Saturday, April 04, 2009

Narrative Synthesis



I blogged about Robert B. Ray's book The ABCs of Classic Hollywood a few months ago. In the recent collection New Media/New Methods, Ray has a fascinating essay called "Eight Film Studies Problems for the Twenty-First Century." The eight problems deserve their own post--actually, several posts!--but let me use one idea from the essay as a point of departure.

Ray addresses the problem of bridging the gulf between academic and non-academic readers. He cites the example of history scholar Thomas Bender, who, in the mid-80s, called for a "narrative synthesis" in his discipline--writing that would take the interpretations and findings of a number of specialized subfields (like gender, race, class, ethnicity, etc.) and synthesize them in a narrative format that was accessible and engaging to an audience-at-large that was interested in reading and learning about history.

To illustrate. According to historian James McPherson, the subject of the American Civil War has three distinct audiences: (a) professional historians--scholars working in the field--who are typically concerned with large questions like the causes and effects of war; (b) "Civil War buffs" who are interested primarily in military campaigns and battles; and (c) general readers who are interested in history but prefer the work not of professional scholars but non-academics like Shelby Foote or Ken Burns. McPherson writes:

[Ken] Burns consciously set out to provide the kind of narrative synthesis that neither the "old school" (as he termed it) nor the "new history" offered--the old school because while narrative in approach, it did not incorporate material on "women, labor, minorities, and the social transformation" accomplished by the war; the new history because it "often abandoned narrative completely.

For Ray, film studies resembles the Civil War in having at least two distinct audiences: academic scholars who only or largely read books and articles written by other scholars; and a non-academic cinema-interested audience of readers who typically don't read academics. Ray proposes that we need scholars who can devise a ""narrative synthesis" that will "propagate professional knowledge about the cinema" to a non-academic audience-at-large.

What is meant, exactly, by the term "narrative synthesis"? I would say that, in the context of film writing, it names an approach that does two things: (a) it is simultaneously "high-level" (broad in scope--drawing upon a number of specialized subfields within cinema studies) AND "low-level" (paying attention to individual films and their details); and (b) it weaves together a "story" of sorts--just like a good piece of film criticism always "tells a story"--that interests and engages the non-academic reader.

There are scores of examples of such writing in film. Let me quote from one: the opening of Edward Buscombe's BFI Classics monograph on John Ford's Stagecoach. Buscombe begins by describing John Wayne's first appearance in the film, unusual because it takes us by surprise, forsaking Ford's customary style for a second by dollying in for a close-up, the camera not even able to maintain perfect focus as it lunges forward. Buck (Andy Devine) calls out, "Hey look, it's Ringo!"

Ringo is dressed in jeans, with the trouser bottoms rolled up and worn outside his boots. He wears army-style braces, a neckerchief and a placket-front shirt, which has a panel buttoned on it. Wayne was to make this style of shirt his trademark, and Jane Gaines has suggested that it gives the wearer a kind of fortified or armoured look, reinforcing the authoritarian aura of the mature John Wayne persona. By 1938 there were two distinct styles of Western costume in the movies. One derived originally from the flamboyant outfits affected by such real-life Western self-publicists as George Armstrong Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody, who went in for elaborately fringed buckskin jackets, thigh-length boots and shoulder-length hair. Mingled with the influence of Mexican vaqueros, rodeo cowboys and the fantasies of showbiz, this style had been brought to a peak of extravagance in the 1920s by Tom Mix, whose sartorial flourishes were to be adopted wholesale by the singing cowboys of the later 1930s.

But there was another vital if less exuberant tradition, best exemplified in the early 1920s by William S. Hart. Though in some ways as stylised a performer as Mix, Hart claimed his films took a more realistic look at the old West. Characteristically his costume is more functional than fancy; it favours, in its use of gauntlets and heavy leather chaps, the protective rather than the ornamental. [...] Wayne, in Stagecoach and in all his subsequent Westerns, was squarely in the Hart tradition.

The passage is typical of the three Buscombe monographs for BFI, the other two being The Searchers and Unforgiven. They bring together erudition and ideas from many disciplinary realms (e.g. in the above passage: film history, the Western genre, fashion) and present them in a skillful, easy-to-read style that might appeal equally to scholars and non-scholars alike.

So much of Peter Wollen's writing--his collections like Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film, Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture, Paris Manhattan: Writings on Art--also works in this narrative-synthetic mode. His pieces tells sweeping stories, polymathically reaching into diverse realms of knowledge, sometimes rewriting history in new and unexpected ways. For example, his essay "The Last New Wave" tracks the artistic fortunes of British cinema over the course of a century. (The piece is an argument against Truffaut's infamous putdown of British cinema as "a contradiction in terms"). "Who the Hell is Howard Hawks?" tells the story of Hawks' career and his canonization, first in France, then in the US, thus painting a study in contrasts between the histories of American and French film cultures. The essay "JLG" manages, in 20 pages, to give the best overview of this filmmaker I have ever read. In "An Alphabet of Cinema," Wollen playfully condenses his cinephilic passions into 26 entries, one for each letter of the alphabet. (All the above essays can be found in Paris Hollywood.) His writing style--clear, crisp, direct--works to compress vast coverage into unified essay-length pieces that never lose their storytelling momentum.

An eminent example of narrative synthesis that appears weekly on the web is Dave Kehr's NYT column: always elegantly, engagingly written, with a broad and deep film-historical knowledge standing behind it. (Also: I enjoy Kehr's acerbic wit--one of the funniest pieces of film writing I've ever read is the personal account of his youth and his cinephilia in the collection Citizen Sarris, edited by Emanuel Levy.)

And so, I'm wondering: Do you have any favorite pieces of writing or examples of writers--not just in film but in any other field you can think of--that practice some form of "narrative synthesis," putting scholarly heft and insight to work in pieces written accessibly for a somewhat broader readership? I'd love to discover examples of writing in this vein. Thanks much!

I quickly want to point out that the previous post, on Bazin, sparked one of the best and meatiest discussions this blog has ever had the fortune of hosting. Thank you, all, for taking part and for reading--the dialogue still continues there...

49 Comments:

Blogger Derek said...

I thought immediately of Randal Jarrell's introduction to the Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams.

April 04, 2009 2:07 PM  
Blogger Steven Shaviro said...

I think that Geoffrey O'Brien's The Phantom Empire is one of the best books ever written about film; it stands apart from both "academic" and "popular" or "journalistic" film writing, being its own rich and strange entity... but it is fully accessible to the general reader.

April 04, 2009 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

In some ways, this resembles a particular interest of mine--the fictional essay, i.e., the essay that incorporates some of the techniques of fiction. My interest in this form dates at least as far back as my own first book, Moving Places.

Three particular favorites that come immediately to mind:

"The Carole Lombard in Macy's Window" by the late Charles Eckert. (This appeared originally in the Winter 1978 issue of Quarterly Review of Film Studies; I believe it's been reprinted elsewhere, but I can't recall where.)

