Filmish: Comic Book Essays on Film Theory
By Edward Ross
I spotted this mini-comic on a recent trip to Edinburgh’s Filmhouse (spiritual home to the city’s film festival and a mecca for those who love quality cinema from around the world). A short comic on film theory? Unusual topic but since I spent a fair chunk of my college time studying film theory I was intrigued and picked it up (admittedly a considerable part of my studying involved watching movies in that same Filmhouse, but that counts as research, not bunking off classes, honest). Film and media studies can leave mental scarring for life, with victims still moved years after university to indulge in pseudo-academic discussion (or talking cobblers in the pub post-film, depending on your point of view and level of inebriation) in which they use terms like “the paradigmatic and syntagmatic nature of the text.” I shall endeavour not do that here. Filmish is a short work, black and white, nice, clear artwork with card covers, and obviously it can’t cover several decades of film theory in any depth, but Edward opts smartly to take just three areas as examples and discuss those: Monsters, Food on Film and Point of View (the longest of the three chapters).
Monsters was a lot of fun for me – it will surprise no-one that I worked the more fantastical and horror genres into my film studies back in college. Actually this wasn’t just because of my own interest in those genres – films with science fiction, horror and monsters in general are a hugely rich subject area for academics. It shouldn’t be surprising since these are genres which often use the theatrical trappings of the fantastical to explore real, everyday human fears and concerns. Edward notes this and how the filmic monster has changed throughout the decades in response to historical and cultural forces: Gojira in early 50s Japan playing on the fears created by the atomic bombings which ended World War Two, the ‘reds under the beds’ scare of McCarthyist America in the 50s and how the original, classic Invasion of the Bodysnatchers fits the rampant paranoia of the time and the fear of the enemy within, through to the body horror of the 70s and 80s (step forward Mr Cronenberg) and the 21st century return to the big monster movie with Cloverfield, linking the rampaging, city-destroying monster with post-911 fears.
Point of View is the longest segment in the comic and covers rather more than the simple, technical meaning of POV (i.e. the viewpoint presented by the camera’s ‘eye’ to the viewer) but also the cultural point of view: the way a scene or character is framed and the way that influences the way the viewer ‘reads’ the image. Sadly this does mean a bit too much Laura Mulvey and the ‘male gaze’ for my taste (at college I thought Mulvey made some interesting points but as with many academics in this field, only selectively, there are many examples that don’t fit her theories). That said Mulvey is a major writer on understanding film and my personal likes and dislikes aside Edward would be remiss if he didn’t include her in this chapter (thank goodness he didn’t quote Barbara Creed and her ‘monstrous feminine’ or the various Freudian film analysts though).
The POV chapter also takes in later cinema which established different ways of seeing and presenting the world to the audience and changes in the sorts of lead characters audiences are encouraged to identify with, changes which mirror the way society has changed its views on, for example, women. I would question one scene though, where he implies that it was these later films that now allowed the audience to “participate with the film and think about and question the ideology of the onscreen image”; it seems to assume earlier audiences didn’t think about what they were watching, which seems unlikely. The passive audience has often been brought up by media theorists for various mass media, but I’ve never really bought into it (and indeed the old ‘hypodermic needle’ model of totally passive audience acceptance of what they are presented with is largely discredited among many media studies types. Some elements of audiences have always interpreted the text differently from the preferred reading encoded by the maker).
The third and final short chapter is Food on Film – you might have expected something more obvious like a chapter on genre theory, perhaps, but as Edward explains “Wait” Hear me out” It’s not as daft as it might sound. In fact food has long played a major symbolic role in the movies”. He then goes on to cite a number of examples, from the early, silent era (a starving Charlie Chaplin carving up of an old boot as dinner) to more indirect uses of eating to portray characters’ state of mind (the ever increasing breakfast table, one of the simple but incredibly clever devices used to portray the cooling of a marriage in Citizen Kane) through to the more modern era and humans themselves being on the cinematic menu, be it as prey to other nightmare creatures (back to the monsters again! Cinema and film theorists can’t leave monsters and horror alone) or being served up to other humans (as in The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover).
As I said at the start it seems an unusual subject matter for a short comic, but the fact that it is using comics on a different theme from many I read is one of the things which interested me. The brevity means there’s no time for much depth in the chosen examples, understandably – you could fill 10, 000 word essays on each of these areas easily (and for some of them I have, in a former life), but obviously Edward isn’t trying to pretend he is giving you that. Rather he’s picking out some major examples and citing some of the important writers in the field of film studies and, importantly, he concludes each chapter by listing both some relevant films and some of the authors and their books which he quotes from, so if you are a movie buff but haven’t delved much into the academic study of the medium there are some good suggested examples of further reading should the comic inspire you (on a personal note I’d add Pam Cook’s excellent The Cinema Book, published by the BFI, as a perfect general primer for anyone interested in learning more about film theory and studies). It’s an interesting wee comic which I enjoyed; I don’t think you have to have any familiarity with film studies to enjoy it though; in fact for those unfamiliar with the field but interested in cinema it probably functions nicely for introducing a few key ideas from the field that they can then follow up for themselves.
There you go and I didn’t use the term ‘intertextual’ once and I have refrained from stroking my beard in a thoughtful manner while discoursing on postmodernism in cinema. You can check out more of Edward’s work via his blog, where I see he is another of our comics community who is taking part in the Hundred Days project and posting up the results, so go check it out.