Representation, Meaning, and Experience in the Cinema: A Critical Study of Contemporary Film Theory

Research output: Faculty's ThesesDoctoral thesis

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Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of California at Los Angeles
Publication statusPublished - 1989
Externally publishedYes


This study is an analytical criticism of the epistemological foundations of contemporary film theory. The arguments of contemporary film theory are unraveled by charting the transformation of film theory into critical theory through successive paradigms of knowledge: the aesthetic theory of Andre Bazin; the semiotic and psychoanalytic theory of Christian Metz; and the post-structuralist critical theory of Stephen Heath inspired by Althussarian Marxism. It is argued that contemporary film theory read Bazinian film theory in a way that fostered Bazin's critical illusions at the expense of his critical insights. The epistemological assumptions of contemporary film theory are traced to their foundations in phenomenological epistemology and the critique of epistemology articulated within Lacanian psychoanalysis and Jacques Derrida's "deconstructive" phenomenology. Drawing on the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, it is argued that the project of phenomenology is an incoherent one for it is dependent upon a naively realist epistemology, and that the critique of epistemology is equally indefensible for it presupposes the truth of phenomenology in order to make sense. This general criticism of the epistemological incoherence which underlies the critical theory from which contemporary film theory has drawn its arguments demonstrates the necessity of, and provides the basis for, a reconstruction of film theory. First, Bazin's theoretical insight into the nature of cinematic representation is elucidated and defended in the context of the suggestion that cinematic representation, while a form of aesthetic experience, transforms the character of traditional aesthetic experience. Secondly, drawing on the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin and the genre theory of Rick Altman, Bazin's critical insight into the contextual character of meaning in the cinema is defended and developed with reference to classical Hollywood cinema. Using film noir as a case study, it is argued that classical Hollywood cinema inscribes the contradictions of social experience as a part of its very form in a way that fails to be captured by the conception of classical cinema which is governed by the epistemological assumptions of contemporary film theory