Criticism and Film Studies: A Response to David Bordwell

Goodbye South, Goodbye (Hsiao-hsien Hou) 1996 Taiwan 124 Min

By Chris Fujiwara

As I was brooding over what I could come up with to do justice to Damon Smith and Kate Taylor’s invitation to write about contemporary film criticism and cinephilia, a friend who had no idea I was pondering this problem sent me an answer to it. The answer took the form of a link to a new piece by David Bordwell on the Film Comment web site, called “Academics vs. Critics: Never the Twain Shall Meet: Why Can’t Cinephiles and Academics Just Get Along?,” in which, with his usual clarity, Bordwell proposes his view of the current configuration of approaches to writing on film. I have no desire to enter into a battle with Bordwell and no intention of raising larger issues about his work in general. I want only to use the opportunity afforded by this particular text of his to set forth, by contrast, my own views on the current situation of film criticism, cinephilia, and academic film studies.

Bordwell traces the antagonism between film-studies professors and “cinephile critics” (I’ll return to this expression) back to the 1970s, when humanities departments across the USA (Bordwell’s tacit scope of reference throughout the piece) were taken over by something he calls “Grand Theory” — basically, everything from semiology to cultural studies, with Althusser, Lacan, and feminism in between. (The ramifications of “Grand Theory,” together with other parts of Bordwell’s argument here, were developed at more length in his “Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory,” an essay included in the 1996 Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, edited by Bordwell and Noël Carroll.) Bordwell feels that the mutual hostility is based on a misunderstanding. Although academics, he says, scorn “film buffery” for its lack of rigor, cinephile critics not only are “indispensable to the health of movie culture” but do indeed “traffic in ideas.” On the other side, though certain critics (Bordwell mentions Dave Kehr and Joseph McBride) hate academic film studies for rejecting auteurism and for using impenetrable jargon, “not all film scholars,” Bordwell assures us, “believe the author is dead, subscribe to semiology, disdain popular filmmaking, or smother living work under a blanket of Grand Theory.”

So much for so much, as Roland Winters’s incarnation of Charlie Chan would say (OK, I’ve just outed myself as a film buff of the rankest order). The most remarkable parts of “Academics vs. Critics” concern the division of labor between critics and academics.

For Bordwell, criticism equals “evaluation and appreciation.” No doubt that definition adequately sums up the contributions of some very good film critics. But it ignores a vital tradition in film criticism, most illustriously embodied by Manny Farber, who, asked in an interview about the role of evaluation in his criticism, replied: “It’s practically worthless for a critic. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it’s one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies.” (Jonathan Rosenbaum, “They Drive by Night: The Criticism of Manny Farber“)

In reducing criticism to evaluation, Bordwell is performing a gesture that is characteristic of academics. I’ve had more than one exchange with film-studies professors or grad students in which, when it’s established that I care more about film criticism than about studying films in relation to culture and society, my interlocutor (no doubt relieved to be able to close the subject) concludes confidently that what I do, then, is “textual analysis.” If I have difficulty accepting this label, it’s because I’m not sure that what’s in front of me on the screen, much less what I remember and contemplate later, is a text. A text is (1) a body of language: it is all of one material; but a film is not all of one material, and not all the materials it has can intelligibly be called “language”; (2) a body of language, determinable and anatomizable; but what mainly draws cinephiles to cinema may be the instability and evanescence of its forms, rather than anything that ever becomes solid; (3) something objective, but what interests many critics is the interplay of consciousnesses, different at different times, in the encounters between the film and the viewer, between the director and the various other elements acting in and on the film, between one viewer and another. Not an object, but a process, and not the process as an object, but the process as what the critic, too, is inside. This is neither “textual analysis” nor “evaluation.”

Where do the crucial differences between “critical” and “academic” approaches to film lie? Until fairly recently I might have given two answers to this question — auteurism and cinephilia — but I no longer believe these are the major dividing points. Auteurism, after spending much of the 1980s and 1990s in disrepute, now seems to be faring rather well in film studies, judging by the number of monographs on film directors published by academic presses and the number of university courses taught on directors. As for cinephilia, its recent emergence as a legitimate object of academic study may signal that the newer crop of film Ph.D.s are less reticent than their elders about acknowledging their own cinephilia.

