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...