14 mai 2011

Mandarins vs Philistines (Bordwell)

"In most arts, academic study isn’t considered the enemy of journalistic criticism. [..] When it comes to cinema, though, the relations are cool, even adversarial."
Academics vs. Critics. Never the twain shall meet: why can't cinephiles and academics just get along? David Bordwell (Film Comment, May 2011) 
He's talking about the climate in the USA of course, which is a particular combination of anti-intellectualism, fear of alienating oneself from the gut reactions of the crowd and the guilty conscience of enjoying cinephilia. American critics have the phobic anxiety to be perceived as "objective" or "intellectual". American scholars have the repressed guilt of infusing their love of cinema into their object of clinical studies. I guess the Grand Theory chiasm is typical to American ambivalence. There is so much useless drama around the repressed subjectivity of film students who want to be accepted in academe through self-important jargon. 
You don't see such extreme polarisation in French culture... There is a gap between common reviewers and actual researchers, each side acknowledges their territory of competency and their incompatibility but they use eachothers and communicate to exchange ideas (even when it fails). In fact French film scholars come from cinephilia (which is something American scholars tend to forget). Delluc, Epstein, Mitry, Desnos, Malraux, Artaud, Blanchot, Debord, Metz, Duras, Lyotard, Foucault, Debord, Deleuze, Bellour, Rancière, Badiou, Nancy are unapologetic cinephiles! French intellectuals are not afraid to admit their cinephilia, or their guilty pleasure, they don't shy away from hermeneutics and evaluation.  
This topic seems to be a recurring concern for Bordwell, and I'm glad because it's worth repeating until the futility of such arguments stops clouding the general film discourse. This is an abstract categorization though. Evaluation and subjectivity might be the casus belli between actual film studies and actual film criticism, but what worries me more is the dissemination and misappropriation of such theoretical arguments into the lowest planes of film discourse. Pseudo-academics and wannabe reviewers appropriate and abuse this conflict, in order to somehow validate their participation to film culture, while they are neither scholars nor critics. It's not because somebody positions oneself in the objective/subjective war that it makes him/her a critic or a scholar. The impression of holding and defending a position replaces for some people the importance of discipline and ideas. What is destroying film culture is the infiltration of posers and other impostors at institutional levels, in the film press, in academic circles... And the main reason is that either nobody pays enough attention to notice the B.S. published everywhere, or, which is worse, that a pervading complacency lets such counterfeit arguments be for the sake of putting out content and mutual friendly encouragements. These types of irresponsible practices make the academic vs. journalist gap seem trivial.

A more pressing issue than the academic vs. cinephile debate to oppose Grand Theory, is to reflect on the nature of their incompatibility. The reason why Semiotics, Reception Studies, Gender Studies, Cultural Studies failed assimilation to Film Culture, is precisely because they deal less with cinema itself than with a broader theory or abstract concepts across general culture in its globality. Semiotics is to cinema what grammar is to Literature, or chromatology to Painting. Reception studies is hardly specific to cinema, and could indifferently apply to Theatre, Literature or Pavlov. Gender studies is a socio-cultural issue, again spanning across all arts and media indifferently. Knowing the building blocks of words (Literature) or colors (Painting) or chords (Music) is important to acquire a general understanding of the technique, but doesn't inform the production of aesthetic meaning resulting from the artist's use of such generic technique.

I see Cultural Studies as being a subset of Sociology, using movies as a statistical sample, on the other hand I see Aesthetics as the only academic studies dealing with what makes cinema an art, treating films as artistic statements. The controversy is whether you consider cinema as an ethnological evidence for the study of mankind or as the contribution to the history of the Arts for the study of Cinema itself. There is no wrong answer, but your slant will make your writing relevant to Cinema or to another domain of interest outside of and larger than cinema (Humanities, Sociology, Economy, Epistemology, Philology...) That's why there is no possible reconciliation. Academics from Cultural Studies are observing ideological phenomena AROUND the consumption of cinema as entertainment, OUTSIDE of the Arts.

You don't understand the place of La Joconde in the Arts by surveying visitors at Le Louvre, observing under the microscope its canvas, or contemplating whether Mona Lisa was a dude... Unfortunately that's how Cultural Studies are treating Cinema, as a commodity consumed by pigeon-holed shares of a demographic.

Bordwell is wondering why there is a gap between cinephiles and academics... I think it is a moot point. If it doesn't take away precious time from the serious study of Great Cinema (classics and contemporary), film scholars may study whatever they fancy! Be it Humanities or Economy or the Star System or Movie posters or trade newspaper or gossips... as long as any of this is NOT put in the same box as Cinema Art, just because it is remotely related to film production. Scholars don't need to seek the approval of auteurists or cinephiles...
That's the real problem today: anybody can write any bullshit about some movies and it will insidiously infiltrate Film Discourse, and sometimes pass as "serious criticism" just because it is a subversive way of looking at a B-movie that everyone else ignored. Turning lowbrow entertainment into highbrow film studies is a very very marginal share of cinema history, it doesn't happen every year! It's not because one blockbuster becomes socially relevant worldwide for a couple months that it has become an instant classic. I wish film discourse (contrary to humanities) had prospects with longer terms than that.

