Last Monday night I decided to drop a film documentary class I had been taking at Columbia after getting my first assignment back from Jane Gaines, the professor. I had completely forgotten how bad a reaction I have to getting papers graded or critiqued.
The first assignment was to define “what is documentary” in a half-page, single-spaced, mine is below. My frustration with the class had a lot to do with this assignment. How do you answer something like that in what amounted to a quarter of a page? After she gave us the assignment, she grinned and said that it would be a real challenge to stay within that limit. I don’t know. I found that it undermined my thought process. But then again, I probably write 10,000 words a month so I am not typical.
Just three months short of my 66th birthday, the last thing I needed was to go through the humiliating experience of a professor giving me a C, or in this instance reading her criticisms all over my submission no matter how well-intended. I was flabbergasted by her insistence that I use the term “motion picture” instead of “movie”. I used that term deliberately for the same reason that Harvey Pekar once told me he preferred the term comic book to graphic novel. Who needs that kind of snobbery? After all, if David Bordwell, one of the top film scholars in the world, can title a book “The way Hollywood tells it: story and style in modern movies”, then why should Gaines object? Of course, professors are the final arbiters in such matters just as my project manager at work is the final arbiter of how I do my work. At least in that case, I am getting paid for my troubles.
It is not just classes that I have taken at Columbia that present such a problem. A few years ago, I finally resolved not to submit articles to leftist academic journals since I resented going through the process of peer review. My last experience with RRPE, the URPE journal, was particularly off-putting. I was told by one of the peer reviewers that an article about Max Frankel’s book on the Cuban missile crisis would be enhanced by the perspective found in a Socialist Workers Party book on Cuba. Who needs that shit, even if it came from a tenured professor at the U. of California?
I had mixed feelings about the class to begin with. I was far more interested in a workshop on making documentaries in the spring term, but Gaines’s class was a prerequisite. I decided that it was worth my time since at least I would be getting what I expected to be a survey on documentaries going back to the days of Auguste and Louis Lumière, who invented the genre. I also hoped that she would point out what “worked” in documentaries and what did not.
My interest in this was not academic. After retiring in a couple of years, I hope to do some of my own work on subjects that matter a lot to me, including a project that would involve interviewing ex-SWP’ers. About 5 years ago I collaborated with an old friend of mine from the SWP who was videotaping Trotskyists who had been active in the 30s and 40s. I opened doors for him to a group of Cochranites, whose viewpoint obviously meshes with my own.
It took me approximately three weeks to figure out where Gaines was going in this class and by the fourth week I was ready to drop it, even if I hadn’t been the unhappy recipient of her comments on my assignment. The assignment itself should have been a tip-off that we were on different tracks. For me, “What is a documentary?” is a question with very little interest. After having reviewed over 100 documentaries on Rotten Tomatoes over the past decade or so, it never entered my mind that this was worth considering. As it turns out, this is a major concern of academics doing what they call film theory.
Now, based on her course’s description on the Columbia website, you would think that we’d have a similar take on things:
Film MA/MFA: The Documentary Tradition
Jane Gaines, Professor
This core of this course is the radical tradition in documentary, with special emphasis on the U.S. 1930s in New York (The Film and Photo League, Nykino).
The historical approach begins by asking whether the Lumière actualité is or is not the precursor of what has become the PBS style documentary. Students think about the theory and practice of social change media, beginning with the 1920s Soviet Socialist tradition (Dziga Vertov), the British Empire Marketing Board (John Grierson), the French cinéma vérité (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin) and the National Film Board of Canada, internationalized with focus on China and Iran, updated with the question of documentary footage on YouTube. A feature of the course is the challenge to the definition of “reality” posed by the contemporary faux doc or “mockumentary” as well as documentary work that is both fiction and not what we would call “fiction.”
If you google “Jane Gaines” and “Marxism”, you’ll get 1,750 hits. From a cursory glance, you’d think that you were dealing with a hard-core commie. But on closer examination, you begin to learn that her Marxism is the sort of thing you hear at academic conferences and read in journals read geared to other academics. For example, in an article titled Women and representation that she wrote for Jump Cut, a leftist film magazine, she sets down her agenda. The key sentence in this excerpt is italicized:
Camera movement, continuity editing, framing, narrative unity, spectator point of view, and the spectacle of woman are all analyzed in feminist counter-cinema. In theory this is a continuation of Godard’s project to combat ideological forms with film form. Counter-cinema also borrows from Brecht’s idea that annihilating pleasure and identification can effect critical distance and ultimately a change of consciousness in the theatrical audience. The final “test” of counter-cinema has to do with whether the film shows that what we are seeing is shaped by cinematic form and that beyond the experience of the film, there is no such thing as unmediated reality to know.
