Colleges' Lost Love of Film

David Clemens

Recently, NAS Communications Director Ashley Thorne asked me to list my ten favorite fiction and ten favorite non-fiction books for an NAS homepage feature. By “favorite” she meant books I enjoy, rather than, say, books of intellectual significance or artistic innovation or cultural importance. My list is here. I chose books that enchant, stimulate, and guide the imagination, books that slow “time’s arrow” through architectonics more sturdy and reliable than modern life’s headlong chaos. Sentences, images, and passages linger in the mind until they become our reference points of being as, in some mysterious way, language weaves into the fabric of our selves.

But why stop with books? I wondered what essential films should be added to my scaffolding of conscious sensibility. For me, Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai, Dersu Uzala, Au Hasard Balthazar, Late Spring, A Man for All Seasons, The Seventh Seal, Decalogue, and La Strada are films whose beauty and pain enlarge my sympathy for the incomprehensibilities of the human condition.

So I was troubled when The Weekly Standard’s film critic, John Podhoretz, asked “Do Movies Matter?” Movies used to matter a great deal, as did film criticism; films were anticipated events (a new Fellini!) and they established cultural milestones (2001: A Space Odyssey); films found and shaped the zeitgeist (La Dolce Vita, Blow-Up, The Graduate). Critical responses, too, were eagerly awaited. I learned more about close analysis and criticism from reading Pauline Kael, John Simon, and Stanley Kauffmann than I ever learned in grad school English. Listen to Kael on The Graduate:

The small triumph of The Graduate was to have domesticated alienation and the difficulty of communication, by making what Benjamin is alienated from a middle-class comic strip and making it absurdly evident that he has nothing to communicate — which is just what makes him an acceptable hero for the large movie audience. If he said anything or had any ideas, the audience would probably hate him.

An illuminating observation. . . and a devastating one to someone like me who had dimly identified with, even yearned to be, Benjamin, right down to Katherine Ross and the Alfa Romeo.

Or Kauffmann, speaking of Terrence Malick’s gorgeous Days of Heaven:

He brought over Nestor Almendros for this film . . . [and] . . . has proved, by doing this, the last thing he wanted to prove: there is no such thing as an artist-cinematographer, there are only good cinematographers who sometimes work for artists . . . . And when the director is weak, as Malick is here, he tends to lean more and more on the good cinematographer’s ability, and so swamps the film in pretty pictures.

What a lesson for one who had been entranced by all those “pretty pictures.” The whole movie needs more than images.

Here is Kael again, about viewing a screening of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine following

one of those terrible lovers' quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, 'Well I don't see what was so special about that movie.'  I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?... Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other, and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.

Her conclusion is tragic yet somehow comforting—wise, sad, resigned, but also radiant, accepting of both human universality and uniqueness. Sadly, today, Podhoretz describes the final victory of Kael’s petulant “college girl.” He says that:

audiences no longer engage with [films] as they once did. They do not expect to be drawn in—and they aren’t. The movies they have been trained to attend for decades are contrivances, amusement park rides, seemingly designed to be disposable, forgettable, pointless.

Why even mention box office bonanzas such as Titanic, Mamma Mia, Sex and the City, Avatar? Nothing but soap opera and melodrama. I think Kael reached the same conclusion as Podhoretz when she abandoned film criticism in despair.

In a subsequent column on the films of Paul Mazursky, Podhoretz laments that “. . . studio executives wanted to work with Mazursky not only because he was able to make money but because he made the kinds of movies they were proud to associate themselves with—movies that, by their very existence, suggested the medium was something valuable in and of itself. No one in Hollywood even pretends to believe anything remotely like that now.” Now, it’s all about the Benjamins.

A disquieting notion for academics who use film and teach the liberal arts is that perhaps not just evil, money-mad Hollywood is to blame for film’s decline. Kauffmann also considers the “academicization” of movies as destructive. He says that by studying films, students lost “that interest in any kind of expansion or extension of themselves as the result of film experience . . . [because it] was something they associated with the moribund past, with note-taking, exams, and papers.” That is, film courses and majors caused film to become “. . . mummified. Going to a film was no longer the question of experience, but of visiting a tomb. That’s of course regrettable for literature, for art history, for any art that gets studied systematically in the university.”

There’s a world of difference between commentary by a person who comments on her responses to an entire film and an academic essay or lecture that amounts to brittle, intellectualized posturing. Today, because there are so few films of artistic value, we also lose the literary criticism that great film implicitly demanded. Two thumbs down.

Compare Kael’s and Kauffmann’s comments to those of Sofie De Graue, who writes:

For several years now, Bordwell and others in the cognitivist film approach have been criticising the rule of 'Grand Theory', i.e. psychoanalytic and culturalist film theory. They claim that the cognitivist approach is better qualified to study film. In this article, however, it is claimed that the systemic-functional approach is a better alternative. In their reaction to 'Grand Theory', the cognitivists reject any general theory of film, and favour empirical research. This reaction is too extreme. In the systemic-functional theory, the combination of a top-down and a bottom-up approach is considered necessary for theorising. In this article, the foundations of systemic-functional analysis of film are defended, i.e. the claim that film is a semiotic system. On the basis of this argument, the cognitive approach is criticised.

This is the verbiage of academic nightmare. Instead of offering joy, suffering, passion, or anything else remotely human, academics and universities first embalm, then inter, the arts whose beating heart should afford students a personal awakening to what Kauffman calls “the increments of their cultural life.”

Academicizing produces cataloguers, historians, theorists, careerists, and docents. In such a climate, can film art in college be saved or is the visual future just YouTube and TED Talks? Andrew, a former student, told me that after watching Au Hasard Balthazar, he was so moved that he was unable to speak for two days. Perhaps his reaction is a key to how higher education might better approach all the arts: select for the humane and aesthetic, in film, in books, in painting. Set aside theorizing, historicizing and deconstructing, those three offensives in the academy’s war against beauty and transcendence. Return to film viewing as an experience rather than an occasion for didacticism.

When using film, just let students watch and absorb. No PowerPoints; no textbooks. And talk later.

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