Film Theory

English 5040: Film Theory, Winter 2021

Steven Shaviro ( or


This class provides an introduction to major trends in the theory of film, from the early twentieth century to the present. Topics include formalism (Eisenstein), realism (Bazin), semiotic and psychoanalytic approaches, auteur theory, feminist film theory, Black film theory, and recent approaches that deal with currently evolving digital technologies and the relations of film to new media (video, television, computer games). We will read a variety of theoretical texts written over the course of the past hundred years, accompanied by viewings of films that both exemplify and resist the writings. The approach is intensive rather than extensive: we will focus on examining theoretical arguments carefully and in depth, rather than giving a broader sampling of possible approaches.


By the end of the course, successful students will have learned about major trends in film and media theory from the early 20th century to the present.

In addition, by the end of the course successful students should be able to:


Each week of the term, we will read one or two articles, accompanied by a film. The articles are short in length, but mostly quite difficult. A lot of the work in the class will consist in going through the readings slowly, asking and answering questions about them, and interpreting them carefully.

Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the class will be conducted online, and asynchronously, through Canvas. At the start of each week, I will post slides with an overview of the week's readings and discussion (in "Files"). Then, I will post the readings for the week in pdf format; we will use the app Perusall to work through these readings in detail. Additional comments on the readings, and on the associated film viewings, will be posted in "Discussions."

Some of the films we watch in the course of the semester are available through the library; some are freely accessible on YouTube; some need to be rented on for-pay streaming services (Amazon, Apple, Google Pay, YouTube, Microsoft, etc.). Sources are indicated in the syllabus below. A good way to find which straming services have which films is to use one of the streaming movie search engines, such as JustWatch. Most of the streaming movie rentals come out to $3.99 or less; the cost of renting movies for the entire semester should still be considerably less than purchasing a textbook in an ordinary class.

Class requirements include participation in Perusall and on the discussion boards, as well as submitting four short exercises. The exercises will be due on February 8, March 8, April 5, and April 26. These exercises will involve focused questions about the readings, to be answered in the form of mini-essays. There is no final exam. The four exercises will count for 50% of your grade; the other 50% will be based on your participation in Perusall and on the Discussion boards.


  1. January 11-15
    Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility" (1938)
    Dziga Vertov, Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

  2. January 19-22
    Sergei Eisenstein, "A Dialectic Approach to Film Form" (1929)
    Vera Chytilova, Daisies (1966)

  3. January 25-29
    Andre Bazin, "Ontology of the Photographic Image" (1945)
    Andre Bazin, "The Evolution of Film Language" (1955)
    Abbas Kiarostami, Taste of Cherry (1997) (also on HBO Max and Criterion)

  4. February 1-5
    Jean-Louis Baudry, "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinema Apparatus" (1970)
    Marguerite Duras, India Song (1975)

  5. February 8-12
    Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975)
    Michael Powell, Peeping Tom (1960) (available for streaming from Amazon, Apple, Google, YouTube, etc.)

  6. February 15-19
    Peter Wollen, "The Auteur Theory" (1969)
    Howard Hawks, Only Angels Have Wings (1939) (available for streaming via Amazon and Vudu)

  7. February 22-26
    Carol Clover, "Her Body, Himself" (1987)
    Karyn Kusama, Jennifer's Body (2009) (available for streaming from Amazon, Apple, Google, YouTube, etc.)

  8. March 1-5
    Linda Williams, "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess" (1991)
    R. W. Fassbinder, Veronika Voss (1982)

  9. March 8-12
    Marshall McLuhan, selections from Understanding Media (1965)
    David Cronenberg, Videodrome (1983) (available for streaming from Amazon, Google, YouTube, etc.)

  10. March 22-26
    Stanley Cavell, selections from The World Viewed (1971)
    Kathryn Bigelow, Point Break (1991) (available for streaming via HBO Max, Amazon, Apple, Google, YouTube, etc.)

  11. March 29-April 2
    Vivian Sobchack, "What My Fingers Knew" (2000)
    Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust (1991) (available for streaming via Amazon, Apple, Google, YouTube, etc.)

  12. April 5-9
    Gilles Deleuze, selections from Negotiations (1983-1986)
    Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) (available for streaming via Amazon, Apple, Google, YouTube, etc.)

  13. April 12-16
    Manthia Diawara, "Black Spectatorship" (1988)
    bell hooks, "The Oppositional Gaze" (1992)
    Jordan Peele, Get Out (2017) (available for streaming via Amazon, Apple, Google, YouTube, etc.)

  14. April 19-23
    Shane Denson, "Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect" (2016)
    Shane Carruth, Upstream Color (2013) (available for streaming via Apple, Google, YouTube, etc.)

Grade Appeals:

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences stipulates that course grade appeals must be initiated within 30 days from the time the grade is posted. The English Grade Appeal Form can be obtained at the English Main Office on the 9th Floor of 5057 Woodward or by emailing Royanne Smith at More information on this process, including the limited grounds for appeal, can be found at

Plagiarism is a very serious matter and should be recognized as such. The University has a very strict policy on plagiarism. Always refer to your sources when quoting, paraphrasing, or using the ideas ofother writers. When paraphrasing, place in quotes any phrase of four words or more that comes directly from the source being used.