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The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
vol. 5 no 2 (1990)
Film: Matters of StyleEdited by Adrian Martin
I am speaking to you from a place that used to be called the cinema: a place that I've lived in, with many other members of the movie fan tribe. I could just as well speak of the cinema as of a character, a loved one, or even an idol, a totem: the important thing is that the person who's talking to you has lived with the cinema for a long time, near the cinema, inside and in front of it. Jacques Aumont, 19911
Reading David Bordwell's recent important book Making Meaning, 2 I experience a certain estrangement, as if I am not quite part of the story he constructs, even though, really, I somehow ought to be. Perhaps I am not the only professional reader to feel this unpleasant sensation of alienation. As Bordwell tells it, the growth of 'cinema studies' as an activity and a discipline is a decidedly institutional tale. Beginning with freelance heavies like Eisenstein, Balazs and Bazin, it ends up, inexorably, in the University, weighed down there by all the professional rituals of the Academy. For Bordwell, one of the principal pay-offs of this history is that cinema study has become one big sausage machine, with all manner of films squashed down to fit the few select critical/theoretical 'schemata' in force (or in fashion) at any given time.
One way for me to formulate a proper critical response to Bordwell's book would be to start from a simple but powerful personal statement: cinema studies, as I've lived it, has never seemed very much like this grand institutional tale. How could it, when many of the people I know and respect in the 'field' have never had a full-time position teaching their favourite subject, and have frittered away their time writing for small magazines that paid them little, and certainly never got them an academic promotion?
Impressionable film students who have never flicked through a copy of Cahiers du Cinema - who have only photocopied a militant late '60s piece by Comolli or Narboni from a dour Screen Reader - tend to assume that publication is (and was and always will be) a 'theory journal', not a jaunty, ever-changing magazine of news, jottings, gorgeous photos and impassioned ravings. Down at ground zero - at least in this country's film culture - there aren't, in fact, too many theory journals abounding. There are - as there always have been - fragile, usually short-lived, half-way houses, little magazines in the image of Cahiers, which was described by one of its editors in 1977 as "an uncomfortable and paradoxical place where it was possible to write about films". 3 Film study, as I've lived it here, is Filmnews, Buff, The MacGuffin, and (in another medium) radio programs like 3RRR's The Film Criticism Show... largely ephemeral sites with little or no institutional 'standing', but which keep alive what Raffaele Caputo once called a "collective dream of marginal criticism". 4
Of course, there are those who have lived a different story in neighbouring or overlapping zones of film culture - those who have held down jobs in universities, wrote scholarly books, and put their energies into publications like The Australian Journal of Screen Theory or Continuum. But I suspect that, even for these players, Bordwell's tale in Making Meaning would be a somewhat alien one. For the history of cinema studies as an institutionalised discipline in this country is so distressingly short it seems like a (ghost) ship in the night, something that has already (almost) passed away.
Perhaps, for a 'local', the only sensation stranger than reading David Bordwell would come from looking back at the brave, bold list of Conference Resolutions from the 1982 Australian Screen Studies Conference published on the last page of the Australian Journal of Screen Theory 15/16 the following year. Like Louis Jourdan lifting his eyes off the letter from his unknown woman in order to see the truth that she is now dead, one travels, in an uncomfortable instant, from all those wonderful resolutions concerning institutional networking, job security and print availability to the realisation that, as of the end of 1991, all branches of ASSA are now extinct, and that there is still only one officially named Cinema Studies department in the whole country. Meanwhile, job security for a cinema specialist in the tertiary sector is more precarious than ever, and those in charge of departments have no qualms about slashing the last vestige of film hire budgets and opting instead for a few, cheap videos from the local store.
