Dudley Andrew, Concepts in Film Theory

Andrew, Dudley. “The State of Film Theory.” Concepts in Film Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 1984. 3-18. Print.

In this introductory chapter, Andrew provides a brief overview of the history of film theory as it has developed in the academy. After expressing dissatisfaction with the then current state of the field, Andrew notes that the two disparate areas in which film studies developed in the university–the fine arts and the humanities–have largely guided the approach to film studies based on their primary textual and research procedures. Thus, fine arts scholars emphasized the production of films as highbrow art while humanities scholars emphasized the textual and lingual qualities of film (adaptation, dramatic qualities, language). Humanities scholars also embraced radical theories and applied them to film (think Freud).

Andrew argues that Humanities takes a middle-brow focus, and as a result Fine Arts input has been lacking. This has resulted in lack of attention to avant-garde film, art theory concepts (although narrative theory has been well fleshed-out, it could use interdisciplinary input), and attention to things such as editing, color, music, etc. **It seems to me that many of Andrew’s concerns have been addressed between the 80s and the present, although I’m not enough of a film scholar to know to what extent they have been addressed**

He adds that , “whether because of its novel subject (the cinema) or because of the epoch of suspicion to which we belong, serious and progressive film theory has taken root and flourished primarily as cultural criticism. Discussion about the medium and its properties…has fallen to concern over the function, impact, and context of the cinema as a ‘practice.’ This is so much the case that the word ‘aesthetics’ has nearly dropped from the vocabulary of film theory” (10).

Discussing the scholarly responsibility to address shifts away from old theoretical forms and praxis, Andrew concludes that “film theory today consists primarily in thinking through, elaborating, and critiquing key metaphors by which we seek to understand (and control) the cinema complex” and that, in identifying old metaphors of understanding and tracing the ways in which the field has changed over time, film theory will become more fully elaborated and functional.

His case in point: Jean Mitry’s “encyclopedic” amalgamation of all preceding film theory in his own work (13).

Mitry’s synthesis deals essentially with the twin experiences spectators are given in every film: that of recognizing something they can identify and that of constructing something worth identifying. Corresponding to realism and formalism, respectively, this tension between recognition and construction operates at every level and in every film, although according to varying ratios. (14)

—. “Adaptation.” Concepts in Film Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 1984. 96-106. Print.

Andrew discusses the field of adaptation studies in terms of semiotics. He argues that “discourse about adaptation is potentially as far reaching as you like” because “its distinctive feature, the matching of the cinematic sign system to prior achievement in some other system, can be show to be distinctive of all representational cinema” (96). That said, Andrew identifies three modes of adaptation (or relation between the film and “original” text):  borrowing, intersection, and fidelity of transformation (98). Because I’m woefully out of touch with the world of film studies and classic films, I wasn’t really familiar with many of the examples Andrew used. I’ll be using the remainder of this post to try to think of films I am familiar with that fit within the three categories named above.

Borrowing. Andrew argues that “in the history of the arts, surely ‘borrowing’ is the most frequent mode of adaptation. Here the artist employs, more or less extensively, the material, idea, or form of an earlier, generally successful text” (98). He cites paintings inspired by biblical subjects, references to or borrowings from Shakespeare’s plays, and etc., noting that “doubtless in these cases, the adaptation hopes to win an audience by the prestige of its borrowed title or subject. But at the same time it seeks to gain a certain respectability, if no aesthetic value, as a dividend in the transaction” (98).

If we’re thinking beyond the novel/film mode of adaptation, I see borrowing happen a lot in things like Urban Fantasy (references to Shakespeare and Celtic folklore abound. Actually, a lot of UF draws on the material of Celtic folklore). Film wise, Andrew’s reference to Shakespeare is the obvious choice (and one I get).

In my archive of filmic knowledge, I’d say that maybe the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski borrows from Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (although I think this might be an intersecting adaptation, too? I’ll have to think about that more).

Intersection. In intersecting, according to Andrew, “the uniqueness of the original text is preserved to such an extent that it is intentionally left unassimilated in adaptation. The cinema, as a separate mechanism, records its confrontation with an ultimately intransigent text” (99). Andrew uses the metaphor of a flashlight that illuminates a chandelier–the adaptation places the form of the ‘original’ (i.e., the chandelier) in another medium (a shadow on the wall, the odd sparkling but indistinctness of the fully illuminated chandelier, etc). He notes, “all such works fear or refuse to adapt. Instead, they present the otherness and distinctiveness of the original text, initiating a dialectical interplay between the aesthetic forms of one period with the cinematic forms of our own period. In direct contrast to …’borrowing’…such intersecting insists that the analyst attend to the specificity of the original within the specificity of cinema” (100).

I’m still not sure how The Big Lebowski fits, in part because it is an adaptation of an earlier film rather than a novel. I don’t know to what extent the Coen brothers meant to preserve the original text. It feels more like playful borrowing to me.

I feel like Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby (2013) is a better example of an intersecting adaptation, specifically in terms of soundtrack. I’ll have to think about this a bit more.

Fidelity of transformation. Andrews argues that “the most frequent and most tiresome discussion of adaptation (and of film and literature relations as well) concerns fidelity and transformation” (100). As Leitch and other contemporary adaptation theorists note (and try to change), much adaptation praxis, if not theory, continues to emphasize fidelity. I did it (unaware of the long discourse) in my post on Half a Yellow SunBBC miniseries are often predicated upon a fidelity to their source novels, for example, and films like Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride are also highly focused on fidelity–although as Cary Elwes notes in As You Wish his memoir about the making of The Princess Bride, producers long called William Goldman’s script for The Princess Bride unproduceable, so Reiner clearly attended to the specificity of the text within the specificity of cinema.

After outlining these modes of adaptation, Andrew tackles some of the central contentions of adaptation studies (in his day):

It is at this point [of fidelity in transformation] that the specificity of these two signifying systems [literature and cinema] is at stake. Generally film is found to work from perception toward signification, from external facts to interior motivations and consequences, from the givenness of a world to the meaning of a story cut out of that world. Literary fiction works oppositely. It begins with signs (graphemes and words) building to propositions which attempt to develop perception. As a product of human language it naturally treats human motivation and values, seeking to throw them out onto the external world, elaborating a world out of a story. (101)

He notes that it nevertheless feasible to think of literature and cinema in terms of a “dynamics of exchange” because “in both novel and cinema, groups of signs, be they literary or visual signs, are apprehended consecutively through time; and this consecutiveness gives rise to an unfolding structure, the diegetic whole that is never fully present in any one group yet always implied in each group. Narrative codes, then, always function at the level of implication or connotation. Hence they are potentially comparable in a novel and a film” (103).

Andrews ends the chapter with a call to revised use of adaptation studies: “Let us use it not to fight battles over the essence of the media or the inviolability of the individual art works. Let us use it as we use all cultural practices, to understand the world from which it comes and toward which it points. The elaboration of these worlds will demand, therefore, historical labor and critical acumen. The job of theory in all this is to keep the questions clear and in order. It will no longer do to let theorists settle thing with a priori arguments. We need to study the films themselves as acts of discourse. We need to be sensitive to that discourse and to the forces that motivate it.”

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