Mystery Trains

Film still for Mystery Trains

Few question that film studies needs reinventing but to Robert B. Ray, there's more than one way to skin a CATTt

Reinventing Film Studies
edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams
Publication details:
Arnold, 464pp £16.99, ISBN 0 340 67723 6

An anecdote and a project

Ever since the movies began over a century ago people have been trying to figure out what to think about them. When that effort has concerned the cinema in general, we call the result film theory. When it has involved the constructions of what E. M. Forster would have called cause-and-effect "plots" ("The king died, and then the queen died of grief"), we call it film history. Put the two together, and you get film studies, that curious academic discipline this book proposes to "reinvent".

Reinventions of disciplines do, of course, occur from time to time, but in film studies they have been rare. We associate them with certain names (Eisenstein, Bazin), movements (auteurism) or even journals (Screen), and they have usually amounted to shifts in attention from one aspect of cinema to another: from editing to mise en scène in Bazin's case; from film-maker to spectator in the case of Screen. This new anthology's reinvention seems more modest, encouraging less a lighting out of new territory than a suburban sprawl into an amalgam of issues involving topics previously assigned to sociology: mass culture, identity politics, digital image-making. In fact, however, Reinventing Film Studies offers an implicit motto - Historicise! - another way of saying, once again, that everything, including presumably film studies, is socially constructed.

It's a hard lesson to remember. Each important moment in film studies thinks it has got things right. But since intellectual fashions can change justlikethat (as e. e. cummings put it), film scholars might do well to post above their desks this warning from Wallace Stevens: "Little of what we have believed has been true. Only the prophecies are true." Here is one prophecy, made almost 70 years ago by Walter Benjamin as he struggled to devise a means of writing that would work as powerfully as the movies: "Uprising of the anecdotes... The constructions of history are comparable to instructions that commandeer the true life and confine it to barracks. On the other hand: the street insurgence of the anecdote. The anecdote brings things near to us spatially, lets them enter our life. It represents the strict antithesis to the sort of history... which makes everything abstract."

Here is what Benjamin might have called a "dialectical anecdote" about the cinema. One morning in 1933, MGM's story editor Samuel Marx arrived at his office to find scriptwriter F. Hugh Herbert waiting for him. Herbert had worked in Hollywood since the silent days and loved MGM so much he had been married in a church set on the back lot; but with the coming of sound his career had waned, and although still on salary, he was used less often. Marx tried to brush him off, but Herbert said that Irving Thalberg himself had told him to come for an assignment. "When did Thalberg say that?" Marx asked sceptically. "Last night. He dropped in to see me at my house." Convinced Herbert was inventing an excuse, Marx persisted: "How was he dressed?" "In a tuxedo." "And does he usually dress like that when he drops in on you?" Admitting that Thalberg had never paid him a visit before, Herbert nevertheless insisted that Irving had come calling around 10 o'clock the previous night, and that after drinking some brandy, had asked whether Herbert was working. Told that he wasn't, Thalberg suggested he go to Marx for a job. "When I woke up the next morning," Herbert confessed, "I thought I had dreamt it, so I went downstairs and there was the brandy bottle, with two glasses on the dining-room table." Still incredulous, Marx saw Thalberg later that day and asked him about Herbert's story, which, surprisingly, Thalberg confirmed: "I went to see someone who lives on the same street, but I rang the wrong doorbell. He asked me in and I couldn't refuse." "It seemed odd," Marx remembered, "he didn't explain what had happened and go on to his planned destination." "Hughie's not a bad writer," Thalberg added. "See if you can find something for him." Marx bought a story from Herbert that became a B-movie, Women in His Life, the first picture at MGM for George B. Seitz, the director of the Andy Hardy series that made Mickey Rooney a box-office star.

The contradictory elements seem almost allegorical: an abandoned party, implied but not described; a Fitzgeraldian Hollywood night long ago; film-making's supreme rationaliser, lost on a suddenly strange street; a chance encounter, prolonged out of politeness; a coincidence leading to a new routine of perfectly planned serial production. When Benjamin proposed a historical method based on such images, Theodor Adorno could only reply: "Your study is located at the crossroads of magic and positivism. That spot is bewitched. Only theory could break the spell."

Adorno meant to be dismissive. In fact, he had produced the perfect definition of cinema ("the crossroads of magic and positivism") and of film studies' traditional project (to "break the spell"). As a technologically based, capital-intensive medium, film-making quickly developed into an industry attracted by positivism's applications: the Taylorist-Fordist models of rationalised production. And yet, as Thalberg realised, the movies succeeded commercially to the extent that they enchanted. Hence the inevitable question: could enchantment be mass-produced? Yes, as Godard once told Colin MacCabe, "the cinema is all money," but at any moment it can also become, as Godard wrote of Renoir's La Nuit du carrefour (Night at the Crossroads), "the air of confusion... the smell of rain and of fields bathed in mist."

