Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 1, May 1983

Changing the curriculum: the place of film in a department of English

Noel King

The general question raised by this article is not at all peculiar to 'film'; rather it concerns the curriculum and the way in which alterations to the curriculum occur and the kinds of effects (or non-effects) which might follow from substituting one text for another within a particular course (for example, in English 1 or English 1 lA etc.). In this sense, another article might have been called 'The Place of Commonwealth Literature in a department of English' or, a few years ago, 'The Place of American and Australian Literature in a department of English'. Here I'm remembering that ten years ago in a course called 'English 11 B' I spent three terms covering Australian and American literature. This then allowed the department to set about its real business: that business was and is the follow ing (to quote Christopher Ricks' formulation in the midst of the 'Maccabe affair'): 'It is our job to teach and uphold the canon of English literature'. For a different instance of the same position we could cite Arthur Pollard-s review of Re-Reading English (in British Book News, August 1982; p. 504) where he invokes Helen Gard ner's In Defence of the Imagination as a means of countering "the Subversive intent" of a "full orchestra" of Marxist critics. Pollard worries about a world in which Coronation Street would be studied instead of Middlemarch and asserts: "The great tradition is broader than Leavis thought it was and those of us who occupy our small corner within it would defend the absolute moral and spiritual values that Leavis saw as fundamental." Or one could cite Tom Paulin's recent reactionary review of Re-Reading English in The London Review of Books and the controversy it provokedP Closer to home, Leonie Kramer's polemical in troduction to the recent Oxford History of Australian Literature could be cited. In each case, one is witnessing the disarray and siege-mentalilty evident within the institution of Literature.

If it is accepted that quite serious debates accompanied the proposed inclu sion of Australian and American writing within departments of English (and was then followed by debates as to specific texts: Patrick White or Frank Hardy etc.) then it is not difficult to imagine the level of argument generated by suggestions that Hollywood might be as worthy of attention as Shakespeare and that The Searchers might be as interesting an object to analyse as, say, Macbeth. To a significant extent then, 'film' is used in this article as a means of talking about the current crisis in English studies. This is done because any moves to renovate the institution of literature, to effect changes in what gets taught and said, to try to alter what will count as literature, indeed to alter what will count as a text and a reading, such attempts at renovation Invariably cite film and television as areas of which English departments need to take some sort of account. This could take the form of simply absorbing a new object (film, television) into a familiar set of teaching practices. In this sense the title of this paper promises not at all a utopian statement of what should be done with the object 'film' in a depart ment of English but rather indicates a descriptive account of the place film has come to occupy in some departments of English or the place it is likely to occupy


when (and if) it is inserted into the curriculum of a department of English. That is, I'll be discussing a literary use of film, a literary gaze being directed at film (just as it recently has been directed at television by way of books from Mar tin Esslin and Peter Conrad).2 This allows me now to state in advance the cen tral point of the paper, namely that the taking of a new object of study in itself guarantees nothing. An addition to a list of texts—:putting Citizen Kane alongside Hamlet, adding Keaton and Chaplin to a course on comedy—:will not necessarily alter the modes by which texts are read in departments of English. The trainings in certain ways of reading, trainings in what can be termed 'literary recognition' so characteristic of the daily practices of English departments, need not have been shifted at all. In short, text substitution of this kind will not alter the apparatuses within which certain knowledges of texts are produced. That is, the institution of literature could find new objects (for example, books writ ten by women, migrants, Aborigines; film) and study the new object in quite well established literary-critical ways.3 New object, same old discourse.

That's the framework in which I'd like to situate the following remarks which constitute a sort of Cook's Tour of some of the recurring points in the last fif teen years of film theory.4 Necessarily these remarks are an over schematic and reductive account of the complexity of the discourses at play over the last two decades, the period during which the study of film gained an institutional footing in the secondary and tertiary syllabuses of the United Kingdom, American and Canada. As an aside it's worth noting that America has a dozen or so places at which post-graduate film study can be pursued and many more places for undergraduate work in the area; Canada has about half a dozen and the United Kingdom a dozen. Australia has one department of film and various 'pockets' of film study in the newer universities and colleges of advanced education. Any account of the different situation existing here from, say, the one in Britain would need to examine the different roles played in the promotion of 'film cultureleduca tion' by the British Film Institute as opposed to the Australian Film Institute. For my present purpose however, it is interesting to note that film studies in Britain ten years ago occupied a position quite similarto that occupied by English literature in the first few decades of this century. The study of English literature had to be argued for in the face of the institutionally powerful position of the classics. Terry Eagleton, writing of the dilemma in which literary criticism then found itself (namely, an ambiguity of status, doubts as to whether it was an amateur or professional pursuit) said:

The radical self-doubt of criticism is such that i~ is not even able to say whether it is an 'amateur' or ~professional' pursuit. It cannot surely, be professional for nothing is more natural than reading. It is simpiy a matter of tuming the pages until you get to the end—:turning them, naturally, with a peculiar at tentiveness, but an attentiveness which, though it can be nurtured and inform ed, cannot ultimately be taught. Yet it cannot be amateur either, for it is un thinkable that the labour-intensive industry of literary enquiry—:schools, university faculties, publishing houses, literary bodies—:tums on a mode of cognition more akin to wine-tasting than chemical experiment. When English literary studies were first academically institutionalised in Britain, this dilem ma was 'resolved ' by a judicious blending of the two modes. English literature was a non-subject in a palpable sense: the English gentlemen who occupied


the early professorships at the 'ancient' universities no more needed a course of specialised training in how to read their own literature than they needed a course of training in how to give orders to their domestic servants. Yet they were, afterall, professors of English, and the cavalier frivolity they displayed towards their calling could not go wholly undisguised. The simple solution available to them was to study English literature but to pretend that it was something else—:to systematically mistake it for the 'classics'. (1978; p.12)

In the case of the film I would argue that there has been a tendency for it to be systematically mistaken for literature, that is there has been a tendency to treat film as one would literary texts. So much is evident from the work on film done in the late 1960's, specifically in the cases of auteur theory and genre theory.

Auteur theory is the name given to a body of writing emanating principally from Cahiers du Cinema in the late 1950's, associated with Bazin, Astruc, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette. In English auteur theory was taken up by Andrew Sar ris (writing in a pre-Murdoch Village Voice) and in the UnitedKingdom most pro minently by the journal Movie (founded in 1960). The principal contribution of this writing consisted in taking American cinema seriously rather than dismiss ing it as unworthy of close attention. Because American films were produced within the studio system, they had tended to be rejected as 'commercial', not art. What the auteur critics did was to take, say, all the films directed by Hitchcock and notice that in more than 50 films made in two different countries with dif ferent actors and stories, there was something consistent. What they termed a 'personal vision', and a style, was discernible across this mass of 'different films' (for example, films directed by Hawks would be read in terms of the recurrence of male groups and the position occupied by the women characters in relation to these groups). Au~eurism was a systematic study of film calculated to demonstrate the existence of 'individual artists' within the context of 'mass cinema'; it worked on the notion of ~individual expression' in a ~film factory'. Perhaps the best representative of this kind of auteur analysis is Robin Wood (a critic whose writing is sufficiently material in its effects for him to be invited to the Third Australian Film Conference held in Melbourne in December 1982).

Auteurism then, in its initial appearance constituted an oppositional discourse, a way of trying to displace those dominant conceptions of cinema contained in the assumed excellence of the 'taste' of a few journalists and reviewers (cf. Eagleton's reference to literary-criticism and wine-tasting). That is to say that in a specific historical conjuncture au~eurism was important for the way in which it challenged a dominant definition of what counted as cinema and for the way it established a more systematic mode of analysis than that contained in the impressionist dogmatism of established film criticism. But even from such a brief sketch of this kind of auteurism one would notice how closely it resembles a dominant literary mode of reading. This form of auteurism clearly was "modell ed on a literary ideology which, a few decades earlier had played an equally op positional role: Leavisism.~' (Willemen, 1980; p.2) Indeed Robin Wood was educated at Cambridge under Leavis's influence and the transfer from literature to film was made easily, precisely because nothing much changed in the pro cess. The principles of a Leavisite reading were now applied to a film directed by Howard Hawks rather than a novel written by D H Lawrence.


