I appreciate the irony of reducing some of the most influential and important academic film theory books into a simple ‘top ten’, but for those who are new to studying the discipline or want a solid place to jump into the deep end then these books are some of the most respected and fascinating books ever written on the subject.
Be warned: They are not for the absolute beginner, but are all worth the time and effort (in other words difficult, but not impossible). They are in alphabetical order, by author.
1. Roland Barthes – Image, Music, Text
As philosophy died and cultural theory was born, Barthes was on the cusp of the revolution. This collection of essays contains the seminal essay The Death Of The Author that explains that it is at the moment that a film (or other cultural ‘text’) is watched rather than when it is made where meanings are created. This means that an audience can interpret a film in whichever way they want, without having to restrict themselves to what the director intended.
2. Jean Baudrillard – Simulacra and Simulation
Without Baudrilard there would be no Matrix trilogy. This book explores the idea that we are all living in a world of images and simulated experiences with no meaning. A simulacra is a copy without an original – like when a film makes you feel nostalgic for a time that never really existed (like every Disney film ever made), and Baudrillard suggests that we have all forfeited reality and replaced it with reproductions of reality, Hollywood style. Anyone that has ever fought with a loved one and found themselves accidentally quoting a line from a film/TV show will enjoy this book…
3. Carol J Clover – Men, Women & Chainsaws
For anyone who is interested in horror films, especially the ‘slasher’ films of the 1980s, this is the quintessential book on the subject. It is here that Clover outlines her theory about the ‘Final Girl’ – aka the girl left alive at the end of the film who has not broken any of the moral ‘rules’ that have been set by the monster – If you watch the film Scream and listen to Randy talking about the rules of horror films, he is working mainly from Clover’s theories.
4. Richard Dyer – Stars
Richard Dyer is a much loved and accessible film theorist who can be read and enjoyed by anyone interested in celebrities. He is one of the most important academics that have focussed on the construction of personalities for public consumption. Looking at people like Marlon Brando, Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne, Dyer uses historical and contextual analysis to explain the nature of the star persona and how audiences interact with them.
5. bell hooks – Outlaw Culture
A collection of essays looking at intersectionality: the study of the interactions of multiple systems of oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia etc.). hooks tries to make her readers rethink the institutions that maintain the status quo that negatively affects people from ethnic and gender/sexual minorities. Although the essays are not entirely focussed on films, many feature great analysis of blockbusters like The Bodyguard and The Crying Game.
6. Christian Metz – Imaginary Signifier
An incredibly complicated book at times, Metz’s thesis maps psychoanalysis onto the act of going to the cinema and looks at the different pleasures that are involved with watching films. He talks about the cinema satisfying Freudian urges that differ from enjoying other art such as theatre or literature etc. I definitely do not understand this whole book, but it is fascinating in places and highly influential.
7. Laura Mulvey – Visual and other Pleasures
Mulvey has penned the most influential (and misunderstood) film theory essays ever written. Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema is easy to simplify and is often explained in this way: For women to enjoy cinema they must watch it adopting the ‘male gaze’ and identify with a male protagonist, thus reducing any inherent ‘female’ enjoyment. This is highly reductionist and ignores all of the psychoanalytic nuance, so it is worth reading the original (a few times!)
8. Stephen Neale – Genre and Hollywood
Although not his first book on the subject, Genre and Hollywood is more concise and features more familiar examples than his earlier more influential books. Anyone who is interested in different genre conventions and film cycles will appreciate the thoughtfulness and reflection found within.
9. Janet Wasko – Hollywood in the information age
She may not be the most famous, but Janet Wasko is my favourite author that talks about the film industry and how it exploits its audience for obscene profits. Explaining concepts such as product placement and synergy with great detail and using brilliant examples, Wasko manages to explore the darker and more manipulative side of visiting the cinema.
10. Peter Wollen – Signs and Meaning in the Cinema
If film can be thought of as a visual language, then Wollen is a great place to start in order to try and understand how to read it. This book is a classic and uses seminal filmmakers such as John Ford and Eisenstein in order to explain film aesthetics / imagery as well and try to locate a ‘grammar’ of film. An insanely interesting book.
So there is a good reading list for anyone who wants to get more serious with film criticism. If there are other books that are worth looking into or any newer film theories / movements that are gaining interest, please leave a comment below as I love buying books…