Film Theories in/of Revolutions:

Historical Inevitability and Intertextuality Examined

0. Introduction

If to name a keyword for the 20th century, most of us should probably agree on the word “revolution”. Yet initiated by the collision of ideological propositions and social hierarchy, the revolutionary movement renders not only as the social transformation in the political sense, in essence, the revolution is an inclusive notion interactively covering all aspects of the society, for instance, the artistic evolution – the Renaissance explains much of it. Coming in the same vein, film as an innovated modern vehicle of ideologies witnessed and participated in the 20th century’s historical process, and the film theories, in a more flexible format of words and expressions, in many cases served to support and direct the progress of filming practices. Furthermore, the cinematic movements within the historical context are divided into several sections, for example, the Soviet Montage School, the Auteur theory and French New Wave, and we subconsciously tend to understand them as systems, as some clusters in the particular periods. Interestingly, under the preoccupation of the “systems”, it is some pioneering theories which formed and raised in times of revolution that attacked the conventional ideologies and proclaimed the birth of a new system to be better established and fulfilled in the following decades. By the rhetoric as “pioneering “and “revolutionary”, I emphasize the immediacy and the directionality of those theatrical transformations. Although the Grand Theory of films which had been proved with the fault in the last century offers me the initial interest of the idea, this historical perspective of film theory is much inspired by a scientific evolutionary theory that called Punctuated Equilibrium. This theory subverted the time-linear evolution perspective with evidence of the sudden prosperity of species emerging and the relatively long-term stabilized equilibrium. The intertextuality within the social revolution, the early film theories, and the theatrical-practical cinema systems is to be examined to fit in the framework of this scientific theory, in another word the exploration of the film theory comprises of the main argument of this paper. In the following sections with theatrical examples of Eisenstein’s Montage Theory, Astruc’s Auteurs Theory and Baudry’s Apparatus Theory in the diverse historical contexts, I will try to clarify three branched demonstrations to substantiate my overall arguments, which are
1) The revolutionary nature of the early theory;
2) Its pertinence with the social revolution;
3) The influences to the system establishment and later theorists.

1. Film theories in the revolutions

This part aims to elaborate my ideas on the relationship between the social revolution and the early theories which came into the sights shortly after the revolution. The first and foremost argument of the paper is that those early theories not only inherited the programmatic principle of the social revolution to strengthen the achievements of it, but also had their own revolutionary nature confronting the old-time conventions and regulations, and in most cases proclaimed a new era with an advanced cinematic and aesthetic pursuit is to come. So, before I dive into the three exemplary texts, some shared traits between them which help to define the "revolutionary nature" are in need to be clarified. As a tryout, I would primarily deconstruct this notion into three sections which are the destructive nature, the reconstructive nature, and the impactive nature. Upon them, a more detailed analysis is to follow.

As a most rebellious revolution from the last century, The Russian Revolution started from the 1917’s February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution and ended in 1922 with the establishments of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics(USSR), which is also the year Eisenstein finished one of his earliest essays Montage of Attractions: For Enough Stupidity in Every Wiseman. The first thing to notice is that this essay is not literally helping for the film practice but for the theatrical drama direction; but this word “Montage of Attraction” becomes his lifelong nexus in the cinematic field. Highly influenced by the dialectical materialism and constructivism, the young Marxist in his first article had already shown the interest in formulating the theory in forms of a scientific ratiocination process. Considering this essay was made for the betterment of the theatrical program of the Proletkult in respect to establish “the standard of training the masses in their day-to-day life”(Eisenstein, 1922), his drama, as well as his article, was to serve for the new-founded socialist government, to promote their revolutionary ideologies and also get the mass involved in this big picture. In a nutshell, the article is already a socialism revolutionary approach that carried with the political pursuit. Nonetheless, the revolutionary nature of the article itself is even more subversive and rebellious according to the three traits I listed above. For the deconstructive nature, the subject he intended to attack is clear within the sentence: the very institution of the theatre that contains only a “static ‘reflection’ of a given event necessary for the theme” and its resolution was “solely through effects logically connected with such an effect.” Eisenstein was unsatisfactory with the institutionalized way of attracting the audience and he felt the necessity of “freeing the theatre” to guide the spectator in the right desired frame of mind – the dialectics of “theatrical apparatus” is under no discussion here – he was approaching to the fullest of its exploitation. His article left the maximum room for demonstrating the reconstructive part of nature, in which he introduced the concepts of “attraction” and “montage of attraction.” Adapted from the scientific parameter, he designated the Attraction as the molecule of the sensual impact of the spectators and he continued to define the Montage of Attraction as a montage of “arbitrarily selected independent attractions” that also “aims to establish a certain final thematic effect.” In terms of the impactive nature, I would argue that this article stated the foundation of the Montage Theories both in the subjects and the format, not to mention the films that those Marxists filmmakers such as Vertov and Kuleshov made in the followed two decades. Since then, the inner drive of meaning creation was found between the frames and mostly in Eisenstein film works they worked to raise the tension of the class struggle. A classic example of the montage of attraction in Eisenstein's The October(1927), is the Montage of a peacock and the general: in my view, the appearance of the peacock is an “Attraction” already, and the way it shifted with comparison to the close-up that frames the general creates another layer of the sensual impacts, indicating the pride and narcissism of the general. In the formal sense, the formulated way of addressing the theories see its counterparts in Eisenstein’s later works such as The Dramaturgy of Film Form(1929) and Lev Kuleshov’s The Principle of Montage(1935). However, the deficiency also bears to its mathematical form of analysis because without a wide range of data survey hardly can we reach for an accurate result, not to say he controlled seldom parameters in relation to the cognitive function during the viewer’s reception procedure. In this respect, this article is rather too ideally definite. Last but not least, Eisenstein was ignorant of the examination of the theatrical apparatus itself and he seemed to manipulate the masses with the method of montage which I render as another form of hierarchy betraying the ideology of socialism.

