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July 16, 2003

Free Reads -- David Weddle on Film Theory

Friedrich --

Have you bothered following the development of academic film theory since we left our movie-besotted college years behind? I have, if very spottily. You'll be stunned, stunned to hear that it's developed into something as absurd as what's crippled the other lib-arts-studies worlds. Marxist/feminist/psyschoanalytic/radical nonsense, in other words, with the occasional semi-OK idea buried in mounds and mounds of impress-your-fellow-academics jargon. And nothing, absolutely nothing (so far as I can tell) to do with how movies are actually made or enjoyed. Professorial attitude-striking and wheel-spinning, in other words -- yet more baloney that we owe to American academics' idiotic admiration for French New Left posturing and style.

David Weddle, who has a film degree of his own from way back, who has covered the film biz, and who has written a good biography of Sam Peckinpah, got a glimpse of what his daughter is currently studying in her Film-Studies courses. He wrote about what he discovered for the LA Times, here.

Sample passage:

Is there a hidden method to these film theorists' apparent madness? Or is film theory, as movie critic Roger Ebert said as I interviewed him weeks later, "a cruel hoax for students, essentially the academic equivalent of a New Age cult, in which a new language has been invented that only the adept can communicate in"?

Link via Arts and Letters Daily, here.



posted by Michael at July 16, 2003


Oh, all this BS is just a cover story designed to cover that fact that film students care about two things - movie stars and people who made piles and piles of money.

Blowhards, how did you miss this?

I have some limited experience chatting with people who are, by some measure, making a living in the movie biz. They don't talk this smack.

I have unfortunately not at all limited experience talking with NYU films students and grads and their ilk. This is where that whole asking seemingly innocent questions things comes into play.

Interestingly, there is an episode of "My Three Sons" that covers this issue. According to google it was episode 39. "Robbie's Underground Movie -
Robbie films a "way-out" movie for his college cinema class with the aid of a "way-out" co-ed." The chick wants to make what looks somewhat Fellini and is supposed to show that reality behind the Douglas household’s sterile patriarchal capitalist façade. When the film is complete, the “way out” segments are crap while the scenes of life in the Douglas household have truth and beauty and a lesson is learned.

Someone with even more interest than I has taken the time to post a review with commentary:

If my memory was better, I could probably recall a Thurber short story on the same theme.

Posted by: j.c. on July 16, 2003 3:27 PM

UCSB film students "are required to take 14 units of film theory and analysis, and just one four-unit production course that deals with the actual writing, shooting and editing of a film or video project"

Then at the end of the article they quote the UCSB prof during a lecture saying "in Marxism if you hide the process of production, you are obscuring and further alienating the labor that goes into that"

Are these people blind to the contradiction? They're alienating the labor in the name of Marx.

I enjoyed the quotes from Roger Ebert.

Posted by: Matt L on July 16, 2003 7:01 PM

I read this a couple of days ago. Made me very glad I did my BA (Hons) in film studies at UNSW from 1993-97. Back there and then I wouldn't automatically lose marks for using ordinary language like "story" and "plot" as opposed to jargon like "fabula" and "syuzhet" (we never ever learned those two words, I don't think). That said, there was a lot of theory and a lot of accompanying bullshit, and the use of specialised terminology would not have been discouraged.

There's nothing wrong with theory per se, I think, as long as it can be related to practice. But when it gets to the point of displacing practice entirely, and when theory and theorists are deemed to be more important than actual examples of the subject being studied, that's when you get problems. At UNSW the two preparatory modules I did in the leadup to my honours year were carried out without a single film being shown. I'm sure most people would wonder how a film studies course could be taught without actually studying any films, even in part, but it was...