Of course, I run the risk of sounding like some demented, anachronistic nostalgia-buff. Maybe there never was a field of inquiry that deserved to call itself, in a pristine and territorial manner, cinema studies. It is certainly the case that history has well and truly left this particular fantasy of selfhood behind. Probably right from the inauguration of cinema courses in tertiary and secondary education, there was what Noel King once sceptically diagnosed as the troubled 'film studies-television studies relation' 5 - while, in the same period, Cinema Papers nervously (and temporarily) added the words 'incorporating television' in small letters to its masthead. This was, of course, only the first sign of new, expanded subject-headings like media, communications or visual arts studies - taking in much more than just the rival audio-visual siblings of film and TV.
After the first, uncertain flurries about what might constitute a curriculum of media studies, we have more recently seen the rise of institutionally powerful subject areas, especially Cultural Studies and Policy Studies - each a little murderously and zealously intent on wiping away certain dinosaurs like 'text-based' or aesthetically inclined film or TV studies. It is clear today that certain canny formations of people and interests - such as those gathered around the rubric of 'film and history' - have weathered such changing institutional storms much more successfully than poor old cinema studies.
Occurring simultaneously with these academic recruitments away from cinema studies into newer disciplines during the '80s has been another kind of 'brain drain', one that is possibly livelier, more interesting and certainly harder to map - the move into the art world, and the so-called 'culture magazines'. At least since the moment when a strange, short-lived pop-politics-art-lifestyle tabloid called The Virgin Press (Melbourne) published Rolando Caputo's in-depth 1982 interview with Raymond Bellour on Hitchcock, 6 the film culture scene has fragmented enormously, far beyond any conventionally specialist purview. In the same period, due to the passionately poststructuralist pockets of teachers and students in many universities, linking up nomadically across several disciplines, people have found their way into writing and speaking about cinema via literature, radical sociology or fine arts - as witnessed by the important work that has appeared in publications as diverse as The Sydney Review, Arena and Agenda.
It is scarcely uncommon for film teachers and writers of the 'old school' in Australia (i.e., those formed in the '60s and '70s) to be completely unaware of the important articles on their own areas of interest in publications like Flesh, Tension, Antithesis, Binocular and latterly even literary bastions like Scripsi - let alone arty film culture 'phenomena' like the super 8 movement, the Australian Video Festival or MIMA's Experimenta event. This dispersal has bred some strange paradoxes - among them the fact that some major, influential contributors (like Ted Colless, Lesley Stern, Jodi Brooks or Ross Gibson) can labour in the field of cinema study for over a decade without appearing in one or other of the country's major film magazines (Filmnews or Cinema Papers), their key articles committed to now-defunct (and hard to find) '80s publications like On the Beach (Sydney), art exhibition catalogues or the still hardy Art & Text.
On another level, as yesterday's filmic scholarship and wisdom (about auteurs, genre, art cinema, etc) enters some sectors of 'mainstream' culture, we witness other changes that have enormous (and little canvassed) ramifications on the possibilities and conditions of film criticism, reviewing and scholarship. Jonathan Rosenbaum (who was perhaps the first to foresee the extent and implications of these changes) 7 spoke in 1985 of an emerging, emblematic figure: the university film student who wrote like James Agee but aspired only to be James Cameron. We have entered a strange era of 'hip fluency' about cinema - where wildly successful magazines like the American Premiere reduce film criticism to circumscribed little departments by skilled journalist-cinephile columnists like J. Hoberman ('Independents') and David Denby ('Video'), while giving 98% of space over to the glamour of deals, personalities and the spectacular smashes or inglorious 'turkeys' that are defined by the box-office. Suddenly, we are in a world where 'pop' movies are passionately - and emptily - defended against all 'art' cinema (with all the avant gardes scarcely even registered as having ever existed); while film history - 'old Hollywood', for instance - becomes fetishised and commodified like never before, reorganised ruthlessly to fit the fluxes and flows of fickle, lesiure-time, market ideology. (This process perhaps began in the '70s when film noir - as Jean-Pierre Gorin remarked to Raymond Durgnat - got "film culture hooked the way the Papuans got hooked on the cargo cults".) 8
