Monday, July 13, 2009

Building A Large Conversation

In his book-length essay What Happened to Art Criticism? (2003), James Elkins surveys the last 50 years of the field. Contemporary art criticism, he writes, is in a state of crisis. While the field itself is larger than ever before--more writers, outlets, volume of writing produced--it has steadily receded in both importance and ambition. The vast majority of today's art criticism, which is generally written for art magazines, catalog essays, gallery publications, newspapers, etc., leans towards description and neutrality--and shies away from making strong judgments. Elkins calls for a new and alternative kind of art criticism that is both (1) deeply aware of art history and thought about art; and (2) is unafraid to evaluate, pass judgment, and be polemical. He writes:

Art criticism is best, I think, when it is openly ambitious, meaning that the critic is interested in comparing the work at hand with past work, and weighing her judgments against those made by previous writers. I like art critics who periodically try to bear the burden of history by writing in the imaginary presence of generations of artworks, art critics and art historians.

Elkins makes an important and troubling observation: the two fields of art criticism and art history hardly ever cite each other. Art historians writing in journals like Art Bulletin, October or Art History almost never refer to art critics who write in contemporary art magazines or newspapers. And similarly, art critics, while focusing on individual artworks and often rendering close, detailed descriptions of them, are either unwilling or unable to invoke the work of art history scholars both contemporary and past, even though it would undoubtedly help deepen their reflections if they did.

I see some parallels of Elkins' critique in the fields of film criticism and film scholarship. Except for a small number of invaluable critic-scholars who work to bridge the gap, the two groups similarly shy away from citing each other. Why is this so? For critics, it would require the significant effort of familiarizing themselves with scholarly literature past and present, an effort made more difficult by the presence of a specialized scholarly vocabulary. For scholars, whose jobs already require them to do vast amounts of reading, this would mean widening their field of vision to include writing in film magazines, the Internet (including blogs), and newspapers. Added to this are the demands in both professions of watching scores of films on a steady basis.

But nevertheless I think it's an important and worthwhile effort. In a roundtable at Artforum, Annette Michelson makes a penetrating comparison of two similar-but-different film writers, Umberto Eco and Pauline Kael. Both concentrate on narrative, seldom dwelling on matters of film form like camerawork or lighting. They have keen powers of observation and are witty writers, they possess an affection for a wide range of films both highbrow and lowbrow, and they have significant experience in journalistic writing targeted at general readers. But while Eco is deeply knowledgeable about intellectual history and scholarship--even being a notable contributor to the field--Kael is relatively uninterested in and even hostile to scholarly work. This, Michelson writes, inhibits Kael's

ability to account for film's impact in terms other than those of taste and distaste, [her resistance] expressed with increasing vehemence. To have continued to write into the '90s with no account taken of the advances made in our ways of thinking about spectatorship, perception, and reception meant that she ceased to renew her intellectual capital, to acknowledge and profit by the achievements of a huge collective effort. And so her writing, unrefreshed, grew thinner, coarser, stale. It is this that was ultimately responsible for Renata Adler's punishing assessment of her work, published in the New York Review of Books in August 1980.

One of the invaluable aspects of scholarly work is this "huge collective effort" that builds upon the work of others--both of centuries past and contemporary. The edifices that scholars construct have the likelihood of being tall and capacious by virtue of the largeness of this effort. There is a lesson here that film critics can learn from scholars: the practice of reading widely to become familiar with traditions of thought in film, art, philosophy, and other disciplines that can guide them and their readers towards a deeper understanding of cinema. This would mean a practice of criticism conducted in an exemplary fashion: as Elkins says, in the imaginary presence of generations of artworks, critics and scholars.

What can film scholars learn from practicing film critics? At least two things. First, critics are invaluable because they have their fingers on the pulse of cinema at any moment. They are on the front-lines, watching new films, directions and innovations break. They help determine which films will acquire critical reputations, thus boosting the films' chances of being taken up for future study. Second, journalist-critics have the talent to write engagingly and skillfully for a large audience of educated non-scholars. In addition to their customary mode of writing--with their peers in mind--scholars could learn much from critics about cultivating this alternative and useful mode of writing that can bridge the gap between academia and the general reader.

Let me close with one practical tip for critics and scholars. Critics looking to get acquainted with some of the best scholarship of the last 10 years might consult this large 2007 poll at Screening the Past. And scholars seeking pointers to the best online criticism (blogs and otherwise) tracked on a daily basis should bookmark the indispensable David Hudson, formerly of Greencine Daily and IFC Daily, soon to return at an as-yet-undisclosed site.

Any thoughts on the opportunities and challenges for critics and scholars in building this large conversation? Please feel free to share them here. Thank you!

pic: A still from Noël Burch's Noviciat (1964), which features Annette Michelson in its cast. Might someone know: is this Michelson in the photo?


Anonymous jim emerson said...

I'm really glad you brought this up, girish -- especially after our wee back-and-forth on FB, when I feared we were talking past each other. As anyone who's spent time in academia knows, there are "scholarly" styles of writing that serve insular purposes only. Such "publish-or-perish"-motivated writing is addressed to other academics (though not necessarily intended to be understood by them -- as the Sokal hoax delightfully demonstrated). Academic writing certainly does not need to be dull and impenetrable (i.e., bad writing) -- but it too often is. It's as easy to fall into lazy scholarly writing habits as it is to fall into lazy journalistic ones.

What we need, in my opinion, are more scholars like David Bordwell who know cinema history and theory, and who are also interested in actually communicating their ideas! That is, they know how to write in respectable English, rather than an airless, encoded academese that, in its own hermetically sealed way, is as hostile to the language as anything perpetrated by George W. Bush or Sarah Palin. That's not saying anybody is required to condescend or dumb-down what they're writing (Bordwell doesn't), or even write for a general audience, but that scholarly work should not excuse stilted prose or tortured language. A good university ought to punish such crimes against English, not encourage them! (I came across the word "conflictual" the other day -- when "conflicting" would have worked just as well, and sounded far less sterile and pretentious.)

So: More Bordwellians!

July 13, 2009 5:35 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Great post!
One sure thing : it's not Twitter that will build this large conversation for film culture.

July 13, 2009 6:29 PM  
Blogger Edwin Mak said...

Blimey. This ain't a top film blog for nothing... I was completely unaware of that Screening the Past list, valuable stuff indeed, ta Girish. And it's great to see so many authors working on the fringes of, but not exclusively on cinema like Harvey and Virilio getting expert mention; which, in fact, reveals my slight disagreement with JE above.

If a new critic is to emerge - characterised by their being informed by intellectual/art/theoretical issues etc. - then in a way academics shouldn't be expected to compromise their style (actually bad writing notwithstanding) for the critics to be informed by them. The onus is on the writer to translate original ideas / research from whichever specialist domains they see fit – even if it does seems insular –, into the clarity of expression favoured by their intended audiences.

As it goes, this explains why many of my favourite writings on film happen not to appear in strictly cinephilic environments – though each of their authors are of course cinephiles (eg. Jameson's classic on Edward Yang, Gladney on Horse Thief, pretty much any Zizek..).

Perhaps, for the writer, the more perverse to categorisation the better. As this, hopefully, demonstrates their fidelity to their ideas over the conventions demanded by their formats. A film criticism that sees nothing as insular would be a more progressive one.

July 13, 2009 7:28 PM  
Anonymous jim emerson said...

EM -- Rest assured, I'm speaking strictly of actually bad writing, no matter what its intended audience -- which is what I meant by: "That's not saying anybody is required to condescend or dumb-down what they're writing (Bordwell doesn't), or even write for a general audience, but that scholarly work should not excuse stilted prose or tortured language." In other words, there's never any excuse for bad writing, especially in academic circles where you'd think the readers and writers would demand more clarity, not less. (Again, see the Sokal hoax, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity":

July 13, 2009 7:58 PM  
Blogger Edwin Mak said...

Absolutely, Jim: a new progressive film criticism cannot be founded on actually bad writing. Good point.

July 13, 2009 8:10 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

I know straight off that what immediately impressed me about the Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit was its staged parity between film academics and what they term "critic-practitioners." Edited by Dina Iordanova and Ragan Rhyne, and including papers by a cast of European film scholars, I have been completely honored to be one of the first American film writers to contribute to their next volume. Is it perhaps possible that the distance you sense between film historians and film critics is a peculiarly American tendency?

July 13, 2009 8:19 PM  
Blogger Chris Cagle said...


On one hand I empathize. I'm not a big fan of jargon-laden writing and sometimes dislike scholarship that gets too caught up in its wordplay or obscurity. I spend a lot of effort to clarify my own writing, even though I'm not a naturally gifted stylist.

On the other hand, you paint academia with a really broad brush. How many film scholars write and research in full Sokalesque emperor-has-no-clothes mode? Even in my more cynical moments, I wouldn't say more than 10% of us.

There are also plenty of great, accessible scholars who are not Bordwellians... Thomas Doherty, historians like Thomas Schatz or Lea Jacobs.

I should note too that for every pedagogical, accessible book Bordwell writes (I particularly admire _On the History of Film Style_ for this) there are some dense, terminology-heavy works like _Making Meaning_.

July 13, 2009 8:42 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

An excellent post, Girish.

That definitely isn't Annette Michelson in Noel Burch's Noviciat. I don't know the name of the actress shown, but she plays a martial arts teacher of an all-female class who kidnaps and enslaves the hero, played by Andre S. Labarthe, after catching him spying on her class. Annette plays the dominatrix whom the teacher "sells" the hero to in the film's final sequence.

July 13, 2009 11:20 PM  
Anonymous jim emerson said...

No broad-brushing intended, Chris. I've just had some bad experiences. Bureaucratese was a peeve of my youth, and I was appalled to discover that (perhaps a tiny percentage of) academics had developed a similar dead language used for journal articles and dissertations. In the English department, we found them hilariously obtuse.

July 14, 2009 12:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

Another great post, Girish.

One thing that I sometimes worry about - and this may sound bleak! - is that it isn't possible in the current climate to fully bridge the gap between (what we acknowledge in film circles as) academia and criticism. Work in the two fields is often organised, practised, funded and published differently, often with conflicting purposes. Nowadays, I feel that (with exceptions) one is hewing increasingly more towards institutionalisation, and the other moving towards a more active, engaged web-based modern/neo-/whatever-you-want-call-it type of cinephilia. Institutional pressures (say, in the UK: RAE exercises - I'm not sure how this works in the US) can breed certain types of scholarship, where questions of "use-value" end up pretty far down the equation. For example, there seems to be a handful of journals published as mere repositories for "scholarship" (or: exercises in scholarship), regardless of their (even incremental) value. Few cinephiles outside academia care (or even know) that they exist, and probably surprisingly few people within academia do either. They exist because publishing means points, and points mean maintaining a career (and paying the bills). But, of course, there's also plenty of blinkered journalistic criticism that serves little cinephilic purpose out there too...

I totally agree with Chris Cagle's post here that scholars can end up reading and researching very narrowly instead of widely (as they should be expected), with potentially negative implications. Specialist scholarship is essential to film culture of course (plucking names from the air: Scott MacDonald, P. Adams Sitney, Chris Berry, Peter Hames, the raft of scholars who research early/silent cinema and the American studio system), but in certain cases it gives way to a type of niche scholarship which isn't, well, that special at all. It risks putting academia at a further remove from cinephilia and the broader film culture, like the film student who was too busy reading Lacan to go to the movies...

I hope this doesn't come off as a mere broad-brush argument - it's simply my take on the worst "excesses" of the current situation. On a personal note, I suppose I'm technically a scholar (as I'm writing a thesis), but would feel much more comfortable in the critical camp - not least because, focussing on the very new, I almost certainly read more criticism than scholarship, and find myself as reliant on the blogosphere as the academy. It goes without saying that there's a staggering amount of (I'm tempted to say: too much) great work being done in both fields, and valuable crossover projects too (cf. the superb new Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction [especially those letters ;-)] and Dekalog On Film Festivals from Wallflower, plus many online/offline journals). Models of critical/academic "gap-bridgers" for me can be anybody from Jonathan, Adrian, Chris Fujiwara & Tag Gallagher to Ian Christie, Steve Shaviro, James Naremore, etc. etc.

