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Critical Approaches to Film

Writers on film studies frequently draw a distinction between formal-aesthetic and cultural-ideological approaches to film analysis.

Formal-Aesthetic Analysis

The name "formal-aesthetic" combines two terms that have different but related meanings, linked by the emphasis on a film's internal elements rather than its place in a cultural or political context. Formalist analysis concentrates on matters of structure and style (thematic development, narrative structure, shot composition, recurring motifs) and ways in which a film organizes those elements in patterns that give meaning to the whole. Derived from the Greek for "things perceptible by the senses," aesthetics is the field of philosophy concerned with theories of the perception and appreciation of art or, more generally, of beauty. A formal-aesthetic approach to film, therefore, will bring together formalism's concern with the unity of structural elements with larger themes in a way that emphasizes the artistry and unity of films. Most film reviews consist primarily or entirely of formal-aesthetic analysis.

Sociological-Ideological Analysis

The name "sociological-ideological" also combines two terms with different but related meanings. Sociology is the scientific study of human behavior. Ideology, a term with roots in Marxist thought, describes ways in which cultures develop structures and beliefs that help dominant groups retain or increase their dominance by controlling (intentionally or unintentionally) the worldview of people in the culture. Sociological-ideological analysis, therefore, strives to understand the human behavior that results in the production of a given film and also what dynamics of power and control the film articulates. As the product of particularly modern technologies and means of production, film has proved an especially rich area of study for critics interested in the relationship between art and mechanical development.

Combining Approaches

Each of the categories described above includes a huge range of narrower critical approaches. Even so, one often finds that elements of the two broad categories inform criticism based on the other approach. Film reviews, for instance, will sometimes take up political or sociological concerns in the course of issuing formal-aesthetic judgments. (This is not to mention the idea that choosing a formal-aesthetic approach to film necessarily is itself a decision with ideological implications.) Conversely, just as ideological analysis of poetry frequently employs formalist terms such as metaphor and theme, sociological-ideological analysis of film will often make reference to shots, cuts, and other building blocks of formal film analysis.

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