Cheat Sheet

Film Studies For Dummies Cheat Sheet

From Film Studies For Dummies

By James Cateridge

Whether you’re preparing to study film at university or you simply have a passion for cinema, having some of the essential info under your belt before you get underway can really help you set out on the right foot. This Cheat Sheet gives you some of the important, need-to-know information about film studies up front.

Getting Familiar with Some Essential Film Studies Terms

Being able to talk the talk is essential when comparing notes with other film buffs or when starting out on a film studies course. To that end, here’s a basic glossary of terms that are vital when analysing or researching films:

  • Classical cinema: Not only those films made at the height of the Hollywood studio system between about 1930 and 1960, but also a set of stylistic conventions (for example, soft-focus close-ups of glamourous stars) and storytelling techniques (including goal-oriented protagonists).

  • Continuity editing: How to make the relationship between time and space appear seamless, Hollywood-style.

  • Diegetic sound: Sound with an identifiable source on or off screen and which comes from the fictional world. Musical score is usually non-diegetic.

  • Film grammar: Rules and conventions of cinematic storytelling, which help you to make sense of the images passing on screen.

  • Film noir: Whether seen as a genre or a style, definitely dark, deadly and delicious.

  • Genre: Movie categories that the film industry uses to streamline production and market a film to its target audience. Or, how you organise your DVD collection.

  • Melodrama: Used by the film industry as a term for all kinds of films, tends to mean glossy, emotional women’s pictures in film studies.

  • Method acting: Not, as is commonly assumed, acting by losing yourself in your character. The method uses an actor’s own personal experiences as a memory bank to evoke emotional responses.

  • Mickey Mousing: When music or sound effects imitate on-screen movement. Most commonly found in cartoons, but often used in film for comedic effect.

  • Mise-en-scène: French for ‘stuff put into the frame’. In other words: sets, costumes, actors, props and decor, and how all these elements are organised within the frame.

  • Mode: An overarching type or style of film-making. For example: documentary or animated films.

  • Montage: Certain Russian film-makers’ radical theory of editing, which sticks images together not for coherence, but for some other intellectual reason.

  • Production cycle: Historically, specific instances of genres, such as 1970s teen-slasher films. Cycles tend to be sparked off by a surprise hit film, which leads to a host of imitators and eventually to market saturation.

  • Propaganda: Films that attempt to persuade their audience to believe a viewpoint, often a political one. Whether such films are considered to be morale-boosting patriotism or devious propaganda is a question of which side you’re on.

  • Realism: A style of fiction film-making that aims to feel like real life. Owing to its development from photography, people consider cinema to be more ‘real’ than other art forms. The ways in which cinema represents reality on screen change over time and between cultures.

  • Star image: Everything you know and enjoy about a star, including their performances on screen and how their characters function within film narratives, but also their publicity and private life.

  • Vertical integration: The powerful Hollywood majors employed production staff, made films, distributed them and showed them in their own cinemas ‒ a great system, but not terribly good for fair competition.

Studying Film with Different Film Theory Approaches

Film theory sometimes seems difficult and complicated, but fundamentally it’s a range of different tools that you can use to explain how film works. Following are a few of the most helpful theoretical methods used in film studies:

  • Auteur theory: The idea that the director is the single misunderstood artistic genius responsible for creating a movie, instead of the thousands of other people typically involved.

  • Cognitive theory: Using science such as neuroscience and psychology to help explain how audiences watch and understand films.

  • Deconstruction: Not simply dismantling films, but dismantling the ways you think about and interpret them.

  • Feminism: Study of film as an element of patriarchy, or structural male superiority over women. For example, the idea of the male gaze proposes that men control the ‘looks’ of cinema and women are present to be looked at.

  • Formalism: Focusing on the formal properties of film (such as editing or image composition) to understand how it’s different from other artistic media.

  • Ideological analysis: The notion that culture shapes how people think and behave. Ideological analysis seeks to expose the hidden politics of a film.

  • Post-colonialism: Analysing the impact or legacy of colonial power exerted over cultures or nations. In film studies, post-colonialism looks at films made by film-makers from countries colonised (or formerly colonised) by the West or at Western films that depict colonised nations.

  • Postmodernism: Period of critical theory claiming that the old big ideas have run out of juice, that high art and popular culture are now inseparable, and that images have become more real than reality.

  • Reception studies: Just asking film spectators what they’re thinking, rather than theorising about how they’re interacting with what they see on film.

  • Semiotics: The study of how film works like a language, using signs symbols and formal structures to convey meaning.

  • Structuralism: The idea that you can boil down popular cinema to key elements or structures. These function like modern-day mythology, or stories that people keep telling themselves to help them understand the world and to make themselves feel better.

Film Movements in Cinematic History

Trying to get your head around global film history is a challenge, and so knowing the most important moments or movements over the decades is helpful. Following are some of the best-known filmmaking movements, in chronological order:

  • Cinema of attractions: From the first films screened in 1895 through the nickelodeon boom of the 1900s, film was a sensational fairground attraction out to shock, fascinate and scandalise its audience.

  • Soviet montage: From 1917 into the 1920s, Russian filmmakers experimented with radical ways to put films together, instigating avant-garde and documentary film.

  • German Expressionism: Films made in the Weimar period of the 1920s visually represented extreme psychological states through heavily stylised sets, costumes and lighting.

  • Surrealist film: In the 1920s and 1930s, artists worked in the new medium of film to produce strange and disturbing avant-garde films that often shocked their audiences in order to challenge conventional ways of thinking about existence.

  • Classical Hollywood: From the 1930s to the late 1950s, Hollywood enjoyed a golden age of creativity and success based on the studio system of filmmaking.

  • Italian Neorealism: After World War II, Italian filmmakers produced a string of influential films characterised by gritty settings, non-professional actors and real locations.

  • French New Wave: In the 1950s and 1960s, young French cinephiles began making films that reworked and deconstructed the conventions of Hollywood, such as continuity editing.

  • Underground film: These experimental movies were made by and for reprobates, including artists and beatniks, in New York during the 1950s and 1960s.

  • Cinéma vérité: Developed in the 1960s, this form of documentary film highlights the presence of the filmmaker and often talks about filmmaking itself.

  • Direct cinema: Another form of documentary from the 1960s, this film approach takes the filmmaker out of the equation as much as possible and simply observes events: also known as ‘fly on the wall’ filmmaking.

  • New Hollywood: As the restrictive Production Code was abandoned, young American filmmakers began to make edgy, adult films about taboo subjects, which for a brief period (1967‒75) also enjoyed commercial success.

  • New German cinema: After the devastation of World War II, German filmmakers claimed their much-needed rebirth in 1962. The films produced were formally experimental and dealt with the difficulties of post-war German national identity.

  • New Spanish cinema: Spanish culture was tightly controlled under fascism, but after General Franco’s death in 1975 liberated filmmakers produced an explosion of hedonistic cinema.

  • Dogme 95: A self-conscious movement beginning in Danish cinema in the mid-1990s, this filmmaking approach set up puritanical rules about how to make low-budget realist films, such as using only natural light and no musical soundtrack.

  • Digital cinema: The shift to shooting on digital video rather than film began in the late 1990s; by the 2010s most films are completely digital in terms of production and exhibition.