The End of Film Studies?

by yonirusnak

It is no secret the digital age is upon us and analogue practices are shifting into the digital. D. N. Rodowick uses the changing state of media as a backdrop for his argument that ‘Film Theory’ should remain relevant in today’s Cinema Studies. The article entitled ‘Dr Strange Media; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Film Theory’ explores the history of Film theory in relation to the discipline of Cinema Studies. Rodowick’s main thesis argues that although film as a medium is slowly disappearing, film theory, meaning the study and understanding of photochemical images and there place in cinematic history, must remain a crucial element of Cinema Studies. This argument is divided into three main focal points; firstly, the differences between analogue technologies (celluloid) and digital technologies (Digital cameras, C.G.I, video, etc…). Secondly, film theorist’s views of celluloid as the ontological basis of Cinema in relation to cinema as art. Finally the future of Cinema Studies in relation to interactive video games and how this will effect different modes of spectatorship.

Rodowick begins his essay with an analogy of a sociologist living in the era when nickelodeons had first become popular, and how it would be impossible for him to have predicted the impact cinema would eventually have on society. He compares today’s digital revolution with the beginning of cinema as both being social and economical phenomenon’s. Following this analogy Rodowick explores how cinema has moved in only a few decades from a purely celluloid based industry into an industry produced and displayed on numerous platforms (Video, film, digital, internet). Using ‘The Matrix’ as a visual aid (the struggle between the digital world of ‘the matrix’ and the analogue world of the ‘humans’), Rodowick reflects on the different filmic processes of analogue and digital to define how cinema is changing, explaining that, “Film’s technological processes of production have innovated constantly, its narrative forms have evolved continuously, and its method of distribution and exhibition have varied. But a certain mode of psychological investment has persisted.”(p.1401) This reflects his idea that while the medium is changing and evolving the fundamental theories of cinema are withstanding the technological onslaught and thereby maintaining the ‘psychological investment’ of audiences.

The second point discusses what is cinema? Rodowick explains that film theorist have strived to identify cinema as being rooted in the materiality of film as the medium on which it is created, in an effort to define cinema as art.  Cinema functions in both space and time, which Rodowick argues is the reason for its uncertain status as art. Rooting cinema studies in a single medium would mean that cinema studies as a discipline could only last as long as that medium stays relevant. Rodowick argues against this view and states that, “A discipline’s speciality, no matter how mobile, derives from and is legitimised by the wealth of its concepts”(p1401). Meaning that Cinema Studies in not in fact the study of film, but the study of Cinema theory.

Finally Rodowick reflects on the evolution of cinema over the last few decades and looks to the future. He hypothesises on the impact that interactive video games (which allow users to create their own narrative within a virtual world and write their own experiences.), will have on the future film industry. In the digital era audiences view films on multiple platforms of all sizes (Televisions, computers, I pods, theatres) and Rodowick cites Anne Friedberg asserting that, “The convergence of media that occurs in digital technologies encourages us to widen cinema’s genealogy to include telephone, radio, television and computers in a broader audiovisual regime”(p.1403), arguing that this must be reflected in the analysis of the film industry in Cinema Studies.

Over all Rodowick argues that cinema studies has and is always evolving, both in cinematic theory and the technologies used to create films. He insists that cinema studies must reflect this change, while still remaining loyal to its fundamental groundings in film theory.

The Relevance of Film Today

When I first attempted to read D.N. Rodowick’s essay I completely misunderstood his argument and viewpoint. Only after a fifth and sixth reading did Rodowick’s intensions become clear. I found his argument was lost in a sea of rhetoric, which reflected the views, and ideas of the very people he was opposing. I believe Rodowick’s ideas to be both valid and relevant in reflecting the position of film theory in today’s Cinema Studies.

Rodowick chooses to argue his ideas by exploring the different elements opposing his views, such as, film theorists who strive to define film as the ontological basis of cinema in an attempt to classify cinema as art, and then briefly states his view as challenging these elements. To build on Rodowick’s statements I would argue not that the old views of film theorists are irrelevant, but instead, why I believe that film theory will remain relevant as one aspect in a larger field of cinematic theories.

Cinema Studies by definition is the study of cinema, and during the first 100 years of its existence film was the main medium on which movies and television programs where produced. The core theories of Cinema Studies in regards to cinematic narration, cinematic time, aesthetic styles, genres and more where all developed during the era of film. These theories are all still today basically untouched and as relevant as they were at the time of development, however times have changed and technology has evolved, and with it the means of producing movies, both fiction and non-fiction. With the shifting of cinematic practices, film now has a new place within Cinema Studies.

I would contest that film is still relevant to Cinema Studies today for two reasons. Firstly, it is now one of several unique aesthetics used in the film industry, and secondly, film defines the basis of cinematic history.

The aesthetic result of most digital cameras when projected on the big screen is harsh and grainy, while film, produces a cleaner and smoother aesthetic. Cinematographer of the hit television show ’Saving Grace’, John Flinn, states, “There is something about the chemical of film that helps create an illusion of fantasy”(MovieMaker Magazine, 2009, p.50). This along with other unique aesthetic attributes is what makes film still relevant today. Movies such as ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘My Sisters Keeper’s’ and even ‘Transformers 2’ were all shot on 35 mm, giving strong evidence that film is still a major factor in today’s film industry.

In his essay Rodowick declares, “There is much to be learned from the fact that “Photographic” realism remains the holy grail of digital imaging” (p.1400). One might argue that the recent blockbuster ‘Avatar’ which was filmed one hundred percent digitally has the aesthetic clarity of film, meaning that films days are limited. Yet filmmakers continue to choose film over digital. I believe this is in part due to films roots in cinematic history, as well as monetary reasons.

As stated earlier, the first 100 years of cinema were defined by film. As the cliché saying goes, ‘You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you have been’. Film theory will always remain a core element in the discipline of Cinema Studies because of its historical importance to the discipline, however its importance will shift as new technologies evolve and cinematic practices change.


‘Film Rules: Why 10 of The World’s Top Cinematographers Have Still Not Bought Into The Digital Revolution’, MovieMaker Magazine, v. 16, n.84, Fall, 2009, p.50

D.N. Rodowick, ‘Dr Strange Media; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Film Theory’, In PMLA, v. 116, n.5, October, 2001, pp 1396 – 1404