Thursday, July 24, 2008

Cinema Studies vs. Cultural Studies?

If I had foreseen as a young man that in my retirement years I would be writing about film, perhaps I would have taken a course or two in film theory. Perhaps. I've also never taken a writing class and continue to collect self-taught painters by curatorial principle. Self-discovery has long been one of my favorite aesthetics; something in me finding it much more fun to make things up as I go along. Unlike many of my colleagues, I approach films as—I suspect—the "average" person approaches films: to be entertained by narratives hopefully well-told, to be bathed in the luminosity of remarkable and unforgettable images, or to be simply stimulated by muscular spectacle or pop-cultural mythmaking. Rather than analyze the formal properties of film, I tend to tease out literary themes, recognize mythopoetic and psychological symbols, or rally behind sociopolitical causes with which I feel comfortably aligned. In my best Harvey Fierstein voice: "Is that so wrong?"

That being said, I have nothing but respect for film commentarians who practice the rigor of formalistic analysis, especially when their observations are couched in accessible language that doesn't require a liter of Evian to go down, and especially if they avoid the elitist terms "flitting" or "frittering" to describe the activities of crafted straw men they can neither abide nor control. As straw men go, however, more often than not I find essays in bona fide "cinema studies" hazardly incestuous, giving birth to aberrations of prolonged inbreeding; essays with elongated foreheads and six toes reserved to be read by—you guessed it—readers with elongated foreheads and six toes. Much academic writing, for me, is akin to visiting a dark carnival with sideshow freaks and geeks. Words are combined in ways that nature never intended, with equally horrifying results, leaving me with the scent of sawdust in my nostrils and my hand aghast over my open mouth. Amazing what you can be exposed to with two bits and a barker's skill.

I am, at heart, a populist, no less so in the medium of film than anywhere else. I remain ambivalent about whether I should be sitting within ticket-buying audiences or sequestering myself in press privilege, posing disdain for the "riffraff" allowed in long after I've secured my seat. In some ways this tension reminds me of Dr. John Beebe's assertion that the medium of film—let alone the practice and craft of film commentary—pertinently expresses the intense relationship between the anima and the persona; a tension I can too easily laminate onto the relationship between the lay public who demand their diversion and so-called informed critics with alleged axes to grind.

Recently, during Girish Shambu's visit for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, we had a particularly animated discussion (speaking of the anima)—one of many—regarding the subsumption of film studies under the large umbrella of transdisciplinary cultural studies. If I understood Girish correctly—and granted that's a pretty big "if"—his hope was to strike a balance between (as he later explained in email) "the wonderful progressive impulses of cultural studies (its politicization of culture, sensitivity to historical context, its teasing out of differential receptions)" and an aesthetic appreciation, or—as Adrian Martin noted in an eloquent lament for Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture—a "close, material attention to cinema form." Girish's concern that "cultural studies scholars frequently don't think of film aesthetics as being especially important" and his accompanying example that "the new Apichatpong film, the new Madonna album, the Super-Bowl game, and the new iPod commercial are all equal and equivalent cultural phenomena—to be studied and mined and written about" genuinely intrigued me, more perhaps for its precise argument for the privileged (okay, let's say "focused") station Girish would grant cinema studies. If anything, Girish's comment made me self-aware of how I've privileged cultural studies, without even knowing I was doing so and I have to thank him for making me conscious of that. I guess it should come as no surprise that, like anyone else, I devote a lot of time to confirming entrenched beliefs. But honestly it's more about what I find relevant within films and about film. I feel a bit uncomfortable and disloyal not being as convinced as I ought to be but certainly anticipate learning more from Girish and other film scholars as time goes along. As I mentioned, not only am I making this up as I go along but I'm making up my mind as I go along as well.

If a balance can be struck between the transdisciplinary project of cultural studies and the auteurist and stylistic devotions of cinema studies (again, another big if), it would be an admittedly happy medium—at the very least a conciliatory one—though in all honesty it seems more likely that what is general to one must by definitional necessity be narrow to the other. But I can't help but wonder about the folly of false dichotomies and hierarchies being promoted as a debate on this issue. I respect that Adrian Martin feels alienated from David Bordwell's assertion that "film studies" are a cautionary "institutional tale", even as he emphasizes that few film scholars he knows hold institutional positions and "film studies" in and of themselves are being shoved off curriculums by seemingly more inclusive and career-advantageous cultural studies. Still, I can't help but feel there's a good reason for this development and rather than film scholars pointing at all the people who have done them wrong, I'm more interested in why the general public is not attracted to what they have done right? Is it really that the moviegoing public is so stupid or so lacking in taste and discrimination? When Andrew Tracy, for example, lambasts critics for liking a movie he doesn't like or for—in his estimation—wasting time reviewing a movie that doesn't warrant reviewing for a perceived lack of imagination: what's really being said? Is imagination truly monolithic? And if film theorists raise their sticks and cry, "Right on, Andrew!"—what's really been accomplished? Certainly nothing conciliatory. A lot of back slapping behind lines of long-established demarcation.

Thought policing film reaction either by market reviewers or film scholars wastes invaluable time in the purportedly historical project of simply writing from insight instead of self-serving spite, from the fullness of the cornucopia instead of from sour grapes, and from the fecund strength of diversity instead of academic anemia. After reading Andrew Tracy's (admittedly entertaining) rant, it made me appreciate all the more the ambassadorial efforts of Girish Shambu and Adrian Martin to promote film studies on the basis of their inherent integrity and necessity. I suggest mourning with less name calling and finger pointing and with more loving memory of what is truly being lost.