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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Histories Overlook

I found my scholarly motto, in a Richard Maltby essay ("Post-classical historiographies and consolidated entertainment" Neale/Smith, eds., Contemporary Hollywood Cinema). The essay has been out for some time; I missed this the first time around:
What is certainly true of the history of classical Hollywood as presently written is that the industry's prestige product has been excluded from the critical canon as criticism seeks to construct a Hollywood cinema worthy - thematically, aesthetically, ideologically - of study (40).
What's remarkable is that this is still true, and that the vein to mine is pretty rich.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Scholar-Critic Conversation

Girish has a thoughtful and thought-provoking post on the gap between film scholarship and film criticism. I'll agree with most of what he says, though I'm not sure how to bridge the gap and think it's a broader problem about the relation of humanities scholarship to a general public. (What Would Tim Burke Say?)

For now, let me both agree and quibble with this:
One of the invaluable aspects of scholarly work is this "huge collective effort" that builds upon the work of others--both of centuries past and contemporary. The edifices that scholars construct have the likelihood of being tall and capacious by virtue of the largeness of this effort. There is a lesson here that film critics can learn from scholars: the practice of reading widely to become familiar with traditions of thought in film, art, philosophy, and other disciplines that can guide them and their readers towards a deeper understanding of cinema.
I myself like the "standing on the shoulder of giants" understanding of what academic knowledge does. And I think it explains why activity that will seem pedantic or useless to the lay person actually seems tremendously valuable to the scholar: we measure success incrementally. At the same time, this big-edifice model of knowledge actually has the reverse effect than the one that Girish describes. Rather than meaning that scholars read widely, it pushes them to read narrowly, at least after an initial, journeyman stage of education.

If I were to be optimistic, I'd propose a model that's different than pure specialization or pure dilettantism. For lack of a better name, I'd call it randomization. Each scholar specializes but looks to new ideas, methodologies, and inspiration in a limited fashion with the hope that collectively we mitigate the downside of stale intellectual mindsets. The journalist, blogger, or public intellectual could have a role in this.

Learning from Failures (Narration Edition)

As I've mentioned before, I think there's a pedagogical value - for our students and for ourselves - in approaching failures as opportunities to learn. This holds true whether we think they're genuine failures or merely seeming failures. For instance, and I know some people will disagree with this assessment, I find Cruising to be a screenwriting and directing failure because it hinges on a character epiphany it is only fitfully able to show, but this inability reveals how both classical and art films normally handle character epiphany.

Or, there's this user-board reaction to a giallo film, Case of the Bloody Iris:
"The Case Of The Bloody Iris" is a movie filled with so many stupid and cheesy moments that it's impossible to list them all here (just an example: a bloody corpse is discovered in the elevator of a high-rise apartment building while the sun is still up; after several hours, the night has fallen, a woman tries to get into the elevator, and the corpse is still there, lying at the exact same spot - apparently none of the tenants cared enough to call the police).
Thing is, in the film it's not that the body remains in the elevator for several hours, but that the narration flashes back or maybe gives a psychological insert. For those of trained to read art cinema techniques, this seems obvious, but the review suggests it's not obvious at all. This would corroborate David Bordwell's point, and the cognitivists', that narrational decoding involves learned schema on the spectator's part. At the same time, I'm curious why these schema should be apprehendable to some and not to others.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

New RKO Essay

I've let the blog lapse lately. More will be coming this summer, but right now I'm teaching and facing a writing deadline, so it may be a little while longer before the posts return.

In the meantime, I wanted to let anyone interested know that I have an essay out in a new book, Convergence Media History, edited by Janet Staiger and Sabine Hake (Routledge site). The book compiles media-history case studies (in film, TV, or other media) that tease out broader methodological implications for media research today. My essay, "When Pierre Bourdieu Meets the Political Economists," looks at the RKO problem-film unit.

There are a couple of other bloggers with essays in the volume, and in general I'm pleased to be included in such good company.