"Dearth in the Evening" by (the also late) Bernard Wolfe, best known as a novelist (although he also once worked as Trotsky's secretary). This appeared in Works in Progress no. 7 (published in 1972 by The Literary Guild of America and distributed by Doubleday): a devastating critique of Hemingway, his notions about bullfighting in particular.

"Mr. Blotner, Mr. Feaster, and Mr. Faulkner," by William H. Gass, reprinted in Gass's The World Within the Word (1978). An essay on literary biography in general and Blotner's biography of Faulkner in particular, done in the form of a short story.

April 04, 2009 5:23 PM  
Blogger ben said...

Phantom Empire is indeed a great book, free-flowing, entertaining, spooky, and endlessly re-readable.

Following on from Jonathan's point - I would nominate Suspects by David Thomson, a fictional-critical-poetic bestiary of film noir characters that is very personal and always fascinating.

April 04, 2009 9:43 PM  
Anonymous Dave Kehr said...

Thanks for the kind words, Girish! I find it regrettable that film culture has separated so cleanly into an "academic" and a "journalistic" school, and I think Jonathan Rosenbaum's work has been exemplary in trying to bridge the divide. If only some of our more academic critics could back away form the use of exclusionary jargon, much of this opposition would simply disappear. But I suppose fluency in po-mo phrase-making is exactly what allows so many academics to hold on their jobs.

Beyond O'Brien, whose work I admire, I would cite his obvious model, Edmund Wilson, whose collected work O'Brien has recently published in the "Library of America" series he edits.

The Buscombe quote on "Stagecoach" is nicely written, but inaccurate: Ford was not recreating Hart in the figure of Wayne, but Harry Carey, Sr., with whom Ford worked on his earliest features. Hart was far too theatrically emotive for Ford, and his films don't stand up terribly well today. Buster Keaton offered an hilarious parody of Hart in "The Frozen North," in which he shoots an innocent man and then weeps copiously -- a Hart trademark.

April 05, 2009 11:32 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I know I'm writing from the heart of the beast (a prominent academic Film Studies program), but as someone who has for years moved, almost daily, between reading academic and non-academic film writing, I often feel this divide is overstated. (Putting my cards on the table: I find Roland Barthes not only a demanding theorist, but a beautiful writer, and thus a model to which we could all aspire. If you find Barthes simply obscure best to stop here ...) I know some academic texts seem to make the divide especially glaring, but (defending the academic perspective here), there's a lot of non-academic film writing that seems to take pride in its apparent ignorance of important work in film studies. The fault is usually assigned (as Dave implies) to the "exclusionary jargon" of academics -- rather than the exclusionary jargon of film professionals? -- but rarely to the anti-intellectual stance of a good deal of journalistic film writing -- which blogs (unlike this one!) have only increased. (Let me be crystal clear: this description does NOT at all apply to Misters Rosenbaum or Kehr, who while not alone are still exceptional. I don't mean this as flattery: their choices of topics alone signal the first level of their differences from the pack. ) Obviously I'm taking Goldilocks' easy route of suggesting a meeting in the middle, easier perhaps to suggest than to actually achieve.

But some examples selected from the academic wing: a thoroughly rigorous scholar, James Naremore has also always written beautifully: his gem of a book on Vincente Minnelli has a deserved cult following, and my students adore his film noir book. Scott MacDonald writes about some of the supposedly most "difficult" films ever made (the avant-garde) with enviable grace and wit: I've taught dozens of students who were led to appreciation and understanding through his work. And a couple of perhaps biased (because they are friends) examples: Alexander Doty makes the formidable theoretical work of queer theory accessible at the most direct, personal level for queer and straight readers alike, and Rick Altman's work on the musical and early film sound balances scholarly rigor with novelistic detail and palpable enthusiasm for the topics he explores. For practical purposes, I often ask students to study essays by Jane Gaines, which are the most carefully organized structures I know for announcing, advancing, and demonstrating a fresh claim in film history: they are models of clear argument and exposition I can only wish my students would follow. Just the tip of the iceberg, I think, despite the assumptions of widespread academic obscurity ...

April 05, 2009 1:34 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

By the way, Dave, I think Buscombe is right about Ford invoking the tradition of cowboy fashion embodied by Hart (rather than Mix) in Wayne's appearance in "Stagecoach." I don't see his claim as invoking any more inheritance than that. In any case Buscombe is certainly well aware of Ford having Wayne "quote" Harry Carey's poses and gestures in other films -- most famously in the final shot of "The Searchers." But I'm not so sure that Wayne's costumes invoke Carey rather than Hart -- Buscombe's only point here.

April 05, 2009 9:09 PM  
Anonymous Christian Keathley said...

Peter Wollen's essay on Louis Brooks's haircut is a favorite of mine. It places her coif in a broad cultural context. It appeared in an issue of Sight & Sound some years back. I have a xerox of it, but can't find the exact date.

To second Corey's point -- I think the problem with academic film studies nowadays is not jargon (that's an old argument), but rather the ongoing resistance to aesthetic evaluation. The politically-inflected theory of the 70s has degenerated into the dominant cultural studies model, where you can consider any cultural product as your object of study, and you can say anything at all about it: except whether it's good or not.

April 06, 2009 9:19 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I just googled up the reference to the Louise Brooks essay by Wollen (which I've never read). It's called "Brooks and the Bob," Sight and Sound, February 1994.

April 06, 2009 10:26 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

I would second Christian's point. It's true that a lot of academics of all stripes write poorly and inelegantly, including those who depend too much on jargon (although there are fewer of these around now than there used to be), but you might say that the rejection of aesthetics in the study of both film and literature has been wholly compatible with the lack of any sense of necessity on the part of many academics of writing well about ANY subject.

To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. is the only country in the world where art is actively hated by many intellectuals, and this bias is, alas, fully apparent in their work.

April 06, 2009 11:05 AM  
Blogger Pacze Moj said...

A good, off-the-top example of a "narrative synthesis" in history is [journalist] Anne Applebaum's Gulag. The structure says as much: of three sections, the first and third are narratives and the big middle is divided thematically.

More extreme and controversial examples of narrative techniques used to make history more popular are Gus Sajer's "autobiographical" Nazi German soldier's memoir, Forgotten Solider, and John Sack's novel-like An Eye for an Eye.

Indeed, the distinction between writing meant for academic / non-academic audiences often depends on the amount of narrative. However, there are also other factors—sometimes simple ones: presence of footnotes, length, whether there's a photo on the cover. But there's also the question of language (if you need a PhD in Foucault to understand it, it's academic), the amount of cross-referencing (which can seem like historians talking to each other rather than the reader), and scope (if a book is "about" the Civil War, it's for non-academics; if it's "about" the socio-economic inter-relationships between slave-owning, Buddhist monks in Virginia, then it's academic).

I don't know how much of that applies to film writing, but, in my limited film readings, I think David Cook's History of Narrative Cinema (it's in the title!) does a good job of "narrative synthesis", while something like Kristin Thompson's Exporting Entertainment is more firmly academic (it has tables, primary research, a question to answer rather than a story to tell).