Anyway, more importantly, how does one track down Noviciat?! It doesn't even seem to circulate under the radar...

P.S. I agree with Harry about Twitter, but I don't think a large conversation is really its purpose...

July 14, 2009 8:45 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

It's less an issue of arcane vocabulary (when it's used appropriately) than when intellectual words and pre-packaged concepts are substituted for actual ideas. Sometimes this "huge collective effort that builds upon the work of others" can be overestimated... Citing references doesn't mean they understood the material, or that they don't manipulate it to fit their own mindset and make a point, even if it betrays the referenced author.

But that's how scholars are trained to function : Citations, jargon, esoteric concepts, intellectualism, hollow rhetoric... They learn it in school and are encouraged to do it by peer pressure.

Though critics at the NYT do indulge in dropping literary vocabulary when a simple word would be clearer for the average reader. Sometimes I wonder if they don't make up sentences just to show off fancy words, while it has little pertinence to the film at hand...

July 14, 2009 11:52 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I'm sorry the very interesting discussion Girish has started has focused largely on the to me rather tedious emphasis (now decades old and apparently endless) on jargon and bad writing. I know why people care about those things, but as many have pointed out, complaints about "specialized vocabulary" in musicology, physics, or medical research never seem to bother anyone -- it's just the presumption that the humanities should be defined by "clarity" that continues to lead people to decry "bad writing," more often criticized than demonstrated. (I notice few examples have been provided here.) I assume the notion that cinema is a "democratic" art, available to all, also continues to raise suspicion about those who approach it professionally, though we expect many other scholars to study their topics with the tools of their trades.

Anyway, to try to shift things: as Girish's posting suggested, one key distinction is the emphasis in criticism on evaluation, which can often seem absent or studiously avoided in film studies. (As Girish's examples from art suggest, this extends to other fields: it's largely the case with literature as well, a topic taken up some time ago by Barbara Herrenstein-Smith's book "Contingencies of Value".) The apparently central demand of criticism to make aesthetic judgments is an important difference from a large body of scholarship, though of course judgments are often implicit -- the choice to write a book on a filmmaker at the very least implies that the auteur is worthy of such attention. But a certain body of scholarship recognizes that aesthetic judgments are historically unstable, ideological, implicitly (or explicitly) sexist, etc., which leads scholars to resist such claims altogether. (This is a too-quick summary of a complex topic, of course.) (The same could be said of "bad writing": is it really so obvious that good writing looks the same across historical periods? Do Strunk and White really speak for all uses of English, at all times, in all contexts?)

I'm also curious about the claim that criticism tends to focus on the present, noting emerging trends and pointing toward the future. That seems to blur the distinction between criticism and reviewing, with the latter of course centered on evaluating new releases (though reviews of DVDs have shifted that somewhat: Dave Kehr's NYTimes reviews of DVD releases clearly allow him to think about older films in a way a daily paper might not otherwise allow.) This does strike me as one of the key gaps between criticism and scholarship, however (though it's not unusual for critics like Martin, Rosenbaum, Wood, or the late Britton to write on older films). A key example: some time ago there was no more exciting work in film studies than the international rethinking of early cinema. Work by Burch, Gunning, Musser, Brewster, Rabinovitz, and many others redefined the history of cinema, and attended to texts long forgotten or misunderstood by film fans, critics, and scholars. But my impression is that most film critics were barely aware of this intense scholarly activity (which took place at film festivals as well as in scholarly journals and publications), or at least didn't take it up in their publishing venues. Why? Did the pressure of focusing on the present mean most film critics didn't recognize that the most interesting and paradigm-shifting discussions for about a decade were about films from before 1907?

Just two topics -- evaluation and the focus on recent films -- that seem to me richer veins to mine in Girish's post than yet another complaint or defense about bad writing ...

July 14, 2009 12:42 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

As interesting to me as the figure that belongs to both academia and criticism, but much more often ignored, is the cinephile who belongs to neither. The qualities are often the same but come from a different direction: fields of interest that are wide and unhampered by constraint (whether academic or commercial), writing that is (often) less cramped... I guess this blog is a good example :).
Another one is the column that Nicole Brenez used to hold for the magazine Panic (I wrote about it a few weeks back), in which she would ask different cinephiles from around the world about their latest discoveries. She renewed the formula in this month's Cahiers by asking ten people to choose the most subversive film ever and justify it in one sentence. Along with Adrian, a Japanese film historian, or avant-garde film-maker Mounir Fatmi, one finds Richard Hell and a spanish (or portuguese, can't remember) baker!

July 14, 2009 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Jim Flannery said...

+1 to Corey's first paragraph. The whole point of the "jargon" is to make a distinction as fine as possible. It's hard to imagine, for example, a sentence which uses the word "conflictual" correctly being correct with the word "conflicting" substituted, since the two words don't actually mean the same thing.

Also a footnote: the Renata Adler piece is available online here but it'll cost $3 for non-subscribers.

July 14, 2009 2:11 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I thought of Jim's point too, but am glad he made it. I'm quick to strike out "usage" in my students' essays when "use" is sufficient, but in other cases "usage" has its, well, uses. For many readers I suspect the precise distinction between a cut, fade, dissolve or wipe is just "jargon," but for the directors or editors who chose one or the other (and for most film scholars), those different terms for distinct devices matter. Jargon is often simply a negative term for specialized language -- not the same thing as "bad writing" no matter how the latter is to be judged. But why is the avoidance of jargon so often wished for in writing about film rather than other fields? Even jazz fans seem comfortable with basic musical terminology, as most readers of poetry expect a critic to use the terms of poetics: I'm not a sports fan, and thus can't make much sense of the most common descriptions of sporting events, which read to me as solid jargon. Yet a great (by common consensus) film critic like Pauline Kael is not expected to -- as Annette Michelson noted in Girish's posted comments -- employ even the most basic film terminology. It's of course common for reviews to never mention a single cinematic element in the films they describe. (By the way, I'm in a department that has worked for years to improve the way critics describe film sound, with our most fundamental distinction, between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, often viewed as elitist -- because Greek? -- jargon.) Narratology (some will bristle at that very word) has very usefully provided a range of terms to analyze narratives with great precision, so why shouldn't this vocabulary be used by critics? Even the distinction between plot and story established by Russian formalism (and central to the work of Bordwell) is commonly misused by critics, presumably because the everyday use of the terms is felt to be sufficient to convey meaning, however vague. What I'm trying to puzzle through here is why this debate seems especially heated with regard to the discussion of cinema, even if versions of it can be found in other fields. It's worth recalling that cinephilia, like love of other objects, includes the risk of petty jealousies and broken hearts.

July 14, 2009 3:23 PM  
Anonymous jim emerson said...

Apologies if I hijacked the thread. Should have said "conflictual"/"conflictive."

July 14, 2009 4:06 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Jim: "Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness." -- John Wayne in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"

Not that I really believe that, but ... no need to apologize (to me at least). Jargon is a part of this topic (as my second posting couldn't help but return to), but I felt Girish's original message offered other concerns that weren't taken up in the immediate responses.

July 14, 2009 7:03 PM  
Anonymous jim emerson said...

In that case, I guess I should at least point out that I deliberately did not bring up jargon at all because I'm all for it. This "larger conversation" girish proposes will rely on a shared vocabulary that will require precision and nuance that only jargon can properly define sometimes. (I just hope it does not include words such as "conflictual" which I find inexcusably ugly as well as of dubious precision and utility. Is it necessary? Perhaps. But I would re-write whole paragraphs to avoid it if I could.) I get sloppy with "story" and "plot" in casual writing myself, but there's no excuse for calling a dissolve a cut, or a zoom a dolly shot, or a tilt a pan. (I come to film from an undergraduate background; I did not venture beyond that myself.)

I can't think of a form of journalistic/critical writing or academic/scholarly writing in which clarity of thought would not be an important goal. Before we can have a conversation we have to be able to understand what we're talking about -- and that's extremely difficult to achieve in any kind of writing. Comments can, at their best, function as a kind of peer review process!

OK, now I promise I'll shut up for real.

July 14, 2009 8:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone, for taking the time to patiently set down your thoughts! I think this is a valuable conversation to be having!

Jim, please: you need neither apologize nor fall silent!

Sometimes (as in this thread) it is only through strong but respectful disagreement can we break open an impasse, reconsider ideas we've had strong opinions and positions about for a long time, and learn from each other by listening to each other--and educating each other.

Jonathan, thanks for clueing me in about Michelson and Noviciat!


A couple of remarks:

-- About "Sokal-esque," "emperor-has-no-clothes" academic writing, I concur with Chris Cagle: while it surely exists, it is (in my reading experience) only a small fraction of the discipline.

-- Any discourse generates its own vocabulary. For the jazz musician/serious listener, take important books like Mark Gridley's Jazz Styles, Alec Wilder's analysis of American popular songs or Thomas Owens' Bebop: The Music and its Players. They all use a special vocabulary of musical notation, chords, scales, rhythms, song form and structure, etc. Reading these books with seriousness requires a knowledge of this vocabulary and an understanding of the musical concepts they refer to.

Similarly, in film studies, the paradigms of (for example) feminism, psychoanalysis, auteurism or structuralism come with their own specialized vocabularies. Becoming acquainted with these vocabularies (e.g. by reading some Freud or de Beauvoir or Cahiers writers or Wollen) can begin to open the door to what we previously considered to be impenetrable scholarly writing.

"Clarity of thought" exists no less in scholarly works than it does elsewhere (e.g. in the film-blogosphere). In fact, because articles have to cross hurdles (like peer review), the likelihood is higher than for an editor-less blog post. But not being familiar with the vocabulary will render this writing immediately "unclear" to the lay reader. Thus it's impossible to make a judgment on the clarity of thought of a piece of scholarship until one has a grasp of the specialized vocabulary of the field.

-- Maya asked: "Is it perhaps possible that the distance you sense between film historians and film critics is a peculiarly American tendency?"

I'm wondering: do scholars and critics speak as part of a large shared conversation (with a commonly acknowldged vocabulary) in France more than they do in the U.S.?

-- I agree with Chris' point about academia pushing scholars into narrow niches of specialization. But I also notice how several scholars who visit this blog (like Adrian or Corey) seem to have multiple areas of scholarly interest.

July 14, 2009 9:11 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

In my experience, "academia pushing scholars into narrow niches of specialization" is something of a luxury of the past! That is, if a scholar wanted to focus narrowly, that was allowed when faculty ranks were bulging and an English department could afford to have, for instance, a Poe specialist. But my sense is that more and more schools want to hire (in the rare cases when they are now allowed to hire) people who can cover a lot of bases. My school is most often attracted to candidates who can teach (and produce their own research) in more than one area. Part of my value to my university is due to my teaching regularly in two departments, and serving on committees in at least three more! I don't mean this as a complaint -- much of this is by my own choice to work across a range of fields, but I'm surrounded by colleagues with joint appointments as well. But even looking at colleagues only appointed in film studies, most range widely as well: one writes on early French cinema, documentary, and Lebanese film; another writes on Weimar German and recent Korean cinema; another works in narrative theory, early cinema, genre theory, and film sound, etc. All are exceptional scholars, but I don't think the fact of their range of interests is in itself unusual. I can't speak so well for the sciences, where my impression is that narrow specialization is still more common. But this discussion is about film studies, where I just don't see that narrowness in many people's careers.

July 15, 2009 7:59 AM  
Blogger Chris Cagle said...

Corey, I feel responsible for the two generalizations you (somewhat rightly) take disagreement with. So let me clarify.

