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Following David Bordwell’s calls for a little more harmony between academics and critics, Chris Fujiwara suggests there is still misunderstanding from university film departments on what criticism is all about.
How do you view the relationship between film studies, theory and film criticism? Should the disciplines be closer? And what are their essential differences?
Shouldn’t each group have essentially the same set of goals? To highlight what is enjoyable about a film, to make a film easier to understand, to make the style of the film more clear, to show what the goals of a film is and how successful it is in achieving those goals. What else is there? Yet both critics and academics are widely guilty of delivering work that does nothing to elucidate films themselves.
From the Bordwell article, in which he starts by quoting critic Kent Jones on “Goodbye South, Goodbye”:
“Every space is allowed to live as itself, and the size of the people in relation to what’s around them always sits on the border between observation and involvement, between respect and interest.” This is cinephile criticism in rhapsodic mode. Without itemizing technical details (shot size, composition, lighting), the critic captures the expressive qualities that emerge from the technique. Description, evocation, and judgment become one, signaling the critic’s sensitivity to both details and the whole.
The quote was cited by Bordwell as being great criticism. To me, it’s absolutely useless. “Every space is allowed to live as itself.” What on Earth does that mean? That doesn’t make the film clearer to me, it doesn’t make it easier to enjoy, and I don’t have a deeper understanding of the film.
And of course academics are guilty of going in the other direction. Giving every camera move, acting style, film movement and camera technique a complicated name, then deeming whoever can use the most complicated words as the deepest thinker. “Oh, the mise-en-scen! The verisimilitude!” Or even worse, they start talking about semiotics and “ideology, psychoanalysis, and feminism”…shudder.
So who cares whether they get along or not? If an academic is saying dopey stuff, a critic should call them out on it and vice-versa. If the argument is between meaningless jargon and meaningless rhapsody, then whoever wins, we lose.
…the critic captures the expressive qualities that emerge from the technique. Description, evocation, and judgment become one, signaling the critic’s sensitivity to both details and the whole.
heh soundz spoot-on to me….
Shouldn’t each group have essentially the same set of goals?
A sameness is in order?
“The system of “publish or perish,” together with the reliable assurance that what gets published will remain unread (not infrequently, I imagine, even by those who get paid to edit and review it), guarantees an abundance of terrible academic writing, and though I can’t say for sure that, as a group, film-studies professors are worse writers than professors of art history or comparative literature, I suspect this may be the case (Bordwell himself and many others excluded, needless to say).”
Why is he throwing academic film writers under the bus with no explanation? That’s part of the reason for the intolerant division. I believe the line separating academics and film critics is almost non-existent, as both moonlight in the others domains quite regularly.
“Bordwell makes no acknowledgment of the underlying economic reality of the situation, which is that whereas very little support exists for film critics (and approximately none at all for “cinephile critics”), a fair amount of money seems to be available to academia.”
Fujiwara should try getting a job in academia and see where that gets him (maybe he already has). I’d argue there isn’t much of a “fair amount of money” thrown at the humanities, and this goes double for film studies. Of course, its no walk in the park getting a paid job at some press publication either.
“What are the prospects for film critics? Um… if you haven’t got that Ph.D. yet, brother, better put on the steam.”
Just what we need. More PhD’s on the market with no faculty positions for them. Better to build your own website and hopefully turn it into a revenue stream. Do what you do because you love it, and let the chips fall where they may. If you want to turn a buck, go where the money is. It’s not in higher education and it’s not in the non-fiction publishing business.
I believe the line separating academics and film critics is almost non-existent, as both moonlight in the others domains quite regularly.
I strongly disagree. Fujiwara is one of our greatest critics and has zero chance of landing tenure at a university.
“For Bordwell, criticism equals “evaluation and appreciation” . . . In reducing criticism to evaluation, Bordwell is performing a gesture that is characteristic of academics.”
I think that some of the variety and nuance of criticism does get lost in the course of Bordwell’s piece (in part because it’s a short magazine piece written for an audience that likely has a mixed level of specialized knowledge). To be fair, from what I know of Bordwell’s work, his piece actually isn’t a very good statement of his own position on “what criticism does.” His working definition of “criticism” comes straight from Monroe Beardsley :
1.Critics describe artworks
2. Critics analyze artworks
3.Critics interpret artworks
4. Critics evaluate artworks
Fujiwara writes that Bordwell is “reducing criticism to evaluation,” but he actually characterizes the bit of Jones’ writing that he quotes as “description, evocation, and judgment” becoming “one,” which to me is clearly saying it goes beyond mere evaluation.
