Interview with Felipe Pruneda Sentíes

At last year's SCMS conference, one of the best panels I attended was on Film Theory Beyond the Euro-American Canon, a two-part panel that argued for the inclusion of national film theory traditions lost in the focus on France, Germany, and (occasionally) Italy.  In this it dovetailed with some work being done under the auspices of the The Permanent Seminar on Histories of Film Theories' Translation Project.

I suggested on Twitter would be a welcome regular part of SCMS, so I wanted to talk to one of the panel organizers, Felipe Pruneda Sentíes, about the issues the panels raised. He graciously agreed.

What was your goal in organizing or participating in the "Film Theory and Criticism beyond the Euro-American Canon" panels?

On a very basic level, to draw attention to the very presence of non-canonical approaches to theories of film ontology (some present in criticism) and to interrogate if the field has some linguistic and geographic limitations. Even before we get to the complexities and value of those writings, simply insisting that these writings are acknowledged was a central goal for me.... I hoped to highlight the fact that there is a concerted effort to destabilize the canon and to see what we can learn from exploring histories of cinematic theories and criticism that do not follow the most widely available narratives for the dominant centers of the field. The panels were an affirmation of this project as a larger collaboration rather than as relatively isolated studies.

Does work in other national contexts challenge how we value theoretical forms beyond high theory, such as manifestos or journalistic criticism?

I believe so, especially since in many countries, the most insightful and influential writings on cinema might have been produced outside academia, often considered the territory of high theory and in particular classical film theory. I’m put in mind of a great article Adrian Martin wrote in response to David Bordwell’s book Making Meaning. Martin points out that Bordwell’s history of film studies inevitably ends in the university, after a few “freelance heavies” like Bazin and Eisenstein first showed the way. Martin counters with his experience of the “field” (and these are his quotation marks, immediately questioning what we might mean by a “field of knowledge”), in which his mentors in cinema studies often never held professorial positions, and where the most exciting works on the subject did not appear in “theory journals,” but rather in independent magazines without academic credentials. It is necessary to realize that film thought (a term I prefer to “film studies” in this case, for it does not distinguish between theory, criticism, and other forms of inquiry) happens in very different sectors of human activity, and they all hold the potential to develop rich, productive frameworks. The goal is to create dialogues with them that avoid constructing a hierarchy between regimes of knowledge, but that establish links that would make these frameworks available in all their forms – to borrow a few words from Benjamin – in the classroom.

Emilio García Riera, one Mexico’s premiere film historians, once wrote “most of the most interesting work on cinema is written in or translated into English,” expressing his own desire to master that language so he can access some examples of high theory. Even though my own work was inspired by the absence of theories from outside Europe and North America in many survey courses of film theory, it is fueled, perhaps with greater intensity, by how Mexican scholars themselves participate in that absence. I admire efforts by scholars like Lauro Zavala to establish film studies as an academic field in Mexican universities, but some of those efforts admit to a dearth of information on local theories while underscoring the necessity to become familiar with the theories that constitute the existing field.

Should SCMS have an ongoing engagement with non-canonical theory? What form might this take?

The answer to the first question I think is yes, it should, and in some ways it does, if we define non-canonical theory as not just transnational approaches, but also theories of underrepresented perspectives. An overview of panels and workshops tells me that there’s interest in non-canonical classical film theory outside of scholarly groups and caucuses.

But the second question is harder. I once thought that I would not want non-canonical theories of film ontology to become a section or an offshoot of the broader conference, which to me might be a way of keeping non-canonical theory in check by giving it a token legitimacy, a presence that does not spill outside the boundaries of a niche because it feels like an earned acknowledgement. But now I don’t think creating a scholarly interest group or a caucus, for example, always accomplishes a kind of neutralization. Indeed, it would be a great start for gaining traction and attention. But really I would like to see non-canonical theories informing every investigation, producing research that constructs wildly diverging genealogies, so that a canon would at least become a blurry historical entity, a distant, rather than looming, shadow.