First, jargon: the word can refer to either precise specialist vocabulary (diegesis, tracking shot, indexicality, etc.) or more citational idea-systems vocabulary (geneaology, affect, subaltern, etc). The complaint is usually about the latter, not the former. I think battles over writing style are often a proxy for battles over the proper model of scholarship. Some see the citational, circular conversation as one of humanities' greatest strengths, or at least its defining characteristic. Others would prefer an aping of social science (and here I'm thinking more economics or psychology than, say, the highly-citational mass communications). Others, often outside the academy, would prefer to dispense with the scholarly apparatus altogether in favor a belle-lettristic writing based in personal voice and authority. Tim Burke, as usual, has some interesting thoughts on this, though I don't know if I fully agree.

Second, specialization: you're right there's still a strong generalist impulse in our field. I'm aware of debates in early cinema or gaming theory in a way the Poe scholar is not up on early modern literature scholarship. I may be universalizing my own trajectory from a theoretical graduate training (as one indicator, we didn't have classes in any national cinema, but rather courses on the concept of national cinema) to historical specialization. Other scholars have a different trajectory and different priorities. But I keep remembering one of Jason Mittell's comments, that he rarely has the luxury of reading something that he's not teaching, using directly for his research, or reviewing for a journal. I don't think he's alone.

July 15, 2009 9:37 AM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

Corey, thank you for your comments. A couple of thoughts:

1. I have absolutely nothing against "jargon" either (or what is often be considered to be mere jargon), as long as it is employed meaningfully (this goes without saying, of course). The distinction between "story" and "plot" is a great example - in Russian formalist & Bordwellian terms, the concept of fabula vs. syuzhet is both very simple and very useful, and the same goes for many narratological studies that I've come across (where precision is the most effective means to an end). I can't imagine, say, the concepts & terminology laid out by Deleuze & Guattari ever breaking into the critical mainstream, but who knows!

2. Re: narrow specialisation - I think there might also be a distinction to be made between teaching and research. I know a number of scholars who have taught excellent courses on subjects their publications rarely (if ever) focus upon, and, with regard to Chris' original point, for every example there may well be a dozen counter-examples... It was my intention only to highlight a (potential) tendency in the field, rather than paint the majority of the academy with the same brush...

July 15, 2009 9:46 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I think this divide is exactly the same in France. The academic side at least. The anti-intellectual hysteria is less pregnant among French journalists. They are not as ashamed to be intellectuals, they are proud to be educated and to "teach" readers, they don't pretend to be "common people with common feelings". In the case of Positif, most writers are also scholars. In the case of (ex-)Cahiers, many contributors versed in film theory. There are other journals with academic content (ex-Cinéma 00, Vertigo, Cadrage, Eclipses) giving a public façade to the inside developments of academe.
And we are lucky to have serious film discourse on the radio or in the press (mostly the specialized cinema press, of course) by scholars/journalists (Bergala, Comolli, Aumont, Bellour, Cerisuelo, Païni, Eisenschitz, Brenez, ...) who educate the public in these mass media venues, with free lectures, debates, commented screenings (I'm talking of Paris mainly) organised by various institutions for the lay man (not reserved to academic peers only). So it does help to bridge the gap in this way.

Scholars do what they are supposed to do, research, accumulation of knowledge for the initiated. It's OK. It's not their function in film culture to vulgarize and summarize for the general audience. Even if specialisation in a certain field of study, as a job, doesn't prevent anybody to engage with people outside of their workplace, if only as a side distraction, off work. Are scholars too overworked to communicate with film journalists, with mainstream readers, with spectators? Did their education make them forget normal conversation with non-professionals? If you can do more, you can do less.

Though bridging the gap, is mostly the job of journalists. They are the ones whose function is to be aware of what is going in on in the current distribution as well as the scholar literature. They are the ones supposed to inform mainstream readers, to explain complex theories, to draw parallels between serious film studies and current films. And to teach readers the technical vocabulary.

July 15, 2009 2:28 PM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

Annette Michelson is concerned that reviewers are ignoring academic studies on "spectatorship, perception, and reception".
But this goes far beyond Pauline Kael or magazine reviewers. Are the critical writings of leading film critics like Sarris, Rosenbaum or Bordwell informed by theories of "spectatorship"? No.
Do they need to be? I doubt it.
Would outstanding director studies by authors like Tag Gallagher or Chris Fujiwara be better if they were re-written to focus on "reception"?

Lots of academic writing is deeply inflected with philosophy, Freudian psychology or Marxist thought. So far, I bluntly am not convinced such ideas have real value to the study of the arts. I have never seen a really convincing study, that suggests great filmmakers like Rossellini, Mizoguchi, Sternberg or Brakhage are better understood using things like "spectatorship, perception, and reception". Do these philosophical concepts REALLY help us understand films?

The issue is not jargon or bad writing.
The issue is whether the study of the arts is helped or harmed by all the philosophy, Freud and Marxism some critics add to it.

July 16, 2009 6:47 AM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

Mike, there are loads of ways to approach and analyse films as aesthetic and cultural artifacts. To use one of your examples, I would argue that a psychoanalytic piece like Mulvey's Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema does in fact contain valuable insights into Sternberg's decoupage/mise-en-scène by considering the manner in which his camera looks at (or observes and perceives) Dietrich. Mulvey's hypothesis of how the spectator's gaze may be influenced or constructed is based on a very useful analysis of form and content (arguably both because of and regardless of her agenda) - see also her writing about Rossellini and Bergman elsewhere...

On the other hand, when issues of spectatorship and reception are approached from the perspective of cultural studies, they have a much broader (meta-)purpose in mind, one that can be more overtly sociological, theoretical, historical, interdisciplinary, etc. There's no reason to discount such analyses purely because they don't approach the films as directly as, say, Gallagher or Fujiwara would - they are geared towards a different purpose (often within a more expansive field), even if one does not find them as rewarding...

July 16, 2009 7:35 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

This is an inteertsing challenge, one that I think about often in both my academic and more public forms of writing, so I'm glad you've addressed it, Girish, and that others are so clearly invested in it.

Like Chris Cagle, I would argue that there are a number of academics who are writing in accsesible ways (or who at least try). Mike Newman's recent Cinema Journal essay on "Indie Culture" is a good example. Bordwell, Doherty, and others mentioned in this thread also seem to make that effort.

In terms of theoretical lenses, there will always be some form of disagreement. I'd argue that we benefit from various sociological and psychoanalytic lenses in some cases. Mulvey's "visual pleasure" essay opened up new debates not only on von Sternberg but also on Hitchcock, positions that were roundly challenged by a number of feminist film critics.

Harry's probably right that our conversation isn't going to take place ON Twitter, but Twitter can sometimes help us find where those conversations are taking place.

July 16, 2009 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

ollI have to admit that while I think I follow Mike's general point, I find his actual examples pretty baffling! Do you really think that philosophy -- including the major branch of philosophy called aesthetics -- has no "real value to the study of the arts"? A pretty amazing claim! What would the study of the arts look like without philosophical concepts like representation, beauty, catharsis, etc.?

But I'm also amazed at the certainly with which you claim that an academic film scholar like David Bordwell is NOT "informed by theories of 'spectatorship'"! While he challenges specific theories of spectatorship, he has done so to build a large portion of his career upon cognitive theories of film spectatorship. Moreover, two of his principal collaborators, Kristin Thompson and Janet Staiger are among the most influential theorists of spectatorship and reception, as a quick survey of their books and articles will demonstrate. It would surprise me if Bordwell felt he wasn't "informed" by the work of his own co-authors (and his partner)!

I'm also amazed by the suggestion that theories of perception would not be valuable in understanding a filmmaker like Brakhage -- even though theories of perception are central to his own writings, including his key text "Metaphors on Vision." It's perhaps a critical cliche to describe Brakhage's career as a lifelong exploration of perception, but the truth in such a claim makes the dismissal of theories of perception as relevant to his work quite astonishing.

I suppose you are on solid ground with your claims about a critic like Sarris -- but your other examples seem pretty unconvincing to me!

July 17, 2009 12:19 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

How thoroughly does Elkins examine the publishing industry? I think that more than anything drives the critic/scholar split. And I also think the internet is scrambling it, mixing and broadening the spectrum.

A lot of comments seem to be debating scholarly writing -- as a film studies student, I have found myself drawn more and more to the scholarly end, and am now impatient with the more opinionated writers. The restrained description of scholars is frequently the clearest, densest, most dynamic and engaging film writing there is, whatever others may think, and their work has proven to me more insightful than the best critics. On that note, I think all types of writing should be present and welcome, and that scholars and critics do not have to take up each other's jobs/thoughts; various writing types offer the most depth, and a reader benefits from having both critical opinions and scholarly examinations to look through, coming to his own conclusions through the numerious voices. I think the split is a good one.

The problem is publishing, but the internet is rapidly changing that. Hopefully all different writing types will be at a reader's fingertips.

July 18, 2009 3:05 AM  
Blogger Craig said...

This is a great topic for discussion. It pushed me to go back and look at Elkin's essay. One thing that Elkin's does in the second section of that essay is analyze and describe seven major types of writing about visual art. He states that visual art writing can be divided into the following broad areas: catalog essays for galleries and museums, the academic treatise, cultural criticism in which fine and popular art are blended, the "conservative" harangue declaring what art should be, the philosophical essay using visual art as reference point, descriptive art criticism that avoids evaluation, and finally poetic art criticism in which the literary quality of the writing takes precedence over evaluation or description.

It seems to me we could also come up with a more specific list of types of film discourse. Consumer Reviews, Descriptive Film History, Evaluative Film History, Contemporary Film Criticism, The Philosophical Essay that references Film and television, activist writing about film/video/television aimed at placing popular/alternative art work within their material/political/social context, poetic essays that reference film, film/video and performance essays that respond to film/media work and film history.

I am sure there are some I am forgetting here.

July 19, 2009 3:02 AM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

By "spectatorship", I thought people were talking about Mulvey inspired writings on "Visual Pleasure", and other psychoanalytic Lacan accounts of people watching movies. If critics don't base their work on this, it's probably because they don't agree with or value Freud or Lacan.

I do try to read as much academic criticsm as possible. Current reads: "Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment" (a giant anthology), the complete essays of Andrew Britton, Lea Jacobs' "The Decline of Sentiment" (about US silent films of the 1920's), and Scott Higgins' "Harnessing the Rainbow" (how Technicolor was used in 1930's films.)

July 19, 2009 2:51 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Ian and Craig's posts move this discussion toward what I think is a richer discussion than a focus on writing per se, as if the characteristics of "good" or "clear" writing are so obvious or shared. The specificity of different publishers' requirements and the very different circumstances of writing really do fill in the picture. Like many others, I've written for quite different venues, with a different sense of audiences, so whether or not I'm judged to be a "good" writer, I at least am very aware that essays I've written for academic journals are distinctly different in style and format (relying upon extensive notes, for instance) than those I have written for reference works or (rarely in my case) catalogs or newspapers. The essays I have contributed to Philip Lutgendorf's website on Hindi cinema (there's a link on Girish's main page) follow his lead in attempting to be welcoming to non South Asian specialists, but also to be interesting to readers who know Hindi film well. But I've written other essays seeking to introduce Hindi film, and others that would only make sense to those who know that cinema pretty well. As Ian and Craig suggest, the venues for those different pieces played a significant role in how they were written -- whatever my own skills or limitations as a writer. For such reasons it does puzzle me when a writer who has published an essay in SCREEN or CINEMA JOURNAL is castigated for not writing like a FILM COMMENT or VIDEO WATCHDOG writer: while audiences overlap for these (I read them all!), it's clear each journal views its cultural function and overall readership as distinct.

July 19, 2009 3:00 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Corey, perhaps the work should be to create the conditions that allow more people to develop the practice of reading from a wide range of sources. This shouldn't be so hard with cinephiles. Many people can shift gears from watching a Hollywood financed film in the early afternoon; to watching a documentary on PBS in the midday, to watching a short experimental film on Youtube before dinner, to watching a "difficult" foreign film by Hou Hsaio-Hsein in the evening. One would have to be a bit silly to judge the experimental documentary film by Trinh T. Minh Ha with the same set of standards one uses to asses the documentary feature on the PBS series Frontline. If most adult viewers can easily accept the context and intentions of each work of film/video/television; then why shouldn't we extend this same process to the way we read about film/media?