But there was another, different form of auteurism being practiced at this time (one associated with New Lef~ Review, and perhaps best represented by Peter Wollen and his book, Signs and Meanings in the Cinema) which, rather than draw ing on Leavisism, drew on linguistics and structural anthropology. Paul Willemen has described the appearance of Wollen's book in this way: "Continuing posi tions elaborated in the pages of NLR, Peter Wollen's book, Signs and Meanings in the Cinema (1969) summarised and systematised the various debates of the sixties into coherent theoretical formulations and aimed the thrust of the op positional force in that work squarely at educational institutions, outlining why cinema required systematic study (Willemen, 1979; p.11). Mobilising the tradi tions associate with Levi-Strauss, Russian and Czech formalism, this lingustics based auteurism shifted "the focus of attention away from individualism and towards theoretical issues regarding the structure of artistic texts in general." (Willemen, 1980; p.2). It was this struc1uralist-auteurism which succeeded in put ting forward the whole question of textual production of meaning, indicating an appeal to semiology as the discipline most likely to account for the way texts work as signifying structures. Paul Willemen has a succinct summary of these developments:

~Founded in the same year as New Lef~ Review (1960) Movie elaborated an oppositional position within and against film journalism by posing the ques tion of critical method in relation to a signifying practice that was not con sidered to have any artistic value: Hollywood cinema. Its position consisted of, on the one hand, leavisite literary criticism, which, although dominant within departments of literature, became oppositional when mobilised in relation to something it had never been designed for, that is, cinema; and on the other hand, Cahier du Cinema's formulation of the politique des au~eurs, the only precedent for a systematic oppositional polemic infavour of a 'popular' cinema. To use a critical shorthand, Movie offered a form of Bazinian Leavisism, while lateron in the 1960's New Left Review introduced a discussion of cinema which reposed Movie's questions but in more theoretical terms. Movie is associated with auteurism, while it was NLR and its periphery which ... formulated the auteur-theory and introduced the 'continental' concern with critical methodology: structuralism." (Willemen, 1979; p.10).

At this same period in film theory (the late '60's, early '70s) the question of genre was taken up. For those journalists and reviewers charged with saying what counted as a good film, genre meant 'formula' and 'unimaginative'; it was a pe jorative term used to justify the argument that popular cinema was a mass pro duced factory product devoid of personality. Genre films could be enjoyed as entertainment whenever the refined critic felt like slumming it or aggressively affirming hislher status as just an 'ordinary' person entitled to speak in the name of 'the people'. (Willemen, 1980; p.2). But genre films certainly were not to be confused with films signed by Bergman, Fellini or Antonioni. Genre named a work which simply parotted certain conventions without moving beyond them. A parallel now might be the status of 'popular' fiction in a department of English. Popular fiction is the stuff one buys in train stations and airports, reads on holidays but is not the stuff one sets on courses because it is not, to use Tom Wolfe's phrases, ~the right-stuff'. When genre was introduced to the film theory crticial arena in the early 1970s two things happened. First it qualified the


