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Abstract

This dissertation explores the role of the detail in film theory and criticism. I challenge the ways in which film theory usually understands the privileged sites of meaning in films, and foster my own theory of the filmic detail as an analytical and aesthetic concept that helps us rethink the theoretical conventions around mise-en-scène. I locate the singularity of our experience of film details in the features of motion and contingency, and propose my own method for film criticism centered around the particular. By turning to exemplary cases of what I consider evocative filmic details—including objects, animals, gestures, and freeze frames —I show how a theory of detail is a lens through which central puzzles of film theory can be examined in a new light. I trace the prominence of details in the discourse around love, and explore how love or desire can be generative categories for the way we understand film theory and analysis. Each chapter joins particular details and a set of arguments or concepts from early and classical film theory, to propose its own interpretative model. The first chapter, “The Distinctive Marks,” grounds the ways in which details grab attention in particular forms of viewer engagement and in relation to questions of medium and representation, ranging from literary analysis to art historical perspectives. The second chapter, “Tiny Private Scene: On the Particular Pleasures of Mise en Scéne,” examines different models of detail-based film criticism and argues for the central role of affect in film theory’s understanding of details. The third chapter, “The Accidental Detail: Rethinking Contingency on Film,” explores the implications of film details on the concept of cinematic contingency, and the fourth chapter, “Details to Remember By,” focuses on details of movement, and the emotional impressions that particular gestures make, in order to rethink questions of cinematic stasis and film memory. Each of these chapters thus argues that details are both part of film experience and a critical tool for film theory.

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