Bordwell: "[..] the auteur tradition never studied in detail how the Hollywood system worked. Suspending evaluation allows us to ask questions that aren't simply factual but have broader implications. The standard story about the early 'evolution of film language' has been shown over the last 30 years to be at best an oversimplification and at worst inadequate. But scholars had to look beyond the few classics of Griffith, Chaplin, and DeMille to what now realize to be a great diversity of creative choice."
The purpose of "Authorism" (or "Auteur Theory") is to look at films (possibly as part of a body of work or œuvre) from the perspective of the film director (most likely scenarist-director). It is self-limited in scope and in its object of study, by definition. It doesn't study ALL films, only those made with the implicit intention to create an œuvre (recurrent theme, trademark style, obsessions, original mise en scène). Not all films fit this criterion, especially not most early films. It is very selective by nature, not only in the titles studied but in the specific, narrow aspects of a larger production. So it seems OBVIOUS why the study of an industrial economical infrastructure like the "Hollywood system" is not part of the "auteur tradition", no? It's like blaming a biographer of Honoré de Balzac for not mentioning once the complete history of Gutenberg's movable type printing... Some academics study the infrastructure, other academics study the art. To each his own job. He said that as if the "auteur tradition" had the responsibility to write the TOTAL HISTORY of cinema (including non-auteurist productions), and failed. This said, I believe that in the 50ies, the so-called "auteur tradition" studied more seriously the "Hollywood system" than any American academics or critics, if only as a starting point for further investigations.
Second point : Isn't it a bit presumptuous for historians to base a comprehensive understanding of the average production of silent cinema on what amounts to 20% of leftovers from that period? About 80% of nitrate prints have been destroyed or lost! At this rate, it's more like archeology based on sparse fossils found in the soil by chance. Do you think we would KNOW about the cinema of the XXIst century if we only watched 20% of the current production? Oh wait, this is about as much of world production (including Hollywood production!) that is actually screened in commercial theatres in the USA...

"The prototypical cinephile piece in effect answers a question like this: “What distinctive qualities of this film can I detect, and how do they enhance our sense of its value?” The prototypical academic interpretation would be answering something like: “What aspects of the film are illuminated by my theoretical frame of reference?” I think, however, that we academics can make progress in understanding cinema if our questions are more specifically and self-consciously formulated." Academics vs. Critics. Never the twain shall meet: why can't cinephiles and academics just get along? David Bordwell (Film Comment, May 2011) 
"Film criticism lies at the centre of nearly all intellectual discourse about the cinema, and if we take criticism to be an effort to know particular movies more intimately, it probably deserves its prime place. But contemporary film criticism is failing. In academic venues, it mostly grinds Movie X through Theory Y, in the hope that somehow the exercise will yield political emancipation." Backpage: Against Insight David Bordwell (cinemascope, #26, 2006)
This sounds great. And then, when he reviews a minimalist, contemplative film he exemplifies himself the very shortcomings he criticizes Academia for : inadequately grinding random films through his classic theories of transitions with a film like What Time Is It There? (David Bordwell, The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema, January 2008), or his classic theories of editing with a film like The Shaft (Three from Palm Springs, 16 Jan 2009), or his classic theories of staging for an undefined "slow cinema" (The Cross, David Bordwell, 1 June 2010) or his classic theories of suspense with a film like Le Quattro Volte (No suspense? David Bordwell, 11 April 2011; see my comment here), instead of adapting to what the specific stylistic of the film requires, and trying to understand what distinguishes classic narratives from minimalist narratives. What is the point of knowing so much about Cinema History if it's to treat recent films as if they had been made 70 years ago?

"Less obvious is the overlap between cinephile criticism and what I’d call middle-level research." David Bordwell (Film Comment, May 2011) 
More on "middle-level research" if you read his 1996 book :

"This 'middle-level' research asks questions that have both empirical and theoretical import. That is, and contrary to many expositors of Grand Theory, being empirical does not rule out being theoretical.
The most established realms of middle-level research have been empirical studies of filmmakers, genres, and national cinemas. [..]" Post Theory, reconstructing film studies (Carroll/Bordwell, 1996)

Hopeful parting thought:
"Academics have more elbow room to study how those qualities came into being, how they work together, and what roles they play historically and culturally. Academics can also contribute new ideas that critics on the front lines can try out. Readers who enjoy cinephile criticism should sample the academic work that stays close to the sensuous surface of a movie. Meanwhile, academics should recognize how cinephile criticism can alert us to the movie’s unique identity. Perceptive appreciation and analytical explanation can enhance one another."


2 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

"L'histoire du cinéma, de sa réception, de ses expérimentations techniques, esthétiques et narratives, de ses échanges avec les arts du spectacle et les arts plastiques, etc., à travers des textes d'écrivains, de cinéastes, d'acteurs, de critiques et d'intellectuels."

1. Rendre présent le muet (1920-1927)
2. Un art livré au bruit du monde (1928-1944)
3. Des images et des hommes (1945-1960).

"Un recueil international où dialoguent poètes et philosophes, artistes et cinéastes, essayistes et sociologues - d'Aragon à H. Miller, de Hofmannsthal ou Pirandello à Dos Passos, de D. H. Lawrence à J. Roth, de Musil à Merleau-Ponty, de Picabia à F. Léger, de Griffith ou Eisenstein à Rossellini, de Ford à Truffaut, de Vertov à McLuhan, de Sartre à Benjamin ou Malraux."

Le cinéma l'art d'une civilisation : 1920-1960, Daniel Banda, José Moure, mai 2011

HarryTuttle a dit…

"The Film Foundation estimates that half of all American films made before 1950 and over 90% of films made before 1929 are permanently lost. As an archivist and curator, I find that too often discussions about cinema in the 21st century hinge on changing reception contexts and ignore the physicality of film."

Certified Copy: Film Preservation in the Age of New Cinephilia (Leah Churner; 08 June 2011)