Saturday, March 19, 2005


Cinema Studies

Last week, the folks over at Hatemonger's Quarterly wrote a post on Cinema Studies that caught my eye.

You see, I make use of film (and sometimes television) in my literature classes on a regular basis, and I have been doing this pretty much since the first time I started teaching. I'm of the opinion that good cinema does indeed count as literature, and that it can be as difficult to "read" as any novel, play, or poem.

Yet I cannot help but agree with the myriad of "Chips" over at Hatemongers that Cinema Studies is, for the most part, complete and utter bullshit. Most of what is being produced by the "scholars" in this field is the same sort of self-indulgent crap I was complaining about last week in my Boomer vs. Gen X post.

A not-so-brief quotation from the Hatemonger's post in question highlights what I'm talking about:

    Don’t believe us? Then clearly, dear reader, you have not taken a gander at the Fall 2001 number of the journal Cinema Studies, which features an article penned by one Nicholas F. Radel, a professor of English at Furman University.

    The magnificently ridiculous title of Mr. Radel’s piece says it all: “The Transnational Ga(y)ze: Constructing the East European Object of Desire in Gay Film and Pornography after the Fall of the Wall.”

    Delicious, isn’t it? We, the crack young staff of “The Hatemonger’s Quarterly,” particularly savored Mr. Radel’s pathetically typical use of parentheses. You can imagine him patting himself on the back after typing the word “Ga(y)ze,” can’t you? Sure, his ideas may all be pseudo-radical academic boilerplate; but, man, can he use those parentheses!

    Mr. Radel’s article begins with a sublimely ridiculous sentence: “Of all the effects of the collapse of the Iron Curtain on East-West relations, perhaps the one that will be the least discussed is its effect on gay communities in the United States.”

    Gee, Mr. Radel, we wonder why that is? Actually, given the number of idiotic English professors in these here United States, we have the sneaking suspicion that the influence of the collapse of the Iron Curtain on US gay communities will be among the topics most pondered.

    So what, you may (or may not) be asking yourself, is Mr. Radel’s landmark work of scholarship about? Let Mr. Radel tell us himself: “In particular, I wish to examine the ways of in which Eastern Europeans are constructed as desirable sexual partners for American gay men in Gary Terracino’s popular short film My Polish Waiter (1994) and in some examples from the increasingly large number of gay pornographic films that feature young men from Eastern Europe.”

I wish I could say that my own perusal of cinema studies journals belied the findings of the Hatemongers. It has not. Oh, this is an extreme example, of course, but it's pretty much par for the course in a field which now boasts "pornography studies" under its every widening umbrella. You should read some of that stuff. It's porn people. It's there for people to wank to.

But I digress.

As I said, I like to use film in my courses, and I'm of the opinion that in an age where the ideas that were once delivered to the populace via the printed word are now delivered via the projected or broadcasted image, it's become just as important to teach students to do close readings of film and television shows as it is to do close readings of novels. Oh, not all of them, of course. I would never bring an episode of Survivor or some crap like that into class, but there are some very well-done episodes of The Twlight Zone, the original Star Trek, and even The Simpsons that need "textual unpacking" to really appreciate them in full. And, of course, there are hundreds of films out there that reach a level of artistry and philosophical complexity competitive with some of the greatest works of literature.

The problem I've run into is trying to find criticism that I can hand to my students that isn't full of the sort of masteurbatory nonsense cited above.

Honestly, I've never seen a field as myopic as cinema studies. From what I've seen of it so far, it's all theory. With a few exceptions, the majority of essays and books I've examined looking for sources for my students are chock full of Lacan, Freud, Marx, Althusser, Foucault, etc. In many cases, there are more pages of an essay or book dedicated to a theorist than there are to the filmmaker being examined. In fact, I've made a practice of examining the index of every film studies book I pick up to see what the ratio of artist to theorist is.

Is there anything going on in cinema studies that even remotely resembles old-fashioned, close reading of literature? That examines the formal elements of films and television episodes without using them to make some sort of lefty argument? Readings of films by straight, white men that are not hostile? That do not seek to prove that the straight, white filmmaker was/is some sort of evil monster, out to pervert the minds of innocent viewers with radical conservatism?

Where is the common sense in cinema studies? Anyone? Anyone?

(More on the Boomer stuff soon. I've had a few Boomer vs. X encounters this week--or at least encounters I was predisposed to examine in terms of generation because of my earlier post--and I need to fit them into my overall concept. Soon.)

"When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Our society is afflicted with people who have a theory or a "paradigm" as their stock in trade, and seek places to apply it, whether it fits or not. This phenomenon is by no means limited to academia, although it is probably worst there. I'm sure there are businesses that have been ruined by someone's cute 4-box way of looking at the world.

The same theory/culture issues that currently haunt literary studies also haunt film studies.

But there is good film scholarship out there. I highly recommend David Bordwell. You should start with the book he edited with Noel Carroll called "Post Theory"--this lays out their position quite well (one thing they advocate is the cognitive study of film) and also includes other good essays by scholars worth seeking out. I also recommend Andrew Bazin, Noel Burch, Charles Musser, James Lastra, Tim Corrigan and Tom Gunning. You may find some "theory" stuff in the latter few scholars, but they are still very good.

Plus, check out writings about film by filmmakers such as Eisenstein, Passolini, Godard, Truffaut, etc.

Like with literature, there is good scholarship out there but you do have to seek it out. Try checking out the Center for Cognitive Study of the Moving Image website:

I attended their conference last year and it was great. Most everyone involved is doing good, serious study of film and media. The bibliography on the website should guide you to some good cognitive-oriented film scholarship.
Correction: that's Andre Bazin...

That's a good list. I've tracked a few of these down, and am going on a "desk copy" request spree for those books that are still in print.

What I'm coming to find out in our library collection is that we only have books that were relevant to courses people taught involving film, hence a lot of African-American film stuff, feminist film stuff, etc.

I think where I'm really finding the problem is finding essays on the films I want to show in my classes. Since many of these films are recent, I'm finding nothing but B.S. theory essays.

Anyway, your suggestions are well-taken, and I'm working on amassing a small library of texts for as cheaply as possible.

As for David's remarks, you are correct. How do we combat such habits of thinking?

I think you are right that most individual essays about specific (especially recent) films tend to be heavy on theory. You might want to try some of the little BFI books on specific films--the quality is mixed but there are some good ones.

Out of curiosity, what are some of the recent films you are using in your course(s)?

Also, in my list I meant to say "James Naremore" not "James Lastra" (I haven't read any of Lastra's work--he does teach at Chicago with Gunning). Naremore's book on film noir,_More Than Night_ is good. And Gunning's book on Fritz Lang is really good.

But Bordwell is the man! He's also very friendly and humble even though he is probably the most important film scholar since Andre Bazin.
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