Posted by: James Russell on July 17, 2003 12:35 AM

I've heard for a number of years that academics in the hard sciences just have no patience (i.e., no respect) for the humanities professoriat. I must say, this kind of thing certainly explains that sentiment:

Any way you slice it, UCSB's small band of radical theorists has pulled off a remarkable feat. They now hobnob with the Hollywood elite and are building a complex that will put their film studies department on par with UCLA, USC and NYU. They have overthrown the old school humanists and broken free of the fascist thought control designs of the artistic genius auteurs.

How did they do it? "We were right, that's how!" department chair Janet Walker says with a triumphant laugh.

Excuse me for asking, but how does Ms. Walker know she is "right"? It appears actually that her measure of truth is entirely political, to wit: she's got tenure, she's got a budget, so...she's right.

Gosh, no wonder the po-mos have always maintained that truth is a social (i.e., political)construct. They are just generalizing from their own circumstances on campus.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 17, 2003 1:24 AM

Excuse me for asking, but how does Ms. Walker know she is "right"?

Ineffable self-belief. Colin Wilson calls this the phenomenon of the Right Man, though obviously it crosses the gender divide.

Posted by: James Russell on July 18, 2003 1:41 AM

I wonder where you all received your degrees that you never learned any specialized terms to explain things that happen in your fields. But mostly I wonder how you can irresponsibly make judgements based on the writings on someone who has an inherent conflict of interest in writing this piece.

Film theory is one small piece of the film studies curriculum at UCSB, as it is at the other established liberal arts film programs in the US. The point of teaching theory is not to create a exclusionary language for scholars. The intention is to foster an intellectual environment to critically understand, engage, and discuss film in all its forms.

Let's not forget that the cinema is more than mainstream narrative film of five Western nations. If you don't understand what other forms of film exist, then it is you who have exclusionary attitudes towards the cinema.

Posted by: Juan M on July 22, 2003 3:18 PM

What kind of world do we live in where being an intellectual is looked down upon. If I was able to read my daughter's final exam from a prestigious University and easily answer all the questions, THEN I would want my money back. For she probably learned nothing from her higher education.

And by the way, if anyone cared to look at the curriculum at UCSB Film Studies, you would see that 15 units of film history is required of each major as well. Classes in film genre, movements and specific filmmakers are also offered. And even though there is only one production course required to graduate, there are many different courses in production offererd like screenwriting, pre-production, video production, editing, sound, cinematography, directing, animation and project-level courses. It seems peculiar that Mr. Weddle would leave this little tidbit out of his article. So don't believe everything you read.

Being a filmmaker myself I appreciate that students at UCSB are asked to take a critical look at film as a medium and an industry. With this knowledge hopefully they can transcend the generic formula of modern filmmaking and create something new and visionary. It is filmmakers like Welles, Goddard and Kurosawa, filmmakers that have taken a critical approach to the medium of film itself, who have become inspirations for many contemporary filmmakers. But should we put up a wall and say there can be no more room for inspirational artists?

If you want your child to learn nothing but film technology, there are many fine trade schools and community colleges which can train anyone to be a dillegent technician, and at a fraction of the cost of a University education. However I hope that my children will want to be more than mere button-pushers. And if they want to attend film school, I'll ask them to consider UCSB Film Studies.

Posted by: Chris M on July 22, 2003 5:43 PM

Ah, voices of offended True Believers. Always a pleasure.

Guys, first let me say I don't know why I bother, given how closed-minded you seem proud of being. Still, I have a little bit of foolish youth still in me, so let me pass along a few observations.

1) I don't detect you making a single point. If you do think there's something to the field of Film Theory -- if you think they're really making a contribution -- why don't you come out and say what it is? I've read a fair amount of it (Ok, I've skimmed around a fair amount of it), and it struck me as 1% semi-provocative, 99% wheelspinning, jargon-bloated and tenure-chasing.

