Francesco Casetti’s Theories of Cinema: 1945-1995 deserves a place in every film scholar’s library, even though the project is quixotic and, in the end, only partially successful. After World War II, Casetti suggests, film theory entered a new era: as cinema became an acceptable focus for intellectual inquiry, theory became more specialized, and the ensuing debates were increasingly international. Casetti attempts to delineate these fifty-odd years of film theory, meticulously tying each strand back into a whole cloth. In a cautious introduction, the author explains: “It is the ‘productivity’ of a knowledge that ensures, perhaps more than anything else, its theoretical status…[This] book is focused more on the frameworks of research, on their development and their dynamics, than on isolated contributions.”
What is cinema? Andre Bazin was certainly not the first to pose this question, but Casetti credits Bazin and a few others with imbuing the debate with rigorous urgency in the post-war years. This debate was stimulated by Italian neorealism; Casetti begins with some exemplary Italian theorists. Cesare Zavattini, certain that the war had taught people to appreciate what is real, argued that true cinema should, therefore, mirror reality. Guido Aristarco aims for similar results, but instead – taking his cue from literature — proposes an ‘aesthetics of reconstruction,’ in which exploring the factually precise images of reality takes priority over mere recording.
Since cinematic images introduce precise concepts of reality, Casetti explains, theorists began relating these images of reality to other signs and in more general terms, symbols of society. Resisting “reduction of language to a purely aesthetic fact,” Casetti finds that the essential quality of cinema resides in a rational component of the images themselves, and postulates a dynamic between a symbolic structure, the structures of a single expression, and concrete thought. Casetti’s analysis of film narrative furthers the notion of cinema as discourse by examining how a film’s plot is supported by an underlying logical plot. The final step is to establish the linguistic nature of these images of reality by emphasizing their logical and dialectical organization. Since filmic images are never isolated — rather, they are connected to each other by similarity or contrast, or at the very least by succession — their value is always contingent. As such, a film initiates a process of abstraction and generalization, and, in doing so, engenders a “new” reality for the viewer.
Casetti concludes his theory of cinema by explaining that this unique new reality created by the cinematic experience is one that compels the critically reflective audience to action in a way that no other form of media can. For Casetti, this is the singular feature of the power of cinema, the praxis of this new image of reality.
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