Film studies is imperative in the information age

Search “film theory” on YouTube and you will get an overwhelming heap of terrible pseudo-criticism unjustly masquerading as a thoughtful enterprise. One will find content from falsely-named channels like “The Film Theorists” that proclaim to reveal the “secrets… hiding in your favorite movies and shows,” promising to “explain” the ending of “Joker” or unearth the “horrific reality of ‘Toy Story’.” Such misguided ways of understanding what it means to analyze film and media may seem harmless, but in fact they create and reinforce destructive attitudes about what it means to enjoy and appreciate cinematic art. 

Such modes of “analysis” turn away our attention from experiencing film and media to “understanding” pieces in the most abstract, subjectively removed way possible. It turns the subjective experience of art into an absurd information-intake. In doing so, these modes change the longstanding criterions for artistic judgment, which are focused on how a piece of art succeeds in making one think or feel, into an obsession with what happens in the story. 

Think of the contemporary concern for spoilers, plot holes, and “world logic” that pervades popular discourse on movies and television. Ask the everyday viewer what they enjoyed about a movie or show, and they’re likely to answer “the plot.” Of course, it’s likely that what they actually mean is the story or character development or what have you, but we’ve come more and more to associate good cinema with good “plot.” Effectively, this means that the kinds of questions a group like “The Film Theorists” seeks to answer could be raised simply from reading a summary on Wikipedia.

Yet when we apply this kind of thinking to other kinds of art, we easily realize how ridiculous it is. Imagine trying to “understand” a masterpiece like van Gogh’s “Starry Night” from a description of its objective parts. It’s got some stars in the sky; there’s a city in the hills; the moon is bright; there’s lots of blue, yellow, circles and swirls. But of course, none of this information about the piece can hope to give anything close to an understanding of what it’s like to experience “Starry Night,” much less what it “means.”

This is why film studies ought to be the cornerstone of any aesthetic component of a liberal arts education. Because screen stories are the most ubiquitous form of art and entertainment in the 21st century, it is imperative that we engage with them ethically and with literacy. At the academic level, film studies recenter how we engage with screen stories away from this objective, removed mode of engagement and back toward what it’s like to experience a meaningful and effective piece of art. Film studies remind us to interact with film in a way that focuses on character, mood and experience — as pieces of art that make us laugh, cry, think and feel — through deep understanding and debate about why, as a medium, this art contains such power. It gives us the means to go beyond simply knowing what happened and into knowing what it is to be human. 

For accessible and thoughtful film analysis, check out YouTube channels like “Every Frame a Painting,” “Nerdwriter1,” or “Renegade Cut.” Better yet, be sure to check out options in film studies courses in Calvin’s film and media major.


Chimes referred to the film and media major as the film and media department. This has been corrected and Chimes regrets the error.