Leftist filmmaking will find drawbacks to this approach. First of all, this is a very difficult concept to grasp. Those of us who eat, sleep and breathe political theories of representation, who have made the politics of meaning our life’s work, are not always aware of the degree to which our own consciousness is shaped by words, images, or other signifying material. Are we asking too much of a film text if we expect it to effect change on its own, especially if it is seen out of the context of political organizing and education efforts? Second, why should a film which considers its own signification process necessarily have to require its audiences to know advanced film theory in order for them to enjoy, appreciate and, hopefully, reflect on what they see?
The tip-off is “political theories of representation”. This should let the reader know that we have crossed over into the rarefied territory of Saussure, Barthes, Derrida and Gayatri-Spivak. Professor Gaines is mainly interested in how film documentaries represent the world, not in the world itself.
Let me illustrate. In my post on the movie “Catfish”, I first articulated my disaffection with her approach. You’ll note that I describe her as a good professor. Momentarily, I will explain why I would revise that opinion:
In my class, there is a preoccupation with the question of what a documentary is meant to do. The professor, a very good one indeed, has selected readings and classroom screenings that stress the ambivalence of the filmed image. Two weeks ago we watched the Zapruder film, a paradigm of multiple interpretations. My guess is that this area of investigation dovetails neatly with the remaining influence of postmodernism in the academy, particularly strong at a place like Columbia.
It even extends to films that would appear to have little to do with something like Capturing the Friedmans. A recent class was focused on agitprop movies from the 1930s, including a remarkable Belgian film by Joris Ivens and Henri Storck called Misery in the Borinage that called attention to the miserable working and living conditions of the working class. In one scene that the professor highlighted, we see cops attacking a picket line in front of a factory. We learned from Bill Nichols’s Introduction to Documentary that Ivens and Storck had workers reenact the original incident using themselves in the role of cops. “Aha”, she said, “how real can the movie be when the workers are dressed up as cops?”
I found this question a lot less interesting than what kind of message Ivens and Storck were seeking to deliver and what their political affiliations were. But then again, I am the unrepentant Marxist.
With such doubts already present in my mind at the beginning of Monday’s class, I was ready to drop the class almost immediately after getting my assignment returned to me. But I decided to stick around for the rest of the class, as long as I was there.
Two things occurred that lowered my estimate of Gaines as a teacher. She tended to treat Columbia students in a belittling manner all along, a liberty she presumably enjoyed as a tenured faculty member. (My untenured wife is loath to tell a student to turn off his cell phone for fear that he would retaliate in a student evaluation.) But last Monday it really struck me how mean she can be. The class starts at 6pm and goes to 9:45, a function of the complete film screening that takes place in each session. So students obviously get hungry. Around 6:30 she spotted a student eating some granola and walked up to her during the lecture and said, “Our rule here is that if you bring something to eat in this class, you have to bring enough for everybody else.” That was typical behavior, but even worse would follow.
Gaines switches between Powerpoint and film excerpts throughout her lectures. Last Monday after she was illustrating some point about “representation” through an excerpt of a movie about a mentally ill woman made by her daughter, the teaching assistant did not switch back to the Powerpoint slides immediately. Gaines waited for a few seconds and then upbraided the TA in full view of the class using the tone of voice you associate with a woman complaining about her maid—good help is hard to find nowadays.
I have no idea what makes these high-falutin’ post-Marxist film theorists tick. Her behavior reminded me of how another celebrity leftist academic treated his students:
Zizek has developed an elaborate set of psychological tricks to manipulate his American students and enable him to have as little contact with them as possible. At the first meeting of each course, he announces that all students will get an A and should write a final paper only if they want to. “I terrorize them by creating a situation where they have no excuse for giving me a paper unless they think it is really good. This scares them so much, that out of forty students, I will get only a few papers,” he says. “And I get away with this because they attribute it to my ‘European eccentricity.'”
Zizek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar spirit. “I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a whole set of strategies for how to block this,” he says with a smirk. “The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!” Initially, Zizek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). Zizek reserves what he calls “the nasty strategy” for large lecture classes in which the students often don’t know one another. “I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear,” he explains.
By Robert S. Boynton in the October 1998 Lingua Franca