Film Theories 1500 words 2.1/1st

Compare and contrast at least TWO of the approaches taught on the module. Illustrate your answer with reference to one or more films.


This essay will compare and contrast a cognitive approach to film studies with an approach based on affect and the body. David Bordwell’s case for the use of cognitive science in film theory will first of all be outlined, and it will be considered how it could be used in an analysis of Alain Resnais’ film Last Year At Marienbad (1961). It will be argued, however, that cognitive theory is inadequate for a thorough engagement with the film as it lacks any capacity to account for the film’s affective impact. This then leads to a discussion of the use of the philosophy of affect in film theory, drawing on the work of Brian Massumi and primarily Steven Shaviro. Shaviro’s focus on excess in film will be compared to Bordwell’s focus on cognitive process, showing how the two approaches are based on fundamental oppositions. Finally, returning to analyse the film again, it will be argued that, while neither approach can provide a universal theory, this need not be a problem as the complexity of the film experience necessitates the combination of a number of theoretical approaches.


David Bordwell has argued for a cognitive approach to film studies since the 1980s. In ‘A Case for Cognitivism’, published in Iris in 1989, he proposed the adoption for film studies of insights from cognitive science, allowing for a way of interpreting the film experience without recourse to psychoanalytical theories of the unconscious. Bordwell is critical of the universalising ‘megatheoretical’ nature of the Freudian-Lacanian film theory that had been dominant since the 1970s (1989, p.12). He is critical not only of psychoanalysis, but also of hermeneutic approaches, which treat the film as a text to be read and interpreted within a given framework, in general (p.17). Against this approach, Bordwell proposes the use of empirical science as an explanation of how film works, rather than an interpretation of its meaning. One of his main critiques of psychoanalytical approaches is that they take neurotic symptoms as paradigmatic (p.12). Lacanian film theory, in other words, makes analogies with non-standard experience such as strange dreams as a way to understand processes such as spectatorship. Cognitive theory, on the other hand, is more interested in “normal and successful action” (p.12). It seems logical, for Bordwell, that a theory of cinema should focus on ‘normal’ cases where films are processed and understood as paradigmatic. He then goes on to outline his use of cognitive theory in more detail. It includes an understanding of the brain as “energy transformation system” (p.14) structuring and processing mental representations made from the film data. The viewer, for example, has to fill in gaps in film narrative in order to understand what is happening, and these kind of cognitive inferences, it is argued, are made all the time during the viewing process. I see an image of a woman looking at a dress, for example, followed by an image of her leaving the shop with a bag, and I make the inference that she has bought the dress. Such a process of understanding, according to Bordwell, is not purely socially acquired, but also builds on “innate capacities” of the brain (p.23). The type of spectator to emerge from Bordwell’s analysis, then, is an ‘active’ one, in the sense that mental operations are taking place (Bordwell, 1985, p.29) cued by the film, and leading to its understanding.