Signs of the times: in 1978, Andrew Sarris eloquently and movingly defined his vocation thus - "I have all I can do to keep the memory of Preston Sturges alive among readers and students who seem to be forgetting more and more of the past with each passing year of media overload". 9 In 1992 - after half-hearted Festival retros, a glib biographical documentary and book, and a few familiar citations in Premiere devoted to Sturges (none of these seemingly very aware of Brian Henderson's monumentous scholarly work on the director's career) 10 - Steve Martin offers (incoherently) the plot of Sullivan's Travels to Kevin Kline as the meaning of life and pop culture in Grand Canyon; while Bob Ellis tells a Cinema Papers interviewer, "now it's fairly obvious that I should do a series of films like Preston Sturges' ... five or six or seven really beaut comedies", modestly describing one of his future projects (The Girl from Kiev) as "a Sturges". 11
In short, the serious discussion of film happens (when it does happen) these days across an incredibly dispersed network, and often in mangled, cryptic, necessarily compromised forms. This is not entirely a bad thing: as one who has worked across this network for twelve years, I can vouch for the personal freedom and the range of tactical, rhetorical possibilities that such a situation allows. Yet, despite all those writers or readers who manage to trace a merry, individual path through this radically decentered cultural space, there is an awful lot of work and thought that simply slips through such a loosely articulated network. As Sylvia Lawson so brilliantly demonstrated in her landmark article "Pieces of a Cultural Geography", 12 there are few (and often no) visible connecting lines between the Film and History (or Cultural Studies) conference and the Art Gallery seminar (or horror movie fanzine).
It's worth asking - in a modest rather than thundering mode - if there has been anything seriously lost to cinema studies as a result of all this recent history. (As a prelude, I think it's clear that, in Australia, we are very far from Bordwell's vision of an academic hell where all of us say exactly the same thing about every identifiable film-object; here, the problem is more one of finding common ground for debate between any two scholars as they burn off down their own, obsessive roads.) Leaving aside the contentious question of whether critical practitioners in the field should be concerned with 'canons', masterpieces, 'great' directors and the promotion of important or just plain interesting movies (my personal feeling is that it neither should nor could be entirely disengaged from such discourses), it is clear that one possibly 'aesthetic' domain of cinema study - the close, material attention to cinema form - has certainly been somewhat absented over recent years.
Spokespersons for the Cultural Studies movement (including Larry Grossberg and McKenzie Wark 13 ) have vociferously contested the need for what has variously been dubbed (or caricatured) as 'analysis', 'close reading' or 'textual hermeneutics' - whether in literary theme-and-style or semiotic-linguistic modes - pointing us instead to more general dynamics or 'vectors' of culture. Policy people seem to have even less regard for the protocols of material analysis; Trevor Barr, for instance, exhorted secondary media teachers in 1988 to minimize textual analysis (which is "really '60s and '70s based") within a curriculum defined by "Technology and Society, Policy Studies and ... the Future's Territory". 14 Even with those still committed to writing about cinema, there has been a trend - especially evident in American work since the mid '80s - to trade in close reading for a newer, more flamboyant style, well described by Felicity Collins in this collection - a kind of connect-the-dots, 'montage' mode skitting between aspects of films, historical contexts, theoretical ideas and subjective experience. Even in some of the most dazzling and important work of this genre - I would cite Tania Modleski's book on Hitchcock and feminist criticism, The Women Who Knew Too Much15 - there is an alarmingly total absence of anything resembling the detailed mise en scene readings of yesteryear. At its very worst, the current climate gives rise to workaday interpretations (and uses) of films - in articles, courses, on the radio - that can fairly be described as amateurish, insensitive and self-serving.