I don't think it is rational to judge the writing of a newspaper reviewer against the writing of someone like Laura Mulvey, Tania DeLaurentis, David Bordwell or Gilles Delueze. Now, at the same time, I think it is correct to bemoan the lack of intellectual rigor in much US newspaper film reviews. I don't expect close readings ala Bordwell or Mulvey but I do think it is reasonable to expect a modicum of knowledge about film history and contemporary practices. I don't want a newspaper review to write densely about film and philosophy but I do expect that a film reviewer should at least know that Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, and Gramsci existed. I don't expect that a newspaper reviewer is a political expert but I would hope that S/He had some basic knowledge that a coup happened in Honduras recently, that there is a general center-left movement throughout Latin America, that neoliberal economic practices are tied to state repression in contemporary China, the Chad, Congo and the Sudan are violently unstable, that France, Germany and Italy currently have center-right governments, etc. One would seem to need at least a cursory knowledge of these trend to write intelligently about film. One finds especially in US film reviews a rather shallow knowledge of political, economic and social reality. This is what made Jonathan Rosenbaum's weekly column for The Chicago Reader such a breath of fresh air.

Now, one might be inclined to say that this is in keeping with the context of US Journalism itself. Consider for example the shocking lack of coverage in recent weeks of the Coup in Honduras, the rise of violent fascism in Italy and Greece, the political campaign in Sudan, the situation in "post-war" Sri Lanka, the ongoing political resistance in Iran, and the mess that was made of the G8 summit in Italy and the calls to kick Italy out of the G8. It would seem that the death of Michael Jackson was the real news and that little things like coups, fascist attacks, civilian massacres, national elections and a crisis of hegemony among the major capitalist nations are minor incidents.

July 20, 2009 12:40 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

"Tania DeLaurentis"? Perhaps the ex-wife of a famous movie producer. Definitely no match for film theorist Teresa de Lauretis !!!

July 20, 2009 7:42 AM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

One would have to be a bit silly to judge the experimental documentary film by Trinh T. Minh Ha with the same set of standards one uses to asses the documentary feature on the PBS series Frontline.

I'm against "changing gears." I think this creates problems -- a sort of segmentation that's at the heart of what's being discussed here. We should approach a Trinh T. Minh movie the same the way as we approach an episode of Frontline.

July 20, 2009 8:09 AM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

(I lost that "-ha" somewhere while rephrasing that post)

July 20, 2009 8:11 AM  
Blogger Craig said...

Adrian- Oh dear I think I morphed Tania Modleski and Teresa de Lauretis into one theorist. The internet is not the best place for careful proof reading!

Ignatiy- Really? I'm not sure I would be capable of approaching wildly different types of films in the same way. I don't think I would really want to. A film like Naked Spaces- Living is Round is not attempting to do the same thing that a Frontline episode about the Rio Negra massacre in Guatemala is doing. They aren't attempting to communicate in the same way. So, it would be strange to approach them in the same way. I also would not approach Godard's MADE IN THE USA the same way I would approach Arthur Penn's THE CHASE, Pontecorvo's BATTLE OF ALGIERS, Alea's DEATH OF A BUREAUCRAT, Oshima's VIOLENCE AT NOON. Jorge Sanjine's UKAMAU or Jiri Menzel's CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS. They might all have been made the same year and they are all fictional feature films. It might be interesting to see these films in dialogue with each other as a way of charting the developing international political, economic and social trends, but I don't think it would be very helpful to argue that the strategies used by Godard should be received the same way we receive the films by Penn or Menzel?

I think this is also true in writing. Why should a Laura Mulvey essay printed in something like SCREEN be judged by the same standards as Jay Scott's weekly reviews for The Globe and Mail?

July 20, 2009 9:14 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Craig -- good points. I think we perform this sort of "code shifting" all the time, and your examples are good ones. I not only agree that we should, but that we are almost required to make cognitive, aesthetic, contextual, etc. adjustments when we shift from a B-Western to a Brakhage film (everyone fill in their own examples): either would be lacking if not altogether incomprehensible viewed with the expectations and standards of the other. So what prevents easy shifts in those who move from a newspaper review to an academic analysis? Should the fact that both have the same shared object prevent the movement from one register of writing to the other? It wouldn't seem so, but that appears to be what causes complaint: why is this essay on this film so much more difficult or unpleasant to read than that article on the same film? (I'm again avoiding the concern with "bad writing" or "jargon" here, assuming both are good essays by the standards of the venues in which they appear.) Is the assumption -- already noted -- that the general accessibility of cinema (at least in its most visible, popular forms) should yield equally accessible writing? Is "difficult" writing acceptable for "difficult" films but not for mainstream cinema?

By the way, I admire your wishes for the knowledge that should be required of journalists, but to quote Hemingway, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

July 20, 2009 12:24 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Corey-- I avoided getting involved in the "bad writing" debate because I am not convinced that there is a high level of awful writing in the US academy. There is a very interesting book, edited by Jonathan Culler, entitled JUST BEING DIFFICULT; that addresses some of the ideological roots of this argument. It's a good read and I encourage folks interested in this subject to check it out.

July 20, 2009 1:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Corey, Craig, and others, for this fascinating discussion!

I also echo Craig's idea and wish for film critics to be widely-read and aware of a range of scholarly work. But I also realize that this is perhaps wishing for a lot.

So, let me change gears and make a more modest wish. Is it possible to identify a relatively small or modest number of books or essays written by scholars that (non-academic) film critics might find particularly and immediately beneficial? I'm wondering: what kind of work might such a list include? (By the way, by "film critic" I mean here non-academics who write mostly for other educated non-academics.)

For one thing, since film critics spend so much of their time writing about current films, many of them non-art-films, perhaps a good familiarity with genre scholarship might prove to be extremely useful. Thus, I'm thinking of collections like the Film Genre Reader (ed. Barry Keith Grant); collections of essays on specific genres like the melodrama (the seminal anthology Home is Where the Heart is); the Western (Gregg Rickman and Jim Kitses's reader; also, Buscombe and Kitses' writings); film noir (the multiple-volume readers edited by Silver and Ursini, the Naremore book, etc.--leaving aside for now the question of whether "film noir" is indeed, strictly speaking, a "genre"); plus Thomas Schatz's Hollywood Genres, etc. (I'm sure I'm forgetting lots of others.)

I'm wondering if there are other examples of scholarly work (like genre) that might prove particularly and immediately useful to working film critics...?

July 21, 2009 4:17 PM  
Blogger J.R. LaRiviere said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 21, 2009 4:32 PM  
Blogger J.R. LaRiviere said...

Although I object to much of the hagiography surrounding Bordwell, his work on "intensified continuity" --originally an article in FILM QUARTERLY and expanded in THE WAY HOLLYWOOD TELLS IT-- seems like an accessible and essential text for even the lowliest of film reviews to absorb; then we could have a more precise explication of the visual style of modern cinema (esp. of the action variety) and not have to resort to the endless jeremiads lamenting the "shaky cam."

July 21, 2009 4:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Also, to touch on Elkins again for a second: he wishes at one point in the book for art critics who not only make evaluative judgments but also perform reflections on their own judgments, thus laying bare and reflecting upon the criteria they apply to their evaluations. This is a valuable form of self-consciousness, a self-reflection upon the critic's own taste: the criteria applied by the critic, what that critic's taste values and does not value, which includes a connecting up of one's taste with history, i.e. inserting oneself into a historical lineage of thought about art and its evaluation. This is an interesting challenge.

July 21, 2009 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Oldie but Goodie: I find that VF Perkins' 1972 FILM AS FILM still works well as a readable, informative, and accessible-sophisticated intro for non-film or early-to-film people. Must be the reassuring Penguin paperback cover !!

July 21, 2009 8:58 PM  
Blogger J.R. LaRiviere said...

Any reviewer assigned to summer blockbusters should be familiar with some of the essential texts on digital effects: first among them is, of course, Manovich's LANGUAGE OF NEW MEDIA; a fine companion on special effects as well as super heroes (the key genre of the moment) is the work of Scott Bukatman collected in MATTERS OF GRAVITY. Both of these works are accessible to the non-specialist, but for an advanced engagement of the Metzian idea of "cinema as special effect" Sean Cubitt's THE CINEMA EFFECT is highly recommended.

July 21, 2009 9:36 PM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...

I'm wondering what people think of the documentaries Martin Scorsese has done on cinema history as potentially bridging this gap. Although not specifically mentioning academics, his American cinema documentary certainly incorporates many ideas from the discipline, particularly the "Director as Smuggler" section.

Generally, more film criticism is moving to the visual and audio medium and away from the written, and I find a number of podcasts out there that have knowledge of the Film Studies discipline (filmspotting, battleship pretension, plastic podcast, investigating film noir, etc), maybe more so than a lot of written reviews (which have space problems). The visual essays by people like Kevin Lee and Matt Zoeller Seitz are another examples. And, of course, Criterion DVDs have given a lot academic work a greater audience.

There is plenty of work being done to bridge the gap, but given the current dispersal of information, it's still only going to mostly reach people who want it.

July 21, 2009 10:01 PM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

Some informative film books by academics:

Roy Armes: French Cinema

Lutz Bacher: The Mobile Mise-En-Scène: A Critical Analysis of the Theory and Practice of Long-Take Camera Movement in the Narrative Film

David Bordwell: On the History of Film Style

Richard Porton: Film and the Anarchist Imagination

Barry Salt: Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis

July 22, 2009 9:03 AM  
Blogger Chris Cagle said...

Great challenge, Girish. I'm going to try to think of my own recommendations.

Meanwhile, I have an earnest question, not a rhetorical one: what do we mean by useful? My quick sense is that scholars and critics sometimes talk past one another because they find different kinds of pursuits useful. Film scholars are more likely to think that work that aids in understanding society, in filling out history, or in engaging philosophical reflection as useful endeavors. Film critics tend to see more purely aesthetic analysis as useful - not that they ignore politics or the social, but these are best approached through films' own thematic framework. A super broad generalization, I know, but I know my inclination as a scholar is to hold up as explemplary work that provides an accessible introduction to the historicizing work that many scholars do and that may or may not appeal to those debating the artistic qualities of films.

As to your point about scholar self-consciousness, I would say film scholars already engage a lot of discussion along those lines. (C.f. Jeffrey Sconce on paracinema, or Barbara Wilinsky or Mark Betz on art cinema). It could be we need more, or a different kind of self-consciousness.

July 22, 2009 4:30 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Chris, that's a good question!
True: for working film critics, the aesthetic qualities of a film would indeed be central but for a good critic (in my opinion), the aesthetic should also be used as an occasion, a point of departure, to reflect upon the world and engage with broader issues or debates (social, cultural, political, historical). This enriches a critic's writing--she engages in critiquing not just the art object in front of her but the world at large. So, in answer to your question, I meant "useful" in both senses, aesthetic and trans-aesthetic.

July 22, 2009 4:51 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

At the risk of contributing to the Bordwell hagiography, one of the things I value about his work is the variety of his interests: Hong Kong action movies, Ozu, Iron Man, Slumdog Millionaire, Cloverfield, Danish films from 1910 to the present, etc. (It doesn’t matter in the least that I don’t necessarily love all of these things). There are inevitably differences in approach with different films, but I think what's notable is that all films are taken on their own merits and given a fair roll of the dice. It seems to me that not all academic writers, even those I like very much, are interested in applying their analyses to quite the same range of films, while many critics are too busy dealing with the tyranny of the release schedule.