romantic-artist idea lurking at the heart of literary-auteurism. For example, John Ford makes westerns but the western existed as a field of meanings before John Ford. The question then was one of relating auteur to genre. Jim Kitses' Horizons West and Colin MacCarthur's Underworld USA, treating the western and gangster genres respectively, were the first consolidations of this debate.5 But a more in teresting feature of this appearance of genre within film theory concerns the way it helped turn the terms of a particular discourse back on itself. By this I mean that the tendency to call a film 'just a western', 'just a gangster film, to see it as an unimaginative formula piece, was bound up with a rejection of such films as 'mere commodities' (as if books aren't commodities, as if literary production is not a similarly 'polluted' activity,though it has taken the work of Raymond Williams and more recently that of Macherey, Eagleton and Bennett to drive this point home). So the taking up of genre as a theoretical issue for film studies led to quite interesting work on the film industry whereby the film was examined as a cultural product produced within a specific system ('the studio system').6 That is, the commodity status of film was taken up in tandem with its signifying status. And of course, it makes no sense to separate these levels. To take the example of Gallipoli, we would notice a lot of writing about it (apart from film journals, in Age Monthly Review, Ouadrant, Island Magazine) which stays at the level of the images on the screen, identifying the main problem as one of relating those images to the real historical event. But how could any analysis of Gallipoli ignore the carefully orchestrated media campaigns accompanying the film's release, the fact that Stigwood and Murdoch produced it, that Penguin issued a screenplay, the lauding of the film in Murdoch's The Australian, the fact that in the week of its release Parkinson interviewed David V\~illiamson (the screen writer) on Murdoch's Channel 10, the fact that in Adelaide in the week of the film's release, Anne Wills (on Channel 10) devoted a special programme of Movie Scene to Gallipoli. (Or consider the mutation of the film's publicity blurb, from Australia: 'From a legend you'll always rememberlComes a story you'll never forget', to America: 'From a place you never heard of comes a story you'll never forget'). It is this recognition of the commodity status of film that has led to an exten sion of what will count as a text to include all those discourses which promote and sustain the circulation of films—:trade journals, newspapers, ads. (The same argument has recently been put forward for the analysis of literary texts by Pierre Macherey and Tony Bennett).7 The analysis of film, in this reformulation. could include feminist analyses of advertising posters (eg, the work done in Spare Rib and Framework on Lipstick and Dressed to Kill)R; it could include film festivals, which can be seen as ~thinly disguised markets where two things are sold: the products of the film industry and membership of the small band of accredited 'regulators' whose task it is to organise and police the terms on which these products are to be consumed. In other words it is the task of film journalists, appointed by newspaper, radio or TV managements, to fix the terms on which films are to make sense."9

However it would be quite possible for questions of film genre to be accom modated very easily into a department of English without in the least disturbing the order of things: it would simply be a matter of aestheticising a set of economic determinations so that genre became a primarily aesthetic rather than economic category. Genre constitutes one of the two main organising features of the Hollywood text, the other of course being the star. Insofar as 'star' means


Eastwood, Bronson, Bogart, John Wayne and Jane Fonda this would constitute a more difficult phenomenon for a department of English to absorb. Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni are fine but what does one do with John Wayne of whom it habitually is said, 'He can't act, he's always the same'; what do you do with this notion of John Wayne as a petrified object?

First one could recast these familiar accusations to say instead that John Wayne represents a set of 'possible statements'; certain meanings attach to him. John Wayne connotes certain things, he comes to a film already laden with mean ing. For example, it is unlikely that John Wayne will play a homosexual cons cientious objector, reluctant to use a gun and given to outbursts of uncontrollable weeping. Or (to take an example from Australian television) consider the Jack Thompson power-tool ad in which he walks around a home site in jeans and a lumberjack shirt; we could ask, why doesn't Stuart Wagstaff do the power tool ad? The answer is that what Wagstaff connotes would be contradicted radically by the circumstance depicted in power tool ads. You would have an unwanted alienation-effect. These two brief examples demonstrate that there are always ways of talking about objects such as John Wayne which do not hinge on distinc tions such as 'good and bad acting'. Given that this is also a very minimal allu sion to semiotics denotative/connotative; the commutation test of Wagstaff for Thompson) it provides a way of moving on to the final section of the Cook's Tour, namely to indicate the degree of break made by film journals such as Screen and Framework with a literary use of film.

Screen has been the most influential journal of film theory in the last decade but I do not for a moment want to suggest that 'film theory' is a coherent unified domain with Screen as its univocal mouthpiece. On the contrary, 'film theory' during the last ten years has been a site on which particularly vituperative strug gles have been fought. Screen has had about ten different editors in as many years and the various resignations, reformations of the editorial committee etc. have been always been conducted in vehemently political terms, that is in the belief that in analysing texts one is always engaged in a battle of readings (not at all chosen 'individually' but rather, determined institutionally); in short, that there is a definite political contestation over the object, 'film'. The shift in Screen was from debating the relation between individual versus formulalgenre or of locating an author-within-genre, towards work aimed at disengaging the various levels and codes, the systems of signification at work within any given text or group of texts. No longer was it a problem of the artist but rather the problem of text construction. Accordingly the distinctions between groups of texts no longer were formulated in terms of genre but instead in terms of narrative ver sus non-narrative, illusionist versus anti-illusionist, classic versus modernist (it was in these areas that one saw the taking up of Brecht by film theory). This shift had quite specific implications. For example, if the object of analysis is narrative (the various codes and conventions which comprise narrative systems) then any notion of author as it is used in departments of English becomes far less impor tant. It doesn't matter whether Charles Dickens or Peter Corris signed the text. (Here it is significant to note that it was Screen which published the English translation of Michel Foucault's ~What is an Author?', as part of a retheorisation of the category of author). (Screen, 20, 1, 1979.) When the shift is made from an unproblematic use of the category of author to practices of writinq. orders of discourse. this sc~rS I is usuallv caricatured as saying 'authors don't exist'