My feeling that a certain textual-analytical facility has dropped out of cinema study and film criticism in recent times led to the adoption of film style and stylistics as the subject matter for this collection of essays. Given my own dispersed cultural background as a cinema person, the only prior project that served in any way as a precedent was not from film culture proper, but rather the special film issue of Art & Text (no 34, Spring 1989). This collection shares some of the local authors showcased there - Colless, Brooks, Routt - and also selects a French practitioner for translation, in this case Alain Masson, whose books and regular articles in Positif are sadly little-known in English-language film cultures. In contradistinction to the Art & Text issue, this project has a more furiously (though not exhaustively) localist bias, and includes some student work.
The terrain of style and stylistics is necessarily broad. I began by asking contributors to focus on a specific 'figure' of film style - such as editing or camera movement - and to theorise it, demonstrating its work across a broad range of filmic examples. John Flaus' "Thanks For Your Heart, Bart" (the reference is to Barton Fink, not Bart Simpson) does this for the extraordinarily under-serviced area of film acting; Philip Brophy explores the textual mechanisms of written and spoken dialogue in (predominantly) action cinema; Barrett Hodsdon, on a more meta-critical plane, revisits the '50s-'60s paradigm of mise en scene approaches and questions their relation to the stylistic practices of contemporary mainstream cinema; while my own contribution essays the thorny history of mise en scene (as both a critical and a cinematic practice) from another perspective. Some contributors focus on a particular stylistic aspect of one work (Stuart Cunningham on long take and deep focus in The Magnificent Ambersons, Jodi Brooks on fascination and the grotesque in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Alain Masson on set design and space in a musical dance sequence of Singin' In the Rain), while others, working out from key details, develop a textual interpretation of an entire film (Leonie Naughton on Germany Pale Mother, Robert Sinnerbrink on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Masson on Avanti!).
Beyond the close, material attention to textuality (what I would call stylistics), style carries other, broader associations - standing for any of the diverse arrangements of traits or markers that come to identify an auteur, a genre, or a mode of filmmaking (people casually but determinedly speak of a Hitchcock style, a horror style, a European cinema style and so on). Thus, this collection carries a director-study of Jane Campion (by Geraldine Bloustien), and an interview by Gabrielle Finnane with American independent filmmaker Yvonne Rainer (which resonates with its neighbouring commentaries on screen acting); genre case-studies of Australian exploitation film (Carol Laseur) and film noir (Raffaele Caputo); an examination of how the category of 'Hollywood film' can be productively constituted across diverse levels of the cinematic institution (Tom O'Regan); and, at a philosophical reach, essays on how the phenomenon of classic auteurism might be understood as a "physiognomy of style" (William Routt), and how the paradoxes of film performance suggest an understanding of style as "the devil's grace" (Edward Colless).
These introductory musings have no programmatic intent. I am not declaring there is a territory that 'we' (the Australian community of film scholars? who are they?) need to reclaim, or one towards which we need to advance. For, just as the practice of film study has been powerfully and inexorably overtaken by changes in the cultural landscape, so too it stands to be overhauled in the very near future by enormous changes in nature of cinema itself, turned into a mere cog in a vast, integrated audio-visual culture. We need to take seriously the sober predictions of commentators like Peter Wollen who advise that film "is about to become an art form of the past"; 16 or, as Robert Nery has recently suggested, that its future as both art and technology lies in its 'merger' with video and computer-based forms. 17
This is certainly not the first occasion on which a "depressing irony of history" (Wollen) has caught up with the arts of cinema study and film criticism. The auteurists of the '50s discovered 'classic' Hollywood cinema at the very moment when it was entering its swansong phase; those who held the torch thereafter through the '60s and beyond were in fact (whether or not they were aware of it) involved in what Serge Daney (after Freud) has described as the "mourning work" of cinema fans, the feverish preservation of something which is passing away: "something is dead, something of which traces, shadows remain..." 18 . Today, the ghost ship carrying a motley crew of film scholars and students can seem for all the world like a ship of fools - and I speak not only of the mad cinephiles with their 'love of the cinema' which William Routt eulogizes in "L'Evidence", but indeed anyone trying to keep that ship precariously afloat, anyone involved in the uncomfortable and paradoxical act of speaking or writing or teaching film anywhere in the public sphere.