One of the things I like about Chris Cagle's 1947 project is that he grapples with each American studio picture from that year (or at least each one he can track down), and then assesses what each has to offer, rather than simply excluding some material from the beginning. Inevitably some films are richer than others but the point is that he takes the time to make that determination - just like Bordwell uses some of his usual tools even when discussing something as mainstream as the French hit Bienvenue chez les ch'tis/Welcome to the Sticks, discussing, for instance, shot length in that film. I suspect that, for better or worse, many academics would simply not consider such a film worthy of analysis. I particularly enjoy reading about French film, including both "popular" and academic writing but when it comes to the academic side one of my great frustrations is the narrowness of what constitutes French cinema: even many apparent survey texts focus overwhelmingly on what one might call “the usual suspects.” The fact that many of those usual suspects are very interesting doesn’t necessarily absolve the writer of the need to deal with, say, popular comedies; those films may not always be as “good” or as intellectually demanding – but since they’re often excluded a priori, who knows? Of course, "popular" texts may limit or dismiss discussion of, say, Moullet or Eustache.

Even on blogs, there seems to be greater and greater fragmentation so that relatively few of the blogs I read cover what I see as a wide variety of movies; that’s something I value but others may find uninteresting. Personally, I love when girish and the commenters here talk about, say, teen movies or Indian popular cinema as well as many of the more regular themes, films, and directors: it makes the site that much the richer for me. David Cairns’s shadowplay is wonderful, for he’ll tackle silent Hitchcock (silent anything, actually), a recent French horror flick, or Brüno, sometimes on the same day! Again, he privileges a certain approach to movies, but it's the variety that I value.

July 22, 2009 5:20 PM  
Blogger Chris Cagle said...

Gareth, thanks! I started the 1947 project as an endeavor in specialization, so it's rewarding to hear it has value for others.

I have some thoughts on the taste question, but will post them on my blog so not to take up extended space here.

Meanwhile my recommendation for scholarly books/essays useful (in a broad sense) to critics:

- Any Richard Dyer book. It's hard for me to choose between _White_, _Stars, and _Only Entertainment_. The latter is probably the most useful for aesthetic judgment.

- Bordwell seems to be on everyone's list. To me, _Narration in the Fiction Film_ is particularly useful.

- Stephen Crofts, "Reconceptualizing National Cinema/s"

- Bill Nichols, "Modes of Documentary" or the version in his _Introduction to Documentary_

- Since I do think 70s-style spectatorship study is useful, I'd recommend Christine Gledhill's "Klute" as an accessible version that's not psychoanalysis-heavy. In fact the whole _Women in Film Noir_ book is worth reading.

- Mark Betz's work on art cinema I think is a must-read for anyone writing on art films and open to having their assumptions challenged. It's rewarding scholarship.

July 23, 2009 11:25 AM  
Blogger Middento said...

I am coming late to this conversation, but I’ll throw myself into the mix, for what it’s worth. Thanks, first of all, to Girish for throwing open the question (and to Chris Cagle, whose blog directed me to this, heh).

I’m thrilled this conversation is happening because, quite frankly, my own project on film criticism and national cinema fits into the mix somewhat. I have a book (shameless self-promotion alert!) that is just coming out called Writing National Cinema: Film Culture and Film Journals in Peru where I examine Peruvian film history through the prism of local film criticism and how each influenced each other. In some ways, Peru may have a unique situation where critics at a specialized film publication became (by circumstance) the dominant critical force at “regular” publications, and subsequently also became professors teaching both filmmaking and film criticism; as such, they rather explicitly bridge the critic/scholar divide that has been made within this conversation. That said, I don’t think Peru is that unique, but can be seen as a case study (at least where national cinema is concerned) of how canonicity and taste can be shaped and, indeed, can influence how “cinema” can be articulated at the “developing” stage. Indeed, this kind of influence could not be said about filmmaking-critic-scholar relationships in the US or France (to use the two larger examples used so far in the comments), but might be so is smaller/developing/more weakly articulated national cinemas such as, say, Colombia or maybe the Philippines. I do think that there was a historical moment when this confluence of mutual effect did happen in France (say, around the time of the first Revue du Cinéma, as articulated by Bernadette Plot), but not now.

(Heh, I’m not sure if I’m articulating myself well enough here. I’ll blame my brain-muddle for the moment on a plumbing crisis I’m currently having. Ugh.)

I’ll throw out the (few) works I have found taking a scholarly approach to criticism, and thus examine the very types of conversation we are having here. Not so surprisingly, these texts also have something to do with cinephilia; I will admit the upswing of interest in cinephilia at the scholarly level tickles me greatly:

- Anna Everett, Returning the Gaze: A Genealogy of Black Film Criticism
- Raymond Haberski, It’s Only a Movie: Films and Critics in American Culture
- Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees
- The aforementioned work by Bearnadette Plot, Un manifeste pour le cinéma: les normes culturelles en question dans la première Revue du cinéma
- Iván Tubau, Crítica cinematográfica española: Bazin contra Aristarco, la gran controversia de los años sesenta

July 23, 2009 3:37 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Here is a very practical question that goes right to the heart of our discussion! I am currently teaching some Chinese exchange students whose first language is not English. In my 'Contemporary Theory and Criticism' course (from 1975 until now), they find virtually all the readings incomprehensible. So: what is the textbook that explains in the simplest possible linguistic terms (and style) the panoply of contemporary film theories? I am serious, my future as a teacher depends on it!

July 24, 2009 7:14 AM  
Blogger J.R. LaRiviere said...

Adrian-- For the situation you describe I would recommend Robert Stam's FILM THEORY: AN INTRODUCTION (Blackwell, 2000). It is written in plain English and when read straight through--I suppose you could bypass the "classical" stuff (i.e. pre-68) and start with the "Semiotics" section--the book nicely builds upon itself and provides a synoptic history of contemporary SCREEN theory. For more advanced courses I would say D.N. Rodowick's THE CRISIS OF POLITICAL MODERNISM, but probably not for someone for whom English is a second language and who is struggling with primary texts.

July 24, 2009 8:50 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Rosenbaum said...

Adrian: You might want to try Dudley Andrew's "The Major Film Theories." though this has been long out of print....

July 24, 2009 11:45 AM  
Blogger J.R. LaRiviere said...

Andrew's MAJOR FILM THEORIES is still in print from Oxford UP, but that only goes up to the early Metz, not post 75. For that era see Andrew's CONCEPTS IN FILM THEORY.

July 24, 2009 11:50 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

I dreamed I would one day get a chance to say this ... thank you JR & JR LaR !!!!

July 24, 2009 12:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hello, all! Middento, thanks for telling us about your work and your book.

We've been talking about good introductory texts to various film topics, and I thought of Wallflower Press' Short Cuts series.

I just read--and would recommend--Valerie Orpen's book on editing in this series. (It began life as her PhD thesis under V.F. Perkins; I was led to it via a strong blurb by Brian Henderson.) A couple of others I like in this series are by Andrew Klevan ("Film Performance") and Deborah Thomas ("Reading Hollywood"). Does anyone have any other recommendations from this series of almost 50 books?

One of the problems with a series such as this is that when you take on a large topic and try to cram it into a little over 100 pages, the treatment almost always disappoints. So, the best entries in this series for me are those which are (in a sense) long essays on a topic rather than all-too-short books which take on all of horror films or Westerns or crime films or documentary, thus almost certainly sacrificing depth and subtlety.

July 24, 2009 2:28 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Casetti's book "Teorie del cinema (1945-1990)" (1993) is a very clear overview, with classifications, digest and historiography, instead of source texts.

But how do you make Semiotics sound easier than it is, even in a primary language?

July 25, 2009 4:40 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Adrian: I would also suggest you try Francesco Casetti's THEORIES OF CINEMA, 1945-1990. While not exactly the same sort of overview, EYE OF THE CENTURY: FILM, EXPERIENCE, MODERNITY also seems to me an accessible approach to key concerns and figures, with well-known films as examples. My guess is that they were clearly written in Italian, and that his English translators worked to maintain clarity.

July 26, 2009 12:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Chris Cagle has a post at his blog which is a response to some of the questions raised in this thread.

A excerpt (please read the full post at Chris' place):

"My generalizations:

- Scholars of Hollywood (and of British cinema) tend to be more populist than area scholars studying prestige national cinemas. There are signs this is changing, with recent conferences and books on European popular cinema, but even still studies of popular French or German films, say, seem thin on the ground.

- The field embraces low culture as well as high culture, but rarely the middle.

- On one hand, cultural studies has left its mark in the field as a whole, pushing it in a populist direction. On the other hand, the move it is often at the price of a full aesthetic understanding of popular cinema.

- What I call the New Theoretical Turn in film studies has reacted not only against historicism but also against cultural studies. As such, it has embraced noticeably more canonical objects of study and with them a more canonical attitude. To take one example, when Tom Conley seeks to understand a cartographic discourse in Cartographic Cinema, his first examples of recourse are Casablanca and The 400 Blows. He certainly reads these differently than auteurists would but does not submit them to an objectifying analysis. Nor does he ever entertain the possibility that one might need to find a more typical film to establish a broad discourse.

- Even with these vicissitudes (populism, followed by theoretical turn), there remains a split psyche for many scholars. Certainly for me. Many embody a cinephile taste and teach some variant of this taste, all the while sidestepping judgment in research. I'm happy with this split approach but understand others might call it hypocrisy."

July 26, 2009 4:11 PM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

Just learned of the existence of Chris Cagle's 1947 project, from following the above link.
Many of the films are completely new to me.

I understand his concerns about the excluded middle-brow. I've been banging the drums a long time for CARNEGIE HALL (Edgar G. Ulmer 1947), and have a long article about it in my Ulmer site. Yet few people are interested in seeing the film - one of Ulmer's best. It's "middle brow": somewhere less high-brow than Kiarostami, but no violence either.

July 26, 2009 4:42 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Many thanks to all who have suggested accessible film theory textbooks in response to my request - very helpful.

Chris C's reflections are also provocative! I once wrote a little piece suggesting that "middlebrow" cinema is the last taboo territory !!

July 26, 2009 11:59 PM  
Blogger Chris Cagle said...

Mike, I will take a look at your Ulmer site. It seems that Carnegie Hall is seen as an un-Ulmer Ulmer film because of it A film nature.

And Adrian, I will definitely track down your middlebrow essay. I know I'm reinventing the wheel in a lot of ways, but it still seems the middlebrow is taboo, and I'm happy to be part of breaking that restriction.

July 27, 2009 7:59 AM  
Blogger J.R. LaRiviere said...

I agree with you Adrian, the middlebrow is probably the final taboo; but what are the two best American filmmakers right now (Clint and Marty) if not decidedly middlebrow?

July 27, 2009 8:51 AM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

Can a resident Martinian point us in the direction of Adrian's essay?

J.R. - that's quite a bold claim! Not to get bogged down in subjectivity, but the other (or, perhaps simply the) greatest American filmmakers right now are surely far from "middlebrow": Benning, Mann, Gray, Jacobs, Dorsky, Hutton, etc...

July 27, 2009 9:41 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"Can a resident Martinian point us in the direction of Adrian's essay?"

Let me second Matthew's request!

July 28, 2009 10:03 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Coming late to the discussion as usual. Isn't the whole criticism /academic writing debate a good example of the need for a bit of Platonic hermaphroditism (?) in all of our endeavours? That is, shouldn't criticism strive to be a little more like academic writing, without leaving off being criticism, and vice versa? Wouldn't the ideal, without wanting to do away with these opposing categories, be something in the middle? And whichever side we find ourselves on, shouldn't we strive to lean a little to the other without falling out of our own boat?

There are many grounds for criticism and complaint on each side, and I'm not going to go into them here except to mention what I hope is an instructive example of each. I recently stumbled on an article by Jacques Aumont (in the academic corner, weighing in at...) in which he made an interesting remark in passing about Serge Daney, the unfortunately prematurely deceased French film critic (but this allows us to criticise without offending) with an alomst cult-like following among those who read French. (I think one collection of articles has now been published in English.) I've never been a big fan, so was tickled to read Aumont remark that Daney's ideas were clever ('agile') and his style captivating ('séduisant') (either of these words could be translated any number of different ways), but that there wasn't a single thing in his work that could be re-used or adapted by anyone else. Isn't this, in the end, the fundamental criticism of criticism that can be made from the academic side? That it is an impression, or what Godard would call the expression of an impression, and like most impressions will fade?

