Film Theory and the Problem of Chronology

Jason Sperb has posted a couple of his syllabi, including one for a film theory class. His class has some terrific choices, which are already inspiring me as I fine tune my syllabi for my film theory classes this semester. He's also using the same anthology I'm using, Corrigan, White, and Mazaj's Critical Visions in Film Theory (Bedford St. Martin's).

I'll post my syllabi soon, but I wanted first to highlight a conceptual issue I've been wrestling with in teaching the film theory class: how much should I arrange a syllabus in chronological order? I don't mean chronology in the strictest sense, in which all writing form 1978 has to come before that from 1985. Rather, I mean organizing the syllabus according to the intellectual history of the field, with identifiable theoretical schools following one after the other. To be honest, this is my first inclination. There are a few reasons, but the biggest is that film theory itself tends to refer to prior schools and works. Even though I really like the Critical Visions anthology and find it a welcome improvement over prior anthologies, I do find it a weakness that the books skips certain conceptual steps and expects students/readers to figure out what semiotics, signification, or the "subject" mean without reading anything that explains these concepts.

Then again, I can imagine the editors would counter that an anthology has to start somewhere, and now that contemporary film theory alone has had a run of roughly 40 years, it's sometimes worth skipping to more current debates rather than have to recreate Cahiers' political thriller debate, Screen's realism debate, or Cinema Journal's melodrama debate.

For me, an additional issue is that I'm teaching mostly production students who are interested in theory but not invested in schematizing overview that one would need for an orals exam or even a journal article. For this reason, this semester I'm trying a more conceptual organization to my syllabus and addressing key problems that film theory tries to answer. I'm not dispensing with chronology altogether - I'm still teaching Bazin before semiotics before cultural studies. But I'm loosening up the focus on intellectual history. Maybe I'll learn that I need to go further.


Dave said…
An awkward tension with (us) production students, certainly. I still feel it coming out of a production program with what I would call a "healthy gloss" but not a really deep or systematic understanding of various corners of film theory. I wonder what would happen if you started your course with something like an overview or historical map of crucial debates, a kind of "history of cinema theory debates for dummies" approach. Afterward you could then mess with the timeline and focus on theme over chronology. I think that, as you mention, getting concepts like signification or semiotics thrown at you in bits and pieces can be really frustrating. (I've always hated feeling "out of the loop" when theorists wink toward huge swathes of critical discourse with which I'm just familiar enough to know I'm missing it.)

I can almost imagine a pecha kucha format -- 20 slides in five minutes -- that blows through the evolution of cinema studies as filtered through other academic disciplines (semiotics, psychoanalysis, etc.), just to orient students who are for the most part unfamiliar with the chronology altogether. But I think you would have to keep this at the "orienting" phase since I don't think it makes much sense for students who are NOT expected to actually demonstrate deep understanding for a specific purpose (e.g. orals) to develop it anyway.

(In responding to this, I'm thinking specifically of the masterful and at least partially improvised "theory web" that you created during break at one point during our graduate theory course. The combination of subtle showmanship and your acknowledgement of a depth of knowledge about different strands of theory was informative and memorable. Nothing like a concise, intellectually-compelling spectacle to attract the interests of film students. Or maybe it was the sense of impromptu storytelling?)
Kristi said…
A timely message, as I'm currently wrestling over book decisions for my fall theory course. I've taught the Braudy and Cohen anthology for years, but I find I'm bustling too quickly through too much material--though I feel responsible to introduce students to the history of contemporary theory *and* the history of the theories that aren't as explicitly manifest in current thinking (I want them to see what does/doesn't work, or what has/hasn't worked, and to think through why and how, over these years). But I realize I'm attempting both an historiography course and a theory course at once--and not doing appropriate justice to either. I'm inclined to try out the _Critical Visions_ anthology, and I'm glad to read you and Jason are teaching it, too.

I might also require Mulvey's _Death 24x a Second_, for its lucid accessible structure of spectatorial engagement (and its own debt to Barthes, Bazin, etc.).

In response to Dave's comment, gosh, I'd *love* to see you at work offering a "theory web"; if you ever feel inclined to prepare the 20 slides on the evolution of cinema studies, I know I'd credit you in the classroom while introducing my own students to the field. You your spare time, of course. Thanks, Chris, for your thoughtful post (as always).

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