Vernacular Modernism Revisited

One of my central projects is to argue that the work of Pierre Bourdieu has considerable, yet-untapped value for film scholars, and I'm always keeping an eye out for the way film scholars deploy Bourdieu's concepts, like cultural capital and field of cultural production. So it was with interest that I came across a recent essay in Film Criticism (30.2, Winter 05/06) by Andrew Spicer called "Creativity and the B Feature: Terence Fisher's Crime Films," which at the outset places the genre in the context of the field of cultural production. Essentially, Spicer argues that the director of B crime dramas had a limited range of expressive possibility compared to the screenwriter and in face of industrial constraints (time and budget) but that nonetheless the noir-ification of the British crime drama opened up space for innovation.

Oddly enough, Bourdieu here seems merely an afterthought to an auteurist reading. At best, Spicer seems to use the notion of a cultural production field in not to dissimilar a manner that Lea Jacobs uses cultural capital in discussing the B film: it's simply a fancier way of noting that cultural value judgments saw A films as superior to B films. What ended up interesting me in the Spicer essay was less his use of Bourdieu - or his main argument even - and instead the conention put forth in the beginning but never fully developed that

the 'B' feature crime film was undergoing a significant change in this period, discarding the older murder mystery tradition and embracing film noir... a change that enabled it to register the profound disruption that the Second World War had on the social fabric in Britain and on male psychology (24-5).
Fortunately this idea gets fuller treatment in a 1999 essay, "The Emergence of the British tough guy," that Spicer contributed to the Steve Chibnall/Robert Murphy edited volume British Crime Cinema (Routledge). To me, partly because I'm working on similar concerns of reading the ideological formation across industry and reception, it's a fascinating look at the Americanization of masculinity in crime films and the class dynamics they tap into. Essentially, the petit bourgeoisie's prominence in the British cinema audience wanes in the postwar years while the more affluent of the working class increases in importance. This shift drives a break in the representational tropes and genre conventions. What's more, Spicer draws on a fascinating-sounding Herbert Gans study of cinemagoing in Britain to tie an argument about sociology of taste to the textual, industrial and interpretive questions he's looking at. (Open question: how much does the rigid class structure in Britain allow academics to get away with generalization along class lines that would raise objections in the U.S. for valid or ideological reasons?)

Throughout, I kept thinking of Miriam Hansen's work on vernacular modernsim and on the counterpublic sphere. The Negt/Kluge model of a commodity-based, nonrational public sphere seems abstruse, but the illustration comes into relief in scenarios that Spicer describes, in which the pleasures of the commodity form provide a real space of collective experience that runs parallel and counter to the official culture of rational debate. Hansen has focused a lot on applying Kluge's class-oriented definition to the experience of gender and sexuality; Spicer's work may provide a good illustration of the original.


C.f. Miriam Hansen, "The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism." Modernism / Modernity 6.2 (April 1999): 59-77; also in: Linda Williams and Christine Gledhill, eds., Reinventing Film Studies (London: Edward Arnold, 2000); and "Fallen Women, Rising Stars, New Horizons: Shanghai Silent Film as Vernacular Modernism." Film Quarterly 54.1 (Fall 2000): 10-22.


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