Too Much Theory and Not Nearly Enough Feelthy Pichoors

Hey, this is going to be a long, single-minded rant about film theory, so if that bores you, I suggest you surf on over to something more amiable or tittilating.

Got an e-mail from my friend and colleague Ed Sikov a couple of days ago, asking the e-ssembled Ira voters to look at a clip from Citizen Kane and offer an opinion on something in the shot in question. To keep the story brief, the discussion turned on whether a character in the shot was looking directly at the camera and, if so, was it a rare case of direct address or something less out-of-the-ordinary. Opinions were offered, discussion was had and no definitive answer was reached. Or as fellow Ira voter Andrew Dickos (one of the major doyens of film noir) asked earnestly, "Couldn't it be both?" I came up with a couple of possible examples of direct address in the context of a narrative film, finishing off with a scene from Joseph Losey's The Concrete Jungle in which Patrick Magee, playing the chief warder of a prison has a monologue, during which the lights in the shot dim very theatrically.

This whole exchange got me to ruminating on one of the basic principles of film theory with which I was raised, way back in the Stone Age, and I wrote the following, which I think is worth passing along to you, Dear Readers.

This discussion reminds me of something I've thought for a long time, going all the way back to V.F. Perkins's Film As Film, and the big Bill Nichols Movies and Methods anthologies. I mentioned The Concrete Jungle only afterwards did I realize that one of the reasons that the scene I mentioned has stayed with me is that Perkins offers it as an example of a device he disdains because of its "unmotivated" nature -- why should the prison wing's lights go down at this point in the film? -- hence, it's abrupt puncturing of the "realist" text.

Back in the day, I used to give people the Perkins book as a good first guide to film aesthetics, but I would always warn them that the first third of the book, a lengthy and (to my mind) tiresome exposition of earlier film aesthetics leading up to the messianic arrival of Andre Bazin, would seem kind of dull and beside the point. But Perkins's thesis, which was tied -- no, handcuffed -- to the notion of film as a realistic medium and all the implications that proceed from that premise, absolutely required that you understand the old battles that culminated in the appearance of St. Andre.

That's all well and good -- in terms of practical methodology, Perkins is a good guide, whatever the philosophical underpinnings that gird his actual readings. For example, there's a long passage in the book on the kitchen scene between Eddie and his father in Minnelli's The Courtship of Eddie's Father. It's a tour de force of close reading, as good as any analysis of a single scene of Minnelli's as you'll find anywhere.

But what sense does it make to treat Minnelli by a yardstick that is based on the initial premise of realism? Or, to take a few more glaring examples, Sternberg, Leone, Murnau? The only way to fit an expressionistic film style onto the procrustean bed of "realist" aesthetics is by hacking off someone's too-long legs at the knees, so to speak.

When I bought my first copy of Movies and Methods, Vol. 1, I think I had already begun to feel this problem acutely. It is why, in large part, I've always been sympathetic to the linguistic turn in post-Bazinian film aesthetics. If you try to treat film as a "language system" then you are no longer yoked to issues of realism, to a theory that can't cope with that scene in The Concrete Jungle. The linguistic model has other, more serious flaws. Being married to someone with a very serious and deep grounding in linguistics, I'm very conscious that film does not function like a language. (Which takes me back to Andy's point below; there is too much ambiguity of meaning in a single image or a single shot of a film -- or as a pretentious asshole like me might say, photographic images are just too polysemous -- to support a single reading that excludes all other possible readings. When I was teaching film -- back in the silent era -- I always told my students when it came time to assign papers that I would consider any interpretation of a film, or a sequence or a shot, that could be supported by the text. There isn't one right answer that excludes all others; that works in math and hard science, not in the arts.)

So I tested a language-based film aesthetic and found it useful but wanting. I didn't realize that what I was looking for was, sort of, a film version of reception theory. If you believe, as I do to some extent, that a film takes place in the "space between the audience and the screen," to put it colloquially, then you need a theory that also takes place there. I'm not interested in the demographics of the film audience or their reactions per se -- that's either sociology, anthropology or market research. But I think that it's important to understand how a film creates meaning in the audience's mind. I guess that what I mean -- and I'm having trouble articulating it, which is why I don't write on theory if it can be avoided -- is that what I'm interested in is how a film communicates. What is the process of signification when an audience watches a film?

One of the aspects of early cinema studies that intrigues me is to see how film "grammar" developed. Why did a dissolve come to mean passage of time of a longer duration than a straight cut? What do you do -- to come back to Citizen Kane -- with a film in which the director deliberately reverses the meaning? (Look at the scene of Thompson in the Thatcher Library -- when he crosses the mausoleum-like antechamber, Welles divides his passage into three shots linked by slow dissolves.) I was absolutely fascinated to discover in reading Eileen Bowser's first volume in that huge History of American Cinema series that the old magic lantern shows and similar pre-cinematic entertainments had already established some of the conventions of film "grammar," like the one about dissolves for example. So the earliest filmmakers weren't really in virgin territory. There were some pre-existing cognitive sets at play in the audience of those earliest films.

Of course, I don't reject any of these various approaches out of hand. In my own critical practice, I tend to think syncretically, loading an intellectual tool box with all of these as well as feminism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, queer theory, etc. Nobody's right all the time, and every text requires a slightly different set of tools to unlock its secrets, in a manner of speaking. Maybe I think of this job a little too much like the literary equivalent of auto repair, but that doesn't mean I would approach a film without a full set of, let us say, Allen and hex wrenches. (Of course, there are some films and filmmakers that are better dealt with through the use of a wrecking ball, but that's a discourse for another time.)

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about a film that actually calls upon my experience as a sportswriter.
Sort of.