In the 20s the surrealists and French impressionists focused almost exclusively on magic, offering the idea of photogénie as the essence of cinema. After 1968 magic became the problem, the source of the movies' ideological menace. Thus breaking the spell became film studies' object, a goal explicitly announced by Laura Mulvey in her brilliant "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", the 1975 Screen essay that became the breviary for two decades of theory. "It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it," Mulvey wrote. "That is the intention of this article."

The anecdote about Thalberg, however, suggests that film studies errs whenever it forgets either of the cinema's two elements. If surrealism settled for mystification, Screen theory often ignored the reasons why people went to the movies in the first place. Where do we go from here? In his famous study of imperialist terror, Shaminism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, Michael Taussig suggests that the task of understanding "calls neither for demystification nor remystification but for a quite different poetics of destruction and revelation." Hence, "Conrad's way of dealing with the terror of the rubber boom in the Congo was Heart of Darkness. There were three realities there, comments Frederick Karl: King Leopold's, made out of intricate disguises and deceptions, Roger Casement's studied realism [in his official reports], and Conrad's, which, to quote Karl, 'fell midway between the other two, as he attempted to penetrate the veil and yet was anxious to retain its hallucinatory quality.' This formulation is sharp and important: to penetrate the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality."

Here is the proposition: the goal of a reinvented film studies should be to penetrate the movies' veil while retaining their hallucinatory quality. The project is to invent a method that will achieve this balance.

QWERTY and the CATTt

Among the writers in Reinventing Film Studies, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith seems alone in understanding this point. "Finding meaning [i.e. demystification] has become an academic exercise," he writes in the book's opening essay. "It is useful work to set students to carry out but it is in danger of being routinised... The move in the direction of semiotics in the 1970s was, at least in part, a reaction against the kind of aesthetics that dealt in concepts that were 'indeterminate' and could not be brought within a rational schema [e.g.photogénie]. But the need for such a rational schema has become questionable. Too many of the things that films do evade attempts to subsume them under the heading of meaning."

If we're going to figure out a way of writing about the movies that simultaneously deciphers their workings and reproduces their spell, one thing is certain: we will have to experiment. But that is one thing academic film studies has proved resolutely unwilling to do. Although post-1968 film theory has drawn repeatedly on such writers as Benjamin, Brecht, Barthes and Derrida, who relied on fragments, digressions, puns and chance, film academics have ignored those writers' experiments, citing texts such as Barthes' autobiography as if it were a conventional critical essay instead of a mixture of photographs, drawings and alphabetised fragments. In fact, Anglo-American film studies has rejected everything but the traditional essay, in effect repeating Georg Lukács' mistaken insistence (made 70 years ago against Brecht) that only one kind of "realistic" literature was possible

Reinventing Film Studies contains not a single experimental piece. Organised into five sections - "Really Useful Theory", "Film as Mass Culture", "Questions of Aesthetics", "The Return to History" and "Cinema in the Age of Global Multimedia" - the anthology certainly offers a few interesting traditional essays: Jane Gaines on Hollywood's conflation of "dream" and "factory", Christine Geraghty on movie stardom in an age of television and pop music, Noël Carroll on film evaluation, Tom Gunning on early cinema's unknown future and Anne Friedberg on the effects of the VCR, remote controls and cable television. But there's also a lot of stuff like this sentence, where Gledhill and Williams summarise an essay on Singin' in the Rain: "Structuralist opposition gives way to a 'post-structuralist' Derridian deconstruction which gives way to a psychoanalytic and feminist interpretation of sexual difference to a cultural studies interpretation of Gene Kelly's star status to a queering of this image." In the days of the old Biff postcards, anyone trying a line like that got dismissed as a wanker. Now, you get promoted.

The problem isn't 'jargon' - every discipline has its own vocabulary (and quite rightly: do we want heart surgeons telling their assistants to "move that thingumajig over there"?). The problem involves using jargon to inflate a small point. When, for instance, Williams describes Hitchcock's often discussed innovation of admitting no latecomers to Psycho, we get what has become film studies' typical move: "How shall we construe this new disciplining of audiences to wait in line? Michel Foucault writes that 'discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, "docile" bodies'. He means that what we experience as autonomy is actually a subtle form of power." Well, maybe, but sometimes a queue is just a queue.

Reading through this anthology, or glancing at a list of recent papers given at the annual American Society for Cinema Studies conference, produces an awareness of certain words: the body, power, queering, cinema of attractions, historicise, identity, performativity, discipline. The field now gathers around these terms, certainly useful, but beaten to death. How did film studies, once the freshest, most daring wing of the humanities, settle into this rut? The answer is what economic historians call path dependence, an idea developed as a way of explaining why the free market's invisible hand does not always choose the best products. Beta and Macintosh lose to inferior alternatives, while a clumsy arrangement of keyboard symbols (known as QWERTY, for the first six letters on a typewriter's upper-left) becomes an international standard. Although an initial choice often occurs for reasons whose triviality eventually becomes evident (momentary production convenience, fleeting cost advantages), that decision establishes a path dependence almost impossible to break. Superior keyboard layouts have repeatedly been designed, but with so many typists in the world using QWERTY, they haven't a chance.

