Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 25, 2010

Film theory follow-up

Filed under: Academia,Film,postmodernism — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Now that I have had a chance to step back from the film class and do some of my own reading into the particular sub-discipline of “film theory” that Professor Jane Gaines operates in, the whole thing starts to come into focus. In a nutshell, her class is intended to indoctrinate students into her own perspective, which is a mixture of Marxism and post-structuralism of the kind that should be familiar to readers of Social Text, Rethinking Marxism and any other such journals read by the like-minded tenured left.

Before taking a close look at one of her articles, I want to recommend Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology, a longish and interesting piece that appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on July 13, 2003. Written by David Weddle, it describes his consternation with the UC Santa Barbara Film School where his daughter was enduring frustrations even greater than mine:

“How did you do on your final exam?” I asked my daughter.

Her shoulders slumped. “I got a C.”

Alexis was a film studies major completing her last undergraduate year at UC Santa Barbara. I had paid more than $73,000 for her college education, and the most she could muster on her film theory class final was a C?

“It’s not my fault,” she protested. “You should have seen the questions. I couldn’t understand them, and nobody else in the class could either. All of the kids around me got Cs and Ds.”

She insisted that she had studied hard, then offered: “Here, read the test yourself and tell me if it makes any sense.”

I took it from her, confidently. After all, I had graduated 25 years ago from USC with a bachelor’s degree in cinema. I’d written a biography of movie director Sam Peckinpah, articles for Variety, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and written and produced episodic television.

On the exam, I found the following, from an essay by film theorist Kristin Thompson:

“Neoformalism posits that viewers are active–that they perform operations. Contrary to psychoanalytic criticism, I assume that film viewing is composed mostly of nonconscious, preconscious, and conscious activities. Indeed, we may define the viewer as a hypothetical entity who responds actively to cues within the film on the basis of automatic perceptual processes and on the basis of experience. Since historical contexts make the protocols of these responses inter-subjective, we may analyze films without resorting to subjectivity . . . According to Bordwell, ‘The organism constructs a perceptual judgment on the basis of nonconscious inferences.’ “

Then came the question itself:

“What kind of pressure would Metz’s description of ‘the imaginary signifier’ or Baudry’s account of the subject in the apparatus put on the ontology and epistemology of film implicit in the above two statements?”

I looked up at my daughter. She smiled triumphantly. “Welcome to film theory,” she chirped.

Alexis then plopped down two thick study guides. One was for the theory class, the other for her course in advanced film analysis. “Tell me where I went wrong,” she said.

The Bordwell alluded to above is David Bordwell, a “rock star” in film studies even more glamorous than Jane Gaines. As I mentioned in my previous post on the film class fiasco, he has no problem using the word “movies”, even though Gaines regards this akin to blowing your nose on your sleeve (something I do from time to time.) Despite being used as a resource by the Santa Barbara film professor, Bordwell—a Marxist of sorts—is on record as viewing film theory as a load of crap. In an article by Alissa Quart titled The Insider: David Bordwell Blows the Whistle on Film Studies that appeared in the now-defunct Lingua Franca (vol. 10, no. 2 (March 2000), we learn that Bordwell, despite his own tendency to over-theorize (my view, not Quart’s) is a bit fed up, especially with the kind of Lacanian nonsense that Zizek specializes in. In a 1996 book co-edited with Noel Carroll, he calls for a return to a “historical poetics” that would explain how movies “work and work upon us”, something I foolishly expected out of my class. It should be mentioned that Zizek answered Bordwell in a 2001 book titled The Fright of Real Tears. Bordwell’s response is here.  Honestly, despite my sympathy for Bordwell’s approach, the debate strikes me as sterile as the ones I have seen over the falling rate of profit and many other arcane topics of Marxism in the academy.

I must say that I found Bordwell’s book on Asian film less than compelling since it pretty much ignored the social and political context that figures so prominently in my old friend Michael Hoover’s book City on Fire, co-written with Lisa Stokes, on Hong Kong cinema. Frankly, my interest in movies has always been mostly as an entry-point into history and politics. I do want to learn about tracking shots, lighting, etc. but only as a means to an end.