Having said that, I do find it a bit demeaning, as a member of the "non-academic cinema-interested audience", to read that I need to be told a story (like a little kid going to bed?) in order to keep my attention and help the medicine of real learning go down. I'm all for concise, clear writing—but not so much when the question is "how do we dilute?" rather than "how do we translate?"

Unfortunately, a lot of the "narrative synthesis" (which can sound like the great euphemism "prosumer grade") that I've read (granted, not a lot in film studies) is not good writing, just dumbed-down, with elements like evidence and argument removed.

Ken Burns may be the perfect example. Geoffrey Ward, one of the writers for The Civil War, defended the film from historians' criticisms by saying, "television is better at narrative than analysis, better at evoking emotions than expounding complex ideas." We could argue over whether he's right, but I think the more important point is that the series was not a synthesis of "old" and "new" histories of the war, but something else entirely: an attempt to make the war hit home, to resonate emotionally. That's not history.

So while we "propagate professional knowledge of the cinema", let's remember the professional knowledge part and not slow-pan to soft music off the field of analysis altogether. Let's keep the scholarship scholarship. After all, if we're talking academic and non-academic books, then we don't even have the Ken Buns TV defense to fall back on.

April 06, 2009 1:33 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I'm sympathetic with Christian and Jonathan's point that aesthetic evaluation is largely missing from academic writing ... but at the same time one of the early achievements of film criticism was to recognize that the available criteria of aesthetic judgment excluded film. If it was important to recognize that these evaluations are cultural and historical rather than inherent (a good film is always good, at all times and for all viewers), then a reassertion of value is hardly something we can just decide to perform again. We didn't really undermine our ability to call a film good or bad so much as the certainty with which such evaluations could be made. Sure, I can assert my own personal criteria (as if such things are really possible, and not really cultural) and judge all films through it, but why should anyone trust my taste, which is probably not really "mine" anyway? Again, I'm sympathetic and often want to know why some critics spend a great deal of time analyzing a mediocre or poor film, but I also recognize that some people might judge those same films to be masterpieces. Without shared aesthetic values -- and we all know what the assertion of those in the past included and excluded (most popular cinema) -- how do we really go about bringing aesthetic judgments back into film criticism?

April 06, 2009 1:46 PM  
Anonymous Christian Keathley said...

Why is it that the acknowledgment that aesthetic evaluation is 'cultural and historical' somehow implies that it's therefore not really real? "Cultural and historical" as opposed to what -- science? Thomas Kuhn has shown that that's not the case. And what about the cultural studies preoccupation with examining representations of race, class, sexuality, etc? Aren't those critical discourses every bit as 'cultural and historical' as the pernicious representations they seek to reveal? Of course they are -- but that doesn't make them not really real.

I would echo Jonathan's point -- the reason many scholars resist aesthetic evaluation is because making judgments about the greatness of work means being able to make a case for it beyond simple assertions -- and the fact is, that's not easy. Describing, defining, illuminating is a challenging task. And it means maintaining an attitude of -- dare I suggest it? -- curiosity, admiration, and even awe.

In the 1955 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, there's a magnificent moment, early in the film, when Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart are entertaining their mysterious new friend, Louis Bernard, in their hotel suite. There's a knock at the door and Doris Day goes to answer it. She opens the door and we see a close-up of an Asian man, partly obscured by shadows. The next shot shows the reverse angle, looking back into the room, with the characters positioned in distinct planes: Doris Day in the foreground right, Jimmy Stewart in mid-ground left, and Mr Bernard in the deep background center. In a carefully choreographed action, Day and then Stewart turn their heads to look at Mr Bernard, and then turn back again. It's a chilling moment that gains effect from the use of the frame -- both its depth and breadth -- and the coordinated rhythm of their heads turning. I've thought a lot about this shot and spent a lot of time in class with students, discussing its power.

But most current film scholarship would opt instead for "The Orientalism of Hitchcock's Marrakesh." It's much easier to adopt a posture of cultural superiority to great works, especially those of the past, than trying to think about the complex ways that they achieve their aesthetic power. Even if our recognition of that power is just a product of 'culture and history.'

April 06, 2009 2:44 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Like Jonathan, I wonder if this "cultural studies" bent is not typically American...
We don't see in France, as much anti-intellectualism among journalists, and as much "social studies" among film scholars.

I agree with Pacze Moj, that if the reader is patronized and walked through painful reading with a nice little story and sugar on top... maybe that reader is not that much interested in deep reflexion on cinema. That's why I'm not so sure about "narrative synthesis", it depends who does it. But vulgarisation is not the obvious ideal route to recommend, if the goal is to improve film culture. Dilution, generalities and simplification might keep readers away from boredom, but it's not helping critical thinking.

Maybe the most basic movie reviewers could reach the level of "narrative synthesis" if knowledge in cinema was a prerequisite to get a job in film journalism. It would raise the standard of what the average audience can read about cinema. But since anyone can write reviews, the most accessible literature on films is dumbing down the actual substance of cinema for the general public.

April 06, 2009 4:45 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Christian,

It's easier to identify signifiers than feelings. Or, rather, you have less to lose doing so. I think there's an unwillingness to get "all emotional" and "sound corny" when it comes to writing about movies. I remember a few years ago overhearing two grad students talk about how, when it came to "experimental films," they'd come to prefer the structural over the lyrical, and I wondered to myself whether they'd done so because the lyrical was difficult, or embarrassing, to write about. To admit a feeling is to humiliate yourself.

April 06, 2009 7:06 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Chris, I don't follow you here: I didn't and wouldn't say that the recognition that aesthetic evaluations are cultural and historical renders them less "real": but it renders them less stable and authoritative. It renders them as more clearly opinions even though they usually appear in the rhetorical form of more substantial claims. (But how do I challenge your claim that any film is awesome or admirable? By saying "no it isn't," or "I don't agree"? How convincing are those as counter claims?)

What I'm really trying to retain here is the fairly recent historical memory of the critical conditions that had to be fought for before it was easy to say that a Hollywood film was not only good, but great. Reading earlier reviews of Hitchcock is illuminating: everyone likes the films, and enjoys them as entertainment, but it's virtually impossible before Chabrol and Rohmer for anyone to evaluate them as works of art. I'm working on Hindi films lately, and it's clear that it has only become possible to acclaim 1950s Hindi films (in retrospect the "golden age") as works of art in the last decade or so. It's not just that aesthetic evaluations of these films have changed: the very possibility of making aesthetic evaluations of these films had to emerge. Obviously the films didn't change in the last 50 years: the conditions for appreciating them did.

None of this recognition makes evaluations less real: they certainly have real effects (some films get canonized, used in film courses, onto DVD, etc. and others don't). The early sound Western "Cimarron" won an Oscar, got rave reviews, and was a bit hit: why? Why have we decided it didn't deserve that praise? Were those original audiences just wrong? Are we so clearly, collectively right to dismiss it? I'm all for restoring aesthetic evaluation to film studies, and recovering the awe and curiosity you seek, but I want us to do so with the historical awareness that our awe isn't just a response to certain films, but a response allowed or denied by other factors (not just institutional rules of academic writing) as well.