The small size of the academic film community and the decades-old oversupply of PhDs have made film studies especially prone to path dependence. In the US, where hiring, tenure and promotion now turn almost exclusively on regular and rapid publication, the temptation to reach for the most available template is overwhelming. If another essay conflating "performativity" and All about Eve gets you a job, who's to say you shouldn't go ahead? But if we really want to "reinvent" film studies, we had better try something different.

In his book Heuretics Gregory Ulmer argues that creativity proceeds by emulation, and that, as a result, avant-garde manifestos "belong to the tradition of the discourse on method" and "tend to include a common set of elements." Those elements can be mnemonically summarised by the acronym CATTt representing the following operations: C = Contrast; A = Analogy; T = Theory; T = Target; t = tale (or the form new work will adopt). Truffaut's famous "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema" confirms the pattern. Contrast - "the tradition of quality", those formally conservative, big-budget French films controlled by scriptwriters rather than directors. Analogy - the literary notion of authorship. Theory - romantic self-expression and Sartrean individual responsibility. The Target, of course, was the French film industry, and the tale that hybrid of documentary and fiction which Godard labelled "research in the form of spectacle".

Would a CATTt help us reinvent film studies? Here's a start: Contrast = the conventional academic essay; Analogy = the experimental arts; Theory = ?; Target = the Anglo-American film community; tale = ?.

In The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, I suggest several ways to fill in the remaining two slots, with the goal of "penetrat[ing]the [cinema's] veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality." For me, the guiding Theory remains a conductive logic, interrogative readings prompted by Barthes' famous "third meaning" of cinematic details whose significance eludes ready formulation. In The Great Cat Massacre historian Robert Darnton proposes a similar tactic, starting research from an archival anecdote that seems opaque: a joke you don't get, a story you can't explain. Walter Benjamin wanted to base his uncompleted Arcades project on a montage of such things, "dialectical images", in his words. At the very least, this approach would have the virtue of transforming the movies from evidence of some pre-existing idea (now often involving race, class or gender) into clues leading somewhere surprising.

And what kind of tale? W. G. Sebald's the Rings of Saturn offers a method readily appropriate for an experimental film studies. On a walking tour of East Anglia, Sebald develops associative histories from details in the landscape that pique his curiosity: the faint outline of an imperial dragon on a narrow-gauge train prompts an account of China's Forbidden City, the mid-19th-century Taiping rebellion, the violent British intercession and the Last Emperor. A village church near the Saracen's Head turns out to have been visited every day in the summer of 1795 by the exiled Chateaubriand, who entertained the pastor's daughter with the stories that became Atala and René. In Southwold Sebald falls asleep watching a BBC documentary about Roger Casement; awakening with a desire to learn what he has missed, he traces Casement to his meeting with Conrad in the Congo. Sebald discovers that Conrad learned English when, in the summer of 1878, he was stationed in nearby Lowestoft. Conrad's nightmarish voyage to the Congo took place in 1890, when Leopold of Belgium was, in Sebald's words, "the sole ruler of a territory... a million square miles in area and thus a hundred times the size of the mother country, and was accountable to no one for his actions." Heart of Darkness first appeared serially in the February, March and April 1898 issues of Blackwood's Magazine, preceding by five years the memorandum to the British Foreign Secretary that "gave an exact account of the utterly merciless exploitation of the blacks "by the Belgian colonialist regime. That memorandum would be written by Roger Casement, the British consul at Boma. It did no good. The British government ignored it and banished its author by transferring him to South America. When in 1916 Casement returned from Berlin after seeking German support for the Irish army of liberation, he was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London, tried for treason and hanged.

Imagine this possibility: using Sebald's The Rings of Saturn as your model, take a walking tour of a single movie, let's say The Maltese Falcon, surely as desolate, as abandoned, as uncanny a place as East Anglia. From the moments, the images, the details that strike you, compose a set of histories or stories that provide us with new ways of understanding those flickering images made so long ago. Remember the words Sebald gives to the Reverend Ives' daughter, who when asked by Chateaubriand what in his story had so moved her that, overcome with emotion, she had run into the garden to be alone, replied: "'It was mainly the image of the dog carrying a lantern on a stick in his mouth, lighting the way through the night for a frightened Atala.' It was always such little details rather than the lofty ideas that went straight to her heart."

I want to thank Ralph Savarese, Brian Doan, and Robert Lehman for their suggestions about this essay

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012