Turning now to Gaines’s chapter (Political Mimesis) in a book she co-edited with Michael Renov in 1999 titled Collecting Visible Evidence, you are struck by her obsession with leftist politics, an activity that she only knows from the opposite end of a telescope by all evidence. (You can find the article by doing a Google book search.)

The article opens with a broadside against a fellow named John Grierson who in Gaines’s world serves as a kind of archdemon equal to Michel Pablo in some Trotskyist sects. He is blamed for the atrociously paternalistic and middle-of-the-road quality of the typical PBS documentary. Grierson was a major figure in the 1920s who coined the term “documentary”. He was aligned with the Labour Party left and saw documentary film as a way to redress social ills. But since he worked for the government, this meant that his movies were basically “promotional pieces”. I have seen a number of Grierson’s films in class and would describe them as on the side of the angels, although not up to Jane Gaines’s fire-breathing Bolshevique standards. Here’s one titled Night Mail that you can judge for yourself:

As opposed to Grierson’s movies (there, I said it) that are “far from the front lines of political upheaval” (a place that I doubt Professor Gaines has any firsthand knowledge of herself), she prefers those that might inspire “cataclysmic change”.

Unlike Grierson’s Labourist pap, she prefers something like Ivens and Storck’s 1933 Borinage, about the plight of workers in Belgium, because it had the “requisite socialist credentials, a political badge that many other documentaries in the West cannot claim.” What are these? She is impressed by the fact that the filmmakers were inspired by a visit to the Soviet Union and “were engaged in a revolutionary struggle as part of the international Communist movement”. The USSR? 1933? One might hope that Ms. Gaines would find some time in her busy schedule one day to read Leon Trotsky. She would find it most enlightening I’m sure. Well, maybe not.

In searching her noggin for a movie that might have produced “cataclysmic change”, she can think of only one. At SUNY Buffalo in 1969, some SDS’ers screened some newsreels that resulted in a march against the ROTC building on campus where they smashed windows, tore up furniture and destroyed machines until the office was a total wreck. I would only hope that someday when Columbia University students are inspired to take similar action that Ms. Gaines can tear herself away from her scholarly pursuits and join them. After all, a tenured professor does not have to worry that much about losing her job although I doubt that she would ever face the kind of mailed fist that a Ward Churchill did. Like most “Marxists” at Columbia, her “revolutionary politics” are those best expressed in a small-circulation journal and not on the picket line.

Turning to the question of political mimesis, the sine qua non for “cataclysmic change”, we find ourselves moving away from broken office furniture and more into the rarefied realm of Foucauldianism, with its ever-present emphasis on the Body. Ms. Gaines has come to the conclusion that documentaries must employ the “sensationalized body” to be effective. She singles out Eisenstein’s 1924 Strike as a good example with its “sensual scenes of male workers bathing.” Silly me, I always thought it had more to do with the sense of solidarity among workers understanding their common class interests. But what do I know. I am only the Unrepentant Marxist. Judge for yourself:


  1. Is that the original music for the Eisenstein ?

    Comment by purple — October 25, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

  2. I suspect not.

    Comment by purple — October 25, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

  3. I have mixed feelings about this. It seems evident that many academic film theorists are addicted to using the most obscure language to express their ideas and love nothing more than to use fifty-cent neologisms for expressing points that could just as well be expressed in plain English. That kind of academic gamesmanship is a big turnoff and should rightly be satirized and pilloried. On the ohter hand the following quote in the LA Times article seems to make a valid point:

    “Film theory is philosophy, and people have made the same criticisms of philosophy for years,” Branigan says. “They say, ‘What relevance does philosophy have to the real world? It’s merely idle thought, personal feeling, pointless speculation.’ If we listened to them, we would do away with teaching and studying the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Wittgenstein and Sartre. Do we really want to do that? I think not.”

