Thursday, July 23, 2009

Taste and Scholarship

The conversation continues on over chez Girish. One question that Girish raises:
Also, to touch on Elkins again for a second: he wishes at one point in the book for art critics who not only make evaluative judgments but also perform reflections on their own judgments, thus laying bare and reflecting upon the criteria they apply to their evaluations. This is a valuable form of self-consciousness, a self-reflection upon the critic's own taste: the criteria applied by the critic, what that critic's taste values and does not value, which includes a connecting up of one's taste with history, i.e. inserting oneself into a historical lineage of thought about art and its evaluation. This is an interesting challenge.
Gareth pipes in that scholars often ignore popular cinema and don't take its aesthetic value seriously.

Their points made me wonder: how much does canonicity still hold in the field? How self-conscious are scholars about their own taste formations and biases?

I'll reveal my cards first: I see no problem with canons per se, since the academy can be a useful place for discussing and upholding work (experimental film, social documentary, national cinema) that lacks a broad constituency. And my tastes are canonical, more canonical than most. At the same time, my approach to research is resolutely anti-canonical. I find that canons get in the way of a broader understanding of cinematic history.

What of the field as a whole? My generalizations:

- Scholars of Hollywood (and of British cinema) tend to be more populist than area scholars studying prestige national cinemas. There are signs this is changing, with recent conferences and books on European popular cinema, but even still studies of popular French or German films, say, seem thin on the ground.

- The field embraces low culture as well as high culture, but rarely the middle.

- On one hand, cultural studies has left its mark in the field as a whole, pushing it in a populist direction. On the other hand, the move it is often at the price of a full aesthetic understanding of popular cinema.

- What I call the New Theoretical Turn in film studies has reacted not only against historicism but also against cultural studies. As such, it has embraced noticeably more canonical objects of study and with them a more canonical attitude. To take one example, when Tom Conley seeks to understand a cartographic discourse in Cartographic Cinema, his first examples of recourse are Casablanca and The 400 Blows. He certainly reads these differently than auteurists would but does not submit them to an objectifying analysis. Nor does he ever entertain the possibility that one might need to find a more typical film to establish a broad discourse.

- Even with these vicissitudes (populism, followed by theoretical turn), there remains a split psyche for many scholars. Certainly for me. Many embody a cinephile taste and teach some variant of this taste, all the while sidestepping judgment in research. I'm happy with this split approach but understand others might call it hypocrisy.


Gareth said...


I wouldn't say that scholars often ignore the aesthetic value of popular cinema, I would say more simply that they often ignore the value of popular cinema.

To take one of the national cinema examples you mention, scholars will search out aesthetic, political, and other values in, say, Godard, Melville, Varda, etc. but they may ignore, in all respects, films by Zidi or similar "popular" directors. I remember coming across a Positif article contemptuously entitled "Pinotalziberman," a RoGoPaG-style conflation of many popular directors' names, which conspicuously failed to engage with what might have been interesting in the films.

I don't think Zidi is a director who merits the same sustained focus as the others I mentioned, but some of his films may conceivably have things to say about French society, inter alia. Sadly, it's rare to read about these kinds of films (Dyer/Vincendeau's 1992 collection Popular European Cinema is still something of a lonely example, with articles about phenomena such as the Finnish Uuno Turhapuro films).

Middento said...

Chris --

Great questions. Not to toot my own horn, but my own work attempts to tackle this very question. In fact, I have a chapter in my (just-released! woohoo! plug!) book called "Shaping Peruvian Taste: 'Good' and 'Bad' Peruvian Movies." The book as a whole tries to contextualize the local critics' (along with the publication that published this writing) positions ans argues that they helped (and still help?) shape the national cinematic canon as it develops. I believe this kind of analysis may not hold for established cinematic canons in France and the US, but perhaps still hold true in other countries where cinematic canons are smaller/developing/weakly defined.

Anyway, I'm finding this fascinating. Thanks for throwing open the discussion -- and I'm glad I found it.


HarryTuttle said...

High brow, low brow and middle brow. So you're saying that whatever producers put up on screen should be (equally) scrutinized by film studies.
In literature class you teach books by people who know how to write, not the mediocre books...
History only remembers the landmarks, not every inch of the road that got us here.
To me, the issue here is not about the range of field of study, but about the definition of the object. If the object of film studies is the entire catalogue of world cinema it is a duplication of the distribution releases, and scholars should line up, like reviewers, to comment every film in the weekly batch showing in theatres. They wouldn't miss a single one that way.

