Studying Contemporary American Film

Thomas Elsaesser [with Warren Buckland],  Studying Contemporary American Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 309 pp.

book coverHow should the student set about analysing contemporary American cinema? This book takes an innovative approach to film analysis: each chapter examines the assumptions behind one traditional theory of film, distils a method of analysis from it, and then analyses a contemporary American movie. It then goes beyond the traditional theory by analysing the same movie using a more current theory and method.

Traditional theories featured include mise en scene criticism, auteurism, structural analysis, narratology, studies of realism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. More current theories include new and post-Lacanian approaches to subjectivity, cognitivism, computerised statistical style analysis, the philosophy of modal logic, new media theory, and deconstruction. Films analysed include Chinatown, Die Hard, The Silence of the Lambs, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Back to the Future, Lost Highway, plus two European imitations of American filmmaking, The English Patient and The Fifth Element. All students of film and popular culture will find this book ideal preparation for writing clear, well-structured, detailed analysis of their favourite American movies.


What are the most appropriate theories and methods for analysing contemporary American cinema? In this book Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland answer this question by taking an innovative approach to writing about individual movies: in each of the main chapters they examine the assumptions behind one traditional theory of film, distil a method of analysis from it, and then analyse a contemporary American movie. They then go beyond the traditional theory by analysing the same movie using a more current theory and method. This book has identically structured, coherent chapters, which overcomes the dogmatism of subscribing to one theory and method, and instead encourages students to adopt a comparative, pluralistic approach to film analysis. The traditional theories include: mise en scene criticism, auteurism, structural analysis, narratology, studies of realism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. The more current theories include: new and post-Lacanian approaches to subjectivity, cognitivism, computerised statistical style analysis, the philosophy of modal logic, new media theory, and deconstruction. Films analysed include: "Chinatown", "Die Hard", "The Silence of the Lambs", "Pulp Fiction", "Back to the Future", "Seven", "Lost Highway", plus two European imitations of American filmmaking, "The English Patient" and "The Fifth Element". Finally, the authors address the issue of how to define classical and post-classical Hollywood cinemas, and also present students with a set of general procedures, strategies, and skills to write clear, well structured, and detailed analyses of their favourite American movies.


In the 1970s a revolution took place in Hollywood film-making which changed the form and content of American movies. Spearheaded by a group of young directors who were nurtured by the new film schools and a legacy of televized Hollywood classicism, American film-making became more knowing and reflexive about what films are and what they can do. This revolution coincided with the rise of a cinematically cosmopolitan spectator, one who had not only sampled a wider range of films but could talk about them in intelligent ways. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) and Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) ransacked the American genre movie treasury and toyed with these genres, that they might speak to men and women in the closing decades of the 'American Century' about what life in the suburbs of a technocratic society had become. Six years after David Bordwell and Noel Carroll's appeal for 'variety' in theoretical/analytical discourse, (1) Elsaesser and Buckland lay out a supermarket shelf of approaches, presupposing a spectator who is at a confluence of conditions and discourses.

For Bordwell and Carroll, the critical apparatus accompanying the rise of Film Studies, the 'Grand Theory' of psychoanalysis, semiotics, post-structuralism and Marxism, should be superseded by a theoretical culture of middle-range enquiry that is piecemeal and problem-driven. Elsaesser and Buckland are similarly motivated to address particular questions--'What do Film Scholars study/Why/How?'--in this accessible and pragmatic book. Its methodology is quite unique. In each chapter the premises of a particular theory are explained, a method is distilled from the theory, and the method applied to a film. The same film is then analysed, using a different method derived from another theory. So, for example, the premises and purposes of mise-en-scene analysis are explained and a method applied to The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996). Statistical style analysis, in which style is discussed by measuring and quantifying stylistic variables, is then brought to bear on the same film. Elsewhere, psychoanalysis is brought to bear on Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985). Then the anti-psychoanalytical thought of Foucault and Deleuze is used on the same film. The aim is to teach film and popular culture students a range of methods. The outcome demonstrates that, whilst certain films lend themselves to particular theories, you can use different tools on the same film.

It is some measure of the monolithic sway of Grand Theory in education that particular films become associated with certain theories. It is almost as if the operating manual 'Psychoanalysis' came complete with Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), while Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) came complete with 'Auteurism'. In the days of classical realist theory, Italian neo-realism and American deep focus seemed tailor-made for this phenomenological approach, largely because Andre Bazin formulated the approach off the back of films he was reviewing week-on-week. What if you moved from a thematic approach to a deconstructive strategy to examine Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), ask Elsaesser and Buckland. In other words, what if you freed the film from its historical moment and re-read it in another time and place? Video and DVD have now made this logistically possible, making Elsaesser and Buckland's a manual for its time.

