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Thinking Theory

Author(s): Peter Wollen

Source: Film Comment, Vol. 24, No. 4 (July-August 1988), pp. 50-51
Published by: Film Society of Lincoln Center
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Accessed: 22-05-2019 13:11 UTC

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by Peter Wollen
Theory was concerned, was that it was not trulya theoretical foundation. Looking
an auteur theory . It was not really the- back, I can see this as a gesture against
oretical. both elitism (writing about Hollywood,
The second breakthrough, for me, about popular cinema) and populism
was the discovery of French theory. In (writing about it in an exotic way, in-
a way, this was an extension from asisting on the rigors of theory). I was in-
Signs and Meaning in the Cinema , cinéphile interest in Cahiers to a more terested in deploying complex formal
I Signs during
May and
1968,Maythe my
of the 1968, book the of in film month the Cinema theory, of the , general interest in French culturalnotations and graphs to make sense of
uprising in Paris that has come to stand theory, which led me to the work ofDonovan* s Reef , or The Thing - not
as emblematic of its period. When I Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, only Ford and Hawks but marginal
wrote it, I saw it very definitely as a and Christian Metz. These writers had Ford and Hawks (or Nyby, if you like).
contribution toward an uprising in film developed a theoretical approach to Perhaps it was perverse, but I think it
studies. It is hard now to remember myth, to popular culture, to the cin- was necessary. The aim was to get rid
how hopeless and moribund film stud- ema, based on the transposition and of condescending attitudes to Hojly-
adaption of ideas taken from linguis- wood and to make high theory relevant
ies were in the Sixties. Put crudely, the
field was divided between "literary" tics. Unlike standard linguistics, they in every nook and cranny.
studies of the work of a select few dealt with images and narrative and un- Provoked by Godard, I also tried to
"great" artist-directors (usually Euro-conscious meaning. They developed a think what an alternative to Hollywood
pean) and "mass-media" approaches,semiotic to encompass the whole range might be like. This involved work on
numbingly empirical and effects-ori- of sign systems from myth to cooking to the semiotics of mainstream film as a
ented, witless compounds of the worstfashion to cinema. It became known as priority, because, it seemed to me, al-
of experimental and statistical sociol- ternatives could only be defined in
ogy with a crass and simple-minded Thirdly, also in France, there werecounter-position to an understanding
psychology. I don't know which was astonishing developments in cinemaof the practice of the mainstream. In
worse. itself. I was one of those who went to fact, my work on semiotics at that time
For me, there were three see moments
Godard's Breathless every day for atook me away from the French model,
of hope, which I took as my week starting
when it first came out. During derived from the linguistics of Saus-
points. First, there was auteurism.
the Sixties The
his films began to change, sure, to a different model, based on the
importance of Cahiers du becoming
Cinéma bothwasmore political and morework of C. S. Peirce, along lines that
that its critics, through the theoretical.
politiqueThe desproject of a theoreticalwere also being explored by Umberto
auteurs , had found a waycinema was one that had inspired Ei-
of mapping Eco in Italy. And, at the same time, I
Hollywood cinema in depth senstein,
and takingbut until the Sixties it had went back to Eisenstein, to try and
it seriously aesthetically. fallen
They bycould
the wayside. Now Godard forge a link between his pioneering
talk about the aesthetics ofwas Budd Boet-
making films that made sense onlywork, as semiotician and filmmaker,
ticher or Samuel Fuller, rather than
in the context of semiotic and cultural and the work going on in the Sixties.
limiting aesthetics to Rossellini
theory. At theor same time, Pasolini inLurking there, of course, was the old
Bergman (though they certainly didand writing about the dream of the unity of theory and prac-
Italy was talking
not dismiss European directors), or of film, and othertice.
semiotics and poetics
seeing Hollywood simply as an undif-
filmmakers, simply by transgressing
ferentiated morass of "mass culture." the standard codes of cinema, were May dreams, 1968 when
dreams, was when a timepossi-
it seemed it seemed of exhilarating possi-
The politique was brought to Americaforcing us to ask again exactly how ble, for a moment, to overturn if not the
by Eugene Archer and Andrew Sarris,films signified. world, at least its stereotypes, its shib-
popularized in Britain by Movie maga- In my book, I tried to put togetherboleths, its rigidities and relics, and set
zine. The problem with it, as far as I auteurism with structuralism, to give itoff in startling new directions. Now, of