P.S.1 Casablanca and Les 400 Coups just happened to be popular mainstream success upon release as well as critically acclaimed icons.

P.S.2 actually Positif is the most middle-brow friendly magazine in the specialized press. They often make a cover with a Pixar animation or a Hollwyood comedy.

Chris Cagle said...

Some great comments here, thanks.

Gareth- I didn't mean to put words in your mouth. You make me want to go watch more popular French cinema.

Jeff- your work sounds interesting. And indeed posing the question of critical taste along a US/Europe axis ignores Latin America, not to mention Asia and Africa.

Harry- I wouldn't say that film studies should study high, middle, and low equally (note that I stood up for the canon), but that they should study each substantially. Film scholars do have a way of doing this without duplicating imdb or losing sight of defining an object of study. You misrepresent what literary studies and history do, at least in the US academy, where popular books and "ordinary" experience" are legitimate objects of study.... in France, too, the Annales school (Braudel comes to mind) argued that history should not be only about the landmarks. You make a useful point about Casablanca and 400 Blows, and I'm interested in studies that understand the popular dimension of works since canonized (Robert Ray's or Mark Betz's comes to mind). That, however, is not what Tom Conley is doing. To pick those two films for a discursive reading about "cinema" is to presume a narrow, transcultural canon. For better or worse.

ZC said...

I think this is a good breakdown of some the issues, Chris. Regarding the potential hypocrisy of "split" tastes--it's a question of aim or function, right? Perhaps I adore Dreyer and Kluge and whoever above all other filmmakers; but this fact in itself need have no bearing on the topics I want to address in scholarship, which may have nothing to do with the documentation or elucidation of (what I see as) cinema's high points. Canons can be useful, for standards descriptive or evaluative, for shorthand purposes too, and they will surely persist regardless of how we feel about them. But not all scholarship need address a canon.

Harry, the study of literature of those who 'know how to write' is a necessary thing; but it does not tell us all the questions we might feel like asking about literature, its own history, its roles in wider history. The research of someone like Franco Moretti, for example, has a very useful place in the field of literary studies. To me one of the problems in intellectual culture at large is the threat of an imperializing tendency, so that every stance, posture, or specialization becomes an imperative one in the internecine wars of some "field" or "community."

I second Chris's endorsement of Mark Betz's work by the way--really excellent material on European art cinema; I've read his articles and am making my way through his book now. So much material on that subset of cinema consists of either underdeveloped and often a bit cynical explorations of taste culture (I get the feeling that some writers don't really like these art films and their makers, and would not extend to them the same flexible generosity that would be de rigeur for a cultural studies analysis of a popular set of films, e.g., I got this feeling from some of Peter Lev's 1993 book on Euro-American cinema) ... or it is a continuation, albeit sometimes very sophisticated and useful, of Great Men/Romantic Authors traditions. Betz is trying to negotiate that crucial middle ground, the way that form and style have worked in this tradition of Euro art cinema, how they have been informed by taste cultures and industry; but also how they work as objects in themselves, the ways in which they are productive of meaning as something more than merely conduits of status. And, to return to middlebrow concerns, there is always Durgnat's very fun polemical defense of post-WWII classical British cinema, A Mirror for England!

HarryTuttle said...

It is hypocrisy indeed to blame scholars for lacking evaluation AND for picking exclusive elective areas of study... Do you want them to show taste priorities or to embrace all?

The example you cite Chris, are historians, it's their job to be comprehensive. The question is very different in specific art fields. That's the problem with "cultural studies", they want less to study cinema itself, than to become historians and sociologists. Sure we need people studying society as a whole, but it's not longer film studies. My opposition vis-a-vis this approach is not to prevent anybody from doing so, it's from calling it "film studies".

With literature, there is little argument whether a writer has potential or not. But with music, it's even more blatant : anyone can hear a note out of tune, because it's dissonant. So there is a technical distinction between music and noise. (Don't pull me a Fluxus, it's not music, it's conceptual art)
But in cinema it seems virtually impossible for people (audience, critics, scholars) to discard any movie, just because the camera always records something, and if "life" is recorded then it's a legit object of study... But the object of study is shifting from "cinema" to "society".
Either you study the production of art (even popular drama) with a camera (=Film Studies), or you study the documentation of society (=General History). Obviously ethnologists could easily take bad movies as objects (not for the plot and acting, but for its social work). But it will definitely stay the left over in film studies because it's not a representative object of "cinema" (with accomplished intentions, production of meaning, aesthetic construction... like tuning, harmony, rhythm are to music, a medium specific technical definition).