It can be seen how Bordwell’s focus on the ‘standard’ and ‘normal’ would lead him to focus his work on analysis of conventional modes of narration such as the Classical Hollywood Narrative. The focus of his cognitivism is on how films become “intelligible” through psychological processing (Bordwell, 1985, p.33), so he is drawn to repeated intelligible patterns, or “prototypes” (p.34) upon which later inferences can be made. It is interesting, however, to focus on his analysis of a film, which resolutely refuses to fit into a Classical Narrative structure. Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad for example uses an experimental narrative form, based on loops and repetition with no sense of cause, effect or closure. Its characters, known simply and mysteriously as A, M and X drift through encounters with each other within the setting of a grand baroque hotel. Bordwell and Thompson offer a reading of the film in Film Art (2004, p.327) discussing at length how the film challenges the conventions of narrative, which we come, cognitively, to expect. Their conclusion, ultimately, is that the film is “elusive” and “undecidable” (p.327). They are only able, in other words, within a cognitive framework, to define the film by its lack, by the way it doesn’t fit into expected processes so therefore causes difficulties. This leads to a number of problems. One is the objection, as raised by Mullarkey (2010, p.35), that Bordwell’s cognitive theory is not relevant for an analysis of more experimental films. Peterson (1996, p.108) defends cognitive theory against this criticism, arguing that it is useful in examining processes of distancing and alienation used by avant-garde filmmakers. Peterson’s argument draws on cognitive theory in relation to avant-garde films to propose that such theory is fundamental to a process of “problem solving” (p.109) in the film’s comprehension. The problem with his argument, however, is that focusing only on the viewer’s cognitive or metacognitive critical self-awareness is to deny another fundamental aspect of the film – its affective impact. In one sense, the viewer is distanced from Last Year at Marienbad through its challenging of cinematic convention. In another sense, however, he/she is also seduced and moved by the film. The opening slow smooth tracking shots over the intricate details of a baroque hotel roof, the repetition of these shots and the continued smooth track over immobile hotel guests operate not only cognitively but also have a dramatic aesthetic effect in excess of such understanding, making intelligible or ‘problem solving’. As Mullarkey argues (2010, p.35), a focus on cognitive aspects of decoding film leads to a missing out of its aesthetic dimensions. It is here then, that a focus on affective experience becomes important. Brian Massumi (2002, p.1) has argued that the human body is defined not primarily by its cognitive capabilities but in its capacity to feel and move. By drawing not on empirical science but on a Deleuzian interpretation of Spinozan philosophy (Deleuze & Guattari, 2007, p.284), Massumi defines the body not in terms of what it is but in terms of what it can do, how it can be moved or affected, and therefore how change can occur. Affect is fundamental to his theory of image interpretation, arguing that ‘pre-cognitive’ processes such as autonomic reactions on the skin, modulations of heartbeat and breathing are fundamental to understanding the intensity of media affect (Massumi, 2002, p.25). Understood in this way, the movement of the camera in Last Year at Marienbad can be analysed differently, in terms of its positive aesthetic force.


The theorist who has most adopted theories of affect for a film studies context is Steven Shaviro. In The Cinematic Body (1993) he is critical of the desire for control in Lacanian psychoanalytical based film theories, proposing instead the importance of being open to or being moved by the pleasures or shocks of the film (1993, p.13). Shaviro focuses on the inassimilable excesses of film, which can’t be accounted for in traditional psychoanalytic theory. His analysis of Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel for example, focuses on its “visual excess”, its agitation, close-ups and violence, for example, and the affective impact this has on the viewer (1993, pp.2-4). Setting out to challenges orthodoxies of models of spectator identification or fetishism, Shaviro draws attention to “the delirious excesses of postmodern vision, the excitement and passivity of spectatorship, the frenzy and fragility of images” (p.9) that he locates in Bigelow’s work. As Shaviro (2008) has later discussed, his critiques from this time could apply not only to the psychoanalytical theory he discusses but even more so to what he describes as the “altogether deplorable” (2008, p.3) cognitive theory of writers such as Bordwell. A consideration of Shaviro’s analysis reveals fundamental differences between the cognitive and affective approaches. Rather than aiming for a scientific ‘understanding’, his analysis is motivated politically, considering, for example, how films have “radical potential to subvert hierarchies of power” (1993, p.61). It can be seen then, that while Bordwell may be drawn to conventional narratives, Shaviro is drawn to and locates political potential within those films that operate in excess of convention. These are not necessarily the expected ‘political’ films of the avant-garde, but more often, as his analysis of Blue Steel shows, commercial Hollywood films. Affect, therefore, provides a way to locate political potential within the very heart of the capitalist production machine. Although Shaviro has later returned to and been critical of the politics he has ascribed to film, debating whether the analysis has any real political value (2008, p.3), a fundamental opposition still remains between the approaches. While for Bordwell, ‘normal’ brain activity is paridgmatic, for Shaviro, film is a way to interrupt ‘normal’ activity opening up the subject to different forms of experience and pleasure, “to cry, laugh and scream” (2008, p.5). Shaviro goes on to be critical of the assumptions of cognitive film theory. It relies, for example on a ‘computational’ analysis of the brain, assuming individual viewers as ‘rational agents’ disconnected from any social, economic or political context (2008, p.3). It disallows any speculation, political engagement or critical questioning through its over-privileging of “narrow functionalism” (p.4), and ultimately disallows any possibilities for the aesthetics of film, or for the cinephilia of loving film itself (p.4). Bordwell has previously addressed such criticisms, arguing that he has been misrepresented in the denial of emotion and pleasure to film (1990, p.108), and that critiques of cognitivism are based on an oversimplification of science (p.109). Shaviro, on the other hand, suggests a turn to neuroscience to discount cognitivist approaches from within a scientific context (2008, p.6). The debate seems set to continue.


Fundamental, then, to the opposition between Shaviro’s discussion of the affect of film and Bordwell’s discussion of its cognitive interpretation is the use of paradigmatic case. For Bordwell, as discussed, this is the ‘normal and successful’ film experience, whereas for Shaviro, it is in excess that he finds cinema’s paradigm. It could be argued that this is a problem for both theories, as it will lead them to analyse a certain type of film, without being able to propose a universal theory for all films. Another perspective, however, would be to suggest that this is not necessarily a limitation. Perhaps it is not possible or desirable to produce a universal theory that could apply to the vast multiplicity of film experience. What a consideration of different approaches has shown is that perhaps neither alone is capable of analysing the complexities of the cinematic experience. Returning to Last Year at Marienbad, for example, a full analysis of its opening scene would have to take some account of the use of voiceover. The voice varies in volume, shifting in and out of range of hearing. It repeats key motifs in building up a structural rhythm for the film. It echoes the movement of the camera as it tracks slowly and smoothly across the hotel interior. It could be argued that the effect here is both cognitive and affective. On one hand, the fading of the voice challenges the cinematic convention of the authoritative voiceover, leading to a gap in expected cognitive procedure and a sense of cognitive meta-awareness, noticing, say the detachment between the words and image which are usually covered over in conventional cinematic cognitive processing. On the other hand, it also creates a seductive affect through its excess. Its repetitions have a hypnotic effect, evoking a subjective dream-like state and forcing the viewer’s body to follow its patterns, straining and flowing with the image and sound of the film. To understand the film, in other words, one approach alone is not enough, and while comparisons provide useful theoretical insight, it is the combination of approaches that seems most relevant to the film experience itself.






Bordwell, D. (1985) Narration in the Fiction Film. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.


Bordwell, D. (1989) ‘A Case for Cogitivism’, Iris, No.9, Spring, 1989, reprinted at [accessed 1st March 2011].


Bordwell, D. (1990) ‘A Case for Cognitivism: Further Reflections’, Iris, No.11, Summer, 1990, reprinted at [accessed 28th Feb 2011].


Bordwell, D. and Thompson, K. (2004) Film Art: An Introduction. Boston: McGraw Hill.


Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2007) A Thousand Plateaus. London: Continuum.


Massumi, B. (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


Mullarkey, J. (2010) Refractions on Reality: Reflections on the Moving Image. London: Palgrave Macmilan.


Peterson, J. (1996) ‘Is a Cognitive Approach to the Avant-garde Cinema Perverse?’, in D.Bordwell and N.Carroll (Eds.) Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, pp.108-129.


Shaviro, S. (1993) The Cinematic Body. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.


Shaviro, S. (2008) ‘The Cinematic Body Redux’, Parallax, Vol. 14, Issue 1, Feb.2008, reprinted at, [accessed 28th Feb 2011].




Last Year at Marienbad (1961) Dir. A. Resnais. France.