2) I detect a lot of unthinking-reflex namecalling. Not a good way to handle being displeased -- kinda childlike, honestly. Let me suggest a couple of things. First, consider the possibility that people who disagree with you don't always do so because they're dumb and worthy of insult. They may be bright, well-informed -- and still disagree with you. Welcome to the world. Second, check the target before you shoot. In this case, you're talking to people with awfully good backgrounds in film. As for David Weddle? You don't seem to have noticed that Weddle himself has a film degree (as well as several decades in the biz) -- that's the reason he was surprised that he couldn't make sense of the passages his daughter showed him. He knows the field.

3) Broaden your horizons a bit. Criticisms of po-mo humanities studies, especially of the French-theory-derived sort, haven't exactly been thin on the ground for, oh, a decade or so. Yet you seem surprised to encounter such a thing. For a quick way to start getting familiar with criticisms that smart people (even intellectuals!) have made of the whole "Theory" movement, check out a recent column by Robert Fulford, here">">here. And try this
Lingua Franca account of the famous Sokal hoax, here.

Remember: namecalling, bad. Failing to provide arguments in favor of your point of view, bad. Implicitly claiming that all who disagree with you are anti-intellectual, bad. (Since when did intellectuals start having to all agree with each other?) Believing that the only alternative to craft-centric training is "Theory" of the French-derived po-mo sort? Dumb, naive, and ill-informed.

If you genuinely do get something out of the whole Film Theory movement and think they have much to contribute, please get back to us. I'd love to hear what it is.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 22, 2003 8:04 PM

Dear Mr. Blowhard,

It's me again.

I have to question your reasons of attacking intellectuals. An intellectual is not some malicious being who looks down on those who didn't get some fancy education. I consider myself an intellectual but most importantly I consider myself rather well-informed. If that makes me worthy of demonizing, then go crazy, big boy.

Since you say I don't make a point, and perhaps, you are right, let me illustrate it.

Film theory is not the whole of film studies. It is one small part. Think of it as an equilateral triangle. (That means a triangle with three equal sides, with each angle measuring 60 degrees, and each inner side faces each other.) I was never good at doing ASCII art, so I'll have to use words. Bear with me. The sides are as follows: 1 on the bottom, 2 on the left, 3 on the right.

1. Film history. This is on the bottom because it is the foundation--the base if you will--of a film studies education. It presents names, dates, and titles of films produced since the first time someone decided to charge admission for seeing a moving picture projected on a screen to a few years back. That's a lot of films but we try to highlight as many as possible. In addition to this vast amount of information, film history is the relationship film has to other institutions of its time. For example, Hollywood formed a monopoly circa 1908 by putting together a patent pool. As you know, other industries did the same thing (e.g. steel, railroads, and even incandescent lamps). If you know how and why certain films and filmmaking cultures existed at a particular time, you understand film history.

2. Film criticism (aka film analysis). Here we understand the elements of film narration. Sure, words such as 'fabula' and 'syuzhet' are alienating, but Russians came up with it so they got to name those elements of story structure. (The French call Paris "Paris" and who are we to disagree?) Film criticism asks us to consider a film in its entirety. There is an underlying premise here: every part of a film must address some common theme. Once you learn that you can look at any film and decide how well it did what it set out to do. Pick your favorite movie and notice how it does do all those things.

3. Film theory. Theory is an attempt to define what all films are, do, and, perhaps, should be. Early theories saw films saw them as extension of human cognition about the everyday world. More contemporary theories view film as an inherently political force. There are left-wing theories and there are those that are right-wing. They all kind of make sense if you know about film, but none are presented as the gospel truth. That is the biggest misperception of theory. It may guide but it does not dictate. If it does for some, that's wrong.

The triangle metaphor works well because it puts theory and criticism face to face. They both do very similar things but one is specific and the other is general. Neither can exist without a basis of film history. One must knowledge the extant variety of films and acknowledge that outside factors have influenced them. But most importantly, it represents a goal for a film studies education. It is a balanced model for what a film studies student should have at graduation or try to achieve once this educational foundation has been set.