There is only so much Ed Woods we can study for posterity. Cinema history is not going to learn much from these.
I worry more for contemporary masters who are understudied until they die! Do you think there is already too many books on Jia, Tarr, Kiarostami? Are Film Studies running out of high brow objects? Take a stab at Michael Bay after you've exhausted these, please. ;)

ZC said...

It is hypocrisy indeed to blame scholars for lacking evaluation AND for picking exclusive elective areas of study... Do you want them to show taste priorities or to embrace all?

I don't think we were talking about the same things. This has nothing to do with anything I wrote.

So you've acknowledged that your problem could be solved if only these (admittedly useful) historical or sociological approaches were just called by names other than 'film studies.' OK. Harry, you are under no personal obligation to refer to these 'historians and sociologists' as film scholars. However, the discipline of film/media studies has developed in such as a way as to be defined by its general object of attention, and not its methodology. If it is not pristine, it is nevertheless the field's reality.

We would be quite impoverished if art history were comprised solely of the explication of the works of the Old Masters and today's art world darlings. Or if say, the work of Michael Baxandall or Aby Warburg was considered something other than 'art history' because its concerns were also heavily 'historical' and 'sociological' ...

Chris Cagle said...

ZC, to be fair, I think Harry's comments were directed mostly at me and not your comment. But I agree with your defense of film studies as a field.

Harry, we're working from different premises and are likely going to continue to disagree. But I want to say that the case for including historical and social questions in film studies, along with the aesthetic ones, has two major reasons.

First, historians and sociologists aren't fully exploring the historical and social aspects of cinema, at least not as film scholars do. Ideological readings (say, Gledhill on Klute's "feminism") or cultural studies readings (say, Bennett/Woolacott on the Bond films' shifting meaning) have a methodology that produces different and additional insight into films. Our training in aesthetic interpretation gives us a unique perspective in approaching historical and social questions.

Second, film has historically been a popular art. There are art films or experimental films, too, of course, and often cinephiles will make the case for cinematic art on these examples. But there's a good case to be made that many films are a popular cultural phenomenon, an industrial product, and artistic expression. You can, of course, analyze a Howard Hawks or an Otto Preminger film as a self-contained aesthetic object, but it seems an odd position to study Hollywood and not factor in the fact that it derives a good bit of its meaning from its status as mass phenomenon and as industrial product. How would one deal with stardom, for instance?

By the way, I feel fairly confident in saying that there are more dedicated academic studies of Kiarostami than of Michael Bay, at least within film studies venues.

HarryTuttle said...

Sorry Zach, the word "hypocrisy" referred to Chris' closing statement in his post above.

Chris: "there are more dedicated academic studies of Kiarostami than of Michael Bay"

I hope so. But I don't think the ultimate goal is that there'll be as many books on Michael Bay. Why do you want to level this imbalance with middle brow? It takes 1 day to study Michael Bay's oeuvre, and reviewers can do it, if they did their job correctly. While 1 single film by Kiarostami would take a lifetime of academic studies.

Maybe middle brow could appeal to scholars if there was meat to chew on, like when talented people made these movies (Hitchcock, Ford, Ozu, Kurosawa). Unfortunately I don't think we have this level of depth in today's middle brow... Middle brow is not inherently banned from film studies, it's just that it is useless, stereotypical, formulaic, contrived most of the time.

What examples of interesting middle brow objects have you got?

HarryTuttle said...

Nothing? Yeah I thought so.

Chris and Dave said...


I think there are many, many interesting middlebrow movies, just as there are many, many interesting lowbrow and highbrow movies. But perhaps I'm not thinking of the same things as "middlebrow." Could you go into more depth regarding what you consider "middlebrow"? To me, the term is context-dependent. I consider Michael Mann movies, David Fincher movies, Clint Eastwood movies, David O. Russell movies, and Steven Soderbergh movies to all be interesting as aesthetic objects; I think they represent mainstream art cinemas.

But on the other hand, what we find interesting is often dependent on the types of questions asked and the services performed by the answers. I could find ANY middlebrow movie interesting if it helped me answer a question I find interesting. This kind of investigation would also help me grow more acquainted with the movie and its area, which would also make me more likely to consider those things interesting.

Depending on the questions I was trying to answer, I could spend a lot longer on Michael Bay than Abbas Kiarostami. The converse could also be true, of course. But neither one automatically deserves my attention for any particular length of time, in my opinion.

Dave Andrews