April 06, 2009 9:04 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Non-film related, but as an answer to your question: The Origins of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics by Elaine Pagels. Well maybe film related in explaining in a scholarly, but accessible way why Mel Gibson was wrong in his passion.

April 07, 2009 3:17 AM  
Anonymous David T. Johnson said...

Peter, I would agree with you--Pagels is a really excellent writer who seems to bridge a scholarly/nonscholarly divide (whether or not that divide is itself overstated, as many previous posts have debated). To this list, I'd add Gilbert Perez's _Material Ghost_, and, of course, Ray himself! Full disclosure--I studied under Ray at University of Florida. But he has an ability to bridge that gap as well as anyone I've read in film studies. (And I'd note as well some of the comment writers themselves, Keathley and Rosenbaum especially--as well as the kind host of this forum.)

I also wanted to ask a question related to the issue of aesthetics and value in film studies. In terms of generating debates about these very subjects (and making students aware of the complexity of why these debates occur in the first place), I've often found Paul Schrader's essay "Canon Fodder" useful (published in Film Comment a couple of years ago). I'm wondering if any of you have any other suggestions on readings you either recommend to friends or assign to students if/when discussing aesthetics and value in film studies (whether you support those attitudes or not).

April 07, 2009 8:29 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

This is a great thread, and my head is bursting with thoughts on many topics already raised. On the topic of evaluation, I have a complicated set of reactions. Firstly, when Jim Naremore or Jonathan call for (in some sense) a 'return to evaluation', or at the very least an awareness of its inevitable role in criticism, I think they are pointing to various issues. One is that people implicitly never stop 'doing' evaluation, even (or especially) when they explicitly think they are not doing it - which can cause all sorts of distortions in their thought and pitch. But a more important point, as I see it, is that when we speak of evaluation or value, we are not just talking about things like (aesthetic) greatness, awe, finesse, etc. (Although, lord knows, these things count, and I stand up for them.) We are talking, rather, about how films matter - and how we can help to make them matter in acts of writing, teaching, speaking, editing, publishing, etc. And films can matter for many reasons and on many levels, including but definitely not restricted to artistic goodness/greatness. Films can matter socially, politically, historically - as charged 'moves' in all kinds of 'games' or contexts. Jim and Jonathan, in their different ways, are always exploring this - the former more in an academic context, the latter more in a popular/mid-range context.

Another point that comes to mind, and here I feel a lot of kinship with Corey: evaluation is not some 'universal' procedure. And I truly think that it matters less in the teaching/pedagogical situation than in the writing/critical situation. In teaching, I don't hide the fact that I have picked certain films for analysis because I happen to love them. But I don't then presume to teach 'how to love' them - how boring! And I find it absolutely refreshing that one can be freed from the whole valuation game (the sine qua non of journalism) in, say, a university context: such work is a lot more about (to use a loaded word) how films are 'interesting', what they can reveal, what they can be connected to, rather than being extolled as purely individual works. And I really agree, from my own perspective, with Corey's point that film studies in some sense begins as a dismantling of a whole social-cultural structure of aesthetic evaluation: that makes it a precious utopia in my eyes!

And no time right now to even wade into the 'narrative history' question, which is an even more complex one ...

April 07, 2009 9:21 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

On Adrian's point about teaching: some time ago I stopped teaching many of the films I love because I found these often put me in a defensive position with students who summed up my adored films with comments like "it sucked." There are plenty of films for me to teach that I admire, find interesting, or important, but that I don't have a deeper affection for, so selection isn't a problem. But I find that I "protect" my favorites from student indifference or dislike. (I agree that trying to teach my love for these films would be pointless -- just as Barthes knows he can't share the details in the photographs that "wound" him in "Camera Lucida." The photos, with help from his comments, may interest you -- but he can't be sure they will "prick" you.) I've found that other film instructors -- who like me once packed a syllabus with beloved films -- now follow my practice as well. I don't want to hate my students, and so I don't provide opportunities for them to hate films I love! (On Adrian's point that we are always evaluating in some manner, I recall Christian Metz's comments -- dare I invoke this most academic of critics here? -- early in "The Imaginary Signifier" when he notes that we should recognize that we construct many of our theories in order to legitimate our love for specific films ...

April 07, 2009 10:52 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Though I’m most likely to discuss and write about film in terms of aesthetics, I find nothing so reinvigorating as a work which persuasively frames cinema as being somehow emblematic. Three (American) examples are Richard Slotkin’s evergreen exegeses of the western (especially Gunfighter Nation), Edward Dimendberg’s thrilling excavation of midcentury visions of the urban in Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity and Paul Arthur’s triptych of documentary history, “Jargons of Authenticity” (in Theorizing Documentary, edited by Michael Renov). Some of Mike Davis’s writings, while not specifically privileging film, strike me as admirable attempts to unpack vast stores of valuable research with snappy prose and seething passion. “Synthesis” suggests both erudition and playfulness, as well as a willingness to exceed one’s discipline. In this regard, I would be remiss not to single out Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.

April 08, 2009 1:45 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Is that a problem if theories justify a personal taste? Truffaut did it to rescue Hitchcock. It was a subjective choice and maybe unfair compare to the French scene he attacked... but the reason behind the choice for a particular subject for theoretical reflection matters less than the actual value of the resulting theory.
Is it impossible to tell if a theory was grounded on dubious premise or not? Would a great critic be able to conceal a guilty pleasure just with a persuading rhetoric?
There is no shortage of legit subjects for film studies, so picking the ones that legitimate our love is only an issue for the author to deal with. The reader is not deceived by this choice, only if the actual theory fails to prove anything.


The affective relation to a film is not harder to talk about than aesthetics. More touchy maybe. The emotional response of the audience is not a miracle, it happens for a reason, and it's either cheap or deep. Most of the times the film has been designed to provoke such reaction. So if the filmmakers have a recipe to make people laugh and cry, scholars should be able to identify these device, analyze and qualify them. It doesn't matter how many people are manipulated by push-button causes and effects to burst out of them surges of emotions. If a film moves me, I should be able to figure out if this is something that affects me for personal reasons, or if this art has a universal scope capable to touch people who don't have the same emotional background as me.
That's why there are archetypal myths in dramaturgy that work all the time with every public. And there are quickly forgotten fads, even if one demographic at one given period in time embraced it. There is no reason why we couldn't sift great art from the popular entertainment.

April 08, 2009 2:25 AM  
Anonymous Christian Keathley said...

Corey – I appreciate your point of wanting to retain an awareness of “the critical conditions that had to be fought for before it was easy to say that a Hollywood film was not only good, but great.” On this point, see James Vest’s book, Hitchcock and France, which carefully traces the change in critical attitude toward the director over just a few years. And when the 1992 Top Ten poll came out, Peter Wollen wrote a fine accompanying essay that identified just a few of the forces that enable a film’s/director’s stock to rise or fall.

I think we agree on the importance of aesthetic evaluation in film scholarship – but where I think we may disagree is over whether or not aesthetic response is simply reducible to taste (whether we read that as individualized or culturally constructed). Taste suggests a kind of pure subjectivity, while aesthetic response and poetic analysis suggests that you can analyze how a film is working to achieve its effects, for better or for worse. It’s much easier to link signifiers to cultural codes than it is to extend aesthetic response into close analysis and make a compelling or illuminating argument.

I’m well aware that my valuing of certain works over others has been shaped by a variety of forces, but again, that doesn’t make my response to those works any less powerful, any less profound, any less my own. My love of the shot from The Man Who Knew Too Much is not simply a matter of taste. Academic film scholarship seems largely uninterested in aesthetic experience – which is baffling considering that this not only dominates the other spheres of film writing, but also it dominates casual conversations over drinks and dinner at most film conferences.

Like Adrian, I discuss the films I screen for class from a variety of perspectives. But regardless of what issue I’m using a film to illustrate, my choices skew toward films that I believe are aesthetically rich. I believe that an important part of a film education is sharing – and even modeling – aesthetic experiences and responses. The best examples of the kind of writing that prompted Girish’s post do the same.

April 08, 2009 9:34 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Chris -- I perhaps too easily assume that none of us can reduce taste to pure subjectivity after Pierre Bourdieu! And I'm not sure how recognition that taste is a cultural category in fact doesn't make your response to works less "your own" ... in short, I think I understand your desire to claim your unique response better than I follow the logic of this claim. (I'm more than willing to allow that a response not fully your own can still be profound, which doesn't seem to me to require unique ownership.) Even if you aren't a doctrinaire follower of Marx, Freud, or Foucault (among others) don't they crucially demonstrate that our responses to cultural objects never were and never will be fully our own? The trick may be to recognize that as an important insight, and not necessarily a personal loss. For cinema, it may ask us to value mass responses as much or more than those we take to be ours alone.

But I'm more intrigued by your claim that "It’s much easier to link signifiers to cultural codes than it is to extend aesthetic response into close analysis and make a compelling or illuminating argument." Really? Didn't New Criticism do the latter all the time, producing perhaps the most widely adopted pedagogical practice of the 20th century? If our responses are generated by classical aesthetic criteria like balance, rhyme, or symmetry, or romantic criteria like complexity, density, or (a term you retrieve) richness -- isn't it fairly easy to locate the elements in the art work that support such values (while downplaying or ignoring others)? Critics of painting and literature did this for decades, and the technique dominated American classrooms for almost as long. (Sure, some critics did this more effectively than others, but part of the success of New Critical demonstrations of a text's "complexity" -- one of their key aesthetic values -- was that it was a pretty easy form of analysis and evaluation to teach.) And I at least remember that what you say is much easier -- linking signifiers to cultural codes -- took a good deal of work and argument. To take a supreme example -- Barthes' "Mythologies" -- this work could be subtle and brilliant, not just an easy critical link of text and context.

To spin this all somewhat differently: my sense is not that aesthetic evaluations allow us to escape cultural, social, or historical categories but that they insert us fully into culture, society, and history. And that may be a good thing, not a limitation imposed upon our responses.

I appreciate your wish to "share" and "model" aesthetic responses in teaching -- such nice words and ideas! -- but what prevents this from tipping into a subtle (or not so subtle) assertion of the superiority of the teacher's taste and/or criteria over the "vulgar" appreciation of the students? I'm not questioning your goals or skills as a teacher -- just the way that any display of aesthetic judgment implies its superiority and correctness against other views -- for you, I assume, necessarily any response that doesn't find your Hitchcock example remarkable, or perhaps even finds it a weak spot in the film.

I hope you (and others) recognize that your comments are pushing me not to disagree so much as to attempt to clarify my own thoughts on these topics. And so much thanks for that.

April 08, 2009 11:49 PM  
Blogger Brian Doan said...

I appreciate Corey's point about the anxieties of teaching films you feel really close to, and the concern that student responses will amount to "it sucked." I remember teaching Some Came Running in the midst of a four-week unit on Minnelli, and the palpable tension between my love of the film, and the class's disdain for its melodramatics (I've often told people that at that moment, I felt like Michael in the Godfather II, hugging Fredo close to me and muttering, "You broke my heart, Fredo! You broke my heart!").

I certainly wouldn't want it to devolve into a "he said/they said" discussion, but at the same time I'd much rather teach films I have some kind of investment in-- that I like, that I know well, that I find aesthetically or culturally enriching in some way-- than distance myself from that passion. Like Dave, Robert Ray was my graduate school mentor, and I remember asking him in our first meeting why he was teaching certain films in his class. "Because I like them," he said. And he went on to enumerate other good reasons, too, but I stilll remember how refreshing I thought that response was, and I do think that if the teacher is passionate about a given work, he or she will better be able to think about the film, and perhaps get the students caught up in that same passion.

(A few weeks after our face-off over Some Came Running, I showed the students To Sleep With Anger, which I also love. They weren't thrilled by this one, either-- it was a tough room that semester-- but I counted it as a personal triumph that some of Minnelli's style had gotten under their skin. "Where are the boom shots? Where are the tracks?," they asked with great concern).

In the end, what good does it do for us to spend fifteen weeks going through films we don't feel a connection to? It doesn't and shouldn't stop with the subjective response, but one can use that subjective response as an engine of creativity, to connect out to those broader cultural points that Corey mentions, but to do so in a (perhaps) more engaged and imaginative way (to go back to the book that kicked off this post, I think The ABCs of Classic Hollywood does that, and so does Moving Places). What Pauline Kael said about movies-- "If movies aren't fun, what are they? Punishment?"-- might also be fruitfully applied to film criticism, academic and otherwise.

April 09, 2009 10:06 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

"If movies aren't fun, what are they? Punishment?"

What a classic Kael quote, Brian! For good and for ill, I must say. Actually, I would repply that the 'opposite term' to fun, in the film studies (and many other studies) context is not punishment, but engagement. (Realising, of course, that fun is itself a form of engagement!) Engagement is many things: it includes fun and pleasure, epiphany and rapture, but also anger, discontent, dissastisfaction, frustration, critique. It has been (in my opinion) a bad strain that goes through Kael to cultural studies (Fiske, etc) that opposes fun/pleasure to something like 'punishing, distanced hard work'. But such enagaged work does not have to be punishment, even when it is not fun-fun-fun! One of the writers I find clearest on this is Meaghan Morris, whose 'Banality in Cultural Studies' and releated essays argues this position out beautifully. It is from her that I get the idea (that I have often used) about the 'everyday moment of discontent' that is just as crucial as redeeming people's sense of pleasure.