I do really dislike Bordwell’s use of “cinephile criticism” as a descriptor for the non-academic side, as it tends to imply that the academic approach is somehow free of personal bias. Or is he saying that the academics writing about film don’t actually like film?
Well, not that academic film scholars don’t like film, or that they’re free of personal bias, but that they suppress their personal investment when they write. It’s part of academic credibility — establish some sort of distance from the object of study; thereby align yourself somewhat with scientific objectivity. If you do praise a particular director, movement, etc, it helps to cast that director/movement as being “great” in an objective sense, and to link this greatness to consensus or technical justification, rather than admitting to any kind of personal interest.
I do appreciate Fujiwara’s observation that academics have a strong tendency to specialize, endlessly, aligning themselves with certain critical methods, and choosing certain periods and people to focus on. This is a cliche about the academy in general — knowing more and more about less and less, until you eventually know everything there is to know about nothing at all.
“I do appreciate Fujiwara’s observation that academics have a strong tendency to specialize, endlessly, aligning themselves with certain critical methods, and choosing certain periods and people to focus on. This is a cliche about the academy in general — knowing more and more about less and less, until you eventually know everything there is to know about nothing at all.”
Ha! That’s called being a geek in commonplace language.
Film theory is personally detached from the film, film criticism doesn’t have to be. The former explains, the latter evaluates.
“Well, not that academic film scholars don’t like film, or that they’re free of personal bias, but that they suppress their personal investment when they write.”
Right, it was really a rhetorical question, my point being that he seems to be implying by calling critics “cinephile critics” that critics are less objective and therefore less sophisticated than academics. Based on my own experience with academic writing, I can’t agree with this, particular given the proclivity of academics to work method down rather than film down, a trap which I think most critics avoid.
“That’s called being a geek in commonplace language.”
Ha, yeah, but really it’s also the trade-off many academics make for the aforementioned institutional security—they hitch themselves to a particular approach.
Matt, that’s a lame trade-off.
Academics also fall into the trap of only getting feedback from other academics.
@Jirin – right, that’s called Ivory Tower. Very insular environment. But hopefully not all academics are forced into this tower of isolation, at least not forever…
really it’s also the trade-off many academics make for the aforementioned institutional security—they hitch themselves to a particular approach.
I fundamentally agree, but, in literary studies, this trend reached its zenith in the early 90s—when I was in graduate school in English, you pretty much had to declare your methodology on the first day of each new seminar (“Hi, I’m Al, I’m an Althusserian Marxist . . .”) In the decades that have followed, grad students and their assistant prof mentors have been more able to mix-and-match the most applicable aspects of the theoretical grab-bag.
That’s a good point, Jirin, there’s also an element of feedback loop, where a lot of critics, particularly ones who are doing weekly or monthly print reviews of films, can get absolutely buried in feedback from other sources (if you read through the comments attached to some of the posts on Dave Kehr’s blog, for example, there are often a lot of interesting dialectical stuff going on there).
My days in the academic world are too far behind me to comment on today, but in my postgrad days (in the early-mid ‘90s) a lot of it struck me as pretty lame. I think in some sense it’s a self-defense mechanism on the part of academia because there’s always been an anti-intellectual streak running through American culture, and the response from academics has typically been an urge to separate. If nothing else, I have to give Bordwell (as well as his wife, Kristen Thompson) some credit for trying to bridge the gap, even if many of the criticisms Fujiwara makes of what he’s written in this particular article are more or less warranted.
I agree with @Z.Bart and this “I do appreciate Fujiwara’s observation that academics have a strong tendency to specialize, endlessly, aligning themselves with certain critical methods, and choosing certain periods and people to focus on. This is a cliche about the academy in general — knowing more and more about less and less, until you eventually know everything there is to know about nothing at all.”
It’s an institutional flaw beginning with dissertation proposals that are encouraged to be incredibly niche-y so that you can establish yourself as an expert and thus secure a position based on that expertise of one thing. In old school programs with old professors that are strongly attached to the canon finding a single methodology or theoretical framework your first year of grad school and then sticking to it is too strongly encouraged imo. My methods have always been eclectic and overlapping because I don’t think any one type of analysis can reveal everything about a text. However, newer more media based programs are much more relaxed with these dictates.
At the end of the day this is a problem with academia as a whole. To state that it’s (especially bad writing) is endemic to film studies and not the whole of humanities, social sciences and even hard sciences is false and perhaps reveals that Fujiwara has only read a small cross section of film studies work. I can name 10 or 20 scholars off the top of my head who write well, accessibly and go in between cinephile/academia/popular publishing worlds.
“Hi, I’m Al, I’m an Althusserian Marxist . . .”