Bazin's realism fitted with a particular conception of film history; film was evolving towards the total revelation of real space and time. This was right and proper, and those films which best exemplify this process were worthy of especial attention. This teleological conception of history fell by the wayside with the rise of the 'New Film History' of the 1970s, with its emphasis on delimited and exacting revisions of history, based upon primary and archival sources rather than global theories. Such a trend is consonant with the plethora of theories and methods in circulation, as well as the changing nature of cinema itself. Buck land applies Bazin to the digital realism of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) and The Lost World (Steven Spielberg, 1997)--films which would seem anathema to the unmediated model of representation proposed by Bazin.

For Hitchcock's apparently uncomplicated dissection of Hollywood's 'bachelor machine' in all its voyeurism and fetishism, Rear Window is traditionally associated with the apparatus theory of Laura Mulvey and her followers. Michel Foucault was suspicious of the humanist assumptions that underpin feminism, along with so much western thought. Using Foucault, Elsaesser suggests how The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1990), a controversial release that was simultaneously branded as sexist and celebrated as empowering by feminists, might be seen, not as Clarice Starling's story, but as that of serial killer 'Buffalo Bill'. Shifting the emphasis from sex-as-biology, (which is the perspective underpinning Freud, Lacan and Mulvey) to sex-as-gender, finds the homosexual transvestite killer seeking to transgress a fixed and deviant identity imposed upon him by society and the trappings of state power. Instead of the position of fixed Oedipal-motivated spectatorship advocated by Mulvey, the spectator is thus implicated amidst a panoply of scopic regimes, gazes and surveillance; these are the trappings of a cinematic machine's effects of power which caused such an array of readings in 1991. Often derived from other disciplines, theoretical alternatives throughout this book echo not just the panoply of specialities drawn upon by cognitivists like Bordwell and Carroll, but resonate with the differentiated spectators who actually watch films.

A question that persists in one form or another here relates to a definition of contemporary American film. Deleuze sees a historical turn from classical Hollywood's 'action image', suffused with causal links between a protagonist's seeing, then doing, to the 'mental image' in Hitchcock, Cassavetes, Altman and others, in which 'psychotic hyperactivity' (apropos Elsaesser) finds movement and action coming at the protagonist rather than emanating from them. The Deleuzian turn is exemplified by a comparison between the late classical Rear Window's L.B. Jeffries--a man of action recently disabled and become a voyeur, watching the action--and Hannibal Lecter who, expressing the desire for a 'view', metaphorically and literally gets inside the minds of his victims. If Jurassic Park signaled the virtual turn in the cinematic image, Deleuze indicates a shift from the phenomenologically real experience of Bazin to a realm of perspectives to be appropriated and used. Another film analysed here, Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1996) was a highly convoluted narrative suggesting the utter discontinuity between protagonist and narrative. Constructing a model of the way we routinely make sense of narrative derived from Bordwell and Edward Branigan's cognitivist accounts, Buckland accounts for the 'non-rational energy' which here afflicts traditional cause-and-effect. It is a liberating reading of a sometimes interesting, sometimes frustrating film.

In Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) Elsaesser detects 'something for everybody', the film cannily appealing to a range of interpretive communities fractured by race, class and gender. Discussing Die Hard in the light of the distinction between classical and post-classical cinema, Elsaesser finds the distinction residing less in the narrative/spectacle binary that is traditionally used to differentiate these eras wherein post-classicism privileges spectacle over narrative. Instead, he finds a knowingness about classical codes and conventions in the post-classical temper. 'The 'work' of classical narrative--dreamwork, textural work, or ideological work--is becoming, it seems, the 'play'-station of the post-post-classical. This, if true, would indeed demand the shift to a different paradigm.' (2)

Elsaesser and Buckland define the post-classical as an 'excessive classicism' in which the film contains moments that knowingly make appeal to the theories and methods available to audiences. An example might be the romantic comedy One Fine Day (Michael Hoffman, 1996) in which Mulvey's male gaze is invoked when George Clooney (and we) gaze at Michelle Pfeiffer, but subverted because she is here spouting the rhetoric of female empowerment to her male colleagues. Another example might be The Last Picture Show, in which the casting of John Ford regular, Ben Johnson, as the cinema owner, and the appearance of Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) as the last picture show, blatantly invites, celebrates even, auteurist readings. Such knowingness makes theory part and parcel of movie-going pleasure, an experience with which the machinery of academic philosophy has displaced the 'film-as-text' mind-set of the 1970s. Clearly set out and summarized as Buckland's books tend to be, this attempt to 'teach several theories' celebrates cultures of cinematic experience by enabling the flexibility to apply specific theories in specific contexts, and bring more than one mind-set to the cinema. Until now, never has the discussion about what we have seen and what it might mean seemed so rich.

(1) Bordwell, David & Noel Carroll, (eds) Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, Wisconsin University Press, Madison, 1996.

(2) Elsaesser, Studying Contemporary American Film, p. 79.

Richard Armstrong is a writer and an Associate Tutor affiliated to the British Film Institute.

From Film-Philosophy International Salon-Journal (Vol 8, No 42, Dec 2004) by Brian Butler
From Scope - An On-line Journal of Film Studies (Aug 2004) by Eugenie Brinkema