Screen and screen theory

Screen and screen theory
   Screen was the most influential journal of British cinema studies in the 1970s and 1980s. Under the editorship of Sam Rohdie, Screen developed a theoretical practice of cinematic analysis which investigated the structure of cinema and the positioning of the cinematic spectator. Screen theorists including Colin MacCabe, Laura Mulvey and Stephen Heath were distinguished by their theoretical investigation of the dominant codes of narrative cinema, as well as by their collective attempt to establish theoretical film analysis as a legitimate field of higher education. The internal development of screen theory can be traced through its self-reflexive encounters with Saussurian semiotics, Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis.
   Screen theorists drew upon semiotics to investigate how the cinematic ‘language’ as a system of signs, images and codes is structurally organized by the conventions of narrative. MacCabe argues that the classic realist text does not reflect reality but instead produces the narrative illusion of the reproduction of reality. Realist cinema establishes a formal hierarchy of film discourses in which narrative functions as the privileged code. It fixes the spectator in a unified position of ‘pure specularity’ or a point of view from which ‘everything becomes obvious’. Heath deploys the concept of ‘suture’ to define this structural positioning of the spectator. MacCabe critiques the classic realist text as ideologically conservative because it elides the contradictory character of the ‘real’, and he calls for the production of a progressive, non-narrative cinema.
   Extending and critiquing MacCabe’s position, Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ has become foundational for feminist film analysis. Mulvey uses Lacanian psychoanalysis to argue that the subject is not only produced but decentred by language. According to Mulvey, the cinematic ‘gaze’ is structured by gendered regimes of power and desire which dichotomize visual pleasure into active/male/subject versus passive/ female/object. Cinematic pleasure, then, is voyeuristically encoded as male. Mulvey calls for an attitude of ‘passionate detachment’ disruptive of the visual pleasures of narrative cinema and, like MacCabe, she calls for a non-narrative avantgarde cinematic practice.
   Despite its influence, screen theory has been systematically critiqued for its theoreticism and elitism. Nevertheless, contemporary debate about spectatorship and pleasure continues to engage questions that were central to the Screen project.
   Further reading
    Bennett, T. et al. (1981) Popular Television and Film, London: BFI Publishing (a useful reader, including essays by MacCabe, Mulvey and Heath).
    Mast, G. and Cohen, M. (1992) Film Theory and Criticism, New York: Oxford University Press (a useful anthology, including the essays by MacCabe, Mulvey and Heath).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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