Z., lol! How could anyone introduce themselves that way and keep a straight face? It’s like theater – “and I play the part of the doctor.”
@Matt — is it really self-defense against anti-intellectualism? I’m not sure I get why or how…
To me it seems more like the humanities are parroting the scientific world, as in someone becoming an expert in the reproductive life of parameciums. I don’t really see how that kind of specialization should be REQUIRED in the field of humanities. Also I think in my time I’ve really witnessed a tendency in the professional world in general to be more of a specialist and less of a generalist. For some reason a one track mind gets more respect these days than someone who has broad knowledge and can see connections between many things.
@Post-Kyo — I like the approach you describe toward the end of your post (“…write well, accessibly and go in between cinephile/academia/popular publishing worlds.”). That’s really cool.
^ well one reason is that there is so little respect for broad knowledge/humanities studies in the general public which leads to a lack of funding. Institutionalization is a way of establishing methods and discipline specific theories that will ensure the survival of your field and reproduction of scholars. In countries where cinema studies was not institutionalized and a critical establishment remained within the industry or as journalists only – the archiving and survival of their national cinemas suffered greatly.
When I was briefly reviewing films and would tell people what I did, they would always ask what ELSE I planned to do and clearly hint that I was wasting my time. Now that I’m getting a PhD in film they always ask what ELSE I planned to do and clearly hint that I was wasting my time.
So, either way a consistent amount of scorn is reserved for people who decide to do work not related to anything science-y, service-y or skilled labor.
Also regarding @Jirin – most academics I know DO get feedback from non academics or at least academics in a totally different field for book projects.
O., exactly: quite a few of my cohorts and a number of professors were, at best, “playing the part of the doctor.”
The sane among us learned to root through the esoteric and sometimes obfuscatory works of certain theorists—Derrida, Baudrillard, Althusser, Bakhtin, etc.—and find the aspects that we could meaningfully connect to what we were trying to do to (with) the literary texts we felt most drawn to. It was a process that encouraged eclecticism and selectivity.
“is it really self-defense against anti-intellectualism? I’m not sure I get why or how…”
Well, I guess what I wrote isn’t especially clear. I’m thinking more in terms of the tendency, historically, to cloister one’s self away than in terms of the adoption of particular quasi-scientific approach (I agree with the rest of what you wrote, by the way). Their tended to be a perception that if an academic wrote a book that appealed to a non-academic audience that the author was “slumming.” It seems, to some degree, that this is not so much the case anymore, than again it seems that the humanities are again behind the curve here. Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking, for example, are much probably bigger “celebrities” in the eye of the general public than the higher-profile film studies academics like Bordwell, even though there are (I would think) a lot more people out there interested in some way in film than there are interested in high level physics.
@Matt – I think it’s true that scholars like Bordwell aren’t “names” or “celebrities” like popular anthropologists or scientists but I think film studies is actually ahead the rest of the humanities where this is concerned. Several scholars release mass markets book on an auteur or a TV show or genre that do quite well in the middle of their careers and continue to put out scholarly work after – unlike lit or philosophy for example – but their names never become attached to it in the same way.
Nobody wants to interview Dana Polan about The Sopranos or Allen on Hitchcock because analyzing film isn’t considered an example of intellectual virtuosity like physics is. People think anyone can write about a movie.
@Post-Kyo — I know that comment about “what else” VERY well, lol! Sometimes it’s good to respond to the “what else are you going to do” with something sarcastic and mouth-shutting/gaping, like “become a serial killer.”
“There tended to be a perception that if an academic wrote a book that appealed to a non-academic audience that the author was “slumming.”
Wow, Matt — that is very insular and rather elitist thinking. Yikes. Academics certainly have the right and should publish esoteric and complicated works in their field, but to dismiss someone who wants to educate a broader audience as a slacker is pretty snooty. And insecure. Stephen Hawkings can do both kinds of writing, and that’s to be admired, not denigrated.
@Odi- the next time someone asks me what I plan to do with my degree I’ll tell them that I’m going to run a cat ranch. Where I rescue cats and then put them to work performing tricks for kids birthday parties. And then walk away.
Kyo – That would be most impressive. Cats are notoriously difficult to train.
Good idea. I tend to go with the more violent second career options, but you are a peaceful person. :)
I’ll tell them that I’m going to run a cat ranch
I don’t know, Post-Kyo, that sounds awfully close to a cathouse. . .
That’s the beauty of it, she walks away before anyone can ask her to explain.
“People think anyone can write about a movie.”
Right, because, at some level, people think anyone could make a movie, and at some level in American culture, there’s always the suspicion that writing/thinking about something must be easier than actually doing it.