Over in the other corner, I have no one to do my hitting for me, so just let me say, with all due respect, that I was flabbergasted, KO'd (I hate boxing: how did I get myself into this?) to read Corey above say something to the effect that good or clear writing is not so obvious or shared. This is fundamental. Isn't good writing, whether on an emergency exit sign in a theatre or in a dissertation, immediately recognisable? To me it's like being able to tell if the food you're about to eat has gone bad. You just know, or should. The bad stuff smells, or tastes bad as soon as you taste it. Isn't this not only what we all do when reading - say to ourselves: is this any good? - but what Corey himself does when he corrects his students' papers? Of course. Otherwise we would be in the realm of some sort of cultural studies relativity nightmare. There is good and clear writing, and you can recognise this even if you know nothing about the topic.

On that topc, to conclude, please allow me to get an old bugbear off my chest (is that a mixed metaphor, poor writing?): the idea that to express the complexities of today's world abstruse language is needed. This is a monstrosity. In fact the opposite is true: the challenge is to express those complexities in relatively comprehensible language (not fire-exit-sign comprehensible, but comprehensible).

This reminds me of my 16mm film production instructor in university, a man who drove a BMW (a real status symbol back then) editing TV documentaries and who admonished us on the first day of class: don't make an out-of-focus film and then tell me it's avant-garde.

It also reminds me of the most telling moment of my inaptitude for academia. I was in a Ph.D. seminar on Kant with a half-dozen German-department students. (Yes, one of these things is not like the others.) Took the course just for the heck of it. But I struggled valiantly on. Until the day the prof mentioned that some bright minds in Germany were working on a theory of 'everything'. 'Wow', I blurted out, 'that must be something boiled down to something extremely simple'. Well, duh, no, of course it was something cranked up to something incredibly complex. Oh, the shame.

July 28, 2009 12:20 PM  
Anonymous RW said...

"Isn't this, in the end, the fundamental criticism of criticism that can be made from the academic side? That it is an impression, or what Godard would call the expression of an impression, and like most impressions will fade?"

As someone who has "re-used" and "adapted" the writings of Daney quite a bit in my own "academic" criticism, I'd have to disagree with Aumont on this one, though I have immense respect for his work as well, on Godard in particular.

I'd like to make a case for the value of a kind of "poetic" criticism that falls somewhere between the extremes of abstruseness and lucid explanation, a kind of criticism that often gets dismissed as being "impressionistic."

Adrian has written more eloquently than I could manage about several film critics in this camp, from Farber to Petr Král to some of Durgnat ...

The aim of such writing is less to explicate than to gain, let's say, a synthetic relation to the work that couldn't be opened up to the writer otherwise.

In short, I'm thinking of what Oscar Wilde famously calls "criticism of the highest kind" in his dialogue "The Critic as Artist," which in some ways is the locus classicus (is that jargon?) for this discussion, namely criticism whose concern is primarily with synthetic impressions of the art work, as opposed to interpretation and explication, which Wilde's Gilbert relegates to a lower sphere.

Wilde, granted, is speaking through a character in the dialogue and he's being a touch hyperbolic. I'm not suggesting this "impressionistic" criticism is of a higher order than any other kind of writing, only that it can yield its share of discoveries that don't fade over time, like mere impressions, as Aumont suggests regarding Daney.

July 28, 2009 2:43 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

I should clarify that the bit about criticism being an impression and the quotation of Godard was me riffing on Aumont's comments on Daney, not Aumont.

I agree there is another kind of criticism out there, as described by RW - I can't say offhand whether I would or wouldn't put Daney in this camp - but the point to remember here I think is that it can only be taken in small doses and any attempt to write such criticism by anyone not possessing an absolutely first-rate mind produces glaringly bad stuff in a way that humdrum workaday criticism and scholarly writing doesn't. In other words, few people should attempt writing this kind of criticism (to preserve their own self respect, the respect of others, and the integrity of the genre), the 'market' for it will always be limited, and it is no replacement for the other kinds of writing we all need and use. It's dessert, not dinner.

A salient factoid, I don't know how they came up with it, but: more people write poetry than read it.

July 28, 2009 4:32 PM  
Anonymous RW said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest I was directly quoting Aumont from your post, caboose.

Agreed, the sort of criticism I'm talking about can be and often is horrendously bad -- it takes a certain mind and a certain command of language; it has to be earned.

That said, I think calling it "dessert" is a bit harsh. When it works, in my view, it can be just as insightful and illuminating as more rigorous scholarly analysis: even in small doses, it can occasionally offer up something that an entire dissertation would have a hard time mustering.

I agree, it's no replacement for anything, but neither are other forms of writing (what you call "dinner") a replacement for it. Don't we "need" this kind of writing too?

July 28, 2009 5:07 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Yes, I mostly agree with all your points. I think I was subconsciously fearing a stampede to write the stuff and urging restraint. The 'dessert' remark was meant more in the sense of small doses, but also sustenance. After a week of champagne and strawberries for breakfast, I always want my toast and peanut butter back. Without strawberries the world would be a poor place, but they don't make a good regular diet. And not everyone can afford them - i.e. the kind of criticism you refer to is not accessible or palatable to all, and we should always ensure their are paths to discovering and being able to appreciate it. I'll stop with the clichés now.

July 28, 2009 5:18 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

That's "there are paths" Eegads.

July 28, 2009 5:19 PM  
Blogger girish said...

RW -- It's good to discover your blog; I look forward to following it.

July 28, 2009 5:26 PM  
Anonymous RW said...

I get where you're coming from. I should add that "poetic" is really too vague to describe this sort of critical writing, as is "impressionistic." It's hard to defend it when speaking in general terms. Better to stick with specifics, like the critics I mentioned above. I also think of Godard's "Diderot to Daney" genealogy of French art criticism.

July 28, 2009 5:27 PM  
Anonymous RW said...

Thanks, Girish. We don't know if what we're doing is systematic enough to be a blog. We're just trying to experiment with stills while preserving if possible an associative sweep between posts. I'd love to hear what you think of it.

July 28, 2009 5:44 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

'It's hard to defend it when speaking in general terms. Better to stick with specifics, like the critics I mentioned above'.

This raises an interesting point. Shouldn't we always be able to define what we're talking about, rather than pointing to a set of examples?

My verification word today: oudada. Ooh, dada?

July 28, 2009 6:08 PM  
Anonymous RW said...

Yes, but the trouble in this case is that the terms generally used to describe this tough-to-categorize form of criticism -- "impressionistic" and so forth -- come to us already with a host of primarily negative connotations. I'd have to start with the specific and work towards the general. I'd have to single out a passage in Diderot, Elie Faure, Farber, or Durgnat and show how it enriches our (or at least my) viewing and understanding of the work.

Not having the space for that here, I'll just say, to continue your desserts metaphor, that the proof is in the pudding.

You're right, though: I'd feel malnourished if that's the only kind of criticism I read.

July 28, 2009 6:38 PM  
Anonymous Sylvia said...

Ah, Bugbears. Like Caboose, I have one too.
For me, it’s claims like this: “Isn't good writing, whether on an emergency exit sign in a theatre or in a dissertation, immediately recognisable? To me it's like being able to tell if the food you're about to eat has gone bad. You just know, or should. The bad stuff smells, or tastes bad as soon as you taste it.”
Caboose may have been discouraged from academia but he still thinks like a professor.
As I think Corey’s comments suggest, and Caboose might have learned in his Kant class, clarity can be maintained as a value without assuming that there are objective criteria for determining it.
If the “large conversation” Girish wants to build is to take place, there has to be an attempt to read all work whether by academics, critics, autodidacts, fans, students, etc., on its own terms. We can question the work through its own immanent criteria and we can also question the very terms it rests on but we should do this with an awareness of OUR own terms.

This brings me to what frustrates me about Jim Emerson’s first comment on this thread. I agree that academics have a tendency toward a “hermetically sealed” discourse. But the reference to Sokal and “bad writing” stops the conversation in its tracks.
You don’t have to like or agree with Judith Butler or Fredric Jameson (to name two winners of the so-called ‘bad writing contest’) or Laura Mulvey or Christian Metz…, but the suggestion that these writers (or students or academics who are influenced by them) are merely writing nonsense to further their careers is just as absurd as dismissing anyone who hasn’t read Lacan as a bourgeois reactionary.

July 28, 2009 7:20 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

I think, rather, that my comment about bad writing and food gone bad was not at all professorial but woman-in-the-street common sense. If it smells bad, don't eat it. If it doesn't read well, it isn't well written. Sure, we couldn't expect a high school drop-out ro say with any reliability if a dissertation was well written, but for the rest of us, and this was my original point, we should almost instinctivly be able to recognise good and bad writing. The fact that it's about complex topics, or topics we know nothing about, etc., does not exempt it from this basic taste test.

Writing styles and target audiences can vary. Bad writing is bad writing, and I maintain that I can spot it a mile away.

One can agree or disagree, but I fail to see what's professorial about this, unless what's meant is a very low level of margin-writing on term papers: 'Poorly written. Bone up on grammar, polish more'.

July 28, 2009 8:17 PM  
Anonymous Sylvia said...

One thing that makes a professor a professor (in the humanities at least) is the ostensible ability to distinguish between good and bad writing. As you pointed out, this is necessary for grading papers. I would contend that most professors take this for granted whether their model is Jacques Lacan, Allan Bloom or William Hazlitt.

As for the woman on the street, it depends which woman on which street, but I would contend that there is a woman on some street somewhere who would be more circumspect before arrogating the authority to herself that would allow for making snap judgments on the quality of any and all writing.

July 28, 2009 9:34 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Arrogate the authority to herself? Come again? People defer to higher authorities about what they consider good writing? Isn't there an old folk saying, one quoted here ths evening by RW, 'the proof is in the pudding'? That is most people's authority; no arrogation required. Brecht liked to quote this; he picked it up in England. If his plays didn't attract an audience, in his eyes they had failed the test. If we are to build the large conversation Girish has suggested we try to, then people have to be able to understand what their interlocutor is saying.

By the way, it is far more professorial to tell me that I should have learned in my Kant class that 'clarity can be maintained as a value without assuming that there are objective criteria for determining it'. I've spent the evening looking through my Kant and can't find this reference.

Finally, it's interesting that the 'Bad Writing Contest' (I think it was called) from the 1990s was not run by the Hicksville Oklahoma Gazette but by a scholarly philosophy journal and the people who submitted material for consideration (Butler and Jameson et al.) were peers: professors and in a couple of cases university press editors.

I think I'd like to leave this part of the debate alone now and am sorry that the discussion has been drawn to this and not some of the other topics that have been raised.


I'm curious about other people's experiences: I too learned the expression 'the proof is in the pudding'. Brecht said 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating', which when I think about it makes sense when the other expression doesn't really. Is one expression British and the other some sort of truncated North American version?

July 28, 2009 11:32 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I gotta agree with Sylvia, making the effort to sit at the same table for a "larger conversation" entails welcoming each contribution on its own terms. And scholars should know this better than anybody else.

"Re-use and adaptation" is typical to academic work, I doubt film journalists are worried about this aspect. If scholars are distraught by impressionistic reviews just because they are unable to fit them in their theoretical models, it doesn't mean that this type of contribution should be discouraged in film culture for the rest of us.

The "regular diet" comment is also exclusive and insular. I bet regular cinephiles find academic writing too heavy for a regular dinner. It's always a question of perspective, especially in a larger conversation including all sorts of readers and writers.

P.S. How ironic to be lectured about the smell of literary writing by a linguist with a questionable spelling. If foreigners are welcome to this "large conversation" (which is to me as vital as to compose with journalists and academics), English writers in the comfort of their primary language should show the humble understanding to overlook literary perfection as a criterion for quality thinking.