Now let us move to another revolutionary theory which is Astruc’s 1948 article The Birth of a New Avant-Garde. Written shortly after the Allies’ victory in the WWII, this essay responded to the emergence of films that embrace more humanity and possibility, moreover, Astruc's confirmative conclusion about the film being another independent vehicle to convey the thoughts substantively inspired the whole generation of auteur films. Admittedly, WWII is hardly a revolution but this catastrophe witnessed both the glory and filth in humanity and it indeed subverted with the old order of the world, so people in this new reality had more words than any other times to speak and share. I consider this article as an exemplary text with revolutionary nature and still, I would state my opinions according to the three natures. First and foremost, for the destructive nature, this essay sheds the "blood" on those conventional (French) films that whether underestimated the potential of film for taken it only as "images" that translated the written words or the narrative films took only advantages from the cliché plots. For the reason of destructing, he grounded his arguments in the prophetic progress of technology and declared that film had its dialectical nature as well as the philosophical essence so it would be the future implement for conveying the thoughts. As related to the social revolution, Astruc’s article objected to the dominant monotonous old routine of filmmaking and called for the liberation in the cinematic field which conducted in a similar way as people who survived WWII confronted against the hegemony and advocated for a new democracy in the global. Secondly, in the reconstructive process, he introduced the upcoming era as an age of “camera-pen” in which cinema is a language, “a means of expression”. There in the article, he emphasized the word "thoughts", and I figure it has a connection to the social circumstances – after the war, people required to get escape of the state apparatus and valued the existence of human being as an inclusive entirety that thoughts distinguished but connected ourselves to the others. In another word, it is an age of Reappraisal that needed more voices to be heard, thoughts to be shared, and cinema that is "capable of expressing any kind of reality" is of great importance to investigate with. Indubitably, this theory exerted the impact to the French New Wave, to the auteur cinema, but here I would like to underline its function in the cinema studies – it opened a phenomenon that films are not only for consumption but for analyzation, in a philosophical context. A direct influence by Astruc came in the form of François Truffaut’s 1954 article A Certain Tendency in French Cinema which established the foundation of auteur criticism, and an indirect impact could trace all the way to Gilles Deleuze’s 1983/1985 masterpieces Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image where he examined the film as a consistent body of philosophy which as I reckon inherited the cinema epistemology from Astruc’s interpretation. The impactive nature weighs more significance than other two natures in this context, but this essay was not an impeccable work. Coming in a nearly same vein as Eisenstein did, this article again tended to the absolutism where he said “cinema can express any kind of reality”; another problem is that Astruc did not devote any direction to the filmmaking practices as well as the system establishments, and the supplement work was mostly done by Cahiers du Cinéma in the later decades.

The third example is Baudry’s article Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus(1970), but I would like to transplant my research in the form of a film, The Matrix(1999). Here are some analogical counterparts: The Matrix – Cinematographic Apparatus; Neon and other revolutionists – Baudry and audience who realized the tricks behind the screen; Robots – the dominant apparatus. In Baudry’s claims, the construct of cinema is to be the projection-reflection of a “virtue reality” which in The Wachowskis’s film is the reality we thought we lived in. But to avoid the "realization" of the audience, cinema needs to efface the differences that might destroy the illusion it built which is similar in the way how new-born human would attach to the Matrix to live in the created reality while the real reality has been torn down to ruins. "Once the forms of narrative adopted, the contents of the images are of little importance so long as an identification remains possible", this line could relate to the unwillingness that comes after one's realization because he has been drowning into the narrative system and found his identification in this built-up reality, the fracture of identification will finally come into being as a horror or breakdown. So, if we confirm the revolutionary nature of Neon and his revolutionists squat, there is no way we dissent the revolutionary nature in Baudry’s work. Considering that this article acted as a response to Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses(1969), also an extension of Marxism, the connection will be easily made to the global protests in 1968 where students and workers claimed for the social justice. This article impacted many genres of film criticism and film studies, namely Laura Mulvey’s feminist study and to great extent influenced the reception studies in cinema.