My prinicipal complaint with Weddle is that neither he nor his daughter could understand this as the goal. He instead misrepresented the aims of film studies to where only one piece of my triangle was the entire structure. If the goals of his or his daughter were different, they should have done something more proactive than wait until graduation.

I bought a pair of shorts the other day. They kind of chafed some so I took them back to store the next day. Even with the restocking fee, I knew I didn't want to keep paying for something that didn't fit me.

With the exception of "big boy," I did not ever engage in name calling.

Love, Me.

Posted by: Juan M on July 22, 2003 9:34 PM

Pseudo-intellectual Defense?
1.dumb it down
2.set up straw man
3.shoot down straw man
4.pat self on back for good shot
5.congratulate self for refraining from namecalling
6.first true statement Love ME.

Posted by: paul s. on July 23, 2003 3:33 AM

Dear Mr. Blowhard,

As much as I enjoy blowhards such as David Weddle and many of your respondents on this page, I can’t help but note that if you’d like to talk about plot and story and character you can easily go to any community college, or remedial high school class and take a literature or film studies course to talk about rising action and falling action and the ubiquitous denouement. Granted, there are a few people out there doing interesting work with narratology (such as Seymour Chapman), but on the main it’s pretty high school stuff. The exact phenomenon many of you cite as the primary reason for film studies (the effusive love of cinema) just kind of peters out after a few classes and you need to find innovative ways to talk about how Citizen Kane is the greatest work in the history of the universe.

Thankfully, just like any reputable academic discipline, film studies came to recognize that there was much more to film than story and technique. There was a whole world of possible permutations of analysis. That level of critical complexity requires a ‘jargon,’ or terms specific to a discipline in order to function efficiently otherwise authors would be forced to retread the same long, drawn out principles over and over. Why not codify them with specific terms. But wait! Isn’t the introduction of jargon a part of EVERY academic study. Do you take Psychology and not study its jargon? How about economics? David Weddle may have not understood his daughter’s essay questions, but sweet Jesus, if you read Christian Metz its pretty frigging obvious what the question is saying. Perhaps instead of bitching about his daughter’s professors he should ask is daughter if she actually read the course material before writing the exam.

To attack film theorists for using jargon and moving away from director/hero worship is a bit like going after scientists for those goddamn ridiculous names they give to everyday phenomena, and critizing them for not talking about the great scientists more…all the time, in fact. Why do we need to comment on science at all without talking about Einstein, Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Currie… hero worship has its place, but so does theory. It hasn’t taken over all of film; it’s just a predominant aspect of its academic discourse.

Posted by: markrw on July 28, 2003 7:48 PM

Weddle does more than misunderstand UCSB's curriculum; he misrepresents it, and does so deliberately.

By pulling brief statements from extensive interviews completely out of context, Weddle goes out of his way to portray the professors and students as fanatical Marxists, when nothing could be further from the truth. Chris Scotten, who Weddle interviewed for well over an hour, was outlining the views of various theorists, one of them a Communist, when he described that particular theorist's Marxist take on film--a view Weddle then twisted to portray it as Scotten's own. Likewise with Professor Branigan, who made a passing reference to that same theorist in a 90-minute lecture.

Incidentally, that lecture was *not* the lecture that Weddle attended with Walker; Weddle came back later, in search of anything he could use to paint the school as the Marxist training camp it's never been.

Also consider that most of Weddle's quotes from other experts don't apply here. One expert discusses the field of literature, not film. Another condemns teaching irrelevant languages, while the language of film is highly relevant to those who study the craft.

Don't believe everything you read, especially when the author wears his agenda on his sleeve.

Posted by: Ryan on August 1, 2003 1:57 PM

I have a question. Can anyone tell me if Branigan, Wolfe, Penely or Walker, of UCSB, ever produced a noteworthy film, or any film for that matter? For the purpose of my question, student film projects do not count. I am only concerned with their achievements in the film industry itself.

Thank you,
John Malecki

Posted by: John Malecki on October 7, 2003 9:24 PM

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