July 29, 2009 4:41 AM  
Anonymous Sylvia said...

I apologize too if I have helped lead this really productive thread into the tiresome all-too-familiar late-thread realm of petty squabbles.
As Obama said recently regarding his reaction to the Henry Louis Gates incident, I could have calibrated my tone differently. So I’ll try briefly to keep my point from getting lost.

Yes, “The Bad Writing Contest” was about one group of professors using their authority to try to discredit the authority of another group of professors. How could it have been otherwise? I think this shows how “bad writing” is not at all self-evident. I, for one, wish I could write like Judith Butler. Does this make me an idiot or those responsible for giving her the bad writing award idiots? Isn’t it possible we just have different criteria for evaluation?

As for people who haven’t had the luxury of being taught what “good writing” is, of course, they like everybody else have their own opinions of what they like and don’t like, but if they claim that what they don’t like is bad (low quality) and what they like is good (high quality), they are also implicitly claiming that they have the authority to make that distinction. I’m not saying that there is anything necessarily wrong with making such judgments, only that we should be aware of the criteria on which our judgments rest and be open to the terms of writing (or films) that at first seem foreign, ugly or even incompetent to our sensibility if we wish to comment on them.

There’s a book called something like the “The 50 Worst Films of All-Time” and it includes chapters on such “self-evidently awful films” as IVAN THE TERRIBLE PARTS I & II and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. The writers of that book like the creators of “the bad writing contest” may think they are on the side of the man on the street against pretentious elites, but I think the opposite is true.

Again, I’m sorry if I sounded like I was picking a fight with caboose. The idea of bad writing being self-evident hit a nerve. But I think there’s a point here regarding bridging the gap between discourses. I always liked a term used by Serge Daney, passeur or smuggler. I think it’s something both scholars and critics can aspire to, not upholding the standards of their field and protecting their own authority, but smuggling things across borders.

July 29, 2009 10:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sylvia, I haven't read very much Daney (I love the 1977 Cahiers interview with Bill Krohn) but his "passeur" metaphor has always resonated deeply with me. Do you teach film or critical theory, by the way? (If you feel uncomfortable disclosing this on a public thread, you're welcome to email if you like.)

July 29, 2009 10:25 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

I'm sorry to prolong this, but the people running that contest in no way invoked any authority whatsoever. That is a complete misrepresentation of the process. They submitted material which was then exposed to the light of day by the contest organisers virtually without comment in the certainty that the poverty of the writing would be SELF EVIDENT. Here is Judith Butler's winning contribution:

'The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power'.

Which is admittedly nothing compared to this gem:

'Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal — of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard'.

Here's how we know these to be self-evidently bad writing, because obviously there is something potentially indefensible in any claim that anything is self-evident: if a text cannot be parsed and rephrased by an average person with a modicum of intelligence and education, it is bad writing, precisely because it has failed the essential test of communicating its idea.

July 29, 2009 10:54 AM  
Anonymous Laurent said...

Just chipping in to correct the view that Serge Daney would fall somewhat in the camp of criticism that has nothing to do with the academic field. Daney actually lectured on cinema at the Paris Censier university for several years along with other film critics (Pascal Bonitzer) and was the one who invited academics from other fields to contribute in Cahiers du cinéma (Foucault, Deleuze, etc.). This may have been one of the great times where critics and academics talked, wrote and thought about film together.

July 29, 2009 12:22 PM  
Anonymous Sylvia said...

As far as I can tell, Caboose and I agree on this at least: The "bad writing contest” presented a sentence as if its badness was self-evident, but they were being disingenuous. There was, in fact, unacknowledged criteria for determining its "badness." The writers of “50 Worst Films,” the book I mentioned above, also act as if a few lines of dialogue from LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD suffice to prove without a shadow of a doubt what claptrap it is.

July 29, 2009 12:30 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

I'm afraid you're comparing apples and oranges. Declaring a few lines of a film claptrap is a subjective evaluation having to do with taste and therefore quite different than saying that a few lines of written text simply make no sense. In the latter case, the only authority being appealed to is the standard rules of English grammar, which these authors blatantly abuse. The film dialogue in question involves questions of taste and normative views of what a film should be like. I don't think that an expectation that we be able to understand what a written sentence means on a basic cognitive level involves anything like the sort of culturally-based value judgment present in the other example. What cannot be understood in a didactic text must be bad writing. A filmmaker may have other motices for engaging in the seemingly incomprehensible in his or her dialogue, and it is only a question of taste whether or not such a strategy is valid. What can be the strategy behind writing an explicatory book that explains nothing because incomprehensible?

July 29, 2009 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Mike Grost said...

I'm not an academic.
I had little trouble understanding the essays in the huge James Quandt edited book on Bresson. They seemed clear.

But I have no idea what either of the passages quoted by Caboose mean.

I would not claim that these passages are therefore "Bad Writing", or that I'm an "authority" on good writing.
Still, if one can understand a 600 page book of esays by hard-core film intellectuals on Bresson - shouldn't academics be able to frame their insights along similar lines?

July 29, 2009 1:03 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

This is not "bad writing", it's obfuscation. The language itself is not at fault. The content alone (and vocabulary maybe) is overcomplicated. But people studying this field probably find it perfectly readable.
I could quote Deleuze (or Derida, Nietzsche, Spinoza...) and make the same awe effect. Are they bad writers because they use advanced terminology?

P.S. "passeur" is both smuggler and ferryman in French, it's not only an illegal connotation. ;)

July 29, 2009 1:08 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

. . . and this brings us back to Corey's original point about perceptions of what constitutes good writing not being shared: if this is true, heaven help us, then the rules of English grammar are not shared, nor the desire to understand what one takes the time to read.

July 29, 2009 1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What I have said - was it found in the pictures or read into them? Does it accord with the painter’s intention? Does it tally with other people’s experience, to reassure me that my feelings are sound? I don’t know. I can see that these pictures don’t necessarily look like art, which has been known to solve far more difficult problems. I don’t know whether they are art at all, whether they are great, or good, or likely to go up in price. And whatever experience of painting I’ve had in the past seems as likely to hinder me as to help. I am challenged to estimate the aesthetic value of, say, a drawer stuck into a canvas. But nothing I’ve ever seen can teach me how this is to be done. I am alone with this thing, and it is up to me to evaluate it in the absence of available standard. The value which I shall put on this painting tests my personal courage. Here I can discover whether I am prepared to sustain the collision with a novel experience. Am I escaping it by being overly analytical? Have I been eavesdropping on conversations? Trying to formulate certain meanings seen in this art--are the designed to demonstrate something about myself or are they authentic experience?
They are without end, these questions, and their answers are nowhere in storage. It is a kind of self-analysis that a new image can throw you into and for which I am grateful. I am left in a state of anxious uncertainty by the painting, about painting, about myself. And I suspect that this is all right. In fact, I have little confidence in people who habitually, when exposed to new works of art, know what is great and what will last."

-Leo Steinberg, "Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public"

July 29, 2009 1:51 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

I think the issue is how we relate to the difficulty of Butler's writing and not whether we find it difficult. We certainly all agree that it is difficult to understand. I don't think difficult writing equals "bad" writing. Why not just label it difficult or challenging? Some people enjoy struggling through writing by Deleuze, Butler, and Derrida. Other people do not enjoy this struggle. So what?

I don't understand the moralistic tone that enters into these discussions. It's as if this kind of writing becomes akin to serious transgressions against humanity. Some people write very complicate sentences using a great many references to specialized areas of knowledge? Other writers prefer less complicated sentence structures and more accessible intellectual references. I think the world is big enough to hold all these types of writing.

I get angry about the US bombing of civilian targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I'm passionate about that. I get angry about the coup in Honduras. I get angry about the Honduran people having their democratic rights stripped away from them. I get angry about the violent reaction against the resistance movement in Iran. I get angry about the US installing Africom in Africa. I get angry about sexual and domestic violence, racial profiling and gay bashing. Anyway, I get angry a great deal. I am even somewhat of a fan of anger as a rational response to neoliberalism. However, I just can't really fathom how people can get so angry at academics for writing complicated sentences or using obscure references.

I loose patience with the "movement" to end "bad writing". I am unclear who would be liberated if Judith Butler was stopped from writing complex sentences? I can live with long sentences and specialized knowledge.

July 29, 2009 2:10 PM  
Anonymous Sylvia said...

The point about the differences between theoretical (or philosophical) writing and poetic or literary writing is an important one. I thought of saying something about it in my last comment to qualify my remarks, but I think it’s a very complicated issue. I will say this: much of the philosophy that treats it as a complicated issue is the same writing that is blamed for bad writing.

Take Jacques Lacan. He seems to be the prime culprit for those who believe “fashionable nonsense” ruined film theory. I don’t consider myself a Lacanian and I would never say that to understand film someone has to know Lacan. I just want to make one point. I take Lacan’s reading of Freud to be extremely influenced by not only by linguists and mathematicians but also his engagement with surrealism, Bataille, Blanchot and Joyce. In my opinion, Lacan at his best has the eloquence of Beckett.

To be clear, I’m not trying to excuse all clunky academic jargon by saying it’s really just poetic. We can have standards for saying sentences are clunky or ungrammatical, but that does not make them definitively beyond the pale. We can also acknowledge those standards or try to do so in conversation with others. I admire Judith Butler’s writing but I would acknowledge that the particular sentence caboose quotes is by my reading not very pretty and could benefit from editing. (Of course, if you want to parse and rephrase it, it also needs context.) As for Lacan’s combination of Freud, set theory and Blanchot, it may offend one's idea of good writing or what counts as theory, and that’s fine. My intervention is just to suggest that we try to recognize, acknowledge and even question the assumptions behind our own criteria of evaluation and try to appreciate the writing of others on its own terms. For me, a much greater threat to the conversation between academics and critics (and different types of academics and different types of critics) than dense awkward prose, is suggesting that one is in possession of the ability to judge what constitutes good versus bad writing and that the criteria is self-evident and non-negotiable. If the “bad writing” is taken not as in need of clarification but as mere noise and the motives of the writer are impugned, then there may not be much left to say, unless you want to pick a fight.

July 29, 2009 3:24 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Ah! I skip reading Girish's blog for a few days, and look what I've missed! I'm flabbergasted that Caboose was flabbergasted (I've just used that word for the first time, twice!) by my earlier comments, and by all the rest which has followed. But here are a few comments, that I fear cannot adequately respond to all those between my previous comments and this one -- my sense is that Sylvia and I are thinking in similar ways so I'm grateful for her measured responses, which I hope not to simply replicate.

I thought my point that the criteria for "good" or "clear" writing are not set or shared was a pretty obvious one! All I was meaning to signal was the (again obvious) fact that any language is historical and cultural: any suggestion that we might approach and evaluate it with our "natural" instincts seems very misleading. And it seems to me the notion that good or bad writing is self-evident is also very wrong -- not out of my desire to support jargon-ridden, obfuscating prose, but simply because of the way language functions as a social, historical, and cultural tool, not as something hardwired into our DNA. (That is, there seems to be a natural instinct to speak, but not of course in any specific language or in proper grammars.)

As the discussion of "poetic" styles has suggested, most standards of good or clear writing would dismiss great swaths of poetry or literature: judged by supposedly shared rules of grammar or clarity, Joyce, Faulkner, Ashbery, or Pound are terrible writers -- but I hope everyone recognizes that applying the standards of Strunk and White to such writers wildly misunderstands the various uses of language for different purposes. And, again, the issue is historical: prose stylists who were once celebrated for their clear writing -- Dr. Johnson or Matthew Arnold, for instance -- can be dismissed by contemporary standards as unnecessarily ornate, or are simply very difficult for current speakers of English to read easily. (Among the standards Strunk and White, still often held up as the guide for clear English writing, wish to impose is the elimination of adjectives and adverbs, thereby dismissing almost all Victorian writing as "purple.")
This emphasis on literary or poetic language may be misleading here, but when we talk about certain film critics, aren't we suggesting that they veer toward literary rather than instrumental, journalistic styles? (The complaint about some other academics is that they veer towards scientific writing, which has very different notions of clarity, embodied in things like mathematical formulas rather than the vagueness of language.)

