Narrowing the gap

From Genevieve Yue

Michael pointed me to David Bordwell’s great and polemical piece, “Academics Vs. Critics,” and while I agree with much of the essay (I appreciate, especially, the care Bordwell takes in offering a bridge between the two camps), the scholar-critic divide doesn’t appear quite as stark to me. Of course I’m writing with only six years in the academy and not Bordwell’s thirty, but that might be part of the generational point. If film criticism was considered a lower form of journalism than art or architecture writing in the past, then it’s certainly on par today, at least from the perspective of university training. While it’s true that a lot of current criticism is generated at the level of IMDB user commentary—due, no doubt, to the ease and rapidity of publishing on the Internet—there’s still a tremendous amount of thoughtful, informed, and lively criticism that’s readily available. As Michael Joshua Rowin’s wonderful essay on reentering graduate film study makes clear, “intellectual meticulousness” is hardly the domain of academics alone. Undergraduate and master’s students in film studies often aspire to and end up critics, and many full-time academics, Bordwell included, contribute regularly to very smart and reader-friendly journals like Film CommentCinema ScopeSight & Sound, and, of course, Cahiers du Cinéma.

I’ve actually found considerable support in stepping outside the ivory tower to write criticism and to program films: from a practical standpoint, these activities expand my teaching repertoire and enrich my own research by keeping me outward-looking. From a more philosophical perspective, or even possibly an ethical one, they allow me to be actively involved with the communities I study. Because I concentrate on experimental cinema, a practice that is both under-recognized and difficult to access, I see advocacy as an important part of my work. Maybe advocacy’s too strong a word—at the very least I aim to open a view onto often obscure or seemingly unapproachable work, to make things less foreboding by providing context and suggesting critical angles to begin a conversation.

In this sense, I’ve never been terribly interested in aesthetic evaluation (thumbs, stars, clipart in general) of the sort that Bordwell attributes to criticism. I also find that, on the side of academia, “Grand Theory,” as he calls it, is treated with as much suspicion as it supposedly harbors; in an essay responding to Bordwell, Chris Fujiwara suggests a restoration of aesthetics as a category of film scholarship. The debate about what critics and scholars should attend to certainly isn’t new; Rudolf Arnheim, writing in 1935, contended the opposite of Bordwell’s point by demanding that film be viewed as “an economic product, and as an expression of political and moral viewpoints,” not the aesthetic veneer under which such forces might hide. J. Hoberman picked up on Arnheim’s argument in 1998, sharply interrogating the critic’s role in the publicity machine of the film industry. (Many thanks to the Project: New Cinephilia curators for compiling such a rich set of texts under the Resources tab.) I think, to echo Michael, that it’s most interesting to consider what films do, and we should accept this as an open question, looking always carefully at how films interact with each other, with other art forms, with culture, with our own subjective experiences, and, not to lose track of the cinephilic impulse, our desires.

I really like Daniel’s proposal of imagined alternatives. It can be an effective teaching tool to frame a film, like any work of art, as a series of choices undergirded by various motivations, aspirations, and exigencies. To imagine what we see as possibly, or impossibly, different, helps us to understand matters of style, on one hand, and the material conditions of production, on the other. At the most basic level, it reveals cinema as a craft, an ongoing process of accident, deliberation, and compromise that continues even after the release print has been struck. This is what I meant when I suggested in my last post that cinema is an activity; its meaning is made by many hands, auteur and otherwise, and it includes our own when we settle down in a theater or work through our Netflix Instant Queues on our laptops.

We can also look at criticism and scholarship, the interpretive branch of film culture, as a series of choices: Why might we discuss a particular film over another, or privilege a certain genre, national cinema, historical period, or another categorization? What conventions do we adhere to when we compose a review or a scholarly article? Daniel indicates ways to think differently about performance, and I think this is very useful, conceptually—in writing, as with filmmaking or any creative endeavor, distinct voices emerge when they make us reconsider the way something is accomplished. And the very best make us marvel at what they can do despite the restrictions imposed by the form. They can make us forget the form altogether, or convince us that it’s being ingeniously invented along the way. (Ostensibly we’ve been talking about cinephilia, but I’ve also noticed among this group a great admiration for individual writers; for me, Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces was the book that changed everything.)

In his essay on video criticism, Damon Smith demonstrates, furthermore, that a thoughtful response doesn’t need to be restricted by medium. I’m particularly struck by a quote he cites from Phillip Lopate: “An essay is a search to find out what one thinks about something.” Latent in that statement is a sense of not knowing, of risk; we might think of essays as an impulse, a dare, a following-through on a hunch. And perhaps what brings us scholars, critics, curators, and filmmakers all together, more than our cinephilic admissions, is the urge to explore. To try, as the French essai translates into English, even if that means leaving our thoughts unfinished. We sound a call in the hopes that others might hear it and respond. That we might make something, maybe even something beautiful, out of that accumulated effort.

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