    Film theory, like most literary theory, is mostly philosophy. Much of it might be bad philosophy, but nevertheless it seems to me that a good deal of the hostility that it elicits is in the final analysis just plain old anti-intellectualism. Philosophy from the very beginning (think of Socrates drinking his hemlock) has always elicited hostility, especially from vested interests that feel threatened by the kind of critical scrutiny that philosophy promotes. I suspect that much of the hostility that is directed towards hostility is of this nature.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — October 26, 2010 @ 2:48 am

  4. Frankly, given all the shitty movies that come out of Hollywood done by people who were trained at places like UC Santa Barbara, NYU, UCLA et al, there is the likelihood that the emphasis on philosophy at the expense of craft has left us culturally impoverished. If I was teaching the class on “The Documentary Tradition” at Columbia, I’d take a historical approach showing how Eisenstein influenced Grierson, etc. Sort of the way you would teach “The Modern Novel”, starting with Proust. You would show how the interior monologue became a staple, etc. But the “theory” being taught in Gaines’s class is pretty thin stuff. In my last class, she alluded to Hegel’s master-slave relationship but in the most superficial way. I am fairly sure she never really studied Hegel, the way I did when I was working on a PhD in philosophy in 1966.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 26, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

  5. Louia writes:

    “If I was teaching the class on “The Documentary Tradition” at Columbia, I’d take a historical approach showing how Eisenstein influenced Grierson, etc. Sort of the way you would teach “The Modern Novel”, starting with Proust.”

    I would just point out that at many universities, especially the more elite ones, courses on the modern novel are, likewise, often taught with strong dosages of literary theory, often eliciting the same sorts of complaints as the ones expressed here. And this sort of thing is not just confined to the humanities. About twenty years ago, Harvard Law School underwent a mini-civil war over the teaching of critical legal studies as part of the law school curriculuum. The Law School, at the time, had several critical legal theorists on th faculty, and these people met very strong opposition from the more conservative members of the faculty. The critical legal theorists drew upon some of the very same thinkers as do the literary theorists and the film theorists, except they attempt to apply these ideas to the analysis of law. Their writings, like those of their counterparts in literary theory and film theory, draw upon a mixture of Marxism, post-Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. Also, in apparent contrast with the literary and film theorists, some of the critical legal theorists were also into Habermas. In the case of Harvard Law School, the faculty conservatives were pretty much victorious.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — October 26, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

  6. This reminds me of the World Music class I’m currently taking. Thank God it’s not loaded with the postmodern jargon that your film class seemed to be, but it definitely tends to lean on the postmodern side of viewing things. There is heavy incentive on viewing the music of different cultures relativistically, as in not value judging them as being better or worse than each other (which I have no problem with since I’ve always been bothered by separating “art” music from “popular” music). However, the author’s of the text, and therefore the teacher also focus more heavily on the uniqueness of each music rather than the universals, which do exist and which I am more interested in.
    This might all seem silly, but from my limited knowledge of postmodernism, I have concluded that there is really no place for Marxism within its framework, and as a young Marxist I frequently have difficulty determining when relativistic stance is called for and when it’s complete bullshit.

    Comment by Rob — October 26, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

  7. Creating an elaborate, abstracted layer of “theory” to account for fluid, artistic moves–that often are highly contingent, ephemeral, and irreproducible–does not find favor with someone else who comes from a field which has solid criteria for distinguishing between, say, a zany idea and a mathematical proof. Interestingly, a recent episode in the sciences shows how absurd throwing about a term like “theory” is to art and social studies.

    Comment by sk — October 26, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

  8. I am not against theory, nor against philosophy. But surely there is a difference between terminology for concepts used and the obtuse language thse post-al theorists peddle.
    As far as I’m concerned neo-marxism, post-marxism etc are anti-marxist.

    Comment by Michael Schembri — October 27, 2010 @ 5:44 am

  9. Interestingly I have the feeling that the neoliberal propagandists wouldn’t mind purging public academia of all those quacks in favour of fast track craft-orientated courses. For private universities it might be different, as I guess they need to fill the years with something to get people to stay there as long as possible.

    Comment by oOoOoOo — October 28, 2010 @ 1:09 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: