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The Whence and Whither of Film Studies… or, is the cinema really dead?

19 Oct

Earlier this spring of 2013, the University of Pennsylvania’s Cinema Studies department hosted a conference on the supposed “death of cinema” (speculated by prominent New Yorker critics) and the “future of cinema studies.” The conference reflects a now common observation that companies specializing in the traditional medium of “film” (or the technology of the now defunct “celluloid“) have either gone out of business or shifted to digital forms — new forms that facilitate hybrid multi-media production.  In addition to changing modes of production, there are also changing modes of distribution (notably the internet) that have led to new formats, styles, viewing habits, etc. This worry about a crisis in the field due to a rapidly changing world is nothing new. In a 2004 issue of the Cinema Journal, E. Ann Kaplan noted how this crisis is not just due to changes in technology but also due to changes in the cultural framework of analysis — notably, a shift from “national cinema cultures” in which we analyze French film, German film, Italian film, etc., to global and transnational cultures in which we analyze cultural mixtures, communities marginalized from national cultures, multinational corporations, and transnational partnerships. Even more significantly, her discussion of the field and how it has been debated at venues such as the Modern Language Association convention reminds us of an earlier “crisis” in the field when the hegemony of television spurred the Society of Cinema Studies to change its name in 2002 to the Society of Cinema and Media Studies.

Since I don’t think the cinema “is really dead” (alluding to the sardonic Simon and Garfunkel lyric about the theater), I have summarized this recent speculation about its fast-approaching demise to raise a simple question about its future: whither film studies? And since I am a literary historian and theorist by training, naturally I begin by considering its past: whence film studies? Although Simon and Garfunkel’s song suggests that to speculate on the death of the theater is a pretentious question asked by two lovers struggling to have a real conversation, the death of the theater became a reality last month when the New York City Opera announced that it was closing. In the case of the academic field of film studies, one might question its relevance given the emergence of new technologies and forms of distribution that threaten to displace its centrality in the study of modern media and culture. Or, more sensibly, one might more simply admit that all things change and begin to work through the challenges that we face as scholars, teachers, and practitioners as we imagine its future.

Obviously the origins of film studies is complicated, and, likewise, obviously its institutionalization at various colleges and universities is varied and diverse. However, because any academic field always has to justify its existence as such, standard histories and anthologies of the field inevitably refer to two individuals writing in the 1930s. The first is revolutionary Russian film-maker Sergei Eisenstein, who observed in his books Film Form and Film Sense that film was not like other artistic mediums because it is essentially little bits of plastic, spliced together. The true artistry of film happened in the editing room when images were juxtaposed to create meaning — something he called montage. The second is the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, whose foundational essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argues that new technologies transform our understanding of authorship and authenticity. Benjamin and his Frankfurt School colleague  Theodore Adorno debated whether the new technologies empowered the working classes to make art or, alternatively, increasingly subjected them to the brainwashing effects of mass media. Hence,  film as an object of academic inquiry began with the observation that its technological difference from other forms of art give it unique and socially meaningful qualities. (Eisenstein and Benjamin were of course drawing on even earlier criticism and philosophy, e.g., [here] but it is generally accepted that their essays are the seminal starting points for giving the field its self-definition.) Hence, starting in the 1950s, universities began to create programs in film studies. Such programs emerged primarily out of the departments of English, modern languages, and comparative literature who grappled with the question of film’s essential difference from theater, poetry, and the novel. At smaller schools, such programs remained part of the English department or interdisciplinary programs, but at larger schools they eventually acquired a life of their own and became independent departments of film and media studies, communications, or cultural studies.

A further aspect of film studies is its interdisciplinarity. This is indicated by the term “studies” in its name. We can compare it to other sorts of studies: ethnic studies, gender studies, environmental studies, peace studies, food studies, postcolonial studies, etc., a long list of secondary programs that clearly differ from the primary disciplines of biology, psychology, literature, history, etc., none of which are “studies.” What does the “studies” part of the nomenclature of “film studies” mean? One of the earliest theorizations of the “interdisciplinary” is Roland Barthes 1971 essay “From Work to Text” which argues that interdisciplinary study does not just bring together two disciplines but rather produces an entirely new object of study. Hence, “studies.” One feature of interdisciplinary “studies” is that they tend to raise questions about the traditional disciplines whose methodologies are being hybridized and adapted to these new object of inquiry. For example, for my own discipline of literature, such “studies” as gender studies, ethnic studies, race studies, and postcolonial studies all throw into question the basic assumptions about literary value and the culture that was dominated by the elite, white men of imperialistic nations. Similarly, for the field of anthropology (originally a discipline in which European men studied the culture of non-European peoples), the emergence of postcolonial perspectives and deconstructive strategies of reading led to a critique of itself as a politically motivated discipline. Thus, in a strange way, such studies might not only be “interdisciplinary” for they also present a critical perspective on the integrity and coherence of the disciplines. In one of the foundational books on the new field of Cultural Studies, editors Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treicher suggest that cultural studies is not just interdisciplinary but “anti-disciplinary.” Paradoxically, the rigor of “studies” derives not from a consistent methodology but from interdisciplinary borrowing and innovation. To put it simply, the point is to think outside the box.

What does this teach us about where film and media studies is going?

First of all, if what makes film studies a unique field of academic field of inquiry is the nature of the technology after which it is named, then new technologies would assuredly mean new objects of study. The question that has plagued film studies programs since the emergence of television is whether these new technologies can simply be incorporated into film studies as merely a variation of the same. Or, are these different technologies different enough to require a new academic discipline. To put it another way, the entire premise behind the creation of film studies is that its mode of production, distribution, and reception is so different from other art forms that it required new interdisciplinary modes of inquiry and could not be merely incorporated into English and modern language departments.  If this is the case, we might argue that today’s digital media and multi-media productions are in fact not just an updated, more advanced variation of film, but an entirely different medium. Just as the new technology of film led to the creation of new “film studies” programs, so must the new multi-media technologies and internet lead us to the creation of new something-or-other programs. Or maybe not.

In illustration of this, earlier this year I attended a panel called “African Film Making in the Digital Era” at Columbia University as part of New York’s annual African Film Festival in which a panel of scholars, film-makers, and film distributors all observed a change in how movies were being consumed in Africa. The most common way to view movies is now on smartphones, and the effect of this shift is that young film-makers were adapting to this new technology by producing shorter, serialized films. Likewise, in the United States, the emergence of various video-streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu have led to the popularity of extended, complex plot structures of serialized dramas such as The Wire and Breaking Bad.

Hence, just as the word “media” was added to the name of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies a decade ago, we might now also add new subjects such as social media and digital humanities. Or, we might simply ask whether what is really being studied here is the history of technology — technology studies, whose interdisciplinary approach analyzes technology as a social and cultural phenomenon. How are these new fields of digital humanities and technology studies related to the older film and media studies? This is an important and difficult question to which I have no answer.

This new technology actually changes the field of film studies in another way. In the past, there was a clear distinction between “film studies” programs that emphasized complex theoretical analysis and “film schools” that trained individuals how to make films. Programs in film-making generally resided in large universities with the financial resources to support the necessary equipment and classroom architecture (e.g., camera equipment, lighting equipment, film processing rooms, not to mention reels and reels of celluloid.) Rarely did the theorist and the film-maker mix company. But the new digital and multi-media platforms and means of rapid distribution actually enable smaller liberal arts schools to create programs that mix small-scale multi-media production and cultural analysis. Because the new technology is itself a hybrid form, it is perhaps more open to self-theorization than the high-art aspirations of “film.”

It might be also worth taking stock of yet another ironic paradox about this technology. At precisely the moment when traditional film studies programs are raising questions about the death of film, the new, cheaper, smaller, and more adaptable technologies that are replacing film have enabled smaller colleges to imagine their own undergraduate programs in film and multi-media production.

But it’s not just technology that has changed. So too has the political and social configuration of the world. In the past, film studies programs were often linked to studies of “national” cultures, so it was once common to offer classes in French cinema or Italian neorealism. The idea is that certain nations possess unique cultures that are given shape by the idiosyncratic styles and genius of individual authors, artists, and movie directors. Certainly, it is true that different nations have different relations to movies, not only due to cultural differences, but also due to legal and governmental structures. France, for instance, is highly protective of its movie industry and its subsidized film industry allows directors to follow their artistic goals without as much concern for their marketability (in contrast to the for-profit Hollywood model.)

Three movements in the 1960s and 70s put such nationalistic curricula in question: civil rights, feminism, and anti-colonial independence. Hence, film studies programs began to foreground notions of race, gender, and ethnicity, and began to also notice the ways that the film industries of imperial nations (France, England, the United States) affect the emerging industries of their former colonies. As I mentioned in the introduction to this blog, film studies now borrows theories about globalization from economics, sociology, political science, and cultural studies to re-think the nature of film production, distribution, and consumption as a transnational phenomenon.  It’s not just that the film industry has globalized or that giant multinational corporations have taken over the world. It’s that the dissemination of digitally produced, hybrid multi-media through the internet is part of a network of transnational partnerships that transform local communities.  Some theorists identify this shift toward more “global” frames for analyzing culture as the 1960s when African and Asian colonies gained independence from Europe and the United States revised its immigration policy to be more open to people from those places, but other scholars point to the uniqueness of the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the creation of the World Trade Organization, and the rapid expansion of non-governmental organizations. Hence, if we are to imagine the future of film studies (or whatever we want to now call it), we might want to consider its relation to other pedagogical endeavors such as global citizenship and civic engagement that involve students in programs of experiential learning that put them in close contact with diverse communities.

To conclude, maybe someone might moan that cinema has gone the way of the VHS video player, and that kids today just don’t appreciate artistic cinema (so beholden they are to the cultural wasteland of social media.) Such persons might even wish the world would return to that august moment in film studies history when pretentious Francophiles hung out in Greenwich Village cafes, reading The New Yorker, sipping absinthe, smoking Gauloises, and musing opaquely about avant-garde cinema,  but that would be silly. It was silly back when people actually did that, but it’s just as silly to muse opaquely about the death of cinema. Instead, we should take stock of our historic moment and more pragmatically imagine ways of teaching the future of film studies that recognize that film is no longer the central object of study, that a program in film studies must include cultural critiques of both technology and globalization, and that film studies might be productively linked to programs in experiential learning that foster civic engagement.

Muppets, Fox, Fish, and Political Propaganda

2 Feb

In December, Fox News spent seven whole minutes blasting the new Disney movie The Muppets for being dangerous socialist propaganda that brainwashes children. Although few would think of Disney as a “liberal” corporation, Fox targeted all Hollywood as promoting a liberal agenda and asked why Disney did not produce children’s movies that blamed President Obama for the financial crisis. It even suggested that movies like The Muppets are responsible for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Fox’s attack of the Muppets seemed laughable to many, and so Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart [here] immediately responded with his usual parody, and a couple of weeks later someone created a mock interview on YouTube where muppets Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy talk about what Fox News said. The scenario, I think, illustrates several points raised by Stanley Fish about “interpretive communities” in his classic essay, “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One,” included  in his book  Is There a Text in this Class? In that essay, and in other of his essays, Fish argues that people learn very specific strategies for “reading” texts, and that they learn these strategies in different public contexts, and so, depending on where one is (e.g., in a classroom, in a bar, on Fox television, in Congress), there are different norms and expectations for the reader and for the text.

First, let’s watch the trailer for the The Muppets, and quickly review its plot.

The movie focuses on the deep friendship between a man and a muppet from a small town who go to Hollywood to tour the Muppet Show theater. Their relationship is complicated because the man has grown up and recently married, but still feels responsible for the muppet’s well-being.  After they arrive, they soon discover that the theater is falling apart and that the cast from the original movie and television show (produced in the late 1970s) has scattered across the world. A greedy oil baron Tex Richman plans to buy the theater, tear it down, and drill for oil. The muppet cast is reunited to raise money to buy back the theater by producing a telethon show. There are several themes in the movie, including friendship, working together to pursue one’s dreams, and a deep nostalgia for the old show and for our childhood innocence. The timing of the movie’s production is not surprising, since all of the people who watched the original show as children in the late 1970s now have children of their own.

Fox News focuses on the fact that the villain is a rich oil baron. Here is its interpretation of the movie:

There is no denying that Fox is correct that the evil character is both rich and an oil executive. Instead of demonizing oil companies and CEOs, the Fox News show says it wishes the movie would celebrate rich characters for achieving wealth through hard work. Ironically, Fox News fails to notice that Kermit and Miss Piggy are rich characters who achieved wealth through hard work. In contrast, the villain Tex Richman achieved wealth through intimidation and deceit. One could interpret the movie to be celebrating the honest pursuit of the American dream against the dishonest pursuit of money simply for the sake of more money, but Fox instead asserts a more paranoid interpretation.

In response, the mock interview with Kermit and Miss Piggy reject the assertion that the movie is dangerous propaganda by pointing out other plot elements in the movie and by questioning the ethos of Fox News. See here:

In particular, Miss Piggy suggests that Fox News is not even “news,” which raises a question about news that is similar to Stanley Fish’s question about poetry: how to recognize “real” news or “real” propoganda when you see it. Kermit immediately agonizes over how Miss Piggy’s comment will get “interpreted” on the internet. Although Fox may say that their program is “news,” Miss Piggy is suggesting that it isn’t — that perhaps the Fox network doesn’t follow the journalistic standards set by the Society of Professional Journalists, as the controversial documentary movie Outfoxed has claimed. Ironically, the reason why many doubt the content of Fox News is exactly the same reason that Fox News claims to doubt the content of Hollywood movies: political bias and content that is more ideological than factual. Hence, when many “read” (or watch) Fox News, they do so with an interpretive strategy that assumes Fox’s intention (the sort of “authorial intention” questioned by both New Critics and post-structuralists such as Roland Barthes) is political.

The highly politicized context in which Fox News interpreted the movie and in which Jon Stewart and Miss Piggy interpret Fox News  is something they all acknowledge themselves: the fact that recently questions have been raised about the special tax breaks the oil companies receive at the same time that the cost of gasoline goes up for consumers and the companies make record profits. It appears that the interpretive framework through which they interpret media is the zero-sum game of power politics. Fish’s point about “interpretive communities” seems a somewhat useful concept for understanding all this absurdity. Fox is not objectively wrong that the movie’s villain is an oil executive, but what others may not see in (or “read into”) the movie is how this particular villain is a “representative” of all oil executives or anyone “real” at all. Indeed, very few people think the muppets are real, and the movie self-consciously makes fun of its own unreality and ridiculousness. Why does Fox News miss that? Towards an answer to those questions, think about Stanley Fish’s anecdote with which he begins the essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” about students in a classroom on seventeenth-century poetry who were able to find meaning in something that wasn’t even a poem just because they were told it was a seventeenth-century religious poem. In other words, if one assumes that a given sentence must contain metaphor and religious symbolism, then one will look for it. Likewise, if Fox assumes a zero-sum political game where all public media is either for or against its political position, then its interpretive framework will lead them to “read” something along those lines.

So, we can see how “interpretive communities” and context guides the reading of a text, but Fish goes on to explain that the relationship between text and interpretive community is even more complicated than that, because not only do readers make meaning, but also meaning makes readers. What does this mean? If we agree that reading is something we learn to do, then it’s easy to see how we become different sorts of people the more we learn to read, and the most obvious example of a community of people centered on the practice of reading and interpreting a text in a particular sort of way is the Church and its Bible. Likewise, in the case of the Muppets and Fox, we can see that communities are formed around the practice of reading and interpreting the world in particular ways. However, it is also true that different texts encourage different sorts of reading practices, and here we might turn the tables on Fox and confidently say that it is not The Muppets that is “dangerous” (a movie that wants us to laugh and cry and wonder about the world), but Fox News that is (a program that wants us to be angry and to see the world in terms of winners and losers.) Bing!

There is, however, something missing from Stanley Fish’s analysis of interpretive communities, and this is something that Michel Foucault explains in his essay “What is an Author?” and his book Discipline and Punish — and that is power. My own problem with Fish’s “interpretive communities” concept is that it assumes an equal playing field where communities just happen to form themselves. Fish’s own example of the classroom (a somewhat unconvincing anecdotal example, in my opinion) fails to acknowledge his own position of power as the professor of the class. The students have to go along with his silly exercise whether they believe it or not. Likewise, Fox and Disney are both powerful corporations who are themselves sponsored by other powerful corporate interests (i.e., the oil companies.) So, what about power? How does that work?

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