Phenomenology & Structuralism in Film

In regards to film theory, are we saying that the opposition ‘realism vs. formalism’ mirrors the opposition ‘phenomenology vs. structuralism’? Is realism in film purely phenomenological and formalism in film purely structuralist? I came across the following entry in wikipedia under ‘Formalist Film Theory’ and ‘Ideological Formalism’:

“It can be argued that, by this [formalist] approach, the style or ‘language’ of these films is directly affected not by the individuals responsible, but by social, economic, and political pressures, of which the filmmakers themselves may be aware or not. It is this branch of criticism that gives us such categories as the classical Hollywood cinema, the American independent movement, the New American independent movement, the new queer cinema, and the French, German, and Czech new waves.”

‘Structuralist’ approach, right? Am I on the right track or do I still not know #$%! about structuralism?

Furthermore, a phenomenological approach to film focuses on how the person seeks to understand reality as it is presented and different horizons and lifeworlds come into play. This also makes me think of film as a ‘human-centered design’.


  1. jeffreybardzell

    There is a bit of confusion I have seen in a number of posts, and I think it is happening here as well.

    Typically, when we talk about phenomenology or structuralism, we are talking about “approaches to study” things, not “the nature of things” (such as films or interfaces). That is, one can produce both structuralist AND phenomenological explanations of the same film (one might be better than the other, of course, depending on the film and what you’re trying to explain). Thus, I don’t see structuralism or phenomenology as inhering inside a film.

    But one does describe formalism or realism as being *in* the film. That is, Film X is basically realist, or basically formalist, or some mix.

    “Formalist” and “realist” are ways of describing a film or interface. But “phenomenological” or “structuralist” is a way of describing us, specifically, a way of describing the interpretive strategy or method we are using to understand something.

    So I would disagree with your hypothesis as stated that realism is phenomenological and formalism is structuralist. However, and this is important, I would agree if you restated it to say that a phenomenological approach is better suited to describe what makes a realistic film realistic, while a structuralist approach is better suited to describe the meaning of a formalist film. In other words, even if you didn’t quite get it right, I think you are in the ballpark and have the right general thinking.

    Does that help?

  2. jordanfugate

    Thanks Jeff. That does help a lot.


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