Now after the elaborations of three early theories in each system, we shall conclude some of the traits that shared in an overall perspective: proofs have been given to affirm their revolutionary nature in terms of three aspects, what's more, those natures, in fact, signified the establishment of an organic system. Mostly inspired by their historical context and predominant ideologies, those theories managed to detail the revolutionary principles into their specificity, so that each text has a great level of clearance. However, in each theory, they would have gone too absolute without substantial evidence, whether the practices or the data. This tendency accompanies with the idealism in the revolution, might also account for the following relapses that happened in the system establishments.

2. Film Theories of the Revolution

By the term “of the revolution”, I intend to clarify the development of each theory system which ignited by the early theories I mentioned above, in short, the evolutionary process of film theories. Here I select two articles in comparison to Eisenstein’s and Astruc’s early theories, to explore how revolutionary early theories acted as a “sparkle” to kindle the building of the whole system.

Eisenstein’s montage theories in 1922 were soon conducted into the format of cinema and Eise

nstein himself started to gather all the practical experiences to strengthen his theoretic frameworks. In 1929, after the production work of Strike(1925), Battleship Potemkin(1925), and October, he published an article The Dramaturgy of Film Form in which he gave a thorough explanation on the Montage theory. Compared to the early theory, this article, on one hand, continued his scientific process of reasoning, only in a more formal way, trying with more ambition to partition the abstract notions into parameters of ratiocination; on the other hand it involved with more dissected profiles in cinema, for instance, the music, the color and the "molecule" shots, to picture a comprehensive networks of cinema, or to say, an introversive consistent linguistic system in the realm of cinema. Aside from them, there is a dialectical research method for us to look into, the linguistic system was inspired by the Japanese characters (Though I believe they are Chinese characters), it is almost for the first time an oriental perspective to be respected in the Western-dominant cinema studies field. In this article, the destructive nature is limited to find, he turned to focus on the constructive bricks of a system – rational cinema, but still, the inner drive of the development still grounded in his Marxism belief.

Another example to examine is Bazin’s 1957 commentary essay La Politique Des Auteurs. He responded to the current phenomenon under which the critiques weighed too much on the auteurs so that the films as work of art was less concerned about. In an overall respect of the auteur theory, this article played a role of the “repairman” that objectively scans for the error, revisited the legitimacy in the theories and confronted against the current. I would say the Bazin’s essay showed a strong sense of interdisciplinarity, that inherited from Astruc, but in a more specifically intertextual way that his reasoning was deliberate and reciprocal. All the resources were covered in order to rediscover the word “Auteur” that raised by Astruc who lacked the attention on the connotation of the word he used. Bazin’s argument was more of an open text that aimed to welcome a great diversity in the film criticism in years to come, for example, the genre theory that developed in later half of 20th centuy was more or less inspired from his statements.

In conclusion, in case of their inherent connection, one thing is for sure: everything that the later theories concentrated to explore was upon the assumption with the validity of early theories. That is to say, the locus of later works was to examine and make sure of the integrity, self-consistency, and uniformity of early theories. In this sense, the later works are actual constructors of a system while the early ones acted as a sparkle to enlighten the crowds. In case of the formality, later theories take more attention to the rationality and logicality, as well as the efficiency of the work. In brief, the constructive theories are more convincing and practical – because they were generated from the repeated reviews during the process of practice.

3. Conclusion - Cinema as History

Upon the analysis above, we’ve n

ow come to a conclusion: by the agency of some early theories, it has shown that the film theories as a whole has inevitable intertextuality with the social revolutions. But here I would like to try adding up another important dissect into the conclusion – cinema as history. As Rancière noted, there are two sorts of history: history is a discontinuous line that comprises of the shocking moments of exposing what we just discovered from the history; history is also a continued experience of the co-presence involving a diversity of beings or even antithesis. (Le Destin Les Images, Rancière) Cinema offers a possibility of converging the heterogeneity to form another history that only embedded in the cinema, in this case, we could acknowledge just another nature of cinema – cinema as history. As far as I believe, it is the nature of cinema as history that validated the interactive dynamics with the trinity of film, film theories, and social revolutions, so that the three come into an organic being as a giant in the history of civilization.

  1. Eisenstein, Sergei. “Montage of Attraction.” Re: Direction: A Theoretical and Practical Guide, 2013, pp 303-307.
  2. Eisenstein, Sergei. “The Dramaturgy of Film Form.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. 2011.pp 264-279.
  3. Astruc, Alexandre. “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra–Stylo.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. 2011.pp 351-354.
  4. Bazin, André. “De la politique des auteurs.” Cahiers du cinéma. Volume 70. Page 2.
  5. Baudry, Jean- Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematography Apparatus.” Critical Visions in Film Theory. 2011.pp 35-43
  6. Rancière, Jacques, and Emiliano Battista. Film fables. Oxford: Berg, 2006.