Speaking of Meaghan, I would like to go all the way back to Girish's original question in this fascinating thread. Among her absolute masterpieces is her critique of Baudrillard, "Room 101 Or A Few Worst Things in the World" in her collection THE PIRATE'S FIANCEE. I can hardly imagine a greater piece of critical writing. Is it a narrative or story, does it tell what Girish called "a story of sorts"? Only in the sense that it is a story of ideas - not primarily leaning on the anecdotal content of human stories (this, I feel, is the biggest misunderstanding about the 'narrative non-fiction writing' approach). It is an essay where the placement and working through of particular texts - in her case, for example, a mobilising of Orwell's 1984 - and of certain structuring motifs (metaphors, images, etc) - comes 'full circle' in the way she unfolds, pursues and clinches her argument. Jonathan is another master of this mode (his Farber essay "The Drive By Night" for example), as indeed is Bill Krohn in his incredibly important article on Brody's Godard bio in CINEMA SCOPE, structured as it is on citations from Philip Roth and Nabokov.

April 09, 2009 10:59 PM  
Blogger Brian Doan said...

Adrian, I wouldn't disagree that there are multiple forms of both fun and engagement and that (as you note) they sometimes overlap. Of course, the binary Kael sets up is a false one-- all binaries are-- but for me it's useful as a way of beginning to set out (or reshape) some of the parameters of the discussion (not as absolutes in any way, but as useful pokes at the conventional wisdoms of a given place or moment).

For me, fun and engagement (in all their forms) are less opposed to one another than to a third notion: that of obligation. One of the other threads of this great discussion thread seems to be the desire (among students, faculty, audiences) for the "correct" response-- be it popular or academic. We should teach this text, we should have this response, we should care (to cite one example/anecdote) more about the structural than the lyrical.

It seems to me that the best writing cited in this thread-- Rosenbaum's, Ray's, Naremore's, Barthes, etc.-- is trying to get past this deadening notion of intellectual or cultural or (fill-in-the-blank) obligation in order to engage with the text(s) in a more curious and searching way. And I would certainly put the kinds of engagements you describe in that category, too, because they sound like they're actively, almost physically invested in that kind of rich exploration.

The Morris you cite sounds really interesting-- I will have to track it down!

April 09, 2009 11:43 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Just to clarify -- if necessary -- that when I said I don't often teach films I love, I didn't at all mean that I teach films I dislike or even feel neutral about. I often teach films I admire, respect, or find important and interesting. (I teach "Birth of a Nation" often, but not out of love!) What I'm saying is that I don't often teach films that I recognize I have an unreasonable, even somewhat unjustifiable passion for that I know I can't expect my students to share. I don't really love "Citizen Kane," but I teach it often and hope my students come to recognize and respect its (to me deserved) status. It's an amazing film (I can't get behind the hip stance that it's overrated), but I can also accept -- and try to challenge -- criticism of it. On the other hand, I adore "The Magnificent Ambersons" and am rather blind to criticisms of it, so tend not to teach it to students who I know are not going to be very fond of it (a view derived from hard experience). Like most teachers, I've cherished the experience of teaching a film that most students disliked but that clearly transforms just one or two of them: I used to often teach Maya Deren's films, which may students barely tolerated. But at least one student per class always reported that exposure to Deren changed their life, and it seemed worth teaching her films just to reach that student. I persist in teaching Ozu films because I find I can win over enough students to recognize his genius.

To retain something of Girish's original prompt: since I don't have the obligation of a film critic to review things as they appear, I've never really understood how to gather the energy needed to seriously condemn and denounce some films: I tend to only write about films I like and admire. And since I don't do that often enough, I find it hard to make space for even the careful trashing of films -- even if I think they deserve it. I don't object to this in others: one of my favorite of Jonathan Rosenbaum's essays is his review of "Pretty Woman," which I kept torn out of the Chicago Reader for years until it was finally reprinted -- it's a brilliant condemnation of the film, and of Disney for being the company behind it. I can even see why it might be useful to screen that film in a class to raise some of the criticisms Jonathan does -- but I finally wouldn't want to take the time to screen a film in order to denounce it in class, even if that could be done with intellectual justification. There are too many other films I'd rather expose students to. But this prompts me add a question to this discussion: do people value critical writing on cinema that is really critical, that is, very negative? It seems to me that most of the examples cited in this thread are laudatory and appreciative of the films and directors they choose to discuss.

April 10, 2009 5:52 PM  
Anonymous adrian said...

Corey, your question made me realise something intriguing: personally, I tend to value positive criticism of films more than negative criticism - but I maybe value negative criticism of other critics/theorists than positive criticism! Two examples of the latter group that I cited above - Krohn on Brody, Morris on Baudrillard - fit this bill. But 'takedowns' of films and directors that I cherish come less readily to mind. Even in my own work, I am happier with positive over negative writing on films, but I feel I've done a pretty good job with some strong critiques of criticism (Thomson, Lopate, Sterritt). That said, I also enjoy positive appreciations of criticism: Morris on Barthes (that is a very special essay), Jonathan on Farber (several pieces), Bellour on Deleuze, Brenez on Epstein ...

April 11, 2009 8:01 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Adrian -- citations (not necessarily full) please! Along these lines I'm reminded of Barthes' wonderful little essay on Metz "To Learn and To Teach," and Sontag's essays on Benjamin and Barthes as well. And I recall a favorite piece of negative criticism -- cited on Girish's site before -- Andrew Britton's era-defining (and castigating) "Blissing Out." I'm convinced by your comments to revisit Morris (who I know is a special treat, but good to be reminded). And I forgot to mention earlier that for me (and I know I'm not alone) one of the most magnificent pieces of film criticism of all time is both magical and unapologetically high theory: Thierry Kuntzel's "The Film Work 2," his elaborate treatment of the CREDIT SEQUENCE of "The Most Dangerous Game," once legendary but not too-little read (in part because its only appearance in English translation remains almost the whole of an early issue of Camera Obscura). In any case, it's THE example of a work of film criticism far greater than the film it examines (though Kuntzel would have disagreed).

April 11, 2009 8:44 PM  
Anonymous Paul J. Marasa said...

I may be coming to this discussion a bit late, but I want to re-affirm the sentiments of at least one previous comment. Yes, James Naremore often provides an excellent synthesis of the analytical and the affective. I can't watch North by Northwest without hearing in my head his comments on Cary Grant's socks, a kind of small confession of fetish-love that draws us in to the heart of his ideas on acting in the cinema.

April 11, 2009 9:13 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Paul, Naremore's discussion is terrific, but I will try to beat Jonathan to posting this quote, from David Ehrenstein:

"It was really nice to read Gilbert Adair’s Paris Journal in the March-April [1978] FILM COMMENT, where he mentions in passing his fascination with the color of Cary Grant’s socks in the crop-dusting sequence of North by Northwest. For what it proves isn’t that Adair is nodding at the switch -- not paying attention during one of the most famous set pieces in movie history -- but rather that he’s really on the ball. For what’s involved is his awareness of other elements within the film, and his willingness to deal with them, regardless of the fact that such dealing goes against the grain of the film’s affectivity."