Nonetheless, there is a ray of hope - fragile as it may justly be - in the sort of practice immortalised by Greil Marcus in his masterpiece Lipstick Traces: 19 the act of 'committing' ephemeral ideas, articles and artworks, not to a present which is fearsomely unreceptive, but to the storehouses of 'secret history', tucked away on public-access shelves to be 're-animated' - possibly - at a later date. If that is at all a realistic prospect, then this issue of Continuum might be not so much a ship in the night as a message in a bottle.
This place is deserted, the loved one is dying, the idol is hollow (or has been overthrown and replaced by false idols); the tribe of movie fans has been scattered, devastated. The cinema is dead, as we have often been told, and in such a dramatic tone of voice. There must have been a history of the cinema... 20
1. Jacques Aumont, "Image, Face, Passage", in Bellour, David and Assche (eds.), Passages de l'image (Barcelona: Centre Cultural de la Fundacio Caixa de Pensions, 1991), p. 82.
2. David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Harvard University Press, 1989).
3. T. L. French [William Krohn], "Les Cahiers du Cinema 1968-1977: Interview with Serge Daney", The Thousand Eyes 2, 1977, p. 19. Part of the 'paradox' Daney is describing is that some of the Cahiers writers were filmmakers and critics at the same time.
4. Raffaele Caputo, "Why Santa and Prince Didn't Make It Onto the Big Screen", Cinema Papers 61, January 1987, p. 47.
5. Noel King, "What is Television Studies?", Framework 25, 1984, pp. 111-121.
6. Rolando Caputo, "Raymond Bellour on Alfred Hitchcock", Virgin Press 21, January 1983, pp. 12-14.
7. Jonathan Rosenbaum, "How to Live in Air Conditioning", Sight and Sound, Summer 1985, pp. 162-168; see also his later articles "Are You Having Fun", Sight and Sound, Spring 1990, pp. 96-100, and "Criticism on Film", Sight and Sound, Winter 1990/91, pp. 51-54.
8. Quoted in Raymond Durgnat, "From Caligari to Hitler", Film Comment, July - August 1980, p.62. Gorin was referring to European film culture, but it is clear in retrospect that a similar process was happening around the same time in several English-speaking film cultures.
9. Andrew Sarris, "Film Criticism in the Seventies", Film Comment, January-February 1978, p. 11.
10. Brian Henderson (ed. and introduction), Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); and "Cartoon and Narrative in the Films of Frank Tashlin and Preston Sturges" in Andrew Horton (ed.), Comedy/Cinema/Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 153-173.
11. Andrew L. Urban, "Bob Ellis' The Nostradamus Kid", Cinema Papers 86, January 1992, p. 15.
12. Sylvia Lawson, "Pieces of a Cultural Geography", The Age Monthly Review, February 1987, pp. 10-13.
13. Larry Grossberg, "Postmodernity and Affect: All Dressed Up With No Place to Go", Communication, 1988, Vol 10, pp. 271-293; McKenzie Wark, "Tiny Displacements", Editions 11, June/July 1991, p. 23.
14. Trevor Barr, "Reflections on Media Education: The Myths and Realities", Metro 82, Autumn 1990, p. 13.
15. Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York: Methuen, 1988).
16. Peter Wollen, "Thinking Theory", Film Comment, August 1988, p. 51.
17. Robert Nery, "Audio Video Disco", Filmnews, April 1992, pp. 6, 11.
18. French, "Les Cahiers du Cinema", p. 20.
19. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (London: Secker & Warburg, 1989).
20. Aumont, "Image, Face, Passage", p. 82.
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