Caboose suggests that as a teacher who marks student papers I must rely on a standard of good and clear writing (Caboose assumes these are the same, but I think one could point to clear writing that wouldn't be judged good, but as simplistic, though Caboose suggests that "Exit" is both clear and good ...). That's true to an extent (I'm in the typical position of teaching students rules before they are encouraged to break them ...) , but I don't think it means I just slam students who try for more "poetic" (let's call them) effects, if these seem to me effective, and perhaps more suggestive or evocative than clear. Clear writing can be used to say dumb things, and "poetic" writing can be used for rich -- if not crystal clear -- ideas. And my comments on papers (like most teachers) are not reduced to fixing grammatical mistakes or improving syntax, but are attentive to structure, research techniques, tone, word choices, and the many other factors that writing draws together.

July 30, 2009 10:28 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

My comments continued (the previous post was too long to be accepted! Sorry!):

By the way, recalling Caboose's notion that bad writing declares itself the way the smell of bad food warns us from eating: isn't it clear that some people or entire cultures gladly eat foods that others can't bear to smell or consider? There are a lot of great cheeses that require one to get past the smell to enjoy, and I know different people who are enticed or repulsed by the smell of cooking bacon. Given these basic somatic and cultural differences in approaching food (also as fully cultural as natural, as anthropology has long emphasized), is it really so surprising that various, even conflicting, criteria would be at work in judging the complicated use of language in a wide range of discursive practices?

Again, I know I haven't touched on many or most of the issues raised in the many recent posts, but I thought I'd offer these thoughts. My main point (seeking to be clear!): language is cultural and historical and thus cannot be judged by standards that are ahistorical or that transcend culture. The notion of "good and clear" writing is ideological: it may be an ideology one agrees with, but the notion is not found in the gut or brain, but in society which tends (thank goodness) not to uniformly agree.

If I were providing chapter and verse citations here, many would be to Roland Barthes, in my view a beautiful writer -- and key theorist of the notion of writing itself -- who cannot be easily described as "clear."

July 30, 2009 10:30 AM  
Anonymous dm494 said...

I think we can all agree that there ought to be more mutual awareness between film critics and scholars. What's more problematic, however, is the idea that film critics should have some knowledge, however slight, of the work of literary theorists and continental philosophers. What particularly bothers me about these suggestions is that they're recipes for producing intellectual inbreeding--academia is much broader than they would lead one to believe. Why, for instance, should a film critic know the names of Derrida, Deleuze, Gramsci and Foucault? Why not those of H.P. Grice, Jaakko Hintikka, Hans Reichenbach and Stuart Hampshire instead? And why this insistence on contemporary philosophy in the first place? Wouldn't film critics be better served by an acquaintance with the best art and theater criticism? Having read Ruskin and Greenberg, Fairfield Porter and Kenneth Clarke and Karen Wilkin might enlarge a film critic's sense of a movie's handling of color or light and dark contrasts, just as familiarity with Stark Young, Eric Bentley, Tynan and Brustein would probably sharpen a critic's perceptions of acting.

But I'd like to say some words of a more polemical nature on the subject of authors like Deleuze and Lacan, mainly because ugly or impenetrable prose doesn't strike me as being the main objection to their work. In one of his writings on cinema, Deleuze claims that Resnais' films exhibit probability and topological spaces, while the space of Bresson's films is Riemannian. Taken literally, these assertions make very little sense, if they make any at all, and not only because it's unclear how to verify, say, that Bresson constructs a Riemannian space in L'ARGENT, but also because the three spaces which Deleuze mentions aren't even conceptually parallel. Deleuze appears to be aware of these problems, since he states that he isn't using these mathematical terms in a literal sense, but because he never explains what metaphorical meaning he attaches to them, his admission seems like a cunning way of disavowing what is plainly his intention--to stun his scientifically unknowledgeable readership and convey to them an impression of scientific learning and theoretical rigor which his writings do no possess.

July 30, 2009 10:51 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

Sigh. Oh how I wish I were somewhere else. James Joyce, and Roland Barthes, for that matter, are red herrings. They are not academic writers, and we do not read them for the same reason we read academic writing. The same standards do not apply. No one is suggesting, as Corey ludicrously contends, that we hold James Joyce to the same standard of clarity that we expect of an academic writer imparting knowledge and making a scholarly argument. I thought we had put this argument to rest with the bogus Last Year at Marienbad analogy. We now have enough red herrings to feed Norway for a winter! No more are needed!

And dragging in all sorts of high-falutin' arguments about the way language is culturally and socially constructed, etc., how it and conceptions of it and the use of it vary across time and cultures: oh dear. When Corey uses the word 'shared', it implies a community. That community, in the present case, is people living today who read and possibly write academic prose in English. Those are the people contributing to this discussion and who are addressed by it. No one is suggesting that these values be shared by, and much less imposed on, Urdu speaking tea farmers, Victorians or gangsta rappers. Those are different language, cultural, historical etc communities. Our community shares a set of writings, a writing project - scholarly writing about film - and therefore has every right to expect to share a set of values about that writing. Those values may change over time with the consent of the community, but in any given time and place and community, commonly-held values can and, I would argue, should exist.

Finally - limiting myself here -someone went to the trouble of posting a long list of outrages being reported in the newspapers of the day - coups, famine, torture - and wondered what all the fuss is about on Girish's blog. While bemoaning the seeming moralising quality of this debate and yet employing a tone that was itself heavily moralistic, he asked: don't we have better things to worry about? Are we blind to true injustice and the world's real problems?

First, I reject any suggestion that by contributing to this discussion any of us are morally delinquent with respect to the great problems of our day. Anyone making such a claim is not operating, obviously, with full knowledge of how each of us feels about those things and what we may or may not be doing about them, first of all. Second, I hope the author of those comments has not, while all those things have been transpiring over the past few weeks, months and years, been to a baseball game, enjoyed a meal, argued with a friend, got mad at their boss or professor . . . or watched a movie, because in my book all those things are grave moral failings in such time of crisis.

Yet another reason why this argument was misplaced at best (and is hardly worth wasting breath on except for the interesting issue it raises, to follow....)

July 30, 2009 12:16 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

For the benefit of the person so obviously unaware of this, language is a crucial factor in many of the moral outrages and injustices you list. Somewhere in any injustice lies an abuse of langauge - whether you posit that abuse as coming before or after, within or without, as being primary or secondary, it is present. To perpetrate an outrage or defend it, langauge will have to come into play, in nefarious ways.

Also, some of us love language the way we love the countryside or small furry animals, and hate to see it abused or despoiled just as much as we do them and feel we have every right to get what you call 'moralistic' about it (it wouldn't be my first choice of words, but let's leave it in) the same way other people get moalistic about people who needlessly pollute or harm helpless animals. And while we expect the language to be abused by government bureaucrats and corporate executives, we are shocked to find it abused by peers and colleagues we would have thought shared our love for it, and are deeply distressed to find slash-and-burn abuses against the language - a natural resource like water and air one might say - reaching right into the things we love and infecting our habit of reading for both pleasure and instruction.

July 30, 2009 12:28 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Again- I loose patience with the "movement" to end "bad writing". I am unclear who would be liberated if Judith Butler was stopped from writing complex sentences? I can live with long sentences and specialized knowledge.

July 30, 2009 1:32 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

That's "lose" patience. And no question mark is needed at the end of your second sentence.

July 30, 2009 1:48 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

Please let's keep the debate civil and refrain from being petty.

I wanted to go back to the original post and echo Edwin Mak's comments; like him, I was also unfamiliar with "Screening the Past and found a recent article that intersects very closely with some of my research interests. I've been corresponding with the author since, and following up on footnoted references, so thanks again girish for highlighting that resource!

July 30, 2009 2:28 PM  
Anonymous Sylvia said...

The analogy between academic writing and literature = ludicrous. The analogy between academic writing and the smell of food = self-evident. Poor Caboose, he has explained this repeatedly and not only do some us still not get it, but there are even people who have the nerve to make typos.

July 31, 2009 3:40 PM  
Anonymous caboose said...

'The analogy between academic writing and literature = ludicrous'.

The way it was framed, as people who argue for clarity in academic writing also of necessity believing James Joyce should write that way, yes, it is ridiculous, and an obvious distortion.

'there are even people who have the nerve to make typos'.

Ask the author if it was a typo. It was the second time on this thread he used that spelling, and I know from my work as an editor that it is a common misconception today that 'lose' is spelled 'loose', much as 'a lot' is written 'alot' and the possessive 'its' is written 'it's'. I can see why he's not bothered by Judith Butler's writing.

July 31, 2009 6:02 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

Loose was a typo. I had pasted those sentences from a previous post. The question mark at the end of the sentence was a sign of poor writing. I thank Caboose for pointing out the limitations in my post. I accept them as valid critiques of my lack of skill and my sloppiness. I need to spend more time proof reading my comments. I apologize.

I think Judith Butler's difficult writing is the result of deliberation. I don't think it is fair to compare my lack of skill to the challenging nature of her scholarship.

July 31, 2009 8:10 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I can't believe it... why do you draw attention to yourself?

Caboose, your shouldn't brag about being an editor when you make a high-school level mistake like "their" for "there" on this VERY post! Do you need me to tell you how many grammar rules you broke there? It's not a mere keyboard slip, or a typo of inattention. A foreigner like me could make a sound alike mistakes like that, just like high-school chatters... but what is your excuse, Mr editor who points to others' mistakes????
Apparently you didn't get it the first time I pointed at this ironic failure. If anything you should keep a low profile on the subject of typos, not draw attention on them, cause it's not the only one you made on this post or in the past at Girish's.

We all make typos... it's underhanded to pick on them in order to divert attention off of the question you dodged.

You have no clue what a "bad writer" is, but apparently you're not a "good writer" enough yourself to patronise everyone on anal retentive literary conservatism and didactics.

Each kind of literature defines its own range of tolerance! If Butler communicates difficult concepts with her high-educated peers, she doesn't have to use a language that Caboose is capable to grasp in his narrow-minded understanding of "easy-reading literature".

Do you really think there is a way to re-phrase this Butler quote so you can understand the concepts she's talking about? It's not a language failure, it's all the background knowledge you need to get the combination of references she makes.

Oh God, the delusion of blissful ignorance...

August 01, 2009 6:47 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Dear Friends -- As you know, you're always welcome to share your thoughts here. All I ask is this: Let us treat each other with respect, and be constructive and productive in our interactions!

August 01, 2009 9:56 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

so you let slide what caboose did, but you sermon me?
The "large conversation" has a long way to go I tell ya... I didn't know there was an army of anti-intellectuals among the ranks of academics (only in America!)

August 01, 2009 11:12 AM  
Anonymous caboose said...

I think the comment was addressed to more than one person (friends in the plural), and I'll take my share of the blame. Perhaps Lucy could pop up briefly and do the same and we can bury this unfortunate exchange.

August 01, 2009 1:06 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, now you're lashing out at me for no reason! I didn't single you out--I addressed EVERYONE here. And I would be troubled if ANYONE out there disagreed with the sentiment of my previous comment: I was doing no more than calling for a climate of mutual respect and constructive dialogue.

August 01, 2009 2:41 PM  
Blogger ADRIAN said...

Gosh! What happened? Has the discussion dried up?

August 09, 2009 12:58 PM  
Anonymous Craig said...

I think that drying up tends to happen after a new post is featured.

I agree that this particular discussion should continue!

August 10, 2009 1:21 AM  
Blogger Raghavendra said...

Your post made me reflect on the issue of a 'larger conversation' and eventually conclude that it could not happen. My arguments are in the first part of my essay on Robert Bresson. Readers may find them interesting.
The link is:

November 14, 2009 12:28 AM  

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