*

occurs, not a loss of personal abilities, as Adorno and Horkheimer thought'

(124).

 

The problem isn't just that, at such moments, Casetti's own preferences

seem to interfere; more troubling is that, while Casetti's organizational

tidiness is often welcome (never more so than when he explains the theories

themselves), his insistence upon presenting each theorist as a component of

a developing whole leads to a normalizing and evolutionary discourse. Thus

Adorno is presented, essentially, as having been overcome. Occasionally,

Casetti's zeal for concise explanations can result in statements so

sweeping and, simultaneously, so qualified that they are difficult to

fathom. Here, as the author tries to explain how film theory's relation to

politics shifted after 1968, the meaning seems to dissolve as one reads

along: 'The movement was not from politics to the movies, but from movies

to politics. We will see shortly that this did not always hold true and

that, in any case, different interpretations emerged. It is, however, a

fact that a new path was inaugurated' (185).

 

Along with psychoanalytic theory, Casetti's own favored approach --

enunciation theory -- receives disproportionate attention in these pages.

Both theories have been criticized (rightly to my mind) for positing an

abstract, ideal spectator; hence, one assumes, Casetti's often unsatisfying

presentation of overtly political theories. This might also explain the

author's almost total reduction of concepts of identity to conventional

psychoanalytic structures. Nowhere in these pages, for instance, will one

find reference to queer theory or to race.

 

Meanwhile, idiosyncratic figures such as Gilles Deleuze are awkwardly

squeezed into Casetti's historicized system. Deleuze and Stanley Cavell are

Casetti's representative philosophers in a hodgepodge of a chapter

entitled, 'Culture, Art, Thought'. Readers of _Film-Philosophy_ may be

particularly interested in Casetti's odd conclusions regarding philosophy's

relation to film:

 

'It is as though philosophical thought found itself incapable of working

with existent forms and remade itself, using cinema as its representative,

its emblem. In short, it is as though philosophy, orphan of the world,

availed itself of cinema for its world. It is perhaps a loss (the

deterioration of the relation with actual facts) more than a desire for

wholeness that leads our philosophers to cinema' (288).

 

Despite the book's many drawbacks (and considering the shortage of books of

its kind), it remains extremely useful. Casetti excels at clearly

explaining abstruse ideas, and the fine bibliography and restrained, yet

excellent notes ensure its status as a valuable resource. Many lesser known

figures are covered (might this book help spur English translations of

Alberto Abruzzese and Hartmut Bitomsky?). I would also recommend the book

for classroom use, as long as teachers are willing to supplement its

limitations. Besides previously mentioned limitations, one should know

that, as the title perhaps implies, this is an overview of *Western*

theories; expect nothing from, for instance, Asia or Africa. Within this

framework, Casetti is good on French, Anglo-American, and, especially,

Italian theories (indeed, the book is slanted toward the latter, though

some might find this refreshing), but short on Germany (nothing from the

New German cinema), while Northern and Eastern Europe (Poland?) are

virtually ignored.

 

University of California at Davis, USA

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001

 

Gregory L. Miller, 'Casetti on Film Theory', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no.

1, January 2001 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n1miller>.

 

   

 

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