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course, those moved by that time often rebel impulse in film theory than they
look back with nostalgia or in disillu- have in other fields, where politics and
sion. So what did happen? I think that theory have drifted apart, producing a
in the field of film theory there have in- non-political theory or a non-theoreti-
deed been massive transformations. I cal politics. This is important because
do not mean to say that film studies the tendency in film studies has been
conferences or cinema departments are toward an increasingly academic self-
now peopled by throngs of semioti- definition, the gradual institutionali-
zation of what was once an extremely
cians, structuralist or post-structuralist.
But semiotics provided the necessary heterodox activity. In part, of course,
explosion to get rid of the logjam and this simply registers the new strength
make all kinds of other new develop- and solidity of the discipline, in wel-
ments possible. The work of Christian come contrast to its former feebleness
Metz and Raymond Bellour, of Um- and fragility. But it also means that the
berto Eco, of the Screen group, among political legacy of '68 is all the more
others, was substantial, serious, and needed.
controversial enough to change the Especially, of course, academic in-
agenda. stitutionalization threatens to cut film
Auteurism , of course, has now be- theory off from film practice. I now
come part of the general wisdom. Pau- think that theory can never be simply THE LIBRARY SERIES
line Kael might cross swords with "united" with practice, but I still be-
Andrew Sarris, but that really was be- lieve that there should be bridges and • Dancing on the Edge of Success with
side the point. The réévaluation of interaction between the two and that dancer/choreographer Margaret Jenkins
Hollywood, which began with auteur- this must benefit both. The gulf has• Women by Women at San Francisco's famed
ism , was unstoppable. Of course, as begun to grow much too wide - much Galeria de la Raza, Latino women speak
about their art
this réévaluation gathered strength it wider than in the other arts. It is be-
naturally went beyond auteurism in the coming increasingly difficult to sustain• How to Market a Body of Art- guidelines
from the studio to the market place
strict sense. The mapping and study of a "third cinema" (neither Hollywood
the role of directors now runs parallel to nor art film), and while this is due • interviews with Artist Program I- Survival
Research Laboratories mechanical per-
work on genre, on studios and the in- partly, of course, to changes in funding
formances, Lucy Lippard discussing cultural
stitutions of Hollywood cinema, on structures, reflecting large-scale polit-
responsibility plus 5 more
technology, and so on. But all this work ical shifts, I think it is also due to the
• interviews with Artists Program II- three
has been shaped by the initial debates loss of a common cultural front be-
minority artists reveal their genesis and
over auteurism ; it assumes the need to tween film scholars and filmmakers, ormotivations
go beyond the literary or the sociolog- reciprocal reinforcement between
• Interviews with Artists Program III- from
ical and to recognize the specificity of theory and practice. ^ performance art to dollmaking to the Church
the cinema as a field of study, with its Perhaps this reflects a depressing
of the Subgenius
own concepts, methodologies, and irony of history. We can now see that
paradigms - in short, with its own the- the transformations in film theory and
Enlightening · Entertaining · Economical
oretical climate. film studies that I have described took
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Semiotics, the vanguard in the Six-place at a time when the cinema itself
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sometimes distracting, mostly enrich- TV, computer-linked) will replace film
ing. First, there was the shift in Frenchin the near future. New visual tech-
theory from structuralism to post-struc-nologies are still to be developed. Film
turalism, the impact of a new wave of studies will be absorbed into the study
thinkers, no longer interested in theof the range of media using moving im-
exhaustive explanation of a system but ages. This does not mean simply look-
in the destabilizing of that system at itsing at soap operas instead of MGM
margins, at its blind spots, at its mo-musicals. It means going back to the
ments of excess. Second, there was the basics of semiotics where we began.

H f el
impact of feminism, which demandedWe need to think through the nature of
a rewriting of semiotics to incorporate these new systems of signs and mean-
sexual difference, its disjunctures anding, and the new aesthetic and political
its oppressions. Journals like Camera questions they provoke. We need to re-
Obscura and books by feminist writers capture the determination and willing-
have enlarged and redefined semiotics. ness to defy common sense and set out
on a new theoretical project. After all,
from the 21st century, it is the Eighties
Both ism,
whether separatelywhether
or in alli-separately and or femin- in alli- and Nineties that we shall be looking
ance, have retained, I think, more of a back on. I From Painting by John King


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