What other efforts are going on currently to translate and popularize non-canonical theory and criticism in the field?

I am mostly aware of collections, some in translation, some in their original language, that bring to the table previously unknown or understudied work. Viviane Mahieux collected the works of pioneering Mexican film critic Cube Bonifant in Una pequeña Marquesa de Sade (A Little Marquise de Sade) in 2009, and 2012 saw the release of a mammoth edition of Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s complete works on film. I also know of a great book by Elizabeth Nazarian called The Tenth Muse: Karol Irzykowski and Early Film Theory, which looks at the writings of the Polish intellectual of the title and provides an excellent example of how locate an original contribution to film thought without overemphasizing the historical and geographical context that would anchor her chosen theorist’s work.

And there’s a great collection, Cinema All the Time: An Anthology of Czech Film Theory and Criticism, 1908-1939, edited by Jaroslav Andel and Petr Szczepanik and translated by Kevin B. Johnson. (It’s interesting to see how many of these efforts are also focused on early film criticism, most of them from the beginnings of cinema and contained in the first half of the twentieth century).

What is your personal research in this regard?

Latin American theory is my particular area of interest at this point, more specifically in Mexico, and finding the makings of theoretical ideas within non-institutional forms of film writing. There are two writers in particular whose work I would love to translate: José Revueltas and Jorge Ayala Blanco, the latter of which has an ongoing series of books on Mexican cinema that is a great example of ludic, poetic reflection as a form of creative inquiry into cinema, which is another central concern of mine, alongside how differences in technological availability and production influence the pathways of film theory and criticism.

Are there scholars whose work should be highlighted?

Well, besides our panelists Weihong Bao, Aparna Frank, Naoki Yamamoto, Jason McGrath, Katarina Mihailovic and Masha Salazkina of course, and Mahieux and Nazarian, I would also mention, from within North American film studies, Robert Ray, who offers a good springboard for thinking about issues of theory proliferation in his book How a Film Theory Got Lost. And I think a book like Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton’s edited volume The Language and Style of Film Criticism is another place to get a sense of meta-critical work that questions what it means to produce knowledge about cinema, and thus begins to open up possibilities for studies of writings outside the academy. There is a piece in there by Adrian Martin that highlights work of three critics that were completely unknown to me: John Flaus, Shigehiko Hasumi and Frieda Grafe. These three were not scholars, so I would also advice to keep an eye on the work of a few non-academic critics. I wish I could mention many many more, but look forward to hearing about more works on this area.

What practices do you wish scholars who don't have area studies-specialization would adopt?

I’m not sure there’s anything specific that scholars who delve into national and transnational film cultures outside global Hollywood or Europe aren’t doing already (at least the ones I’ve read). I think it makes sense to seek the help of area studies scholars. Even though I grew up in Mexico – where I read criticism and some theory in Spanish – my entire academic formation has been squarely into academic film studies in the United States. My own knowledge of area studies has been acquired through dialogues with scholars who work in Latin American Studies, both in English and Spanish, and my own readings of their works. I think film scholars recognize and practice these collaborations and engage in these dialogues.

I do wonder, however, how many scholars make it a point of learning the language of a film culture that sparks their curiosity. How often does this happen? I don’t think you need to master a language to produce great research on a film culture in that language, nor am I saying that multilingualism should be a requirement in our field (some programs that I am aware of enforce it more than others). I know my own bilingualism came more from circumstances rather than only my own conscious work. But how feasible is it to undertake learning and even becoming reasonably fluent in a new language as part of our research projects? How much should we consider that our task? I think it is a good idea. I for one have future plans to work on Portuguese cinema and criticism, particularly after learning of an unfinished, multivolume work on film semiotics that a Portuguese electrical engineer, Fernando Gonçalves dos Santos Ferreira Lavrador, wrote in the eighties. I’m fascinated by the idea that it is an incomplete work from a non-academic perspective, and I believe I could only do it justice by learning its language. And doing so goes a long way in introducing us to concepts in area studies.


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