whereas Foucault's article is precisely an analysis of the conditions of existence of what he calls the 'author-function'. This sort of work does not deny that there are individuals who write, it simply denies that the character of literary writing is determined by the subjectivity of these individuals. The interest is not in what an author is in terms of a unique human identity but rather in identifying why and where the concept of author matters. Further, once the object of analysis becomes narrative systems then detective fiction, fairy-tales and films can be read without a moment's embarrassment or guilt.

As a way of concluding this partial account of some of the recurrent ques tions in film theory over the last fifteen years, the questions which have been worked through as a means of specifying a field of analysis ('justifying' it) one could say—:very broadly—:that initially there is a shift within a first set of terms: author, genre, style, mise-en-scene. Author and genre have t)een retheorised while mise-en-scene and the question of style remain to be retheorised. Together with this partial retheorisation of some key terms, there has also been a shift to another set of terms: discourse, representation, institution and conjuncture9ยก These are the terms which outline both the range of problems addressed by current film theory and the framework within which these problems can be formulated most productively. The terms would be linked in something like the following way. Cinema is a signifying practice, a mode of representation which, as a practice, constitutes precisely a discourse. Cinema poses problems regarding significa tion, subjectivity and the relations between the two. As a practice it is crossed by extra-cinematic discourses and is organized within or in terms of certain in stitutions. Cinema is a social institution; groups of individual networks involved would include the cinematic apparatus, the publishing. educational, legal and trade union apparatuses with all the overlaps, contradictions and points of con densation between them. In order to try to understand, to 'unpick' the dialectic of forces at work upon and within this particular signifying practice in its various trajectories through multi-layered institutional networks, it is necessary to operate with the notion of conjuncture; that is, to recognise that there are conjunctures in a constant process of formation, reformation, transformation. A process call ed history. These four terms (discourse, representation, institution and conjunc ture) mark the intellectual space which must be inhabited if questions about cinema are to be posed and answered—:always provisionally—:in the most pro ductive manner possible.

By way of a conclusion, one could say that it is impossible to provide a general pronouncement of 'the place of film in a department of English' just as it is in correct to say (as it is sometimes said) that film theory has outstripped literary theory. If film theory is represented by Robin Wood and literary theory by Macherey, that would be a rather difficult assertion to maintain.

The central difficulty concerning general formulations on the place of film (or TV) in a department of English is that neither area ('film' and 'literature') con stitutes a unified, coherent domain. There are only ever certain strategies of unity and periods of synthesis. (Leavisism would be one such moment of synthesis). In short, one cannot ask in general what is the place of film in a department of English because one cannot ask in general, 'what is film?/ or 'what is literature?' To ask either question is simply to allude to the current determinations of the literary and the filmic. No single concept defines either object and no cluster of texts could be said to display the formal properties which would decisively


define the realm of the literarylfilmic. What will count as literature at any given point is determined by the transmission of definite, though historically shifting and divergent, techniques of reading within the specific institutional location constituted by a department of literature. Consequently to make a politically ef fective use of film, as of any text, would require a strategically calculated interven tion within the determinations which modulate the text's existing modes of usage and consumption. The text then becomes a site on which various meanings and effects are produced but always according to the institutional determinations in which they are inscribed. Any 'new object' can very easily be recuperated, and so far as I am aware this is more or less what happens when film is taken into a department of literature.