Goodbye South, Goodbye (Hsiao-hsien Hou) 1996 Taiwan 124 Min

Moreover, it’s not at all clear that cinephilia is necessary to film criticism. The link between the two, which Bordwell sets up casually in his second paragraph and maintains throughout the piece without examining it, needs to be questioned. This link seems to indicate a rather major historical shift. Pauline Kael, the best known American film critic of her generation, was no less fierce than Bordwell’s academic colleagues in her animus against “film buffery” and would have made short work of anyone who tried to hang the tag “cinephile critic” on her.

If criticism today is dominated by cinephilia, and Bordwell’s association of the two terms makes sense, we should ask how this has come about. We should also ask if this means a restriction of criticism: that is, are we missing something valuable, in the absence of non-cinephile criticism? (To the extent the writing on film by, say, Kracauer or Adorno, or maybe more to the point Dwight Macdonald, is of value to us, maybe we can measure our loss by the absence of any even roughly equivalent figures in the contemporary scene.) Or does it mean, as it may appear, an expansion of cinephilia?

If such an expansion has occurred, it’s due largely to developments that have been facilitated and accelerated by the Internet — developments that are well known and whose relationship to criticism has been discussed many times, and that here, to bring this argument back in touch with Bordwell’s piece, I wish to put in connection with academia. If academia represents the professionalization of film culture, the Internet has become the site of the deprofessionalization of film culture, as writers on film proliferate who are working for free, or at any rate with no visible means of support.

Perhaps here is a clue to the real rift between academia and criticism, a rift that is described in “Academics vs. Critics” in terms that may be already obsolete. What critics reject in rejecting the academy may be this very professionalization of film appreciation, the obligation to specialize, to become identified with a relatively small area of expertise: you’ll find it hard to get along as a film scholar if your field is aesthetics, but your chances increase if you do a particular branch of “Grand Theory,” a particular national cinema, or studies of fans of the Twilight series.

Moreover, in spite of all the ways academic film studies has found to make itself more relevant (or more popular), and all the ways criticism — especially in its “cinephile” forms — has found to make itself less so, the academy remains a world apart from the place where things happen, as Bordwell himself acknowledges when he writes that “academics can also contribute new ideas that critics on the front lines can try out.” The front lines — film production, film distribution, film festivals, and everything that goes on among and around them — can be an interesting place, and being there is not only addictive but can lead to paid work, which is no mean consideration for critics who know the truth of the words of Shigehiko Hasumi, the great film critic (and president emeritus of Tokyo University — talk about the twain meeting): “At the beginning of the 21st century, the profession of film critic is quasi-fictional.”

Another difference between academia and criticism has to do with writing. Criticism can only be writing: it may be writing in images and sounds, but it must be conscious of itself as writing — as being responsible (as Barthes said) to a symbolic dimension, as being capable of irony, and as being based on a certain insecurity, such that it is always coming out of and going toward a place that it knows can’t be filled. Not all critics are good writers; but at least the critic has to want to write and has to love writing. This love is more definitive for film criticism than the love of cinema.

Now there is probably no professional sphere in which the lack of desire to write and the lack of interest in writing are more endemic than academia. 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).

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) 1947 USA 104 min

Bordwell is aware of writing as a value of criticism, but what he says about it is brief and a little reductive. “Through the skillful use of language, the critic tries to convey the film’s unique identity and to summon up, by a kind of tonal mimicry, the effects that the film arouses.” No doubt a good deal of criticism tries to do this, with more or less success. But mimicry, tonal or not, is not usually something we seek out or admire in writing. The example Bordwell gives, Kent Jones on Goodbye South, Goodbye, is valid as an account of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s style (“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”); I wouldn’t describe it as mimicry, it’s more like metaphor: the writer is aware of the difficulty of writing about time-based visual forms in verbal language and makes that difficulty part of the subject of the text. (I know it’s time to lay down my cards about what good critical writing is, so here’s a list of some texts that I’ve read many times with pleasure: Bazin on Renoir; Rivette on Rossellini, Preminger, and Lang; V. F. Perkins’s Film as Film; Robin Wood on Hitchcock; Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson’s pieces from the 1970s; Serge Daney’s Persévérance; Hasumi on Japanese cinema.)