That's from the great Jonathan-David-Ray Durgnat discussion "Obscure Objects of Desire" which is on-line at LIGHT SLEEPER.

April 12, 2009 1:55 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Holy synchronicity! I didn't realise until just clicking on David Hudson's IFC DAILY that Jonathan has in fact posted that whole roundtable from 1978 on his own site, this very weekend! With a full complement of images, unlike in the LIGHT SLEEPER version.

April 12, 2009 2:23 AM  
Blogger girish said...

And here's a link to that latest post by Jonathan. Also, Adrian, speaking of your 'negative criticism' that takes a filmmaker or film to task, you didn't mention one of my favorites--the piece on Jane Campion in the NZ journal Landfall...

One good, recent example of 'negative criticism' that comes to mind is D.A. Miller's essay on Brokeback Mountain in Film Quarterly a couple of years back.

April 12, 2009 10:01 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Wanted to mention: Andrew Britton's "Blissing Out" is available in the newly released collection of his film criticism from Wayne St. Press.

April 12, 2009 10:03 AM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

Thanks to everyone for this thread, really interesting, sorry I was so late to the game (busy week), although Corey's position is pretty close to my own (and much more articulate than I could be).

Adrian's comments on criticism of criticism has peaked my interest for his own lecture on Manny Farber that he is scheduled to give in a few weeks at the Jeonju film festival in Korea. Looking forward to hearing it.

As for the original post topic, probably my favorite academic writer is Linda Williams, who tackles dense theoretical issues with a very compelling storytelling skill. Her new book SCREENING SEX is really worth checking out. And I'll add to the praise for Naremore, whose recent book ON KUBRICK is another compelling read on a topic I had (mistakenly) thought I was no longer interested in.

April 12, 2009 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Christian Keathley said...

This issue of negative criticism is a good one, and it's even more compelling when it's a negative take on something you value. See, for example, David Thomson's scathing entries on Frank Capra and John Ford in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. Though I disagree, I can't help but read it sympathetically, in much the same way that I read sympathetically a compelling and eloquent analysis of the works of a filmmaker I don't like (e.g., Naremore on Kubrick).

April 12, 2009 5:16 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Hello, just posted a few comments about Bazin's use of the term 'montage attraction' in the previous thread on Bazin if anyone is interested. Thanks all.

April 13, 2009 2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually find Mr Martin himself a master at bringing in significant narratives to illustrate complex points.
One of my favorite film-related anecdotes is the one he tells in an article (I can't remember which, that's the problem with internet) about the experience of sitting in a cinema with an unknown child during a film (if I remember right, a Hawks western), which he then compares to an Erice film. The anecdote not only imparted concrete points about the communal aspect of cinema, the tremendous task of developing a common (critical) ground through dialogue, and the magic of being an active audience, it also made me want to see Spirit of the Beehive more than anything else I've read about the film!
Nathan

April 13, 2009 6:57 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

To go back to the final part of girish's post - especially the "in any other field" segment - writing on history seems to periodically, almost predictably, return to this concern with narrative versus "new history." It's a debate that seems to raise its head every time the profession perceives that it has lost ground to more "popular" writers - perhaps most recently through the success of non-academic works on early American history, such as David McCullough's "John Adams" (though McCullough has spent more time sifting archival materials than many of the pros who take potshots at him).

Lawrence Stone wrote of the "revival" of historical narrative in 1979, although I suspect that many people, including other historians, would take issue with his terminology, since many of his examples had little to do with traditional narrative history, and often remained very academic in tone and outlook.

James McPherson - since you mention him - is an especially good example of a historian able to tackle a larger narrative while also integrating much newer research on the causes and course of the Civil War; his "Battle Cry of Freedom" is one of the finest narrative histories of the past 25+ years, while also being very much a conscious updating of the previous narrative tradition.

Patricia Nelson Limerick is pretty good on Western US history, too: she has made it a career mission to communicate beyond academia and there are several very good pieces in her book "Something in the Soil," where she grapples with complex ideas about the American West in an approachable and yet uncondescending style.

I also find much of value in Simon Schama's books. Something like "Landscape and Memory" isn't a narrative in terms of its overall shape, but it tells several interwoven stories within its chapters - including a personal narrative - while it is of course fascinated by the narratives composed by other people. He's also very good at bringing together a whole range of disciplines - history, literary analysis, anthropology, art history. For instance, there's a brilliant analysis in that book of a painting by Albrecht Altdorfer which serves as a wonderfully acute illustration of Schama's major themes (the painting is on the front of some editions of the book). He makes the whole thing suddenly very accessible without sacrificing either historical or art historical detail.

April 14, 2009 4:51 PM  
Blogger MovieMan0283 said...

Among the many ideas raised by this fascinating rumination (and the proceeding commentary), one remains more or less unspoken: should reading about and analyzing films be as much fun as watching them? However we feel about Kael's quote (and I adore her), at heart I think most of us fell in love with the cinema rather than coming to our present interest through a sense an intellectual, removed response - we either once found or (hopefully) still find watching movies to be a pleasurable experience. Do we take a step back from that pleasure in order to study the movie(s), or do we incorporate the pleasure into our engagement?

I once found an old, decaying yellow book in my family's garage - an early seventies collection of essays on film (edited by Bill Nichols). Its methods and subjects ranged from old-school historical and montage-centric readings to the passion of the early auteurists to proto-cultural critiques (with a section devoted to relatively nascent feminism) and eventually quite "difficult" semiotic analyses. The fact is, all of this - even the dense stuff at the end of the tome - was fascinating.

Even (perhaps especially) while weaving elaborate - and probably untenable - theories about signifiers, spectators, and the structural compounds of film form, the writing was engaging. One could sense a giddy twinkle in the authors' eyes, even as they penned jargon-heavy prose - ever-present was a sense that the cinema, and by extension film theory, was giddy, thrilling (perhaps even mischievous) fun.

Cut to the present day (or thereabouts). A roommate, upon departure from our apartment, offers up his film studies book: assigned reading for a long-finished course. Taking it in my hands, I flip through and encounter writing which is thorough, thoughtful, and dry as dust. I close the book and put it down. Later my roommate through it away.

Why did this earlier collection hold such greater appeal? Surely there's some unseemly aesthetic pretension at work here - the old book looks like something you'd stumble across at a yard sale or in the corner of a musty used bookstore, while one can imagine the newer text being plunked down on one's desk, with an unimaginative teacher droning, "Read the first section by Thursday." Yet I submit that there really was an energy and a passion present in the earlier hodgepodge of essays, a passion which has been ironed out over decades of taking movies "seriously." Whither/wither cinephalia...

I must admit I'm somewhat allergic to film as an academic subject. To quote Kael, it feels too much like punishment - and virtually all my cherished memories of discovery come from before and after my several film classes, despite having some wonderful teachers.

Yet their excellence - and my own passion (which, truth to tell, went into a bit of a hibernation when movies became an obligation rather than a release) - lead me to concur wholeheartedly with the words of one of my predecessors in this discussion:

"...it means maintaining an attitude of -- dare I suggest it? -- curiosity, admiration, and even awe. "

In the end, the root of this awe matters little - it is contagious, and the results speak for themselves.