There seem to be three main ways in which film enters an English department. First, via the notion of adaptation (films of Shakespeare's plays, Dickens' novels etc.) and this is an area which requires a great deal of work. No poetics of adap tation exists (Bluestone and Richardson remain the most prominent accounts) and theoretical work is certainly required on the way a film of a 'classic' novel or play is recruited to a department of literature and assessed as being a good or bad adaptation. The second principal use of films would be as a means of elaborating already established literary categories (eg, the genre of 'comedy' would include Shakespeare, Shaw Restoration comedy, absurdist drama, then Chaplin, Keaton, Kubrick and Woody Allen). Rather than operating as a way of confronting the intersection of industrial and aesthetic determinations on texts (though there is no real way of separating these two areas) or of foregrounding the various taxonomising moves of literary criticsim, this extension of the category of genre to include film will simply provoke such questions as to the status of 'Kubrick's comic vision'. The third use of film would be to elaborate themes found in the various novels, poems and plays set on a particular course so that a thematic continuity is established across various texts in various media (e.g. the theme of 'the individual versus society'). Under these conditions film can have no place in a department of English if by 'place' one understands the opening of a strategic space in which habitual modes of reading are to be challenged. Here again, pronouncements have to be made very carefully and obviously with a detailed knowledge of the department in question. It might well be that a western starring John Wayne could be used as a means of interrogating some of the more settled assumptions about texts and reading which are crucial to a particular department. If that is the case then an effective political intervention might have been achieved.

I'll close by making a general remark of the kind I've warned against throughout this paper. Film could come into departments of English and change nothing, but that would not be because anyone would be so neanderthal as to dismiss outright the claims of film (and TV). Rather it would be the result of a prior pro blem; namely, that of how to introduce theory as an explicit feature of a three or four year passage through an English department. So long as lecturers can continue to say 'I just teach literature, the theory man is down the corridor' or 'we can't really ask our students to read any theory because they already have to read so much', then the arrival of film or television is the last and least of their worries.

Noel King teaches in the Department of Communication, S.C.A.E., Magill Campus.



1. See Tom Paulin, 'Faculty at war', London Review of Books 4, 11 (1982) and the Letters' column in subsequent issues.

2. See Martin Esslen, The Age of Television (San Francisco: W H Freeman and Co., 1982) and Peter Conrad/ Television: The Medium and Its Manners (London: RKP, 1982).

3 For comments around this issue see lan Hunter, 'The Concept of Context and the Problem of Reading', Southern Review 15, 1 (1982) and David Saunders, 'Limiting Cases and Literary Canons: The Trial of Lady Chatterly's Lover', Southern Review 15, 2 (1982).

4. Much of the following on auteur and genre theory is slmply a reorganisatlon of Paul Willemen's comments in his 'Presentation' (pp 1-4) to Stephen Neale, Genre (London: BFI, 1980) and Paul Willemen, 'Introductory Notes for a History of Contexts' (unpublished article, 1979).

5. Jim Kitses, Horizons West: Studies ot Authorship Within the Western (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969); Colin McArthur, Underworld USA(London: Secker andWarburg. 1972).

6. See for example, Charles Barr, Ealing Studios (London: Cameron and Tayleur, 1977). The first sketch of this book was published in Screen in 1974 under the title, 'Projecting Britain and the British Character'. It was followed by John Ellis, 'Made in Ealing', Screen 16,1(1975). And in Screen 16, 3 (1975), Ed Buscombe's article, 'Notes on Columbia Pictures Corporation 1926 41', appeared.

7. See the interview with Pierre Macherey in Red Letlers 5 (1977), pp. 3-9 and Tony Bennett, 'Text and Social Process', Screen Education 41 (1982) pp. 3-14.

8. See Mandy Merck and Sue Clayton, 'Obvious Nastiness? An Opinion', Spare Rib, May 1981, no. 106 and Tony Bryant and Griselda Pollock, 'Window Dressing... A Poster Competition for Dressed to Kill,' Framework 15/16/17 (1981) pp. 25-28.

9. Paul Willemen, 'Pesaro: The Limitations and Strengths of a Cultural Policy', Framework 15/16/17 (1981) p. 96. See also Kathe Boehringer and Stephen Crofts, 'The Triumph of Taste', Australian Journal of Screen Theory 8 (1980) pp. 69-79, a review of the Sydney Film Festival.

10. These terms and their elaboration are taken from Paul Willemen's reply to John Hess (editor of the American film journal, Jump Cut.

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