Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies

Warren Buckland (ed.),
Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies.
New York: Routledge, 2009
ISBN: 978 0 415 96262 9
US$26.96 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Routledge)

How can we map out a topos, by which scholars of contemporary Hollywood cinema with contesting agendas may reach some form of mutual understanding, or, as Thomas Elsaesser proposes, constructive mutual interferences?[1]  This is an ongoing project of Warren Buckland, who co-authored with Elsaesser Studying Contemporary American Film in 2002, in which major strands in classical and modern film theories were re-examined and applied to Hollywood films produced between the 1980s and 90s for the purpose of finding a common ground of discussion.[2]

Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies reboots this project with a vigorous dialogue between scholars who employ the most current methods in the field at a time when “film theory” is in crisis. As Buckland points out, the objective of this collection is not so much to prove theory’s “continued explanatory relevance”, but to “open up hybrid spaces … between binary oppositions” in both our methods (e.g. classical/post-classical; heteronormative/queer; cognition/emotion), and, if I may add, between “grand” and “piecemeal” theory (p. 12).[3]

Film Theory is divided into three sections. Part One “New Practices, New Aesthetics” is the core of the book, in which major methods are presented and debated. Part Two “Feminism, Philosophy, and Queer Theory” offers revisions of feminist film theory, queer theory, and Deleuzian philosophy in relation to contemporary film texts, marketplace, and distribution formats. Part Three “Rethinking Affects, Narration, Fantasy, and Realism” addresses three major themes in Hollywood cinema produced in the first decade of this century, identified in the first section of the book – trauma, fantasy (often as a means to negotiate political and personal traumas), and nonlinear and unreliable modes of narration.[4]

The book begins with Thomas Schatz’s “New Hollywood, New Millennium”. Schatz argues that contemporary Hollywood can be understood as a three-tiered system, with the six major global media conglomerates at the top, which rely financially on franchises and libraries; conglomerate-owned “independent” subsidiaries (e.g. Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics) in the middle, which produce films both for specialised markets and high-profile awards; and the “independents” (e.g. Lionsgate).[5]  For Schatz, the market needs, technical resources, and distribution methods of the major conglomerates compel them to produce films with two seemingly contradictory features: on the one hand, these films contain highly male-driven, single-objective, and morally clear-cut narrative structure; on the other hand, one sees a disintegration of such linear and dualistic structure into multiple narrational layers or spectacles through computer-generated effects and techniques (pp. 19-46).[6]

Sean Cubitt theorises this stylistic phenomenon with the term “neo-baroque,” a style in which “proliferation of signs drains the meaning out of any single instance of symbolization” (p. 51). For Cubitt, the “neo-baroque” Hollywood film overwhelms its viewers not only with multiple signs on the screen that suggest no definite meaning or single narrative, but draws heavily on the idea of supernatural (political or moral) power, which is symptomatic of our anxiety over the submission of individual political rights to the State (pp. 54-63). William Brown calls this form of cinema a “posthumanist cinema”––understood both technologically (i.e. cinema with nonhuman interfaces that have fundamentally transformed our state of being in the world), and formally (as cinema offers us modes of perception that are beyond human). After this, the same phenomenon is analysed by Douglas Brown and Tanya Krzaywinska from the perspective of videogames and movies (pp. 65-85), by K.J. Donnelly from the perspective of intensified sound design (pp. 103-123), and Barry Salt from the perspective of shot lengths and shot distances (pp. 124-149).

With this in mind, Elsaesser offers us a model of mutual interference between narratology and ludology, with YouTube as his case study. He analyses how an advertisement “The Honda Cog,” an illustration of “calculated chances” and production precision through a series of domino effects, through mechanical (posthuman) and users’ interactions in YouTube, leads us to an art piece “Der Lauf der Dinge” (“The Way Things Go,” Peter Fischli and David Weiss, 1987) and various “Rube Goldberg” experiments from the US to Japan. For Elsaesser, these inter-referenced and inter-authored videos and the way YouTube relate them offer us an insight into questions of “narrative self-reference,” authorship, “ludic … and participatory” modes of storytelling, asymmetrical modes of address and inter-subjective positions in the process of participation, ideas that can be applied to individual Hollywood films, the industrial condition at large, and to the relationship between the human and posthuman (pp. 150-172).
In addition, Sa?a Vojkovi? wrote a long-awaited psychoanalytical discussion on Kill Bill (Vol. 1, 2003; Vol. 2, 2004) by breaking down the inside-outside relationship between the Law of the Father and Femininity through the transcultural relationship between Asian cinema and Hollywood, embodied in the character Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman; pp. 175-191), thus opening a constructive dialogue for a deep-structural comparative study between contemporary East-Asian and Hollywood cinemas.

What this collection illustrates to us is the possibility of establishing a conversation between these distinct approaches to the study of contemporary Hollywood cinema. It shows us that theory is not so much a self-enclosed monologue that one simply over-protects or erases; rather, it is a topological basis underneath various strands of methodology, which requires constant debates, revisions, and improvements, both with broad creative gestures and piecemeal testing on their applicability and viability.

Victor Fan,
Yale University, USA.


[1]  Thomas Elsaesser, European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), 126-129.
[2] Warren Buckland and Elsaesser, Studying Contemporary American Film: A Guide to Movie Analysis (London: Oxford University Press, 2002).
[3] For the distinction between “grand” and “piecemeal” theories, see David Bordwell, “Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory,” in Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, eds. Bordwell and Noël Carroll (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 3-36; see also, Carroll, “Prospects for Film Theory: A Personal Assessment,” in Bordwell and Carroll, eds., 37-68.
[4] These themes were discussed by Bordwell as part of his idea of “intensified continuity,” and Elsaesser and Buckland as a common feature in “post-classical Hollywood cinema.” See Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 121-138; Buckland and Elsaesser; see also, Elsaesser, Hollywood Heute: Geschichte, Gender und Nation im Postklassischen Kino(Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2009).
[5] The “big six” are Time Warner, Disney, News Corp/Fox, Sony/Columbia, Viacom/Paramount, and GE/Universal.
[6] As Schatz argues, this is an extension of his argument in his earlier essay, “The New Hollywood,” in Ava Collins, Jim Collins, and Hilary Radner, eds., Film Theory Goes to the Movies (New York: Routledge, 1993), 8-36; In addition, Schatz’s essay recalls the theoretical framework of Justin Wyatt’s “high concept” (an increasingly surface-driven, stylistically self-conscious, seemingly multi-layered, but in fact highly linear and “simplistic” narrative structure driven by the need of technology and market differentiation); see Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin: Universit of Texas Press, 1994).

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Victor Fan

About the Author

Victor Fan

Victor Fan is a PhD candidate at Yale University, Film Studies and Comparative Literature, specialising in Chinese and British Cinemas, Contemporary Hollywood, New Media, and Film Theory. He is also a working filmmaker (with an MFA at USC) and composer (with a BM at Eastman). His works were published at Screen and CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, and his dissertation (completed) is titled “Football and Opium: Political Violence and the (Re)-Inventions of Cinema.”View all posts by Victor Fan →