April 15, 2009 8:24 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Responding to MovieMan's post: aside from my having to deal with the summary of Nichols' collection "Movies and Methods" (the yellow-covered first volume; there was a blue-covered follow-up) as an old book (I bought it when it came out!), my take on the question you raise ("Should reading about and analyzing films be as much as fun as watching them?") is ... sure, why not? Though you may set up a false opposition in making "fun" the exclusive reason for watching films (might there be other reasons to watch films?) that analysis isn't driven to match, I've never understood the reason to sharply isolate the pleasures of (good) films and (good) criticism. I and others have noted examples of criticism that enrich our experience of films, and I would even venture that there are writings on some films of much greater pleasure and value than the films they discuss. In any case, I suspect many of us move from reading a work of fiction to a work of criticism to watching a film to listening to music -- having fun all along the way. Or to reverse the equation: should watching films be as intellectually engaging as reading about and analyzing them?

April 16, 2009 12:49 PM  
Blogger MovieMan0283 said...

Corey,

"Fun" is sort of a weak, vague word to use - I suppose I took it up following the Kael quote. But I mean it in the broadest sense possible. Perhaps "pleasure" would be a better barometer (it makes more sense to say Antonioni and Bresson provide pleasure than to say they're "fun"). As for your point about criticism, I actually agree: I don't think we should set up create a division between the pleasures of film and criticism. I do occasionally get a sense that (particularly latter-day) criticism and theory are constructed without pleasure in mind (or at least, I can't seem to dig it up). But fundamentally we seem to be in agreement: a broad, catholic definition of fun and pleasure which encompasses all sorts of movies (and other forms of art) and criticism as well.

As for your second question: "Should watching films be as intellectually engaging as reading about and analyzing them?"

I would say no, though it's perfectly fine if they are. In other words, I am happy to have an intellectually engaging film but am just as happy to have one which exists on a primarily sensual/sensory level. At the same time, intellectual engagement - at least of a certain type - can often be a form of pleasure. I think Godard, for example, transmutes intellectualism into visceral pleasure, which is one reason why I love his work.

April 16, 2009 7:22 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I can't believe Godard hasn't come up as central to this discussion earlier! In many cases his films are perfect examples of the effective blending of intellectual rigor and sensory fun, works of intellectual sophistication and sheer pleasure at once. (I still can't understand those who don't see the fun and humor in Godard, despite often grim surroundings.)

April 17, 2009 7:22 PM  
Blogger MovieMan0283 said...

Corey, I too am astonished by those - incidentally, both detractors and admirers - who reduce Godard to his intellectual components, and make him seem like a cold, purely theoretical auteur. To my eyes, the New Wavers - including Rohmer and Godard - are sensualists first and foremost. Even the intellectual elements of their films are filtered through a sensualist aesthetic (as if they had to justify their extracurricular interests through their Cinematheque movie-love).

I think I do subscribe to the theory that films - at least fictional films, for whatever that distinction's worth - should first and foremost provide sensation (I've always been more interested in the cinema as experience than the cinema as academic text). However, my definition of sensation is pretty broad, encompassing the popcorn picture, the art film, and the avant-garde experiment. (Actually, I've often been surprised by the reaction that sees the experimental film as more "difficult" than the narrative - to my eyes, when it works, it's more sensory and direct than traditional storytelling cinema, less adorned by various accoutrements which obscure the merits of that much-maligned term, "pure cinema." But I digress.)

As a caveat to my previous proviso, I do have to admit than in the past year, as I've focused on writing about films, I've come to view movies more and more as texts that I analyze - though I'm somewhat uncomfortable with this inclination and wonder if it isn't just a convenient fallback since digging inside the experience can be more difficult (albeit often more rewarding). Anyway, at the very least, I do think the analysis should be enjoyable in its own right.

April 18, 2009 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Alexis Tioseco said...

Since he hasn't been mentioned yet, I'd just like to nominate John Berger. Almost any essay he's written would fit the description.

April 28, 2009 11:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I ran into your really informative and engaging blog via Joe Bowman's, when trolling for some other totally unrelated info on the web.

In one of the most unabashedly kitschy film industries in the world - Bollywood - they now talk of the class/mass dichotomy, and the best way to synthesize the two.

I relate to the central issue of this column from another angle. Ive had a loong year career in technically obscure fields. It was a huge struggle to NOT blow up at my colleagues who would painfully struggle to explain their work even to their own junior colleages, and could never avoid bland inside jokes, shop talk and TLAs even in a b'day party.

Anyway in contemporary literature, specifically magic realism, I feel Orhan Pamuk could be ranked at the top for his ability to synthesize scholarly depth/heft with popular appeal. I think he is better in this than both Rushdie and Garcia-Marquez.

I'd say the same kind of difference exists between Camus's and Sartre's prose, or between Buckminster Fuller and Christophehr Alexander's architecture inspired non-fiction.

And in music, dare I venture - Pink Floyd?

IMHO a bad/failed synthesis occurs when lit-school or film-school influenced writers merely write for each other, or just for their alter-ego. The other extreme is of course those who pander to the street.

The key to successful synthesis (be it in prose or cinema) IMHO is to take your material, and make the audience feel like they are on a guided but riotously mad adventure that has a focused "theme"/purpose, and a coherent beginning, middle and end. Any number of scholarly detours/sidebars are OK, as long as they're embedded in an emotionally unrelenting rhythmic framework.

@MovieMan0823 in one of his comments I think alludes to sort of the same thing: "...films - at least fictional films, for whatever that distinction's worth - should first and foremost provide sensation ..."

Also a good "synthesizer" inherently has a mindset/toolset that can be best described as swiss-army-knife of teacher+guide+shaman+parent+rascally uncle+medicine (wo)man, over and above his/her native virtuoso skills as a writer, filmmaker, musican, whatever.

Popular science writers have been generally good at this.

Another time I experienced this issue was when I was a radio DJ of world folk music. World folk music programs have a rather obscure, enthusiast only audience, due to inherent barriers - language, alien rhythms and scales, or even emotional content. They'd have to be almost amateur ethnographers to barely relate to folk music of Tuva or Haiti.

I improvised by including this kind of music from non-English films from world over, and then placing the track in the context of the film's plot. Peter Gabriel's music for "The Last Temptation of Christ" was a godsend in this respect. With non-film music, I'd weave stories of how I acquired it during travel, and/or relate personal experiences with the theme/lyrics of the song.

Back to my aforementioned dreary but highly competitive former career: This type of synthesis of form (tightly brightly woven) and content (however deep/obscure) was the key to successful differentiation from my pedantic colleagues.

I hope to bring that experience to bear in my 2nd career - filmmaking.

-- radiojois

July 25, 2009 5:53 PM  
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December 23, 2009 2:40 AM  
Anonymous air force shoes said...

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January 29, 2010 7:33 PM  

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