You Will Watch a Lot of Movies Alone

Dan Sullivan at CineMadison has some interesting comments on my previous post about David Bordwell. I’d like to post my comment to his site here because Sullivan raises interesting questions about the study of cinema and I think these questions are worth exploring further.

Here’s my response:

David Bordwell is definitely one of the giants of the field. I’ve learned a lot from him, especially about the classical Hollywood style. I agree with you, though, that his approach is too narrow. The approach of most major scholars and critics is too narrow. We all see differently, yet we’re also the sum of our influences. We all cobble together personal theories from a variety of sources, and this is how it should be.

I was trained in the big French theorists, Lacan included, as well as the big German theorists, most notably Walter Benjamin. They’ve shaped how I see and read and write, but I don’t read any of them uncritically. Anyone who studies critical theory with serious intent is ambivalent about it to one degree or another. This is what the enemies of theory don’t understand. My views on Jacques Lacan have evolved over the years. He’s tremendously important for thinking about the subjectivity of viewing and our relationship to language. At the same time, though, I wonder about the charges of charlatanism sometimes leveled against him. His parable of the tin can floating in a sea that looks back at us (I’m writing this from a hotel room in Boston, so I can’t look up which essay it comes from other than to direct you to Ecrits) is a good insight insufficiently developed. Really, we can’t look at anything without sensing that it’s look back at us? How so? This is the “loopy” quality his writing, and others, sometimes lapses into.  However, I wouldn’t dismiss all of critical theory, or even a majority of it, as loopy. It seems once a thinker reaches a certain prominence, all of his or her ideas make it into publication, whether they’re fully formed or not.

As for watching films alone, this was an insufficiently developed idea. I can imagine the crowd that gathers around David Bordwell and his wife on campus or at public screenings. Film studies has always struck me as a sociable discipline–more so than literary studies, at any rate. Part of the fun of studying film in college is sharing your experiences with like-minded peers. The Society for Cinema Studies conference was always my favorite.

However, your fears about the subject matter becoming isolating are well founded. Outside the academy you’re pretty much on your own. Going to see a Romanian film at a crowded downtown theater with expensive parking is a commitment that few people are willing to make on a regular basis. DVD’s make viewing easier, but only hardcore cinephiles would enjoy spending two hours on a Friday watching an Ozu film. An early Howard Hawks film or a Sirk melodrama aren’t easier sells. Oftentimes, cinephilia is a lonely pursuit that becomes all the more isolating the more esoteric, or scholarly, you are, the less likely someone else will share that passion.


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