Tuesday, August 29, 2006

New Affiliation

There's a reason for the lack of posting here lately. I've moved from Boston to Philadelphia to come aboard Temple's Film and Media Arts department as a Lecturer in film history and theory. It's been an exciting and busy couple of weeks. So, expect more pedagogical musing in the weeks to come.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Intro Syllabus

Thanks to those who have provided feedback and suggestions on the Intro textbook. I've decided to stick with Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art this time around. Yes, I will be teaching intro this Fall, details on that to come soon. For now, I thought I'd share a draft of my syllabus. After formulating it, I've come to reflect that a) it's remarkably similar in structure to most intro syllabi, yet b) the selection of films seems distinctive, if not from my own idiosyncratic ideas then from the institutional stamp of places I've been and scholars I've learned from. At least, it seems to strattle canon and anti-canonical approaches to pedagogy in an identifiable way.

I'd love to hear any reader and peer feedback, whether readings you've found useful, or film suggestions you might have. It's still not set in stone, so I'm open to ideas. Blogger doesn't allow for below-the-fold posts, so here it is in all its lengthy glory.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Intro Textbook

[Cross-posted at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-scope]

It's the time of year again when many of us are preparing syllabi for introductory courses, so it seems like a good time to ask two related questions.

First, which film analysis/media studies/film history textbooks do people prefer to use? I've only used David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Film Art, which I'm partly pleased with (great illustrations, detailed discussion of form), partly annoyed with (poor model of textual analysis). I've not used their Film History survey but others I know have had good experiences with it. I've heard positive things about Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White's The Film Experience, but have yet to take a closer look. Any suggestions or experiences people would like to share?

Second, what do the intro books say about our discipline? I have enough post-semiotic rigor envy to wish we had better stepping stones in teaching disciplinary knowledge, along the lines of economics, sociology or what have you. There is a collective and dispersed understanding of what film and humanities media scholarship means, broadly, yet so much of it is encapsulated in individual essays, many of which are written at a theoretical and advanced level. Some textbooks have tried to step into the breach by tackling film theoretical subjects, yet there's still much work to be done to bridge the formal art-appreciation discourse of Film Art with the kinds of textual study many of us do.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Avant Garde: Academic Study and Film Culture

Girish is hosting a blog-a-thon on avant-garde cinema. (See his post for a full list of links.) I'm a day late, but I thought I'd take the occasion to reflect on avant-garde studies within the academy. I tend to find much theoretical and critical study of avant-garde work insufficiently critical - that is, scholars tend to take up the very position of avant-gardism of the work they study in a way that they would never do in approaching a commercial narrative film. I don't mean to paint with broad brushstroke or suggest that this all avant-garde study is currently about, but it does seem a real methodological pitfall for those, like me, who argue that film scholarship can and often should take a detached, analytical stance toward its object of study. (Incidentally, documentary studies has its own version of this pitfall.)

On the other hand, even the detached stance cannot adequately explain the avant-garde's textuality, history or social function without reconstituting the aesthetic formations in which the films were produced and received. This becomes particularly crucial when teaching the avant-garde as part of a general film curriculum; students are often so keen to dismiss non-fiction, non-documentary filmmaking as worthless that it's worth devoting some energy to suggest why some consider(ed) avant-garde films as the fullest expression of cinematic art.

Furthermore, whether we're talking about pedagogy or scholarship proper, the availability of avant-garde texts is slim enough that even the most distant of historians or critics might find some worth in encouraging a film culture that circulates avant-garde film texts. Girish's commenters have compiled some suggestions of avant-garde films on DVD release, but the brtue reality is that the vast plurality of the major, not to mention minor, films of the avant-garde have either no video release or else a release so expensive that educational or institutional exhibition is the only real option. So you get Brakhage, Deren, the 20s avant-garde, and a handful of filmmakers that have decided to self-release; missing are postwar American experimental work, structural materialism and the post-1970 co-op distributed films. And then there are those you can't show in a classroom even if you wanted to: perhaps my personal favorite and an interesting historical example of the expressive vocabulary of midcentury American experimental filmmaking, Gregory Markopoulos's Twice a Man, does not have any general 16mm distribution outside select festival and archival showings. Now, obviously there are reasons that video release would be inferior of even useless compared to film screenings, but with schools increasingly turning away from film screening in their cinema studies classes, a lack of video formats means an absence of the avant-garde in course syllabi.

Against this backdrop, Michael Zryd's essay, "The Academy and the Avant-Garde: A Relationship and Dependence." (Cinema Journal 45.2) makes a twofold argument. First, he argues polemically for the academy's continued support of avant-garde filmmaking, along the lines I consider above. Second, he makes an analytical argument that avant-garde practice can only be understood properly by taking into account the imbrications between avant-garde filmmaking and academic film studies:

Since the exponential rise of film studies as a discipline in the mid-1960s,universities have supported avant-garde film production, sustained its distribution co-ops, and served as its primary site of exhibition in North America. Furhtermore, because sales and rentals to universities are the primary market for avant-garde film, scholarly criticism - serving a de facto publicity function - has had a decisive impact on the avant-garde film world in a way that is unthinkable for narrative feature-length filmmaking. (17).
Zryd here is performing what I think is an interesting balancing act, on one hand pledging a scholar's allegiance to avant-garde film culture while subjecting the avant-garde to the sorts of archival historical analysis that one would normally apply to feature filmmaking. In this case, instead of studio records, he sorts through booking receipts of the Filmmaker's Coop. It might not completly avoid the pitfalls of participant-observer criticism (and I know many will object to my objections on this matter), but it reframes them in a productive way.