What may be missing in academic film studies is a recognition of aesthetics as a category worthy of scholarship. To be sure, Bordwell uses the word “aesthetic” twice in “Academics vs. Critics.” The first time is the unexceptionable remark that “good historical research often involves postponing aesthetic judgment.” The second one is the zinger: a group of scholars working “at the middle level” are concerned with “formulating precise aesthetic questions about movies, their makers, and their spectators, and proposing answers in lucid prose.” Bordwell is claiming, then, that aesthetics is, if not flourishing, at least finding room to develop in academia, though the fact that he is able to provide a list of practitioners in this area (nine named individuals, plus “many [unnamed] researchers on early film”) suggests that theirs remains something of a minority movement. In any case, some may find his remarks about “the middle level” rather terrifying, since the staking-out of this region by academics threatens to crowd out critics still further.

But the middle level might not be especially attractive territory for critics anyway. After quoting Jones on Goodbye South, Goodbye as an example of criticism’s ability to evoke the “unique identity” of a film, Bordwell cites his own writing on Hou (from Figures Traced in Light) as an example of middle-level work, which seeks “to provide a causal and functional explanation for some effects of pictorial precision and density.” The middle level is the enumeration and analysis of the conditions of film practice: a poetics, to use Bordwell’s term for his own work. Its task is completed when it has identified all the conditions that are determinative for a given film or group of films (more precisely, determinative for that film or that group of films as a set of salient “effects”), and the exhaustive explanation of a film is indeed possible (and desirable).

The goals of criticism are different: to respond to what is open, troubling, or self-contradictory in a film, to show why things in it that may not even be immediately noticeable are deeply interesting, to reinvent it, create new metaphors for it, to find more and more of the endlessness of the film (its refusal to finish), to follow it where it leads (with or without its own knowledge and regardless of the intentions of the filmmakers) and take it where it can go, perhaps to what it can open up and invent in other films (including those that may have preceded it). Criticism doesn’t look for causes to explain some effect of the film, but seeks to heighten the effectiveness of the effect. (Frieda Grafe’s short BFI Film Classics book on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which I select more or less at random, is a very beautiful example of the kind of criticism that without seeking to explain a film brings to light, learnedly and imaginatively, the forces at work in it and the implications the film has for other films, film history, and film reception; her text is full of provocative suggestions, lightning insights, and sudden gaps, by all of which an immensity of possibilities for extending the viewing of Mankiewicz’s film becomes disclosed.)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) 1947 USA 104 min

So, if “Grand Theory” finds in films the affirmation of its own themes and principles, and if the “middle level” explains films in terms of the conditions for their appearance, there is still plenty left for criticism to do besides evaluate and appreciate. The question that must be asked, finally, is about the conditions under which criticism must perform its functions. 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. (Of course professors always complain, like everybody else, about budget cuts, but I hope they’ll take the point that if they are getting a regular salary and health insurance, they’re doing better than 98 percent of the people who are writing film criticism.) Consequently, film critics are not only forced to take on part-time teaching jobs but aspire consciously or unconsciously to emulate academic film studies in their own non-academic writing. And isn’t there a certain disingenuousness in Bordwell’s wistful longing for a “rapprochement” between critics and academics? After all, if there are powerful people in academic film studies (and apparently there’s at least one) who believe Dave Kehr, Joseph McBride, and other critics are important, they could start by throwing some work and money their way (McBride is in fact an associate professor at San Francisco State University, so I guess he’s set).

Let me try, in summing up, to be nearly as clear and direct as Bordwell. What is film criticism? The process of tracing out the effects of a film in writing that seeks to prolong and increase them. Is there a rift between criticism and academic film studies? Yes, because academia does not recognize the process of criticism as something that should be studied or taught and that deserves institutional support. What are the prospects for film critics? Um… if you haven’t got that Ph.D. yet, brother, better put on the steam.


Chris Fujiwara is the author of Jerry Lewis (University of Illinois Press, 2009), The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber & Faber, 2008), and Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), the editor of Defining Moments in Movies (Cassell, 2007), and the editor of Undercurrent (


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